ED. NOTE: The 44th annual San Diego Comic-Con International — the granddaddy of the American comics and pop-culture conventions — is expected to draw more than 125,000 fans to the Convention Center through Sunday. Today, Comic Riffs focuses on talented creators in attendance.
WHO KNEW Mr. Tiger’s Blood could spawn so iambic pet-ameter with a feline twist?
It was 2011, and “Sally Forth” cartoonist Francesco Marciuliano wanted to satirize Charlie Sheen’s trending rants (including his allusions to Bengal blood) in comic form
“So naturally, the next step was to combine the quotes with pictures of cats,” Marciuliano tells Comic Riffs. “I posted them on my website, “Medium Large,” and within three days, I got over a million and a half hits and received all this media coverage.
“And that made me realize that it’s true what everyone says: The Internet is 98-percent cat.”
That reaction spawned Marciuliano’s recent bestselling humor book, “I Could Pee on This, and Other Poems by Cats,” and later this month, Chronicle Books will publish his canine companion follow-up — another “peek” inside the verse-happy internal world of our pets, even if pooches aren’t quite so secretive. “Because,” the author says, “dogs do indeed wear their minds and hearts on the sleeves of that unfortunate poncho you put on them when you have to walk them in the rain.”
Comic Riffs caught up with Marciuliano to talk poetry, pets — and whether Ted Forth will ever cease to be a source of winking mockery
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MICHAEL CAVNA: Congratulations on all the success with “I Could Pee on This.” At what point did you realize you had a runaway hit on your hands?
FRANCESCO MARCIULIANO: I’ve been exceedingly lucky with the book and thank everyone who bought a copy, told a friend about it, or got a copy as a gift and thought, “Well, if it’s no good, I can still keep it to balance out that short leg on the dining room table.” As for realizing when it was starting to take off, I wasn’t even in the country when it was released. I was in Portugal when I went online thanks to a WiFi connection from a nearby café that thoughtfully never changed its password. And that’s when I saw, after what I believe was the first week or so, [that] it had landed on the NPR/Indiebound bestsellers list — a discovery which resulted in pure joy, pure shock or a combo platter of both. Shortly thereafter it got on the New York Times and Los Angeles Times lists, and that’s when I realized all those years as a kid making a wish whenever the numbers on the clock were the same — Example: 11:11 a.m. — had apparently finally paid off. But I think the most telling sign was when people started making fun of the title online, which meant it was now ingrained enough in pop culture to be mocked. And once it hit that level, I thought something had gone right somehow.
MC: So which cat poem came first — what was that spark of inspiration? And of all your cat-poem children, do you have a favorite?
FM: The cat-poetry book came about in part because of Charlie Sheen. Or, to be more precise, because of Charlie Sheen’s radio interview/ mental breakdown in 2011. I’m not sure how I came upon it online the day it aired, but as I listened to it, the one thought that kept coming to me was: “Hey! I should combine these insane quotes with pictures of Ted Forth talking!” That was immediately followed by “Hey! I should do everything in my power to keep my job writing ‘Sally Forth’ instead!” So naturally, the next step was to combine the quotes with pictures of cats. I posted them on my website, “Medium Large,” and within three days, I got over a million and a half hits and received all this media coverage. And that made me realize that it’s true what everyone says—the Internet is 98-percent cat. The other 2-percent is mostly water, salt and modified food starch.
The success of that post encouraged me to share something I had been working on for a little while. Shortly after graduating from college I adopted two kittens I named Boris and Natasha. Because I was a big fan of a certain of a certain “moose and squirrel” cartoon, though depending on my company, I’ll lie and say I named them after characters in “War and Peace.”
They were with me through every personal up and down for the majority of my adult life. Alas, Boris passed away — August 2007 — after several years of health problems that he valiantly conquered until the very end. Natasha passed away a few years later on Christmas Day 2010, and after that I felt this immense, terrible void. There are a few moments in your life when you can actually hear a chapter close with a resounding thud, and that was indeed one of them. For several months, I kept trying to find ways to both honor their memory and help me through what was threatening to become a very long, grieving process. I can’t quite say how I came upon poetry, but I knew from the start that the poems had to be funny because of the joy the memories of my cats gave me. Maudlin, morose poems would have felt cheap and oddly disrespectful, but somehow something called “I Could Pee on This” seemed absolutely perfect. That eventual title poem was the first one I wrote, and for that reason remains my favorite — as well as for the fact that even when the person in the poem tries to make amends in the end, the cat essentially goes: “You know what? No. No, I think I’ll stick to my original sense of dissatisfaction and pee on this, too.”
MC: Once you had the idea, did you approach many publishers, and how did you end up at Chronicle Books, which seems such a perfect fit?
FM: After I submitted the initial 10 or so poems to my great agent Scott Mendel, he suggested I start building further interest in them with a cat-poetry tumblr or by working on a larger proposal — both very good ideas that I failed spectacularly in ever following up on. Instead, I went back to staring off into the distance and thinking, “Gee, it sure would be nice to get a book published,” only to snap out of it eight hours later, wondering how I got on a bus and hoping it was cross-town and cross-country. But during what was fortunately the end of my “not writing 10 hours a day nonstop” phase, Scott called me and said: “I hope you don’t mind, but I showed around your poems without telling you. I figured if they got rejected, you would never have to know. If they got accepted I would call you. So I’m calling you.” It actually garnered interest from quite a few publishers, but while I’m sure all would have done a very good job, Chronicle Books did indeed seem like — and have proven to be — an absolutely idea partner.
MC: Speaking of Chronicle, you’ll be on a Con panel with other top Chronicle talent. Can you speak to what editor Steve Mockus — and other folks there — are doing right these days? And are there any other Chron humor books you’re particularly a fan of?
FM: I believe what makes Chronicle Books stand out is that they treat each title as a singular project, one in which they take great pains — although it always seems so effortless with the final result — to find harmony between text and design, content and presentation, ultimately creating a work that expresses a unified voice on its every page and through its every element. As for Chronicle’s wonderful library, there are indeed many I’m a fan of, including the Darth Vader parenting series — which, when said like that, sounds like the SyFy Channel’s attempt at a daytime talk show — and their stunning “The Art of” Pixar books. One of my very favorites, though, is the book “Cartoon Modern” by Amid Amidi, which brilliantly covers the animation and art direction of the 195Os in general and of UPA Studios in particular, both longtime passions of mine. Anyone who loves cartoons and midcentury design would be well-advised to pick up a copy.
MC: At the end of the month, you’ve got the release of your sequel, ”I Could Chew on This... .” Was it any different trying to get into the “poetic mind” of a canine? The natural comic pose, of course, is to have less guile than the feline — the dog being infinitely easier to read. What approach did you take?
FM: Well, with cats the question always is “What are you thinking?” Often phrased as “WHAT ON EARTH WERE YOU THINKING?!” — once you’re surrounded by shattered glass. That has to do with the fact cats can sometimes be, if not secretive, then quite internal in their logic. But with dogs the question is, “What are you saying?” Because dogs do indeed wear their minds and hearts on the sleeves of that unfortunate poncho you put on them when you have to walk them in the rain. That doesn’t mean dogs don’t have their own secrets, their own internal life, as well. And I hope I succeeded in addressing both the outgoing and reflective qualities of dogs through the poems. If nothing else, at least you’ll experience the sheer panic that goes through a puppy’s mind when you let your 3-year-old name it.
MC: So bear with me, but I must ask: Cat person or dog person?
FM: Okay, I’m going to give you an answer that will seem either very calculated or just a complete cop-out, but it is actually quite sincere. I’m
a cat person. I’m a dog person. I’m a bird person. I’m a goat, turtle, and pig person. I love pigs. I even had to be talked out of getting a small pet pig because I’m socially awkward as is, so maybe I don’t need to be the guy in Central Park walking Babe. But my hope is that one day soon, I can volunteer at a wolf and/or elephant sanctuary. If I were Ted Forth, on the other hand, I’d probably be investing in robot-monkey technology, not realizing that when a primate starts flinging feces made [of] nuts and bolts at you, the low comedy factor is quickly taken over by a high mortality rate. Or he would inadvertently fund cyborg bonobo monkeys — “cybobos,” for short — unaware that their favorite social activity would immediately yank the comic strip [out] of every newspaper that doesn’t run late-night chat line ads in the back. What I’m saying is that Ted Forth’s name might not be on the couple’s checking and savings accounts. I should probably also say that the preceding inventory of species — including Ted mechanized menagerie — was not necessarily a preview of upcoming poetry books, but rather a glimpse of my home life circa 2045.
MC: So once “I Could Chew on This” sells like doggy hotcakes, what’s the next house pet to tackle poetically? Emily Dickinson might have suggested feathered friends, and Poe might have a bird in mind, whereas Hemingway perhaps might have picked fish.
FM: Of course, having just said [that] the preceding was not a list of upcoming book topics, I will now add I recently signed on for two more animal humor books. I won’t delve into specifics right now, but suffice it to say that sadly neither features the word “narwhal.” Or the words “Narwhal vs. Mechanarwhal.” Or even “Narwhal Meets the Harlem Globetrotters.” After those books are completed, I might then take a page from J.K. Rowling and publish a novel under a pseudonym, thereby allowing myself some distance from a book that would essentially be “The Hotel New Hampshire” as told entirely from the bear’s point of view. Yes, I know about the bear’s big reveal. No, I won’t divulge that here. Maybe I should write the book from a passing bird’s point-of-view instead.
MC: Your webcomic has featured brilliant pet humor, and you had your great Monopoly comic on a housecat piece. Does the webcomic feed your other humor writing?
FM: First, thank you very much. Second, I think the biggest effect my webcomic “Medium Large” has had is that it ultimately changed the way I write “Sally Forth.” My first few years on “Sally Forth,” I focused only on maintaining its original voice and sense of humor, both of which are rather different from my own. Needless to say, those first few years with me at the helm were, well, awful. They were labored and often sounded like lectures out of business seminars that bored even me to tears.
But then I started writing my own webcomic “Medium Large,” in which I more or less entertained whatever insane, half-[baked] idea [that] popped into my head. That was so freeing, I started transferring that approach and what is essentially my own humor to “Sally Forth,” and soon I not only heard my own voice in the strip, but I saw myself in the characters. I even started creating new characters like Sally and Ted’s relatives and Hilary’s friends.
Today, I very much feel like the strip is my strip, the characters my family, and I will like nothing more than to keep writing the comic and exploring those characters’ lives for as long as possible.
MC: As I’ve noted before, Sally Forth and particularly Ted Forth seem especially self-deprecating now, under your writer’s pen. Has that been a conscious shift, and has it just felt organic?
FM: I guess my initial answer would be, “I can only be myself.” By which I mean, a comic strip is in some way a reflection of its author. But my more precise answer would be that I don’t care for perfect characters. When “Sally Forth” was first created, she had to be perfect because sadly, people back in the early ’80s needed to be reminded that women could have a family life and a professional life and excel at both. But hopefully only the most backwards individual doubts that these days, and so when I took over the strip, if I had kept Sally’s absolute perfection, the entire comic might as well have been trapped in amber with a label reading “1983” on it.
In fact, one of the complaints I’d see online back in the early days of my writing the comic was, “Why does Sally Forth have to act like she’s so perfect?” Now, admittedly some of these comments were by guys who get upset by any strip in which a female character is the lead. But it did cause me to ask, “Why does Sally try to be so perfect?” And that led to thinking about her life before the strip, which in turn led me to create the characters of her mom — who constantly needs Sally but acts as if it were the other way around — and her sister Jackie, who always asked for Sally’s help, yet was angry whenever Sally intervened. And I think those two factors growing up resulted in a person who feels like she always has to have her act together for others.
But going back to “I can only be myself,” I’ve found that all the characters reflect some sort of thought process or emotional aspect or personal issue of mine, which now that I wrote that makes it sound like I’m either suffering from multiple personality disorder or can’t quite realize all the characters might be a tad nuts.
As for Ted, he’s essentially me without worrying about what it means to be me, and having him as my avatar in the strip has helped me learn from countless readers’ reactions that I might not have the most white-knuckled grip on reality.
MC: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
FM: Well, it’s a work in progress — and I don’t even have a title for it yet — but I would like to share at least the introduction to my upcoming children’s book proposal…
“For small, defenseless and apparently edible beings, gnomes sure have a tendency to shoot off their big mouths to the wrong creatures.”
On second thought, perhaps I should just go back to writing about animals instead.
SCHEDULE: On Friday, Marciuliano will sign autographs; and on Sunday, he’ll appear on the “Chronicle Books: Behind the Scenes of a Pop Culture Powerhouse” panel.