A Profile of Filler: The Webcomic At Suck.com (The History Of Online Comics: Part 2.5)
I was sitting in front of a monitor, 9 to 5, at an Internet company I profoundly hated to pay for art classes I was finding useless. My dreams of print comic books were crumpling to ash, and I saw the Internet as just one more reason they failed. They were stealing eyeballs from the comic book store. Bastards.
And every day -- every day -- I had to listen to my boss, the Jeff Bezos of Savannah, Georgia, feed his clients the same old hype that pumped everyone's expectations for the Internet to the ceiling: "Oh, yeah. We can do that. If you can dream it, we can do it. This is the future."
Never mind that his company had one graphic designer and no trained programmers. The alleged "programmer" was me, and I had somehow maneuvered myself into a position where I was to learn one new programming language per month. This from a man who barely got through high school French.
I'm afraid I didn't always give the company my best. My mind wandered. My fingers wandered. They wandered to the search engines, and from one of themâ€¦ to something incredible. A distilled essence of the industry cynicism I was feeling, wrapped up in an article.
Written by "The Cloud of Unknowing." I still don't know exactly who "The Cloud of Unknowing" was, but I quickly discovered it didn't matterâ€¦ Suck.com had a house style, and it dependably served up the very bitterness and cynicism that I craved, about idealism, about comic books, and especially about the Internet.
When everything else in my life was going sour as cyanide-dipped lemons, Suck satisfied. Suckâ€¦ understood.
I confess that as I began to click through the archives, I paid little attention to the artwork. It was just a website, after allâ€¦ how could anyone design anything to look good at 72 dpi? But I have a good excuse: I started from the beginning of the archives, in 1995.
It wasn't until 1996 that they hired Terry Colon, an editorial cartoonist for a Detroit paper, on the recommendation of his former co-worker at that paper, Matt Beer. "Cronyism," he smiled, at the end of Suck's run. "Cronyism and nepotism, that's the way the world works."
"I just decided to become [an artist]. I come from an artistic family, and for awhile I was a graphic designer, but I just decided I didn't like thatâ€¦ and toward the end of the 80s, I started developing a style for me, which was funnyâ€¦ I only went to art school for a year and a half, but the great thing about this business is, no one ever asks."
I faked astonishment at this. "That's not what they told me at the Savannah College of Art and Design!"
"Really?" Colon said, with an almost-perfect show of sincerity, cracked by his mild-mannered laughter. "Gosh, I wonder if they had an ulterior motive?"
It's that kind of cynical affability that Colon brought to Suck's artwork. His figures... the eyeless faces, the gray outlines, the pudgy physiques, the bulgy mouths and little-kid arms and legs... were so silly that you couldn't help smiling at them, even when they're voting down environmental legislation or eating people.
Terry was driven into working from home, quite literally. A motorcycle accident left him with a broken leg, but, as he put it in an autobiographical cartoon after the fact, "drawing hand is OK." From there, it was a matter of time before he moved from pricey Los Angeles to settled Michigan... while his career just kept getting hotter.
Terry did an estimated 6,000-8,000 illustrations for Suck, and landed drawing assignments for FHM, Fortran, and TIME Magazine, the last of which called him up. Most of his work was "spot illustrations," which he wrote and drew entirely on his own, to match the article he'd just completed.
"I much preferred doing everything myself. It gives you the freedom to be creative... and since I was the art director, I always approved everything I did. When someone else is telling you how to do it, it feels like work!"
Ironic, then, that his best-remembered work was done on just that basis. Because Suck's most popular feature was Filler, written every Wednesday for five years by one "Polly Esther," aka Heather Havrilesky. While Filler had long text digressions, it was essentially a scroll-friendly comic strip... one of the first of its kind.
It was certainly the first online comic my war-weary eyes met back in 1999... and therefore, the inspiration for the article you see here.
Heather fit the house style of Suck's writing, but refined it. She picture-wrote about doomed personality types ("Men to Avoid," "Women to Avoid"), drug use, and early mid-life crises. The centerpiece was a gleeful self-satire... Polly, the Suck mascot, her mail-in readers, and her editor Joey Anuff were all frequently featured characters, and only the mascot seemed to escape her most vicious barbs.
Fillers were usually about 4-7 pages long (though Heather never constrained them to a format) and often jumped between several subjects before tying them all together at the end. As in Dilbert, a lot of Filler's best closing lines came "full circle," implying a cycle that was just going to go on and on, long after the strip stopped.
Heather's was a high-quality personal voice in Suck, whose other writers, despite their bite, were generally indistinguishable (with the sole exception of their other comics writer, underground comics' Peter Bagge. Coincidence...?).
The end came swiftly, although Terry and Heather saw several warning signs. Probably the biggest was Suck's reduced production schedule. "Online advertising declined sharply starting sometime last year," Heather noted, "so a lot of people in online publishing have been engaged in the same countdown."
Which isn't to say the adjustment was immediate. "I actually have 3 more Fillers that have never been made," Heather added. "The Unfinished Fillers. Maybe I can auction them off or something -- make some money so I don't have to get a job."
Neither Heather, whose interview follows, nor Terry ever believed Filler was likely to return. "I'm thinking mostly print these days," said Terry, who's currently working on a comic strip to submit to the national newspaper syndicates. Heather is doing freelance writing assignments and contemplating her next move.
Their loss was ours. Filler's departure has left a hole that hasn't been filled since.
TALKING WITH POLLY: The Heather Havrilesky Interview (Conducted as Suck shut its doors)
Going way, WAY back, what made you decide to get involved with writing in the first place?
I dealt with my alienation when I was younger by writing in a journal. As bad as my writing was back then, I think all that writing helped get me to the point where I could think onto the page. Now I think I'm clearer and more eloquent writing than I am speaking. Which is nice, because this way I can sit on my ass at home and get paid for it. That's the idea, anyway.
I understand that you went to Duke. What do you remember most about those years?
I remember green grass, and cold beer, and that Vanilla Ice song -- Ice, Ice, Baby! I wasn't that much of an intellectual -- I chose my classes based on how easy they were and what time of day they were offered. I had a good time, but I didn't have many interests back then. I just wanted to have fun. You know, girls -- that's all they really want. Cyndi Lauper said it best, don't you think? It wasn't that I was so shallow, I just hadn't found the right outlets for expressing myself, aside from the journal-writing. I had a stack of notebooks filled with neurotic monologues, but I didn't imagine anyone would ever want to read them. OK, I nursed the delusion that someone might want to read them someday. I was a hopeless romantic. Most cynics are fallen romantics. Whatever that's supposed to mean. I guess what I'm saying is, a cynic is a romantic with an injury. God, I really need to leave California, don't I? I would never get away with such ridiculous statements back home.
Can you tell me a bit more about the writing class and teacher that encouraged you after college?
It was a UC Berkeley Extension Course. I was 24 and had just broken up with the boyfriend I moved to San Francisco with, and I had just moved in with Carina Chocano, who's the basis for Veronica in Filler -- she's the one who eventually changes into an angry little squirrel. Carina read some of my essay writing from Duke and encouraged me to take a writing class. It was a nonfiction writing class-- mostly essays. We had these individual conferences with the teacher, just outside the class, so she could tell us in private what to work on. I read some essay about my mother, and she took me outside and very dramatically said, "What do you do now?" I said, "Ah, some stupid job." She said, "Quit. You should be a writer." It was sort of a powerful thing, but actually it's probably more powerful in retrospect. If I were a vacuum cleaner salesman now, I'd probably remember some poignant anecdote about someone telling me I should sell vacuum cleaners for a living.
What were your first few weeks like in the Suck offices, as a copy editor? As a writer?
The founders, Carl Steadman and Joey Anuff, kept pretty odd hours, because they were used to running the whole site themselves. I came in and just tried to do what they did, like a monkey imitating the other monkeys at the zoo. They sat there in front of their computers all day, basically, looking at stuff online. Carl did the production. All I had to do was copy edit the daily piece before it went up. Sometimes it wasn't finished until 11 or 12 at night, so I'd stay until it was finished. The rest of the day, from 10 am until midnight, I'd just look at stuff online all day. In fact, that was all Joey and Carl wanted me to do. They knew I had some catching up to do -- I hadn't had much time to familiarize myself with the web before that point. I read Suck, of course, and a few other things, but I hadn't seen, you know, sites dedicated to bestiality. You know, the really important stuff. I remember one of the first pictures I saw online was one a friend of mine pulled up called, "Girl, Shitting on the Floor, Big Time!!!" A pretty accurate description, as it turned out. I sort of avoided the rubbernecking thing after that. There are things you really don't want emblazoned on your brain for the rest of your life, you know?
Carl actually wanted me to learn some production stuff, too, but I kept putting it off, since I didn't really want to be chained to production duties forever. That turned out to be a pretty smart move -- that and copyediting badly after a few months so that they'd hire another copyeditor. I should write a book called "The Slacker's Guide to A Dream Job." Then again, look at me now! Unemployed, and unskilled! Those production skills might've come in handy about now, huh?
As far as writing goes, I wrote a bunch of Suck pieces before I started writing Filler. Some were better than others. I learned pretty quickly not to pitch anything at edit meetings. I'm awful at pitching things verbally, especially with Joey, Carl, and Ana [Marie Cox] as an audience. What a bunch of attack dogs! Those cartoons of the Suck office environment are not exaggerations. My only regret is that Joey seems increasingly reasonable over the years. I think he became a foil to Polly's self-involved, unreasonable, nightmare-employee schtick. If only I could've captured the true essence of Joey without having to resort to putting him in a Catholic schoolgirl's uniform. Actually, that was pretty fun.
The cool thing about Carl, Joey, and Ana, though, is that they were always such good sports about being parodied in our cartoons. It takes a certain kind of pathological personality to enjoy that kind of attention. Having that kind of personality myself, naturally I'm pretty impressed by it.
Who initially proposed Filler?
Carl and Joey came up with Filler -- initially it was one of the "channels" that appeared on the second page of Suck. It was sort of a throwaway column -- it was supposed to be absurd stories and quotes from the newspaper. "Free content" is how Carl described it. I pressed them for more specifics, but they kept telling me to write whatever I felt like writing. Joey told me he would be completely satisfied if I merely detailed the contents of my desk drawer. It was great. I find it a lot easier to do decent work when other people have low expectations of me. It was really a unique situation. I had a lot of freedom.
From your current perspective, how do you think Filler evolved over the years?
Early Fillers focused on online stuff, primarily, and Terry was just doing spot illustrations, like he'd do with any Suck piece. After a week or so, I wrote the first cartoon and coaxed Terry into drawing it. It's pretty amazing to see how his cartoons have developed over the years. I was really lucky to work with him. The quality of his stuff made writing extremely fun. I think from there I moved away from quotes from the news, and toward reader mail and strange stand-alone stories. At first the Suck employees would only appear on special occasions -- anniversaries, or whatever. Eventually I started to throw them in whenever I felt like it. I think Filler became easier to understand about two years ago. Before that I would refer back to jokes from other Fillers. Maybe I gave that up because it seemed less funny to me, after a while. I can't remember. It's like the giant evil Canadian rabbit on crack -- eventually, the whole "on crack" thing seemed more than a little tired, and once South Park made fun of Canadians, it seemed a little boring to keep doing it. I never got tired of that squirrel, though. Boy, do I miss the squirrel.
Do you have any favorite Fillers?
The first one I really liked was the one about Bubble Goo. It was one of the first absurd tangent things we did. I used to really like those Hack and Fish things where they'd get the wrong idea about some quote from some magazine and then wander off, scheming, from there. I like almost anything with Ana in it. I always liked the way Terry drew her. When she left Suck, that was tough, partially just because I used her character so much. Joey wasn't quite as threatening as a character as Ana was.
I like the one about my friend Steve a lot. I also really like some of the reader-mail based cartoons, like the one where it's revealed that Polly actually looks just like Beaker from The Muppets. The first recycled-images one was good. I like the one where the Hack and Fish are wishing they lived in a third world country. Also, the one where I explain why no one in Filler has eyeballs. Whatever, I like a lot of them. I'm easily amused by myself.
I'm pretty sure I never claimed NOT to do drugs. If I did, I must've been on drugs at the time.
But if it makes anyone feel any better, I don't run much anymore. I think part of that was wishful thinking. You know, so people will ask, "How's the running?" and I'll be shamed into going out for a run immediately. Anyway, that never works. Which is why I'm not going to tell you about my upcoming movie-musical...
You played around a lot with the anonymity of the Internet, portraying "the REAL Polly" as a circus freak and a gay man, among others. It seems like you were exploring your identity a little. Thoughts?
I don't know...Was I exploring my identity? Are any of us ever NOT exploring our identities? I guess it's pretty accurate to say that my true identity is a cross between a circus freak and a gay man. Actually, that's incredibly accurate. I think you know me better than I know myself... which wouldn't be too difficult, come to think of it.
Where is Heather in Suck? How much is in Polly, and how much is in the rabbit, the squirrel, or even your portrayals of Joey and Terry?
I don't know. Polly is probably an exaggeration of my best and worst qualities. You know, I'm not a cartoon, that's one difference. And my head isn't really shaped like an end table. I wish I were more like the squirrel, particularly in the looks department. I have this squirrel in my yard that throws shit at me. I'm in awe of him. He doesn't know that, though.
Will you be using the "Polly Esther" nom de plume any more?
Probably not, unless Suck is resurrected from the dead thanks to some divine intervention.
I have no idea. I guess I should learn to draw, huh?
And Two Years Later...