Talking Comics with Tim | Caanan Grall

Longtime readers of Robot 6 know there is much love among the gang for Max Overacts, the popular Eisner-nominated webcomic by Caanan Grall. The webcomic came off of a brief hiatus in June 2011. Here's the basic premise of Max Overacts: "The strip is about Max’s unbridled optimism, and his quest to be the next greatest thespian. He wears his heart on his sleeve for his self-proclaimed leading lady, Janet, and lords his ‘planned’ status over his ‘accidental’ older sister, Andromeda. His best friend is Klaus, when his ventriloquist doll, Curio, isn’t around." In addition to discussing the strip, we also talk about his recent Muppet Thor mashup.

Tim O'Shea: How much of an effort was it to design the relatively large cast of Max Overacts? How long was it in the development stage before you found Max's voice?

Caanan Grall: Most of the characters were pretty easy to figure out. I tried tons of different looks for Max, but inevitably ended up back at the very first one I sketched. The funny thing is, when you make up characters, and the name and character traits come first, it's almost instinctual that the first design you do is the right one. Max's parents probably went through the most changes, because at first, the characters weren't defined enough. They began life on the sketchbook page as the standard harried parents, always struggling to stay one step ahead of the bank, and two steps ahead of their kids. Now, they're still like that, but they're fine with it. They're not rich, but they're happy, positive people.

Also, having a large cast is essential for long running strips, I think. Using one or two characters over and over, unless they're the best characters ever, might get a little repetitive. More characters means more different types of stories too, especially if you want to stay true to your characters. Just, for example, if I wanted to do a strip about the ridiculousness of the iPad, I can't do it with Max, or his middle class family that would never buy one, but I can do it with Janet.

O'Shea: Were there any characters that were the hardest to garner their look or voice?

Grall: They all had their hard parts. Klaus, I think, is still finding his voice because he hasn't had many funny lines, but I know he's funny, just because of the character I gave him in my background stuff. Apart from the "Pie-rat" gag, we haven't seen much of that yet. Some characters required looking to celebrities to help define their looks. For Janet, I envisioned a young Janet Leigh, Sir Allan is kinda modeled after General Zod in Superman II, in demeanor as well as looks. Max's dad went through the shlubby type of look before I just went 'To hell with it. Max's dad is Captain America. Bam!'

O'Shea: Recently you wrote "I’m in a concerted effort to flesh out the rest of the cast for a little while. I started right out of the gate with Max, who is an overpowering character, and feel like Klaus, his dad, and a few others, haven’t had much development apart from reacting to Max. So, while Max is still the ‘main attraction’ we’ll probably start to see that spotlight stray a little." Care to tease where the spotlight may stray next character wise?

Grall: Well, the plan, if I can ever get a book happening, is to pepper a series of about a dozen strips throughout each collection called the Andromeda Strain, which would focus on Max's sister. Sometimes giving her side of a strip we've seen already, and others just delving completely in to her life. She's a fairly autonomous figure in the strip, always out, coming and going, so some of the strips would focus on her at school, in her band, at work, with her endless stream of boyfriends, etc. But, in the main strip itself on the site, the next longer form story I'm plotting out puts the focus on Janet's home life as we head to Casa de Everley for her ninth birthday party. We'll meet her parents, and spend a little more time with her brothers, James, Jacob and the as-yet-unseen Jeremy, who is an absolute monster. After that we'll be spending more time with dad and Klaus.

O'Shea: What was the thinking in terms of making Max's quest to be a great thespian (as opposed to a great skateboarder or some other kid pursuits [for comedic fodder])?

Grall: Max becomes a combination of two things here, I guess. A voice for a lot of my in-head rants that I always think but never say, yet Max totally can (like the strip where the blind man bumps into him) and a force of sheer imagination. I don't want Max to be crazy about movies, watching them, regurgitating them, and having a lot of parody in the strip (if only because you're alienating anyone who hasn't seen what you're parodying, as well as dating the strip horribly), so it's got to be the opposite. If he had a video camera, he'd be making movies everywhere, but he doesn't, so he writes plays, and is very interested in immediate reaction from performing directly in front of people.

O'Shea: When introducing a quirky character like Curio are there certain parameters set to avoid being too absurd for the sake of comedy (or in comedy is there no such state as "too absurd")?

Grall: I try and keep the parameters of Max's world as real as possible, so I guess there is an absurdity level I can't rise to, sure. But, speaking of absurdity, Curio is by far the most absurd element of the strip. I also don't really see him as a character. Curio is just Max.

Allow me to diverge here a little, and address the constant comparison I get to Calvin and Hobbes, because... have you ever really looked hard at that strip? I know Watterson said he'd never make licensed Hobbes stuffed tigers because he didn't want to shatter the illusion, but there really isn't one to shatter. We see Hobbes as a stuffed toy all the time, which means he is a complete construct of Calvin's imagination. But... think about that. Seriously. Calvin is his own worst enemy. The amount of bickering and fighting he gets in to with Hobbes is all, essentially, himself fighting himself. I'm reminded of an episode of Red Dwarf where the crew go into a reality game where they get all their hearts desires, but Rimmer's own subconscious can't ever let him be happy. It's just like Calvin! Sabotaging himself at every corner. Does that mean Arnold Rimmer is essentially a grown-up Calvin? NO! But it's kinda the same thing.

That makes me sound like I'm some kind of imagination hater, but it's so not true. I just don't want Max to sit in that camp, really. Everything we see between Max and Curio is just Max entertaining himself. Rehearsing his routine, and getting a feel for what's funny. His conflict with Curio is all rehearsal. Keeping up on his ventriloquist skills, etc. Maybe that might shatter some illusions for some, but that's really how he's written. Curio only has the character Max gives him, just like any ventriloquist would give their "figures".

O'Shea: You seem to have a strong and faithful following of commenters at your website. How helpful is it to be a creator with such vocal supporters?

Grall: I love comments. Creating comics is a vacuum, so it's always good to know I'm reaching people. I get emails too sometimes, which is great. As much as I'd love to say I do this for myself, it's not true. Yes, it's a part of it, but I want to do this for a living too, and you're not gonna get there without an audience.

O'Shea: As a creator who once bragged about working "spitting in cereal" into Celadore, I'm curious if there are certain off-the-wall moments in Max Overacts that you are most pleased with creating?

Grall: They're quite different beasts, so there's nothing I can equate to that moment in Max. With Max it's all about the comedy, but Celadore was an adventure story with funny bits in it. So, when I could slip normal kid things in like Eve spitting in Sam's cereal, amongst shots of Eve trailing a celebrity nymph from an alternate reality, and a shapeshifting scoundrel, the juxtaposition makes those downtime moments funnier. To me, anyway. I could be wrong. In Max, anything goes, comedy-wise. I'm more proud of the exercises I pull off, such as making a Star Wars-themed sequel to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and condensing Pinocchio - a pretty long and convoluted book - in to a 20 panel comic.

O'Shea: Has Muppet Thor helped add to your reading audience? Were you surprised at how strong the response was for Muppet Thor?

Grall: What happened with Muppet Thor was insane! I got letters from my host telling me to take it down because it was jamming their servers. Which seems like a bizarre form of punishment from my "unlimited" host just for being good at my job. I have no desire to comply at all. As a webcomicker, it's hard to get free publicity and views like that! Why should I take it down? Anyway, I'm not sure how accurate my statcounter is, but it would seem quite a lot of people hung around for Max. I don't see why not, though. If you like the Muppets, you should like Max. I try and put that optimistic, earnest spirit of the Muppets in to most things I do. Plus, just like the Muppet Show took place behind the scenes of a stage company, there's plenty of that in Max too!

O'Shea: How good does it feel to be taking part in Team Cul de Sac. In a post from March, you acknowledge that "Part of Max Overacts is inspired by Cul de Sac, and its ability to throw a one liner into not just the final panel, but EVERY panel if Mr Thompson feels like it (which he often does)" When did you realize that you wanted to create comics in the same comedic vein as Cul de Sac?

Grall: It's excellent to be a part of Team Cul De Sac. I love the stranger-than-fiction frontiers of science, so to support stem cell research into Parkinsons by selling artwork through this initiative is something I couldn't say no to. That, and being a part of something that involves both Mr Thompson - a true cartooning genius - and by extension Michael J Fox through his Fox foundation - an actor I've enjoyed endlessly in my most-watched movie, Back to the Future - is also exciting. When Richard Thompson actually left a note of thanks on my blog, I nearly lost my head. You should ALL be reading Cul de Sac!

As for it influencing Max, it's really just a matter of timing. I mean, I've always wanted to do a comic strip. I first submitted an idea to King Features way back in 98, and tried a few times since, but never made it. Max Overacts was something I came up with in 2006, and was originally just going to be a short story, or kids book, but I never got around to fleshing it out past three or four pages. After Celadore was done, I wanted to get back to trying my hand at a gag strip, so I was looking through my old notebooks to see what I could develop, and Max jumped out at me. At the time, I'd just discovered the first collection of Cul de Sac, and was reminded of the wonderful elasticity of the comic strip format when done right, so I set about adding characters and making it in to a strip with legs. A strip with no set-up/punchline, but just ambling funny stories. Much like the tone Cul de Sac strikes.

Bettie Page: Unbound #3

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