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January 12, 2011

Artist of the Month: Shannon Wheeler

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Written by: Josh
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Too Much Coffee Man

When speaking with Shannon Wheeler, I couldn’t help but imagine him as one of his most well known creations, Too Much Coffee Man. Only instead of an actual over-sized mug of coffee on his cranium, there’s a metaphorical cup overflowing with ideas. His passion for the medium of comics is matched only by his steadfast work ethic and ability to bear his soul. In our conversation, this Eisner Award winning artist holds nothing back.

Shannon has created an iconic character with his Too Much Coffee Man books, but that doesn’t come close to defining his prolific career. He is constantly moving in new directions and evolving as an artist. Recently, he has embraced a minimalist approach with his artwork and is currently utilizing this new style as a cartoonist for The New Yorker. Also, he’s working on two new graphic novels that don’t involve the caffeinated hero, but fans of Too Much Coffee Man have no need to fret. Shannon hasn’t abandoned the crossed-hatched wonderland of the TMCM universe. There’s actually an all new TMCM book in the works, and the upcoming TMCM Omnibus will be published this year! Below, Shannon speaks about the aforementioned projects, his first strip that was printed in his college paper, and much much more. So throw back some triple espressos and buzz like a bumble bee for ComicAttack.net’s Artist of the Month, Shannon Wheeler!

Comic Attack: Was the strip that you did for your college newspaper your first published work?

Shannon Wheeler: Yeah. Pretty much. In high school I was always trying to get into the school newspaper, and there was a few literary things I was involved with. The school paper was kind of a clique, and I was never in the clique. So, then in college, I thought, I’m really gonna do this. I’m really gonna get published by my school paper. So, I just pushed until they finally let me in and started running my comics.

Too Much Coffee Man mini-comic 4¼ × 5½ – 12 pages

CA: What comic did they run?

SW: I started off trying to sell them Tooth and Justice, which is a boy and his dog strip. The editor was running his own strip, and he didn’t want to run two college strips. So, he gave me a single panel strip to do.  That’s what I got voted in to do. It was a gag strip called Caliboose. I did that for a few years, and then I just kept pushing to do a strip because I wanted to have a narrative. Until finally, I started taking this space I had for the gag, and breaking it into four panels, and then doing my panel strip inside of a single panel space. Ant then they were like, “ok, he can do a strip.” (laughs) So, it was a bit of a process. I did that for few years. It was amazing in retrospect. You know, being able to do a daily cartoon. Just the discipline of it is pretty intense.

CA: What was the name of the college paper and how would you describe the tone of those strips?

SW: It was The Daily Californian. I would say Doonesbury and Bloom County were a big influence, and then of course, Calvin and Hobbes. Those are definitely the three strips that I really thought were the best out there. It was a little bit autobiographical, and there were a lot of  gags and silly humor as well. Later, I used this character named Joel in the college strip. Later, when I did the Too Much Coffee Man comic book, I used the same guy as the main character in the comic book. The main reader character. Not Too Much Coffee Man.

CA: Can you summarize the origins of Adhesive press?

SW: I moved to Austin and I was still doing my college strip, and then the Austin college paper, The Daily Texan, started running it as well. So, I was doing the newspaper stuff, and the strip stuff. Then, I started meeting comic book people. They were saying, “it’s really cute that your doing this newspaper strip, but you should really draw longer strips. You know, comic books.” That’s when I started doing TMCM. It was a way of doing longer stories. I started doing eight page comic strips, and copying mini-comics and selling those (see above right).

CA: You’re kind of notorious for the labor you put into those.

SW: Yeah, it was stupid is what is was. I started off photocopying them, and then I couldn’t keep up with the sales. Book stores were selling them, comic book stores [in Austin] were selling them , and out in Berkley, the comic book stores were selling them as well. Then I plugged in with these guys that were wanting to distribute mini-comics, and I just kept trying to photocopy them. It was laborious to get the color photo copies for the covers, and staple it, and trim it, and fold it. I went to a printer and asked, “how much” and he said, “a thousand dollars to do this.” So, I was like, great! He said his stapler couldn’t handle the automatic stapling. So, on the first print run of ten thousand, I hand stapled everyone of those. My buddies that were doing comic books, they started saying, “let’s print the comic books.” It was kind of an ad-hock little company of four of us. Luckily, each of us had a different talents to contribute. The idea was that each of us would write and draw comics and pool our talents together for publishing. Then publish all of our own stuff. Each of us would publish our own comic books.

Jab #2

CA: Jab was one of those comics. How would you describe that comic book to those who’ve never heard of it?

SW: Jab was an anthology comic book, and whoever was around was contributing to it. At the time in Austin, there were some really talented people. Chris Ware was cartooning there at the time, and we got him to give us a few pages. Walt Holcombe is another guy. Most of the people have gone on to do animation or computer games or something. But yeah, Chris and Walt are still cranking out comics. Tom King went on to work on Futurama (the tv series, then the comics). The idea was that we would all throw stuff together and make a little comic book and put it out. It taught us how to deal with distributors, and comic book stores, and promotions…and how to get in big arguments with each other. Then, resolve them. We learned to deal with printers. It was crazy, but it was really fun. We were trying to print more and more stuff. Unfortunately, the only comic that really sold was TMCM (laughs). Everybody else kind of drifted off into different directions, and I just kept doing it because I had a good selling comic. All of a sudden, I was actually making money off of it.

CA: Do you still run Adhesive Press?

SW: Yeah, I’m still running it, kind of as a company. Less and less in some ways because I publish with Dark Horse, BOOM!, and all these other people now. So, I really don’t self-publish that much anymore.

CA: When did you first conceive the concept of TMCM, and how would you describe the thought process that prefaced any sketches?

Children with Glue

SW: It actually was a promotion for one of my other books. It started when I put out the Children With Glue book. I was selling it at a comic convention, and I was just having a hard time getting people to pick it up because it wasn’t a superhero comic book. So, I had in my head, I should really do some kind of super hero-type thing that would help sell the other book, and kind of get me in with the comic book crowd a little bit better. So, it was in my head, what do I do for that? Then it was just hanging out at coffee shops. I would go in and sit there and try to think, what’s an iconic character? I started thinking, what is something people identify with? And I was like, some sort of coffee character. Then it was just a mockery. I was just making fun of the people in the coffee shop. Coffee Man was obvious, but too obvious. Too simple. Too Much Coffee Man was a way to mock the people, and mock myself too. I was one of the people. The first strip that I wrote was about sitting in a coffee shop and making fun of the people. Making fun of them because they were sitting in a coffee shop trying to do their little art projects. You know, I’m one of them. I was sitting in a coffee shop trying to do my little art project. When I did one strip, I thought, ok, that’s all I’ve got. You know, that’s all that character can do. Then, I just kept doing more little stories, and more stories just kept coming out. It was really pretty natural.

CA: Are the supporting characters in TMCM an expansion of your psyche, or are they based on friends of yours?

SW: I would say loosely based on friends. Definitely the Espresso Guy. I have this friend of mine who’s very much like Espresso Guy. He’s just sort of bitter and angry, but very bright. He was always wanting to be more innocent than he was. He was always wanting to be like TMCM, but he was a little too smart for that, and a little too paranoid. The German White Chocolate Woman with Almonds, it was actually loosely based on a guy who was a little bit daft and slow. She’s basically like a Gracie Character (of George Burns and Gracie). That’s what I always thought.

CA: Great name by the way.

SW: (laughs) That was just a mockery because people kept coming up to me and saying, oh, you should do Too Much Chocolate Man, and the ideas were so dumb, that I just thought, take this dumb idea and make it even dumber and that’ll shut people up who’re giving me these bad suggestions. Too Much White German Chocolate with Almonds was just like, how far can you take a bad idea.

CA: It just rolls right off the tongue, though, huh?

SW: (laughs) Yeah, and I did it as a gag right. Like, as a one off. Then later, it’s like this little library of characters and I was like ok, let’s role with it and bring them back in as plot devices and stuff.

Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus

CA: Is there going to be any additional material included in the upcoming TMCM Omnibus beyond the four graphic novels from Dark Horse?

SW: A few little things. Some editing was done on the book to sort of tighten up the joke. I redrew a couple of little things. I’ve always been pissed at bands that you follow and you’ve bought all their CD’s. Then they put out a two CD “best of” album for eighteen bucks with four extra songs. So, if you want to keep up with that band, you’ve got to buy this “best of,” even though you already own it all [other than the four new songs]. That’s just a pet peeve of mine. I just don’t want to screw everyone who already owns the four TMCM graphic novels by saying, oh, here’s an extra eight pages of some new story. I’m trying to keep it pretty representational of those books. It’s really out of respect for the people who’ve bought the books in the past. I am doing a new TMCM for Dark Horse Presents. I’m not sure which issue it’ll be in. That’ll be pretty soon. Also, TMCM has been appearing in my weekly strip (How to be Happy). It’s been over a year since my last book. So, I’m overdue to put together a new TMCM book.

CA: You’re taking a more minimalist approach with your artwork. Does that mean less cross-hatching in the new TMCM book?

SW: No! I love cross-hatching. TMCM has an underground style with cross-hatching. I started drawing it again, and it’s so nice to sit there and kind of meditate. It’s so relaxing to do cross-hatching. I’m really looking forward to finishing that story, and giving it a full week or two of putting on some NPR or a good Stephen King audio book and cross-hatching the heck out of some backgrounds (laughs). It probably sounds like hell to some people, but I love it. I’ve really pushed my new style to be more minimalist. It’s taken a real effort to let the line art sink or swim on its own. It takes enormous will power not to cross-hatch.

CA: Sometimes it’s easier to illustrate a point if you can lay off the strokes. There is so much emotion you can put into a few lines. You can kill a pure moment in story-telling by over doing it.

SW: Absolutely!

CA: I’ve seen people do it.

SW: I’ve done it! (laughs)

CA: Wasn’t TMCM Omnibus supposed to be published in the spring or winter of 2010?

SW: Yeah, I think we’re now officially about four years late on that book. Well, not quite that late, but yeah, there were production problems. It started with me not getting back to my editor about some changes and then wanting to redo the cover in a different way, and then her being slow to get my changes to the other people. The timing was just bad with various things. It should be the easiest book to do, because we’re just taking the other books, mashing them together, reformatting it, and putting it out. Emotionally it was tough, because it’s seeing so much work in one place, and just kind of feeling like, wow, this is ten years of my life in this one tiny book. I mean, it’s a big book, but it’s still a book. Was it worth all that sacrifice? I don’t know. You have to come to terms with that. Hopefully it’ll be out this year [this interview was in mid-December of 2010].

CA: As of right now, Dark Horse’s website lists a June of 2011 release date.

SW: (pauses and delivers the next line with a deadpan monotone)…sweet (laughs). No, it’s all done, and I think now all that needs to happen is for it to go to a printer. We’ve nailed the cover. We’ve nailed inside. Now we can just cross our fingers, pay the printer, and make it happen.

CA: As far as your question, “Was it worth it?” I would say, absolutely! I mean, it’s not like this is your swan song. You’re still making new TMCM stories.

SW: Part of it is, I feel like I’ve moved to this new chapter with The New Yorker stuff, and the opera. I’m doing more abstract comics. In a way I’m excited about pushing into new directions with new material.

CA: Is it fair to say you don’t want to be known as the Too Much Coffee Man guy?

SW: (pauses) I don’t know. I feel so lucky to have that, and I have absolutely no right to complain about it. But, yeah, sometimes it’s a little bit of a pain in the ass, but really it’s pretty nice to have it. Like with most things in life there’s all sorts of mixed feelings.

Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus

CA: Have you ever thought about publishing a collected volume or volumes of the TMCM magazine or maybe even reprinting the issues?

SW: I would love to! Actually, I’ve worked with one of the old editors, and we stated putting together a “best of” from the TMCM magazine. So, we’ve assembled the content that we want in there. We definitely published some really crappy stuff, but it was a great way to do an anthology. It’s on my list of things I would really like to do. It’s a little daunting. I would need to get back in touch with a lot of the writers and say, hey I’m doing this book. It would take a lot of work. Part of it too, is when I working on that magazine, I was going through a big divorce/ break-up. So, revisiting that material is a giant emotional commitment. It’s like re-reading a diary. The content isn’t about what was actually happening. It just adheres emotionally to those moments. So, it’s hard. It’s not impossible, and I really want to do it, but it’s just kind of exhausting because you’re like, “oh I was so happy there,” or “oh I was so sad there.” When you go through a bad break-up, all those happy and sad moments are amplified to even more extremes than normal. I’m already a little bit manic depressive, and that’s even more intense manic depression. But it’s going to happen. I re-read a bunch of those recently, and I was like, oh man this is funny. It’s not my best cartooning work, but it’s definitely some of the best material that I’ve ever dealt with. I would love to reprint that stuff.

CA: Are you still working on the graphic novel with Jesse Michaels of Operation Ivy fame?

SW: One of the editors at BOOM! really wants me to do it. I haven’t worked on it for about a year, but he’s been bugging me these last two months. Maybe after I finish the BP oil spill book. Having an editor that’s enthusiastic about something really helps to push me to get it done.

CA: Will the BP oil spill book have a similar narrative to the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit strip that you did in TMCM?

Too Much Coffee Man #10: The (McDonald's) Lawsuit Issue

SW: Similar, but different. We actually went down there and visited a bunch of teachers, environmentalists, and scientists. The group interviewed and talked to mayors and scientists down there. We ran into the Head of Homeland Security for Jefferson Parish. We talked to him for a long time. We did all these interviews and got feedback and saw things. It’s kind of about what happened afterwards. There’s a lot a things about the South that I think are really interesting. Especially that area. It becomes a metaphor for the whole United States. In the Gulf they’re very aware that they are super dependent on oil for their economy, and a lot of people in the Northwest are saying we just need to stop being dependent on oil and that’s the solution. Down there, they’re saying,” no, this is how we live. We can’t just stop it. It’ll kill everybody’s life down here.” Even though they’ve suffered this environmental devastation, they’re saying, “we still want to keep the oil companies alive. They need to clean this up, but you can’t put them out of business.” It’s a complicated set of relationships. The book will be more about the people than anything else. The coffee lawsuit was very much about a culture, and how we have this machinery of corporations that can bail over people. The way we interpret stories is usually really different from the reality. I guess there will be some similar themes. Also, it’s about dealing with the toxins of the clean up, and these people and what they had to say, like, here’s how the science works, here’s how the economics work, and here are people that are saying funny things…and yeah, I don’t know if that answers the question….(laughs)

CA: Oh, most definitely! Who’s going to be publishing this, and how soon can we expect to see it?

SW: We’re talking to Fantagraphics. They’ve expressed a lot of interest in it. We’re actually in the final stages. It’s kind of getting down to the nickel in terms of negotiation, but most likely it’ll be Fantagraphics. Which would be amazing. They put out some of the most beautiful books. I just have a lot of respect for them as a company. We’re pushing hard. I’m about halfway done drawing it, and we’re going to try and get it out by the middle of next year. Which is pretty tight for a book schedule.

Tim Armstrong and Jesse Michaels (right) of Operation Ivy in 1988

Tim Armstrong (left) and Jesse Michaels (right) of Operation Ivy 1988

CA: Half done? That’s a lot! I mean, it’s half.

SW: I’m crankin. I’m working at it every day. It’s pretty exciting.

CA: So, the graphic novel with Jesse [Michaels] is called a Drunk and Drunk Dwarf.

SW: Yeah. Drunk and Drunk Dwarf. It’s about a guy who grew up in the Bay area and had hippie parents who sort of becomes a punk rocker dude. It’s a funny story, and it’s Jesse, who’s just really a funny guy. His dad is an amazing writer, and it’s cool to see Jesse’ s stuff. He’s totally following in his dad’s footsteps. There’s definitely an overlap.

CA: For those who aren’t familiar with the TMCM opera, could you give a brief history of how it all started?

SW: There’s a couple of different versions. The composer said I begged him to do it. My version is that he begged me to do it. He just told me, “write a Laredo, and I’ll put music to it.” I thought there was no way it could work. It’s like turning a cartoon strip into an animation. I never thought it would translate because everyone has their own internal ideas of how they see the movements…of how they hear it. Seeing a Bloom County strip animated…. It’s just kind of painful, I was trying to do a TMCM as a cartoon for a while and so, I thought it would be painful like that route. Like, this is not what I imagined. But he set it to music and just listening to it on a MIDI [file], it really fit the jokes. There would be a gag in the sentence, and he would have a pause, and he really understood the structure of it. There’s a line, “I will always love you unless you have infection” and it’s just the way he paused before infection…Even on a MIDI where it’s all mechanical, I was like wow, this really works! I was shocked that the emotional content of the strip translated so well to opera. A lot of animation like the Simpsons or South Park… It’s very physical… the gags. It’s very much  about how these people conflict with each other. The TMCM strips are very much about internal struggle. It’s about TMCM trying to do something, and his inability to deal with his own brain. Opera is this unique art form where everybody is singing and expressing their internal motivations. It fit really well with TMCM. I was shocked all to hell. Once I saw that it could work, I thought it’s worth the investment, and I really drew myself into it. We just worked on it, on and off, for a year or two. We just worked back and forth, and I had another buddy of mine that writes poetry help with lines and meter. I thought, at best it would be played at a coffee shop. So, I wrote it to be a small scale piece with three singers. Then, one of them doubling, so that there would be a coffee cup as a fourth character. I just wanted it to be do-able, and I thought getting three people together is not that hard…or six, with three musicians. Then, I actually ended up meeting the director of the public center for performing arts, and she said let’s put it on here. So, we got an actual stage and real musicians. It was up to a level much higher than I thought was possible, and the costumes were amazing. The singers we got were amazing. Yeah, it realized itself in a way I never anticipated. It was much better than I thought it could possibly be.

CA: It was two acts, right?

SW: The main complaint I heard from people that it was too short. So, the next year we came back and said, “let’s do it as a two act piece.” The first act is very much a character piece about unrequited  love and personal fulfillment. TMCM falls in love with the barista, and she doesn’t love him back. Then, TMCM and Espresso Guy fight for her attention. For the second act we said, “OK, let’s have a plot now. More than just these emotions of people.” So, the second act, we bring in the Martian. It’s years later and she’s married. So, we actually have conflict, resolution, and characters. It’s more operatic. We knew we had more professionals. So, musically, we opened it up more, and really let the singers sing opera. It’s a more professorial piece. The second act is harder on a practical level.

Flyer for the Too Much Coffee Man Opera

CA: You had planned on condensing the first and second act into a condensed piece. Is that something you are still considering?

SW: Yeah, I would like to tighten it all up. Right now it runs over two hours, and I would like to bring it down to an hour and a half. I think a little editing will really polish it up and make it shine. I know that it’s going to be an enormous amount of work to do. I’m a little bit scared of opening it up again. Like anything, it’s never finished. You can always polish it more. I just want it to be better.

CA: Is it still actively playing anywhere?

SW: Right now, no. Next, it’s going to run in the Astoria Music Festival. We ran it last year at the Astoria Music Fest, and I think were going to do it again this year. I’m not sure yet whether we’re doing the one act or the two act. We’re just about to gear it up, and I think that’s April is when that’ll play again.

CA: That’s going to be where?

SW: Astoria, Oregon. It’s a close town. They have an amazing music festival out there. Last time we did the one act, we paired it with Bach’s Coffee Cantata. Bach has a little opera about coffee. It fits perfectly.

CA: Do you have a video of a live performance from beginning to end?

SW: I do, and I’ve kept it very tightly under wraps because, I really want people to come and see it live. So, I haven’t put out the recorded version. I’ve thought about it, and I’m trying to figure out how to do it in a way that will work. I don’t want to film it and put it out as this half assed thing. I want to do it well. I’m trying to figure out how to do that, but I have some ideas. One thought I had was if I did it as animation and paired that with the opera. It’ll probably take me a two or three years.

CA: So, are you talking about not showing any live actors, but all animation?

SW: Maybe some combination of the two. The style, I’m not exactly sure how I’d wanna do it. Even puppet animation would be really cool.

Stacey Murdock as Too Much Coffee Man

CA: One last big question. Writers and artists are notorious for procrastination, but judging from the volume of your work, you get shit done. How would you describe your work ethic and creative process? What leads you to be so motivated and so proactive?

SW: Fear and anger. Fear of death, you know, and anger at somebody. I’ll get pissed off at something, and then, it’s like, “I’ll show those dirty stupid people that talked shit about me in high school.” I’ll get a bad review or read something and it’ll just make me feel mad. It just makes me want to do better. So, yeah, like getting in the New Yorker. Part of it was just having this window and just feeling like, OK, if I work hard, I can achieve this. It’s just seeing an opportunity and really trying to push to make it happen. Also, there’s this constant learning curve where I feel like I need to relearn how to do this or that. It’s accepting that I’m not as good as I want to be. I won’t be perfect at doing something, but I just have to throw myself into it, and allow myself to work at it until I get better. I’ll start comparing my self to Robert Crumb, and think, “man, I suck so bad.” It just makes me think I have to work that much harder because he’s so much better than I am. In short, though, fear and anger.

CA: I’ll close with a quick question: coffee or beer?

SW: (laughs) Coffee in the day. Beer at night. As my friend Sam Hurst once said, “caffeine and alcohol are the yin and yang of modern life.”

CA: Very true. Words to live by. Shannon, thanks for your time, man. I appreciate you letting me give you a call and answering all these questions. It has been a pleasure.

SW: It’s been good talking to you. I really appreciate it. Good questions.

Josh Jones



  1. Billy

    Funny stuff man! 😀

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Josh Jones , Newspaper News. Newspaper News said: Artist of the Month: Shannon Wheeler: SW: I moved to Austin and I was still doing my college strip, and then the… http://bit.ly/hROd34 […]

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