David (D.C.) Simpson has been doing gentle, ironic humor, poking fun at all sorts of difficult issues, political or not, in Ozy and Millie and has been doing more overt political commentary in I Drew This. Al Schroeder talked with David Simpson about webcomics, syndication and politics.
You're not shy about tackling politics, in a low-key, ironic way in Ozy and Millie, more overtly in I Drew This. You tackle other hard issues, too, like a character suspecting we're mortal and alone in a harsh, godless universe (but marischino cherries make it better). Do you get much hate mail?
Of course; I think even if I didn't talk about politics I'd probably get it occasionally, just because some people are like that, but politics is also one of those subjects that really gets people riled.
I think people who do exclusively politics get more straight-up "I hate you" mail. What I get tends to be different, because most of "Ozy and Millie" isn't overtly political, so a certain number of people who don't agree with me politically still find something there to relate to. And then I'll draw something of a more political nature, or they'll follow the link over to "I Drew This," and there's this edge of betrayal–it's like "how dare you make me like you, then say something I don't agree with." It's as if their feelings are hurt by it.
You're not afraid to let your art style evolve over time. You've listed some artistic influences—who do you most admire? And who has had the greatest influence on you?
It's hard to pick any one; different influences have been dominant at different times. The first comic I ever really tried to imitate was Bloom County–I actually got into that very young, like elementary school. And of course there's always been Calvin and Hobbes. I was heavily influenced by The Simpsons for a very long time, and I think there are still obvious traces of that, especially in how I draw people's faces. And there was a period where I tried hard to imitate Pogo.
I've always really admired Bill Watterson's absolutely uncompromising ethic where he refused to sell Calvin and Hobbes out at any price, though I'm a bit more flexible than that myself–at my very modest level you have to be or you make no money at all. What I admire about Bloom County is the way he never lost the ability to laugh at himself–I think you always have to be willing to put yourself and your own sacred cows at the center of the gag, even if you're satirically skewering someone else at the time. On the political cartooning front, I'm a big Tom Tomorrow fan, of course, because he's found a way to actually be informative and make it entertaining.
Similarly with your storytelling influences, from Tom Tomorrow to Mark Twain. Who has influenced you the most?
Well, I should say first of all that I've always considered myself a pretty poor storyteller. I think I've learned how to at least do it competently, over time, but it's not something that comes naturally–but I like to think maybe I've used that somewhat to my advantage. Most Ozy and Millie storylines are unstructured and a lot of them don't particularly go anywhere, but that's also what life is like, so in that way it feels real. Or at least that's what I tell myself.
As far as learning how to put a story together, Calvin and Hobbes was my earliest and probably still my biggest influence. The way he'd kind of let things get gradually more unhinged, but ultimately return to normal–the similarity was not lost on a lot of people. Early on I frequently got accused of basically stealing Watterson's story structures, which I probably was doing to some extent. But I like to think I've established my own rhythms since then.
Other influences from outside the world of comic strips can only be so strong, because there really is a different way storytelling works in this format than it would in, say, prose, or animation. I actually really like having to break what I'm doing up into individual strips. I find the idea of sitting down and writing a whole story daunting, but if all I have to do at any moment is get to the next punch line, it breaks things up neatly into manageable pieces.
Your comic seems like the best metaphor for a mixed family, with its dragon-fox families, since Kevin and Kell. Does it reflect your own background, your early family life, at all?
Oh, thank you.
Hm. I never really thought of that before, but yes, in a way it probably does. My parents are not obviously different–they're both white suburbanites–but in some ways they're extremely different people, and maybe that's reflected in the strip. Or maybe it's a coincidence.
The relationships in Ozy and Millie, I think, are what they are because Ozy and Millie has always been about people who are different, who don't obviously fit in, banding together in ways that make an odd sort of sense. It's a topic close to my heart, for sure.
You've been doing this for quite a few years, since 1997. Do you get tired of the characters? Do you ever want to embark on new projects? (Besides I Drew This.)
Sometimes, sure. But at the same time, they're very familiar to me, and I miss them when I take time off. So it's something I always come back to.
Eventually Ozy and Millie will reach its natural lifespan, though, and I like to think I'll be able to write a really great ending and move on–web strips are just now getting old enough that maybe we're starting to see strips that are past their peaks, but that's been a fact of life in syndicated strips for a long long time, and it's never pretty. I don't know when that'll be, but I like to think I'll know.
Which of your characters is your favorite? (A cruel question, I know.)
Llewellyn. I bet you didn't think I'd have an answer, but Llewellyn's always been my favorite. When he came into the strip, it started to be a lot more interesting to me. All the characters are sort of half me, or at least all the major ones, but Llewellyn is who I want to be if and when I grow up.
Do you think the political cartoonist—either gently and as part of a strip, like Doonesbury, or overtly, like Tom Tomorrow—really influences most people? Is humor the best way to broach unpleasant truths?
I don't know if cartoonists are actually that influential most of the time. But sometimes people might be surprised–the example I always cite is the time Berke Breathed, in Bloom County, did a storyline where Opus tried to rescue his mom from a Mary Kay animal testing facility, and Mary Kay announced shortly afterward that they were putting a halt to all animal tests.
I think the influence of cartoonists is usually subtler than that. Humor is disarming, so where someone might be unwilling to listen to a straight-up explanation of my point of view, I hope that occasionally someone reads a comic of mine and thinks "hm, I never thought of it that way." It's just another way of communicating, and it's one people are predisposed to find likable.
Of course, that makes it a challenge to strike the ideal balance between being too frivolous, and being too heavy-handed. It's a very fine line sometimes.
Why did you choose webcomics as a medium for your work? What do you like best about the medium? What do you like least?
I didn't really choose webcomics, actually. It took me years to embrace it. For years I thought of it as something I was doing until syndication scooped me up and I started making the real money. Because I always wanted this to be my job. It was a long time before I accepted that Ozy and Millie was always going to be an Internet phenomenon, and I might as well get comfortable, and maybe even try to think of ways to make some money at that.
I've come to like some things about it, though. I Drew This is what it is partly because no one but me has any say over its content–I also do some more conventional editorial cartoons for the Tacoma News Tribune, on a freelance basis, and I'm always having to tailor it to what I know they'll run. And that's their right, because they want a cartoon that will make sense in the context of their editorial page. On the Internet, I get to create my own context.
Ozy and Millie was originally created to be a syndicatable strip, and that's remained its format. But I think there's still a lot more freedom on the Internet than there would be if it were in papers. For one, nobody's editing me, so it's completely unfiltered. For another, the archives are there for public consumption, so I can write things that rely on past events if I want. And somehow Internet fans seem a lot more loyal and devoted. They seem to regard themselves, maybe accurately, as part of this sort of exclusive club.
Of course, what I like least is how hard it is to make any real money. Remember the late 1990s, when everyone was absolutely convinced that Internet comics were going to become this big cash cow, and replace syndication as comics's major distribution method, any day? It may eventually happen–it may already be underway, for all I know, and there are people arguing that that's the case. But it's a lot slower and a lot harder than people were predicting it was going to be.
I guess it probably builds character.
What's the most depressing thing in the news for you? What is the most hopeful?
Well, I'll be completely honest with you–I find almost everything in the news depressing, lately. I agree with the people currently in power on almost literally nothing. Iraq is a heartbreaker. The number of uninsured children in this country is scandalous. We're doing environmental damage that we can never undo. And every time Bush moves ahead of Kerry in the polls I wonder if I can handle four more years of this.
What's most hopeful to me is that, issue by issue, polls show that people do mostly want the same things I want. People want the environment protected, people do believe a civilized society has a moral obligation to look after those citizens least capable of doing it for themselves, people are questioning what all the deaths in Iraq have been for. And I'm very hopeful that in the long run that's the direction we as a society are going to demand.
Regardless of who's in power, I think history by its very nature marches in a liberal direction.
What politician has most impressed you during your life? What politician have you most despised?
Well, as far as sheer skill is concerned, I think Bill Clinton was the greatest politician of his generation. He took all the crap the opposition threw his way and it just made him stronger in the end–he was sort of a judo politician.
But ideologically, my favorite was Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone. I think a huge part of America's conscience died when his plane crashed two years ago. Wellstone was the kind of liberal politician you don't see nearly enough–one with a genuine populist touch.
As far as who I hate, I'm afraid the obvious answer is the correct one: at this point, the very sight of George W. Bush makes me want to leave the room.