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Band Tees and Inside Jokes: The PopMatters Exclusive with the 'Li’l Depressed Boy' Creators

Michael D. Stewart
An Awfully Great Adventure: Struble and Stina, Li'l Depressed Boy creators, express an elegance in drawing together works in the popular imagination.

Image Comics’ Li'l Depressed Boy isn't the most conventional series on comic stands. Part comedy, part romance, part drama, it’s also charming, whimsical, snarky, and offbeat. In an exclusive and frank interview with its creators, PopMatters gets to the heart of the cultural influences that go into making this critically acclaimed bestseller.

Image Comics’ Li'l Depressed Boy is not the most conventional series on comic stands. Its part comedy, part romance, part drama and could possibly be part adventure. It’s also charming, whimsical, snarky, and offbeat. But for all the adjectives you could use to describe the book, it comes down to that the comic makes a deep emotional connection with readers, the kind that exceeds its humble roots.

“[It’s] like a Nick Hornby book – but in comic form,” says Li'l Depressed Boy artist Sina Grace. “Depending on the day, I’d call it a different genre,” adds Li'l Depressed Boy creator and writer S. Steven Struble. “Sometimes it’s comedy. Sometimes it’s slice of life.”

That’s the type of answer you would expect from the creative team behind the romantic misadventures of a ragdoll hero describing the literary space he inhabits. For a protagonist, LDB is a broad representation of the generational stupor so many have experienced over the last three decades, and the connection Struble and Grace make to the works of Nick Hornby is very telling of how deep our shared cultural experiences go. And like Hornby’s work, Li'l Depressed Boy can’t be pegged down as being in one genre. The general “comedy” tag certainly applies, but the story of a little melancholy ragdoll far exceeds that label.

The roots of Li'l Depressed Boy are more fitting than could possibly be imagined. “When I was in junior high school, I doodled a little ragdoll character on the back of one of my math tests,” Struble recalls. “I gave him the nickname my brother used to taunt me with when I got moody.” Years later Struble would develop his doodle into a Web comic, first as newspaper-style strip and then later as a straight Web comic. Many artists would be employed during this period, but eventual Struble and Grace would hook up and form the central dynamic of Li'l Depressed Boy that appears monthly from Image.

The essential qualities of the book are like stepping into an alternate world similar to our own – so familiar but existing in a two dimensional space. “Band t-shirts, inside jokes, crazy outfits, somber hues and a lot of black,” are the prominent traits according to Grace. And those feelings are not just seen, but felt through their story telling, as Li'l Depressed Boy has that authentic quality that allows readers to easily identify with the story and characters. The genuine feeling of LDB as a protagonist is certainly a major draw.

“He [LDB] struggles with the most basic interaction with other living beings. It’s easier to just descend into video games, comic books and his record collection,” says Struble. He could be describing Rob Gordon from Hornby’s quintessential novel High Fidelity. The universality of the characters to gen-xers and even gen-yers is a justifiable strength. Connection to the main character is essential for a book to succeed, and Li'l Depressed Boy excels at being able to connect with its core audience. We can quickly identify with the situations LDB finds himself, and when he meets the girl of his dreams, we are right there with his triumphs and follies. He’s us, only “formless and lumpy,” as Grace describes.

Music plays a strong supporting piece, nearly taking the book to a multi-media experience. The bands and songs the creators feature form a sort of soundtrack that highlight the action and add a further emotional element to the scenes. “It’s another way to allow the reader to get what’s going on in [LDB’s] head. Music is our way of showing the mood, rather than telling,” Grace reveals. And the criteria for inclusion: “Do we love them?” says Struble. With artists like Kepi Ghoulie and bands like The Like, the music is a bit obscure for the causal music fan, but as Struble says, “I’d like to think you can read the book without tracking down the music. Those that go out and track down the music we recommend, however, will end up with an expanded experience that adds to the story.”

The success of Li'l Depressed Boy was forged when the first print issue hit the direct market: it sold out – a feat that would humble even the most high profile creative team. “I don’t remember getting excited about the sell out,” recalls Grace. “I remember going: ‘Frick, how do we get a second printing?’ And then thinking: ‘Crap, now I have to draw a second printing cover.’ I’m always thinking of what’s wrong.” Struble recalls, “I was so excited. It’s nice when the story you’re telling connects with readers. I was also excited to get to make Sina draw the variant cover.”

That variant cover was fittingly a tribute to the seminal Cameron Crow character Lloyd Dobler from the movie Say Anything, and like Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, he was played by John Cusack. If there was a movie leading man soul mate for LDB, it would be Cusack. The earnestness of the characters Cusack has played is a complete parallel to LDB, and the soundtracks surrounding each are equally inspiring and emotional enveloping. Two peas in an iPod, as the saying goes.

With the first story arc, the hopes for the second arc are just as high, but instead of treading down the same territory of the lovelorn ragdoll, Struble and Grace are sending LDB on a road trip. “In the second arc, LDB and Drew hit the road to go to a concert as an escape,” reveals Struble. “Unfortunately, running into inevitable disaster along the way.” “We’ve got great plans for how to explore being a Li'l Depressed Boy without ever approaching ‘Emo’,” adds Grace. “Ultimately, Li'l Depressed Boy is about relationships,” opines Struble, and ultimately that what is the most attractive quality of the book.

Li'l Depressed Boy is not going to blow you away with action, no matter how intense the video game playing gets – and it gets intense. And it’s not going to send you into a blue valentine of despair with its romantic drama – though the heartbreaking conclusion to the last issue certainly qualifies. What Li’l Depressed Boy will do is infect you with its charm, authenticity and great soundtrack. “LDB is trying to emerge from his shell and venture out so that he can hopefully share those things he loves with the outside world,” says Struble. He could be speaking about himself and Grace. Thanks for sharing guys; the world is much more relatable with The Li'l Depressed Boy in our lives.

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