|Screw Heaven, When I Die I’m Going to Mars
By Shannon Wheeler
Dark Horse Comics – softcover, $12.95
IF THERE’S ONE CARTOONIST WHO lets you see his work and thought processes evolve as he goes, it’s Shannon Wheeler. Each of his books is a little different, as he develops his deceptively simple core concept––Too Much Coffee Man––in new directions, tinkers with his art style, and lets you see his sweat in occasional, self-conscious strips about cartooning, an outgrowth of the artist character in the old TMCM comic book. In keeping with the trend, Wheeler’s new book, Screw Heaven, When I Die I’m Going to Mars looks and feels a bit different from his last, How to Be Happy, and is also a bit better.
Wheeler’s older Dark Horse collections consisted largely of material from his old Too Much Coffee Man comic book series, while these last two books reprint his most recent newspaper comics, so their format and structure is necessarily different. However, Wheeler is superb at building a story across a series of strips, providing a punchline to each installment while still progressing the narrative satisfyingly, so the stories are a bit meatier than they may seem at first. Screw Heaven is divided into thematic chapters, with Too Much Coffee Man anchoring bookend chapters, and the rest devoted to Wheeler’s unique mix of relationship gags, social commentary and visual humor. The TMCM strips are funny, as always, but feel like they were included to make the book more marketable, since they would have fit better thematically in How to Be Happy (one of them is actually reprinted in both, an unfortunate mistake).
How to Be Happy found Wheeler mixing TMCM with a more explicitly partisan political focus than usual, going after Republicans and Democrats, the war and the president. Wheeler showed a talent for that material, but it’s an already fairly well-served niche, so I was pleased to see Screw Heaven returning to ground that not as many people are covering, the less immediate, but just as important commentary on broader cultural forces. Plenty of artists critique capitalism, but few match the mixture of absurd and sublime found in Wheeler’s series of strips like “Dollarism: The Glorious Worship of Money,” in which an enterprising soul sets up a religion centered on cash and sells dollar bills as religious icons.
After years of doing newspaper comics, Wheeler seems comfortable enough in the form that the strips have an easy simplicity to them. But every now and again, a self-aware strip pops up in which Wheeler lets us know he’s not getting too comfortable and that perhaps the notion of comfort even worries him a little, as if it’s too close to complacency. But he’s self-aware enough to know that this can look self-indulgent and makes sure to take himself down a notch, comparing his cartoons to poop and drawing someone with a “real job” yelling at him.
However, while Wheeler clearly does work at his craft, there’s obviously greater confidence on display in his current artwork, which is stronger than it was in How to Be Happy. In that book, Wheeler’s style started to become simpler to accommodate the newspaper strip format, shedding much of the rendering and some of the stylistic tricks of his comic book work. The result looked bare and somewhat scratchy, but in Screw Heaven, he seems to have found a balance, making his lines chunkier and bringing back a little well-placed cross-hatching. One welcome surprise is a seven-page autobiographical story about Wheeler’s time as an architecture major at UC Berkeley, which shows his more detailed artwork and makes clever use of page layouts.
The style of humor laid in Screw Heaven is very flexible, less confined by topicality than How to Be Happy (don’t let my repeated comparisons with that book fool you, though––it’s good, too, Screw Heaven is just better), so it easily accommodates everything from social commentary and well-observed relationship humor to silly visual puns and fart jokes. Wheeler does them all with equal enthusiasm, and you won’t find the mix done as well in many other books. As with any strip compilation, not every single one is funny, but most are, and many are great.
Related: Check out my recent interview with Shannon.