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Al Schroeder Talks with Kristofer Straub and Chex

For years now Kristofer Straub has been chronicling the ambitious publicity-hungry doings of Chex in Checkerboard Nightmare. Whenever webcomics is beginning to take itself too serioiusly, Chex is there, to remind us to laugh. Up until now Straub and Chex have never appeared in an interview together but now we bring you this Comixpedia exclusive: the first joint Straub/Chex interview.

Kris. California-raised and frightened out of your skull by a 2001: Space Odyssey-obsessed father--what else should we know about you?

I'm a Capricorn.

Chex. So...what's your opinion of Kris as your biographer/chronicler?

I've never heard of her! Is she the same one that did "Madonna Unauthorized" or whatever I saw on VH1 a while back?

Kris, who are your artistic/cartooning influences?

I think my primary influence is Bill Watterson. At the very least, I learned to draw hands from Calvin and Hobbes. But Calvin and Hobbes was important to me for other reasons. One, Hobbes is never explained, whether he's a magical stuffed toy or just a product of Calvin's imagination. At no point was it necessary to explain what he was, and the strip would have suffered if we knew. And two, although C&H had punchlines, a lot of times it was the dialogue that carried the strip, especially the long Sundays. In other words, you didn't need to get hit in the face by a pun in the last panel. I liked to see the characters interact.

Right now I would love to be able to draw like Bruce Timm. I'm fond of really clean, angular art like that. I think a lot of anime has crept into my designs, too, although I hadn't watched much until recently.

Chex. You....ah..."borrowed" your general look from your next door neighbour, Stripe. Are you at all concerned by him suing you for mimicking his appearance? (You recently had a similar problem with a would-be girlfriend, where you accused her of stealing your motif.) Why is it better if you do it, then if someone else does it?

Look, first of all, I didn't steal anything. I was satirizing! When you take something, don't change it at all and call it yours, that's called fair use. And it's fairer when I use it, because I know what I'm doing and the others don't.

If I'd have known this was an ambush interview, I'd have demanded more money. Or at least more questions.

Kris, who are your writing influences? Who makes you laugh?

It would be easy to say that I religiously read Will Eisner, Scott McCloud, and other fancy guys, but what interests me is more...genre-related than particular to one author, if that makes sense. I'm a fan of awkward, pregnant pauses that are (now over-) used on Adult Swim. Penny Arcade is pretty consistent as far as that kind of humor goes too. Frankly I don't read nearly as many webcomics as I probably should.

Chex, what's the second-greatest comic strip or book, ever, in your opinion? (I'm assuming you'll say the first is "Checkerboard Nightmare".)

Look, Al... Ally... can I call you Ally? Because Ally Sheedy was hot.

Even I have to admit that Checkerboard Nightmare isn't the first-greatest comic strip. It's a little indie, a little under-the-radar. That lends it cred, but takes me out of the running as far as "greatest" goes, which is all driven by payola and special interest monies anyway.

That said, the second-greatest comic strip is probably Marmaduke. Can you imagine doing a comic strip for like, eighty years, to the point where (a) it's in every newspaper, (b) no one reads it anymore, BUT (c) there would be a huge backlash if it was removed! And maybe once in awhile Marmaduke gets to sell a T-shirt or video game license. That's where I want to be.

Kris, what do you like about doing this as a webcomic? What are its limitations?

One of my biggest complaints about CxN is that it really has been more webcomic-niche than not, and self-referential, but it was really a product of the medium. If I had done a similar series of short stories, Chex would have parodied other short story formats and authors. If I was a film student, it would have been about movies.

But I feel like I don't have a lot to add to the "why do a webcomic" line of discussion. You do it because it gives you the most freedom as a cartoonist who doesn't have money for vanity press, or your material isn't mainstream enough for the LA Times, and not arthouse-horses*** enough for the LA Weekly. You have a page of infinite size to draw on, and there is no editor. (That's good and bad.)

What I like in particular is that it's a small-enough arena that people with good webcomics can become visible quickly, but it has a kind of far-reaching feel to it, where you can have webcomics "celebrities" like Randy Milholland. So it's a whole universe in which to build webcomic inside jokes. Inside jokes are funnier the smaller the in-crowd is. I think every area of culture needs that kind of thing.

Chex, what other medium would you like to appear in---first? I know you want to be in them all, eventually. Animated cartoon? Graphic novel? Music video? Bazooka comics with bubble gum?

I'd really like to be on pottery. Something with pottery.

Kris, do your co-workers know about your strip? Your family? Your friends? If they do... what do they think of it? If they don't--are you hiding an eccentric hobby from them?

At my last job, my co-workers didn't really know about it. I felt it was almost a liability that I did this on the side. My family is very supportive of me, given that I have boxes of work in their garage. And I have a feeling my friends' and family's response is "it's good, although I don't know what 'Scary Go Round' is." But I was very grateful that my friends and my brother came to San Diego last year to support me on the panel with Kurtz and the other webcomic high volutionaries.

Chex, if you weren't a webcomics character, what would you like to do? I still think there are...possibilities...in your novel, "Darth Vader goes back in Time, meets Hitler, and starts the Force Reich". I bet the same agent who got the Swords of Shannara stuff would be interested...

If I had no other talent at all -- which is practically a mathematical impossibility -- I'd really like to be the guy who writes the captions for the pictures in Maxim. You know, like, there's a picture of a dictionary, and underneath it says "CUNNING LINGUIST." Well, bad example since I don't know what that means, but it's just the best!

I kind of ran into some writer's block on The Force Reich. I've got Vader and Hitler accidentally handcuffed together, and I'm having trouble getting my head in the right place as a great American writer.

Kris, do you have a favorite sequence? How will you know when you've "jumped the shark"?

I probably jumped the shark around the time I moved to color. For a long time I avoided it because the whole idea was this is a strip that belongs to a mediocre webcomics character. It didn't make sense to couch Chex in a nice-looking color setting and backgrounds and just say that he's amateurish. He had to look it too. But then everyone sees a mediocre strip and maybe they don't read it. Color is me moving away from the purity of the original concept and trying to sell more shirts. Also, around the same time, I started dodging webcomics topics for the same reason. It's freeing to have a playground for these inside jokes, but it's also really limiting. The first couple years were really, really webcomic-centric, and now not nearly as much.

I don't know that I have a favorite sequence anymore, but I used to answer that it was the storyline where everyone was avoiding Chex, early in 2003. I got e-mails from people saying they'd felt ignored or avoided and appreciated that Chex was having the same problem. Maybe it was the only time the strip elicited some emotion.

Chex, what's your least favorite sequence, the most humiliating for you personally, the lowest part of your webcomics career? The one where you threw up all the fans gathered for your convention?

Actually, I think that moment was pretty vital for me as an artist, because I showed them that I was a real person, not just a celebrity to be worshipped. I might incorporate that into all my press junkets and interviews! So get ready for the new Gallagher! Except the sledge-o-matic is reverse peristalsis, and the watermelon is whatever I ate in the morning.

Humiliation is watching Doctor Hot get a three-year book deal with Simon and Schuster, while I'm trapped under the Keenspot banner. Man, they lock you in! The pen I signed the contract with had an IV attachment.

Kris, have you ever censored yourself? You ever done a strip and went, "Ooops...that went a little too far?"

I have jokes I would like to do that I can't really because it's not the right place. Like how Kurtz doesn't curse in PVP, he just doesn't want that there. I had that one with Chex relating how he met the little dead girl from The Ring and Lyle says "so what happened?" and Chex is looking satisfied, smoking a cigarette, saying "what do you THINK happened?" That's kinda further along than I like to go.

I try to keep it PG at most, and usually that just means being vague. Like there is the line in a recent one, movie piracy "hurts me in the same place it feels good to be a father." It's not supposed to be taken any particular way, it's just a little uncomfortable to hear.

Chex. Let's see now...you've murdered other webcomic creators, framed Freakazoid, sold everything you own for money, had your own convention only to throw up all over them. Is there anything you wouldn't do for fame?

What kind of demographic are we talking about here?

Kris. Anything you would care to tell us about the elitist intellectual ezine, MODERN HUMOR AUTHORITY? What's your opinion of webcomics reviewing and criticism in general?

Modern Humor Authority is just one in a line-up of obnoxious webcomics review publications. Webcomics are in some kind of transition period right now, going from pure hobby as of five, six years ago to a viable business for a few people. Now we've got "experts" climbing out from God-knows-where, telling readers that Avalon was actually a retelling of the Resurrection or whatever.

It's not that I mind reviews themselves -- we need to have someone filter out what's bad and what isn't, and everybody likes to analyze things. But a lot of times reviewers seem more interested in hearing themselves talk than performing a service for their audience. Or treating their own opinions as gospel.

The fact that we have these review entities is a good sign -- people think webcomics are worthy of them. I think so too. I'm just not crazy about how most of the reviewers go about doing it.

Chex. I know you've thought about it. Who would you have play you in CHECKERBOARD NIGHTMARE: THE MOVIE? Who would you have play Lyle? Who would you have play Dot?

Certainly I've thought about it, but that's a tough one! It really depends on whatever A-list talent is hot right now. As of today, though, my picks are Jamie Foxx, whoever won the last Survivor, and Paris Hilton.

Kris, what are the most encouraging trends you see in webcomics? Where do you see webcomics going?

I think the biggest thing for webcomics now will be more creators being able to bridge the gap between something self-contained and amateur -- something we do for fun and our own satisfaction -- and publishing elsewhere. Not so much that it's a big deal to get "published" on the internet, because that's why we use the internet, to get around that, but the rise of kinder, gentler syndicates, I suppose.

Kurtz giving PVP to newspapers for free was a real step. Syndicates will have to evolve in the next decade (although chances are, they won't), because I think we're going to see a lot more independent groups like Dumbrella or whomever, moving forward and being able to place their strips in "legitimate" publications (especially as the internet increasingly becomes legit). Groups that work entirely in their cartoonists' interest.

Artistically, it'll be neat to watch webcomics themselves become more "professional" in their own circles. In other words, to not be marginalized as something gamers look at between Slashdot visits. Webcomics are really breaking out of that, whereas maybe a year or two ago it seemed like everyone wanted to do a PA clone. No wonder there were no webcomics review sites at the time! But there's so much raw talent out there now.

Chex, what are the easiest trends in webcomics to, ummm, "borrow"? Any hints on what you'll..."appropriate"...next?

Man, there's just no telling! I'm fortunate to be living in the twenty-first century, with such a rich, complex culture to rape!

Kris, what sort of future do you see for Checkerboard Nightmare?

There was a period where I felt like I had to open up the list of topics for the strip to really go anywhere, but that's not true anymore. Like, I honestly was going to reform CxN with a button-down premise, and try and make it LESS offbeat. Drop characters like the Unraveled and Heathrow and Smacky, no big webcomic mentions, a lot of humor revolving around pop culture with even some SERIOUS elements, like Lyle getting divorced. I can't believe I thought that was going to work.

I have been on a kick to send Checkerboard Nightmare back to its roots, and that's just out-and-out Chex being alternately bitter and enthusiastic about whatever shows up, and parody. Webcomics in particular, sure, but movies, TV, anything. CxN is always going to be niche like that, and that's where it's strong. If I want to do something else, I can do another webcomic, which I have been planning for a long time now. What holds me back is not wanting to start one, then find I'm over my head, and end up updating sporadically.

And! I almost forgot! I think Keenspot will have the first Checkerboard Nightmare book out before summer this year.

Chex, what's the most successful way you've found to promote your comic? (Excuse me a second--someone's telling me something) Hey, that check you bribed us to do this interview with you--uh, I mean made a contribution with--it bounced!!

Oh, well, yeah, that's probably... that's probably because I just signed it wrong. Just, like, give it back to me? And -- you know what, I already mailed -- I just mailed the good one. Like, two days ago? So that's probably, you know, in your mailbox right now. You should go look. Or just turn around.

Re: Al Schroeder Talks with Kristofer Straub and Chex

Honestly, I have never come to Comixpedia.com, and I'm not sure I will again. Not because of anything inherent within the site, itself. I've just never really thought about it. And although I am a part of the "Internet Generation", I rebel against my roots at every turn and actually go outside to get some "freakin' exercise" as a certain Homestarrunner would say.

But I digress.

This was one of my favorite interviews, I've ever read. I believe the only one I've read that tops it is Stephen King's interview with himself on www.stephenking.com (which consequently is no longer there... hmm...). But this was very interesting. It's always great to learn a little bit more about one of my fav cartoonists. I actually had the pleasure of meeting Kris in San Diego, when he was on the panel. The first thing I realized is that he and his character really are almost polar opposites. Some of that was enforced in this interview, although I can see that Mr. Straub may have been a bit nervous or overdone it a bit when answering some of the questions as Chex. It happens. When we create characters (as I have also done though not so much as a cartoonist... and that's another story entirely), sometimes they take on a life of their own and sometimes they need to be forced. This is not always successful. And sometimes it is.

In any case, it was delightful reading this article. Kris really is a genius for the times, in a world of half-wits relying on running gags and shallow reference.

- Brandon (writer for The Clause and Freelance Writer)