Jan 08

Under the Funnies: Pirate Mike

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In this interview series, I speak with other comic creators to learn about their work! Here, I have a discussion with Brad Perri of Pirate Mike.

Travis Blair: Ahoy there, Brad! OK – that’s enough outta me. But seriously – do you ever catch yourself thinking in pirate speak? Pirate Mike always has a distinct voice in my head.

Brad Perri: ALWAYS!! (And thanks for asking about it! It’s really rewarding when someone asks about something I really love about the strip.)

Pirate Mike’s language, for me, is a key component of the strip. I find it funny by itself. I look at strips like Popeye (especially Popeye), Li’l Abner, Pogo, Krazy Kat . . . so many great strips that use the language itself to be funny. Having Mike speak in “pirate” helps me especially if I’m not feeling confident about the punch line of the strip or the art. I figure at least it can sound funny! Talking “pirate” can often help me get the germ of the idea for a strip. Everything’s funnier when said in “pirate.”

As you yourself note, everyone has the “sound” of a strip’s character in their head and that sound is different in everybody’s head. It’s why it’s so jarring (as we all know) when we see a cartoon and we hear the characters talk. I think we’ve all had the “that’s not how they sound!” moment. So, for me, it’s really important that Pirate Mike have a special voice in everybody’s head. If he talked like everybody else, I think a wonderful component of the strip would be lost.

Unlike Li’l Abner or the others, though, I think Pirate Mike can draw on a pretty accepted understanding of how a pirate “should” talk (God bless Talk Like A Pirate Day!), so I’m not quite up against the problems a cartoonist can sometimes run into when the characters start to speak a wee bit _too_ phonetically or idiosyncratically to the cartoonist’s style.

I’m glad about that because I’ve also been frustrated at times by strips when I find it too difficult to piece together what the phonetics are really saying. As a kid, it took me forever just to figure out what the Thing was saying sometimes in the Fantastic Four and the Thing wasn’t saying anything particularly exotic.

At the same time, it also annoys me when a character says “I want to” when clearly he’s really saying “I wanna.” So one can also err in the opposite direction. And Pirate Mike sounding articulate, well, that might be the bigger sin than making him sound unintelligible.

Sometimes, though, I will have Mike use “official” English instead of “pirate” English if the rhythm/sound of the “official” English works better. It depends also on which version I find funnier.

I’m really looking forward to talk to you more about Mike. As you can imagine, I love when people ask about Mike. Talking about Mike and comics is definitely my favorite topic of discussion! :)
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Travis: I always enjoyed reading Beetle Bailey while hearing the voices of the cast of Army characters in my head. The abrupt confrontations always made for fun dialogue, adding comical tension to their conversations – at least for me.

Speaking of voice, what gave Pirate Mike his voice? As in, where did Mike come from? Aside from the sea, that is.

Brad: Beetle Bailey is definitely one of my favorites for that reason. I can’t remember where I read it, but I recall someone describing Sarge as some sort of cosmic force of frustration or something along those lines. I think you can see those moments where I try to tap into that for Pirate Mike (particularly when I draw him with the “one-tooth” scream that Sarge has).

So I think in part that’s where Mike may have come from. The first time I thought of Mike, it was more of a “oh, that’s kind of funny,” but it wasn’t anything I was going to do anything with. I was getting ready for work and for some reason had this idea of a guy going to do something dramatic and he became a pirate ready to storm a ship or something and then it panned back and he was climbing the ladder to clean the gutters. I cannibalized that strip recently and turned most of it into a dream sequence, but the germ of the idea is still there.

I think he comes in part from my love for Popeye and Popeye’s language (especially the Max Fleischer cartoons which I was fortunate enough to see frequently as a kid). I love the dynamic between Popeye and Olive and SweePea. The whole shebang is just set up for maximum conflict.

I think Mike also comes from my childhood affection for Broom Hilda (when she was still smoking cigars and drinking beer and getting insulted by Grelber). I want Mike to have a not so friendly element to him. To that extent, I find myself really drawn to Scary Gary by Mark Buford when I’m looking for insights into characters like that.

I also loved Hagar, of course, and I thought it would be funnier if Mike were actually in our world instead of his own 18th century pirate world. And I don’t think anybody who grew up in the late ’70s and early ’80s can really seriously suggest that they aren’t in some way drawing on Garfield and Peanuts. Somewhere, deep inside, both of those strips are waiting for all of us.

I also grew up on Marvel comics, so I think I’m still someone who wants a single identifiable “hero” character. To that extent, I’ve had people refer to my strip as almost a nostalgia strip. So many (all?) of the great strips today are almost if not entirely without a single central character (Tubeytoons, MaxiMumble, Channelate). Awkward Yeti has developed some central characters, but not quite along the lines of the old strips. So I’m an anachronism in that respect, it seems. :)
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Travis: An anachronism, indeed! With your comic drawing inspiration from the classics while being available online, what would you say you’ve embraced from the modern webcomic platform? I noticed Pirate Mike has recently moved from the traditional horizontal strip to a vertical layout.

Brad: Yeah, the vertical move came from me posting on Tapastic and seeing what other folks were doing, especially Karla Diaz. I also was encouraged by Stephen Beals’ work on Adult Children and how he applied the vertical format to a daily strip.

Apart from that, I like the idea of having the full screen width for a panel. I haven’t really taken full advantage of it yet, but I think it might enable comic strips to have more action and detail in them again as opposed to talking heads. I have also found that people like the vertical because they read their strips on their phones. I find it very rewarding to know that people read Pirate Mike on their phones. I’m not sure why I feel so proud of that, but it seems to me a much more personalized comics experience than what the newspaper can offer. I can’t provide any support from that, so at this point it’s only a gut feeling, so don’t press me!

So, at least at this point, my movement to a webcomic is very slow, and in very small steps but enthusiastic. I have a lot to learn as far as what makes a webcomic as opposed to the features of a horizontal strip. Just the idea that the reader moves from top to bottom instead of left to right really throws me for a loop. Any adjustments I’ve made so far for that major change are still pretty superficial. But I’m really excited about the idea of being able to extend a daily strip (if it works) past the standard three panel setup. But we shall see on that. I’m still learning the three-panel horizontal strip!

But that’s what excites me about comics right now. I think we’re really in a new golden age. The genre, it seems, can finally be fully explored because of the web. I like that you can develop an audience apart from the audience that reads comics only in newspapers. It’s fascinating to see so many different kinds of comics just on the web, let alone in print. I think the sky’s really the limit here and we’re just beginning to see the possibilities.

I think the web format has also come to me at the same time I’ve become more comfortable using a tablet and drawing with Manga Studio. Technology allows me to hone my process while also speeding me up dramatically. So the last year has been very exciting as far as learning more about technology and the production/distribution of comics.

Maybe the thing I’ve embraced the most about the online format is the degree to which it allows you to serve as your own editor/distributor/merchandiser. The idea of growing Mike’s universe in all those areas greatly interests me and I think the webcomic format encourages it.

For instance, I’m realizing more and more clearly that I have a little bit more latitude when it comes to acceptable topics. I’ve done two strips that I think particularly benefited from this reality of webcomics: one of them has to do with the wife asking Mike if he thinks they have enough sex and the other one I put out just this past week showing the son interrupting Mike and the wife while they are kissing on the couch. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any daily strip in a newspaper ever dealing in any way (let alone a thoughtful way) with a husband and wife who actually touch each other (Doonesbury, perhaps, but not a regular ‘funny’ strip). I think it might be a great area for some humor while still being in good taste, and being on the web allows me to experiment in that area in a way that I might not be allowed to otherwise.

Travis: The comic about Mike and his wife kissing was actually one I used to describe your comic to someone. Just as how the main character has a foot on deck and another in the family room, Pirate Mike feels as if it’s a comic from the papers boarding the Internet. I want that aspect to stick around.

As you proceed to things like changing of formats and using a  tablet, where do you see yourself taking Pirate Mike? Plan on rocking the dinghy with any new topics?

Brad: Cool! That’s great that that’s the strip you referenced! I’m very pleased to hear that.

I’d like Mike to be able to address an audience that I think exists, but does not get catered to: an audience that would like to see a married couple intelligently addressed. I think it would be great if we had strips that could do that. Whether I’ll succeed or not, who knows, but it’s at least a vehicle I’d like to take a shot at.

I also want that hybrid newspaper/online feel to persist. I think it would be a good bridge to make instead of just having it be a newspaper strip that happens to get posted online until/if it gets syndicated, or to be solely dedicated to being a webcomic, per se, which I think appeals to a much different taste than I normally would target (if Tapastic has taught me anything!)

As far as the future goes, I’m determining how many more of the older strips I want to revise. I’ve been doing that on a MWF schedule the last month with Fridays being reserved as always for the new strip. I miss my old comic strip “blog” format more each time I post, though, so I’m eager to get back to that.

I find that posting the Tweaky Tuesdays and other items that I get more interaction with my audience and that is just incredibly rewarding. I really enjoy it. It’s also one of the reasons to do a webcomic. It’s just so much fun!

I’m also always debating adding a dog, of course. But every strip that introduces a dog eventually has the dog dominating the strip, so I’m very hesitant to do it. We’ll see, but I’m leaning against it just for the sake of the safety of the strip!

I’d like to introduce more characters in Mike’s universe and see if any of them stick. It goes back a little bit to your previous question: where does Mike come from? I think Mike comes from the fact that lots of people (myself included) have this secret vision of themselves as somehow fighting against the world to preserve their sense of themselves. In other words, we all see ourselves as rebels somehow.

The funny part is that a lot of us don’t like other rebels and we’re constantly behaving in a non-rebellious way. For Mike, that dictates his shape as a pirate. I have Astronaut Al and Cowboy Bill, so I’m going to be looking to put more folks like that in there who reflect different little funny personas we all sometimes adopt. It’s a little like Rose Is Rose, except in my world, Rose really is and always will be a biker chick!

I’m absolutely in love, though, with Mike’s mother-in-law, Judy, and his father who at the moment appears to be Mike’s arch-nemesis. I also see the son becoming more of a character. I’m considering making him a contemporary online pirate to put him in contrast to his father’s old-fashioned piracy. And, finally, I’d like to have Mike tell his son more flashback stories to the old pirating days, but, of course, more in a ridiculous Commander McBragg way. I don’t think Mike could tell the candid truth about his past if he tried, so I plan on having some fun with that direction, too.

I think those characters will come hand-in-hand with new topics, so we shall see. One of the frustrating things about only doing one new strip a week is that it really does take forever to develop a sense of the strip and where to go with it. When I think that it took a genius like Charles Schulz, what, 15 years of daily strips until he finally had Snoopy fight the Red Baron (which I think is when he finally nails the essence of Peanuts, imo), I can get really discouraged. Or that it took Segar 10 years of Thimble Theater on a daily basis to cough out Popeye (on accident!). Well, it can get overwhelming very quickly. So the key to me is just to keep cranking away in the limited amount of time I can devote to my strip and to see where it takes me.

But I find that the crankier Mike is, the happier I am! So I’m hoping to always be developing that particular direction!

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Travis: The best thing I’ve heard you reference is direction. Sure, I like what you said about the parents, and about the son possibly developing as a character. I really like how you’re approaching the married couple. Everything you mentioned is great, but mainly because you’re looking ahead. See, you’re charting a course, and I like this pirate comic even more for that.
What would you say are the obstacles to making your comic, or any comic for that matter?

Brad: Ah! My rogues gallery of obstacles! My biggest obstacle used to be my inability to understand the truth of the cliche that you do not get better at something unless you do it. So you only get better at drawing, at writing, etc., by doing it. That’s not to say I now know how to do it, but I’m a lot farther along now than I had been for years when I was trying to think my way to some magical starting point. So, even if I stink, the only way to getting “good” or at least “better” is by doing it, so the sooner you get started, the father along you’ll be later!

I’d say I got there by overcoming another obstacle: thinking that my drawing was no good. Once I understood comics as kind of a folk art or even an outsider art, I understood that there are really no rules in comics (or at least I stopped caring about them to the point that it paralyzed me), so I can do what I want, including learning how to do comics by doing them instead of waiting until some magic moment when, somehow, I would “start doing comics.”

I’d say nowadays the biggest obstacles are staying focused on what matters: making comics. To do that, I need to keep the horse before the cart. So I try to remember that, whether other people like my comics or not (or whether they buy them or not, or whether they even look at them or not), it doesn’t change the fact that I make the comics. I don’t want anything to get in the way of me doing comics.

Therefore, it’s aggravating, of course, to realize that often the only obstacle between me and making comics is myself! Once I remember that my goal is to make comics (period), things fall into place. I love the form and doing comics has exponentially increased my appreciation and understanding of that form. To be quite frank, that in itself is an unanticipated and wonderful reward.

Usually, if things seem more difficult, it’s because I’ve focused on something else, particularly the idea that in order for me to make comics, I have to be able to automatically without any further learning produce something that other people would be willing to pay for. Because then it becomes, well, I’m only “good” if ten, no, TWENTY! people like/buy my comics! Wait. Twenty people do like it? Well, then I must only be good if FORTY people like it, and of those FORTY, well, at least 10 of them have to be comics professionals! and so on ad infinitum.

That whole spiral is just a waste of time that doesn’t give one iota of help to me in achieving my goal: making comics. It’s a unique thing about comics, to be able to be in charge of a whole story. So I’m lucky I love comics instead of wanting to rocket to the moon or build a skyscraper. Then I’d be in trouble.

I think personal obstacles are probably involved in the making of any comic, too. It just depends on who you are asking for the specifics, of course. I think some folks might say “time limitations,” and that’s true especially for those of who just can’t get people to pay us the big bucks!

But instead of focusing on the severe time limitations (which are really faced by anybody who is trying to do something they love without being able to get paid for it), I focus instead on trying to find and create those holes in my daily schedule where I can fit comics in while still meeting my other responsibilities. It is indeed frustrating and slow and I wish I could just find an oil well somewhere or something Three Stooges-style, but, ultimately, even if I grind ahead ever so slowly, I’m still doing comics and, at the moment, if it’s between that and not doing comics, then I’m going to choose the slow grind.

I think a healthy dose of self-delusion may also be quite helpful in overcoming obstacles to making comics! :)
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Travis: Ah, the irony of considering self-delusion as a solution to your hefty thoughts on obstacles. Many of us share the same obstacles you mentioned, but I figured you would have a good grasp of them.

OK, one more question, before I let you go. This one’s about Pirate Mike’s past. What is one interesting “little known fact” about his piracy days you can share with me?

Brad: Yeah, for the obstacles, I wanted to talk about the most fundamental ones which I find are usually in my head! Obstacles exist with tools, time, technique, etc., but I usually find that I can only get to those obstacles if I ignore the ones that have to do with worry.

As for Mike’s past, I suspect we may come to learn that Mike had a crew and they just might be wondering where he’s gotten off to . . .  :)

Travis: Excellent! I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for when more news about Mike’s crew surfaces.

I want to thank you for the insight, and for the interview!

Brad: I want to thank you for asking me very thoughtful questions. As you can see, I love talking about comics!

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Check out Pirate Mike here!
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