I first met Andrew Neal in March 2012, when cartoonist Ben Towle and I carpooled to Chapel Hill, North Carolina for a presentation and signing by John Porcellino at Chapel Hill Comics. By that time, Neal had worked at Chapel Hill Comics for eighteen years, first as an employee at the store’s original iteration, Second Foundation, and since 2003 as owner and manager. I was so impressed by the store—bright, inviting, with an in-store stock that served diverse readerships and reflected Neal’s own very good taste—that I would visit Chapel Hill Comics whenever I could, even though I lived a three-hour drive away. In the summer of 2014, Neal sold the store and retired from comics retailing, and I still regret missing his final in-store party, featuring publisher Chris Pitzer of AdHouse books and cartoonists and future Kayfabers Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg. (For more on Neal’s retailing career, see Rob Clough’s “Exit Strategy,” an interview on this very site in 2014, as Neal prepared to hand off Chapel Hill Comics to its new owners.)
Neal remained active in comics—I’d bump into him every June at Charlotte’s Heroes Con—and in 2018 he began to write and draw Meeting Comics, a four-panel comic strip currently available three times a week through Patreon, e-mail newsletter, social media, and print. (The strip’s site, meetingcomics.com, describes in detail the many ways that Neal’s comic is available.) Meeting Comics began as a gag-driven diversion that Neal drew during his lunch hour at his job, but quickly evolved into a self-described “workplace gag comic soap opera” populated by an eccentric and playful cast.
Many of Neal’s main characters make the cover of Meeting Comics #3 (2019), including (from left to right) Rob the Human Relations robot, off-kilter boss Don (a Vietnam vet and co-star in his youth of a TV show about the war titled Namdroid) , office alpha female Val, Thomas (a.k.a. the Ribbon Cutter), and punk rocker and activist Kevin, all of whom are discussed in the interview below.
My thrice-weekly doses of Meeting Comics are a highlight of my current comics reading, so it was a joy to interview Neal about the evolution of his comic strip and his ideas about humor and creativity. The interview took place on February 7, 2020, soon after the release of a collection of the first-year Meeting Comics strips from AdHouse Books.
CRAIG FISCHER: Let’s pretend that this interview is a sequel to the TCJ one that you did with Rob Clough in 2014, when you sold Chapel Hill Comics. What have you been doing for the last six years, and how did those events lead you to the creation of Meeting Comics?
ANDREW NEAL: I spent a couple of years taking advantage of the fact that I had just sold the store. I did some freelance illustrations but didn’t push terribly hard to get work. After a couple of years of that, I got a day job; I’ve worked at a library for the last four years. That’s what I do now. In 2017, Chapel Hill Comics went under, but I have continued. [Laughter]
It seems to me, from reading nine issues of Meeting Comics, that you have an intuitive grasp of the rhythms of the four-panel comic strip. Did you grow up reading newspaper comics? Do you have favorites that influence Meeting Comics?
I grew up reading all types of comics. Archie is an influence. Bloom County was huge for me. Peanuts. The Far Side. I respect Calvin and Hobbes but never loved it as much as everyone else—mostly, I read it and said, “Wow, Watterson can draw.”
Why so lukewarm about Calvin and Hobbes?
It’s probably Watterson’s “sense of wonder.” It’s just so sincere. [Laughter.] Peanuts is dark—to the point where every Peanuts parody misses the point. You don’t need to make Peanuts darker, and that’s what people always do. Even as a kid, I connected more with Peanuts’ darkness than Calvin’s excitement and sense of wonder, but I love Watterson’s art. I don’t know who wouldn’t admire that.
I did read a lot of newspaper strips; I bought book collections and read them over and over, especially the Bloom County books that came out in the 1980s. Now, though, I don’t read strips in the newspaper. I look at the new Nancy online, but I don’t have it in my daily routine, though I do think it’s a solid comic. There are probably others out there that I’m missing—but the comics I read as a kid were much more of an influence.
In 1985, when I was ten years old, my mom moved to Chapel Hill with my brother and me, and that’s the first time I saw alternative news weeklies. Chapel Hill had two weeklies, The Independent and The Spectator, and I think The Spectator ran Matt Groening’s Life in Hell and Lynda Barry’s Ernie Pook’s Comeek. Those were an influence too. I’d never seen anything like them, and they were my first “indy comics.”
Did either newspaper carry early Alison Bechdel?
I didn’t see Dykes to Watch Out For until later, in book form.
I see one similarity between you and Bechdel: both of you do (or in Bechdel’s case, did) ensemble comedies.
Dykes is a pretty good strip, but honestly, Futurama is more of a direct influence on my decision to do an ensemble comedy.
There’s no robots in Dykes to Watch Out For…
Right, and there’s Rob, my robot character in Meeting Comics—but I never thought of Futurama as a workplace comedy until after I was drawing one.
Another giant influence was Rob Walton’s Ragmop. It started when I was in college and was my favorite comic the entire time it was being published. It was simultaneously deeply political and absurdly goofy, and it was slam full of references, half of which I probably didn’t get. There’s a sequence that parodies John Carpenter’s The Thing with Dr. Seuss mixed in that I still think about a couple times a year. It felt like he just threw all his interests onto the page and made them work together, which is what I try to do, to some extent.
In your Meeting Comics zines, you sometimes include color pages that sell a gag. I’m thinking of the strip where your Jesus / Jay character turns water into wine, and we see the characters’ glasses fill up with red ink. But you also use color pages to show where you place yellow or orange Post-It Notes over mistakes in your panels, and then you re-draw on the Note. You also mentioned in one of your editorial pages that you like to “show process.” Why?
Because I like to see process. I like sketchbooks. Even if I’m not interested in someone’s finished project, I like to see their sketchbooks. In the minicomics, I’ll take one set of four pages, reproduce that as a color copy, and then slide it in among the black-and-white pages.
Sometimes the color pages are the centerfold, and sometimes they’re the first and last pages.
Exactly. Wherever color makes sense in the story or gag. I haven’t done as much color lately, but the sticky-notes strips are there because I like to see process in other people’s art. Chip Kidd-designed books have inspired me—his Peanuts book, and his Batman Animated book, which specifically had storyboards with sticky notes over some of the panels. I didn’t think of Batman Animated when I was laying a sticky note over a panel in Meeting Comics: that was just a case of fixing mistakes.
There was a time when I drew my strips on my lunch break, and carried sticky notes for quick corrections, because quick was a big part of the goal at first. There’s such an emphasis on perfection, while simultaneously there is plenty of art out there that’s purposefully rough looking. I like the rough art.
There are people who consider the sticky notes an affectation, or as a reference to characters in an office. Some people ask, “Why do you do that?”—because they haven’t encountered an art book with corrections before. I tell them it’s because I screwed up a drawing and put a sticky note over it, and I think it’s cool to show that.
Have you ever been disappointed in original art that doesn’t reveal process? Jaime Hernandez’s originals, for instance, are frighteningly clean.
I’m a huge fan of Jaime’s, but I’m less interested in his original art than I am in his printed comics, because the art seems so flawless. I’d never use the word “disappointed” to describe my response to Jaime’s work, because people shouldn’t be screwing up their comics just for me. [Laughter.] But I’m more interested in original art where you can see more of the mistakes and labor on the page.
The Meeting Comics strips I present through social media are photographs I take with my phone of my drawings. They’re low-fi pictures. I started doing that because I saw kids on Instagram taking simple pictures of their art, and I realized that I didn’t need to present a perfectly finished object.
At different steps of my presentation, my strips look different: I’ll take a picture of a strip for the Internet, then later I’ll scan it for the zine and maybe touch it up then. For the book collection, which collects the first six issues of the zine, there aren’t any color pages; I rewrote comics with a color aspect to the punchline for greyscale, which in some cases meant a slightly different drawing.
At every step, the strips are a little more—I won’t say “slick,” because I don’t have a very slick presentation—but it gets more “finished.” That’s interesting too, the different versions of a comic.
I wonder if doing the process low-fi also shuts down your inner editor. It’s avoiding the pressure of making it perfect in the first draft.
That’s absolutely it. I started making Meeting Comics available without any intent at all other than to put some comics where people could see them. After I drew the first strip, I thought, “Oh, I’ll put that on the Internet.” From the second comic on, I thought about presenting them, but they were very stream-of-consciousness.
Gradually, I started thinking more about the comic while I wasn’t drawing it, which meant I was putting in more time. Then I carried actual art supplies with me to work, so I could draw with tools other than the pens and pencils sitting in front of me during my lunch break. Finally, I started drawing Meeting Comics at home. There’s a gradual increase in effort that I applied to the project that grew out of showing people what I was doing from the beginning.
At the beginning, there were no characters, just jokes about work and little people who served the joke. As I drew them more, they became characters. I think there’s a lot to be said for having something planned, and if I were presenting a graphic novel, with a story from beginning to end that needed to mesh up perfectly, I’d plan it out.
I’ve done some planning with some of the longer storylines in Meeting Comics, but I still react to what I’ve drawn that moment, even in the context of a longer story. Improvisation applies to the art, the writing, everything that I do. I never thought that I would draw a comic about people who work together. I was blowing off steam after meetings at my job. Then Meeting Comics became jokes about the characters rather than just jokes about work.
Having said that, I know that some people’s favorites are the early coffee jokes. “Oh, there’s a coffee joke, I love coffee jokes!” Those aren’t my favorites, but I don’t begrudge anyone their favorite strip.
My favorite early Meeting Comic with a coffee joke is the one where the unnamed worker says, “Don’t talk to me before I have my coffee!” And somebody speaks to him, and the guy disintegrates.
He dissolves into a puddle of sludge—my hard-hitting commentary on kindness and consideration for other people. [Laughter] People who like that one think, “Hey, I like coffee!”
I felt like that joke was low-hanging fruit, but by then I was planning on drawing more strips, and I knew that people in an office love to talk about coffee, something I didn’t know when I owned my own business. Now that I work in the world, I understand coffee is a very important topic of conversation. That’s why all those t-shirts exist!
When you started to put the strip up on social media, did you get positive initial response? And if so, did the response prompt you to take the strip more seriously because you knew that you had an audience?
I got enough response, and the response I’ve gotten has grown gradually over time, which is very satisfying to me.
This isn’t the first time I’ve started a strip. I drew over thirty pages of a comic called Teenage Gender Neutral Turtles, which I also put online, though not in the best way to get people to read it. I posted it on Tumblr when people were moving away from that platform, just because it was easier for me to set up the page on Tumblr. Some people liked it—it had similarities to Meeting Comics, but with a smaller readership. I was also putting Turtles out in eight-page chunks, so it was easier to lose momentum because I wasn’t making three individual comics available every week. I lost steam on that one. Meeting Comics was purposefully shaped like a square so I could put it on Instagram, where more people were looking and reading.
But back to what you asked [Laughter]…I don’t know if people reading Meeting Comics made me take it more seriously, or just the fact that I was enjoying it. I was making myself laugh every now and then, and I realized I wanted to do more. Gradually, I put more time and effort and thought into it. It’s a cliché to say that I make these strips for myself, but I do.
Clichés are clichés because sometimes they’re true.
There are strips I put out there where I think, “Boy, I’m the only one who’s going to like this.” But literally every time I’ve thought that, someone actively reaches out to say something, which is always a nice surprise.
I’m also OK with some of the strips being less than perfect. I don’t worry about the comics once I put them online, because it’s clear that there’s a cumulative effect. If I do a few strips that are mediocre, it’ll be OK in the long run, and maybe these strips will fit well into a collection. When I was young, I talked myself out of doing projects because they weren’t perfect, but I’m not paralyzed now. If you flip through the book, you can see how much the strip has changed: I’m putting more time into it, but I’m also getting better because I’m drawing three comics a week. But I wasn’t going to draw three comics a week all by myself in a hole. Putting them out on social media and getting some level of immediate feedback, even if it was just a couple of people early on, was essential for me to keep going.
Early on in Meeting Comics, you move away from one-off gags to a workplace comedy where certain characters come to the fore. One of your introductory pages features images of Kevin, with every picture labeled “2018,” and we can see how he’s changed visually and become more distinct as a character very quickly. You also give Kevin the last name of “Wokely,” because he’s the leftist who’s uncomfortable in the office. And all the characters grow like that.
I’m going to interrupt and say that I’m thrilled that someone knows the last name of one of my characters. [Laughter] I feel like I’m in the big leagues.
Is there a turning point where the characters became more important than the humor, or became the source of the humor? Are there instances where the characters surprised you in the ways they behaved?
I don’t think there’s a point that I can put my finger on. For all the characters, it’s very much an organic, gradual process. The characters turned into who they currently are over time. At first, they were interchangeable; if I thought of a joke, I drew it for somebody, anybody. Eventually—and I don’t remember when this was—I remember the sensation of coming up with a joke and saying, “Who does this fit? It doesn’t fit her. It doesn’t fit him.” And thinking: “Oh, I have characters!” It snuck up on me. By the time you get through zine #6, the characters are close to who they’re going to be, which is why the book collects the first six issues: folks can read and see what’s changed in this year of comics.
Val is arguably in the first strip, though she’s just a tiny little lady with glasses and a bun. That was clearly a visual design that I was “drawn” to, but she didn’t become a character until two or three issues in. I’m still figuring out who she is on some level.
Now you know the characters well enough to give them different lives. In one strip, Thomas complains that everyone has a rich past--Don’s been a TV star, Val’s been a bank robber—and this drives Thomas home in a depressive funk. It’s as if he knows he’s not as fully realized as the rest of the Meeting Comics cast. You’re reveling in the fact that the characters have different backgrounds and motivations that you can develop.
You’re right! That was me saying, “I have characters, I have little people” and being proud of myself. I also knew that I was going to broaden Thomas’ character by making him the Ribbon Cutter, and I thought it was funny to have him complain about how he was the most boring guy in the office, when I actually had plans to make him the most outlandish. You don’t have to catch that when you read it, but that was a joke for me.
For me, the cast member whose changed and developed the most is Don. At the beginning of the book, he’s relentlessly cheerful, as in his response when people ask him how his tour in the Vietnam war was: “Oh, you know…fine!” In recent issues, though, you have him acknowledging that his past experiences were painful. He’s been diagnosed with PTSD, and he’s been to a therapist. Was that an attempt to make Don a deeper, more serious character? Or is it just another source for gags? Not that PTSD is inherently funny… [Laughter]
It’s both. PTSD is hilarious! [Laughter] Don has changed in my mind because he’s not the only boss anymore. I decided that all the main characters are going to be bosses—they’re a management team, which I find humorous, because I can do comics where a new employee comes in and sees how corrupt everything is. They all need to be bosses on some level.
And they all respond to newcomers in different ways. Val will check out the newcomer’s ass, while Don is friendly but strange.
There’s people above Don now. He’s not everyone’s boss, which gave me a little leeway with him. The comic you mentioned where Kevin asks Don what Vietnam was like, and he says it was “fine”—the joke is clearly his tour in Vietnam wasn’t fine. I was already thinking that Don suppressed his emotions. And at the same time, he’s…cheerful, though every now and then he gets pissed off. He doesn’t like Gil because Gil was a plan of his that didn’t work out, a guy they hired as a scapegoat who became Don’s boss. We see Don get irritated sometimes…
And Gil is loathsome. I don’t blame Don for hating him.
Gil’s loathsome, but he’s also become one of my favorite characters. Maybe it’s because he’s loathsome but innocent; I’m not saying he’s OK, but he has a naïve lack of self-awareness.
But back to Don: I don’t think it was necessarily a question of wanting to go serious with Don, because every comic I do has something serious behind it (unless it’s just totally absurd). There’s dark stuff in Meeting Comics, but I address serious issues with jokes. When I have Don deal with his issues—like PTSD and, more recently, his heart attack—I always include a joke. It’s essential for me to have a good punchline. I wrote a dozen punchlines when Kevin’s dad died. I don’t want to make the strip into a soap opera. Instead, I want it to be a weird soap opera gag comic.
In the strip about the death of Kevin’s dad, Kevin tells his therapist that his “life already feels easier” without his father. And when the therapist says, “It’s completely OK if you feel guilty about it,” Kevin’s reply is bitter: “Is it OK if I don’t?” He’s not in mourning, and that’s the punchline.
That’s a real feeling. My dad is still alive, but I’ve had experiences with feeling relief when someone has died. It’s a serious subject, but also joke material. Abstracting this subject by putting it into a comic where it’s not me is both more socially acceptable and more fun for me. I don’t see a huge difference in having Don be cheerful at work and cheerful when facing painful circumstances. His mom is in her 90s and in a rest home with dementia, and that sucks. I didn’t want to do a comic that laughed at a lady who isn’t functional anymore. I try to make jokes about horrible subjects without being cruel.
You offer catharsis.
Exactly. And putting Don’s mom in a rest home set me up to do a gag about Stan Lee when he died. [Laughter] It’s revealed that Stan is Don’s illegitimate father! And the punchline is Stan’s: “I’m proud to take credit for everything you’ve done in your life.”
That’s insider baseball, but I appreciated it.
I told you I make these for myself! A lot of my readership—and I don’t have a huge readership—are young cartoonists at the same level I am, because they started drawing in their 20s and 30s and I started later. They don’t necessarily get the Vietnam jokes, but that’s okay. Not everybody got the Stan Lee joke either. Even if they recognize Lee, they consider him the “Comics Grandpa” who invented movies.
I want to ask you about another character and maybe another comics reference. In a few of his strips, Kevin rationalizes his office job even though he’s a punk rocker who embraces leftist politics. In an early strip, he’s punching a Nazi at a demonstration when his wife calls him to say she’s pregnant—and Kevin immediately runs into the office, desperate for a job.
When I drew that strip, I didn’t have any plans to draw Kevin again. It was a joke.
One of the phrases that Kevin uses to justify his office job is his intention to “keep trying to change things from the inside.”
Right. In the strip where we meet Kevin’s wife Ellie and their baby Bertrand (who’s named after Bertrand Russell), Ellie encourages Kevin to keep his job while “changing things from the inside.” Keep the paychecks coming. The basic idea with Kevin is that he’s compromising. All the Meeting Comics characters have some of me in them, and Kevin represents the me that was a young idealist. And I still try to be an idealist, but the further you go in life, the more compromises you make. In this society, if we’re still alive, we’ve been compromising.
If you’re a single person, you don’t mind suffering for your idealism, but to force a child through the same suffering…
The more responsibility for other people you take on, the more you have to be willing to do things you wouldn’t do if it was just you on the line. Kevin continues to be ever more slightly corrupted into the system. He’s changing over the course of Meeting Comics. Where he winds up, I’m not sure, but he won’t be the same guy later that he is now. No one is. Him trying to “change things from the inside” is clearly a rationalization.
That phrase occurs in another comic that I’m sure you’re familiar with. In Dan Clowes’ Ghost World, Enid and Becky bump into their “friend” Johnny Apeshit, a punker dressed in a suit and tie. Johnny says, “I’m gonna be a big-ass corporate fuck! I’m gonna work for ten years, fuck things up from the inside as much as I can, and then retire when I’m thirty-five!” Did Kevin start as a commentary on Johnny Apeshit and/or the fallacy of trying to “fuck things up from the inside”?
It was more about my own potential hypocrisies. I went to art school, and I had a punk band—which so many people thought they saw, because we produced so many stickers, but we never played a show. [Laughter]
What was the name of the band?
Pee-Wee’s Whorehouse. [Laughter] I hung out in a punk house and got a job across the street at a porn store. A lot of people from those days have just grown up into grown-ups! Probably the percentage of people sticking closer to their ideals from that punk group is higher than the average, but there’s still compromises in every person’s life. That’s the root of Kevin’s character. I wasn’t thinking of Ghost World, though I see the connection there.
Recently in Meeting Comics, you’ve begun multi-strip storylines and longer plotlines. The first was three comics in a row about Kevin and the ghost of Tad the Bitcoin Guy hanging out.
I wanted to do a ghost story with multiple strips. My wife Vanessa suggested doing it for Halloween when I was talked with her about hiding a ghost in the background of some crowd scenes leading up to it.
And you do like ghosts. Don’s business partner returns from the dead for a “Ghost of Christmas Past” riff…
A Christmas Carol, yeah. I love ghosts. Ghost stories are great. I did an early mini-comic about cats and ghosts. The strips with Kevin and Tad were me finding out if I could do a three-part story. Tying it to Halloween made me feel like I wasn’t setting a precedent: if it worked, it worked, and if it didn’t, it didn’t. It went fine—and those strips were explicitly about Kevin not being a great dude.
Kevin exploits the ghost to find a nice bathroom.
A classic ghost story, right? [Laughter] Kevin hides a dead body so he can find the hidden bathroom. That one is over the top—I don’t know at this point if I would draw Kevin dragging a bloody body out of an elevator. Maybe he wouldn’t do that now. But if the joke is good, I’m going to use it. They’re not 100% consistent characters.
And people do things on Halloween that they wouldn’t do on other days of the year.
And people do things to get a privilege that no one else has. Now Kevin has a secret bathroom.
My next big ongoing storyline was the Ribbon Cutter story, which is an idea I had years ago. In the town where I live [Hillsborough, NC], we had a mayor who loved cutting ribbons to open new businesses. You can Google photographs of him with the big scissors. [Laughter]
That gave me the idea for a vigilante who showed up to cut the ribbon before the mayor had a chance. I thought of this at least two years before Meeting Comics, when I posted on Facebook about my idea for a ribbon-cutting supervillain. After I started Meeting Comics, I thought, “I’ve gotten back into the flow of making comics, maybe I can do a separate story with this character?” Of course, I didn’t have time to draw two comics. [Laughs] “It’s too bad I’ll never draw this character because I’m always working on Meeting Comics…Oh! Maybe I can fit the Ribbon Cutter in!” This was the beginning of me ransacking every joke I’ve ever thought of when I’m out of ideas. [Laughter] And I thought that making Thomas the Ribbon Cutter would help me find him as a character, even when he wasn’t snipping ribbons.
It has, especially since…what’s the name of the Ribbon Cutter’s enemy? The woman with the lasso? I keep wanting to say “Lashina”…
Right! “Lashina” is one of the Female Furies, from the Fourth World comics…
I’m okay with one of my characters being confused with a Jack Kirby character. [Laughter]
Thomas is partially defined by his faithfulness to his wife, and that’s an attribute that’s become more important as Lassoline tempted him. Although Thomas’ wife does say, in an early strip, that she’d be amenable to a threesome, but that hasn’t happened yet… [Laughter]
No, but that was a good joke! I’m proud of that one! However, I feel like I’ve squandered Thomas’ opportunities by showing him so far into the future. If Thomas ever fools around like that, I’ll have to break continuity.
Making Thomas’ alias the Ribbon Cutter really did help define him as a character, as both brave and pent-up. He’s chaotic, but not when he’s wearing a business suit. Of the regular characters, Thomas is the one who’s the tensest. But when he runs around as the Ribbon Cutter, he’s a lot more reckless. It’s an outlet for him.
There are also friendship and alliances that have formed at the office. Thomas is close to Kevin.
They’re buddies even though they live in different situations: Kevin is white, and Thomas is Black. For me, Kevin is a guy who chooses to be an activist, and Thomas doesn’t really feel like he has a choice.
Because I’m coming from the point of view of a white man, I’m not trying to define, explicitly, anything for any group of people. But I also don’t want to be scared when I present characters of different backgrounds and make them screwed up. Its’s important that all my characters are messed up. Thomas is flawed for sure, just like everybody in the strip. I’m completely uninterested in perfect characters.
In one strip, we see Val, Kevin, and Thomas go together to see the new Avengers movie, just because they’re miserable in the rest of their lives and for three hours they can avoid going home. I bring together whoever I can into a situation if it makes sense, even loosely.
Val seems the most indomitable character. She knows what she wants, she’s powerful, and yet you have a strip where Val’s mother visits her at the office, and it completely traumatizes Val. She hides in a file cabinet.
Val is the most popular character in the comic. Nine out of ten times when I talk to a woman who reads Meeting Comics, their favorite character is Val, which astounds me. I was worried that I was only creating a fantasy character for dudes into hard-ass librarian types.
I’ve done a decent job of having her be mysterious without being poorly defined—but I don’t want her to get left behind as I fill out other characters’ lives. We’ve seen a lot less of her life outside of the office, so I’ve done some strips where we learn more about Val’s life. She has an ex-husband who we’re met recently. It’s important for me to keep her who she is, but she shouldn’t be just be the most cartoony member of the cast.
There’s a danger that she’ll turn into a female, sexualized John Belushi.
And I don’t want to do that. With Val, I feel like I have a responsibility to readers: so many people like her so much that I refuse to let her stagnate. You asked me earlier about turning Don into a more serious character, and I’ve thought more consciously about this issue with Val—I don’t want to give her some ridiculous trauma to make her “well rounded.” Having said that, all my characters are traumatized in some way. They’re alive, and they have rotten jobs. [Laughter]
Maybe I need to follow up on the relationship between Val and her mother. Sometimes I accidentally drop ideas…
And pick them up again too.
And pick them up later. I’ve really let Don’s Namdroid storyline sit for a while. I have an idea for where I want the story to go, but I can’t fit it into funny four-panel chunks. It needs to be more stretched out. If I do that one, it will be a separate comic, like my 320 Shades of Greg mini. 320 was me fitting a longer story into Meeting Comics’ world: one long joke—and a weird situation—without a punchline every four panels.
To play with reader expectation too, by calling 320 Shades of Greg an “erotic thriller”…
I thought it was hilarious to make a Meeting Comics erotic thriller! [Laughter] I will say that having the words “erotic thriller” on the cover make it my poorest-selling comic at zine festivals. Though it’s clearly a joke to me, right from the cover, with its image of melting ice cream. I’ve sold a 320 Shades of Greg to people who know me, but not to people who don’t know where I’m coming from. I think it was a funny comic. I’ll do the same at some point with Don’s Namdroid story, but I do have to make time to do it.
My favorite Namdroid gag is the strip where Kevin acts like a Namdroid fanboy around Don, who seemingly doesn’t care at all. And then Don goes home and into a room where he meditates while surrounded by Namdroid memorabilia. That gag reveals Don’s need to see himself as a star, his need for adoration.
Or just remembering his youth. I left it open. I’m not going to say that that was an emotional powerhouse of a comic, but I didn’t want Don to just be a hypocrite, which is why I had him coming home and being sweet with his husband Terry. I wanted to make it a sweet comic, even though Don was clearly lying to Kevin about never thinking about his past.
You could almost say that Don was being humble about his achievements.
But when he meditates, he meditates on himself. [Laughter] The strips where I just refer to Namdroid rather than show it maybe work a little better than scenes from the show. If I finally put together this longer story of what happened with Namdroid, it may be a bust. But I do want to do it at some point.
It sounds like you have more ideas than time to execute them. Is your busy schedule a problem for you? This week [of the interview], you’re on hiatus from the strip…
I took a couple of weeks off from drawing the comic, the first vacation since I started Meeting Comics. At the beginning, I didn’t draw on any schedule; I just drew when I drew. After drawing more strips, I realized I had enough for a mini-comic, and in May 2018, I set a schedule. Since then, I’ve drawn three strips every week, though there have been a few times when I didn’t get them out on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Even though I’m not burned out, I wanted a little break. I also had the book collection coming out, and that required some work. We debuted the book at NOICE [Norfolk’s Original Indy Comics Expo on February 1], and it was the right time to take a break from drawing it but still have Meeting Comics in my mind and not risk losing momentum.
But I do have ideas that I wind up dropping because by the time I can fit them into the comic, they aren’t timely anymore. For the most part, though, I’m able to keep a schedule by moving along to some other idea I’ve had. At this point, I have definitive plans about how I want the characters to go forward, but sometimes I change my mind in the middle of a comic, because the act of drawing it makes me think of a better direction.
It’s hard to trust that if you put in the time, something creative will happen.
I believe that. I don’t think I was reluctant to put myself on a schedule so much as I didn’t even recognize that I was drawing a regular strip. This thing just became a part of my life. I’m surprised that I’ve managed to keep the momentum going so long. I’m surprised that I have a book out. I’m surprised that I’ve drawn enough comics for there to be a second book. I’m surprised that I could easily do another year or two of strips. None of that was my plan.
It’s still seat-of-the-pants in a lot of ways. When I start a comic, I don’t always have the punchline written—sometimes it shows up as I’m drawing the third panel. There’s inspiration in my mind that I don’t know how to access on command, but if I go through the process, it’s there.
I’ve also gotten to the point where I’m occasionally willing to let a humorous situation stand in for a good punchline. I try not to do that too much, because I like nailing a punchline, but it might happen more as the strip goes on, just because it’s more about the characters and less about job jokes now.
Do you think that your punchlines are frequently ironic? In one strip, Kevin receives environmentally friendly printer ink in the mail—and the punchline is that it takes several vehicles traveling hundreds of miles to make the delivery.
That one didn’t need four panels. [Laughter] That was a stretched out one-panel joke.
Well, you did say The Far Side was an influence. [Laughter] But it’s ironic that Kevin thinks he’s doing something good for the environment…
I guess it’s ironic, but that’s not how I thought of it. I saw Kevin as unaware—it’s like his belief that he’ll “change the business from the inside.”
Kevin is unaware, but we’re not. We get the irony.
I hope we read it as ironic! [Laughter] If we don’t get the joke, then I haven’t done a good comic! I feel like my comics are sincere, and have some heart, but I’m also very cynical. “Ironic” is a fair label.
There’s a strip where Kevin is in the car listening to Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” on the stereo, and then as Thomas gets in the car, Kevin turns on “cooler” music.
If there’s a second Meeting Comics collection, I might not include that one, because of copyright issues. When I was putting the file for the book together, I realized that I had a few strips that were just straight-up lyrics. Arguably, it could’ve been fair use, and almost certainly the lyrics would fly under the radar, but I decided to leave them out of the collection—I didn’t pursue use rights.
Although there is one strip that that I kept after changing the lyrics, where Rob from HR was originally singing “Regulate” by Nate Dogg and Warren G. to his pet alligator [laughs]. It doesn’t make any sense. [Laughter] But it’s pretty funny. I kept the joke in the book after changing from “Regulate” to lyrics I made up because particular lyrics weren't essential to the joke.
You mentioned that the book premiered at NOICE. Did the premiere go well?
It went great. After AdHouse agreed to publish the book, Chris Pitzer asked if there was a show I wanted to have it published for, and we had both set up at the first NOICE last year and enjoyed it. I asked if there was any way to have the book for this year’s NOICE, and Pitzer said, “Get me the cover by Monday,” so it could be put included in Diamond’s solicitations. I had three days to knock out the cover, which was fine.
The show went terrific; I sold well above my “I-better-sell-this-many” minimum, NOICE is not a huge event, and I’m not a known quantity, so the fact that I sold as many books as I did made me very happy.
I know that you hang out with artists who live in your region of North Carolina. You drove to NOICE with Max Huffman and Adam Meuse, and the three of you tabled together at SPX last September. Is it important for you to have that community?
I like it. I’ve known both for a while now. I met them through Chapel Hill Comics, when I still owned the store. I sold hundreds of copies of Adam’s mini Sad Animals (2010) and Max started making mini-comics when he was in high school--I’ve known him since he was twelve. I’m a good joke writer, but they’re both better straight-up cartoonists than me, and I love being around that talent. I like to be around people who are better at something than I am.
We’re none of us at the point where we pop over to each other’s houses; it’s always an event that brings us together. For a while, I ran a drink-and-draw event in Durham that they would both come to when they could. I stopped doing the drink-and-draw because it took so much time to do the comic. I was getting my art jollies making Meeting Comics.
So we mostly see each other when we’re going to a con or a festival. On the way up to NOICE, Max described our trips as like being in a writers’ room. We all have compatible senses of humor, and we’ll spend a few hours in the car laughing at dumb stuff, and we all take something from the conversation and use it in a comic later. At the event, it’s different because you’re busy selling, but at NOICE Max and I were at the same table just spitting nonsense back-and-forth, and it’s fun to have somebody around doing the same thing. I admire the art that Adam and Max do and get along with them really well.
I’ve got community with other people too. Jamar Nicholas, from Philadelphia, did a blurb for the Meeting Comics collection and he wrote the introduction for the first mini-comic—he’s been a huge supporter since I debuted the strip. Every couple of months, I’ll send Jamar a strip and we’ll talk about the punchline. The fact that Jamar said so early to me, “Hey, I really like this comic” was one of many small events that kept me drawing Meeting Comics.
It’s nice that there’s enough going on in North Carolina that I’m not working in a vacuum. Zine Machine [a fest in Durham] is twenty minutes from my house. I like going to Charlotte for Heroes Con, even though that’s three hours away.
Most of the introductions for your Meeting Comics zines are in text…
Jamar wrote an “office memo,” and Adam, Max, and Barrett Stanley (who lives in Greensboro) did comics or introductions with art. Remi Treuer and Carr D’Angelo wrote text intros and I added a bit of art to each of those. Caroline Smith and Scott Hensel did a kinky one where they’re dressed up as the Ribbon Cutter and Lassoline; that’s in #7, and it’s the last introduction. The one I lined up for #8 fell through, and I dropped the introductions, because I didn’t like chasing people down to meet deadlines, and it confused readers who saw a first page that looked different from the rest of the zine.
There are dozens of people I would not have met without going to zine festivals and indy comics expos. I love to see these people and say “I’ll come over to your table when I have a minute” and then not do that because I’m distracted or busy. [Laughter] But we share a purpose and an admiration for each other: “Hey! You’re still making comics! Good for you!”
One final question: have you and Chris Pitzer talked about the possibility of a second AdHouse Meeting Comics collection?
We haven’t talked about it at all, though I like to think he’d be willing if sales of the first book merit it. I’m hoping to do more events this year than last, because we need to sell the book. I’m thrilled that people seem to enjoy my comic, and I’m looking forward to getting enough books out there that maybe people who don’t like it are still forced to come across it. [Laughter]
A few more people read the strip online every month, people reach out and tell me that they like Meeting Comics, and I just mailed a book to someone I don’t know at all who started reading it recently and decided to buy the collection. That’s all new enough that even though I sold other people’s comics for decades, I’m excited. Of course, I would like to sell enough books to make some money, but what’s more important is that I seem to be connecting with people and growing as a cartoonist.
Note: Andrew has made available a free, 42-page online sampler of Meeting Comics strips (titled The Meeting Comics Social Distancing Special) available here.