Going Bananas for Politics: An interview with Monkey Law’s Brad Hawkins

Brad Hawkin, the creator of Monkey Law, talks to Leah Fitzgerald about his art and politics, and the business of making monkeys homeless.

monkeyangst: Ready?
ComixTalk: Yeah.
monkeyangst: Cool.
ComixTalk: So how did you first get started creating comics?
monkeyangst: I have been drawing some form of comics since I was a little kid. At first it was superheroes, then I started doing humor strips in high school. I had a dreadful monthly feature in my school newspaper. I kind of lost heart and didn’t touch a pen again, except to doodle, until 2001.
ComixTalk: Why did you start again?
monkeyangst: I’m not sure, really. I’ve always had a love of comic strips and I had bought a set of Doonesbury and Bloom County books at a book sale… as I sat on the crapper reading Bloom County, I realized that the current administration was at least as ripe for satire as Reagan was. And if Berke Breathed wasn’t up to the task, somebody had to be.
monkeyangst: Oh, yeah, the discovery of Keenspace helped a great deal, too. I don’t think I would have had the idea of a webcomic if it hadn’t been for Keenspace.

ComixTalk: What were your influences when you were creating Monkey Law?
monkeyangst: Doonesbury is #1. Bloom County, also, and a little smidgen of Pogo thrown in. Visually, I don’t really take after anyone, although I keep saying I want to borrow more from Jules Feiffer. When I sit down to draw, though, any conscious decisions about where I want to take my art go out the window and it just comes out pretty much like it did before. Hopefully a little better.

ComixTalk: Why did you decide on a political cartoon?
monkeyangst: I don’t know if I believe in the concept of apoliticality. I’m not even sure it’s a word. For me, everything is political. All comedy is, certainly. No matter how goofy or innocuous it may seem, it’s all based in a world view. Laughter is a political statement.
ComixTalk: Where do you think ML fits in the current political climate?
monkeyangst: I’m not sure I understand the question. I don’t think John Ashcroft reads it, if that’s what you mean…
ComixTalk: I mean, where do you place yourself in terms of democrats, republicans, political stances?
monkeyangst: Well, I don’t think anyone’s going to confuse me with a Republican, although some ill-informed readers have taken me for a Democrat. I’m a leftist, but not a revolutionary. I believe in the gradual dismantling of capitalism. I think it’s possible, and [possible] without violence. Socially, and this is what I really want to show in Monkey Law, I want to show that the concept of tolerance and fairness is not some noble idea to be strived for, but a real, workable, day-to-day reality, possible in the here and now.

ComixTalk: What would you replace capitalism with?
monkeyangst: A system in which enterprise is tempered with responsibility. Where the law of the contract does not trump the public good. Where the right to make money will be respected, but will not take precedence over social welfare. I want to see a social democracy, with a market that’s free, but only as free as the public good dictates.

ComixTalk: So do you make money from ML?
monkeyangst: Not a penny.
monkeyangst: Not entirely true. I think I had $2 in my CafePress account when I closed it.
monkeyangst: Of course, I think I was the one who bought that stuff…

ComixTalk: What do you do to make a living?
monkeyangst: I work as a tech support agent for a computer company.
ComixTalk: Did you go to university intending to go into tech support?
monkeyangst: No, my degree is in art. I thought I was going to be a photographer.
ComixTalk: What stopped you?
monkeyangst: Turns out it’s really expensive. And I wasn’t much good. None of the professional photographers around wanted an apprentice, and I couldn’t even imagine how to go about hanging out a shingle on my own.
ComixTalk: What do you think of webcomics as an outlet?
ComixTalk: And… I mean, do you use your webcomic as an outlet? Do you think it’s good to do that?
monkeyangst: As an outlet, I think it’s pretty close to ideal. It’s immediate. You don’t have to wait three weeks to see your work in the public arena. I do stories that are based on things happening right now, today. Sometimes I go to CNN online and just look for something to do a comic about. Sometimes this results in a comic that’s inscrutable three months later, but as an immediate fix, it’s great. That said, I try not to funnel my emotions into the comic. If I get really angry at something, I don’t usually do a comic about it. Unlike some comedians, I don’t feel I’m funny when I do that… just irritating.

ComixTalk: What do you think makes a funny political strip?
monkeyangst: Well… and I’ve discussed this at length with the crew in my forums… whether you agree with it goes a long way. if you don’t, it’s a high hurdle but not insurmountable. A funny political strip is a strip which puts a situation in a new light, takes it to an absurd extreme. Twists your expectations a little bit. It has to be playful, and if it’s mean-spirited, it has to be playfully mean-spirited. I think my least-successful strips are the ones where I draw Bush as a monkey, acting like an idiot. That’s a good way to get a cheap laugh without earning it.

ComixTalk: Why monkeys?
monkeyangst: Oh, that’s easy. It’s all I can draw. Seriously, I started with the monkeys at an old job I held after college. I drew a couple of monkeys discussing the rules that the manager had laid down the night before. That’s where the title "Monkey Law" came from, by the way. When I decided to do a webcomic, I struggled with it because I precisely did NOT want to do monkeys. But my humans were weak, and I didn’t want to do another animal. I can only draw monkeys, and I think it’s obvious I can only draw them from one angle. So I’d be an idiot to try anything else.
ComixTalk: You majored in art – not drawing, then?
monkeyangst: No. That should be obvious from the first.

ComixTalk: What do you think about this whole Arnold as governor thing?
monkeyangst: I find it hilarious. The proving ground of American political talent used to be Yale… now it’s being in the cast of the movie Predator. If anyone has any doubts about whether style rules over substance in this meshuggineh country, they can safely lay that to rest.

ComixTalk: Who do you think will be the next president?
monkeyangst: Too soon to tell. We’ve got a year left. Time enough for Bush to get his shit together and pull the Iraq thing through or to fuck it all up and lose everything. Right now, I’d say Bush will be reelected.
ComixTalk: Who would you root for?
monkeyangst: Dean. I like Dean. You probably won’t see him in the strip. People you like aren’t funny.
ComixTalk: I like Dean, too. I live in Canada, by the way, where all our politicians are funny, even the ones we like.
monkeyangst: Dean may be able to pull it off. If he does, I’ll find plenty to dislike about him. I’m still sore from 1993.

ComixTalk: Heh. So what are your plans for Monkey Law?
monkeyangst: Well, I’ve started a storyline that has all of my characters becoming homeless, some on the run from the law. This should last me a while, and forestall the idea drought that has plagued me in the past. I still get too lazy to update regularly, but I am starting to deal with that.

ComixTalk: What kind of regular readership do you have?
monkeyangst: Miniscule. My discussion forums at chatter.monkeylaw.org are more popular than my comic these days. When I was counting, I was getting maybe fifty reads a day. I don’t count any more. The people I want to read it are reading it.
ComixTalk: How do you like your own forum?
monkeyangst: I enjoy it immensely. Like most egomaniacal webcomic artists, I started a forum to discuss the comic alone, and got nothing out of it. Then Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher from Star Trek) closed the Religion and Politics forum over at his very popular website, where I hung out, and I added some discussion areas to fill the gap. They’re going pretty strong now.

ComixTalk: You used to post on Wil’s forum?
monkeyangst: Yeah.
monkeyangst: Still do, from time to time.
ComixTalk: Cool. So I think I’m done, unless you have some burning thing you want to tell me?
monkeyangst: No, I think that’s good.