Shannon Wheeler: Pulling the Threads

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks

Shannon Wheeler has created some of the most diverse and interesting comics of any creator. He created the extremely diverse Too Much Coffee Man and has created a series of cartoons for The New Yorker, preserved in print as I Thought You'd be Funnier. His most ambitious book, though, isOil and Water, a nonfictional work about the Gulf Oil Spill to be published by Fantagraphics this summer. In this interview we discuss Oil and Water, which looks to be a very intriguing work of comics art.



Jason Sacks: Talk about the themes of Oil and Water. What's it about?

Shannon Wheeler: Before I do the themes, the history of it is that a few of us -- teachers, environmentalists, scientists, journalists, about 20 altogether -- went down to the gulf coast -- New Orleans -- and toured all around, just to see what's happened there. To see how much oil is there, how the people are dealing with it, what the economic impact was. We talked to scientists that are down there, to see what they had to say. A lot of our goals had to do with keeping the environmental disaster on the radar nationally, saying "This is something that what we did that's a travesty," basically, and "How do we keep paying attention to it so it gets cleaned up and never happens again?" It's a big deal.

Sacks: How do you boil that into 130 pages?

Wheeler: First up, all the characters from the area are real. All of that is very accurate journalism and representation. We went to a shrimp factory and talked to the guys that own the shrimp factory, and so we're representing them as those people. Same with the guy that is a crabber, who takes a boat out on the water and crabs. They had very different ideas about what was going on. And, when we talked to the scientist Michael Bloom. We represented the things that he said accurately and had him as an actual character.

We fictionalized the people that went down there. There were 20 of us, so we boiled that down to eight -- sort of a conglomeration -- and then had some social interactions on our end to have a narrative. A lot of the emotional stuff is very much what we went through, and it just had to do with how complex the situation is, some of the heartbreak that we felt. We tried to communicate that, feeling overwhelmed by it. We went to where they were trying to clean the birds -- a bird recovery station, and just how shocking it was! Hopefully the narrative will sustain interest and encompass a lot of those ideas.

Sacks: How do you get the slices that really fit people's lives and have them just be short little anecdotes? Because you want to be respectful, too.

Wheeler: With the crabber Brian Gainey, it was just A Day in the Life of Brian Gainey, where he gets up in the morning, baits his traps, goes out in the water and he's talking about his connection to the environment. And here's a 20-year-old kid, who, at first glance, you'd think is not very bright, and he turned out to be one of the most articulate, intelligent people that we dealt with.

Sacks: You just never know what you're going to find. Did you find everyone dealing with it in different ways?

Wheeler: The shrimp factory guys said "There's no problem, the oil is gone, it's a government conspiracy, they're not letting us back there to look for the shrimp." They said that the fishermen say that the fish are dead because they want the money from BP, they're just cruising on the money and they love it.

We talked to the fishermen and they said, "This has ruined our lives. We had to sign nondisclosures and agreements not to sue BP to get a dime. And then, to get money, it's near-impossible -- we've gotten five grand here and five grand there, but not nearly enough to live on." And they say, "We're gonna try to survive, 'cause that's what we do, but it's devastating."

And the Cambodians down there -- there's this enormous fishing village that started up in the '70s when they started forming communities there as they were fleeing dictatorships and even worse situations. A lot of the fishing industry is a cash system, so a lot of the BP compensation has to do with, "Show us your receipts. How much were you making? We'll give you a percentage of what you were making to compensate you." If you're working on a cash system, you bring in 1,000 pounds of shrimp and get however much money in cash -- you're not gonna have receipts for any of that. And that's above and beyond the language barrier that those people are already dealing with.

Sacks: It's an incredibly complicated situation.

Wheeler: You pull one thread and you just see how that connects to 1,000 other threads.

Sacks: In a way, it's reportage, but it's also about everyone's different perceptions, about a deeper artistic compulsion, too.

Wheeler: Yeah, it's fascinating. You can't vilify the oil companies, either, because even the people there are saying, "We don't want the oil companies to leave."

Like Gainey said, "You can't put them out of business because they need to stay in business to take care of the harm that they've done." The oil is a good part of the income of many, many of the people down there.

But it ruined a lot of the tourism. You start to pull one thread, and everything falls apart. It's so complicated, it's amazing. To appreciate that complexity is just the beginning. The first step is trying to understand how all these things work together.

Sacks: Fascinating project. Were people pretty open to talking to you about it? I guess you were with reporters, too, so from that standpoint a cartoonist wasn't that unusual.

Wheeler: The cartoonist aspect was unusual -- they didn't know what I was or what I was doing. I would talk to a BP guy -- and he was there to kick me out from the sand-cleaning machine area, where they pull up the sand and they clean it -- but because I had a sketchbook, I approached him. He was walking towards me to kick me out, I could see it on his face and I said, "This is amazing. Tell me about this." And he starts talking to me, and I'm drawing and I'm taking notes.

"Oh, what do you do?"

"I'm a cartoonist. I do New Yorker cartoons."

He was like, "Oh, that's great." So, we had an hour-long conversation about beach cleaning. And these are giant machines that are two or three train cars long that you put sand in one end, and it cleans the oil out, and it comes out clean on the other end. He went through the whole thing, and that's only because I was a cartoonist.

There was an environmentalist who had a camera who got kicked out and got into a fight with the guy. He was like, "This is a public beach! I have the right to be here!" and the other guy was like, "You need to get out now or you're going to jail!" and it was a head-to-head conflict.

And I had an hour-long interview where the guy detailed everything. So, being a cartoonist is a real advantage.

Sacks: It sounds like you really came out of it with the sense that the situation is just way too complex to fit into narrow, left-right kind of viewpoints.

Wheeler: Oh, yeah, yeah. Left and right is not even -- it is human beings that are down there, and at every level people are just trying to survive and do the best they can. I genuinely feel like that. These are the people who are there doing jobs. It's not executives high up that are making decisions.

Sacks: The guy running the cleaning machine has no more or less stake than the guy who's the shrimp fisherman.

Wheeler: He honestly was trying to clean the beach. I disagreed with him about a lot of environmental issues, but he was there, really trying to do the best he could. He wanted to clean the beach, and he thought it was a great thing.

It's good to understand these layers, I think, and trying to show how these things fit together and what people's motivations are is something a comic book can do. Yeah, I love it.

Sacks: How do you think comics can do something like this uniquely compared to other media? You could watch a movie, for instance, about the spill.

Wheeler: One nice thing is that we're not trying to vilify anybody. I think that, of a lot of the environmental stuff that comes out, the clear-cut thing is this was a tragedy, and we need to work towards not having it happen again. We need do to everything we can to fix what happened there. But we're not having villains -- we don't have the evil company. It's not fitting into a template of good vs. evil, because I don't think life, generally, is about that.

And that's one thing we're allowed to do in a comic book. We can go into motivation. We can move between a lot of characters and where they're sitting in this tapestry. And that's on a personal side.

On the artistic side, scale is something that I think comics can really deal with. So, just trying to figure out, like 200 million gallons of oil are spilled -- that's an impossible number to comprehend. But, you work in a comic book to show something close up and you slowly pan back and you show, like, "this relates to that relates to that" -- all of a sudden you see that this is an oil spill that can be seen from space, and you show the size of what has been done there. Comics are great at size and ratio and understanding the enormity of something.

Sacks: It's that old thing that comics aren't held by any budget and you can do whatever you want -- anything from Silver Surfer flying through space to conveying something like this.

Wheeler: We're gonna have science panels as well, so we can deviate from the plot and have a panel that talks about, "Okay, here are the birds that are migrating. We have a million birds that are cruising from north to south, and they have a stopover at these beaches."

When you clean a beach, you extract all the microorganisms, and that then kills all the insects. So these birds are arriving at the beach and just starving. We watched two birds fight over one small bug, and more birds were just starting to come through.

In a comic book, we can say, "Here's the migratory pattern of birds, this is what it does" and do it short and quick with examples that just wouldn't work in a movie, generally.

Sacks: Did your previous work help you prepare to work on something like this?

Wheeler: I've always toyed with format. So, like in Too Much Coffee Man, I had a "How to Catch Flies" cartoon, where it's a little instruction thing. If you grab four inches above where a fly is sitting on a table and start to close your hand about two feet out as you're swinging your arm in -- flies jump to start flying, so they'll leap straight up, so they'll leap into your hand and -- yeah.

That's a little instructional comic, and that's some of the stuff that we're doing. I illustrated about 150Idiot's Guide books, and there's a lot of little examples of, "This is how a door works," or something. It's nice to work some of those ideas back into this graphic novel. I don't think people in comics have seen me do this stuff, but I like it. It's nice to stretch those muscles.

Sacks: You got that big Too Much Coffee Man collection coming out.

Wheeler: The omnibus is should be out right around San Diego, so July. Five-hundred-something pages, and 25 bucks, too. It's a pretty good price tag.

And then we're gonna do a Too Much Coffee Man book with BOOM!, doing another New Yorker collection with BOOM! and a kids' book called Grandpa Won't Wake Up.

And then, with Top Shelf, I'm doing The Bible.

Sacks: The Bible? Pretty big topic. A lot of people have opinions on that.

Wheeler: It'll be good.

So, yeah, lots of projects. I feel like I'm finally shifting the car into gear on the freeway, and we're gonna go.


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