The comic strip "Non Sequitur" is a stand out strip in your newspaper's comics page. Not just because it's consistently funny and entertaining, which it certainly is, but also because its author, Wiley Miller, has managed to create a strip that plays to his considerable talents as a writer and artist. The strip veers from topical humor to an ironic view of gender differences, from dinosaurs contemplating how little the world has changed to the adventures of a girl and her horse. It's a unique blend of sensibilities and is held together perfectly by Miller's trademark wit and artistic skill.
This year, Miller has also branched out into children's books, producing two volumes of the "Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil," the first volume an expanded and improved version of the story he serialized on Sundays last year, and the second an all new adventure written and heavily illustrated by Miller. Basil's new adventure is currently running on Sundays.
CBR News sat down with Miller to discuss his work.
Wiley, thanks for joining us today. To begin with, have you always wanted to be a cartoonist?
Short answer: yes.
That answers that! Now, many people may not be aware that "Non Sequitur" is actually your second comic strip. You had a syndicated comic in the early-to-mid eighties called "Fenton." Tell us a bit about that strip and what you learned from it.
You mostly learn exactly what if takes to produce a daily comic strip and how the business works. Since I had already worked as an editorial cartoonist, where my work was syndicated, as well as being a lone staff artist for newspapers, I had a bit more of a leg up on dealing with the incessant nature of the deadlines for a comic strip. But there's no substitute for experience. No matter how long you've worked as a professional in another field of cartooning, nothing prepares you for the enormous workload you have to produce on a consistent basis, without end in a comic strip.
Where did the idea for Non Sequitur come from?
That's classified and on a strict need to know basis.
I think we'll have to get into that in a follow-up interview sometime then! Was it hard to sell the syndicate on a strip without characters or themes, just focusing entirely on the funny?
At the time, yes. I created this during a severe recession when all newspapers were making drastic cutbacks. The newspapers that were still in business, that is. As a result, all the syndicates were playing it close to the vest. Instead of looking for something different and creative, they were only looking at stuff that was familiar, thinking that would be easier to sell to editors.
They all said the same thing - "we love the art, we love the humor, but we'd like to see it with a central character." They figured having a central character would give them a single image that would make it easier to sell. They, of course, were wrong.
There was only one syndicate that was actively looking for something different at the time - the Washington Post Writers Group. Alan Shearer had been in charge there for about year at the time and wanted to make sure that his first selection for a new comic strip was going to make a splash. And it did. "Non Sequitur" out sold everything during that bad economic time. And did it with a syndicate that had no sales force like the other big syndicates.
The flip side of that is later you started creating recurring characters and telling serialized stories on Sundays. Were they okay with that?
At first, no. My editors at WPWG were afraid that newspaper editors were going to get mad that the material was different from the one panel gag material that the strip had been sold on. But I explained to them that the entire purpose of the strip, its very foundation, was that it was to break down barriers that hemmed in other comics and limited creativity, only to end in burnout. Since it was my strip, I just pushed ahead with it anyway. The reader response did the rest.
It's been running for more than 15 years now. Do you ever fear running out of ideas or burning out or tiring of the grind just making the strip?
This was very much on mind in creating the feature. I wanted it be completely open-ended so that I could strike out in any direction creativity takes me. If I feel a struggle in one area or feel like I'm being pulled in a different direction, I just go with the flow of creativity. It's like being able to create a whole new comic strip over and over again, which prevents burnout.
You've been instrumental in changing how Sunday comics are colored and I was hoping you could talk about why you pushed that and what the difference is for you, as a creator, but also a reader?
I absolutely hated how Sunday comics were colored, in that old manner of spot color. Newspapers have been using process color for photography and other art throughout the newspaper business since the mid-'70s, when I began as a staff artist for the Greensboro Daily News in North Carolina. I had been using process color for years and I could never understand why it wasn't used in the most logical place, the Sunday color comics. So in 1995 I pursued it in the simplest manner - I asked. Much to my surprise no one had ever even asked about using it, so it never changed. So along with the late Tim Rosenthal at American Color, we set out to change the look of the Sunday comics. You can read about it in more detail in my book, "The Non Sequitur Sunday Color Treasury."
So why Maine? It's gorgeous and there are seasons and of course there's great food, but really, what made you move from Santa Barbara to the Maine coast?
I think you just answered the question for me.
Ha, I guess I did! How do you think the move to Maine has affected your work or your outlook?
The quiet serenity here along with the dramatic changes of the seasons is very conducive for the creative process. At least it is for me.
Danae and Kate happen to be the names of your daughters and I'm wondering how much of them are in the characters and is Kate annoyed that her sister is the star and gets a horse?
You're assuming our daughters ever read the strip! Most kids don't really give a rat's patootie what their parents do for a living and cartoonists are no different.
Danae and Lucy are two of a very small number of major female comic characters and as a cartoonist, a father and, well, a guy, I'm wondering why you think there have been so few?
I guess because the vast majority of cartoonists have always been male. I never liked it when male cartoonists did cartoons that were supposed to be coming from a female perspective. But that's not what I'm doing here. It's coming from a kid's perspective and I thought it was long past due to have a girl with an "attitude," which had always been the domain of boy in the comics. And our daughters were the perfect examples for me.
There are so many elements in the story - living in a lighthouse, dinosaurs, cities in the clouds, dirigibles - lifted from this feverish pulpish imagination, was it a lot of fun to write?
It really was a lot of fun, although a lot more work. This is another example of my taking the strip in another direction.
Why did you come back to the story and write it as a heavily illustrated prose story for children of all ages? And what was it like writing prose and not being bound by the space constraints of the panel?
I love to experiment with the art form and go where no else has gone. Not in the past 50 years, anyway. I decided that I wanted to do a story line as a narrative, as though I was writing a book. I had absolutely no intention of it becoming a book when I started it, as I had no idea where the story was going to go when it began. It was like a tight-rope act, writing without a net. Besides, it's a lot more fun doing something unexpected and out of the ordinary comics fare.
Why write a sequel and what are Volcano Monkeys anyway?
You mean other than signing a two book deal with Scholastic? [laughs]
I really love this process of doing a book, as it has a beginning, middle and, most importantly, an end. And I have so much more room, literally, for creativity in doing a book as opposed to the limited space of a comic strip. The second book is done exclusively as a book and will not appear in the newspaper, as the story is too complex and the art too detailed for the limitations of weekly episodes in the Sunday comics. But Basil will return in September in a new adventure in the Sunday editions.