Written by Carlos Ruiz Thursday, 03 January 2008 17:00
The creator of Too Much Coffee Man talks about his cartooning technique, his new collection of comic strips Screw Heaven, When I Die I'm Going To Mars, and the most surreal comics offshoot in history: the Too Much Coffee Man opera.
Comics have never been better. The art form is experiencing a great deal of growth right now, with a variety of genres and styles gaining popular attention and infecting the masses. Movies based on comics are bigger than ever, and will be soon expanding even more this summer with the release of numerous blockbusters based on comic book characters (Batman, Iron Man, Hellboy, Hulk, etc). Like steroids in mid-90s ravishing the game of baseball, superheroes have taken over the zeitgeist of the early 21st century.
But let's face it, most superheroes are so passé. Except for one superhero, who wears his heart on his head in the form of a giant coffee mug.
His name is Too Much Coffee Man and his creator is Shannon Wheeler.
Shannon first began self-publishing Too Much Coffee Man under his own label, Adhesive Press, before Dark Horse began collecting his early works and publishing Too Much Coffee Man graphic novels. Not satisfied with solely doing comics, Mr. Wheeler wrote a Too Much Coffee Man opera that was performed at the Portland Center of Performing Arts and at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the first opera to have been based on a comic book. Shannon Wheeler's recent book Screw Heaven, When I Die I'm Going to Mars combines the adventures of Too Much Coffee Man, the How to Be Happy strips and the Postage Stamp Funnies (appearing in The Onion) into one fantastic piece of existential excellence (click here for a review of this work by Playback's own Byron Kerman ).
There are very few truly original voices working in comics today. Lucky for all the readers out there, PLAYBACK:stl recently had the opportunity to interview one of these amazing talents—the absurdly gifted and prolific Shannon Wheeler. Enjoy.
Comics, magazines, television and operas: is there anything you can't do? What are the best and worst aspects of working in each medium and why?
Comics have the downside that they're a solitary medium. Everything else has the downside that they're not solitary mediums. The opera was, and is, interesting to me because I know so little about the medium. It's only because I'm working with people who are good that it turns out something I'm proud of.
We had a lot of trouble trying to translate Too Much Coffee Man into animation. There's so much internal dialog in my comics that it makes it tough to translate into a medium whose strong point is gags. Opera is all about the internal dialog. People sing "I'm happy" or "I'm sad" or "I want to eat a burrito" and it's funny.
There seems to be some debate amongst people who create, write and draw their own material as to whether they are considered cartoonists or comics creators. You refer to yourself as a cartoonist and not a comics guy. What do you see as the major distinction between a cartoon and a comic and why do you classify yourself into one category over another?
I like the term cartoonist because it's unpretentious. I don't really see any distinction, except semantics, between the terms.
Can you tell our readers how you first broke into the business? Did you go the normal convention route, did you send in submissions to an editor or did you go the self-publishing route?
I started by self-publishing with friends. It was only when my book started selling well that I got the attention of other publishers. It was an editor at Marvel who set up introductions for me with people at Dark Horse. I self-published the comics for years, but I've been happy with Dark Horse doing my books.
Some writers tend to say that their characters write themselves. What is your experience with this: do you write your strips or do your strips write you?
It depends on the type of story and the characters. A lot of time I use TMCM as a device to communicate ideas or observations. The best strips are little explosions in your head. One of my favorite recent comics is where I compare drawing comics to pooing.
Your newest book, Screw Heaven, When I Die I'm Going to Mars, combines three of your various strips: Too Much Coffee Man, How to be Happy and Postage Stamp Funnies (which appears in The Onion). When an idea comes to you, do you then adapt that idea to fit into one of those strips or do you consciously set out to write a TMCM strip or a How to be Happy Strip?
The Postage Stamp Funnies are the easiest to write. Either they're funny or their not. With Too Much Coffee Man, it's usually an oddball comic (like how the world is flat) that I try and shoe-horn into something funny. With How to Be Happy, I've started doing an episodic narrative. I don't even know if it's funny anymore. I am really enjoying playing with story—and I'm working on the drawings more now, too. So... yes.
It seems that there is a distinct stylistic approach that you take on each strip, with How to Be Happy mainly done in brush and Postage Stamp Funnies done with a pen and ink. Do you use different tools for each comic strip or do you approach the drawing the same?
I'm using the same tools. I've been pushing more and more towards minimalism. I felt like I was trying to hide my insecurity about my drawing with all the cross-hatching. It's been a discipline to try and allow the lines to speak for themselves. There's power in minimalism and I'm trying to explore it.
The protagonist in the How to Be Happy strips is "the artist" but it is a different persona of "the artist" than the one who appeared in Parade of Tirade? He looks different, acts different and thinks different. Does this mean that "the artist" has grown up or is this simply a different character all together?
Totally different character. The 'artist' in Parade was a parody of sorts. At the time I was drawing that comic other cartoonists were drawing themselves in very flattering ways. I reacted to that. Though the cartoonist self-portrait in the new comics is a bit of a parody, too...
The Postage Stamp Funnies strips are different in format than your previous strips because they are single panel strips. Have you encountered any difficulties adjusting to the format or, conversely, has the single panel allowed you to do more of a variety of things?
I first started drawing single panel strips for my college paper. Gahan Wilson was one of my favorite cartoonists when I was a kid. It's been nice to get back to my roots. I love a good gag strip.
Music fans will be interested to hear about the graphic novel you are working on with Jesse Michaels of Operation Ivy fame. Can you tell us a little about the project: How it got started and what the book is about?
It's a great little story about a drunk and an imaginary drunk dwarf. Really, it's more about the weird ideas that roll around in Jesse's head. I'm the slow one. I do about a page a month.
When someone reads a strip like a Dilbert or a Get Fuzzy , they might invoke a chuckle. But when someone reads a Shannon Wheeler strip, much like a Calvin and Hobbes, Far Side or Peanuts strip, they come across as something less like a simple comic strip and more along of the lines of "art." Do you consider your strips art? Why or why not?
Thank you. I don't know if they're art. I want there to be invention in every strip. I hate the idea of using templates. I see drawing comics as a process of discovery. Words like 'art' have such layered meanings. I like the idea that I'm making art. I certainly suffer enough when I'm working on strips that it should be art.
Who are some of the cartoonists, artists, writers and/or philosophers that have most influenced your work?
Gahan Wilson has an amazing sense of story packed into a single panel. I have enormous respect for him. Lately I've been reading that (big) Little Nemo book and it's making me think more about imagery. I think I've unintentionally stolen his pacing. Frank Miller and Alan Moore both manage to exist in the top tier of comic creation even though they couldn't be more different. I try and steal from them anytime I think I can get away with it. I had a George Carlin record when I was a kid. He's the one who made me see that humor based on ideas is a powerful way to communicate. Shel Silverstein and Gilbert Shelton have a light hearted touch that I love.... and Kafka. Kafka has a dark sense of humor that I love.
Since this is a music magazine, and you did write an opera, I have to ask who are your favorite musical artists and/or bands?
Magnetic Fields... White Stripes... those guys make it look effortless. I've also been enjoying the re-imaging of the 80's songs with Nouvelle Vague. I still have a soft spot in my heart for the Dead Kennedys. Hmmm...Too many to mention once I start thinking about it.
What advice to do have for any aspiring comic creators and/or cartoonists out there?
Welcome to a life of suffering and pain.
Too Much Coffee Man is constantly at odds with all the idiocy that surrounds him and the world he is forced to endure. With the newest election season fast approaching, what candidate would Too Much Coffee Man vote for and why?
Shoot... are there any anarchists running?
Isn't Ron Paul an anarchist? If not then you should have Too Much Coffee Man run for President! Mickey Mouse seems to take up all the cartoon write ins; it's time to bring the rat down! What do you say: Too Much Coffee Man for President?
Zippy did a good job, way back when. I think TMCM could make a good vice president.
Finally, whatever happened to Joel (one of the three main characters from TMCM's Parade of Tirade)? Will we ever see any more from him or is his story over and done?
I'm thinking of bringing Joel and Trixie back... Joel started making me depressed—he hit rock bottom. I sort of think of the newest guy in the comic as being like Joel (before he hit bottom). | Carlos Ruiz
Keep up with the latest Shannon Wheeler news at http://tmcm.livejournal.com/!
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