An Interview with Phil Cho by David Wright

Phil Cho's Skinny Panda is often quoted as a favorite by other webcomic creators, and it's easy to see why. The strip is not only beautifully drawn, but boasts some of the most endearing characters on the web. From the lovesick Robokitty to the know-it-all Penelope, to the Skinny Panda himself, Cho has an uncanny ability to skewer pop culture, exploit human foibles, and make you feel for his characters in a way that the greats such as Breathed, Watterson, and Schulz did so well.

Which came first the image of a Skinny Panda or the name? How did the character develop?

Name first, image second, rationale third. I needed a protagonist for a one-shot birthday party invitation/comic. "Skinny Panda" ended up a pouty and immature, but pitiable little guy. People seemed to think he was sweet. The idea of basing a new comic around him nagged at me for the next year. When I finally dug down and started fleshing him out, I held onto to his insecurity, but gave him a stronger foundation of kindness to make him a stronger main character.


You did a short-lived strip before this called Tumber Park Why did you stop?

Tumber Park was my attempt at resurrecting my college paper strip, Charlie (I would have stuck with the name "Charlie" but it was already taken by another strip. Surprise surprise). Charlie was gag-humor, relying on random characters doing random things in random situations. While it was fun in college, it was a bore in Tumber Park. The strips were crapola. I realized I needed to move onto character-based humor, something that would have more longevity, but also something I was terrified of committing myself to. The upside to Tumber Park was that it birthed the characters Robokitty and Flower. The downside is that it was Count Crapola.


Who is your favorite character and why?

That's like "Sophie's Choice." I don't have a favorite, and I don't mean that as a cop-out. I'm making a conscious effort to build-up each character equally. Whether it's through more starring roles in stories or more chances at delivering the punch line. I want to make sure each character stays necessary. It's nice to receive emails from people with different favorite characters. It reassures me that I don't have to kill any off.


Which character is most like you?

All of them. Depends upon my mood and how secure/insecure I'm feeling about myself at the time.


Then that would mean you are like Robokitty at times? How are you like him?

No way. I'm not falling for that one. I don't think people want to hear this (place emoticon for "guy with tongue sticking out" here).


Do you keep track of your page stats? How do the numbers affect you?

I used to follow my stats religiously during the first year, when the numbers grew steadily. But now that it's leveled-off, the thrill is gone. It works out much better this way. I used to notice which types of strips punched the numbers up higher. It was hard fighting the urge to play TV exec and stick with what was most popular. Now, I think the strip has a small, but understanding audience who will let me experiment more.


How many web-comics do you regularly read?

I hate to say this but I read very few webcomics. In fact, I rarely read comics at all. While there are definitely some strips that I admire, there aren't really any I feel the urgency to read regularly. I know, it's hypocritical of me. But, hey, I don't think I'd read my own strip regularly either.


I don't really read them often myself, even the ones I love, which makes me wonder if it's the medium (comics) that is not making it into the digital age (it seems more convenient to read them in a newspaper than online), or does the sheer number of them make them not as special as they once were, or has the quality gone down? What do you attribute your not reading them to?

Even though it is more convenient to read them in the paper, I think if people find good content, they'll go out of their way to read it. It might be easier to learn to like a newspaper comic over time because it's so convenient to read, but I think a good online strip has the potential to draw a more dedicated audience. You feel a lot closer to the creator. I've never seen a webcomic that's just a single page with a new comic sitting on it every day and nothing else (like a newspaper). You've got blogs, letters, bios, photos, forums, email exchanges etc. I've got readers who came back to Skinny Panda just because they liked the baby picture of me on the site. The only reason I don't think I'm reading any comics regularly these days is because I just haven't found anything that I'm really sucked into now. Who knows why? Maybe I'm getting catty.

Your comic is almost always done in black and white. Is this a style choice, or one of time constraints?

Both, really. I've always enjoyed working in pen and ink. I'm still waiting for the day when I can crosshatch properly. There have been a couple of times in the past 4 years where I said, "Hey, I've got a little time. Why not color the damn thing in?" Torture. Sheer torture. I have no sense of color. Making something even remotely passable tacked-on an extra 4 hours to the process. I should take a color theory class. Maybe visit Glidden's site.


One of my favorite stories was 'the race'. Which story has gotten you the most response? Which is your favorite?

Interestingly enough, the most emails I've received were for a stick-figure strip called "Inner Duck" where a vision of a quacking duck nags a man's dreams for days. His therapist tells him that it's his "inner duck" and that if he listens carefully with his heart, he'll be able to interpret what the duck's saying. In the end, the guy listens, and the duck's quacks eventually become "Jesus loves you." Now the way I just told it, it sounds like straightforward cheese, but when I wrote it, it was meant to be just a farce, where the Jesus line was a non sequitur acting as a subtle, random punch line. It wasn't meant to be anti-Christian, however. The line just seemed to work: cliché, but subtle. But apparently, it was too subtle. I received tons of email from Christian readers thanking me for putting out a positive religious message. This put me in a bit of an ethical dilemma because I didn't mean it that way, and so it felt inappropriate for me to take credit for it. I spoke with a couple of my Christian acquaintances and learned that, when one knows my intentions, the strip can reasonably be considered offensive by some for using Jesus in such a flippant manner. Now, I've always been an advocate of making artists and writers take responsibility for their work and to not discount it when others have their feelings hurt. If I were making a deliberate statement, that would be one thing, but this wasn't the case. So, for now, I've taken the "Inner Duck" link off of the site. I'll probably just change the ending and repost it later.


In this time of war, a lot of artists are facing the issue of how much reality to let in and what to keep out of their comics. Do you ever find yourself holding back political viewpoints when doing the strip?

I've wanted to incorporate more of a political viewpoint into my work, but when it comes down to it, I'm a lousy political cartoonist. So, I leave it to the others like Ted Rall and David Rees who are already expressing what I'm feeling, and doing fantastic job at it. I do have one anti-war Bush strip – I just couldn't resist. 


Describe your comic creating routine.

Ideas usually come late at night when I'm lying in bed. Then I sit at the illustration table the next day, over think everything, procrastinate with the Playstation, and then force myself back to work, making sure to finish the whole thing in one shot. Otherwise, if I wait too long, the over thinking and doubt come back and extend the whole process another 6 hours. 


What is your most prized possession? 

Don't have one. Sorry. 


Last book you read?

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman. It's a great book about usability in industrial design. I'm a stickler for clean, understandable design in both print and website navigation. If there's one thing I got out of it, it was the ideal of designing things without need for the end user to read a manual. How great a world would that be?


Music you listen to most, lately?

The Cure, Crowded House and Midnight Oil. I'm stuck in the 80s. 


Top 5 comics of all time?

When I was younger: Bloom County, Far Side, Garfield, Herman Now: Sock Monkey, Beanworld, Acme Novelty Library. Also: Peanuts TV specials.


Did you study art?

I took the occasional art class in high school and college but was too chicken to major in it. I regret that considerably. My Economics degree isn't quite as useful right now. I do plan to attend art school eventually. I'm ready to step up. 


Do you have any advice for newcomers to the field?

The first punch line that comes into your head may be good but the tenth will be more original.


How would you describe Skinny Panda to someone who's never read it? 

Lame, unfocussed, hurried and trite. But, at least for now, it's free. 


Where do you see Skinny Panda in five years?

I have absolutely no clue. I just want to learn how to draw better and plot-out longer, more original storylines.  As for the medium, I'll stick to the Web for now. I like the broad audience it reaches.


Hypothetical situation time: If a syndicate offered you money to draw another comic strip from which the original author retired, would you?

Nah. Unless it was just for a year and I was allowed to twist it around as much as I wanted. A post-modern Ziggy would be fun.
Hey, now that's an idea… 


If a syndicate were to offer you money for your strip, but wanted another artist to draw it, would you sell it?

Nah. As much as I hate my abilities now, I still want to learn how to draw better.


Why do you draw Skinny Panda? Is it the recognition? Wanting to entertain people?

Good question. Don't know. Probably because cartooning is the only thing I've got. I'm definitely not going to law school anytime soon.