Pagan Pedagogics - David Willis Interview
Aaaaaaand we’re back! Time for the 3rd and final chapter in our tour of the web strip realm. And what better way to end it than with David Willis. Dave’s been around for a long time, starting in 1997 with his first webcomic Roomies/It’sWalky. He’s currently making Shortpacked, which I first ran across after reading No Pink Ponies and is the strip we’ll look at more closely today. He’s a quality story teller and an all round funny guy especially when his wit addresses the “collection” of things. He’s made fun of toy collectors, comic collectors and… uh… well… are there any other kind?
I suck out the chocolate from M&M’s and collect the shells? I call the MuMM&M’s.
It takes the edge off and nobody gets hurt.
Anyway! Dave’s a hoot and I hope you enjoy this little peek into his mind.
Q: Tell me/us about yourself? Where did you grow up? Live now? Family? School? Wife? Kids?
DW: I spent my 16 most-cognizant years before college in La Porte, Indiana, which has a population roughly equal to my readership. Whenever I get haughty about my numbers, I remember that as big as it seems in abstract, it still doesn’t fill anything larger than a dinky town.
I went to Indiana University in Bloomington for a year and some change, which is where I started (and set) my first comic, Roomies!, but I graduated from the Illinois Institute of Art in Schaumburg. I got a Bachelors in Fine Art, specializing in computer animation. Whoops.
I live now in Columbus, Ohio, in an apartment with a roommate, and ever so often I fly out to California to meet with Maggie, my on-again-off-again sweetie. We met because she was a reader and I was her rock star. It sounds kind of creepy when you say it that way, doesn’t it?
DW: I sell advertising, limited prints, and get donations for access to membership-only Joyce and Walky! comics. Ever so often I’ll do a commission, when peeps ask.
Q: Who inspires you?
DW: The Lord. Well, Lord Zarak. He’s got a hot daughter. You know, everyone in this business says Schulz’s Peanuts, Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, and Breathed’s Bloom County, and I won’t stand for it. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I am completely inspired by Jim Davis and his Garfield. No, not even his Garfield, his Mr. Potato Head comics. You know, everyone in the business seems to revile him for being a huge sell-out, but I bet he makes enough money to not care. And wish that could be me.
Q: Why do you do a comic strip? What do you get out of it?
DW: Savings in therapy bills. For seriously, drawing comics is my shrink. You know how psychiatry is basically just talking to some guy and all he does is nod for two hours, and then you realize that you should stop hating your mother because she lied about going to Taco Bell for dinner when you were three? Drawing comics is like that. I deem individual strips successful if I start out yelling at somebody for being stupid and by the last panel I’m mocking myself for being so dramatic.
But why a comic strip in particular? Three words. “Short attention .” They’re the only storytelling medium where you can do 15 seconds of a conversation, call it a day, and do the next 15 seconds the following day, in infinitum. If I had to, like, write a screenplay, I’d actually have to focus for more than an hour.
Q: You have a great sense of comedic timing. Did you study comedy, read a book, or is it just gift?
DW: I’d like to say gift, but it’s really just practice. I recommend Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner to school you good in timing, and then a few grueling years of trying to get it to work. Or if you just want to fake a good sense of timing, all you have to do is put a silent penultimate panel in every installment. You know, the old “Somebody says something, then the other guy reacts with silliness, then uncomfortable staring, then punchline!” It’s a formula but it bloody works! At least, until everybody is on to you.
Q: How many people do you estimate read your strip?
DW: Roughly 26,000 people.
DW: Doing a webcomic seems easy, y’know? And it’s a way to get in people’s faces until they adore you. And then there’s Penny-Arcade, which makes a hojillion dollars every minute, so there’s this “I could totally do that” effect. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it looks. Some of it’s skill, some of it’s luck, but it’s always gotta be hard work for many years before people realize you exist. Most people hate that part and quit early.
Why do people read webcomics? Hell if I know, ‘cuz Scrubs is on television every hour of the day if you know where to look, and so we really shouldn’t be that starved for entertainment.
Q: Do you go to the conventions? Why? what’s that like? What are your fans like?
DW: I go to BotCon every year without fail, or I will die. But that’s probably not what you’re talking about.
I’ve been to a few Comic-Cons. It’s pretty great, if you like setting apart a few days a year to fly out to California to sit at a table and have people to line up to tell you you’re God and give you money. And I’m pretty sure most people do.
DW: I can say “f*ck.”
Q: Did you ever work in retail?
DW: Oh lord, yes. My first job – actually, no, wait. My first job was drawing Roomies!, $2 a strip, for the Indiana Daily Student. It was great getting that $100 check at the end of the semester. But my first real job was at Meijer, where I was a checkout guy. Man, I used to have the produce number for pluots memorized. When I went to art college, I worked at a Warner Bros Studio Store for a few years, until AOL bought Time Warner and shut them all down. I was their best clothes folder. I was like unto a machine. Most relevant, however, were my subsequent years working for Toys “R” Us, a job which I could eventually quit because people kept sending me money for drawing. That was sweet.
Q: You’re into transformers, so I hear, why? Where do you keep them all?
DW: On shelves, on tables, on more shelves, on more shelves, my desk, and in the closet. How I got into Transformers is fairly embarrassing. As one could probably tell, I have a pretty obsessive personality. When I was a toddler, I was full-on geek for Sesame Street. Actually, no, I was all Close Encounters of the Third Kind for Sesame Street. I’d build dozens of little Sesame Street signs out of scrap wood and metal at my grandparents’ place, one after another, like little mashed potato Devil’s Towers. So around first grade, my mom realized someone had to put a stop to this, and she started buying me Transformers. Well, it got me off Sesame Street! But now I’m an admin on the Transformers Wiki.
Q: Transformers or a million dollars (that you couldn’t spend on transformers)?
DW: Million dollars! I’d spend the million dollars on food so I don’t have to spend so much of my own on it while I’m collecting Transformers. Oh, and maybe another pair of pants.
Q: Transformers or peace on earth (which meant the end of the transformer toy line)?
DW: I live in a nice non-terrorist-target neighborhood in the United States. I got peace enough already! Screw the rest of the world! Just give me a new Nightbeat for crying out loud.
Q: Transformers or the last food ever?
DW: Is it Taco Bell?
Q: Where did the name “Galasso” come from?
DW: Between working at the Warner Bros Studio Store and Toys “R” Us, I worked at a theme restaurant, Mars 2112. I would run the spaceship ride that would take people “from the present day forward in time to the future, on the planet Mars,” which involved switching some walls around and turning on UV lights while people were inside the simulator. We had a screen outside the exit door that listed the families by name who had tables available. One day, it said GALASSO. I decided that was the best name ever, and vowed to use it in my strip someday somehow.
Q: Why Reagan?
DW: He was President from when I was 1 to when I was 7. He’s like a grandfather to me. A kindly old man who says you’re totally awesome and we’re gonna get those commies.
Q: Is there really such a thing as a Customer Protection Racket.
DW: Walk into a Toys “R” Us and try to buy a bike. You’ll be given a Buyer Protection Plan. If the employees are actually following the rules to the letter, try to buy a $2 action figure. You’ll also be given a Buyer Protection Plan. It will cost you $3 to insure your $2 action figure. Great, huh?
Q: When you referenced your old truck, there was a strip in the background. Did you do an old strip I/we don’t know about?
DW: Oh, right. I did It’s Walky! for 7 years. (Including the 3 years of Roomies!.) I guess a lot of stuff I answered earlier doesn’t make sense if you don’t know how prolific I am. Read me up on Wikipedia.
Q: Is there going to be more revealed about Robin’s past? (http://www.itswalky.com/d/20030826.html)
DW: Read the last year or so of It’s Walky!. Beyond that, probably, eventually.
Q: Jerk guy Mike? We all love to hate him, but didn't he get blown to smithereens? Is that something that will ever be looked at/explained? (http://www.itswalky.com/d/19990416.html)
DW: Robin and Mike were always intended to be my carry-overs from It's Walky! to Shortpacked!, both because they were pretty thin on emotional/storyline baggage. However, as I got towards the end of drawing It's Walky!, I decided I needed a bigger bodycount, so whoops, Mikes got killed, even though that didn't change my plans to use him in Shortpacked!. I figger he's back because he's just that awesome. Will I ever give an "in-universe" reason? Maybe....
Q: Any wedding plans for Amber? Or Faz? Anyone.
DW: Probably not! But you never know. Robin could be getting married next week and I wouldn’t even know until she tells me on paper. She’s kinda unpredictable.
Q: You do a shorter, 3 panel strip of Shortpacked now, can you tell us about that?
DW: No! I mean, yes. Yes I can tell you about that.
So I guess I will. Anyway, TNI was all “Hey, do us a comic” and I was all “Sure.” It’s had a weird impact on the strip, in that I decided that all the TNI strips must absolutely be about toy collecting or toy stores and not about the characters’ personal lives, and so that means many of those jokes are shunted over to the weekly TNI strip and so I’m left with fewer of them for the main strip, and so, huzzah, Shortpacked! is now more about the characters’ personal lives to fill in the void.
It’s in many ways a different animal from the main strip, just due to its formatting. Whereas before I would always have this big page-sized space and sometimes only have a tiny joke to fill it with, the smaller strip size at TNI is beautiful for filling with smaller jokes that I don’t have to artificially expand into an epic page-sized production. It’s got a different rhythm.
Q: Can you tell us about Joyce and Walky?
DW: Well, when I ended my 7 years of Roomies!/It’s Walky!, apparently some readers felt that even though the story was over and half of the characters were dead, they were quite willing to pay me money to draw a sequel of sorts. And so I do! It’s not quite as in-your-face as IW! was merely due to the new conceits: Joyce and Walky have to maintain their happy ending, so they can’t break up or get a divorce or anything, and so romantic tension is largely gone. I do get to do some crazy things with it though, like those few months where I told a side story from a parallel universe where Walky never met Joyce and Joyce fought her zombified evil clone. Yeah.
Q: Will we ever see more of Rip and Teri? (http://www.graphicsmash.com//comics/rip.php?view=first)
DW: You’d have to ask T Campbell about that! I was surprised when it ended. It seemed like it could have easily been an ongoing serial-style story, but T’s always been about moving on and exploring new things. He writes like 30 million strips a day.
Q: You ever seen Empire Records? Has Shortpacked been compared to it?
DW: Well, let me Google it. Oh, a movie? No, I haven’t seen it. And I guess you’re the first that’s brought up any similarity. Man, there’s this new comedy on TNN or something called “10 Items or Less” that is totally ripping me off now. They even advertised this Christmas episode in which they hawk Jesus for cash, which was totally one of my strips that was totally original and nobody ever thought up before on their own, I swear.
Q: You produce an amazing number of strips per week? How?
DW: Is it an amazing number of strips? It feels less now, than before when I was doing It’s Walky!, but now that I count them up, yeah, I guess it’s more. It’s Walky! was 7 strips a week 365 days a year for seven years, so I guess the daily content seemed more overwhelming than the three Shortpacked!s a week. But sometimes I do five! And then there’s the free Joyce and Walky! on the weekend and the two subscription Joyce and Walky!s and the TNI Shortpacked! strip… so, yeah, I guess it’s more. But they’re multiple smaller projects instead of one large one, so it feels like less, I suppose. At least I’m not still drawing Fans! and coloring Rip and Teri and … man, I should really get back to redrawing those old It’s Walky!s. In other words, I should be doing more. This isn’t enough.
Q: Your favorite comic book to read? Book you’d like to work on?
DW: I dig Ultimate Spider-Man. Every once in a while I like to pick up a Batman, though now that Ed McGuinness has become exclusive to Marvel that probably won’t happen with the same frequency. Damn you, Marvel! I’ve also been reading Devil’s Due’s recent G.I. Joe stuff, and of course I read IDW’s Transformers comics. I probably enjoy the Transformers stuff the most -- but not because I believe they’re the best written, quality-wise, or anything. I mean, they’re not bad, but the Transformers monster inside my brain devours them like a steak dinner. It’s not like I can read Ultimate Spider-Man and then go update the Spider-Man wiki. With TFs it feels more interactive. I enjoy Spider-Man. I study Transformers.
Q: Where do you, personally, want to be in 2 years? 5 years? And heaven help us, 10 years?
DW: I’m not gonna answer that! If I give an answer, I’m gonna read in 2 or 5 or 10 years and say “Ha ha, stupid dork thought he was gonna be a millionaire, what a tard” and then realize that hey, that’s me, and then cry inside. But if I had to guess, I’ll probably accidentally get some girl pregnant, have to get a real job, and lose all my dreams.
Q: What’s your favorite web comic strip?
DW: I am currently totally digging Sheldon by Dave Kellett. He does the kind of strip I think I would like to do if I had integrity and were dedicated to my craft.
Q: Favorite food?
DW: I know most people would expect me to say Taco Bell, but there’s nothing quite like a juicy pile of crab legs.
Q: Any other upcoming events, either in the strip or with your other work, you’d like to tell us about?
DW: I think I’m about to start another Epic Storyline, akin to last year’s Drama Tag thing. I meant to do this one earlier, but I kept pushing it off and fitting more stuff in. It’ll be weird. And I bet no one will understand it.
Q: Humor has often been mistaken for wisdomJ. If that were true, what wisdom would you impart now?
DW: Be a Dr. Cox, not a Dr. Kelso. Or the other way around, I’m not sure. Alternately, I recently saw a vanity license plate that read “BE A DOG.” I think that’s pretty wise. I don’t know what it means, but it sounds pretty wise for some reason.
Be a dog? Maybe you should talk to Phillip Jackson, I think he’d be able to help.
OK gang! That’s it for David Willis! I hope you enjoyed this three part look into webcomic strips. Don’t go too far, I’m gonna follow this up with something that will put my thoughts on webcomic strips into focus. Y’know, some sort of moral… principle type… thing… or something… I don’t know, I have to figure one out. Anyway, here are the relavant strips just in case. See ya next week!
Brant W. Fowler is a freelance writer, letterer and occasionally artist and web/graphic designer currently residing in Kentucky. Brant is also an internet columnist who currently contributes to a couple of sites, a former Editor-In-Chief of two small comic companies, and regular blogger. Throughout most of the internet he is known as “Gonzogoose” or simply “Gonzo” for reasons he declines to comment on. Brant is currently pursuing both company and creator owned opportunities in comics and other media. He aspires to someday write, illustrate and letter a comic turned novel, turned movie in which he will play a role and record some of the music for. It’s a lofty goal, but that is why he is the fabled “Gonzogoose!”