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An Interview with Pete Sickman-Garner: Part One

-by Andrew Goletz (continued in Part Two by Rob Vollmar at Comic Book Galaxy)

‘Hey, 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.

Gray 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.

GH: 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.

GH: Top Shelf isn't your company, right?

Pete: No. TopShelf  was started by Brett Warnock from Portland, OR (  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).

GH: 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 material that I'll draw just for that collection.

GH: 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 happened to feature the character who became Mister.  It was a terrible story and, once drawn, horribly executed but it was a start, which, I think, is hardest part about any creative endeavor.  Convincing yourself, in the beginning, that you have a talent worth pursuing despite the overwhelming lack of evidence to support that theory.  Then, a few weeks later Cook in the Kitchen (it was a bookstore/cafe type place) sold me a huge box of Eightball, Hate, D&Q, Love and Rockets etc. for $10 or so and after that I had my mind made up to be the next Peter Bagge.

GH: 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.

GH: 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 thing?

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.

GH: 'Hey, Mister' is a combination of longer narratives and short pieces. How do you balance that?

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 possible. 

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 and Jesus.

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.

GH: You touch on issues like religion, relationships and the work life in 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.

GH: Are there any other ideas outside of 'Hey Mister' that you're thinking of putting out?

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.

GH: 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.

GH: 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 artists are just as capable of producing dreck as anyone.  Of course, it would be a lot better for indy comics in general if people did less cheerleading and gave more honest assessments.  The most helpful reviews I've gotten are the ones that point out deficiencies and flaws.  True, they sometimes stick in the back of my mind when I'm trying to write but, overall, it's helped me improve.

GH: 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.

GH: 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.

GH: Are there any dream projects you'd like to work on in comics or elsewhere?

Pete:Not really.  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 refuse.

GH: 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,

college-educated male 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.

GH: Organic or Mechanical web-shooters?

Pete: What?  Is that a Spider-man thing? 

GH: Yes.

Pete: Uh, organic.

GH: Brittany Spears or Christina Aguilera?

Pete: Ewww. Too much makeup.  Fake breasts.  Can I pick Sally Timms?

GH: 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.

GH: What comics/books/movies/stuff would you recommend?

Pete: Comics:  Low-Jinx by Kurt Wolfgang

(, Boy in My Pocket/Billy Dogma by Dean Haspiel, NON an anthology edited by Jordan Crane.

Movies: Judy Berlin

Books: Morte D'Urban by J.F. Powers

Stuff: cats, the St. Louis Cardinals, dogs

GH: 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!

GH: 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 obvious!?!

GH: Thanks a lot, Pete. For more with Pete Sickman-Garner, check out CBG at 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