Norm Feuti Turns Retail Experience Into Comics Gold

Norm Feuti is living the dream of many people who spent years working a thankless job, dealing with rude customers, harassment by obnoxious bosses and being annoyed by co-workers. Since 2006, Feuti has been writing and illustrating he syndicated comic strip “Retail,” chronicling the adventures (and often misadventures) of the staff of a mall department store.

The strip has already led to a book, “Pretending You Care: The Retail Employee Handbook,” and Feuti also maintains two blogs, one for himself and one for his most irreverent character, Cooper. The strip manages to be both realistic and funny, and for the millions of people who have worked in retail, all too relatable.

Feuti was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk with CBR News about all things “Retail.”

CBR: You’ve been producing “Retail” for a couple of years now. Have you found something of a routine in putting the strips together and balancing work and life?

Norm Feuti: I have fallen into a comfortable pace, yes.  It's funny, when I first started, my editor at King Features told me it would get easier the longer I did it.  I didn't entirely believe him, but it's true.  The longer you do it, the more developed your characters become and the easier the pacing and writing gets.  Not to mention the artwork comes easier -- and better, hopefully.

Tell us about the process of putting the strips together.

I write a week’s worth of strips at a time.  I don't work with a sketchpad or anything, I just type out the dialog on my laptop.  When I'm done writing, I print the lettering out (I use a computer font I created out of my own handwriting), then cut the individual blurbs of dialog onto the drawing paper (Strathmore 300 series smooth bristol) and sketch the word balloons around them.  After the word balloons are in place, I sketch in the artwork.  When the pencil work is done, I ink over the pencil lines with a Kurtake brush pen.  I use a .50 Rapidograph pen for the panel borders.

Once the artwork is finished, I erase the excess pencil and scan them into Photoshop, where I add the lettering, halftone fill and color for the Sundays and internet version of the dailies.

I draw the dailies at 13"X4" and the Sundays are drawn at 18.75"x 8.5". 

I actually wrote and took photos of my process and posted them on my blog a while back.  If anyone is interested, they can visit www.normfeuti.com and take a peek.  It's in the archive under a post titled "Retail Start to Finish"

One of the challenges of a daily strip seems to be alternating between one-off strips with punch-lines and larger stories that take place over a couple days or weeks, each day of which usually has a punch-line. Do you find that to be true?

I try to pace it out fairly evenly.  Stories arcs can become tedious if they continue too long, so I try to wrap mine up within two or three weeks.  Then I'll use a week or two of one-offs to cleanse the palate, so to speak, before I start up a new story.  It seems to work for me.    

You use a lot of retail terms - SKU, shrink, etc. - which aren’t the most obscure words, but do you ever avoid using them because some readers might not know what they mean?

I try to let the writing do the work without overtly explaining what a term means.  For instance, I might have a character say, "Darn, this barcode won't scan.  I'd better look up the SKU number."  Even people who have never worked in retail understand through general experience that a barcode has numbers below it, so it's a short jump to figure out what I'm talking about when I say "SKU."  

Likewise, I might set up a joke by having a character say, "Shoplifting is getting out of control!  Our shrink percentage is through the roof!"  Again, there's enough information for someone unfamiliar with the term to figure out what I mean, but at the same time makes it seem more real and grounded to retail workers who use the term all the time.

You have two blogs, one which is yours and then another is in the voice of the character Cooper. What do you enjoy about blogging?

I like the connection with the fans.  Being able to share and have fun with them in an immediate and intimate way helps to keep them engaged.  Blogging is also another great way to keep them informed on any new projects I'm doing or events I'm involved in.  Not to mention it reassures me that there are real live people out there reading and enjoying the strip.  I imagine that doing a newspaper strip in the pre-internet era was a lonely experience for a starting cartoonist.

Do you enjoy Cooper's voice? Is he easy to write for?

Cooper is the most fun to write for, which also makes him the easiest.  He says exactly what's on his mind, so writing for him is instinctive and very cathartic.

One would imagine Stuart is also a lot of fun to write, if only because you can get back at your old bosses?

True.  Mostly he serves as a foil for the other characters, or the set-up for a joke.  Revenge is sweet.

Cooper is the character that really stands out, but it seems like Marla is the point-of-view character of the strip. She sees all the absurdity and unfairness but is still trying to rise against it. Is that fair?

Absolutely.  Marla is a fairly close reflection of my own experience working in retail management.  She's so frustrated by the absurdities, but is trying to make it work.  Cooper, on the other hand, stands out because he's easier to identify with.  He so obviously doesn't care about the job he feels temporarily trapped in.  I think that's how most retail employees feel.  They're just biding their time until they finish school, or figure out what they really want to do, or a better opportunity comes along, or whatever.

You've also written a book, "Pretending You Care: The Retail Employee Handbook," which is perhaps one of the most insightful titles ever. Was this something you proposed or were you approached about it?

Hyperion approached King Features about the book.  They read an article about the strip in the New York Times and wanted me to do a funny retail book.  The first idea I had was to format it like a parody guidebook and they loved the idea.  Originally, the title of the book was simply "The Retail Employee Handbook", but an editor at Hyperion had the idea to take part of one of my chapter titles — “Faux Empathy: Pretending You Care -- to use instead.  It was a stroke of brilliance I think.  A much catchier title.

Have you gotten much response from people about the book?

I've gotten a ton of responses from grateful retail workers.  I'm truly flattered by the praise the book has received.

In the book, I included a tongue-in-cheek questionnaire called the "Retail Personality Test" that you can actually take by visiting my website at www.normfeuti.com.  I've been getting responses to it daily since the book was released last year.

You just completed a recent story focused on Cooper, who, like most young people who work retail, is uninsured. He was rushed to the hospital and faced with a massive hospital bill. Was the timing coincidental, happening around the political conventions in the United States?

Of course I'm cognizant of it being an election year, but I didn't plan it specifically to run around the conventions, it just turned into convenient timing.  The whole story was actually inspired by someone who left, what I consider to be, an ignorant comment on my blog.  The commentator said "healthcare isn't a right, and people should save up for their own healthcare and stop stealing it from their employers."  I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it.  It inspired me to use the strip to show a realistic picture of what happens to someone who has a medical emergency with no insurance.

I really see a disturbing lack of empathy in this country sometimes.  We can't all be college grads with cushy office jobs that pay benefits and have a retirement plan.  Somebody has to run the cash registers, or serve you your food, or sweep the floors.  In my experience, those people work a lot harder than the average cubicle drones do and they do it for a lot less.  Even the college grads have to start somewhere.  Nobody deserves financial ruin due to some medical bad luck.  It's in everyone's best interest to make health care affordable. 

The story got a very positive response.  

You made sure to mention the important fact that people without insurance are charged more for procedures than people with insurance, and you managed to tell the story in a way that felt like part of the strip, it didn't have some tacked on "special episode" feel because it really was about the characters.

Yeah, I was surprised to find that out myself when I did the research for the story.  Even if you have insurance, the rate you get for a procedure depends on who your carrier is.  It's a horribly inefficient system.  And with a big government bailout of Wall Street coming, I doubt if health care will get the attention it deserves.  

One thing many people love about the strip is that the strip isn't always realistic but it feels true to the experience of working in retail. What’s your retail background?

I lived retail for 15 years, so I know the life well enough to make it seem real.  But I try not to forget that it's a comic strip and use that license to bend reality a little bit.  If I made it too real, it would be depressing.

How do you make it funny while still making it real?

I guess the best example I could give are the strips that deal with unreasonable customers or when the staff deals with Stuart.  I always make the characters say what we would all want to say in that situation, but never could.  In a real life retail setting, you can't talk back to the customers or your boss -- you just have to suck it up.  But if I depicted the characters constantly getting dumped on without at least the justice of a pithy comeback, it would be a real downer.

Do you having any closing advice for the disgruntled retail workers of America to help get through their shift.

Yes.  Read “Retail” every day. Also be sure to read my book, “Pretending You Care: The Retail Employee Handbook.”

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