SHANNON WHEELER KEEPS PRETTY BUSY. His work has appeared in minicomics, newspaper strips, a television commercial, comic books, book collections and an opera. Throughout these various media, his most enduring character by far has been Too Much Coffee Man. TMCM began as a minicomic, then became a self-published comic book, winning the Eisner Award in 1995 for Best New Series, and later transformed again into a magazine featuring both comics and text pieces by Shannon and several others. Dark Horse Comics has released several TMCM collections and this year published Screw Heaven, When I Die I’m Going To Mars, a collection of Shannon’s most recent comic strip work.
Shannon’s also kept a foot in the minicomics game with his Postage Stamp Funnies, collections of his cartoons from The Onion. And last year saw the premiere of the Too Much Coffee Man Opera at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. Last month, he was one of the organizers of Portland’s Stumptown Comics convention, where Postage Stamp Funnies won a Trophy Award for Best DIY.
I talked to Shannon about his current projects, some of the themes of his older work, his take on the ‘zine and minicomics scenes, and his political cartooning at (where else) a coffee shop on Portland’s Hawthorne Blvd. (Full disclosure: I had tea.)
Wright Opinion: To start, I remember reading, I think this was an afterward to one of your earlier books, in which you mention that a lot of people were saying to you at the time, “I love Too Much Coffee Man because I love coffee.”
Shannon Wheeler: Yep. It’s the cross of coffee that I must bear.
WO: And I was wondering, do you still get that, or do people better get that that’s not the joke these days?
SW: I’ve thought about it… a lot of times people say that just as a way to say something.. A lot of times I’ve met people whose work I’ve read and I’m trying to say something that is meaningful and I just say the dumbest shit possible. I’m trying to learn to give people more credit for saying something dumb. It’s not necessarily their fault. Glass houses and all that crap.
WO: Okay. I’ve noticed that in some of your more recent comics work, the new book, Screw Heaven, the Postage Stamp Funnies and also in Gumby, you’ve sort of lately been getting away from Too Much Coffee Man. Is that something you feel you have to do occasionally? Do you get tired of Too Much Coffee Man?
SW: Nope. I still love TMCM. I know I shouldn’t. I should hate that character. I still have a lot of stories I want to do in Too Much Coffee Man… Part of it is I don’t want TMCM to be my only legacy. It’ll be nice to have a couple other notes in the little song that is my life. Plus, I have other stuff that I really want to do, other ideas.
WO: Any that you’re actively working on?
SW: Mm-hmm. I’m doing the Postage Stamp Funnies for The Onion, I switched the strip name to How to Be Happy and I’m actually thinking about doing a daily strip cartoon, which would obviously not be Too Much Coffee Man… I’m working on a kids’ book called Grampa Won’t Wake Up. A friend of mine wrote it and I’ll be drawing it. Another friend of mine, Jesse Michaels, wrote a graphic novel called Drunk and Drunk Dwarf and I’ve been working on that for a little bit here and there. I have a chess set that’s based on Freudian psychology…. lots of crap.
WO: How did you get involved in Gumby?
SW: Mel [Smith] is the publisher and editor on the series and he somehow got the license. We were talking at a party one night and I just started telling him how much I loved Gumby. As a kid I watched all of those and I used to go to the Gumby film festival in Berkeley every year. Art Clokey would be there and he’d talk. I must have gone five years in a row. And I told him, “I’ll do anything to write a Gumby story.”
So I wrote about twelve little stories and I sent him in the next two or three days the descriptions of these twelve stories. He said that Bob [Burden], who does Flaming Carrot was having some health issues and all that, and that’s where I said, “I’d love to do a fill-in issue.”
WO: Did you contribute art to that, too?
SW: I drew six pages for it, and mostly it just an excuse to draw that one page with Gumby’s head melting. That was the one. [laughs] That was fun. It was a great little gig. I’ve got about eleven more Gumby stories I’d like to do.
WO: What does it mean in the solicitation for Screw Heaven that we’re seeing the “sweeter side?” What does that entail?
SW: [laughs] I don’t know. I was thinking I was getting more bitter, but my editor wrote the copy on it. I guess a little bit there’s less open hostility between the characters, and that is a little bit deliberate. In Too Much Coffee Man, it’s really easy to make jokes where two characters are hostile towards each other and some sort of punchline comes out of the hostile banter. And I just looked at that intellectually thinking, “Are there other ways of doing humor that aren’t violence-related or anger-related, that are idea-related?” So it’s a deliberate shift.
WO: Would you consider yourself a part of the Portland comics scene? Do you have a place in the Portland comics scene?
SW: I wish. No, it’s frustrating sometimes, because it would be nice to feel part of it. But people know who I am, so I guess I’m not not part of it.
WO: What originally brought you to Portland?
SW: In part, Dark Horse. Also, it’s a liberal city, it has a good education system. I’m raising kids, so it was a place to get them in school and not have them be idiots. That’s the theory, anyway.
WO: What was the origin of your relationship with Dark Horse?
SW: Back in ’97 or ’96 even, I did a series of stories for Dark Horse Presents, where Too Much Coffee Man saves the universe and it was four eight-page stories, which they collected in a comic book.
Later Dark Horse did a book collection. And they’ve done all my book collections since then.
WO: So you said that was part of the reason you came to Portland, was Dark Horse. Was the rest just because the comic book scene was here?
SW: Oh, definitely. I figured there’d be parties that I’d get invited to, and the social scene. I have a lot of friends who were here already that are in comics. It’s less expensive than the Bay Area, too. It’s really paid off.
WO: So, your work has always been steeped in social commentary, but your last two books before Screw Heaven were the ones that more full of overtly political comics. Amusing Musings I think had all of the ballistic missile stuff and How to Be Happy had a lot of Bush and post-9/11 stuff. Do you enjoy doing that, because that seemed like a bit of a departure from the broader social commentary.
SW: I like it. At the time I felt like it was important to do political stuff because the country was so polarized. It felt like a fight that I should be part of. People were vilified if they weren’t toeing the party (i.e. Republican) line. I also wanted to see if being outspoken politically would help get my readers more involved in my comics. It seems like my readers are just my readers regardless of what I do.
WO: Did it have any negative effect or just seem to not make a big difference?
SW: Didn’t seem to make a big difference. [laughs] Although maybe it did and I just don’t know. It seems like people don’t buy that stuff. They don’t buy political comics, unless they’re looking specifically for a political cartoonist like Ted Rall or Tom Tomorrow or Lloyd Dangle with Troubletown… They seek those guys out because they are political cartoonists basically, and I’m not thought of as a political cartoonist, so I’m not being sold as such, and I’m not being bought by people thinking, “Here’s a political cartoonist.” So, it wasn’t a bad thing; I’m really glad I was doing it. It was an experiment, too, to see if it would help my creative process.
WO: Do you have an opinion on the state of political cartooning right now?
SW: Well, the people that I like I really like. I think Tom Tomorrow and Ted Rall and Lloyd Dangle are great. Actually, my new favorite is a political cartoon in The Onion which is basically a parody of political cartoons and he just nails it every week. At first I thought, “Why are they running this right-wing, absurdist cartoon? [WO laughs] That’s ironic, but it’s kind of getting on my nerves.” Three or four weeks in I realize it’s just hilarious, just how well the guy lampoons political cartooning. The latest one was about farming and it’s American farmers and they’re saying something about how great life is. There’s somebody dressed as the grim reaper coming in, and it’s organic farmers, and they’re coming in to kill American farming. It just cracks me up.
WO: So, do you feel like it’s been a good period for political cartooning?
SW: There’s a lot of potential. It’s always a good period for political cartooning. Everybody says this or that time because this or that’s happening, but there’s always stuff going on. There’re just a lot of greedy people in government and business. I think a lot of political cartoons should and do target business people as much as they do politicians.
WO: Yeah, the one of yours that I particularly remember is the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit, which I read as a 16-year-old and that was a curtain being pulled away moment for me, realizing that political discourse happens more in the form of late night comedy than in real debate [Shannon laughs] and that late night comedy is what makes things like the Contract With America happen.
WO: Have you ever been interested in doing more stuff like that that’s political in that sense?
SW: I’d like to, yeah. That was one of my favorites. Doing that story I thought was really important. In part it was a reaction to everybody who came up to me and said things about McDonald’s and the coffee and the lawsuit and it was just so misinformed. I just felt like it would get people to shut up about it, stop making that same joke over and over again.
WO: Yeah, I’ve definitely shown that comic to people who talk about frivolous lawsuits.
SW: It’s amazing how misinformed people are about that. And that particular lawsuit is the flagship lawsuit. It just seemed like it was a natural. I loved researching it and finding out as much about it as I could and reading different analysis of the lawsuit. Trying to break it down into a narrative in a way that was representative, but not overly preachy. It took a long time to write it and cut it down to all the bits that I felt were important to the story.
WO: And was it difficult to condense it all to ten pages?
SW: It was difficult. Writing comics a lot is like writing a haiku, where you’ve got eight syllables, or maybe a limerick is more appropriate. You have to take out all the unnecessary words, you really want the highlights of it.
SW: I loved that. It’s fascinating. The media commentators are just repeating the misinformation. I still don’t know if they’re misinformed or if they’re patsies.
WO: You even quote the New York Times, which is supposedly the paper of record, and if even they’re getting it wrong, especially in those pre-blog times, nobody’s going to know the real story.
SW: History is lies. Truth is about who is writing the lies. I told my dad once, “Our culture will be looked back upon as the villains, in that we didn’t stand up and fight what’s going on. We’ll be looked at really badly.” And he says, “Oh, no, that’s not true, it completely depends on who’s writing the history.” I thought I was being cynical and he just out-cynicaled me.
In comic books, too, in terms of comic book history, who writes the history, sometimes I’m frustrated. I did minicomics for years. I printed, stapled and sold over 20,000 minicomics, but I’m not part of the minicomics history. I’m not part of that history because I’m not going to parties with the people who write that history; it’s written by the victors. I’m not part of a publishing company that’s writing that history. I’m not at the same party as the victors… Sorry, that’s a personal pet peeve.
WO: About the minicomics, you just attended the zine symposium [at Portland State University], right?
WO: Were you a guest or a spectator or…
SW: I just rented a table and hung out.
WO: I didn’t make it to that. What was your experience of the zine thing?
SW: It was good. Mostly everyone there is trading with everyone else. It’s a closed community. But this year it was more open than it has been in the past. A lot of enthusiasm, a lot of younger people. There were workshops for kids. It was fun. There was good energy. I bought some great minicomics and great zines too.
WO: Would you consider Postage Stamp Funnies a minicomic in that tradition?
SW: Sort of, yeah.
WO: Are those handmade?
SW: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Although, I guess the craft is good enough that people don’t know that it’s handmade [laughs]. They look at it and ask, “Where’d you get this done?” And I tell them, “No, I did that, I trimmed them all out, I taped them all, I glued them all, this is all me.” “Oh, it looks like somebody did that.” Well, thanks. I should make it look more hand made.
WO: “It’s too good for you to have done it.”
SW: Yeah, exactly. Most of the zines are sewn or stapled, obviously. They look hand-done and mine sort of [don’t], even though it’s painter’s tape. It doesn’t take much scratching under the surface to figure it out.
Yeah, it’s a minicomic. They’re just collections of the strips. The early Too Much Coffee Man minicomics that I did I really felt were minicomics, because I drew them to be little comic books. Each was an eight-page story, beginning, middle and end, and I drew them specifically for that size and really intended them to be that.
WO: I’ve only seen them in collected form. What did they look like?
SW: When I started off, they were 8 1/2” by 11” sheets folded twice, so they were 4 1/4” by 5 1/2” little comics and then I stapled the sides. Originally I had a friend at Kinkos who’d run me off color copies and I’d use those as covers, so they had little color covers and photocopied insides. Then they started selling so well that I actually went to a printer and printed up 9,000 of them, I think. And to save money I stapled all those by hand. Lord knows why now.
WO: Wow, 9,000 of them? Did you get friends to help you or anything?
SW: I did. I think I burned through a couple of girlfriends [laughs]. And then I sold out of those in four or five months and printed up 12,000 for the next print run, then sold out of those. That’s what I used a lot as promotion to prime the pump for putting out a comic book. I sold a lot at comic book conventions, I gave out a lot to other professionals, just to get buzz and interest and at the time they were just really a novelty. There weren’t a lot of people doing color cover minicomics. But Postage Stamp Funnies, they’re collections of strips that I’m doing for The Onion… They’re little minicomic collections.
WO: How did that get started, doing the strip for The Onion?
SW: I was corresponding with editors there. They said that they were interested in having me do something – they were adding in a comics page – they just didn’t know what. And I kept pushing to just have them syndicate the strip that I was already doing, but they kept saying, “It really has to do with size.” And so I just started saying, “Look, I’ll do any size,” and they said, “Well, y’know, we just don’t have much space.” I told them, “I’ll just draw 1” by 2”, ” and they said, “Really? Because we got this little spot underneath our sudoku puzzle that we need to fill and we aren’t sure how.” I said, “I’ll do it, I’m there.”
And Sergio Aragones was such an influence when I was a kid. That was just my favorite part of MAD Magazine.
WO: The margin stuff?
SW: Yeah, to be able to do a comic at that size. I mean, obviously the guy’s great. So I’ve just taken a lot of inspiration from him. I grew up on it, so it’s sort of a natural.
WO: Is that the mission statement of Postage Stamp Funnies then? See how well you could do a gag in that small a space?
SW: Yes, narrow it down. How much I can drop out and have it convey a story, convey a narrative.
WO: And do you have a specific type of a joke that you like to do in there? Because looking over those, they’re mostly visual humor, there’s a couple where it’s verbal humor, a funny one-liner or something, and then there are a couple that would seem at home in The New Yorker, like the one with the rat telling his dinner date, “I thought you knew I was a rat.” You also have a lot of fun with cartooning jokes, the one where someone is being squashed by a thought balloon and someone says, “You’re thinking too much.” Is it just whatever works in that space or do you have a theme you like to go to?
SW: I like playing with the visual. My favorite one is the one where the guy’s being stabbed with the “Argh” word balloon. I like it because your brain goes back and forth. You read it and it looks like he’s saying “Argh” because he’s being stabbed, but then your brain goes back to looking and sees that he’s not saying anything.
That little dance going back and forth between a right brain understanding of a concept and a left brain understanding, so there’s a visual understanding of it and then there’s the reading it, the verbal understanding of it, two different parts. And to have them wrestle in your head for dominance just made me laugh, because I just kept looking at it, reading it and then it’s visual. He’s not saying anything, but then you just flip.
WO: And do you think that a single panel approach is the best way to do that, in that those are fighting for dominance in one panel?
SW: I love it. It’s like being able to make a three-point shot or something. Or Salinger described it as, in marbles where you shoot something, a left-hand marble shot or something, where it’s all intuition. You just go for this long, improbable event and when you’re able to pull it off, it’s just magical. I like the minimalism a lot.
WO: I was there at the Scott McCloud panel at the Multnomah County Library where you raised your hand and asked the opinion on single-panel cartoons and that you felt they were comics. Of course, McCloud is well-known for not feeling that way, so it was pretty amusing to watch him let everyone else answer and sort of restrain himself. [Shannon laughs] What is your opinion on the one-panel cartoons? How do you feel they work?
SW: I firmly believe they’re a narrative. I think that’s what’s magical about them is in the time it takes for your eye to go from the word balloon to understanding the visual, and where your eye goes and how the artist forces the eye to understand it in layers. It’s all fractions of a second, but it’s a narrative over that period of time that your brain is having to understand it. I think it’s one of the greatest little ways to tell a story.
I just loved looking at the old Charles Addams cartoons where you’re looking at this giant drawing and thinking, “Why is this a joke?” and your eye is going and looking at all these things and you’re slowly understanding a situation. Then finally you see a little pair of legs sticking out from underneath an elephant and then you have to rebuild everything that you understood before in the context of a child being squashed by an elephant and it totally changes the context. Yeah, it’s a story and it’s beautiful that it’s all in one little amber crystal.
WO: So, to change the subject a bit, how did the old Too Much Coffee Man comic become a magazine?
SW: It reached a point where I was wondering what to do next. I thought how much fun it would be to do interviews and articles inside of my comic book. Then I thought, “That will turn it into a magazine.” I figured I could sell ads to offset the cost. I could market to new places and sell comics outside of the comic market, which I’ve always thought it was important to do. It worked fairly well.
I stopped doing the magazine, in part, because one of the distributors went out of business and it was a financial hit. Building it back up to the point where I had gotten it to would have taken probably another year, year and a half. And I thought, “Aw, man. That’s just a lot of work.” Then the opera fell in my lap and I jumped on that. That took an incredible amount of work to make happen, but it was a good direction.
WO: So, we’re not likely to see the magazine again, or if we do it would be in a different form?
SW: Yeah, probably a different form. Everybody says to me, “You should just do an online magazine,” but I don’t know. I’m just not really interested in an online magazine. I wouldn’t mind doing a book-format of it, like what Dave Eggers is doing, if I had a publisher. A lot of my energy was getting sucked into the business end of it. I just felt like I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do, because I was selling ads and sending out invoices, and I don’t want to be a businessman.
WO: You were self-publishing for a long time, though, through Adhesive Comics. Do you have enough going on right now through Dark Horse and The Onion that you’d like to avoid being involved in the business side of it yourself if you can?
SW: Absolutely. It was a good experience, but I know how much work it is to self-publish. Publishers, if they’re good, earn their money. They take half the profits, but they deserve it, if they’re actually hustling it.
WO: Yeah, in the comics you described it as you felt like the business side was your dayjob and in your spare time you got to draw comics.
SW: It’s frustrating. People say to me, “I wish I could do comics full-time,” and it’s like, “Yeah, me, too.” [laughs]
WO: But you are keeping your foot in the minicomics thing with the Postage Stamp Funnies… Is there a little bit of nostalgia for putting it together yourself and selling it more directly?
SW: Oh, totally. I’m a sucker for it.
WO: So, it’s a good mix, getting to do both?
SW: Yeah, and doing the minicomics of Postage Stamp Funnies, I’m selling it at Powell’s and a couple of the local shops, so it’s here and there, but I’m not putting it out through the distributors. I think I’ve done maybe 600 or 700 of each issue so far, so it’s not big numbers by any stretch.
WO: You just approach the stores yourself then?
SW: Yeah. If they want to carry them, then I sell them ten of each. Yeah, it’s great.
WO: You mentioned the opera, and I guess that’s been the big project that you’ve been associated with lately. So, how did you become the first cartoonist to have an opera of your character?
SW: It’s funny because a lot of people say, “Were you involved in doing the opera?” I tell them, “Yeah, I was definitely involved.” I worked with a composer and then a cartoonist-friend, the three of us wrote everything. We had an opera and I thought it was a novelty, I never thought we would get it performed. But at an art-opening I met the director for PCPA, which is the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. I told her that “I wrote an opera,” and I pitched her on it. She said she was interested. It was an opportunity. I saw that I had met the right person at the right time and she was interested in hearing what I had to say.
So I sent her the libretto (the words) and the score (music), to let her know, “Yes, we really do have something.” She said, “That’s great. I’d love to hear it.” I hired musicians and we recorded a section of it. I sent a CD to her. Then I did costume designs and I sent her sketches. I snuck into the theater that she said that we might be able to use and I measured it out and I started doing stage designs. [laughs] I built a model of it and I took photos of the model with the sets in it. Every week she would get a package of something new. She was amazed that it was something beyond a novelty; real music and a real narrative. She just really liked it.
WO: And so many comic books are described as operatic, the way that they play on this heightened sense of emotion that you get from the interplay of the words and the pictures. Do you feel like opera is a good setting?
SW: Yeah, for my comics especially, because so much of my comic is about internal dialogue and opera is internal dialogue. It’s all about people singing their feelings and singing their thoughts and Too Much Coffee Man is so cerebral and emotional. He has all these insecurities, so it’s a surprisingly perfect match-up of character and medium.
This is after struggling with Hollywood, trying to get a cartoon version of the comic for years. Partly it was the people in Hollywood I was working with. It never matched up in a way that I was comfortable with. Cartoons and animation typically have a lot of physical humor and situational humor, and that’s just not what I’ve done very much of with Too Much Coffee Man… It’s idea and emotion driven, like opera.
WO: I saw the opera here in Portland and I heard it played at Comic-Con. How did that go?
SW: It went really well. We tightened it up for San Diego. We changed the staging and we changed the ending a bit, so that it ends on a punch. We got standing ovations.
WO: How many times did it play at Comic-Con?
SW: It played five times.
WO: And has it played anywhere else yet?
SW: Not yet. I really don’t know what I’m doing with this sort of stuff. We’ve had nibbles from various opera companies. And schools, because it’s really written to be a small production. You can scale it down to next to nothing, or you can scale it up to be a bigger piece. I kind of look at what we did in Portland as being something in between, where we had lighting effects and all three instruments and all three singers. But you could scale it down to one instrument and three singers.
It was really good to see it again after being removed from it for a little bit, because PCPA asked me to restage it and put it on again this next April. I asked them if, instead of doing it again, I could do the sequel. And they were shocked. They were like, “What?”
WO: Is that going to be a separate opera or are you going to add on to the existing one?
SW: I’m pretty much going to add to the existing one. What I’m going to do is have the existing one be the first act and this will be the second act. It’ll be a two-hour piece. I’m going to try to do it so each act can exist independently. We’ll see.
WO: So, eventually you’re have your own Ring Cycle that could be staged any number of ways?
SW: Yes. And it fits with comics because it’s episodic and serial, so if I just do one a year for the next eight years I could, yeah. Like comics, you have issue one, issue two, issue three…
WO: Will there still be coffee stout?
SW: Oh, yes. Man, that stuff messed me up. I would drink three of those and then be totally lit. I’d pass out at home and then wake up at three in the morning wired on caffeine. [WO laughs] It’s awful.
WO: Yeah, I have this theory that the comics industry pretty much runs on alcohol. [Shannon laughs] It seems like all the deals are made that way, all the networking is done that way.
SW: Yeah, I think if it weren’t for booze, we’d have no comics. We’d have no children either. Most marriages are formed that way.
WO: Probably. So, getting back to the old comic, it had three features, which a lot of people probably don’t remember. There was Joel, who was slowly failing in life and then there was the artist, who was… more or less you. He was actually the author of Too Much Coffee Man in the comic, right?
SW: Yeah, I would say a facet [of me]. It was definitely stylized and grumpier. I wanted to capture that bull in a china shop feeling when sometimes in doing art it’s very frustrating and difficult. That’s why he’s such a big guy, because I just wanted that awkwardness.
WO: So how much of his experience was diary and how much was extrapolation?
SW: I’d say it was maybe 50/50. I mean, obviously I’m not rich from the comics, but I think I put some of the Hollywood stuff in there. A lot of the conversations in there were real, that I thought were really funny conversations and would really work in my narrative. I loved breaking it into those three stories. I kind of feel like that’s the one graphic novel that I’ve written, because I did look at it as a single narrative.
WO: Right, and they were all connected by either reading Too Much Coffee Man or making Too Much Coffee Man and they were contrasted each other with the slow failure versus meteoric success.
SW: Exactly. And then each issue would have a theme. So there’d be an origin theme and I’d tell the origin of Too Much Coffee Man, but then with the cartoonist, I would tell the origin of the idea of Too Much Coffee Man. And then there’d be a death theme, where each of the stories would have death. And that way each comic book sort of had this completeness to it, which is in part why I like the comic books better than the graphic novels.
I did this thing with the comics that nobody noticed, which frustrated me. I did them black-white, so the first issue has a black cover, the second issue has a white cover, then a black cover, then a white cover, so if stores did a display of all Too Much Coffee Man, they could do a black and white checkerboard pattern. I was always proud of that.
WO: I admit, I didn’t notice. I do remember thinking, “Wow, a lot of these have black covers,” but I never made the connection to the other side. [Shannon laughs] So, on the diary/extrapolation thing, did you really have kids coming to your house like in issue five, or was that just a narrative device to get a lot of the things that people say to you in a short space?
SW: That was a narrative device. The things that people would say, I would say all of those were true, and those were things that just bugged me, usually at conventions. People would say these stupid things, and I thought using children was really nice, because there’s an innocence to kids, so I could vent in a tight way there. And also I wanted to show the kids as not being that innocent. I mean, those kids were jerks.
WO: They were all about the money.
SW: Yeah, which a lot of people are whenever they talk to me. And I wanted to represent that immaturity, because I’ve always found that particularly offensive, where people would say things like, “You should sell out,” or talk about selling out and then they would say, “Oh, no, it’s cool. I would sell out it I could.” I have no interest in that. It’s horrifying to me.
I mean, Too Much Coffee Man is a commercial product. It’s obviously opportunistic, but that’s as far as I go on that. I’m not trying to make a movie with it or I’m not trying to sell it to coffee shops. And I’m not going to put out a coffee with it if it’s bad coffee. I have strong feelings about selling out.
WO: It’s been almost ten years since the last of the artist strips, which was in Too Much Coffee Man number eight…
SW: God, yeah… I think you’re right.
WO: I think that came out in 1998.
SW: Oh, Jesus. [laughs]
WO: So, have your thoughts on work and on success and on craft changed much since then? How do you approach those things differently now?
SW: No, they’ve just codified. Hard work pays off. That’s kind of what I felt when I was younger, but now over the last ten years, too, I had kids and so a lot of my energy that used to go into my career has gone into raising my kids and taking care of them. So I see people like Jeff Smith, who’s focused on his career for so many years and, just watched how hard work has paid off. It’s good to see.
WO: Yeah, everybody’s heard of Bone now.
SW: Yeah. He’s done phenomenally well and all the people who’ve just plugged away at it, even when they’re not being supported by The Comics Journal and Fantagraphics and the people that are supposedly helping the comics industry. Terry Moore is another one.
WO: I wasn’t sure if I was going to ask about this, but since you bring it up, the Fantagraphics thing… I read a bit about that. Was that at a convention?
SW: It was. It was at the APE convention and Gary Groth approached me and asked for contributions to his legal defense fund.
WO: Against Harlan Ellison.
SW: Yeah, Harlan Ellison was suing Gary. It just offended me, that he had never come up and stopped by to say hello. I felt like he’s never read one of my books, like he [only] vaguely knows who I am. To ask me to help him when there was no reciprocity and that he was doing it where I was trying to do my business. There’re a lot of people at my table and I’m trying to sell these $5 comic books so I can make back the cost of buying a $100 table. I’m just trying to break even and he’s asking as a favor of me…
It just rubbed me wrong and I told him that. Then I blogged about it. Fifty people read my blog so it wasn’t a big deal. Even on my blog it was a minor anecdote; third, fourth paragraph down. It got picked up by another blog that is read by a couple million people and it exploded into a flame war of which I was in the middle. People were not being very respectful of each other, and every now and again I would try to defend myself. Doesn’t work. Flame wars are not dignified. I tried to correct factual inaccuracies. There’s no point. Out of it, Harlan and Gary started talking and they settled their differences, out of court. It was worth getting caught in the crossfire between these two giants in order to see a non-litigious resolution. I don’t think Gary will ever forgive me.
Since then, I saw Gary at a Comic Book Legal Defense Fund party in San Diego. My first thought was to avoid him. Then I went to him and said, “I just want to let you know I’m not pissed off. I hope you’re not mad. And I want to clear the air.” And I shook his hand. I didn’t want to avoid him at parties. It’s a small industry. I said I was glad that he and Harlan were able to resolve their differences out of court. And he seemed to appreciate it. Shook my hand, he was polite. Nice to have it out of the way. I hope.
WO: So, I wanted to just ask about craft over the last ten years. How do you feel your craft has changed or grown over the last ten years?
SW: Sometimes I think I’ve just gotten lazy, because I used to work really, really hard on panel layout; trying to do clever things on every page. I feel like I want to go back to thinking about that again, about ways to use the panels more creatively. When I get into doing the graphic novel, that’s definitely what I’ll be doing.
Right now it’s more about narrative. I use the panels as a way to move story. Reduction. I’ve been interested in the essence of story. Some of my earlier stuff I worked hard because I was insecure. The crosshatching is smoke and mirrors, hiding artwork. I’m trying to be more naked with my art. It’s difficult to do.
Even the jokes, like in the Postage Stamp Funnies, sometimes I don’t know if they’re funny or not. Intuitively I think, “Oh, this is funny,” but then I actually have the follow-through and put it out there, because I can’t tell intellectually. It’s not constructed in the way that a joke should be constructed and I think, “I don’t know why this is funny,” and I just hope that people feel that it is. I did one called “The Happy Guy,” and he’s saying “Yippee! It’s today!” and it made me laugh, it was so stupid. But I almost didn’t do it because I thought, “This makes no sense.” [WO laughs] It’s not revealing anything, it doesn’t really make sense as a joke, but it made me laugh that it was so ridiculous. But it took bravado, it took pushing to go out on that limb, so I’m trying to take more risks and just trust my instincts more, rather than my intellect.
Thanks again to Shannon. Interview copy-edited by the participants.