“Pure, unchecked id” is how Neil Swaab describes his furry protagonist, a sub-four-foot-tall teddy bear with a propensity toward sexual deviance, heroin addiction, and petty crime. Mr. Wiggles spends the panels of his eponymous strip scamming for crystal meth, telling AIDS jokes, cutting folks, and really, doing any manner of other things one might have trouble getting away with outside the pages of a left-leaning alt weekly.
Now Swaab is ready to take the next step, bringing his teddy bear to that perennial hotbed of sociopathology: basic cable. The artist, who already has some animation work under his belt as a veteran of the wonderfully warped Adult Swim series, Super Jail, has been shopping an expanded version of Rehabilitation Mr. Wiggles around, in hopes of scoring a show he can call his own.
We sat down with Swaab—and his pitch book—to discuss what it takes to turn a weekly comic strip about a junkie stuffed animal into an honest-to-god TV show.
You’re pitching an animated series.
Yeah, we’re pitching a television show, and hoping that somebody out there like it. We went into Comedy Central about a month and a half ago and scheduled some new appointments with some new networks. I’ve got a new producer on-board who helped me work on new material. So it’s sort of like a whole world that we took and developed from the Mister Wiggles characters. We developed what the world is gonna be and who the characters are.
So as the strip exists now, there’s not really a whole lot of back story.
Right. It’s impossible to make a TV out of two talking heads. That would be ridiculously boring.
Or it would be Entertainment Tonight.
Right, exactly. Which again would be ridiculous boring. So we developed what their whole lives are, what they’re doing—Mr. Wiggles has to go see a correctional treatment specialist, he’s like a parole officer who puts him in group therapy with all of these crazy nutjob people who are criminals. He’s got to go through his paces, and if he doesn’t do what she commands of him, then he goes back to prison. So it’s kind of this whole world of weirdos involved in the show, and Neil’s got his own life in there.
How long have you been drawing the strip?
But you really haven’t developed a backstory for these characters?
No, I had a backstory, but it’s just that comic strips are so different from what a TV show or comic book is. It’s even different from a daily comic. With a weekly, you don’t really have that opportunity to tell long format stories, because I feel like attention spans don’t really last from week to week.
So you don’t really do arcs so much?
I do, I do. I’m actually doing one now—it’s a 15 story arc, but I hadn’t one for four years before that, because the kind of arcs I want to tell are way too long. If I do a 15 comic arc, for a daily strip that’s two weeks worth of work, but for a weekly strip, that’s three months. So if a reader doesn’t like that arc, you’ve lost them for three months.
You’re on your third book now.
Are you beginning to think of these stories as books now?
No, not really. I still think weekly. The only thing is, the new story I’m thinking I’ll collect into a floppy comic at some point—maybe a themed comic. I think in-between books I might do floppy, themed comics.
This is supplementary stuff or the actual strip?
It’s the strip, but it will also probably include some extra things. For instance, the one I’m doing now is about Mr. Wiggles dying, becoming God, and ruling the world. So I might do a religious-themed book that has all of the strips I’ve done on that topic. That would be sort of an in-between comic for people.
Now that you’re starting to thing about this as a longer-form thing and exploring the possibility of a TV show, has the idea of doing a self-contained comic book come up at all?
You know, absolutely. I’m doing a lot of screenwriting now, and the more I’ve done Mr. Wiggles, the more I would love to do long format work, especially because doing that day-to-day joke, which is topical, but doesn’t really advance the story much, I’m getting more interested in character arcs and growth. The only way to do those advance those is with longer form stories.
When you say “topical,” you mean based on the news?
Based on the news or certain things that are out there in society that are happening right now. I do a lot of what I call “social commentary” comics, which to me are about how people interact with one another. Which is great, but what I do is make statements about that from two character viewpoints. It doesn’t advance the character as much—it just makes a funny jokes. That, hopefully, has some sort of intellectually stimulating component to it. But I also really love to do things that make you care about the characters and make you see where they’re coming from. So it would be great to explore that in a longer format.
When you were starting the strip, less concerned about longer form stories, where you thinking of the main characters just along the lines of being two distinct personality types?
You know, I think that, if I was thinking about that now, I would definitely do that. You ask what’s character A and what’s character B, and how do they relate to one another? If character A is neat and orderly, character B shouldn’t be neat and ordely. You’re going to want someone who is more disruptive.
Oscar and Felix.
Exactly. And that’s what I compare the TV show that I’m pitching to. It’s very much The Odd Couple, but in terms of actually thinking when I created the stuff, I was like 20. I wasn’t really thinking about that. I just put characters in and hoped it worked.
So how do you define the principle characters?
Mr. Wiggles is pure id. He’s basically id unchecked. He lives for himself—a drug-addicted, criminal, hedonist kind of person. While Neil, on the other hand, is timid and always worried about what people might think about him. He’s also very afraid in a lot of ways, but he’s very moral. He knows right from wrong and always tries to follow what’s right. Mr. Wiggles will always challenge authority.
How does his being a teddy bear represent unchecked id to you?
I don’t know [laughs]. When I created it, I just needed a really cute face to put on the concept. This started more from a concept. I had jokes and I had things that I really wanted to talk about. I really wanted to be anti-society and misanthropic and very devious in a way. I needed a face. It was nice, in a way, that thing we all think is sweet and innocent. It’s the last thing you would expect to be this way.
[Continued in Part Two.]