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September 5, 2011

Coffee Break: Shannon Wheeler on TMCM and More


With the recent release of the Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus from Dark Horse, 20 years’ worth of Shannon Wheeler’s angst-filled antihero have been collected into one enormous volume. It’s a huge achievement; a bible of ennui and unexpected non-adventure, starring an everyman who just happens to wear an inexplicable coffee helmet. We sat down to ask Mr. Wheeler a few questions about what all of this means.

How does it feel to see decades’ worth of work collected into one enormous volume?

I have mixed feelings about almost every single aspect of my life. I have mixed feelings about having gotten out of bed this morning. So, of course, I have mixed feelings about the TMCM Omnibus. I love seeing so much work in one place. The book is big enough to be used as a
ballistic weapon. It’s a testament to 20 years of effort. On the other hand…that’s it? I ruined relationships, my health suffered, my finances are laughable…all to draw comics. What was I thinking? Why wasn’t I a lawyer or doctor? I could be squeezing money from divorce settlements or squeezing pimples and make twice the social impact and have health insurance. I have a lot of regret.

Everyone asks what else I’m working on…if I’ll do something other than Too Much Coffee Man. Seeing that big volume makes me worry that TMCM is my sole legacy. Seeing all that work also has freed me to push in new directions. I drew the hell out of Too Much Coffee Man and I’m working my ass off on new books.

I’m doing a new gag cartoon every day and posting them on my website,
Oil and Water (with Steve Duin), a graphic novel about New Orleans post BP oil spill
Grandpa Won’t Wake Up (with Simon Max Hill), a not-for-kids book
The Bible (with Mark Russell), I’m doing gags for an updated rewrite of God’s word
I Told You So, a collection of more New Yorker gag cartoon rejects
Cutie Island, a collection of short stories

How much Too Much Coffee Man do you have left in you? What adventures still await him?

Every story or comic feels like the last one. But ideas continually bubble up and I’m compelled to express them. I’m working on an 8-page story for Dark Horse Presents where TMCM moves into a house. The woman who rents to him acts like they’ve been married to each other for years. Slowly, TMCM is convinced of the same. It’s a story about how brains are soft.

Too Much Coffee Man, to the outside observer, might be mistaken for a typical superhero, complete with a helmet of Kirby-esque ridiculousness. TMCM actually was one of my first "indie" comics, which I snagged because it looked like some weird superhero stuff, a la The Tick. Where does TMCM's apathy and paranoia-rich oeuvre meet with these superhero ideals? What's the parallel?

All the early Marvel comics are rich with ennui. The Hulk was Mr. Depressed and Peter Parker is emo. The Thing was always alienated and pissed off. Those early Marvel comics inspired me. The fruit didn’t fall far from the tree.

Once you'd achieved creative success, was it harder to write strips about fear and loneliness and failure, or did those things just make way for a whole new set of fears? If so, was it harder to write the strip as an "everyman"?

Does anyone ever achieve creative success? It’s a constant struggle. In a way, things get harder because you become more aware of great work that other people have done. Early on, I’d only read a little of Eisner and Kirby and Crumb—it was easy to think that I could be as
great as my idols. As I get older, I read more and my respect for the people around me grows and I struggle more with my own limitations. It also gets harder because I’m genuinely proud of some of my early work. I have to live up to what I’ve done before. I should just give up. It’s too hard.

Have you witnessed a lot of changes in the "indie" comics scene since you began?

When I started cartooning, other cartoonists made fun of me for using T-shirts, coffee mugs, and merchandise as a way to make money. Now, everyone sells crap. There’s been a 180º turn in people’s attitudes. I should have kept my mouth shut. It’s gotten competitive.

Artistically, the field is more open. You can do indie superhero and people don’t blink an eye. Autobio comics with prostitutes? Not a big deal. The one thing I don’t see anymore is really shocking comics. There used to be tons of really offensive stuff. I kind of miss the old days.

One of the most outstanding things about TMCM is the surrealist visuals depicting very human themes, as well as the masterful line work. How did you decide to treat these strips with this approach?

Ha. Thank you. I look at Crumb and Gilbert Shelton—I’ll never be as good as those guys…or the mood that Edward Gorey conveys. I’ll be playing catch up my whole life. I have to always remember to try and get better.

I'm going to get very specific here: Page 210 of the TMCM omnibus is probably one of the most vivid comic memories from my youth. It refers to the fact that people usually quote something they'd seen on TV as a way to be funny rather than be creative themselves, and it irrevocably altered my own perception of humor. It's a kind of
hyper-awareness of human behavior that seems to drive the paranoia and frustration of TMCM. How do you deal with it, aside from writing comics about it?

That’s one of my favorite bits too. It was me venting. I hate reference-dependent jokes. Hate it with a passion. It’s lazy and stupid writing. I was able to get a pet peeve off my chest and I moved the plot and everyone was in character and it felt real.

I love it when a seed of awareness changes one's reality. Once you become aware of the laziness of referential humor, you can see when writers are bunting. It also makes one more appreciative of good writing.

A friend once told me that mint ice cream tastes like Crest toothpaste. Before he told me that, I loved mint ice cream. After his reveal, I couldn’t eat mint ice cream without gagging. Give me truth. I love it. Screw mint ice cream.

As an astute observer of humanity, tell it to me straight: How are we doing?

Great. I love it. Specific questions…you’ve read the comics. You’re making me work. As a whole—humanity seems to be getting better. I like that a cartoonist gets beaten up and the result is opposite what the thugs intended. They wanted to suppress his work and instead they made him famous.

You have six months and no obligations. What do you create?

I’d have about five projects on my to-do list. I want to draw some of Jesse Michaels’s stories. I also want to do some autobio stuff about growing up in Berkeley—the good and bad. I’m not sure if I’m ready to do that, but it would be nice to find out. I want to write about my mom taking me to see Jim Jones and how Huey Newton was my landlord. It sounds ridiculous because it is.