Cartoonist Shannon Wheeler made a name for himself after years of penning the misadventures of not-quite-superhero Too Much Coffee Man, one of the most oddest, funniest and occasionally heartbreaking alternative comic strips of the 1990s . After a long run on the overly-caffeinated, existentially tormented hero in the long red pajamas that includes hundreds of strips, a number of collections and a two act opera, Wheeler has moved on to greener cartooning pastures, providing cartoons to the hallowed halls of The New Yorker. This month sees the release of The Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus by Dark Horse Comics, representing the sum total of Wheeler’s work on the strip. I got a chance to talk with him briefly about opera, television, beginnings, endings and the travails of life on the college paper.
Ian Chant: The Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus comes out later this month, collecting all Too Much Coffee Man comics, from anyplace ever. Anytime I see any omnibus of anything come out, I can’t help but think about something Bill Watterson wrote in the foreword to the big Calvin and Hobbes collection that came out, to the effect of how weird it is to see the length and breadth of a series in a box essentially. Is there something jarring about that?
Shannon Wheeler: There is, I think that’s what causing me some of the mental problems in dealing with it. I mean, just looking at this thing and just going ‘Well, I put ten years of effort and sacrifice to make this.’ Was it really worth it is what you really have to face up against. And of course there’s no answer, and you alternate between feeling a lot of pride and a lot of shame, and ultimately you get to ‘Well, this is what it is and this is what I’ve done’ and you move forward. But it’s a lot of emotions to deal with, definitely.
IC: To you, is Too Much Coffee Man a comic strip, or a weird superhero story, or something else altogether?
SW: I don’t know. I thought it was going to be something that would last one strip. I thought this would be one gag, and I did it sort of as a play. It was just a one off. And then I turned in some ads for a book store, and I thought ‘I can do a comic strip that’s an advertisement.’ So I did a little ad for them, and then I was like, oh, I’ll just do another one, and I’ll do a second issue of the mini comic, and I just kept coming up with stories that seemed to suit the way I thought about things. It became a lot more personal than I thought it would be, too, and it became very autobiographical in an sort of an existential way. A lot of my stuff was always autobiographical, but emotionally I found I could express these thoughts and fears, and it was just so efficient and convenient I just kept having ideas, and I thought ‘If this is my inspiration, why fight it, why do something more artsy… if what I want to do is write Too Much Coffee Man stories. I don’t know, it made me happy.
What to do when the team of kind of goofy but extremely fun cosmic heroes you’ve assembled over the past three years and three epic mini-series just gets too big to handle? That was the dilemma that face Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning recently, when their misfit defenders of the cosmos, the Guardians of the Galaxy, got simply too big to handle. Faced with a burgeoning supergroup consisting of cosmic characters the two had retrieved from the dustbin of history (Rocket Raccoon, Gamora, Groot and Major Victory) whose membership soon reached the double digits, Abnett and Lanning managed to fudge for a little while by splitting the teams. There were field and support teams, groups who got thrown through time, and others who stayed around. But by the end of the recent War of Kings storyline, it became clear that something had to give. And the authors who brought so many of these characters back to modern popularity took a cue from Metallica to solve their problem in the latest issue, deciding to Kill ’em all.
Handily, one of their team members, Adam Warlock, also happened to be, or at least have the potential to be, the Magus, one of Marvel’s most underrated and powerful cosmic threats. Follow up one great act of self sacrifice with a turn to the dark side and you’ve got just the deus ex machina you need to thin out the herd.
In just one battle, Abnett and Lanning trim the fat from their defenders of space time, eliminating significant swaths of the team. Let’s take a quick peek at the demographic analysis of who went down in the latest issue, shall we?
- 50% of the Members With Green Skin (Gamora, Mantis, leaving Drax and Bug)
- 50% of Lesbians (Phyla Vell, leaving Moondragon)
- 50% of Talking Animals (Cosmo, leaving Rocket Raccoon)
- 50% of Guys Who Don’t Belong Here (Major Victory, leaving Jack Flag)
- 100% of Mentally Unbalanced Women With Large Swords (Gamora, Phyla Vell)
- and 100% of Awkward, Cosmic Powered Magicians (Warlock/Magus)
This leaves a smaller, drastically de-powered team going into the pair’s upcoming cosmic epic, Realm of Kings, though if history is any indication, the Guardians will leave their Now Hiring sign up for the time being. But having lost most of their psychics, a former Quasar/Captain Marvel, the Deadliest Woman in the Universe, and a cosmic level threat, it will be interesting to see what role the Guardians of the Galaxy play in the upcoming series.
Just one thing rang false as the bodies hit the floor in this issue, and that’s just how easy it was to kill Magus. I usually find it pretty hard to pick a bone with Abnett and Lanning, whose ongoing resurrection of the cosmic Marvel universe is on par with the Jim Starlin classics and stands it’s own against the more heavily hyped Corps Wars of the Distinguished Competition – more on that later. But we’re talking about a guy who, the second he exists again, begins the process of rewriting reality itself. And Starlord just guns him down like it’s a gangland execution? Really?
Like I’m sure most of you, I have a pretty boring job. It’s not that I don’t like it or anything – I work with cool people, and sometimes I even get to do fun stuff like write and get paid for it. Most days, I would characterize myself as someone who is reasonably satisfied with his current position in the workforce.
And then there are days like today, which I will mostly spend stuffing envelopes. This is, needless to say, not exactly my recipe for spiritual fulfillment in a career. But that is why God gave us webcomics. The odds are good that I’ll spend most of my Friday reading a lot of webcomics, covertly opening new tabs that can transform, as if by magic, into my e-mail or an online calendar at the drop of a hat, should the need arise.
For the most part, I’ll probably get through on comics like Overcompensating and A Softer World – frequently updated, strip style comics that demonstrate what the real estate above the crossword puzzle in your newspaper would look like if the Lifestyles editor had a better sense of humor and a steady supply of peyote. Other things in this vein that will be occupying time that could probably be better spent include the unchanging but ever fresh awesomeness of Dinosaur Comics, the subversive clip art of strips like Wondermark and Married to the Sea, the often hilarious but sometimes just confusing Pictures for Sad Children, and xkcd, which is written by a real life rocket scientist, which means you will occasionally have to look something up to get the joke, but you will generally be glad you did. And remember – not everything worth reading is still updating regularly, but lots of it remains available online. Just the archives of Perry Bible Fellowship, A Lesson Is Learned, But The Damage Is Irreversible and the once again updating (HOORAY!) Copper can provide entertainment for plenty of coffee breaks.
For those of you looking for more than just a brief respite from the doldrums of the day job, there are plenty of ongoing books that you can really sink your teeth into. 8 Bit Theater was among the first webcomics I ever read, and almost 1200 installments later it is still going strong. I’m a later but no less enthusiastic adopter of The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, about a doctor who is also a ninja…or a ninja who is also a doctor. Admittedly, that is something of a fine distinction, but an important one.
And then there are the couple of books that really rise above and distinguish themselves and the medium. Do yourself a favor and start from the beginning of Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield’s post apocalyptic sci-fi epic Freak Angels. And then read the beautiful, charming and whimsical story of The Abominable Charles Christopher, a gorgeous black and white series featuring talking animals and a Buster Keaton-esque yeti, which is equal parts Watership Down and Judd Apatow movie. It’s probably the best ongoing story going on the web right now. Why no one has picked this up for a collection is absolutely beyond me.
But enough about me. What are you folks really reading while you pretend to fill out spreadsheets and analyze sales data all day?
Hey, High Fivers! Meet Ian Chant, our newest contributor. Ian comes to us from the great Northwest via a buddy in New York. To see more of Ian’s work, check out popmatters.
Image dipped it’s toe in the anthology horror pool this week, getting very much in the Kool-Aid of Dark Horse and other publishers more closely identified with old school horror comics with it’s release of hit and miss horror web comic Nightmare World.
While Dark Horse is looking to the past, re-releasing collections of the totally underrated Creepy, while also re-launching the title with contemporary horror heads at the helm, Image is taking a bet that genre horror still has a little terrible, disturbing unlife pulsing through it’s corrupt veins. But in placing their bets on Nightmare World, they’re hedging pretty mightily – Dirk Manning’s webcomic takes it’s cues from a number of sources, including classic anthology horror like The Twilight Zone and EC’s masterful pre-code horror work, but it is unmistakably a piece of vast and ever growing Cthulhu mythos, whether it wants to be or not.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The horror genres most enduring mythology has become amazingly prevalent in comics today. The influence of the work of authors like Robert Bloch, August Derleth and progenitor H.P. Lovecraft is obvious in works like Mike Mignola’s ongoing horror epic Hellboy. where betentacled gods older than humanity sleep beneath the world, served by monstrous, pre-human race.
But rather than just influenced by the seminal work of the horror writers of the early 20th century, there are more and more books on store shelves that are, arguably, parts of the Cthulhu Mythos proper. Nightmare World opens with a completely straight faced and unapologetic story that is vintage Cthulhu. Meanwhile, Brian Clevinger’s latest Atomic Robo series envisions a slapstick version of everyone’s favorite betentacled Elder God using Lovercraft himself as a portal into the world and eventually beaten back by a team of Robo and Carl Sagan. Which is the great thing about the Cthulhu Mythos – as the original and oldest fan fiction environment, and after nearly 100 years of contribitions from a staggering variety of authors, it’s become a very big tent. Thanks for that go to the nature of the mythos, which has always been very welcoming, as well as very active.
After growing gradually over the years, the mythos got a shot in the arm courtesy of the Call of Cthulhu role playing game, which demonstrated once again that medium’s gift for giving lasting structure to things, be it a fictional pseudo-mythology or my Saturday nights for like eight years. Graphic adaptations of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu work have been around since the 1950’s but they’ve become big business in the last couple years with original titles like Boom’s Fall of Cthulhu, Young H.P. Lovecraft and countless others. And Image’s bet on Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep and He Who Shall Not Be Named comes with solid precedent – Ron Howard recently signed on to adapt the pulpy Image hit The Strange Adventures of H.P. Lovecraft for the big screen. Which is double good, because it means there’s that much more chance he’ll keep his mitts off At The Mountains Of Madness until del Toro finally decides he wants to do something with it.