No More Words: An interview with the creators of the webcomic Pear Pear

Pear Pear is an innovative, wordless webcomic created by Peter Donahue, Erin Donahue and Sal Crivelli.  There is a lot to like from the clean and simple icon-driven website to the intriguing ideograph-in-balloon speech that the characters use.  Maybe most impressive of all is the investment of real personality in a pear and a mug.  Artist Peter Donahue is the creator of this month's cover art at ComixTalk — I got a chance to interview all three by email.

What is the creative team behind Pear Pear?  And what do each of you do on the comic and website?

peter: Well, my wife Erin and I, along with our friend Sal Crivelli, formed the initial concept. Erin and I maintain the site; she focuses on design and I mainly create the cartoons. As a team we write the comic and develop ideas for where to take it going forward.

erin: Peter's the artist, and I'm more of an idea person 🙂


Had any of you done work on a comic previously?

sal: I wrote and collaborated with a couple of college buddies on a webcomic series back in '04, called The Four Jackasses of the Apocalypse, which didn't wind up surviving the end of the year. A little before the inception of Pear-Pear, I wound up taking the original idea from the comic, refining it, and creating a hopeful comic book series based off of it (renamed Horsemen). We did a limited run of the first issue, and we're halfway from completing the second.

peter: This is Erin's and my first endeavor on any kind of consistent, sequential graphic story. In many ways it's an experimenting ground.


When did you start pear pear? How did it come about — were the three of you looking to do a comic together?

peter: Let's see… we started last summer, almost exactly a year ago. August 28 will be our anniversary.  It all started at the Macaroni Grill, actually. haha.  They have crayons and paper tablecloths for the kiddies. 

sal: I remember Peter doodling the beginnings of what would eventually become Pear-Pear, and I immediately pictured this as a comic. I think in my head it was almost a little more guerrilla-style webcomic-ing; I envisioned a daily comic that depicted the remnants of a paper tablecloth with scribblings of anthropomorphic fruit, saying interpretable things to each other, devoid of any true form or function.

peter: Haha. Maybe I'll have to do some strips like that.

When I really think back as to why I was drawing pears on the tablecloth in the first place, I remember that I had been doodling pears and breakfast foods in my New Pathways to Teaching class (a class i had to take once a week to get licensed to teach).  Anyway, Sal said that I should put the stuff I was drawing online because it would be more amusing to him than a lot of the webcomics he was currently reading, and we started brainstorming. Erin came up with the name for the site.  I'm not really sure where that came from, haha.

erin: I guess I've always been a fan of "cute" things, and the name "pear-pear" just kind of came to me, I guess. I thought it sounded pretty cute. The pear Peter drew was most certainly cute. I think Sal and I "aww"-ed audibly when Peter drew some of the first sketches on that tablecloth.

sal: Peter and Erin really refined the idea into something much more coherent, which I kind of expected. I was knee deep in my own endeavors when Peter and Erin wound up conceiving Pear-Pear, so I knew this could be something creative the two could share together. That's something really special, to me. A creative outlet in a field I really admire, in which the two can express themselves through collaboration. I think my main contribution was adamantly pushing for them to take one of the pictures Peter came up with, buy the domain name, whip up a page in some basic site-builder, and go from there. In a way, I guess my ultimate role in Pear-Pear's history is being the first fan.

peter: So, I can't say we *meant* to create this comic together, it just sort of grew out of that conversation. Anyway, me being the nerd with a masters in English, and a lot of interest in structuralism and the way conventions shape literature, the discussion turned to whether or not we could make an intelligible comic without any words whatsoever.


Who then came up with the pictures-in-word-balloon approach to conveying "speech" from the "characters" — it's surprising to me how well that works actually.

peter: I have to think…It somehow came out of two things. At the Macaroni Grill we were sort of trying to make each other guess what the characters were saying by putting pictures in the bubbles. I was of course being intentionally obscure at first but the conversation, and the drawing accompanying them, sort of evolved from there to how comics as a medium really does depend on a lot of established visual conventions. It works a lot more now than it did at first. I almost consider the first 6 or 7 comics juvenalia, or whatever.

Anyway, the second source for the idea is probably something more ingrained in me… the very early pear doodles in my New Pathways notebooks were actually not pears but blobby aliens — shaped sort of like pears that spoke in your stereotypical alien font. I guess I was getting tired trying to take notes on all that educational psych babble, haha, and of course those doodles must be (now that I think about it) influenced by that calvin and hobbes strip — where this little bean-shaped alien is speaking in alien.  So I guess something about the quirky and inventive play with not only the drawing but also the speech in that cartoon and others like it captured me somehow.

erin: We really delight now in listening to different interpretations of a comic. Often there are several interpretations that we hear from friends, family members, or readers, that sort of crystallize into an overall message for a certain comic. I often find an even deeper understanding of what the characters are doing or feeling after discussing the comic with others.

peter: Totally. That's one of the main reasons I do the comic


I don't want to over-analyze the pictures-in-balloon aspect of the comic but it does seem highly novel (if it's been done before I'll admit my historical ignorance).  Many of them are straightforward but now and then I wonder if I've got the "rules" for reading them right.  Can you take me through the meaning of some of them?  For example, in this one, there are word balloons within word balloons and a character talking about itself talking.  How do you intend for that to be "read"?

peter: it hasn't been done extensively; a couple examples of precedent stick out in my mind, though: in the DC series Impulse, Bart Allen's thoughts were represented as pictures inside thought bubbles, and the comic Owlie uses an almost rebus-like visual language inside speech bubbles.

The tricky thing with Pear-Pear is we've been making up the "rules" as we go, and the visual grammar has never been consistent. The best analogy I can think of is to imagine a poet that sometimes writes poetry like Edmund Spenser, sometimes like Emily Dickinson, sometimes like Gertrude Stein. Those poets each have very distinctive grammar and syntax, and for a reader to have to flip between them and try to make consistent sense of a text would be insane, haha. So, it doesn't help to read say, #15 in the same way as #27.

A general guide for reading, however, might sound like this: First, consider all the graphic elements in the comic to be "information." Next, look for relationships between the information in the overall panel and the information within the speech bubbles, as well as relationships between speech bubbles. Then, consider whether those pieces of information relate as analogies, similes, metaphors, conventional graphic symbols (heart=love) or events in a series. Meanings come out of weighing these relationships. Reading the strip is beginning to sound like an essay prompt on the GRE, haha. That being said, we've always approached our readers' interpretations of the comics as all equally valid, even when we weren't intending to be ambiguous.

So, I can take you through my personal reading of #8 with that caveat — that a clear authorial intention is not always our goal. When I read #8 I start in the upper left corner, and it takes a moment to resolve that I am reading within a framing device. The first pear is calling for the mug, the second pear continues calling for the mug–the information inside his speech bubble remains the same, but his face looks more worried. The third "panel" in the speech bubble shows the pear has given up calling and let his mind wander. He imagines an absurd worst-case scenario: the mug has been abducted by an eagle. For me, that reads as characterization: the pear cares about the mug, is a worrywort, and his worrying quickly becomes irrational, which he can't perceive. Then I move outside the frame to understand its larger context. I read the face of the "real" pear, or the pear-speaker, and I see that he is annoyed. Not only do I get information about the pear's progressing emotional state in the past, but I also get the exasperation after the anxiety has been resolved. Wanting to see the emotional response of the mug, I move from the pear's face to the mug's, and see that he is sort of neutral, maybe just explaining. His word bubble shows him in a sink full of dishes, which by itself is just a funny picture (to me), since he seems to have this thoughtful face on. What could he be thinking about, biding his time, waiting to be washed? Moving back out of that bubble, I get a "punchline" (or at least a gestalt) as the sink-picture resolves itself with its context: the mug is explaining where he was. Putting the big picture together, I see he's explaining where he was to assure the pear he had nothing to worry about. Again, I read this as characterization: the mug acts patient, because he knows the pear missed him, but subtly seems impatient with the pear's irrational reaction to his absense. So, I read the comics to learn about the characters and their relationship.

Others have read this strip in all sorts of ways. Some people ask why the first two bowls are saying "cup," or interpret the eagle as a symbol of freedom. These readings are valid, but for me do not create as much meaning in terms of the relationship between pear and mug. I think the pictures-in-balloon approach, for me anyway, allows for a richer characterization than characters saying things like, "you're a spaz," or "Dagwood likes his sandwhiches, doesn't he?" But it also makes the comic a bizarre experience because the temporal aspect of the action of "saying" is so different than text in a balloon. Text takes time to read, and then it takes more time for the reader to decode higher rhetorical structures that aren't necessary to the immediate meaning, but rather enrich it. In contrast, the pictures in Pear-Pear are "read" immediately, and then it takes much more time for the reader to decode higher rhetorical structures that are absolutely necessary to the meaning.


Tell me about the creative process for an individual comic.

peter: Well, it's always changing. Maybe 60% of the time the process involves starting with a situation and then thinking about how the pear would react to it, and how the mug would react to it, then thinking about how each character would react to the other's reaction. The main consideration that guides the creative process is how to create situations based on the human activity in the world of the strip. The owner of the pear and mug is our third main character, because his activities create the situations that the pear and mug find themselves in. Another thing that is very important to the process, and I think Erin will agree, is that we never want to throw too much at it at once. Too many new characters, or unnecessary information, for example.

erin: I do agree. For me, the important thing is the friendship between the pear and the cup. It's just like real-world friendships – we find ourselves in different situations, surrounded by different people… but if we are always with our friends, we always seem to be able to duly entertain ourselves. So it's a matter of changing up the environments, the stimuli, etc… but in the end the fun is what's made of those external factors by our two heroes.


I think I've liked reading pear pear more as it has progressed.  Not to say the start was not interesting but it seems like I more consistently "get" the strip now.  That may be simply that the characters of cup and pear have a bit more weight now that they have an archive.  Even with the very simple linework that you do I feel like you're getting a great range of characterization now.  Some of my favorites include this series about the waffles that starts here and this one with the kiwi fruit.

peter: That's good to hear, haha. I agree; the early strips are hard to get. I'd go as far as to say the strip starts out as a textbook definition of the annoying-avant-garde-film-school-student's-Radiohead-video-"Art"-with-a-capital-A-emperor's-new-clothes webcomic. The chief enjoyment readers seemed to get was from trying to locate the irony, and my chief enjoyment was trying to hide it, haha. But it's certainly grown past that. As the archive builds, the irony might be that a pear and a cup can indeed have developed personalities, or that a reader can invest in them.


How would you describe your two main characters: pear and cup?

peter: The pear is neurotic, self-absorbed, infantile, needs validation, and in denial about his mortality. The mug is patient, forgiving, intellectually curious, usually mature, has a moral code, and can be dry but not snarky. Or, stated mathematically, if you divide Abbot and Costello by Calvin and Hobbes, pear is the inverse of Costello over Calvin, mug the inverse of Abbot over Hobbes. Roughly.

erin: Sometimes I just feel like the pear and the cup are two aspects of my personality. I certainly can't divide them between "good/bad" or "child/adult" or anything so cut and dry…. but I definitely have "pear" moments and "cup" moments. Not to say the characters are in any way based on me specifically, but I think most people can identify with the characters to some extent. And that at least makes it fun.


What has been the reaction to the strip so far?  Do you get a lot of feedback from readers?

peter: Feedback has not been overwhelming. A handful of readers have emailed, most of them fellow webcomickers expressing that they dig the concept. Links to Pear-Pear do appear in all manner of forums as a response to posts asking for good webcomics to read, which is encouraging. I think our crowning achivement, though, was a friend printing out a comic and putting it up in her cubicle. In the single-panel comic world, that's when you know you've made it.

erin: We'd love to have more feedback 🙂


Who did the website? I really like the simple icon-driven design. It's a nice complement to the nature of the strip.

peter: The design is Erin's brainchild.  And she usually works on updating it.  The site design is really supposed to do two things, and we talked through how to do them:  focus the reader on the image, and keep up the "gimmick" of wordlessness.  There are other design concepts out there, like flash websites that don't need to be clicked, and all that but we wanted it to be "deceptive" in that its simultaneously simple and the icons require a little thought and no ads, banners, etc.

I experimented a little with color, too, but Erin felt it broke the minimalism, and in retrospect I agree.

erin: I'm not totally against color, but it's a very, very special thing I think 🙂 As simple as the site is, I enjoy trying to figure out ways to make it simpler. Both for the reader, and for us to update, haha.

peter: Haha, true. Erin's got a great sense for streamlining. The comicblog is a new thing that sort of departs from the rest of the site so we'll see how that goes, haha. i'm ambivalent. I probably won't update it during the school year, as things get busy enough and I'll want to focus on moving the story forward.


I thought the idea for the comicblog was interesting — especially if you can do a comic very quickly, it does begin to feel more like a blog than even a journal comic.  It may sort of beg the question then of why do it as a comic at all but maybe there's some interesting ideas to work out there.

peter: I admit that the comicblog does beg that question; but with a comic without words, the site almost needs the repreive of some superfluous verbiage. The comic can tend to stare at a reader cruelly; the comicblog invites a social relationship. It doesn't matter what the comicblog says — it's "rapport talk," as opposed to "report talk," to borrow some crappy sociology terms. Put another way, it's my attempt at being transparent to offset the opaqueness of pear-pear.


Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.

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