In the world of
An Interview with
Pete Sickman-Garner: Part One
Andrew Goletz (continued in Part Two by Rob Vollmar at Comic Book
Mister’ combines the most basic aspect of life: work, religion, sex, politics
and friendship and turns them into an outlet for some very funny stories. From
self-publisher of mini-comics to rising star at TopShelf, Pete Sickman-Garner
has paid his dues and is starting to get some much deserved attention. GHM and
CBG are proud to be able to talk with Pete about his work and hopefully convince
a few more of you to sample his creations.
Haven: What is 'Hey, Mister'?
Pete: Quite simply, it's
a comic book. There aren't really
any imperatives that direct the development of the strip so it's sort of hard to
define. When I started drawing it, I consciously refrained from defining
anything like the setting or the characters' ages or backgrounds.
It just seemed absurd to say "well,
okay, I'm going to place these arbitrary limits on the development of this
fictional world." I say
arbitrary because I didn't really have an idea for the strip.
I'm not sure I still do. I've
been in situations where I've had to pitch the book to someone or other and I'm
usually completely at a loss. That
said, the characters have certainly achieved a level of definition simply
because they've been put in situations that require certain responses.
My hope is that the stories are character-driven and the
characterizations are the only consistent things in the books.
How did you come up with the idea for 'Hey, Mister'?
Pete: It started as a
strip for the Cardinal (one of UW-Madison's student papers though I wasn't a
student at the time). I did what
probably every daily strip cartoonist does. Pick a character, give him some
easily identifiable character traits and write jokes around him.
In my case, I chose Mister (with obvious "everyman"
implications) but, to undercut the everyman aspect, I made one of his character
traits absolute and unselfconscious social gracelessness. Since it was a college
paper, I added a snotty college kid with rich parents (Young Tim).
I don't know where Aunt Mary came from.
I probably just needed someone to beat up on people I didn't like.
Top Shelf isn't your company, right?
Pete: No. TopShelf
was started by Brett Warnock from Portland, OR (http://www.topshelfcomix.com)
It began simply as an anthology but eventually he teamed up with Chris
Staros from Marietta, GA (author of the Staros Report) and they slowly built up
a list of titles (mostly graphic novels and comics collections).
How did your relationship with them come about?
Pete: I self-published 5
mini-comics, and the first two color-cover issues of HM before they took over.
In addition to the five regular issues they've published, they also did a trade
paper reprint of the mini comics (the 'Hey, Mister AfterSchool Special,' which
just went into it's second printing) and a collection of the first four
full-size comics (the Celebrity Roast). They're planning to print collections of
the series with every fourth issue so the next one will be out next Spring and
will reprint 5-8 with some extra
Were you always interested in comics?
Pete: Well, I always
doodled and, for a time in my youth, thought about developing a daily strip.
I think when I was 10 I came up with an idea that involved an autistic
chicken and the visual joke was that he was still in his shell.
Of course, then Jim Davis came out with that awful barnyard strip that
featured the same joke. If there
anything on earth that will condemn an idea as hackneyed and pedestrian it's
seeing it adopted by someone like him.
Anyway, I was just
biding my time waiting for something interesting to happen to me (and I imagine
I'd still be waiting if I hadn't started cartooning) when I came across Harvey
Pekar's "American Splendor" Anthology.
A guy at the bookstore
where I worked gave a really high recommendation so I took it home and read it
and that was the first time I was exposed to the possibility that cartoons
didn't have to be in four panel daily strips (yeah, I know. My thinking must've
been pretty limited to have not encountered that idea earlier in my life).
After reading that, I stayed up late one night sketching out the plot of
the first story I wrote which
How did you get into the industry?
Pete: I took the
aforementioned job at the newspaper just to force myself to come up with a lot
of material. After that ended (18
months) I started doing longer stories with the characters from the newspaper
strip and collecting them into mini-comics.
One early break I got was that Capital City Comics agreed to distribute
the minis. I'm not sure why. But
they sold okay for what they were (a few hundred of each). Then I sent a story to Brett's anthology "TopShelf"
(from which the eventual publishing enterprise would spring) and that put me in
touch with Brett. Around the same
time, I went to my first convention, met a bunch more people, got more invested
in the whole idea of publishing comics blah blah blah. It all happened really slowly at first and I didn't see what
was coming at the time, i.e., that I'd be getting so invested in drawing comics.
Also, around this time I got a mention in "Details" magazine
which called Hey, Mister "America's funniest comic book."
Of course, this isn't true but it gave me some much needed confidence and
legitimized the idea that comics were worth pursuing.
With 'Hey, Mister' do you have all these ideas swimming around in your head that
you want to tell through the book or is it more of a spur of the moment type
Pete: It's mostly a spur
of the moment thing. As I said, the
only things that are well-defined in my mind are the characters. I have all
sorts of ideas but the trick is accurately determining which ones are worth
developing. The process of making comics is so time-consuming that I don't have
the luxury of going down a blind alley with a script only to realize after a few
weeks' work, that whatever idea spawned the script isn't really coming through.
At that point, I have to bag it and start with a new script or see if
maybe in the process of developing that idea, I've come up with a different tack
that might work.
'Hey, Mister' is a combination of longer narratives and short pieces. How do you
Pete: There are the
jokes which are short (3 pages max) and don't pretend (I hope) to be anything
more than a laugh.
Those usually appear almost fully formed in my brain and it's just a
matter of structuring the strip to bring as many laughs out of the joke as
Then, there are the
stories. They are more ambitious and more involved and always (when successful)
end up being about something more than I envisioned when I started writing them.
Say, in the Jesus story, it started out as a satire about the state of
religion in America and ended up being about the relationship between Young Tim
As far as the creative
process goes on the stories, I generally get an idea for the
narrative--something that happens to one of the characters that forces him/her
through a series of events, some of which they control and some of which are
beyond their control. My hope is
that whatever the character is forced to confront will change him irrevocably.
In saying all this, I hope I'm not making it sound as if the stories are
all weighty and serious. Even given this creative process, my primary concern is
playing as much of the material as possible for laughs. But I want the jokes to appear in the context of a compelling
narrative rather than just being randomly placed, cheap laughs.
You touch on issues like religion, relationships and the work life in
general...how autobiographical is the book?
Pete: Not at all really
except to the extent that everything I write must, in some way, reflect on my
own experience and my own sensibilities. So,
the specific actions and events and almost wholly fictional or borrowed from
stories I hear from friends or from things I observe.
But, the subject matter reflects things I think about a lot (mortality,
how a worthwhile life is lived, how a life is squandered, etc.) so in that way
it's personal if not autobiographical.
Are there any other ideas outside of 'Hey Mister' that you're thinking of
Pete: Not right now. I
have an idea for a political strip that I'd like to develop but HM takes every
bit of spare time that I have. I
think I'm closer to the end than the beginning and, when I'm done, I want to
develop a graphic novel length story. One
thing I haven't seen much of are long narratives that are as funny as they
serious. But then, I don't read a
lot of comics so maybe those are out there and I've just missed them.
Have you been working the comic convention scene actively?
Pete: The only one I
attend regularly is SPX. I almost
went to San Diego this year because I was nominated for an Eisner but it was too
expensive. SPX is fun but it's primarily an opportunity to hang out with your
cartooning friends that you don't see but once a year.
I pretty much spend the entire show behind the Top Shelf table meeting
people who come up to say hi or buy the book because it's amazingly gratifying
to have people come up and tell you how much they like your books.
How has the reaction been to the book?
Pete: Good so far.
Sales increase with each issue to the point where the initial distributor
orders are covering the cost of the print run so at least it's not losing money!
Most of the reviews I've gotten are good though a lot of people in the
indy comics scene are reluctant to slam anyone because, I think, they feel like
they don't want to damage the tiny bit of respectability that indy comics might
have by pointing out that indy comics
How do you think the industry is doing in general right now?
Pete: I'm not really
qualified to talk about the state of alternative comics because I don't think
about it much. I read what I like
and ignore the rest and most of what I like isn't too surprising (Fantagraphics,
Drawn and Quarterly, TopShelf, Highwater, Alternative Press).
And, I just read for the pleasure of reading, that is, I don't really
connect the dots and try to place books in the larger context of the industry as
a whole. That said, I guess it's
going okay. I mean, as with any art
form (and particularly an art form that has embraces the DIY ethos) there's just
tons and tons of crap. But, the
people who are good are really, really good.
Are there any inherent problems that you would like to see taken care of within
the comic industry?
Pete: Well I'd read more
comics if writers would invest more time and effort in coming up with good
stories rather than just prosaically recounting the events of their lives.
I mean, sure, everyone is living interesting lives but your life and your
ideas are only going to be interesting to someone else if they're filtered
through well-structured narrative.
Are there any dream projects you'd like to work on in comics or elsewhere?
Like a lot of people, I imagine all the things I could do if
HM was animated but I don't think I have the patience or tenacity to
pursue that kind of deal. So, I
probably won't be beating the bushes anytime soon looking for someone to fund
such a project and my guess is that that's what you'd have to do.
Maybe, in the future, if HM looks like a more commercially promising
enterprise, someone will show up with a big wad of cash and an offer I can't
What do you think of the political race this year?
Pete: Well, I would vote
for Nader if it wasn't close but that would represent a cheap sort of activism
on my part. I mean, it's not like
I've been working real hard to advance progressive causes over the last decade.
To give a self-congratulatory vote to Nader as a way of personally affirming a
commitment to progressive politics that I haven't really demonstrated with any
concrete action would be sort of detestable.
As a white,
with no dependents in the most powerful nation on earth, I don't really have
anything to lose in the short run and I think elections are all about the short
run (whereas movement building is for the long run). So, I'm going to cast a vote that I think would do the most
to protect the vulnerable people in society, i.e. Gore.
Organic or Mechanical web-shooters?
Is that a Spider-man thing?
Pete: Uh, organic.
Brittany Spears or Christina Aguilera?
Pete: Ewww. Too much
makeup. Fake breasts.
Can I pick Sally Timms?
Suit yourself. If you could pick
one person to fight who would it be?
Pete: The next person
that cuts me off in traffic while I'm riding my bike.
What comics/books/movies/stuff would you recommend?
Low-Jinx by Kurt Wolfgang
Boy in My Pocket/Billy Dogma by Dean Haspiel, NON an anthology edited by Jordan
Movies: Judy Berlin
Books: Morte D'Urban by
Stuff: cats, the St.
Louis Cardinals, dogs
Why should someone who's never picked up 'Hey, Mister' give it a try?
Pete: Because people are
no damn good and 'Hey, Mister' will tell you why!
You essentially have free ad space on a site that reaches across the masses and
is pitched by the owner throughout cyber space until he gets threatening 'cease
and desist' orders from Internet service providers. What do you want to pitch?
Pete: Isn't it
Thanks a lot, Pete. For more with Pete Sickman-Garner, check out CBG at
www.comicbookgalaxy.com for Rob Vollmar's second half of this interview as well as more reviews of the 'Hey, Mister' books.
Copyright©2000 GrayHaven Magazine and contributors