It was in September 2006 that Nicholas Gurewitch’s syndicated comic strip first appeared in The Scope. The first panel of the four panel strip showed a poster of a boy sliding down a rainbow and into a book. The next two showed a group of curious kids taking a book from a library, then sliding down a rainbow and inside. In the final panel the kids were shown drowning in an ocean of angry-looking snakes.
Suddenly, the people of St. John’s were transported into a strange world from which there was no escape—full of snakes, crocodiles, angry wizards, and anthropomorphic candy.
It’s a year later, and Gurewitch has published a new book collection with Dark Horse Comics, The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories, so we thought it was time to check in. The Scope’s man-on-the-phone Jonathan Adams got a chance to talk to him recently about the new book and the surreal world of The Perry Bible Fellowship.
Outgoing message on Nick Gurewitch’s answering machine:
Boy 1 (dejected): Josiah … we’re doomed.
Boy 2 (despondent): We’re lost without the Wiggly Wizard.
Magical-Sounding Man: Did somebody say my name?
Boys 1 & 2 (together, ecstatic): Wiggly Wizard!!! (Beep.)
Can you recommend a specific junk food to eat and also a particular record to listen to for the optimum reading experience of The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories? And keep in mind the reader will also have his or her hand down the front of their pyjama pants, ideally at least, throughout this process.
Maybe …Rosemary Clooney’s music. She’s pretty sweet. And—a junk food?
Oh! I’ve been offering peanut M&Ms at the book signings. I think people get a kick out of that because Colonel Sweeto is an M&M. I don’t think everyone got it at the signing, though.
Yeah, you allude to a lot of trademarks, so I guess you always have to tweak things slightly.
Right, I like doing that. I hate making a direct reference. It feels sloppy and vulgar, so I have to cloak it.
Do you feel that your status or social worth is improved now that you have a hardcover book collection of your strips published?
(Laughs) I think it somehow helps one’s self-esteem to have one’s work published, but I don’t know if my social worth has improved.
Now that you’ve been appearing in the pages of The Scope for over a year, where exactly does St. John’s, Newfoundland rank among strange or obscure places where your comic is regularly published?
Well, you guys are the only ones to pay by PayPal. (Laughs.) I would say it ranks pretty highly because you guys are comfortable with that.
Have you ever been … well, close to here at least?
No, but I really like Canada a lot. I think they’re lovely people there.
Which is more important: to be funny or brilliant?
I don’t see why they can’t co-exist as one.
Okay, well, to be original or funny.
Well, if you consider the fact that very few things are original, I think it’s nicer to have a good laugh. I think that just works better.
Do you have any regrets about so frequently using death, pestilence, and calamity as punch-lines?
It does give me pause sometimes. For some reason, I’m a little bit haphazard with it. I suppose I wonder why I am the way I am, with a bit of guilt, but I can’t really regret what I enjoy. That’s out of my hands.
What’s the most hostile reaction you’ve ever received to a particular comic?
I encountered a letter to a newspaper that questioned how I could make light of Jesus comically. She wondered, in her letter, whether I had any fear of God. Reading her question, I did have fear of her. I don’t think I fear God though. I like to think I will accept any punishments he has for me, because if you think about it, they will probably somehow bring me closer to him. He probably shouldn’t be feared under any circumstances. You’ve got to trust he’s doing the right thing for you.
Who or what is the Wiggly Wizard?
NG: (Laughs.) Uh, how did you hear that? I thought you talked to my roommate… He came about after we devoted an hour or so of our time to devising an answering machine greeting. We were getting sillier and sillier about it, so we decided that a sorceror called the “Wiggly Wizard” should show up out of nowhere to save these two kids who are stranded. I don’t think he exists anywhere else.
I read that one of your favourite cartoonists is Bill Watterson and it seems to me that a lot of your comics work the same way as those Calvin & Hobbes strips in which the whole strip takes place in Calvin’s fantasy world until the last panel reveals that the alien planet is the living room or whatever. You seem to borrow a lot of your fantasy worlds from advertisements and pop culture and sort of rub them up against a bracing reality, often in the form of senseless, violent death.
Yeah, like I try to let people wake up from all that crap. It’s nice to think of all these cultural tropes as the dream from which we wake up. Yeah. I like that comparison.
Okay, I have a few yes-or-no aesthetic questions. Nostalgia : yes or no?
Nihilism: yes or no?
Being ironic about being ironic.
Hmm … Cap’n Crunch?
But you have a comic strip about Cap’n Crunch.
Yeah, I only tried the cereal for the first time recently and hated it.
Does it happen often that you regret a strip after you’ve drawn it, or do you have second thoughts about whether something is funny or not?
Not terribly often. Even if I do sometimes doubt whether something’s funny after I’ve thought it was funny, and I go through a period of doubt, I almost always round back again and realize that I can enjoy it. My appreciation fluctuates, certainly, you know. As time goes by, with each and every comic, I go through various periods of enjoying some more than others…you do a lot of role-playing, through your visions and concepts … and sometimes it’s not always the case that your vision’s in line with how it was when you made something. I think I like all my comics by the end of the day.
You do a lot of them by hand as well, don’t you? The colouring?
A lot of them are done by hand. A lot of them are coloured on the computer as well.
Yeah, it’s usually not hard to tell. Some of them are really meticulously painted. And I find you’re also very good at imitating other artists’ styles.
It’s a fun challenge.
I also wanted to ask you about some specific strips. There are a couple that have caused some small controversies at Scope meetings from time to time.
As I recall, there were a couple of women who took offense at the one about the hammer that comes home to find his wife, depicted as a square wooden board, with a tell-tale screw lodged in her.
Oh yeah … I wouldn’t say it’s chauvinistic, but it’s not exactly flattering to women … to be depicted as a piece of wood. But I think a lot of guys do see their women as furniture or as something they own—so I think, insofar as I’m parodying male anger, it’s legit. I think it’s safe to say that a lot of men objectify their mates… and vice-versa, I think a lot of wives look at their husbands as, you know, a piece of comforting machinery that brings them pleasure or status. And it does work both ways, I think. I took the male angle probably because I am a man … but I can see how it could be offensive to be a man, so I apologize to them for that.
Then a couple weeks ago there was that episode about the ‘Poo Race.’ I heard that was one of the ones that you had doubts about afterwards.
(Laughs.) Yeah, it made me laugh though. I know it’s kind of a rule not to do poop jokes … I’m not sure why it got the better of me. I had a couple friends laughing hard at it, so I lost sight of my standards.
Is there anything taboo or sacred that you won’t ridicule in your comic?
I find a lot of things sacred and taboo. I think it’s a question of how sensitively you’re willing to deal with them. I think that’s the issue. I simply try to be aware, if possible, when dealing with these issues. I wouldn’t say that any of them are off limits to me. I know that I get offended by issues that other people don’t consider sacred. I saw this totally dumb thanksgiving ad on the internet other day, for example. A turkey was drawn with googely eyes, afraid, on thanksgiving day. We were supposed to enjoy that turkey’s fear! That bothered me. There was no comment. No sign of thought. I hate thoughtlessness. I hope I never do anything thoughtlessly.
Do you ever feel a need to respond to things like that? Do you think of yourself as a satirist?
Oh, certainly … maybe … that’d be a flattering title. I can’t tell if I’m directly responding to the insensitive things that I’ve seen, but I certainly enjoy examinations that don’t occur immediately.
Have you ever read a comic strip that made you cry?
No, sadness or emotion or whatever.
I don’t think so.
Do you think it’s possible for a comic strip to do that?
I don’t know if it’s a comic strip’s job to capture the actuality of life, but it must be possible.
In three panels is it possible?
(Laughs.) It’s a challenge … I’ll see if I can rise to the challenge. I’ve got a bad one coming up that might be good for it. Yeah …. Hopefully you can laugh too, though.
I guess the challenge in your case is that usually tragedy is the main source of comedy in your comics.
Yeah! There’s no reason you shouldn’t cry and laugh at the same time. I’ve often been in situations where I felt the need to both laugh and cry at the same time—to a point where it’s very awkward. I forget what the incidents were, but I find myself encountering that a lot. My throat tries to react to both sadness and laughter—usually when I contemplate world politics or family problems.
Who are some of your favourite cartoonists practicing now?
A comic that’s been making me laugh a lot is Julia Wertz’s Fart Party. I also really like Emily Flate’s Lulu Eightball. She’s golden. I would suggest getting both of their books. They’re actually both with the same publisher, Atomic Books. They’re both funny.
So what’s next for Nicholas Gurewitch?
Uh… maybe a glass of water or something.