It’s been just over two years since the last time cartoonist Shannon Wheeler and I have done an interview. Since then, he’s gotten even more popular with his successful New Yorker cartoon submissions; turned his New Yorker rejections into the Eisner Award winning collection (from BOOM! Studios), I Thought You Would Be Funnier; collaborated with Simon Max Hill on a Little Golden Book parody, Grandpa Won’t Wake Up (BOOM! Studios); as well as teaming with Steve Duin (The Oregonian columnist) on Oil and Water (from Fantagraphics, set for release this month). This new interview focuses on the experience of winning a second Eisner (to go with his 1995 Best New Series win for Too Much Coffee Man), his various current collaborations, comedic boundaries and the impact of stress in his creative process. Be sure to peruse Fantagraphics 19-page preview of Oil and Water after enjoying the interview.
Tim O’Shea: Not many folks can say they’ve won an Eisner, but this year’s was actually your second Eisner win. How gratifying was it to get such validation again? Also, how amused were you that you won an award for a collection of work rejected by the New Yorker?
Shannon Wheeler: It was more moving than validating. I didn’t think I would win this time around. I swore I wouldn’t be one of those people who cry on stage at a stupid award ceremony. But once I got up and took the award in my hand I honestly choked up. It meant more to me than I thought.
O’Shea: You were just at APE, where Grandpa Won’t Wake Up premiered. Were you pleased with how it was received at APE?
Wheeler: It’s such a catchy title (thanks to the author, Simon) that it’s hard not to pick it up. The thing sold like hot cakes. I was very pleased.
O’Shea: What attracted you to working with Simon Max Hill?
Wheeler: I told him that there was no way I had time to work on someone else’s project. I was overloaded with work. Then I read his text… I kept laughing… I had to do it. I’ve always been a fan of Edward Gorey and Shel Silverstein this seemed like an unholy union of those two.
O’Shea: Did you always plan on going with a Golden Book packaging homage with this project, or was this an idea that came to you in the midst of its development?
Wheeler: I think it was in the middle of working on it. There’s nothing more iconic than the Golden Books. I love them. Simon and I had a long time to develop ideas. We’d meet every few months and work on the roughs.
O’Shea: So, do you take pleasure in the fact that the Simon & Schuster site recommends this book to 11 Graders and up? For that matter, is there a target audience for this book per se?
Wheeler: I did the book because it appealed to me. I never thought about the audience. I had no idea Simon & Schuster recommends the book. That’s totally cool.
O’Shea: Comedically, did you hesitate at all in terms of going for dressing Grandpa in Nazi garb (particularly swastika thong)?
Wheeler: When Simon and I talked about it we laughed so hard that there wasn’t a moment of hesitation. The whole idea was to find the limits – walk on them, urinate, dance, start a fire, kill and roast an endangered animal and eat it while sitting on a baby seal.
O’Shea: Do you consider any boundaries in cadaver comedy?
Wheeler: We considered all the boundaries… but we were laughing too hard to notice them as they whipped past us.
O’Shea: Tell me the evolution on the name “C’Thris’Klpotheup” particularly the use of apostrophes in the name (I am partial to apostrophes in names, as you might expect)?
Wheeler: Simon spent hours finding a demon that would fit with the syllable and rhyming structure.
O’Shea: Can you single out a scenario in Grandpa that you found comedically more absurd than the others, or were you able to achieve a consistent level of comedic absurdity on all pages?
Wheeler: One of my favorite bits is with the candle. Putting a candle in a dead grandfather’s ass was offensive but we wanted to make it funnier. First we thought a roman candle would be funnier replete with fireworks on the next page… but given that he’s wearing Nazi underwear, a Chanukah candle was the funniest.
O’Shea: Back when you and I did an email interview in 2009, you said of getting published by The New Yorker: “When they finally bought one, it was relief as much as joy, that my work paid off. Then I got nervous that they’d never buy a second cartoon. Then they bought a second cartoon. A number have run but I’m still nervous every week.” They have bought several more since then–still nervous?
Wheeler: Yep. I’m still totally nervous. I’m waiting to be found out for the sham that I am. They just bought another cartoon of mine last week. I still find it unbelievable that I’m in one of the most respected magazines in the country. Maybe when I go senile I’ll stop appreciating how lucky I am.
O’Shea: November sees Fantagraphics release Oil and Water, your collaboration with The Oregonian‘s Steve Duin. What can you tell me about that project–and what was it like to work with Duin?
Wheeler: The BP oil spill is a classic story of a multi-national corporation screwing the little guy. I’ll never get tired of working with that theme. I felt this particular story – and the impact it had on the people, environment, economy was an important one.
There were times that I was frustrated working with Steve. We’re both have ridiculous personalities with strong ideas. We butted heads on a few things. The bottom line is that I have enormous respect for his writing. It was an enormous learning experience for me. Steve has a deep and genuine love for comics. He understands story telling. I loved it. I learned a lot from him.
O’Shea: What kind of things did you learn (storytelling wise) from Duin?
Wheeler: Steve understands a scene really well. When all the characters visited the bird cleaning facility there was a large storytelling arc with multiple subplots. I would have been afraid to juggle so many elements. I would have focused on the single note of the horror of the facility. Steve isn’t afraid to trust the reader to understand. I’m a lot less trusting of the reader. Steve showed me how to have more faith in the narrative.
O’Shea: What else is on the horizon for you creatively?
Wheeler: I’m doing another collaborative project… this time it’s the Bible. Top Shelf is publishing it early next year. I’m doing gag cartoons and Mark Russell is rewriting each book down to about 3 paragraphs. It will be funny but it’s not a parody. It’s an accurate retelling of the stories. Hopefully my jokes will be funny and help sell it.
O’Shea: The Bible project with Mark Russell, this is another writer named Mark Russell, not the American political satirist/comedian who plays the piano, right? Not wishing to marginalize either Russell, just trying to make a distinction for readers (and myself)?
Wheeler: Yep. It’s the Mark Russell who does a zine called Penny Dreadful. He’s not well known yet but he’ll make a splash before too long.
I also have a few new Too Much Coffee Man stories to do for Dark Horse Presents. I want them to be good so it’s stressing me out. Long term – I’d love to do another graphic novel.
O’Shea: If you ever stop stressing and being nervous about your work, are you afraid it would not be as good? Would you agree that stress is a creative fuel for you on some level?
Wheeler: On some level… maybe. It sure gets in the way most of the time. I don’t think it’s good for my health either. I would rather be the type of artist who can sit down every day and draw from 9-5. I piddle and stress then draw for 12 hours straight.