Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Shannon Wheeler: "I Thought You Would Be Funnier"

In a new collection, “I Thought You Would Be Funnier” (2010 BOOM! Town) Portland, OR artist Shannon Wheeler shifts from his usual one-page multi-panel/strip format and showcases his single-panel gags. I’ve long been a fan of, and have several other books of his comics, such as “Screw Heaven, When I Die I’m Going to Mars” (2007 Dark Horse), and this batch seems to be without any of the cynical political commentary that infuses his earlier, longer pieces. There’s also a change in lettering, from his presumably handwritten to computer font, which is lamentable since I like the aesthetics of individuality and personality in “manual” text. Comparatively minor details, since form and content seems to meld perfectly in this particular direction this material is taking, and no doubt reflects a new “New Yorker” market. This shows how important it is for practicing artists to be flexible in format and have as many Sharpies in the fire for success. And regardless of his versatility, Wheeler is simply a cartoonist by trade, which covers many job titles.

The panels are all in black and white, always great to see - so many of contemporary comics are needlessly buried in superfluous color which, aside from eye-candy, do nothing for the work itself. Uniform in weight, the bold, easy linework is paired up with simple wash values using a loose marker-effect, which compliments the subtle, understated expressions of his characters. Which is another slight stylistic difference: other works from Wheeler feature more wild, frenetic and gestural poses (see sample at left) compared to the deadpan delivery in these panels, which hinge on contrasting understatement for comedic effect. But as Wheeler mentioned in the 2004 anthology “Attitude 2” the different formats of his work is “… the same tapioca, it’s just in a different bowl.” Interestingly, Wheeler has said that single-panels were what he had originally started with in a college newspaper, so this would be, in a way, coming full-circle with his work.

In the book's introduction, contemporary Dan Piraro makes the observation of how rare quality single-panel comics are in general, especially compared to the historical visibility this sub-genre of comics enjoyed when gag panels were virtually omnipresent in commercial publications. That status has unfortunately atrophied but for the efforts of the New Yorker and Playboy magazines, the two primary examples. As a veteran self-publisher in the alternative circuit, it’s great to see Wheeler’s work snagging some overdue and wider attention – his material should be recognized as Reuben-caliber at the least. Wheeler is also the creator of "Postage Stamp Funnies" and the classic “Too Much Coffee Man,” a reoccurring central figure who makes appearances throughout many of his other titles. In the intro of “How To Be Happy” (2005 Dark Horse) cartoonist Ted Rall wrote of Wheeler “… not only does he have little faith in humanity, he gives himself the same treatment in his sly and vicious deconstructions of the human condition.” The degree of caustic, existential introspection is comparatively toned down in this particular book, which doesn't detract from its humor, just widens the target.

However much Wheeler’s wit might mesh with the droll, dry flavor of the New Yorker’s stable of regular submitters, this particular set of cartoons are all “rejects” from that magazine. Besides pointing up how Wheeler's material maintains an outsider edge still deemed unpalatable for the mainstream, it says something when the recent “Rejection Collections” from the New Yorker are some of the best cartoons they’ve ever (sort of) published. It says even more when you can put out a book like this: all compiled from supposed failures which are then turned into a testament for the ultimate value of one's work. As in, so there.
The titles of the individual chapter headings in “I Thought You Would Be Funnier” categorize just about every area, as Wheeler’s random and eclectic rock-skipping of content jumps around the facets of everyday life for everybody. Love & Relationships, Death & Clowns, Kids & Life, Coffee & Booze, Art & Inspiration, and Cats & Dogs: these topics don’t just sum up a laundry-list of clich├ęd gags, but line up the sights on Wheeler’s offbeat perspective while he ferrets out the mundane, overlooked trivia and throwaway sound-bites, recasting them into newfound material. Wheeler was one of the featured artists in the Chris Brandt’s 2007 documentary “Independents – A Guide to the Creative Spirit” and he described his creative process as "whales" swimming “in a sea of subconscious” and the idea is what “beaches itself.”

Wheeler joins Piraro and Harry Bliss in the triumvirate of top talent as panel cartoonists whose work exemplifies the dynamic between verbal and visual elements in the very best of comic art, as the relationship between image and caption is a calculated, balanced symbiosis. Each plays off the other in what many syndicated features fail to accomplish – a synergy where one part is seamlessly interdependent on the other.

Being funny as hell is also a big plus, and really is all anyone needs to know, so buy his all his stuff, including this new collection, for a laugh at yourself and a bunch of other idiots.
“Fuck ‘em all. I hate artists. They’re a bunch of whiners. If you suggest a change to make their cartoon better, they act like you want to piss on the Mona Lisa. Their egos, so fragile, like little babies” – from "Attitude 2: The New Subversive Alternative Cartoonists"

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