Even if you don’t know who Chris Eliopoulos is, the name probably sounds familiar if you’ve picked up a comic book in the last twenty years. One of the premier letterers in the business, Eliopoulos didn’t start out seeking to letter comics — he’s a cartoonist at heart, having contributed art to Sports Illustrated and the series “The Complete Idiots Guide....”
“Desperate Times,” now collected from Image Comics, began as a backup in “Savage Dragon” -- a book Eliopoulos hand-lettered for the first 100 issues. A comedic story told largely in a comic strip format, “Desperate Times” is the story of 20-something drunken best friends Marty and Toad and a drunken three-toed sloth, trying to meet women and avoid navigating adulthood as much as possible. Eliopoulos also contributed a short piece to the “9-11: Artists Respond” anthology. More recently, Eliopoulos has been writing and illustrating the all-ages “Franklin Richards: Son of a Genius” books for Marvel Comics.
This past New Year’s Eve, Eliopoulos began a new project. “Misery Loves Sherman” is a daily webcomics strip about a fairly typical boy who gets beat up by his sister, belittled by his parents and ignored by his peers. Fortunately, Sherman has imagination and two aliens who live in his room to help him navigate the agony and angst of childhood. For fans of “Desperate Times,” they’ll be able to recognize the dark but absurd sensibility at the heart of the project, but “Misery Loves Sherman” is very much its own creation.
CBR News spoke with Chris Eliopoulos to learn more about “Misery Loves Sherman” and the career of one comics’ most prolific talents.
CBR: The Letterer’s life is a mysterious one to most comics readers, so tell us, what are you working on today?
Chris Eliopoulos: Today I drew up two “Misery Loves Sherman” strips, started lettering “Daredevil” #112, did some work on “Secret Invasion” #7, went over some lettering work, hopefully finishing a “Franklin Richards” layout tonight, and Twittered a couple times.
You've been producing “Misery Loves Sherman” five days a week since New Year’s Eve. How does it compare to when you started?
When I started the strip, I was still unsure of the characters--both in their personalities and how to draw them. I also built up some lead-time. At one point, I had a 50-day lead from when I finished the strip to when it appeared. Because of other commitments, that lead has dwindled to about a week or less. It seems when I have a “Franklin” issue due, it kills any lead time I build up, but I'm finishing the final one of the year and should have a good few months to build up a good lead.
It's gotten easier to draw the characters and to write them, but I'm never happy with my work, so it's never truly easy. Doing the strip is hard and it's never what I expect. I get surprised all the time by what happens, how characters develop -- but I love it. I was thinking today that I wish I could just draw this strip and not do anything else.
On the topic of wishing that the strip was your only job, how much lettering are you doing compared with a few years ago, or even a year ago?
It varies. I letter about eight books a month or so. Sometimes it's filling in on books, because the guys working for me have too much work that week. Over my career it's varied in the amount of work I do. I've been as high as 30 books a month for a period--by hand. I also supervise the guys that work for me and also work with Marvel on workflow, etc. It is a full-time job. Throw in four issues of “Franklin” a year and it gets mighty busy.
Back to “Misery Loves Sherman,” what made you take this family situation comedy idea where it really is about the dynamics of these characters and then on top of it toss in two aliens?
I write very autobiographically. This strip is heavily based on my family growing up. I of course exaggerate, but Zort and Benny are really me later in life influencing my childhood self. Part of me is angry at the world and thinks if I could control it, it would be so much better, and the other part of me thinks I should relax, go with the flow, enjoy life, eat good food and be happy. But the other side never will let him. Sherman, Zort and Benny are parts of me fighting for control. Have I mentioned that I consider this strip my form of therapy?
Charlie Brown seems to be an influence on Sherman. Were you a big “Peanuts” fan?
Actually, Linus was my favorite growing up. He's the thoughtful one and things happened to him--mostly by his sister. And all of “Peanuts” was an influence on me my whole life.
The character of Fran being as she is, we're guessing you have an older sister?
A younger sister. She's grown into a wonderful person who is a loving and compassionate mother and wife, but as a kid, she would brutalize me.
You have a track record in comic books with “Desperate Times” and “Franklin Richards,” what made you tell this story and these ideas as a comics strip?
As I said before, this strip is therapy for me. Ask any of my friends and they'll tell you I am a severe pessimist. I always see the bad side of things and struggle with the world around me. With “Desperate Times” and “Sherman,” I get to work out those feelings in the strip. It helps me and I deal with my many issues and I feel better when I do it.
What specifically made you say this is a comics strip as opposed to a comic book. Was it just a question of seeking a broader audience?
First off, my first love is the comic strip. I've loved reading comic strips since I was a kid and always dreamed of doing one myself. Second, I did want to reach a wider audience. As great an audience comic book readers are, they tend not to buy into humor comics, but worldwide, people love to read comic strips. I also love writing for comic strips. It's really hard to write a joke and whittle away as much as you can to get to the heart of a joke and make it work. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but I love the challenge.
What made you turn to web publishing “Misery Loves Sherman?”
A few reasons. I've always wanted to do a daily comic strip in the newspapers, but the newspapers are dying out and there are fewer and fewer of them and the demand for new strips is dwindling as well. It's always been my dream to be in the paper, but after seeing folks like Scott Kurtz, Dave Kellet, and the “Penny Arcade” guys, I began to see the potential of the web. My work also doesn't directly appeal to the comic buyers market, and I needed to reach a more mainstream market and the web is very democratic that way.
You mentioned “Peanuts,” what were the strips you really enjoyed and enjoy today?
As a kid, my parents would help out my uncle at his remainder book warehouse, and there they would have these large metal bins for single books or odds and ends books. They were filled with comic strip collections--everything from “Peanuts” to “Beetle Bailey” to “Mad” magazine collections. I would sit in a bin all day reading the books and then take them home at night. I was so happy in those metal bins. That got me going on strips. I couldn't get enough. I grew up reading “Peanuts” and then “Garfield.” I would read all the strips I could, but those stood out. Then as I got older I discovered “Pogo” and couldn't believe how beautiful the drawings were--couldn't understand anything about the strip, but it was gorgeous. Then I got hit on the head with “Bloom County” and it all changed. I was reading a strip that I would buy the newspaper just to read it. I discovered “Krazy Kat” during that time and then came “Calvin and Hobbes,” which made the comics page fun again.
Why was it important for “Misery Loves Company” to be released daily during the work week?
I think a lot of people want to do a daily strip until the actual work of doing it daily is required. It's not easy to write and draw a strip and be funny and not take a break. As an amateur, you have the freedom to draw when inspiration hits, but when you have a deadline, it cuts the wheat from the chaff. Plus, after 18 years on a deadline, I don't know any other way.
Do you draw the strip by hand?
I have a spiral notebook I write and rewrite the strips in. I draw out the strips in non-photo blue pencil, letter with a rapidograph, ink with a brush, do the balloons with a quill pen, then scan them in. I've tried a few times to work directly on the computer. I know it's easier, cleaner and more forgiving, but I love the ink on my hands, the happy accidents and to hold the final product in my hand.
How does that compare to how you work on, say, “Franklin Richards?”
Totally different. To write “Franklin,” I come up with a premise and work from there. It doesn't need joke after joke and I can have fun with the visuals a bit. “Sherman” is all about the joke and the personalities. Right now I'm fleshing the characters out and learning who they are and how they react to things, so it's more cerebral while “Franklin” is more goofy fun. My earlier book, “Desperate Times,” was more a study in my pre-married days and what that was like. That was always done at night and on the weekends and squeezed in whenever I could. I was doing so much lettering work that it suffered because of it.
One of the things that seems to work well for cartoonists on the web is that the strip can be whatever size you want and it’s not shrunk down like on a newspaper page or even in a comic book. Does this affect how you approach the art?
A bit. I'm actually drawing the strip with the idea of it eventually seeing print. I also like the idea of clean, stark black and white strips that look graphically pleasing. So, not worrying what it would look like postage stamp size is nice, my concern is overall look.
Are there plans to collect “Misery Loves Sherman?”
There are. I'm reaching the point in November where I'll have enough for a collection. I've been talking to a couple publishers, but nothing is locked down yet. But even if all those don't pan out, I'll self-publish it. Looking at the success of some of the web cartoonists who self-publish, it might be a better way to go.
You seem to really enjoy using Twitter.
I enjoy connecting to friends and fans. I like just getting a thought out there or to let in a little light on my workday. There are a lot of comic book readers who like to hear how the sausage is made and I let them in from time to time. Also, if you're working like a maniac with your head down, it's nice to raise your head a bit and look around and realize the whole world doesn't revolve around lettering “Secret Invasion” or something.
Do you have an ending for “Misery Loves Sherman” in mind or are you just going to keep going as long as it’s fun?
No ending planned. I like these characters and I like writing and drawing them, so I'm going to keep going with it. I didn't start out this strip to make a lot of money, but as long as it pays for itself and I get something out of it, I'll keep going with it.