Wordstock Interview: Shannon Wheeler

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Shannon Wheeler at Wordstock 2011.Shannon Wheeler at Wordstock 2011.

Shannon Wheeler at Wordstock 2011. Photo: Jonathan Liu

Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus by Shannon WheelerToo Much Coffee Man Omnibus by Shannon WheelerShannon Wheeler is an incredibly prolific cartoonist. He’s probably best known for his underground comic Too Much Coffee Man, but he has also drawn comics for the New Yorker and has several other books that have come out recently. He won an Eisner Award this year for his comics collection I Thought You Would Be Funnier. I spoke to Wheeler at Wordstock last weekend about his books, the Bible, and a really offensive “children’s” book that you shouldn’t let your kids read. In fact, you probably shouldn’t even let them read about it.

GeekDad: First of all, I know you’ve got a couple books recently out and a couple coming soon. What’s in the pipeline?

Shannon Wheeler: Too Much Coffee Man is a 500-page collection of 20 years of underground TMCM comics. I also did a “children’s book” called Grandpa Won’t Wake Up that’s adult-skewed: two kids trying to wake up their dead grandpa, and it gets very dark very quickly. Oil and Water is a 150-page graphic novel I did with Steve Duin, a columnist. We went down to the Gulf Coast and wrote this about the BP oil spill, more of a drama. I just put out a second edition of I Thought You Would Be Funnier since we sold out of the first printing. God Is Disappointed in You is a book that I’m working on now. It’s a refashioning of the Bible. Mark Russell is writing it, and I’m doing gag cartoons. Each book of the Bible is condensed down to a few paragraphs and then I do cartoons with it.

God Is Disappointed in You by Mark Russell and Shannon WheelerGod Is Disappointed in You by Mark Russell and Shannon WheelerGD: I flipped through the little preview version of God Is Disappointed in You just briefly. Are the condensed versions made to be humorous, or are they pretty straightforward?

SW: Yeah, they’re humorous. The reasons for doing the project was two-fold: one, I just have enormous respect for Mark’s writing and I just felt anything he does is amazing. He’s very tight and funny. Second, Mark’s motivation for doing it is that he doesn’t feel that people have actually read the Bible. Everyone talks about it and it was a way to actually share the information and the stories. He feels it’s an important piece of literature and this is just a way to communicate that. We’re both secular, but it’s a gentle lampooning. He’s trying to be very accurate. It’s a way for me to learn the Bible, which I’ve always wanted to do.

GD: Is it the whole thing?

SW: 66 books, the Old Testament and the New Testament. About three paragraphs each, about a page or two, so it’ll be about 200 pages for the whole book. That’s coming early next year from Top Shelf.

GD: I assume you’ve seen R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis, right?

SW: Phenomenal. Incredible work.

GD: Is he going to do all 66 books?

SW: [Laughing] I think he barely got through Genesis, right?

GD: I know that was one that surprised a lot of people, that R. Crumb was doing something with the Bible. But he did it really straight, without putting in jokes and things. It was a very literal adaptation of the book — but even there, I think a lot of people hadn’t read the book of Genesis.

SW: Well, he did say that when he started it, his intention was to lampoon it. He wanted to mock it, but as he read it, he felt like there wasn’t a need to do that because it was already ridiculous. That’s what he said, I don’t know. We took a slightly different approach. We’re actually trying to represent the Bible, but there are funny things in it. I think it’s a very entertaining piece of work. The thing that shocked me about reading the Bible, because I hadn’t before, is that there are books that I really liked, and books that I just hated. I thought they were terrible. Like Ecclesiastes: that really resonated with me, and it shocked me. I never thought it would mean something to me, but it did. It’s very existential. Leviticus, it’s just offensive. It’s about how to treat a wife and slaves. I didn’t like that. That really surprised me. It’s a very complicated piece.

GD: You’ve got a lot of different authors in there. You don’t like all the authors, right? You like some writers better than others.

Grandpa Won't Wake Up by Simon Max Hill & Shannon WheelerGrandpa Won't Wake Up by Simon Max Hill & Shannon WheelerMoving to Grandpa Won’t Wake Up. I’ve got young kids, so I have to ask: is it more along the lines of Shel Silverstein’s ABZ book, that’s not really for kids…

SW: They dress him up like a Nazi and then hit him with sticks.

GD: Ok, so definitely not for kids.

SW: It’s offensive.

I would meet with Simon [Max Hill], the writer, and we would talk for a long time about what the cat would be doing, and what the horse would be doing. At one point, we sat and talked for an hour about which would be funnier: a gimp mask that’s made for a horse, or a gimp mask that’s made for a human that was forced onto a horse. Ultimately we decided that a gimp mask that’s made for the horse is funnier, because that takes forethought and planning. Whereas a gimp mask for a human that’s been forced onto a horse’s head is just spontaneous. Any drunk idiot could do that. Okay, so we designed it for the horse head. That’s the level of detail that we’re paying attention to in there.

It’s offensive. It’s wrong.

After coming out of the BP oil spill thing — that was a serious and emotional graphic novel — I needed a counterpoint. So this is the other extreme of having fun and laughing. We’d sit and laugh for hours at time, thinking “how can we be the most offensive, or as stupid as possible?”

Oil and Water by Steve Duin and Shannon WheelerOil and Water by Steve Duin and Shannon WheelerGD: Speaking of Oil and Water, is it a fictionalized account of your trip or is it more journalistic and accurate?

SW: Yes. Yes, it is.

What happened is that a group of us went down to the Gulf Coast and Steve fictionalized our end of it. About twenty of us went down, and we condensed it down to eight people and we fictionalized a little narrative on our end. On the other side, everyone that we talked to, all of that stuff is as accurate as we could make it. All the facts of the BP oil is accurate, the people that we met and what they said and their opinions we kept very true to life.

GD: How long did it take to work on this project?

SW: It was hard. It’s a real departure in style for me. I used washes and I drew people in a semi-realistic way. And also drawing New Orleans, I’m drawing a lot of set pieces. We went through the 9th Ward. Really trying to get the houses right, I used a lot of photo references. We were down there for a few weeks, and everybody took pictures, so I had about a thousand photos to go through.

How long did it take? It was probably about four or five months of work altogether. Maybe more. It was a lot of sacrifice.

I Thought You'd Be Funnier by Shannon WheelerI Thought You'd Be Funnier by Shannon WheelerGD: Do you have anything else going on at the moment?

SW: I have an art show at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts (PCPA) [on exhibit now until December 1]. I started doing New Yorker cartoons about three years ago. To sell a few of them I draw hundreds. So I have an art show of all the rejected cartoons, which are also the same ones that are in I Thought You’d Be Funnier. I’m just starting to put together a second book. It’s either going to be called I Told You So, or possibly Does This Smell Funny to You? Like, the guy’s holding a dead clown: “Does this smell funny …” I dunno. We’ll see.

For more about Shannon Wheeler and his work, visit his site www.TMCM.com. Watch for a review of Oil and Water soon, and I’ll try to review God Is Disappointed in You when it arrives next year.

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