By Mark Peters
Cartoonist Shannon Wheeler—best known for his superhero-skewering Too Much Coffee Man and the recent Sh*t My President Says: The Illustrated Tweets of Donald J. Trump, which is exactly what it sounds like—is releasing his first Image Comics collection, Memoirs of a Very Stable Genius.
This collection of comics and strips, released under the Shadowline umbrella, offers a wide-ranging showcase, curated from the past few years of work in various magazines and outlets, from one of the medium’s most perceptive and funny cartoonists.
The phrase “very stable genius” comes from a famous Donald Trump tweet, but don’t look for the president to be lampooned often or directly within these pages. The only clear commentary on the POTUS is a brilliant one-panel cartoon of a couple watching TV and hearing some resonant and, at least partially, familiar words: “Sure, he's Satan, prince of darkness, king of Hell, ruler of the underworld, father of lies, the deceiver, the accuser, the slanderer, the tempter, and the source of evil, but he's not afraid to say what people are thinking.”
But most of Memoirs has a more personal target: Wheeler himself. As the author says, “The title is Trump-inspired, but most of the stories seem to be about my own stupidity. It's the idea that we think of ourselves as smart, but we're really clueless. Like Trump. Like the teacher on the cover writing knowledge is power with the ‘kick me’ sign on his back.” That contrast between self-image and reality animates this impressive book.
Childhood often encapsulates Wheeler’s running theme of people as self-important, but not especially important. Several stories are about Wheeler’s own youth, and in Sh*t My President Says, he portrays Trump as a child. “I like the icon of the ‘ignorant intellectual,’” Wheeler says. “Children have that quality. Too Much Coffee Man took that role, too. It's the idea that people aren't stupid, but don't have the knowledge to be cynical. It's being open to a situation and new ideas. And it's ignorance that gives room for mistakes. Children, also, have the room to change their minds. I drew Trump as a child because of his lack of superego (the part of our psyche that reigns in the id). He views himself as a rebellious scamp: ‘It's you and me, MAGA people, against these ignorant intellectuals.’ Unfortunately, he's at the top of the food chain and, unlike children, causes a lot of harm because of his unbridled power.”
Most readers are, perhaps fortunately, lacking in unbridled power but rich in everyday embarrassment. Wheeler’s autobiographical comics mine his life as a cartoonist for relatable awkwardness. For example, we’ve all said dumb things, but not many of us have put foot squarely in mouth when meeting a revered civil rights leader. Wheeler has, and his discomfort is our gain. This story of his strained meeting with Congressman John Lewis is a highlight of this book.
Without spoiling the story, Wheeler finds himself in the same room with Lewis thanks to their mutual involvement with comics. (Lewis’ history was recently preserved in the three-volume biography, March, co-written by Andrew Aydin and drawn by Nate Powell.) Struggling with what to say, Wheeler launches into an anecdote he hopes will connect with Lewis, only to learn later it was a misfire. Wheeler says, “I still wince when I think of it.” Fortunately for the cartoonist, other encounters have been more wince-worthy: “I chatted with [Lewis’] assistant later who told me John Lewis has much, much worse meetings. People in the South who shake his hand, telling him that racism is over because they're there shaking hands, as equals.” Fortunately for Wheeler, his gaffe only involves a different attitude toward poultry.
In Memoirs, Wheeler alternates between straight-up autobiography and New Yorker-style one-panel gags, as well as some Too Much Coffee Man strips. Topics range from comic-con culture to a childhood trip to Cuba. Some subjects are practical, including one story whose moral could be summarized as filling a squirt gun with urine isn’t as marvelous an idea as it sounds (don’t worry, that story is from Wheeler’s boyhood, not last week). The diversity of material and styles form a sequential art Voltron that elevates the parts and creates a lively, unpredictable read.
For Wheeler, each format brings different opportunities and stresses. “I love the brevity of a single-panel comic,” Wheeler says. “When I can squeeze a narrative into one panel, I feel like I've pulled off a magic trick. Longer strips have more power but are always flawed. Sometimes, at the best of times, I look at a single panel and think that there's nothing I need to change. With longer pieces, I always see flaws; I want to fix backgrounds, edit dialog, or change the timing.”
Wheeler’s varied comics stem from his equally varied influences: “Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers) is still one of my favorites. His sense of timing and storytelling is amazing. Sam Hurt (Eyebeam) inspired me to start cartooning—his characters, even Hank the Hallucination, feel real. Kyle Baker is another cartoonist that has an incredible sense of timing. Basil Wolverton's style I love. Underrated cartoonists: Rick Veitch, Bob Burden, Dave Sim. Nuts by Gahan Wilson shows kids better than I ever will (amazing stuff). Shary Flenniken, too—holy crap. She's incredible with story, timing, themes, characters. Julia Wertz is always good. I love seeing what she's doing. I'm mostly mentioning people who I think deserve more recognition. I know I'm forgetting a ton. This is really a golden age of cartooning (graphic novels, strips, and gags).”
For this collection, Wheeler’s selection process was organic: “The comics are my favorites from the last few years. A couple have run in The New Yorker. Some stories (almost) ran in Esquire. A few I just did because they made me laugh.”
Readers will have the same experience, along with plenty of nods of recognition. Even if you’ve never been to Cuba, drawn a cartoon, or learned to choke a chicken—literally—Wheeler exercises a depth of humor and humanity that’s hard to find in any genre. His eye is as sharp as his pen, and he’s equally adept at deep observation as he is at pulling off a quickie gag.
No comic straddles that tightrope of introspection and absurdist hilarity more than “Camp Micro-Penis,” which (ahem) delivers a lot more than you’d expect. The four-page comic revolves around one of Wheeler’s childhood memories, where he encounters a peer with diminished physicality, but ample character. If more men had the camp experience described in this surprising story, they’d handle their unbridled power with more responsibility.
Memoirs of a Very Stable Genius by Shannon Wheeler Is Available Now