7/7/11

"I Thought You Would Be Funnier" by Shannon Wheeler

Weeks ago I bought Shannon Wheeler’s newest book "I Thought You Would Be Funnier," but I haven’t reviewed it yet for a simple reason: I’m biased. I think that practically everything he does is funny. By way of explanation, I started to list all the work by Wheeler which I've admired, but it started to turn into a comic-artist version of A Fan's Notes (except, I hope, less crazy).  Regardless, let's push on.

I started reading his Too Much Coffee Man strip years ago when it ran in the back of some local paper. TMCM was a new kind of superhero, similar to The Tick, except he didn't seem to have any powers other than a giant coffee cup attached to his head ( I know it's not part of the suit -- I've seen his skull!). The wry humor, interesting cast of recurring characters, and solid art grabbed and held my attention. TMCM had humor, insight, coffee and bathos. Well, I’m not sure if it had bathos, I’ve never understood bathos, but it had coffee. And Too Much Espresso Man.

Somewhere in the mid 90’s, Wheeler traveled all the way from Austin, Texas to a comic book show in Portland, Oregon where I met him in person and discovered that "Shannon" was a skinny guy with long curly hair. Up until then I’d thought he was a she. Not a big deal. It’s the body of work that’s important, not the person. I got over it, and so did my wife.  I even got him to sign a book.

I guess Wheeler liked his trip to Portland, since he moved to town, and I got more opportunities to buy the books and merchandise at local comic book shows, book signings, Wordstock, and eventually the Stumptown Comics Fest. The Too Much Coffee Man T-Shirts (I’m wearing the "pit of despair" shirt right now), the Too Much Coffee Man coffee cups, the Too Much Coffee Man cereal caddy. Ok, I’m joking about the cereal caddy. But I’ve got many of his books: Too Much Coffee Man’s Guide for the Perplexed, for example, and Too Much Coffee Man’s How to Be Happy.

Did I mention I wrote a TMCM screen saver? I know it was 1996, because Windows 95 had just come out, and it was late. I designed the program so you could configure the jitters, the anxiety, and how randomly TMCM would meander across the screen. I was so proud that I emailed a copy to Mr. Wheeler, who politely ignored the copyright infringement and wrote back that he owned a Mac, and wasn’t sure whether anyone would be interested in a TMCM screen saver.

So, how far can the TMCM thing go? Pretty far, apparently, but before I could tire of it, Wheeler moved in a new direction: the boxed set of "Postage Stamp Funnies." Designed to recall the look and feel of Maurice Sendak’s Nutshell Library, it's a collection of Wheeler’s weekly cartoons from The Onion. At the book signing at Oregon Historical Society, Wheeler told me that Dark Horse balked at the cost of binding and boxing the comics, but somehow he got the project completed. They’re soooo cute!

Turned out the box set was part of a one-two punch, with the production of Too Much Coffee Man: The Opera. Announced as "the first opera based on a comic book," I thought it was a great idea. I heard early versions of the songs at Wordstock, but unfortunately missed the full productions in Portland and Astoria. Something to look forward to, I guess.

Shannon Wheeler's First Published New Yorker Cartoon
By that time Facebook had come out, and I’d friended Wheeler, and played a number of games of Jumble or WordTwist (something like that) with him.  Like Homer Simpson to Mr. Burns, I don't think Wheeler remembered meeting me, but I was happy to see the occasional drawings he'd post on Facebook.  Surprisingly, he started posting rejections from the New Yorker, and finally in 2009 announced his first sale to that esteemed, inscrutable, comic magazine. Frankly, the acceptance policy for comics at the New Yorker is a bit hard to fathom, but maybe that’s the charm. There’s something for everyone, whether you understand it or not.


Wheeler started collecting the comics rejected from the New Yorker, and voila, the result is "I Thought You Would Be Funnier." It’s a quick read - about 100 comics, all of them funny, and showcasing Wheeler’s now-distinctive style. You won’t find any Too Much Coffee Man, but there are a few that echo Too Much Espresso Man. In one cartoon workers are picking beans, and one worker asks another "Tell me again the difference between a cappuccino and a latte." In another, a clown confesses to his doctor "It hurts when I laugh."

But, as the great Dr. Emilio Lizardo once said, "Laugh-a while you can, monkey boy." Wheeler’s upcoming project is not all humor and coffee. He’s working with Oregonian columnist Steve Duin on a book called "Oil and Water," a graphic novel based on the Gulf Coast catastrophe of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Just like Wheeler's expansion from comics to opera, I look forward to this ambitious project mixing graphic novels with reporting.

In the meantime, "I Thought You Would Be Funnier" has two award nominations: in the running for the Eisner Best Humor Publication and the Harvey Special Award for Humor in Comics.  Does that sound funny to you?


Shannon Wheeler’s website is http://www.tmcm.com
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