Mike Leffel burst onto the webcomic scene in 2000 with the colorful, hilarious, and slightly controversial Fat Jesus. He later created Owlie! (with help from Bob Scott), a semi-daily strip on Keenspot about a really cranky owl and other forest animals. Leffel is now focused on Owlie! as his primary project, but is also working on a comic for Keenspot Premium titled Bluebird of the Apocalypse and a comic book for Keenspot called The Big Roaster. And if that wasn’t enough, Leffel helped Ryan Smith out with Sunday art for his webcomic Funny Farm just this past June.
A life-long obsession with comics and cartooning
"I’ve been interested in cartooning since before grade school and gradually became known as a cartoonist through constant practice," Leffel said. "From junior to senior high, cartooning really became my ‘thing’ and it is essentially the only real skill I possess. Oddly enough, I never actually made any mini-comics or homemade things of that nature, or even attempted to submit anything into syndication. I have boxes and boxes of pages of paper with doodles and ‘unfinished’ sketches which aren’t inked or ‘perfect.’"
In 1995, Leffel won a Nebraska Scholastic Art Award for a comic book he made with a friend about superheroes fighting an evil Johnny Carson from another dimension. Leffel added, "[T]hroughout the years there have been numerous misadventures in doing artwork for businesses or other people that always ended up dismaying me totally. Doing comics for the school paper sort of annoyed me, too."
"As for influences, there are many," said Leffel. "The greats of newspaper comics, of course (Calvin [and Hobbes], Far Side, Peanuts, and even Beetle Bailey and Blondie, and the past comics that can only be found in libraries now) and superhero comics, and just cartoons and animation in general. I personally don’t feel that I’ve ever attempted to emulate any single artist or style, however."
A Writers Block From Hell
Leffel explained that he suffered a tremendous writers block from about 1995 through most of 1999 though and literally found himself unable to create any new material. He managed to break out of that block in 2000 in part with the help of Bob Scott, the webtoonist behind Eagle-DNA.
"Bob Scott is someone who I credit as not only being one of my best friends, but the person who helped me break my writers block," said Leffel. "We think on a similar level and if it were not for his contributions for ideas or even [just] driving me around, I’d be nowhere today."
Enter the Pig Panda
With the smaller number of webcomics in the year 2000, the "webcomics community" was still a fairly insular place and Leffel seemed to burst out of nowhere in a flurry of comics, message posts and general all-around goofiness. A popular "list" site for webcomics at the time was Big Panda, which Leffel mocked as "Pig Panda." (He wound up getting his Pig Panda sketch posted on the Big Panda website.)
Fat Jesus was added to Keenspot relatively early in its run, but Leffel eventually began updating the strip more infrequently and has recently put the strip on hiatus in favor of focusing on Owlie! and his other comic projects.
"Fat Jesus was screwed from the start," explained Leffel, "because it shouldn’t have been made into a gag-a-day four-panel format. It should’ve been a comic book-designed story from the start, much like FANS!. Then I ruined it for myself through huge lapses in regular updating, as well as omitting certain storylines I really needed because I would rush to get comics posted."
"I hope to fix [Fat Jesus] as soon as Owlie! gets going the way I like it," added Leffel "because I’m certain my ideas for [Fat Jesus] are decent. I haven’t done anything about this yet, but my dream is to see if I could get a team of artist and writer to work with me on it, as I find my own ability to create dialogue horrifying. I’ve got the ‘big picture’ down pat for [Fat Jesus] – it’s all the nagging little things like daily episodes that elude me. In fact, I’ve had the middle parts and ending plotted out since day one."
Leffel says his current focus on Owlie! is due in large part to the popularity of the Owlie character and the fact that this comic does work well as a gag-oriented, daily comic. The Owlie character is a sleep-deprived, perpetually-annoyed owl who rules over his animal comrades in a condescending, yet ultimately affectionate way.
"Owlie! is a fantastic property," said Leffel. "I feel it has the potential to be big outside of the webcomic world, and I hope to get my rear in gear and make it that way. I want to shoot for the moon and miss, and hit the sun and deal with the consequences. I want Owlie! to be so everywhere that people get sick of it in ten years and despite ignoring it, it’s still everywhere. And to do that I’ll need to get a supplier for speed or something. Because I am a lazy-ass. However, things are in the works."
Owlie! and Fat Jesus have some similarities, but the absurd, non-sequitur side of Leffel’s sense of humor is much stronger in Owlie! It’s also worth mentioning that the character of Owlie is an owl while Fat Jesus has as its main character a clone of the son of God. You might wonder which of these two characters Leffel identifies more with.
"While almost EVERY character has a bit of me in it," said Leffel, "neither [Fat Jesus] nor Owlie are full representations. Owlie is a total rip-off from Bob Scott’s EAGLE-DNA, so his behaviors are all based on that. I sometimes get a little grumpy of course, so I channel something into him, of course! And Fat Jesus was sort of a challenge for me, because I made him this innocent, loving sort of character – and I’m not really all that loving. I hate humanity. I loathe it. I’m more like [my character] Mabus than anything. Of course, I go from that to a kind of [Fat Jesus]-like emotional state. I love cute things like bunnies and cats and dogs and birds, and I enjoy nature. [I] don’t want to really do anything in nature, but I respect how we should have it."
While the offbeat side of Leffel’s sense of humor shines in Owlie! you would have to visit his message boards to find out that Leffel is also a fairly well-informed, if cynical, observer of politics and world events. "I could easily do a topical comic," said Leffel "if I didn’t have to come up with the idea or dialogue. I have an impossible time zeroing in on my opinions on most topics, and then when I *have* a solid opinion, I don’t know how to express it well enough that I could stand by it. Ergo, that’s why my comics really don’t have any direct link to popular culture or current events, because I can’t usually figure out how to do or say anything I’d be pleased with."
Leffel also creates Blue Bird of The Apocalypse for Keenspot Premium. Technically a spin-off of Owlie!, it also features animal characters, but the time is far in the future after a world-altering disaster. To date, it has about twenty comics in its archives and is being updated on a sporadic basis. "When Owlie! got onto Keenspace, I developed several dozen or more potential storyline ideas for the comic. One of these involved time travel. Well, I needed a timeline to make a decent time travel storyline, and I had to conceive an end to history in the Owlie! universe. Eventually I latched onto that idea and made a whole different storyline out of it with it’s own characters and such. Now, it’s so far removed from the Owlie! timeline I should just separate it, but there’s vital links between both comics (more to be revealed as the comic goes on) so I kept them together and [Blue Bird of The Apocalypse] is officially the dark future of the Owlie! world."
Keenspot: A Positive Relationship for Leffel
Like many other webtoonists trying to make sense of how to make something out of making webcomics, Leffel has yet to find a way to earn a reliable income from his webcomics. But Leffel looks positively on his association with Keenspot. "People have their complaints," he said "some based in fact, some based in stupidity. But I for one am very thankful for Keenspot. I haven’t received a truck of cash, but the possibility to get some in the future is VERY good. My experience on Free Comic Book Day – all due to Keenspot – is really enough compensation for the last two years alone, honestly. But there are deals in the works and I hope they pan out because money is good. And of course, I’m responsible for not updating regularly which really sucks. Keenspot really is MY stepping stone to success, and if I don’t get my act together and utilize it for all it’s worth, I’m a damned fool."
Moreover, Keenspot is providing Leffel with opportunities to venture into print comic books. Leffel has done a story for L33T Comics for Gamers and is currently working on an Owlie! comic book series which he hopes to turn into Keenspot this month (July). The series will feature Owlie as the lead story and introduce a new character, a superhero chicken called The Big Roaster, for the second story. "I got to sign the Keenspot Spotlight 2003 book (along with Owlie Creator Bob Scott) at Acme Comics in Sioux City Iowa this last may 3rd (free comic book day) and the people were really jazzed over The Big Roaster and other characters from the [future Owlie!] series I had on display. I even sketched some for people!"
"[T]here’s [also] mumblings about a Graphic Novel from Keenspot that I will be illustrating and Bob Scott will be writing, but nothing definite on that yet. Owlie! and Bluebird of The Apocalypse should be coming back in July and I must force myself to make them regularly (especially with a comic book coming), and is up and under construction, I intend to have it a companion site (with weekly comics and extras) for the Owlie!/Big Roaster comic book."