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Hey, Pete! A Conversation with Pete Sickman-Garner
Conducted by Rob Vollmar

One of the primary criticisms leveled at independent titles, in general, is that they are inaccessible to the average reader, often eschewing tried-and-true rules of story and plot construction in favor of heady experimentation and unfettered self-expression. The prevailing notion is that a healthy distaste for the conventions of craft, both visually and textually, weaken a book's effectiveness at transmitting its message to its intended audience.

While a defense of the independent comic industry as a whole is out of place and scope here, I do offer Pete Sickman-Garner's Hey, Mister series as a counter-point to such criticisms. The history of this series reads like the textbook indy success story from its inauspicious beginnings in college rags and home-made mini-comics to its evolution as a self-published mainstream comic and, finally, to its current metamorphosis as one of the strongest ongoing titles in the Top Shelf Productions line that continues to thrive despite the plague-like conditions for non-corporate licensed titles and characters right now. Hey, Mister has quickly become one of my most cherished finds of the year with its powerful fusion of utterly decadent humor and quiet melancholy.

I would like to personally invite anyone reading this feature to check out Pete's Hey, Mister as an example of what independent comics are doing right. And, now, on with the show...

Rob Vollmar: Pete, first let me thank you for taking time out of your work schedule to answer some questions for Comic Book Galaxy and its readers. If you wouldn't mind sharing a modicum of biographical data, how old are you, where were you born, where do live now, and what is your astrological sign?

Pete Sickman-Garner: I'm 33. Born in Ann Arbor, MI but grew up in State College, PA. Now, by pure chance, I have returned to Ann Arbor. I'm a Sagittarius.

RV: You said in the first part of this interview with Andrew that you developed Hey, Mister for a student run paper. What kind of responses from the material did you get initially? Was any of that material collected into the mini-comics you later self-published (that were subsequently collected as 'After School Special')?

PSG: I didn't really get much of any response. A lady called to complain once when I did a strip where Aunt Mary and Young Tim use a giant magnifying glass to torch the head of that annoying little baby in Hi and Lois. I mean, the other cartoonists liked it and the editors liked it and friends mentioned that they read it but I didn't really find out that there was much of a readership until I collected them in a book (xeroxed, long, long out of print) and sold it at the local comic book store. I think I sold about 50 copies in the first week and probably about 400-500 total after it was solicited by Capital City (now defunct but revived, in a manner of speaking, as FM International).
None of that material was ever published in the mini-comics but I do use the old strips as something of a humor archive. Since most current Hey, Mister readers haven't seen them, I've redrawn some of the funnier ones as pages in the regular (non mini) comics. If I ever get a website together, I'll probably post the strips (there are 144 of them I think). I would put up a new one every week as a way to keep the content fresh.

RV: My first introduction to HM was "The Trouble with Jesus", which, mistakenly, left with the impression at the end that the series was centered on Young Tim. What impressed me most as I picked up, "Celebrity Roast", to find out what possibly could have come before such madness, was the series' total disregard for continuity in a traditional sense. Is it freeing as a writer to know that literally anything can happen and the book can move forward? Was there a crystallizing moment while working that you realized, "Hey, I can do anything I want here?"

PSG: The fact that I didn't have much regard for continuity was pointed out to me by a reviewer. Was there a crystallizing moment? Yes and no. I abandoned continuity from the outset so it never came to me as an epiphany or anything. I just thought to myself, probably as I was writing the second issue, "I have an idea for a story but it contradicts what happened in the last issue. Oh well, nobody's paying attention anyway."
Basically, whenever I have a good idea, I'll want to pursue it free from the burdens of a continuous story arc. Eventually, people started noticing and pointing it out and maybe it comes across as something innovative about the strip but it's not. No reality holds from one Bugs Bunny cartoon to the next, right? Doesn't Daffy blow himself up and float away to heaven in that episode where they're playing the xylophone? But the creators always hit the reset button for the next cartoon. That said, there are some constants in the strip but they relate more to character, e.g. Mister will forever want to have sex with Aunt Mary.

RV: There are broad issues addressed in Hey, Mister! that strike a deep chord with me as a reader. Family is something that is always being hinted about, be it in the bizarre extended-family relationship that Young Tim, Aunt Mary, and Mister share or, more directly, in stories like "Hey Sister" from the Celebrity Roast collection. Would you agree with the notion that our heroes make up their own extended family to create a support net that simply does not exist? Is that the bond which holds them together through difficult times?

PSG: That was something that I figured I could exploit. They didn't start out with any kind of understanding that they were a family unit but over time, I realized that I could milk a lot of humor and satire out of the fact that the people they encountered (in the strip) might see them as a family. And within the stories, the characters can exploit that perception. Most often, I'd like to use my characters and their relationship to spoof the meaningless phrase "family values" as it's used by pandering politicians.
Does it provide support for them? I don't know. I don't really think of them in those terms. I suppose they do have an "us against the world" mentality. They don't have anything like a close bond with each other but if someone from outside their little unit challenges one of them, they might band together. Then again they might not. It all depends on the story I'm writing. If the story would be funnier or more moving or more interesting or, well, whatever if a character responded to the events in a certain way then that's how I'll write the character.
I know that might sound like it contradicts my previous statement about how I attempt to maintain continuity in the characters but I don't think it does. The continuity evident in each character is vague and something I have a hard time putting into words. All I can say is when I'm writing, I sometimes have a character saying or doing something that strikes a false note to me. So, I rewrite and rewrite until it seems to work. That might mean just rewriting a line of dialogue or it might mean rethinking the entire story. I can't say whether I pull it off or not. I mean, I think I do but it all depends on how it strikes the reader.

RV: In "The Trouble with Jesus", you combine the mythologies of capitalism and Christianity to expose the hypocrisies inherent in both. Would you characterize yourself as an anarchist, a heathen, both or neither? Did drawing the last panel of, "Aunt Mary Climbs the Mountain of Life," inspire that story's birth?

PSG: I'm certainly not an anarchist or a libertarian. Both of those philosophies require a pretty deep faith in humanity. On the surface, they seem only to imply a faith in yourself but who is going to protect me from all the assholes in the world? I guess I'd rather have a government enforcing civil law and providing basic services that to count on people to do the right thing. Of course I'm a white, college-educated, childless, American male so I don't have to worry too much about getting harassed by the government. Maybe I'd feel differently about their role in creating social order if I didn't belong to the demographic that holds all the power.
I'd actually been thinking about the corruption of Christianity by capitalism for a long time but I could never work it into a story very successfully. Every time I tried, I just ended up with a simplistic morality play whose message what "Christianity is corrupt and a lot of Christians are jerks" which is such an obvious sentiment that there's no point in writing a story about it. It wasn't until I hit on the idea that the story should be about the relationship between Tim and Jesus that it started to work. After that, any critique of Christianity could just live in the background and just occasionally work it's way into focus in the story.

RV: The fact that you included the Theme to Quincy, subversively notated near the bottom of a particularly painful gag in the Celebrity Roast begs the question, "What kind of music can you possibly be listening to while drawing?" (BTW I came up with the next two lines of the song: Hey, my name is Quincy/ I look at Cadavers/O- pen up their Bodies /To find out why they're DEAD). Personally, I got you pegged for a Tom Waits fan.

PSG: You are correct sir. I'm a huge Tom Waits fan though only really after he ditched the whole troubador act (I still really like "Small Change" but I can do without the other albums before "Swordfishtrombones" or, at least before "Heartattack and Vine")
Like a lot of people, I stopped listening to much new rock and roll after about the age of 28. I now understand why baby boomers listen to classic rock stations. If there was a station that played lots of Replacements and Husker Du I'd listen to it all the time and anyone who was into anything post-1990 would roll their eyes every time I turned on the radio.
By the way, there are complete lyrics to the Quincy theme. I'll talk to the guy who wrote them (when he was a kid) and see how close you are.

RV: You said earlier that Aunt Mary was included in the story to beat up on those you didn't like, but that just goes to highlight just how different HM is as a series. Mary defies sexual objectification even when suffering erectile tissue arousal due to frigid temperatures (as seen in Eyes on the Prize for the really lonely out there). Is Aunt Mary the voice of feminism in Hey, Mister! or is she just REALLY angry?

PSG: I wouldn't go so far as to say she's the voice of feminism though of course she's more than just angry. And, also, I'd be lying if I denied that I was consciously trying to create an appealing female character. By that, I mean appealing to me. That said, it was never my intention to manipulate anyone in liking Hey, Mister because it has an ass-kicking woman. Had that been my aim (in other words, had I been that imaginatively bereft and cynical) I think she probably would've more resembled one of those ratings-driven "riot grrrlz" that have started to show up on sitcoms and I really don't think she fits in that category if only because that category is entirely a creation of marketing types who needed a label and and identity for their products. Aunt Mary would never be so stupid as to fall prey to such a transparent pitch.
So, she started out as angry and as a woman but that was as much an accident as anything else. I already had four male characters when I created her so I wanted a woman character and I also wanted someone who was pissed off. Like a lot of characters, when she first appeared she was pretty one-dimensional and, my hope is, she's developed over the years.

RV: There have been numerous references throughout the series, explicit or otherwise, to the fact that Mister is, at the very least, bisexual though actual heteroerotic activity is only suggested by the revelation in, "Look Homeward, Mister" that he had once been married. Are their plans to explore Mister's sexuality more thoroughly in upcoming issues or is it just a plot device waiting to unfold?

PSG: I don't make plans like that, i.e. "I want to explore Mister's sexuality." Maybe I should; it might provide an avenue to get to a story idea. Like I said, I get the germ of a story idea and as I begin to flesh it out, I place certain characters in certain roles.
As it happens, in the story I'm doing now, Mister has lots and lots of sex because the premise is that he becomes a love god with the aid of an influential mentor. As far as Mister's sexuality goes, that just sort of developed a little bit at a time. I wanted him to be the kind of person that was constantly seeking stimulation and/or gratification however cheap and from whatever source. I had a vague idea of this and then I read a review that described him as "masturbatory" and that really crystallized it for me. So, in that sense he doesn't really discriminate but I also want to keep it grey enough that you can't ever really hang a label on him like "gay" or "straight." I have a lot more freedom that way.

RV: Another theme you touch on often is the relationship between worker and employer. In most of the larger stories involving all three major characters, you have them working in tandem at another tedious job, be it at a record store, a book store, a grocery store, or in the chain of command under Jesus. Later, during "In This, Tim's Life", you condemn him to a life unappreciated working as a clerk in a copy shop until he expires from utter misery (there's that bit about the murder with the hockey stick but you know where I'm going with this). What is Pete Sickman-Garner trying to say about the relationships between people and the companies that employ them?

PSG: Well, the relationships among my characters and their employers is part of a larger theme in HM--that of the relationship between the powerful and powerless (or at least, "less powerful"). If you'll indulge me in a generality, I'd say it's always safest to be skeptical of ANYONE in a position of power. And, of course, that is, by no means, an original sentiment. But, casting my characters as the powerless provides far more interesting situations for me to explore and it also gives me the opportunity to try my hand at satire. Satire isn't funny (and isn't really even satire) when it is used by the powerful to attack the meek. Molly Ivins made that point when describing how and why Rush Limbaugh's attempts at humor just don't work unless you have a really deep cruel streak.
But, in saying all this, I don't want to imply that the strip is just a screed in which my characters are always in the right and are always mercilessly abused by the powerful. They have all sorts of personal failings which bring them grief. I hope, if there is a message, it lands somewhere in between-i.e., the powerful are never to be trusted but their mere existence isn't the only reason you're miserable.

RV: OK...For the record, I really fucking hate Sting and his music. It brought me a joy, untold, to see the atrocities commited to his dismembered corpse in Celebrity Roast. Was that liberating? Who else would you like to see the gang chop into little bits and eat?

PSG: Don't get me started. Don't we all have a list like that about 10 miles long? I will say that the ability and/or desire to hate people and things (even if we hate different things) represents a bond that I share with most of the people I know and like. That's not to say that we're all special for hating things. I think most people are like that to a greater or lesser degree. But, when I find myself in a conversation with someone who doesn't hate anything or who can't hate anything or who refuses to ever be outraged, I have nothing to say to them. It's really a huge barrier.
We were in line to vote on Tuesday and the polling place was at an Elementary school. They had drawings taped up on all the walls and one class did a Halloween theme and a lot of the drawings just showed a bunch of tombstones with (usually) funny things written on them. One kid had a tombstone that said "The Backstreet Boys: they died of bad singing." It heartens me that there are 8-year-olds in the world who harbor such sentiments.

RV: Is producing Hey, Mister! what you do for the majority of your income? What is/was your college time spent studying?

PSG: Studied English in college. Work full-time at the University of Michigan Press for the majority of my income.

RV: Last question so I'll let you jump up on the soapbox and run with it for a finale. It's the year 2100. Is anyone still alive? Are they happy about it? What will the world be like in a hundred years?

PSG: My grandma is 94 (I think) and she's really funny about it. We'll all be sitting around reading and she'll just blurt out "it's hell getting old" and, to a certain extent, she means to be funny but if you get her talking about it you realize that she's serious. All her friends are dead and all the physical actions I take for granted are really hard for her. I guess I don't mind the idea of getting old but I certainly don't want to outlive everyone I know. That would suck. I have a hard time imagining that the world will be around in a hundred years but I might just be indulging in an easy sort of cynicism when I think that. If you truly believe that the world is doomed and there's nothing you can do about it, you can excuse yourself from taking any actions to prevent the world's destruction. Maybe if we have kids I'll worry more about the future of the world.

The ADD Blog by Alan David Doane. Trouble with Comics Reviews of comics and graphic novels. Commentary about the artform and industry of comics. Get back to the main page.

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