Cartooning and Curmudgeonry with Alex Schumacher of MR. BUTTERCHIPS
We recently sat down with Alex Schumacher, the talented creator of Mr. Butterchips and Decades of (in)Experience to chat about re-launching Mr. Butterchips as a weekly strip with Slave Labor Graphics, writing difficult characters and the intricacies of solo comics craft.
Make sure to follow Alex on Twitter and check out his work, including the Mr. Butterchips collection released in June of last year.
CHRISTA HARADER: Alex, how are you? It’s nice to finally get to chat.
ALEX SCHUMACHER: Yeah, it is! I’m doing well. I’ve got a few things going on – pitching a graphic novel with my agent right now, so knock on wood. Maybe something will happen!
CH: Very cool, fingers crossed for you!
Let’s chat about the Mr. Butterchips relaunch with Slave Labor Graphics – did they reach out, or was this something you’d had in mind for a while?
AS: So, to take you back a little bit, it started in 2017 during the last Alternative Press Expo. I was in touch a little bit with Dan [Vado] during that because he took the show back from SDCC. Dan really wanted to make it the indie haven that it had been for a long time. But he had some things going on [in] his own life, and it sort of fell through the cracks. I jumped in at the last minute to help him get some panels together, and we kept in touch after that.
I'd been doing Mr. Butterchips for Drunk Monkeys Magazine since 2016 and I wanted to do a collection. I always kind of had it in my head that I wanted to put all of these individual episodic installments together, in one place. And so I approached Dan about it and he dug it, and we did the collection in 2020.
CH: Given the most recent events in the strip, where are we headed thematically with this new administration? AS: Thankfully, now that we have a new administration, it was about time to figure out how to move forward with the strip. I had been talking to Dan for a while about ways to kind of get the word out more about the book now that 2021 is here and places are opening back up. We came up with the idea to relaunch it as a weekly strip. It still will maintain a lot of the pushing back against intolerance and stupidity and all of the tenets we've come to know and love with Mr. Butterchips, but it'll be done in a way that's a bit more hallucinatory and almost towards the original idea I had for the comic, which was more of an homage to the underground comics of the '60s and '70s. We’re getting back to the genesis of the character, which will be a lot of fun. CH: Love some good underground comix! What inspired you to do a full-length story for the collection and take Mr. Butterchips on his San Francisco journey?
AS: I wanted to pad the book a bit so it wasn’t simply a collection of the comics that you could read online. I wanted there to be something that enticed people to pick it up. So the story itself was an exaggerated version of a night out I actually had with a good friend of mine. My wife and I went up to the city, and it wasn't acid, but there were some mind-altering substances involved and it was just a wonderful night. I was in the birthplace of the underground movement, walking in the literal footsteps of Gilbert Shelton and Spain Rodriguez and all those guys, where they’ve all been. So it felt apropos to put Mr. Butterchips on that journey, and then just throw in a bunch of pop culture references and characters that’ve been in the comic, like Rodolfo -
CH: He has a rough time of it in this one.
AS: I think people attribute this to [Charles] Schultz, but I'll paraphrase. If you have a strong enough character and you know the character well, you can put them in any scenario and just let them tell you what they're going to do. I've been writing Mr. Butterchips for over four years. So it was pretty easy to say, "Okay, this is the very basic scenario that I want to put him in. Let's see what happens." I had some input from another friend of mine, Kevin Ketner, who was kind enough to read over the manuscript for me. He's been very supportive and encouraging of the project. He provided some feedback and said, "Okay, change some stuff here. Maybe add some context here," which is always useful. I used to be of the mindset that everything that I wrote was great just the way it is. And, obviously, this was a long time ago when now looking back in it, all of those pieces are garbage [laughs.]
CH: It happens to all of us, it's okay.
AS: Absolutely. And I think that's one of the things to becoming a competent writer. You learn that outside input is integral. Kevin was instrumental in the San Francisco sojourn part of the book. Having that kind of support system is really important in comics, especially for somebody like me who's sort of teetering on the edge of obscurity and some sort of credibility or notoriety. It’s great to have people in the industry to validate you to some degree. Because we all have our fragile egos and we all get down on ourselves. It's very easy to do.
CH: I don't know anything about that [laughs.] But yeah, having someone who's like, "I see what you're doing and I like what you're doing, and I actually want to help you make it better.”
AS: To have somebody think highly enough of what you're doing to devote that time to volunteer that assistance for you. In this incredibly subjective medium, it's very easy to get down on yourself and think about quitting every day. I have a small, nice community of people that I've built that continue to push me along and carry a load when I need them to. You need that kind of emboldening at times. And, people like you too who write about comics and are interested in talking to me, that's always a huge boost, like maybe I'm not just screaming into the void all the time, because it can feel very easily like you're just lost in the shuffle.
CH: Well, especially when you're doing something that's a little bit off the beaten path. It's 2021. Culture at large still understands comics as an art form in terms of superheroes. You, me, other folks, we're all out at the margins doing weird stuff, trying to find our people, so I relate to that.
AS: Yeah, absolutely. And, it can get lonely and desolate out on the fringes.
CH: And very odd [laughs.]
AS: But that's kind of the beautiful thing. As much as I sort of malign social media, you are able to find a community which you wouldn't be able to otherwise. So it's been nice to find creators, journalists and enthusiasts. You can commiserate and you can celebrate. And I feel very lucky to have even found the small group that I have.
CH: That's cool. Are you active locally? I mean, we've been in the house for, I don't know, 10 years now?
AS: So I grew up in Salinas, moved up to the Bay Area in my '20s and was there for a while. I was very involved with the Cartoon Art Museum in the city, and the National Cartoonist Society, and I met all of these cool people. I never went to art school. My education was actually learning from people who knew what they were doing [laughs.] My wife and I moved back up here right before lockdown. And what you said about superheroes, the main point that I've always tried to make is just that there’s more. If you love superheroes it’s fine if that's your thing, but that's such a specific North American mindset - which is where comics were born, that's the crazy part. But everywhere else that's adopted it, Japan, Europe, it's such a venerable art form. I mean, it's thought of in the same regards as cinema or novels. It’s changing in America now because trade publishers are picking up great stuff.
CH: The game is changing because publishing with a capital P knows there’s money to be made. Digging into your point a little bit, you can do anything in this medium, right? So, whatever you like, there's a comic and a style out there for you. Maybe it’s harder to find in the digital age of information glut, but we have to get people to think differently, at all ages. I came to comics late. Did you read comics growing up?
AS: I loved comics as a kid and I read superhero stuff because I think that's what a lot of kids come into. But I also had the Smithsonian collection of newspaper comic strips, that weighty coffee table tome. I fell in love with all the classic people like Roy Crane, Chester Gould, Charles Schultz, Walt Kelly. My dad was a commercial artist, and when I was about seven or eight he essentially told me that I'd never make it as a cartoonist. He's a wonderful guy. I actually stopped drawing for about 10-15 years and got into playing music. I was trying to do other things creatively. I found my way back into comics in my early 20s and I went straight to Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Slave Labor Graphics. And, funny enough, through Kevin Smith, I found Michael Allred, who did all the art for Bluntman and Chronic, and then I found Madman and from there it was a deep dive into indie comics. I still don’t really read superhero books. It’s not an elitist thing, again, it’s my taste. Any kind of gatekeeping is absurd to me. I just have never found any in my adult comics-reading life that have spoken to me like Guy Delisle’s Hostage, or Derf Backderf's My Friend Dahmer, or Jen Wang's Stargazing. Books that focus on the human condition and the heart and emotion and connection of the characters first, with some fantastical elements. Madman seems like this tribute to B-movie pastiche, but if you read it there’s deep gravitas. That was sort of an arrow to the brain for me.
CH: Did your re-entry prime you to work in strips and short-form stuff initially?
AS: Even though I found Allred when I was getting back into cartooning, my initial objective was to be a syndicated comic strip artist, and this was the early 2000s when it was still kind of a possibility. But the more I was submitting and the more the internet became prominent and there was a lot more information on it, it was pretty clear that syndicates and that method of making a living were dwindling significantly. I moved into comics and I thought it would be a really easy transition, but comic books and comic strips are very different [laughs.]
CH: Oh no, Alex! What did you do? [laughs]
AS: I started doing a self-published one with a friend and very quickly realized I was in over my head, especially because I hadn't drawn for so long before that. It clicked when I was about 34, when I decided to focus on my writing, and I started Decades of (in)Experience with Antix Press. That was all incredibly fertile training ground to up my game, so to speak. CH: Do you like the constraint of nailing a gag or a particular point in a couple of panels?
AS: I do. It's a great exercise because when it works, when it clicks, that's the magic. Telling a complete, concise story in three or four panels is a good primer for writing long-form stories. Not that it's easy. And the astute advice is when aspiring creators want to do their epic, first try writing a short story. For some reason when you go into the arts, you think you’re going to master it quickly. I did this to some degree, too. You have to write your page and maybe it’ll suck, but you come back to it. It was a lesson I had to learn. Most people don't have their first drafts published. Me especially, thank God!
CH: Do you outline your script first or draw first? A combo of the two? Tell me about your process.
AS: With things like Mr. Butterchips and Decades, where it's one-page episodic installments, I write more in thumbnails. I'll script the caption boxes and dialogue, and have the images in my head. Most of the time when I send a draft off to an editor, it's a very vague panel description and then whatever the text is going to be. But with graphic novels, I have found that an outline is integral because I have a tendency to go way off track. It's difficult to find your way back if you don't have that roadmap. That's not to say that you can't take detours, but for me specifically, having an outline is pretty important. Then that goes to thumbnails. And again, as I write the layouts and the images are sort of in my head. If I think I'm going to forget something, I'll jot it down. I still write in spiral notebooks, old school. There's just something about that connection to the page when it's tangible. The muscle memory is going, it sparks my creativity. Transcribing it on the computer isn’t always fun because it’s a lot of typing.
That's an argument for digital art, too. I still work traditionally. I've been looking into doing it digitally. Number one, better for the environment, of course. But number two, you're cutting out a lot of steps that take time. And even things like erasing or correcting a page, much easier to do digitally. And I still have white paint. You could do it in Photoshop with traditional art, and that's fine. For some reason, I just have this idea in my head where some of my original art is going to be hung on the Cartoon Art Museum wall someday, and I love the idea of people going in and seeing the white paint. It’s important, especially for aspiring creators to see the work and everything behind the page. CH: I’m looking forward to seeing it up there and I agree, it’s cool to get that close.
AS: Nothing comes out perfectly, and too often people think that a published book is exactly how it was written. Or a printed comic is exactly how it was drawn the first time. Most people labor over their work. I think that's important for people who are just starting out to witness, so they're not getting discouraged when they're making mistakes. Everybody does. People who do it professionally, people who make a living doing it, it's never perfect. It's an arduous process. But if you love it, you deal with that. Worth it.
CH: Yeah, you put in the time. And I like artist editions and seeing originals because the first thing I look for is all the little corrections because I like that connection to the person who made it. That sounds corny, but -
AS: No, it doesn't. It humanizes it.
CH: Obviously, Mr. Butterchips is a political piece as it stands. I'm curious what inspired you to put that sentiment in this character. I love that he's righteous, but there's a lens on him that illuminates his self-righteousness and ridiculousness, too.
AS: I didn’t want to prop him up as some sanctimonious character. I wanted it to be somebody, or some monkey, who pushes back against intolerance and hatred and stupidity. It was important to show that he was flawed because people are flawed. And it doesn't matter if your heart's in the right place or if you're a liberal or progressive, we all make mistakes and we all have things that we need to contend with. But as long as you're accepting, you are open-minded, you have love in your heart, those are the important things.
The initial idea was a tribute to underground comics, so the first five or six whatever it was before November 2016, we're very much in that pastiche of underground comics. After, there was just something that snapped in me with that character where I went, "That's the right platform and the right character to be the vessel for the rage and the anger and sorrow and despair.” It was a pretty big pivot, but at the same time, it felt very natural.
CH: It doesn’t feel jarring when you read it.
AS: That's good to hear that it actually didn't come off that way. And I think it's important for people to use whatever platform they have at their disposal to speak out against these things. And sure, I'm not reaching millions of people, but it was the communication tool that I had to say what I wanted to say. When the administration changed, it was evident that I needed to do something different.
For me to continue doing that with Drunk Monkeys did feel like it was going to be too big of a change. The opportunity to shift to SLG and possibly reach a larger audience in doing so felt like the right move to make. Even though they haven't published a lot recently, they still have a credible name and people still know who they are, still love their books. And since I was 22 or 23, I've always wanted to do something with them. So it was a full-circle moment for me, maybe not getting to be with them in their heyday necessarily, but I don't think that really matters. So it's really exciting to be able to present the new era of Mr. Butterchips with them.
Nothing comes out perfectly, and too often people think that a published book is exactly how it was written. Or a printed comic is exactly how it was drawn the first time. Most people labor over their work. I think that's important for people who are just starting out to witness, so they're not getting discouraged when they're making mistakes. Everybody does. People who do it professionally, people who make a living doing it, it's never perfect. It's an arduous process. But if you love it, you deal with that. Worth it.
CH: It comes with that local cache and you’re the latest in a long line of Bay Area comics royalty. Congratulations! I’m curious if there’s significant thematic crossover between Decades of (in)Experience and Mr. Butterchips, or do you express different creative endeavors in each?
AS: For me, there's definitely a separation between the two, not to be super meta or pretentious but-
CH: Do it. I support you [laughs.]
AS: They're two different parts of me. I guess it's not pretentious because as a creator, there's always a part of you in whatever you do. Whereas Butterchips is flawed with his heart in the right place, Luke is the fuck-up who wants to be better but finds it difficult to discover that path.
It was a way for me to reflect and hold myself accountable for a lot of the things that I did in my twenties and early thirties that aren't necessarily my finest moments. And some people, I think, had a little bit of an aversion to it early on because Luke can come off as a misogynist asshole. But he had just come out of a bad break-up, so he was in this relationship demolition mode. He didn’t hate women, he hated relationships. And he happened to have some emotions toward this woman who he had just broken up with.
CH: He was frustrated.
AS: I always knew that I wanted him to start there and end in a much better place and grow on this personal journey. That was always the intent. I wanted people to see him at his lowest because for me, being in a relationship with somebody – not even just a romantic one, friendship, family, etc. – you can tell the people who are going to be there for you when they've seen you at your best and they've seen you at your worst. I wanted to present Luke in that same way, to find out who really wanted to read it. We all made mistakes. And I think that's part of the human experience.
It was important for me to begin there and bring him to a more responsible place. He's grown a lot. He's not perfect at the end, but I think he understands his own flaws and he's met somebody – and I didn't want it to be the trope where the man meets a woman and the woman shows him everything he did wrong. I think sometimes you meet someone and it doesn't matter who it is, you meet the right person and it does make you want to change. And I think it's okay to explore that storyline, which is what I did with Luke. But Tiffany is a fully rounded character, has her own life, has her own interests. Whereas with the trope, oftentimes it's just you know the woman's name and maybe where she's from or something like that.
CH: Exactly. We spend more time talking about him. AS: I didn't want it to be like that. I don't think it's possible to accomplish it a hundred percent of the time, but I've always, at least, tried to be cognizant of the Bechdel test, which I think is a really important thing. It also cracks me up that a lot of people who talk about it in the movie realm, they don't even realize it's from a comic, which is really funny to me.
CH: They don't understand the nuances of it either, which is hilarious. AS: No, they're just like, “We have to have women because we're not sexist.” I try to be conscious of that when I'm writing. I think you need to be at least aware of the way that you write and the way that you present characters. I think we all grow up, unfortunately, absorbing certain biases. You can't really control outside influences, but what you can control is being open to change and learning. And you make mistakes, but then you work hard to not make that same mistake again. Luke makes mistakes, and sometimes some readers take that as he's a terrible person.
CH: He's a flawed character, and that's important. Impenetrable characters aren’t interesting. There’s a scale of mistakes, from understanding someone who might not have context to someone who’s actively trying to hurt people. And you react accordingly, and there are consequences. Especially in art, it can be that mirror. AS: That was the idea with Luke. I was hoping everyone could look at him and say, “I’ve been there.” But if you only read the first four or five installments from 2015, you might walk away with that idea. Luke is the emotional and personal side of my creative brain. So it was also important for me to introduce Judaism, to make it known that he was also part of a marginalized group. A lot of the anger he was feeling and a lot of the resentment that he was feeling was some of the micro-aggressions and the outright anti-Semitism that he grew up with because a lot of us experience that in America. Some of us definitely benefit from white privilege, and I completely acknowledge that. But as soon as some people know you're Jewish, there's a switch that flips and you're a different person to them. So I think having that as part of the character's identity was important. I think that's become something that's informed and inspired a lot of the stories that I've written. And I think 2016 to 2020 was the catalyst where those elements all went in and I decided I needed to talk about it. I fully understand and acknowledge that many other marginalized groups have it more difficult, but we do share a lot of persecution in our histories. So there was that bridge that I could put in my work, where it wasn't just another white guy whining. It’s somebody who's had pretty traumatic experiences, some of which he's done to himself, but some of which were caused by experiences from his formative years. So again, that's been, I think, more important after the Trump administration to have that as an almost central part of my work.
CH: To be more visible? I hope that comics continues to be an open and welcome space for you to do so, because that's really important.
AS: I hope so too. And I hope my comics are welcoming.
CH: I relate to Luke, and I look like the kind of person who wouldn't [laughs.] But like you said, we all get stuff put in our heads by our parents, by the media, by people who we hang out around. And it's up to us to interrogate that programming, if that’s what we want to call it, and not let it inform how we treat people and how we show up in the world.
AS: And like I said with my wife, she was huge for me to stop and think about some of the things I was doing. And one of the things that I did that I didn't even realize because it was the culture I grew up around. It's that mindset that's been just drilled into us. And a lot of that is changing now, I think. It's still around obviously, but there's a much wider and broader viewpoint being distributed, which I think is incredibly important. And that wasn't the case when I was growing up, certainly in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
That was the journey I wanted Luke to go on. I wanted him to embody and exhibit all of those things that I didn't like about myself and then show him continually working on changing because that's what it is. It's a continual progression. So when he got to that point where I was ready to say I told his story. I don't like neat endings, but I needed him to be in a position where people would be comfortable inviting him to a party [laughs.]
CH: Having him in their house.
AS: Not being an embarrassment. Not to toot my own horn, but I think it ended in the right way. From my point of view, it ended where it needed to end, and that was the important part for me.
[...] You can commiserate with one another and you can have some support, a virtual support base that you don't have in real life. I just cannot overstate the importance of having a good support group, whether chosen family, real family, online, in real life, it doesn't matter. If you can find a support group, it can change your life. Quite literally, it can sometimes save it.
CH: There is emotional closure in that, which is hard to find in a lot of comics these days. AS: And a lot of his behavior, that struggle, was his alcoholism, that also drove a lot of his anger and insecurities. And this July, I will be two years sober, which is a godsend.
CH: Congratulations, Alex, seriously. That's so awesome.
AS: As I'm sure you know, recovery is an ongoing thing. And part of that process for me was really facing it and telling people about it, because I know it can be personal. It's difficult to share and if that's the way that you need to deal with it and the way that you need to process it, that's absolutely fine. But I needed to put it out there because too often I think it goes unsaid. People struggle and don't feel like they have anybody to relate to or any allies or anyone that they can reach out to. I've had several creators reach out to me in private and talk to me about it and share that they struggle with it too. You can commiserate with one another and you can have some support, a virtual support base that you don't have in real life. I just cannot overstate the importance of having a good support group, whether chosen family, real family, online, in real life, it doesn't matter. If you can find a support group, it can change your life. Quite literally, it can sometimes save it.
CH: Oh yeah. The people in my life who have stuck around who are the diehards, they've saved my life, 100%.
AS: That’s how you know the people who are going to stick around. You’re going to find out very quickly who's a fair-weather friend or family member. As silly as it might sound, I don't want fair-weather readers. I want people who are going to stick it out through the hard parts to read through, because that's life.
CH: You're exposing a part of your experience in an incremental, serial medium. You can take the fun or the darkness out of a single strip, but it's the cumulative effect over time. And that's what's so engaging about sequentials and strips, right? You end up reading 30 in a row because you need to see what happens.
AS: Yeah, and that's the liberation of a webcomic too. Graphic novels, longer-form comics, you can do this to a degree too. But webcomics can last in perpetuity, and you could tell every story that you want to tell with them because you have that control, and you have the advantage of being your own distributor, publisher and editor. Although I do recommend people usually get editors, because it's kind of necessary.
CH: Everybody get an editor! It doesn’t have to be me, just get one [laughs.] AS: Decades was the first webcomic I did, and it was enlightening to discover the full extent of what you can do. And I think that that fueled my desire to do long-form books and graphic novels. It was a confluence of that medium, graphic novels were becoming more popular and more of a viable art form, and also wanting to tell those kinds of stories. In Mr. Butterchips I get to expand the world a little bit more now, doing it as a weekly instead of a monthly. I’m throwing in a lot of background references. So hopefully it's one of those things where people can read it and just enjoy whatever the narrative or the gag is and go back and find new things. Because those are my favorite kind of comics, where there's just so many things that you notice something different every time. Movies and books and all of those too, same thing. Hopefully, that’ll be more prominent in the newer strips.
CH: It’s easier to stop in comics. The film isn’t dragging you along, you don’t have to go back and find a spot in a book. When I was reading the San Francisco Mr. Butterchips story, I stopped on every panel to see if I could figure out where he was on the street.
AS: I was getting some interesting reference. When he's first walking down the street before the woman slaps a sticker on him, that's a very specific part of Haight-Ashbury. I was trying to find those landmarks, where they looked cool in the background but also people who are from the area or have spent a lot of time in the city could say, "Oh, I've I know that, I've been there." So it was a fun balance to get out of that. CH: What are you most enjoying out in the world right now? Books, music, media, things to do, etc. AS: I'm reading a Ray Bradbury book called A Graveyard for Lunatics. Graphic novels, I read Jerry Craft’s New Kid and Hope Larson’s All Summer Long. I re-read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. That one felt very of-the-times. Hilo by Judd Winick, who I've gotten to know a little bit online, which is really cool. He's a really good guy. Listening, I always go back and forth. I was diagnosed with OCD in 2019 so one of my obsessive tendencies is if I discover a new artist, I end up listening to them for two weeks straight and going through the complete catalog and learning everything I can about them. We went and saw Hamilton and I just listened to that soundtrack on repeat while I was drawing, which is great. I listen to a lot of punk rock, too. CH: What kind? AS: I like a lot of classic punk. Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones. Something was going on in Ireland at that time, the punk coming out of there was just phenomenal. The Dead Kennedys. When I was in my teens there was that great Bay Area punk scene going on at the time, the Gillman Street stuff and Operation Ivy, Rancid and Pennywise. They're super solid. Bad Religion, I know they're one of the big ones, but there's a special place in my heart for Bad Religion. The Vibrators, The Cramps. Like I said, I love the classic stuff.
CH: Sometimes I think about what Lux [Interior] would be doing now, and I get sad.
AS: Definitely. Lux would have a lot to say. I love the grunge and alternative of my youth – Alice in Chains, The Meat Puppets, Stone Temple Pilots, Mudhoney. There's a great Sirius XM channel called Lithium, they play a lot of that. I like Donald Glover as an actor and I started listening to a lot of Childish Gambino, he’s incredible. “Awaken, My Love!” is a great album. Through him, I've found people like Thundercat. And some of that newer ‘80s-style glam, like Tame Impala, The Struts and I Don't Know How, But They Found Me. A lot of times, rock can take itself way too seriously. But those guys are just out to have fun. Switching gears completely, blues and outlaw country are two genres I absolutely love. Like Otis Rush, Wild Child Butler, Slim Lightning, all those blues guys. Wailin' Willie, Kris Kristofferson, David Allen Coe, all the outlaw country guys. And there's a really great artist now named Margot Price who's kind of carrying that tradition along.
CH: I like country. Not the pop stuff, kind of what you’re talking about. AS: I watch things to unwind at the end of the night, or if there's a series that my wife and I want to watch, but typically I'm not really too drawn to investing in a series. We've watched stuff like Shrill, Sorry to Bother You, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was really great. And I go back to Californication, the David Duchovny show. It’s self-aware in its male fantasy, it never tries to glorify his exploits.
CH: That’s all I have for you, friend. Do you have anything else you want to plug? AS: Mr. Butterchips launches May 5th, so that’s about it!
CH: All right. Take care and keep in touch.
AS: Thanks, Christa, you too.