Opera, Death, and Overcaffination: An Interview with Shannon Wheeler

Cartoonist Shannon Wheeler made a name for himself after years of penning the misadventures of not-quite-superhero Too Much Coffee Man, one of the most oddest, funniest and occasionally heartbreaking alternative comic strips of the 1990s . After a long run on the overly-caffeinated, existentially tormented hero in the long red pajamas that includes hundreds of strips, a number of collections and a two act opera, Wheeler has moved on to greener cartooning pastures, providing cartoons to the hallowed halls of the New Yorker. October 2010 will see the release of The Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus by Dark Horse Comics, representing the sum total of Wheeler’s work on the strip. I got a chance to talk with him briefly about opera, television, beginnings, endings, and the travails of life on the college paper, before the omnibus hits shelves …


The Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus came out not too long ago, collecting all the Too Much Coffee Man comics from anyplace ever. Anytime I see any omnibus of that nature, I can’t help but think about something Bill Watterson wrote in the foreword to the big Calvin and Hobbes collection that came out, to the effect of how weird it is to see the length and breadth of a series in a box essentially. Is there something jarring about that?

There is, I think that’s what causing me some of the mental problems in dealing with it. I mean, just looking at this thing and just going “Well, I put ten years of effort and sacrifice to make this.” ‘Was it really worth it?’ is what you really have to face up against. And of course there’s no answer, and you alternate between feeling a lot of pride and a lot of shame, and ultimately you get to “Well, this is what it is and this is what I’ve done” and you move forward. But it’s a lot of emotions to deal with, definitely.

To you, is Too Much Coffee Man a comic strip, or a weird superhero story, or something else altogether?

I don’t know. I thought it was going to be something that would last one strip. I thought this would be one gag, and I did it sort of as a play. It was just a one-off. And then I turned in some ads for a book store, and I thought “I can do a comic strip that’s an advertisement.” So I did a little ad for them, and then I was like, oh, I’ll just do another one, and I’ll do a second issue of the mini-comic, and I just kept coming up with stories that seemed to suit the way I thought about things. It became a lot more personal than I thought it would be, too, and it became very autobiographical in an sort of an existential way. A lot of my stuff was always autobiographical, but emotionally I found I could express these thoughts and fears, and it was just so efficient and convenient I just kept having ideas, and I thought “If this is my inspiration, why fight it? Why do something more artsy … if what I want to do is write Too Much Coffee Man stories?” I don’t know, it made me happy.

You’ve started working with The New Yorker recently. Are the pieces you’re doing for them kind of extensions of the work you’ve been doing in Too Much Coffee Man and Postage Stamp Funnies, or something else entirely?

I would say something else entirely, but also sort of the same thing. It’s out of the same mental process. A lot of their cartoon strips I feel are two things: one, they’re little puzzles where you think “Here’s an idea,” and then you work backwards from that to figure our why a situation has been created. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle where the words have to fit right, and then you figure it out and it creates humor because you figured out this puzzle of why the fish is standing at the bar or whatever … and the tighter the puzzle, the better the joke is. And it’s largely intuitive — you think of images or circumstances, and then you’re brain just kind of coughs up a joke. The other thing they are is they’re like little short stories where you extrapolate this whole preamble to what’s happening, and to what happens afterwards as well, and you’re just getting this key moment.

You’ve done two acts of The Too Much Coffee Man Opera at this point. Any plans to keep expanding this into sort of a Too Much Coffee Man ring cycle?

I’ve thought about it. Actually, what I would like to do is tighten it up again and make it back into a one act and take out all the parts that don’t work, because I like the idea of an opera that’s about an hour long. It’s very doable then, and accessible … something that’s more than the first act but less than the two acts together. You know, just take out all the dumb parts …

The opera aside, are there any plans for TMCM to make the jump to other media? If I recall, there was talk of a TV show at one point?

If I had the right people to work with, I’d be game to do it. He’s more suited for opera than he is for animation, oddly. You’d think this would be kind of a gimme for a TV show, but there’s so much internal dialogue, and a lot of the humor depends on these weird observations. Cartoons are more about gross physical humor, like something where Homer is eating too much food, and that’s funny because he’s fat. But Too Much Coffee Man is more worried about death. It’s a more subtle existential humor, and it’s a harder translation into animation. Into opera, it really worked, because opera is all internal dialogue. They’re singing their feelings, and it’s not a problem. That’s what really shocked me – I thought it was an improbable leap to go into opera, but when we really got into it, everything just fit so well that I was amazed it hadn’t been done before.

You’re writing operas and, as of recently, making cartoons for The New Yorker – at what point are you so classy that you’re required by law to wear a top hat and monocle everywhere you go, a la Mr. Peanut?

Or just be shot for being too pretentious. At least I’m offset by the title Too Much Coffee Man, which is about as dumb as you can get, so that provides some balance.

Are you enjoying what you’re doing right now, though?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. The stress of putting on a show was intense, but … I’ve completely lucked out. Having The New Yorker buying cartoons — that’s just amazing. I just don’t feel like I deserve it.

Did they approach you, or did you shop yourself around? How did that work out?

I met one of the other cartoonists who worked there and he gave me some tips about how to look at the cartoons, what to submit, and how to submit … they want people to show that they’re not sprinters, they’re marathon runners. They want you to submit ten cartoons a week to show that you’ve got the stamina to be a solid cartoonist. What he told me was “They’re looking for cartoonists, not cartoons.” They want people to show that they’ve got the long run.

Was it harder for you to go to the one panel format rather than a strip?

I actually started with one panels. Back in college, I did a gag cartoon for my college paper. And I tried to get in on a strip, but the editor of the paper was doing a strip, so he wouldn’t let me have a strip, but he would let me have a single panel. So I did that for a few years, and I kept saying “I want to do a strip” and hearing back “Oh, well, maybe some day.” It drove me absolutely nuts.

Is that a guy you’re ever tempted to call up out of nowhere and go ‘HA!’ and hang up?

Yeah, he’s on my list. My little Nixon list of people I want to have revenge on.

So the Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus will be out shortly?

Yeah, put your orders in now so we can take your money … it is really nice to see all of this stuff in one place and if nothing else to say I’ve gotten better from when I started. That’s a good feeling.