OK, to be clear: this is coming from a place of skeptical love. I like the Current a lot, they’re a community asset, and they’re the only rock station in town worth paying attention to enough to joke about. But I really can’t shake the feeling that the main thing they provide is a sense to old musicheads that they won’t get made to look out-of-touch when they talk to people in their 20s.
The work stands on its own here, except for one proviso:
Need to say upfront that the drawing of my opponent here doesn’t look much like the real person. This is intentional, to protect the identity of Mr. Mark Kalar of St. Anthony, MN. Oh, whoops.
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.Continue reading Digging into Achewood
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.
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).Continue reading The Nowhere Band Restoration Project
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.Continue reading FRANKLIN, CHARLES SCHULZ’S ACCIDENTAL TOKEN
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.
What the title says. Made these as sort of a detour from narrative Nowhere Band strips, but they don’t really belong over there. So here they are. Will probably do more at some point….
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):
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s a comic strip I worked up, kind of a prototype for a thing I might pursue after I finish Nowhere Band (which should be some time this year, unless I change my mind). I think this thing would mutate a little more if it actually went into production, but if nothing else I’ve got a pretty big google doc full of script ideas…
And yeah, inspired by Charles Schulz, of course.
Updated: I did indeed change my mind.
The comic project I did back in 2007 immediately before starting Nowhere Band. I think this was a good script, but my art skillz were clearly still a work in progress. Note that I borrowed a couple of character designs for NWB.
Let’s start with the executive summary: After being in creative exile, more or less, for the past 4 months, I started work this morning on bringing back my old rock strip Nowhere Band. The new volume will, somewhat recursively, follow the Awesome Boys as they try to get their band back together after a long hiatus and deal with the fact that they’re now edging into being older than their musical peers. First new strip should go up some time next week. It should be funny and human. I’m stoked.
Well, it’s simple… since I work for a university, I recently became eligible for free tuition for grad-level classes, so a couple of months ago I started a master’s program in software. Which I’m sure will pay off in the long run, but in the short term it’s kind of meant tossing a hand grenade into my life as I knew it. Work on EYEBALL continues, but at a drastically-reduced pace; I don’t know that I’ll finish more than 4 or 5 pages this semester (although then it’ll pick up over the summer, at least for a while).
Stuff’s still happening, though. Before the coursework shit really started hitting the fan, I had time to work something up for Andrew Weiss’ Ultimate Powers Jam, and I’m actually happier with it than I am with pretty much any creative thing I’ve done for the past year. So there’s that.
In the meantime, yeah. I’m still around, and still working on comics at a snail’s pace. When I’m not fighting with Python.
So, here’s what I’ve been working on. This is the inked (but not colored or lettered) first page of a graphic novel I’m setting out on. This should be a pretty big project, and I’m actually not sure what my endgame will be as far as getting it out into the world- I want to have a big chunk of pages put together before I start thinking about whether or not to run it serially online, for instance.
The project is (temporarily) called Eyeball, and it’s about spyplanes in the early 60s. Or about not getting too lost in your job, depending on which way you want to look at it.
This one’s been gestating for quite a while; I wrote out the original plot and started scripting in 2006. I was really excited about the project, but eventually bailed because 1) I didn’t think I could draw well enough to do it justice, and 2) the thought of doing all of the visual research to get the look and feel right for a story set in 1960 just scared the piss out of me. But now I’m 6 years better at drawing (I still think it’ll be a challenge, but it’s actually possible this time) and, well, Mad Men has gone and done me the favor of researching what things looked like in 1960.
So we’ll see where this goes.
So, this is one mid-level-upsetting part of a larger, extremely upsetting situation: I’m stopping production on Otto, Protector of the North Woods. Or, more accurately, I stopped a week ago and won’t be starting up again.
What’s the deal? Well, frankly, the deal’s a pretty severe bummer. Some really, really tragic shit happened in my family last week. Bad enough that I’m still reeling from it, and probably will be for a while. At this point, I’m not really capable of creative work. But even after this upset eventually eases, the upcoming Otto storyline is largely about depression and suicide (in some ways, the whole strip is), and that’s not an area of my brain that I think would be healthy to spend a lot of time in right now.
I don’t know if the strip will eventually be revived or not. I know that eventually I’ll pick back up with some sort of creative work, but at this point I have no idea what that’ll be. Keep an eye on this space, I guess, if you’re the sort who cares.
A drawing of a photograph of a sculpture.