Jeffrey Rowland is the rock star cowboy poet hacker behind Wigu, the story of a young boy in a magical and utterly inexplicable world where subplots move at the speed of light but days of story time can take months, and Overcompensating, a surrealist gag strip that Rowland claims is a record of his actual life — dead cats, trips to Heaven, Wigu cross over stories and all. He was kind enough to speak with the Examiner recently about the art, business and unimaginable horror of being Jeff Rowland. We also talked about, you know, his comics, an’ stuff.
Now, I think I speak for your readership at large when I say: Oh my God you killed Hugo, you killed Hugo, oh my God, oh my God. … Oh my God. That’s not really a question so much as an expression of gutwrenching horror, you can respond to that as you will.
Hugo had kind of gotten away from what I wanted him to be originally, and people would always tell me I’m racist because of him because they thought he was black. But Hugo was Cherokee indian. And he acted "street" because of what he saw on TV. Nobody in that town is really street, he just felt like he had to act like that because he’s poor.
Hugo getting shot (once in the toe, and then the fatal, accidental head-shot) was actually intended to be more of a gun-safety awareness piece. I was close to a couple of dudes back in school who died from accidental gunshots, and close to a couple of gun suicides. Don’t get me wrong, I think guns are totally awesome, but you have to be careful with them.
That’s a funny thing about Hugo — he doesn’t really look black, like, at all. I never knew exactly where to put him racially but it wasn’t important to me; I got the joke. It seems to me that the assumption that he was black, and that you were playing him as a racial caricature, says more about the people who made that assumption than your work.
That’s the thing that was funny about the racist accusations - Hugo doesn’t even LOOK black, but the accusers inferred that he was based on the way he acted. I took delight in pointing out to these people that they were themselves guilty of racism based on their incorrect assumption.
Another thing about Hugo that I’ve been wondering as I go through the Scary Go Round archives. Is there any connection between him and John Allison’s Hugo? There are just enough parallels for it to be kind of weird — and just few enough of any substance for me to assume anything at all.
All I can say about the character of Hugo Rodriguez is that he is based on a real man. A roofer. A man with a lot of problems.
My favorite Wigu moment in recent memory is when he said to Paisley, "God dang it Paisley don’t make me feel dumb because I like to watch TV," hanging his head and looking down, a little ashamed. What’s yours, and why?
It’s hard to think of a favorite moment in recent memory (because with the frequency of my schedule I have the tendency to just fire and forget) but the example you cited is a pretty good one. I like it when I can write a line that seriously and succinctly defines a character’s deal. When Wigu says "God Dang it Paisley, don’t make me feel dumb because I like to watch TV" it tells a whole little story, especially when you see the expression on his face. It’s apparent that it’s happened several times before, and Wigu hates being belittled and criticized. "God Dang" which is a fairly extreme cuss for this boy.
I’ve always wondered about how you initially made the decision that Topato and Sherrif Pony would talk the way they did. I think a lot of people overlook just how driven your humor is by the particular rhythm of the dialogue in general — much like John Allison, and perhaps to a lesser extent Ryan North and Chris Onstad — but it was clearly always there in Wigu.
I’m not sure the way the characters speak was a conscious decision. I figured since Topato and Pony were royalty they would talk fancy, and since they are from space they are obviously hyper-evolved which clearly necessitates an excessively fancy syntax cadence. I’m a somewhat educated boy from rural Oklahoma; I’ve seen both ends of the human spectrum. I went to school with kids who didn’t have social security numbers.
Something that comes up a lot in Overcompensating is a feeling that the universe is senseless. I’m thinking specifically of a recent strip where Weedmaster P said, "Future and past all the same thing, don’t none of it make sense." And then there was another a while back where your avatar said — I’m having trouble finding it, so this is only paraphrasing — "The universe is terrifying in every aspect" or something like that in an argument against the existence of God. So I often get a strange sense of melancholy from the strip. Is that consistent with your goals?
The recurring "pointlessness of existence" theme is consistent with my beliefs. It’s what I think about a lot. I spend a considerable amount of time dwelling on the nature of reality, the uselessness of conscience, the silliness of being, the false, hypocritical hope of most popular religions, hoping that maybe one day I’ll hit the questions with an angle that nobody’s ever thought of. In a way I don’t think we’re meant to know why we are, that knowing the Answer would take all the fun out of living. Regardless, there’s almost no way the Answer to Everything wouldn’t be tragically disappointing. I wish something would happen to cause people to stop killing each other for no reason, because you only get one life (or rather "you" only occur once), and I think the discovery of an extraterrestrial civilization could do that, but at the same time I wouldn’t want our galactic neighbors to see us like this. Look at us. This place is such a mess.
That actually comes up in Wigu, come to think of it. It’s almost terrifying, the way Topato just ends entire universes, and it doesn’t really seem to matter in the slightest. I don’t know off the top of my head how many times you have, in all reality, killed the entire cast. Do you?
I’m not entirely sure how many times I’ve killed off every living thing in the universe in my comic either. One of my favorite times was where Topato accidentally deleted a worldline in which two asteriods established a gravitational attraction to one another that would eventually become the planet Earth. Everybody on Earth right now is alive against a billion zillion to one odds, and if the slightest thing had gone wrong a million years ago everything would be different today. Topato’s not so much destroying the universe as he is changing a single event in the past that results in a present with differences that range from subtle to vast.
At the same time, though, Wigu (the comic) seems to be largely controlled by the childish logic of Wigu (the kid). He doesn’t exactly strike me as a nihilist. Do you think there’s a sort of tension at play between his worldview and yours, or are the connections easier to find than one might think?
I sort of try to interpret all of these extremely bizarre events through the eyes of this little kid. When you’re eight years old, anything seems possible anyway (and usually more fanciful), and Wigu’s living in a world where basically all hell is breaking loose. He deals with it in the way an eight-year-old would: with excitement, irritability, and occasionally, utter disinterest.
What was it that made you decide to end Wigu, and why did it ultimately start up again? I’ve heard suggestions that you’re sort of financially attached to the comic at your hip, but recently you’ve said on the site that the characters just plain stuck around — and that, surprisingly enough, Overcompensating is actually more popular now. Personally I’m more into Overcompensating myself, but I have to admit that was a surprise.
I decided to end Wigu last year because I had a lot of other ideas at the time. There were five or six live ideas in my head that I really wanted to put out there. You have a relationship with fictional characters of your own creation that’s very intimate (not like that). When I ended "When I Grow Up" as time passed I thought about the characters less and less, but with Wigu I thought about them more and more. This little family in my mind is very much like a family to me, and they’ve got a lot of stories in them. On top of the TV in my living room I have the family portrait that appeared on the cover of "The Bravest Boy in the World."
Overcompensating is the breadwinner now; it brings home the potatoes. It’s OC stuff that’s getting plugs in mainstream press and I see a lot more websites linking to OC now that Wigu. I don’t have a problem with this. Overcompensating is fun and easy to do, because it is an approximate retelling of things that actually occur and I don’t need to spend a lot of time drawing it. My passion is telling these long, weird stories now like the ones I’ve been doing on Wigu. However, the ideas have gotten too big for the constraints of a daily update format; it’s hard to tell a complex yarn when you have to recap after every five minutes of action, and every five minutes needs to be punctuated with some sort of punchline. I’m working on a 24-page Wigu story right now to independently publish as a manga. I’m shooting for Feb 1 to put it for sale and I’ll release the bare-bones comics online a few weeks after that.
In places like Japan, artists train in private — often touching up other, more established artists’ work — before finally making their public debut, polished and in many ways as developed as they’re going to get. In the states we tend to do a lot of our learning in public, and webcomics really exacerbate this. What’s it been like, working and learning to make comics in the very public way you have?
I trained in private. Before I put a single comic on the internet, before I sent one to a syndicate, I studied and drew about 150 comic strips, full size 14" wide thing, that nobody will ever, ever see. I wanted to try to wash off the afterbirth and make myself presentable before I went out into the world.
No artist springs onto the scene fully matured though. If I see somebody doing the exact same style for years and years it’s a little depressing to me. I want to be constantly evolving, getting a little better with every line I draw.
I know you’re not going to want to say anything about it, but I’m pretty sure if I don’t ask Joe will fire my ass. Can you tell me anything about the training wheels strip? Title? Characters? Style? Did anything from it make it into your later work? Do you think more webcomic artists would benefit from such a training period? Etc.?
I think every single person who wants to be taken seriously should take some personal time to really try to see what they’re trying to go for. It’s also a test of personal strength to see if you can actually do it or not. I get so many emails from people asking me to look at their comic that they’ve just started, and they’re almost universally horrible, because they are asking me to look at basically the tenth comic strip they’ve ever drawn in their life. I mean, I’ve drawn probably three or four thousand now and every single thing I do has a lot of room for improvement.
My first 150 comics are a source of monumental personal embarrassment. I still have them, but I haven’t looked at them in months because they are so bad. For this reason they should never be discussed.
What can you tell me about the upcoming Wigu print edition? (This won’t likely run till it’s out, assuming you hit your deadline of choice.) You’ve been referring to it as a manga, which I’m not sure how to read. Is that just what you call print comics now?
The new Wigu book is going to be a book! I’m calling it a manga based purely on the size. I guess it’s a comic book, but there’s also going to be a couple of stories and bonus pages by other artists. So it’s like a comic book but not really, like a zine but not really. I don’t really know enough about comic books to know what it is exactly. That’s my advantage.
Where do you get all the photos for Overcompensating?
About 90% of the photos in OC now are pictures I took; picture in my apartment, of this building, the office, my old basement. I have a stash of photos that I pulled off Google a long time ago that I reuse for consistency but I hate lying to people so I prefer to take all the photos myself.
I categorize dailies two ways: Improvisational and planned. To what extent was Wigu in its daily format improvisational? To what extent was it planned?
The way Wigu was written was very much on the fly. There was sometimes a loose Point A and Point B in my mind but the way they got there was completely made up along the way. Very little planning, especially as busy I’ve been lately, Starting from probably October I would only get to start a comic at about 10 at night and finish it around one or two am. It’s pretty hard to work like that and also be the social butterfly that I am; my social life usually lies between 1am and 4am. My neighbors just adore me.
What’s your schedule like now that you’re taking care of Dumbrella merch with R. Stevens?
My daily schedule begins in the late morning with a telephone call from a bill collector that goes unanswered. I will lie in bed for a while and think about my day and take some notes. The mind is extremely insane right after you wake up so that’s a good time to think about things.
After that I walk to the office and get a bagel and some coffee and check email and put out fires. Our office is in this really neat old factory building that has a grocery store/cafe in it and a lot of cool indie retail shops. Then I’ll do some shipping; it’s pretty nifty now that we’ve got spreadsheets and digital scales and thermal printers and all that. It’s usually a rush to make it to the post office by 5pm. After that I do more shipping until about 7 or 8pm and then it’s time to do other kinds of work, drawing or designing or sometimes going up to Rich’s and taking a Coffee and Katamari break. I probably spend at least 80% of my waking life working. Like this. Is this working? Not really, but it is.
What’s the secret to making shirts that sell, if there is one? It always seems really remarkable to me that comics are subsisting on merchandise as much as they are. I read webcomics, my friends read webcomics, but between the lot of us there are maybe four pieces of merchandise total. ‘Course, my friends and I are poor, but the point stands.
Nowadays I think well over half of the t-shirts I sell are to people who have never read any of my comics. I remember getting a note recently from someone who bought the "I Am Made of Poison" shirt that said something like "I have no idea what that thing is but it looks cool." A good design gets linked up on journals and blogs and stuff and spreads like viral marketing. I do find however that it’s pretty easy to tell between people who read the comics and who don’t because the actual readers who buy stuff are not rude, and the passerby customer can sometimes be rude.
You mention Overcompensating getting mentions in the mainstream press. It’s been really surreal to see that happening recently, with the stories about the "Snakes on a Plane" nonsense. I guess the real question is, which is more weird? The way your comic is finding it into the pages of entertainment magazines, or the fact that the damn movie exists in the first place?
With the "Snakes on a Plane" attention I’m kind of understanding how Jon Rosenberg feels about his "Republicans for Voldemort" design. It’s nice to get the attention but at the same time I wish the attention was due to something completely of my own creation. I guess that’s just the way of the zeitgeist. When Meredith Gran first told me about the movie I thought it was a hysterical idea; something that was so literal that it was absurd. I hope the movie is silly. With that title if the movie takes itself even slightly seriously I’m going to be seriously disappointed.
You mentioned viral marketing, and that’s something interesting about the ‘net. It really promotes artists who are skilled at making things that people will basically shout at each other over AIM. I’d put you in the category of people who are good at that kind of thing. I guess I wonder what you think of the phenomenon.
I’m not sure what to think about the "viral pop culture" of cyberspace. I mean, it’s a culture that thrives on and breeds attention deficit disorder. Information flies around so fast that people just kind of grab onto quirky life-preservers of information for a couple of weeks then move on to the next thing, and they usually move on the the next thing with a sense of absolute contempt for the first thing. I’ve seen people get ANGRY when someone says "all your base are belong to us." I see people get angry about the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The trick is not to oversaturate, and to know when to back off.
So at this point, with the book and the business are you pretty much doing what you want to be? Is this all building to a secret and terrible plot?
I plead the fifth on the plot. As far as doing what I want, I couldn’t imagine a better life. I remember in 2001, our first trip to San Diego Comic-Con, I met up with John Allison and R Stevens and we went as spectators. There was no internet-comic presence at Comic-Con. The next year we got a small press table. Five years later, we’ve got our own section. I feel kind of like I played a little bit in the part of the building of the current webcomics universe; whether that is a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen.
I make my living based completely on my wits and my creativity; I can’t imagine a more rewarding life that that.
My last shirt related question, I think: One of the most surreal things for me over the past few years has been seeing people walking around with Homestar Runner and Achewood shirts, and the like. Have you run into somebody with one of your shirts — or, for that matter, one of Rich’s? If you did/do, would/will you approach them?
We run into people that recognize the designs fairly often. At the Sufjan Stevens show there was a cute girl walking around in a DS "Ten Ninjas" shirt and Rich and I just kind of looked at each other like "huh." It’s funny because you see a hundred million "Old Navy" tshirts and you never hear anybody say "Omigod! Old Navy! You like Old Navy too?" At a good number of the concerts I go to I see somebody wearing one of my shirts, but I never would approach them. That’s kind of weird.
How do you feel about the webcomic community?
I don’t think too much about the webcomic community. I have my own little community that is fun and I work and get my job done. I have friends and things that I like to do outside and when I’m not doing that I like to spend time by myself in my own head.
What I do know about the webcomics community seems to be extremely drama-driven. It seems to thrive on controversy and insults and stuff. Life’s too short to be constantly angry. I gave all that up when a spider almost killed me; if something isn’t extremely fun then I don’t want much to do with it these days.
What’s your favorite kind of webcest?
Webcest is all bad, that’s why it’s called "webcest."
Is there a mission too extreme to undertake on the word of Collin Meloy?
I am not on speaking terms with the Decemberists right now after their disappointing Northampton show.
I think we’re winding down at this point. Is there something I should have asked you? Is there something you’d like to ask me? How about Topanga, from Boy Meets World. Would you like to ask her anything?
You have asked me every question I am physically capable of answering. Do you know Topanga? Ask her what she’s doing later.