Dave Wright's Todd and Penguin is filled with innocence and cynicism and so is he. We talked with the longtime webcomic creator about his comics, life and Keenspot.
We know you're a Florida reporter/editorial cartoonist. Tell us something about yourself you've never mentioned in print.
Ok, here is something which I have been deeply ashamed of for some time. I LIKE the Thong song. Not even the video, which would be at least excusable given the amount of thongage. I actually like the song, particularly the way Cisqo sings it – with such a sense of passion. As the song builds, and the orchestra swells, Cisqo ratchets it up a notch for the climactic part, and really EMOTES! The way he sings that end part, it sounds like the most important song ever sung!
There, I just lost all the music cred I've spent years building among my friends.
Where did you get the idea for Todd and Penguin? Why did you decide to do it as a webcomic?
I don't know about you, but comics like Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts were like members of my family. When I was a kid, I used to go to my grandparents' house and I spent hours reading hardcover Peanuts collections, being swept into another world. Those books hold so many special memories for me. I get nostalgic just thinking about it. Calvin and Hobbes was introduced to me by my late best friend, Todd (whom the comic is named for). I remember the day I read that Calvin and Hobbes was ending. I was waiting for a bus in the dark at about 5 am, reading the article in the newspaper about the comic ending. I actually cried. (Is that worse than the Thong Song confession?)
In 2000, when I first had access to a computer, I decided I would be create a comic and try to make people feel like those comics made me feel. It was my way of honoring those comics. At the time, I didn't even know other people were even doing comics on the web (though the number of online artists was maybe 1/50th of what it is today).
Your art has improved enormously since you first started. What artists have influenced you most?
Bill Watterson and Charles Schulz mostly. I am inspired these days by webcomic artists such as Phil Cho of Skinny Panda whose line work and comic has me green with envy, Kazu Kibuishi who is absolutely phenomenal, and a few others I wish I had half the talent they have. Looking at Copper makes me wish I could devote all of my time to art to attempt to be that good.
While he isn't an influence on my style, there is no comic funnier than Soap on a Rope. Bob Roberds writes the most unappreciated, longest running comic gem on the web! I wish I could write as funny as he does.
Your comic always walks a fine line between cynicism and innocence. What writers and media most influenced your writing, your storytelling, and your humor?
I believe I'm a romantic cynic. I have hope that people will change, but in the end, few rarely do. While I want to make people feel the happiness that other comics have made me feel, there is this other side of me – the cynical, darker side, which wants to hold a mirror to society and all its shortcomings and say, "LOOK at what you are doing!"
For the darker stuff, I would say that news and real world events influence me more than anything. My other comic, Taking Up Space probably presents my world view a bit better. Racism, homophobia and other forms of intolerance and discrimination anger me. I have this idealized version of the world where people can just let people be. Of course, the cynic in me knows it will never happen.
Some of the comedians I like include George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart. You knowâ€¦ conservatives.
Penguin is like a perpetual child — waking the parent up at five in the morning, oblivious to grown-up responsibilities, he only true passion in his life is for cookies. Todd and Holly getting married, having to cope with real-life crises like losing a baby or loss of faith or parents affected by Katrina, only seems to reinforce that impression. Is that how you see the relationship? And who do you identify with more — Todd or Penguin? The adult–or the child?
Penguin is the naÃ¯ve, optimistic, dorky, inner-child in me. Todd, while not based one me, has many of the same worries and concerns that I've faced as I reluctantly face that face that I am no longer 20.
So, in answer to your question, I'm both.
Did you have doubts about going into areas so personal as Todd and Holly losing the baby or Holly losing faith?
That storyline was in response to a family member's battle with cancer. I knew I was going to do the story earlier in 2005, when we first got word of the cancer. Seeing how the specter of death loomed over everybody, changing everything, and stealing so much from the people I love was difficult. This was how it filtered through me – into the comic.
Unfortunately, a few other webcomics had picked a month or so before the baby's death to kill their own characters, so to people who didn't know the comic, they were probably thinking, "oh, he's doing the death thing," and the timing may have robbed the uniqueness of the event. However, for a comic like mine, which is normally light hearted and a funny gag-a-day strip, to do that shocked quite a few people. Some people complained it was too depressing, which is fine.
To be honest, I wish I had done the story a bit differently. I seem to have a penchant for getting into month-long oddly grim storylines, and about halfway through each of them, I just want the comic to be back to normal, it gets too be too much, and I worry about the reader who comes to the site every day only to get hit with another dose of depression. I think I've rushed a few of the stories because of that. A story like that and some of the other ones I've done require time to tell right. To be done properly, might require two months. But then you are changing the comic's genre and really testing your audience's patience. This critic on one shoulder snaps, "Stop being so melodramatic. People want to laugh!"
While I was putting the book together, and I had to read all the comics to select the best, I really felt the deep dark ones were less fun to revisit. I think the comic might be at its best when it is funnier and lighter in theme. Shortly after the death of Holly's baby, several readers wrote to me, thanking me for helping them, as they or their significant others had lost a child. Some of these letters really hit me hard. Wow, somebody actually was helped by my comic. In a way, I felt like I've already made it. People are feeling something from my comic!
Did you ever reject a contemplated storyline because it would be too much a downer for the reader?
Yes. Two of my closest friends died in horrible ways. One was murdered, another, Todd (for whom the comic is named) died in a car accident. I am still affected by both more than I probably should be. A few years ago, during Todd's near-death-experience, I was quite close writing a different ending, where he died. I even had plans for what would happen to Penguin. However, it felt false. Better sense prevailed as well a need to preserve the real Todd's memory by continuing on with the comic.
I sometimes joke that I don't make comics to make people laugh, but rather to make them cry.
I'm not going to ask you who your favorite character is but I am going to ask you which character is the most fun to write, and why. I'm betting on either Oscar or Jessika, but I could be wrong.
Jessika. She is a blast to write for. She is an idealist, but a cynic who is severely flawed in her ability to find happiness. She is also a bit of a hypocrite, which makes her authentic.
Unlike a lot of webcomics authors, you're not afraid to have your characters feel – even take a few panels just to silently react and relate. The recent episode where Penguin had to choose between Jessika or the "cool kids" is a perfect example, as is the reconciliation between Holly and Todd. In a culture where cynicism and flippancy seems to be the common coin, do you sometimes feel like you're bucking the current of the times or do you feel it's what makes Todd and Penguin stand out?
I think being honest to the characters dictates the theme. A lot of gag-a-day comics are written around the jokes and feel forced and inauthentic. I think that authentic characters are for the most part missing from the funny pages these days. Thank God for the Internet, where artists can take time to tell their stories their way.
What do you enjoy most about putting this out on the web and what's the most frustrating part of having this on the web?
The best part is connecting with the readers. To know that people get something from the comic means a lot to me. The most frustrating part is that I work anywhere from 40-60 hours a week at my day job and have to really fight to make time for the comics. A lot of things have suffered because of me chasing that dream. A lot of times, I don't spend as much time as I would like to on planning out the comic or storylines or advertising or networking. I know this comic would be so much better if I could devote more time to it.
I know you have a new book coming out. What other plans do you have, both for Todd and Penguin, and other projects?
KeenSpot has some big plans for Todd and Penguin. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to say what they are, though. Meanwhile, I'm working on a comic for syndication. Somewhere in all of this, I am trying to ALSO make time to work on my first novel, which thematically falls somewhere between Dean R. Koontz's and Clive Barker's works.