Category Archives: Comics

Digging into Achewood

Quick note: this originally ran as two separate-but-related articles at the late, lamented Comics MNT. Alas, nothing is permanent on the internet; but I like these pieces too much to let them succumb to link rot. So here they are, together at last!

1. The Complicated, Slightly Better Manhood of Achewood

Remember Chris Onstad’s Achewood? If you care enough about comics to be reading the MNT and were online between 2000 and 2010, you must. For most of the first decade of this century, Achewood was one of the flagship webcomics when webcomics were an exciting new cultural space; it might not have had the reader numbers of some of the topical gamer strips, but its cultural presence was huge and it was very much the critical darling of the scene.

If you need a refresher: Achewood was a weirdly erudite, often filthy, funny-animal strip with minimalist Charles-Schulz-with-Adobe-Illustrator black and white art and aggressively unconventional lettering (almost certainly the only landmark comic to be lettered in the Chicago font). The cast was distinctive; the strip centered on Ray Smuckles, an oblivious but goodhearted thong-wearing rap mogul cat, and his depressed computer-programmer friend Roast Beef Kazenzakis. Other major characters included an avuncular novelist bear, another bear who loves food and The Cure, an eternally childish, bottomlessly naive otter, a couple of eastern European robots, and several others. And yes, all of these listed characters are male, and yes, that will become important later.

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The Iowa City Police Log

Every morning, I get up, consult the twitter feed of the Iowa City Police Log, and draw a one-panel cartoon based on it. This started out as a get-through-the-winter whim and has turned into a get-through-a-pandemic-hellscape coping mechanism. The resulting comics get posted to a Twitter thread and to my Instagram feed, in both cases paired with their inciting Police Log entry.

People seem to be pretty into these, which is great! TPT, Minnesota’s Public Television station, even did a short piece on them, where I talk about my process, my motivations, and the sort-of-intentional larger political point of the strips in an era where we as a society are rethinking the way police departments should be constituted. They also put KEITH PILLE – CARTOONIST on the screen, so I guess despite endless questions about my artistic identity, now I know: I’m a cartoonist.

The Nowhere Band Restoration Project

So for ten years, from 2007-2017, I made a webcomic called Nowhere Band that was about life as it’s really lived in a music scene: a series of misadventures that are great and fun and affirming and frustrating and maddening and which, ultimately, don’t end with fame and fortune. I wanted it to be as emotionally real as possible. I always felt like I did a pretty good job with that, and got some outside validation on that front, both from individual readers (who I always loved hearing from) and from Minneapolis media outlets like MPR News and City Pages.

As the years went on (and the art and general cartooning craft got better), the strip moved from being about people in a band to being about people who used to be in a band and maybe kind of still were but weren’t sure. Which I think is also a headspace worth exploring, since that’s where we all wind up! But in 2017, after several hundred installments, I ended the strip because 1) I was far enough removed from band activity at that point that I felt like I was running out of material, 2) I was getting ready to finish grad school and knew that my thesis project was going to eat up all possible cartooning time, and 3) since November of 2016, the strip had increasingly just been swallowed by the dread of living in Trump’s America. So I gave myself the gift of writing the strip towards a conscious, planned ending instead of just letting it peter out the way a lot of webcomics do (and the way it nearly had a couple of times previously).

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FRANKLIN, CHARLES SCHULZ’S ACCIDENTAL TOKEN

It always hurts to talk about when one of your heroes fails, but that’s what I’m out to do here. Charles Schulz is one of the great figures in comics; Charles Schulz sometimes fell on his ass. He did here. Acting with well-documented good intentions, he tried to do a good thing, and slid into what could most charitably be called mixed success. By introducing Franklin, a black character, into his immensely popular comic strip Peanuts, Charles Schulz wanted to harness his cultural power and use it to send a positive social message about racial harmony. He explicitly wanted to integrate his strip in a way that wasn’t demeaning or insulting. Thirty years later, though, Franklin was considered one of the prime exemplars of tokenism, a perception that has only grown as time has continued to pass.

Peanuts in 1968 was a cultural juggernaut, appearing in well over 2500 newspapers. In an era when newspaper comics carried a cultural weight nearly unimaginable today, Schulz was at the very top of the profession, giving him one of the most visible platforms in the country to trumpet any message he chose.

For the most part, Schulz avoided politics in the strip, instead examining emotional and existential humor.

Jan. 7, 1972
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KP|CIA

And here’s my first stab at a new direction after Nowhere Band. After reading and thinking about autobio comics a ton for my thesis work, I couldn’t resist making one of my own. And this is a story I’ve always wanted to tell. I wouldn’t bet against more of these coming out in the next few months.









A Walk Through the Process of Creating Nowhere Band

A couple of friends have asked me about the nuts and bolts of how I put a Nowhere Band strip together; I’m in kind of a dead spot as I recover from a vacation and wait for class to start, so I thought now would be a good time to do a quick walkthrough of the process. So (click on all pictures to embiggen):

1-scriptSTEP 1 : SCRIPT

Naturally, I start with a script. Actually, that’s not true. I start with a vague idea that gets jotted down in a notebook or a google doc, and then fluffed out to a badly-written paragraph with chunks of dialogue embedded, and then on to a full-on script.

My scripts are pretty minimal (and casual as far as spelling and grammar and those niceties), since I’m just writing for myself and I’ve already internalized all kinds of strip conventions about locations, expressions, gestures, and such. At this point, it’d be really weird to write a script for someone else to draw. I should try it some time.

The hardest thing in the script stage is making sure lines of dialogue don’t get too long to fit gracefully into balloons. I can get pretty wordy – I still basically think of myself as a writer who sort of knows how to draw – so this is a challenge.

1-redlineSTEP 2 : REDLINE

This is the worst step; in any sort of creative work, the hardest part is sitting down and facing a blank piece of paper, and that’s what’s going on here. Everything after this point is basically a form of editing and refinement, cleaning up or enhancing something that already exists. Here, I’m wrestling something into existence. Mornings when I wake up and have to go downstairs and do redlines are the times I’m most tempted to sleep in or volunteer to walk the dog on Rebecca’s day of the rotation.

Anyway: I start out by laying out the panel grid in red pencil (doing this stage in red makes it easy to remove all of this rough early work in Photoshop once the strip’s scanned). The script’ll tell me how many panels I need (I try to keep it around 5, give or take a couple, but different strips need different lengths). Relative panel size usually comes down to a function of how much dialog is in a given panel (remember, I get wordy), how big a thing or space needs to be shown, or how many characters appear.

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Rumours

This is one of the first long-form comics I ever drew, back when I was pretty clearly just beginning to learn how to draw. It’s an adaption of an excellent essay / short story by Twin Cities music writer Jim Walsh, who was nice enough to let me take his words out for a spin. Resurrected because Fleetwood Mac seems to be having some kind of goddamned renaissance.

Rumours-01
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Longevity and Comics and Who the Hell Knows What Else

nwb-panels

OK.

I’ve been talking on and on all summer about wrapping up Nowhere Band this year. The idea was pretty simple: I’m turning 40 at the end of the year, and on some level it felt weird to me to think about continuing to do a strip about dudes in a band after I’d turned 40. Especially since it’s been a good 3 years since I’ve had an active band going. There was a bunch of burnout involved as well, much of it centered around a bunch of rules I’ve imposed on myself.

But now that I’ve thought things over and life has calmed down a bit, I think I’m going to keep the strip going. Part of what convinced me was the abrupt realization that some of my favorite comics are Jaime Hernandez’ ongoing run; he obviously didn’t feel weird about making comics about aging punks as he whizzed past 40, so why should I? Also, I recognized that lots of the things that were bothering me were completely self-inflicted. Tired of fighting with Photoshop in the coloring stage? You can always go back to black and white for a while. Feeling pressed by self-imposed posting deadlines? Who gives a shit? It’ll come out when it comes out. Don’t want every story to center on the band? Fine, they all have outside lives, tell some stories there.

The truth is that I do love the strip. Somehow, sneakily, it seems to have become my life’s work. I can live with that. I didn’t mean for it to be when I started out… but at least for now it feels like that’s where things are. I guess that gives some shape to my 20s- I wasn’t wasting my time in half-assed bands, I was gathering material. You always wish more people read a strip when you put this much work into it, but I love the readers that I have. people whose tastes and worldviews I respect tell me they like it; that means a ton to me.

So I think I’m going to keep going. I might structure things so that stories or even sections of life have clear starts and ends, but that’s the sort of thing that’s easy to say you’re going to do and then forget. So we’ll see. And I’m sure that there will be breaks and hiatuses at points as I work on prose stuff or other comics. But for the time being, Nowhere Band’s going to chug on. Even if (gasp) the Awesome Boys don’t, necessarily.