Interview: Shannon Wheeler Pt. 1

Categories:  Interviews

Shannon WheelerThe greatest testament to Shannon Wheeler’s skills is the fact that the cartoonist has the uncanny ability to make you forget that you are reading a story about a guy wearing a coffee mug on his head. Some of this, no doubt has to do with the fact that, as far as superheroes go, Too Much Coffee Man doesn’t have much to offer to the world. After all, the guy’s main powers seem to be the ability to consume large quantities of caffeine and chain smoke.

Fighting crime, if it were ever a concern (Too Much Coffee Man’s early years have long been forgotten in a hazy fog of caffeinated excess), has since fallen into the background, eclipsed by more pressing concerns, such as doing errands and regularly lamenting his own existential crises. As far as marketable fodder for a long lasting comic book is concerned, it’s about as feasible as a guy getting bitten by a glowing spider.

Wheeler has managed to make it work, thus far, utilizing Too Much Coffee Man as the primary vehicle for his own sequential expression, while parlaying the character into a beloved, if not incredibly profitable magazine, and more recently, a successful opera. And then there was the time that Hollywood came knocking. We’ll get to that in time, of course.

For now, check out Part One, after the jump.

There’s a new graphic novel coming out on Dark Horse, later this year?

I’d hesitate to call it s a ‘graphic novel.’ It’s just a collection of the weekly cartoon strip that I’ve been doing, and some miscellaneous strips that I’ve been doing for people. Amusing Musings is what I would consider the only graphic novel that I’ve done.

Do you have too short an attention span for longer stories?

No, it’s just a matter of where I get paid. When I’m doing a weekly strip, I’m getting paid by newspapers. It’s easier for me to focus in on the weekly thing. I’m working on a graphic novel with a friend of mine, though, that he wrote and I’m drawing. That’s tougher, though, because even though I’m having a few nibbles on it by publishers, it’s hard for me, because I don’t have deadlines, and the cash flow, too—I’m not getting that monthly check. I’d love to do longer stories, but it just seems kind of decadent for me.

Are you allowed to tell us a bit of what the story is going to be about?

Yeah, it’s with a guy named Jesse Michaels—

Like Operation Ivy Jesse Michaels?

Yeah. I’ve known him since I was a kid. He’s a buddy of mine’s younger brother.

This is going back to your Berkeley High days?

Oh yeah, yeah. Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High School [laughs]. Seventh grade.

Where’s there a big ‘zine scene around, having grown up in Berkeley?

I suppose, but I wasn’t really aware of it, until I moved to Texas, and I plugged in with those comic book people. Before that, I was doing cartoons, but it was strip cartoons for The Daily Californian at UC Berkeley. And then I moved to Texas. I kept doing it for the Berkeley paper, and then started doing it for the Texas paper, as well.

At what point did it occur to you that this was something that you’d like to base your life around?

I guess in college, when I started doing it for the newspaper, but I didn’t think of it as how to do it as a career. It was more, ‘how can I manage to squeak a living out of this?’ that was kind of why I moved to Texas, so I could live on the cheap, doing it, and work a part-time job and learn how to cartoon.

How long has Too Much Coffee Man been around?

Probably too long. I think it’s 13 years, now. It’s kind of embarrassing. I feel like I should be more successful than I am with it.

He’s been around, people know him. There are a ton of books on Dark Horse.

Yeah, yeah. I’m real happy with it. I’ve had numerous opportunities to do terrible things with him, and I’ve passed on them. I definitely could have made more money with him, or been more successful, but I’ve definitely opted to go along this path.

Was the idea to create a character with some kind of longevity?

Yeah, that was real deliberate [laughs]. I wish I could say that it like Bone, where it was these childhood characters, but I had done a lot of cartoons, where I just kept rotating through these different characters, ideas, and themes and stuff. I would go to these parties at the college, and people would ask me which comic I did, and I would try to explain it, but it was just really vague, so I’d say, “the one with the talking dog.” I thought that I needed to do a character that has a hook or a handle, and that was a visual pun, like a handle on a mug.

So the genesis of Too Much Coffee Man is a bad pun.

Yeah. Sad but true.

It’s obviously strayed from this quite a bit, but the original idea was to do something of a superhero parody?

A little bit, but it was more…it was a lifestyle parody. Sitting in a coffee shop, looking at the people around me, making fun of the people around me. I don’t really think of it as parody. Dave Sim did a lot of parody, where he took the cockroach character, Wolveroach, and that’s where you take a character and twist it into something ludicrous. I wasn’t really twisting other things. Even in the beginning, I didn’t really use plots or themes from superhero comics. He doesn’t really have powers.

There is an occasional action scene, however.

Yeah, every now and again I’ll feel guilty that nothing is happening, so I’ll liven it up a little [laughs]. It’s always a little bit forced, though.

That’s always been one of the most interesting things about the book. He is a superhero. He’s got a costume and the word ‘Man’ in his name, but at the same he’s doing one of the most banal things imaginable.

Yeah. It’s the same comics that I was doing before Too Much Coffee Man, it’s just now I’m doing them with Too Much Coffee Man. I would do these comics about the fear of death and relationships and the meaning of life and self doubt and stuff. Now it’s the same stuff, but with a character that fits into that template.

Is there something about the character that lends himself to these themes, or do you just squeeze him into whatever sort of story you’re trying to write?

Yeah, he definitely has an energy of his own. And that kind of blinsided me. That really did come from inside myself, where I was using him, and he really slowly took shap. There’s a personality. I listen to some writers, when they talk about their writing, “and then, of yeah, the characters just started speaking.” It’s really interesting and weird. And when I did stuff with Hollywood a bit, and other writers were trying to write Too Much Coffee Man and they would ask me about the character, I’d have a really tough time describing him, but when they’d write it, I knew that it was wrong. He was being mean there, but he’s not a mean person.

So you knew what he wasn’t, then.

Yeah, yeah. One of the things that really fascinated me, when I was growing up, was Snoopy’s doghouse and Snoopy’s character, where they never went inside the doghouse, but there was this whole impled reality of the doghouse. He had a pool table in there. It really fascinated me, where I would never see it. With Too Much Coffee Man, I tried to do that a little, where I would allude to history and personality traits, but I would never say them.

There’s a real conscious decision to never do a true origin story, like why the hell this guy has a coffee mug on his head.

And it drove the Hollywood people crazy. They would also give me ideas, like “how about he drinks some government coffee that is radioactive?” “So, like Captain America or Spider-Man origin story, with coffee?” And they’d say, “yeah, like that!” it was weird how four of five different Hollywood people would all fall into that same cliché, and they would act like it was a brilliant idea.

[Continued in Part Two]

–Brian Heater

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