Who Are You?: Shannon Wheeler (Too Much Coffee Man, I Thought You’d Be Funnier, Grandpa Won’t Wake Up)
When you encounter cartoons from the New Yorker, they sometimes seem stodgy. Unapproachable. Indecipherable. Not so with the works of Shannon Wheeler, whose cartoons never fail to hit the funnybone. A few of his cartoons have been published in that grand old magazine. And the ones that haven’t are still fantastic. How do I know this? Because they’re available in I Thought You’d Be Funnier, a collection of Wheeler’s rejected New Yorker cartoons. Maybe they’re not good enough for the New Yorker, but they’re good enough for the Eisner. The book was nominated for the Best Humor Publication Category.
The New Yorker isn’t the only place, though, where you can find Mr. Wheeler’s unique brand of humor. Through the magic of email, I got in touch with Mr. Wheeler to shoot the breeze about his various projects.
1.) Who would you say were the biggest influences to your sense of humor and cartooning style?
It really depends on which stage of life that we’re talking about. I loved Garfield (before I could read) but by 5th grade I was reading Edward Gorey and Mad Magazine. Sergio Aragones was one of my favorites. Somehow I got ahold of a bunch of Fabulous Furry Freak Brother comics around 7th grade. Kyle Baker’s Cowboy Wally is still one of my favorite books of all time.
2.) Where do you draw your inspiration for your comics?
My own life is the best inspiration. When I’m able to distort and refashion personal experience into a cartoon I think the work turns out the best. Of course, being on deadline, I still have to produce even when I’m not inspired. Then I turn to fear, exhaustion, and coffee for inspiration.
3.) Too Much Coffee Man comic, the “coffee-themed superhero parody with existential themes,” strikes me as being uniquely zen and surreal. Which, frankly, was kind of a pleasant surprise since I was expecting different things from a comic entitled Too Much Coffee Man. So it’s about a guy dressed up as a superhero (of sorts), a liberal sprinkling of coffee references, and existential humor. How did you end up with such an unlikely mish-mash of characteristics?
I was drawing a cartoon for the Daily Texan. It was pretty much a nondescript autobiographical strip with existential themes. I struggled to describe it to people. I was sitting in a coffee shop trying to come up with something that would be easier to describe. I thought I needed a character with some sort of hook or handle… a visual pun was born.
4.) Speaking of superheroes: you’ve been involved with quite a few superhero-related projects, including a short story in Strange Tales 2. Why choose Red Skull as a protagonist?
I love villains. They’re the true underdogs – even if they’re stronger you know they’re going to lose. I can’t help but root for the tragically flawed and tragically doomed. And there’s something about imagining the Red Skull living in South America (like old Nazis are want to do) that makes me laugh.
5.) Given a choice between writing gag strips and being a regular superhero comic writer/artist, which would you choose?
The brevity of a good gag strip is poetry to me. I also love the slow unfolding of a story. You’re asking a tough question. If I’m drawing gag strips I dream of writing narratives. If I’m struggling with a story those gag strips look really sexy to me.
6.) The How To Be Happy strips play around with a variety of formats. Some follow the New Yorker style panels with one picture and one caption. Others feature multiple panels with unconventional layouts. Which do you find more challenging: the single panel gags or the multi-panel ones?
There’s more room to obsess about detail with a multi-panel strip. Does it flow? Do you need this word? Does it build? Does the punchline work? Is there enough background to be interesting? With single panels I can obsess on the text or the drawing but I feel like it either makes it or it doesn’t. I know almost nothing about basketball – but a basketball analogy might work here. A strip has a lot of dribbling and a long approach to the basket. A good gag cartoon is a 3 point shot (I think you get three points if you shoot from really far away).
7.) What is it about clowns that you find so funny?
I had one clown gag and I couldn’t draw him right. I practiced by drawing hundreds of clowns. The iconography infected my psyche. They’ve taken residence as the tragic, pained, trying-too-hard-to-be-funny but not-funny-at-all character which makes them sort of funny.
8.) Your book, I Thought You Would Be Funnier, is on the ballot for this year’s Eisners… though people didn’t know it at first. There was a little computer hiccup when the Eisners were released, since rectified, where you were accidentally left off the ballot. How good do you think your chances are? Secondly, what does an Eisner win mean to you?
I alternate between thinking that everyone will see me for the hack phony that I am and thinking that I’m a genius whose recognition is right around the corner….
9.) Poring through some of the older interviews you did, I came across this Robot 6 piece where you revealed that your artwork is in over 200 Idiot Guidebooks. Are there any unlikely publications out there where we might run into your cartooning?
I loved doing the Idiot books. I wish they were still using cartoons. I did the technical illustrations for a Vampire book for some of the writers from the Onion. I also illustrated a book for Henry Rollins. I’m always happy to take weird jobs.
10.) If I may quote that same interview, you said, “I’m seriously insecure about what I do.” Yet, here you are, submitting a compilation of rejected New Yorker strips for consideration in the Eisner awards. What changed?
It was my publisher that submitted the book. I’m still completely and thoroughly insecure. When people tell me that they like my stuff I usually think they’re lying to be polite.
11.) Out of all the projects you’ve worked on, which would you say is closest to your heart?
I try to throw myself into every project. The early Too Much Coffee Man stuff is still some of my favorite stuff. I labored over every page of that first issue.
12.) Finally: how do you take your coffee?