Talking Comics with Tim | Sam Henderson on 'Magic Whistle'

In early August, in the wake of Mike Dawson's conversation-starting essay, Magic Whistle creator Sam Henderson assessed the mitigating factors affecting his work as a cartoonist, laid many of the challenges at his own feet. As refreshing as it was to read a candid assessment of his creative plight, I was curious to learn Henderson's mindset after people he responded to his post. While I was at it, of course, I angled to get a glimpse of his creative process.

Tim O'Shea: In your recent essay you admit, "I’ve talked to people about representing me, but they want either a recurring character or a good track record. For what I do, I’M the recurring character." How frustrating is it to make people understand you can be marketable without a recurring character? Also, I'm surprised you aren't regarded as a creator with a track record.

Sam Henderson: Like I said in that piece, self-promotion (or lack thereof) is what's been holding me back; it's the part I hate more than anything. Talking to people at conventions I love, but only when they come to me. I give comps to other cartoonists I don't know well and walk away like in a cartoon when someone hands a bomb about to explode, and hope they don't throw it away. The part I hate is talking about myself unsolicited. I'm fearless in front of an audience but scared shitless talking to people one-on-one. Other people seem to pull off self-promotion well, it just seems glib and desperate when I do it.

Brett Warnock at Top Shelf had the idea of publishing Scene But Not Heard about 15 years ago but they didn't have the resources, and said I could shop it around anywhere else. I talked to a few publishers and they won't deal with a collection of previously published work or something that's not a full length story. Once Top Shelf was able to print it, Nickelodeon Magazine where the strips were originally published was canceled so it had to go on my name alone, which wasn't enough for a 128-page full-color hardcover. We were gonna use Kickstarter, which goes back to the unctuous quality I mentioned, so I'm thankful Marc Arsenault swooped in at the last moment announcing this was one of the books he would use to revive Alternative Comics.

I'm told 800 copies isn't completely bad in the book trade. Most books only sell about a hundred or so copies and get remaindered or pulped. It's one out of 10 books that makes any money, a politician's memoirs or something that'll be a movie, that sells in the hundreds of thousands and makes any money for a publisher.

I tried issues of Magic Whistle as books but it wasn't quite the right format for things that are single gags or just a few pages, unless it's a collection of previously published work. It also didn't help that the books have strips I'm now embarrassed by. I actually went a year without drawing because I had a girlfriend that wanted co-credit for things I did. If anyone's first look at my work was when I went back to the drawing board (literally) and was still bitter about things, it wouldn't give a good impression.

Licensed work is where I've made most of my money, but it's anonymous. As far as a track record, I'd still get higher prestige work if I still lived in Los Angeles. I was there for six years and eventually I couldn't handle it because I can't drive. Not just don't have a license, but legally can't get one. There are subways but they only go to certain parts of the city. I couldn't get around without being driven around. Without a car, you just lose credibility there. You lose credibility anywhere having a handicap that's not immediately visible. What you've done previously is almost meaningless unless you're doing it currently. When I do guest lectures, I almost never mention having worked on SpongeBob, because it ends up being all people ever want to talk about and people have questions I can't answer.

I know Magic Whistle is published by Alternative Comics, but would that deal prevent you from trying to go the digital route (as well)?

Alternative has a deal with comiXology putting out all of my issues as I do them, as well as most of my back stock, in a digital format. I don't plan to do things directly to digital until there's money to be made. I have the one-panel cartoons I put on my web page and various social networks before they see print, but they don't quite have the audience they could because, going again back again to what I said before, I hate doing self-promotion. It took me a while to realize having fifteen hundred followers on a social network doesn't mean every one of them sees everything you do.

I grew up when having a computer was a luxury and not a necessity, barely anyone I knew had one in college except for maybe a TSR-80. I'm quick to adapt in learning how to use new technology, just behind in getting it. I didn't have a scanner until 2002. I'm typing this on a laptop I've had since 2007. I still only have pre-Obama electronics like a flip phone.

I am curious, you sell your art from Magic Whistle: How much does it pain you to sell your art, or do you not have any sentimental attachment to your art?

It accumulates pretty fast. Many of the one-panel gags, I've been doing specifically to be sold as originals. For people to say, “There's a cat in it. I happen to have a friend who has a cat, so I should get them this cartoon.” For a long time, people were using things like Etsy, which I didn't want to do because I would have to give them money up front and could only sell for a limited time before paying further fees. There's something called Comic Art Collective, which doesn't seem to have the traffic it once did. I sold stuff through them and also through my Facebook page. It's too early to tell with the Store Envy store yet because I haven't done as much of the promotion I hate so much, but I know people are more apt to buy things with the click of a button than they would having to e-mail you.

You may not agree, but I think it took guts to discuss your depression. How hard was it to write about? By voicing it, did you realize you might actually help others who struggle with depression?

For me, it's like saying, “You're brave for revealing you have a broken leg." The brain is an organ like any other part of the body. It was actually a relief to find out; it explains a lot. Why I've been down on myself. Why I've dropped the ball on a lot of projects. Why most of my output in my 30s showed I just didn't care. Almost everyone that knows me has had front row seats to my having seizures for years, and now there's a connection. That said, depression's not something I should use as a crutch. I'm still the same person, despite continuing to wear a mask I've worn most of my life. Nobody needs to treat me any differently than before or talk to me differently than they would anyone else. There are people who have it much worse professionally and personally. I'm not the right spokesperson.

It's not like people need to fear leaving me alone with sharp objects. I don't wake up screaming. I just sometimes wonder if my presence is needed. Depression is not quite the same as sadness. Some days I lie in bed three hours before I get up. It mostly manifests itself in the form of seizures, which are much less frequent now that I'm taking medicine that wasn't invented when I first started having them.

In terms of expanding an audience, do you think the strips for Vice help get your work in front of a potential new audience?

Maybe for a new generation. I've always been in anthologies. My own solo comic isn't how most people know of me. When people say they're big fans of my work and they're not just being superficial, it's because they've seen it somewhere else. When New York had a free weekly I was in that every week, that's where most people saw my stuff. There aren't as many paying outlets as there were twenty years ago, especially when you want to make a living with cartooning and not just do it as a hobby.

Are you glad that you wrote the essay due to the response it has generated? Have you gotten any feedback that has been helpful to you?

I'm surprised it got as many hits on my webpage as it did. I just saw what Mike Dawson had written and it got me to thinking about my own place in the world of comics. I haven't spoken to him about it but I'm sure he feels the same about wanting people to see the work rather than what either of us has to say about ourselves. There's that saying about how dissecting a frog just kills the frog. I suppose the desire we all have to look at an accident had a lot to do with it. I haven't heard much about it helping anyone or how they can relate to it, but if it did yay for me.

How often are you inspired by current events for a Magic Whistle topic, such as this one?

I'm usually a week or two ahead and draw whatever pops in my head, but something really topical will bump something off for later. I've been doing “The First [...]” as a running gag for a couple years, a caveman doing something that's just been invented with the resources they had then. The anachronistic cavemen concept is nothing new. With this particular one, the story of celebrities' phones was in the news that day and something fitting that premise came to mind.

Typically does a Magic Whistle strip go through a great deal of revision before you consider it done?

I do revisions in that I'll continue to tinker with something until it's taken away from me. After print, something always has flaws that only I see. Often when I do something cleaner it's not as good as when I first drew it spontaneously. Nothing I do looks labored on, but I often will do something over and over to duplicate that. I've never striven for accuracy or perfection, though. Only legibility. You can say I can't draw a chair or it doesn't look like one or I could do better, but you can't say you can't tell what it is.

I took a class with Harvey Kurtzman in college and one thing I learned from him is the technique of layering, adding more detail to sketches as you go along, until eventually something is finished. The single cartoons I sometimes just do directly in ink, this is something I'll do with multi-panel or multi-page strips. It's a different process depending on the format.

Computers have made me lazier. I don't draw panel borders onto the paper anymore. Sometimes a strip in the Magic Whistle comic book isn't actually done with everything on one page like you see in the book. Sometimes a penciled image when darkened looks like it's been inked. I have templates for different kinds of shading. Sometimes instead of whiting something out I'll just erase it in Photoshop. One thing I won't use is a computer-lettering font. It works for some styles, just not mine.

I am curious when I see you curate posts like this, examining comics from 1969, would you say certain humorists from the 1960s/1970s influence your sense of humor?

I've always been a pack rat, not as much now that most things are free and/or digital. Old magazines just get smelly and fall apart. What I have has just been sitting there shared with nobody, so I'll try to share things that aren't kept in print. It's not necessarily public domain material, just material where the original owner is hard to determine. A blog is best for that format, the cyber-equivalent to using something in a lecture.

I've always been into magazines like Mad and National Lampoon, underground comics, and books inspired by them. I dabbled in Marvel/DC fare in high-school but came back to humor. I don't know if that era was the best time for cartooning or I'm drawn to things that came out around the time because it was when I was born. I've always preferred humor.

B. Kliban in particular has been a big influence, a pioneer in doing one-panel cartoons in the format of a multi-panel story. I don't think there were any single-panel cartoons with narration captions until he came along.

Anything we should discuss that I neglected to ask about?

Everything and nothing. I'm up to my fifteenth issue of Magic Whistle doing it as I started. I update magicwhistle.com fairly regularly. Whether people like it or not, that's beyond my control. It is knowing it's there that's the most important.

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