Are These The Memoirs Of A Very Stable Genius? Talking With Shannon Wheeler

by Hannah Means Shannon

In the lead up to San Diego Comic-Con in July, Image Comics released a new trade collection of short comics by Shannon Wheeler, who is perhaps best known for his long-running character Too Much Coffee Man, but also these days for his New Yorker single-image comics, often running into political commentary, but always relevant to the tone and climate of our current culture. You’d be hard-pressed to describe Wheeler’s work as high-brow, though, since that seems far from his purpose in cartooning. Rather, he seem to reach for commonality whenever possible in his readers, and also encourages them to find the zany humor in the contradictions that we deal with every day.
Many of the comics in Image’s release, Memoirs of a Very Stable Genius, are in some ways a follow-up to the IDW/Top Shelf best-seller, Sh*t My President Says, based on the tweets of Donald Trump but are also autobiographical. Some are full short stories, in full-color, while others are striking single-image gags, and they draw from a period of ten years in Wheeler’s creative life.
I had the pleasure of catching up with Wheeler at SDCC 2018, just before his own Spotlight Panel at the convention, and politics, as well as a fascinated observation of human behavior, played a big part in our conversation.

Shannon Wheeler was going to be the subject of his very own Spotlight Panel at SDCC that evening, and he said that he had decided to open with a story about working on a Stormy Daniels comic currently underway, an account about going to see her at an event.
Wheeler recalled that his sense of humor and his grandfather’s sense of humor seemed to be largely the same based on his grandmother’s testimony, even though he had never met his grandfather. His grandfather had apparently said that if you want to get an audience’s attention, write the word “SEX” in large letters on a board, and without explanation, leave it there throughout any talk.

I noted that I found it wild that one could be so like one of one’s ancestors, regardless of whether they ever had an environmental effect on you, but that it seems to be consistently proven to occur.
Wheeler’s grandfather was definitely “funny”, he said, and looked at things in a humorous way. He had suffered from polio as a child, but would later make jokes about it. One of his legs was quite a bit shorter due to his illness, so he had a platform shoe made. When someone asked him why he wore this, he claimed it was a “new style” and a “fashion trend of asymmetrical shoes”. He’d get people to believe this claim. Sadly, he passed away before Wheeler was born, but he’s flattered by the comparison that relatives make.
When I asked him whether his work in humor comics is limiting to him at all, Wheeler said that he’d ideally love to write more straightforward science fiction someday, but every time he tries to write sci-fi, he ends up coming up with a Twilight Zone-style ending that “wraps” the story back on itself in a formulaic way. Where the robot falls in love with a girl, so gets his brain transplanted, then ends up going to jail in the body of a human, so that he’s denied the love that he was sacrificing for, for instance. He was trying to write a straight “noirish” story, but his brain automatically “curved it” at the end.

He admitted that this tendency to look toward the ending is something his brain may have been trained to do through creating short-form cartoons for publications like The New Yorker. He often feels like he’s just “watching” as his brain builds these scenarios moving toward a punch line.
Humor, in some ways, has a structure to it, I noted, and some people who work with humor a lot seem to have a certain structure to the way they deliver their humor. Audiences might recognize it as that person’s particular way of delivering humor. Wheeler agreed, citing Woody Allen vs. Seinfeld as different approaches with subtle shifts.
I observed that Wheeler seems to approach his cartooning with elements I’d associate with sequential art narrative, in that the text is always quite different from the images being displayed. Though he may create a single image for a New Yorker cartoon, for instance, the use of text always stands in an interesting relationship to the language.
People like Gilbert Shelton, and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, taught Wheeler a lot about timing, characters, and humor, he said. Those comics, as well as early Kirby work, “moved very fast” and in the case of the latter, could tell a whole story in only 8 pages. You definitely “get more in” to the story if the text doesn’t simply repeat what the imagery is showing in sequential narrative, Wheeler agreed.
I asked if Wheeler’s approach to comics has been strongly influenced by Underground Comix. He said that this was true, as well as from early Marvel work. Kirby was writing full stories “visually”, Wheeler feels. The Fantastic Four, for instance, can be read without words, and Kirby drew it “as a silent mime comic” in Wheeler’s opinion. Stan Lee, of course, would then come in and write “whatever crap would come into his head” and add another layer, but to his credit, “rarely would he just repeat what Kirby had done”, which at least created “an interesting play between the two”. Reading those comics meant a lot to him as a kid, and he liked them much better than DC Comics, which felt “plodding”.

I commented that DC Comics strikes a bigger heroic pose and tone, whereas Marvel’s soap-operatic approach to characters based on inter-personal conflicts probably appealed to Wheeler more. He agreed. The Thing and the Human Torch, as well as their “bickering” appealed to him.
I asked how Wheeler composes a cartoon or a short comic, whether he feels he glimpses images and ideas, and takes notes, or works more with observations of the real world. He said that for the Stormy Daniels story, which he’s currently working on, he tried to take a lot of notes and make observations. What he’s trying to avoid is providing a lot of narration in the comic, which is followed by only a tiny bit of dialog “as counterpoint”. That seems to be a trend in storytelling right now, he feels, and it’s “so easy to fall into it”, but he wants to avoid it.
I clarified that he meant the kind of narrative that seems to guide the reader through a story very quickly, like a group of people on a tour of a building and he confirmed that. It’s like “giving an example to support a thesis” which he finds “intolerable”. This cut and dry approach doesn’t leave room for real storytelling.
These days, Wheeler is trying to stay away from that common but lazy approach, so he is trying to approach the Stormy Daniels story in a different way. Instead, he’s trying to move the story along with dialog in this short comic that’s being published in Esquire Magazine.

Wheeler went to see a live event with her at a strip club, and began by observing the other attendees. There were strip club regulars, but then there were also “tourists” who were really there only because she was there. One example of the kind of people present were two men, who despite the fact that they were not supposed to be on their phones, were busy showing each other pictures of their boats, even though there was a stripper dancing right in front of them, while sitting in the front row. In fact, she was picking up the dollar bills they had given her with her butt cheeks, Wheeler explained. And yet they weren’t paying attention to this feat. This was the “weird preamble”, and the evening just got weirder, Wheeler said.
Talking to other people at the event, too, showed the diversity of their interests and reasons for being there. A lesbian in line who Wheeler spoke to “loved all this” stuff with Stormy Daniels, because the liberals were being forced to “embrace all this” because “she might be the one to take down the president”. There were many layers to the “scene” at the event which Wheeler was trying to process to create a comic later.
I asked him if it was difficult to take in all the details while trying to observe so many people and their motivations. Wheeler took notes, and drew during the event, accumulating live sketches. It made him feel a little bit like the “creepy guy in the corner drawing naked ladies”, he admitted, but one of the strippers actually came up to him and handed him a napkin on which she had drawn him instead. He then got to ask her about her perspective on the event, which was even better for research.
I commented that Wheeler was like a “bizarro version of a court artist” in that way. “Except that I’m drawing a woman pick up a dollar bill with her butt”, he clarified, which he described as a very “specialized field”.
Thanks so much to Shannon Wheeler for taking the time to talk to me at SDCC! Memoirs of a Very Stable Genius is a volume well worth your time, and is currently available from Image Comics.

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