Interview: Shannon Wheeler Pt. 3 (of 3)

Categories:  Interviews

Shannon WheelerMay 15th, 2007 will surely be remembered in the annals of Internet history as the day that The Daily Cross Hatch‘s epic three-part interview with Portland-based artist, Shannon Wheeler, finally drew to a close. Over the course of the past few weeks, we’ve learned to laugh and love again, and we even considered, ever so briefly, boning up on our opera knowledge, only to be immediately distracted by some shiny thing we saw out the corners of our eyes.

Since the early 90s, Wheeler’s best known character, the insightful, if not particularly super-powered hero, Too Much Coffee Man, has been the subject of four trade paperbacks, various failed Hollywood vehicles, an underground magazine, and most recently, an opera. Having successfully conquered the Portland theatre world, Wheeler is currently working on his strip for The Onion, new TMCM projects, an upcoming graphic novel with Operation Ivy frontman and old high school buddy, Jesse Michaels, and some good old fashioned comic con in-fighting.

Have you ruled out the possibility of giving TV another go?

I don’t know. I wouldn’t reject it out of hand, but I’m not pursuing it. If it fell in my lap, I would do it. It’s hard: you have work with a lot of people, and the character doesn’t really lend itself to being a TV show, very well. It’s a little bit like Doonesbury, where there’s a lot of dialogue and a lot of internal monologue and not a lot of plot. Television is a lot about plot, so you’d have to change it around a lot. I think it’s possible, but it would be really difficult. I’d have to luck into working with really smart people–last time around, I didn’t really find that [laughs].

Is there a way for those of us who weren’t in Portland to see the opera? Are you working on a DVD?

I might. I put up small clips of it, but I like keeping it kind of mysterious, because I don’t want to watch like Faust on television or YouTube–that’s just awful. Opera doesn’t translate very well to television [laughs]. It works decently in movie soundtracks, when they’re raising a village or a bunch of knights are riding on horses and the flowers are blooming, and you’ve got that Wagner playing, but even the best operas in the world, when put on television, are reduced to being kind of intolerable, so putting mine onto a DVD, I think people would see it and go, “yeeeeah, that’s okay…” But in person, it really works and has this energy and vitality to it. It’s a stage production, so it’s meant to be seen and experienced, so I’m going to keep it like that for a while.

Is the magazine still going?

I put it on hold to do the opera, actually. I’m probably going to keep it on hold for a while. It never exploded onto the scene, so it’s not like I could hand it off to people and go, “here’s salaries for everybody. Get to work.” It was so much a labor of love and…making a living as an artist is hard [laughs]. I mean, I’m real happy. I’m not making a ton of money, but I’m paying my bills and I’m not in credit card debt or anything. I’m incredibly lucky, but there’s a constant hustle to keep things going. I think it’s such a struggle, but then I talk to friends who are teachers, and they’re poorer than I am.

Why name the magazine after the character?

I was really approaching it as kind of a Mad Magazine, with Alfred E. Newman, and Too Much Coffee Man could act as that kind of character. And I thought two, it would keep my comic readers by doing that, and whenever I tried doing something without it in the past, I lost about half my readers. I tried to do other comic books, and the numbers were 50-percent. I don’t know if it’s the fan base-I tend to think it’s the store owners that see it as something new and cut orders, but when I stick with Too Much Coffee Man, they stay consistent, and I can keep going through Diamond, because it’s the same contract, since it’s the same name. It did all right. It made money, but it wasn’t a blockbuster.

Well, making money at all is pretty impressive in the magazine industry.

Yeah, it’s a tough road to hoe, for sure. A big part of it was that I had to hustle all the money-I was the guy selling ads. That was a big drag.

Did you have any real employees?

I did have employees, and I really wanted to pay everybody, and in the beginning, I really went out of my way to pay everybody a decent amount. The more into it I went, the less I was able to pay people. Another part of it is that I started feeling really guilty not paying people what I thought they deserved. By the end, it was a buddy of mine Patrick and I that were doing most of the editing and work, and I wasn’t paying him all, and I just felt so guilty.

What I always appreciated about the TMCM magazine was that, instead of being a standard magazine, the concept always seemed to be: here’s some stuff that’s cool, and here are some talented people.

Yeah, that was how we approached it-it’s not exactly the formula for success, though [laughs]. I wish it were. It kept getting better and better, which was one of the frustrating things. By the end, I thought we were really putting out some good stuff.

You had some really amazing contributors. Jhonen Vasquez did some stuff–

Yeah, and Craig Thompson did some original stuff for us.

I love the prison one you used to run. [Prison Funnies].

Oh, yeah! Chip Zdarsky! That was funny as hell, and he’s working on another Superman story.

Have you considered revisiting the mag as a Web site?

You know, it’s kind of a time thing. I though about it, but really, I want to do new stuff. I want to get some graphic novels out, and I started doing a gag strip for The Onion. It’s like 50s humor. It’s little single panel comics. It’s called Postage Stamp Funnies, because they’re really tiny.

It a bit like the classic New Yorker panels?

Yeah, they have that tone it them. Some of it’s really dry humor. Some of them aren’t even jokes [laughs]. I’ll write it and be like, “is this a joke? I’m laughing, so I guess I’ll go with it.” Every now and then the editor will e-mail me, ‘I didn’t get this one. Is this-‘ and then I’ll rework it or scrap it. Sometimes he’ll say, “well I got this, but it’s not a joke. Oh well, it’s funny.”

–Brian Heater

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