Interviewed by Christian Lipski
I first encountered Shannon Wheeler’s work when we were undergraduates at UC Berkeley and he drew a strip called Tooth & Justice in the school paper, The Daily Californian. He’s best known now for the character Too Much Coffee Man, who became Wheeler’s voice for social commentary and satire.
The TMCM comic series earned an Eisner award in 1995. Wheeler’s current home, Portland Oregon, saw the premiere of the Too Much Coffee Man opera in 2006 (and its extended “refill” in 2008). Wheeler also created Postage Stamp Funnies for The Onion’s print edition, and is publishing his cartoons in The New Yorker.
When did you start drawing—was it a love from early childhood or something you came to later on?
I learned how to read by looking at comics. I have memories of not being able to read and looking at comics. Comics gave me the motivation to read. They made me want to read. I looked at them, and their story telling, as magic. By drawing comics I’ve been trying to get revenge ever since.
I loved to read Zippy the Pinhead and the cartoons in National Lampoon (R.I.P.) when I was growing up—what were your cartoon and comic book inspirations?
Gahan Wilson, Edward Gorey, Jack Kirby, Fat Freddy’s Cat. . . it’s an odd combination when I look back at it.
You have a degree in architecture from UC Berkeley—how did it influence your cartooning? Did it help with the commercial illustrating you did for the Idiot’s Guide books and The New Vampire’s Handbook?
It helped with the vampire book. Sometimes it helped with the Idiot books—when I have to draw buildings I have a mental library to pull from. Mostly, school gave me the wherewithal to work hard.
You drew strips for UC Berkeley’s The Daily Californian & UT Austin’s The Daily Texan—did you work with any other current comic artists during your tenure there?
Chris Ware, Robert Rodreguez, Walt Holcombe, Tom King, Jeannette Moreno. . . it was amazing at the Daily Texan. I was an amateur compared to them. It forced me to up my game to the next level.
Was there an editorial process at the Daily Cal/Texan or The Onion that would cause to you rework submissions?
In both places it was tough to get in, but once you pass the hurdle the comics are yours to create. There was a secretary at the Daily Cal who used to cut cartoons that offended her. She’s tried to friend me on Facebook a number of times. I keep refusing it. If she’d been an editor editing my stuff I would have taken (and deserved) the criticism.
You’ve lived in Austin TX and Portland OR, two cities frequently seen as similar cities with opposite climates—do you agree with the similarity? What are your favorite aspects of each city?
And Berkeley! There are similarities. The politics are liberal. People respect and value art, music, food, health, environment. There was dancing in the street when Obama was elected. I miss the thunderstorms of Texas. I don’t miss the humidity.