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I recently caught up with seasoned industry veteran Shannon Wheeler for an email interview. This interview took place before Wheeler’s recent announcement that he was contemplating a project at ACT-I-VATE–I mention this only as an explanation as to why I ask no questions in that regard. As noted in this recent post, his work has frequently been picked up by The New Yorker as of late, while he continues his work on How to Be Happy. And, of course, we get in some discussion about his overall Too Much Coffee Man work. My thanks to Wheeler for his time.
Tim O’Shea: You are a creator with a long, proven track record, who covers a great many concepts in your work (judging by this tag cloud). This page offers me a wealth of topics to ask you about, but I’ll focus on one. In a down economy like this current one, does it make it easier (or even too easy) to tackle consumerism in the strip?
Shannon Wheeler: It makes it easier to criticize capitalism/materialism/consumerism when the economy is South in that you have specific things (like unemployment and poverty) to point at. Some of the humor becomes more poignant because the reality is more harsh. But that’s very external. To me it feels like the humor has stayed the same.
A lot of the cartoons are about my personal struggles. Consumerism is something I wrestle with. I love buying DVDs, collectibles, art. At the same time I think owning things, wanting things, is ridiculous.
O’Shea: I thought you were being partially sarcastic when you wrote this in your LiveJournal, “it seems like when I start early on the comics and put more work into them, they turn out better.” Given that you were partially serious (I assume), when you start early, where and how are you able to put more work into the strip–do you revise the art more, or do you add details?
Wheeler: Totally serious. It was one of those observations that is ridiculous but true. Obviously more work makes a cartoon better. I can think of better timing, a better punchline. But part of me still feels like the greatness of a cartoon has to do with the inspiration and not the work. I need that flash (which only takes a second) to make it great. And if it only takes a second then I shouldn’t have to put in all that work. I should just wait for that inspiration.
Oddly – extra time allows me to take out more material. When I first write a cartoon I put in too much crap; extra words, extra panels. When I have the luxury of time I reread it and reread it, reducing it down to its essentials.
O’Shea: Back in February (correct if I’m wrong on the timeframe) you found out the New Yorker accepted one of your submissions. How long had you been submitting to the New Yorker and how satisfying was it when they selected that first cartoon?
Wheeler: I met Matt Diffee, another New Yorker cartoonist, about a year ago. He helped me work on my comics. Mostly, he told me that they weren’t funny enough (he was right). I worked and read and worked on them. Sometimes Matt would tell me that this or that cartoon had potential. Eventually I had a set that was OK and I started submitting them to Robert Mankoff, the cartoon editor. Months more of sending in cartoons and not hearing anything would leave me wanting to cry. It was a leap of faith to continue submitting. When they finally bought one, it was relief as much as joy, that my work paid off. Then I got nervous that they’d never buy a second cartoon. Then they bought a second cartoon. A number have run but I’m still nervous every week.
O’Shea: How has getting your work in the New Yorker changed/helped your career–have you seen an increased interest in your Too Much Coffee Man work?
Wheeler: On a personal level it has given me more confidence. It helps getting in the top cartoon publication in the country. I now believe that I’ve done some good work, not a lot, but some. I’m seriously insecure about what I do.
O’Shea: In a recent post, you quite succinctly revealed the stress of being a freelancer. “I’d think, if I were that person would I be happier or less happy than I am now? It helped coming home to find out that the New Yorker bought another cartoon. Still, I wonder if the stress and financial insecurity is worth it.” How hard is it to stay happy with the stressload of a freelance life?
Wheeler: I’m trying to balance things better – mostly by getting work done early. I hate the money worry. Of course it’s worth it. In a way it doesn’t matter what you do. It’s important to feel like what you’ve done is significant. I’d love it if I could be happy doing data entry but if that were the case I’d cry myself to sleep. What I do doesn’t make me happy but I’d be less happy doing something else.
O’Shea: You’ve done two operas with Too Much Coffee Man, any chance you would venture to make it a trilogy?
Wheeler: I’ve been thinking about it. Actually – I’d like to edit down the two operas into a single tight piece.
O’Shea: You mentioned here that you used to work on the “Idiot Guide” books. (You said: “I miss illustrating for the Idiot Guide books. I did almost 200 books for those guys.”) Honestly, 200 is a staggeringly impressive number to me. That being said, out of the 200 or so, do you remember a particular book topic or two that were among your favorite to illustrate.
Wheeler: Household Disasters and the Kamu Sutra were pretty good. There were usually one are two good cartoons in each of the 200 books I’ve done. Standing in the bookstore I thought about the quantity of books with my work. It’s cool and lame, simultaneously.
O’Shea: You recently did a book tour in support of a vampire book that you illustrated, what’s the book and how did that come about?
Wheeler: My editor from the Onion is a co-author on the Vampire book. It’s all about connections. And being able to work really fast. And working really cheap. Commercial art is like a good date – you have to be cheap and fast (and half the time you get screwed).
O’Shea: You’re currently shopping a bible book around to publishers, what’s the scope of the project?
Wheeler: Mark Russell is rewriting the books of the bible in 3 paragraphs each. I’m doing a gag cartoon to head each one. 66 books total in the Testaments. It’ll be about 144 pages. Imagine Christ on the cross saying “Are you there God? It’s me, Jesus.” There’s nothing like a little crucifixion humor to sell a book. Yes. I have no idea how we’re going to sell this thing but it’s really fun to work on. Mark’s writing is amazing. He was raised with the bible and his reduction/translation if very genuine. He’s keeping the meaning and intent of each book even through the massive cuts. He’s also making it funny. It really is a good way to read the book.
O’Shea: I notice in your LiveJournal entries that you periodically post music that you’re currently enjoying. Do you often listen to music while you work, or is that too much of a distraction?
Wheeler: Musics and audio books. They’re great if I’m doing something mindless like a blog entry or fixing the art on a comic or coloring. I can’t listen to music or a book when I’m really concentrating though.
O’Shea: If you’re willing to discuss it, I’d love to hear the full ordeal when Fox’s MADtv (which ended last year) “tried to license TMCM for months and months”.
Wheeler: I love talking about it. It’s an interesting Hollywood grist-mill story. And from what I understand, fairly typical. Basically they tried to buy it, I wouldn’t sell it (at least not for what they offered) so they made their own (Coffee Guy). Intellectual property is virtually an oxymoron. The best reaction is to move onward and upward.
O’Shea: Your LiveJournal is a great glimpse into your creative process for the past eight years, how often do you work up rough cartoons (like this one) that never get past this embryonic stage. How frustrating is it when you realize the raw concept will never become “a real cartoon” (as you phrased it then…)
Wheeler: It’s a little frustrating but not that bad. I have a ton of ideas that never make it off the launching pad. What’s worse is pitches that should never have left the drawing table that are now published in my books.
O’Shea: I appreciate your candor in discussing your work, for example, in this cartoon, you conceded that “I debated whether to use ‘so’ in the cartoon for about half an hour.” When you get into comedic quandries like this one, do you ask family members or friends to beta test the pieces?
Wheeler: Sometimes I’ll run stuff by my mom. She’s honest with me. Most of my friends tell me that a cartoon is good. My mom will actually tell me that it sucks.