Interview: Paul Gilligan

paul GilliganPaul Gilligan is mostly known for his animal friendly comic Pooch Café. And since we at DigitalEscape are very animal friendly, we felt it was time to talk to this creative genius.

Can you tell us a little about yourself? Who is Paul Gilligan?
– When I was in grade 2, I was lousy at sports. I found a MAD magazine and started drawing cartoons out of it. Wendy Moulasin, the class hottie, loved them, and I became convinced cartooning was the path to popularity and girls. That proved untrue. I now live in Toronto, and have had no further contact with Wendy Moulasin.

What’s the story behind Pooch Café? How did you came up with the idea?
– I tried a few other strips and got responses from a few syndicates that I had some chops but that my concepts didn’t hit any demos that might help salesmen pitch it to newspaper editors. So I tried to figure out what demo I could attack. I didn’t have a baby, an ethnicity, or any experience raising teenagers. I tried a strip about working in an office, but since I’d never really worked in one that fell pretty flat. Finally I decided that perhaps I could come up with the canine version of Garfield. I’m still waiting for my big lasagna moment.

Most cartoonists change their style and technique over the years. How has it been for you?
– I’ve definitely gone through various stages of the way I draw leaves on trees. The rest of the changes I don’t really notice have happened unless I look at strips side by side. One exception is that about six years back I gave Boomer a pupil. It was a way to give him more expression and personality. I’ve received feedback from fans saying the characters’ unorthodox features sometimes confuse things, and feedback from a guy at a party saying he didn’t know they were dogs at all. Perhaps the cubist attributes of the main dogs didn’t help my lasagna cause. Neither Poncho or Boomer can look directly at the camera, and Poncho facing forward and looking up appears as simply a white cylinder.

pooch Cafe

Let’s be honest. You are funny. Do you see yourself as a funny person in everyday life? Or is there something special that happens at the drawing table?
– Well thank you! I’ve been blessed with a really funny group of friends, so over the past 10-15 years we’ve all pushed each other with constant riffing. Although it’s been mentioned by casual observers that nobody else gets what the hell we’re laughing about. Insular or not, I’ve found this hilarity almost never translates to the page. Instances where I’ve tried have produced question marks over the head of my editor. Each type of joke-making has its own craft, whether it’s comics, stand-up, or drunken babbling. When I’m writing for Pooch, sometimes I’ll just start a conversation between two characters in my head and let it run until they say something funny, and then just clip out that section. Does that sound a little schitzo?

Do you get inspired by real events (like people, animals, news, ETC.) or is it mostly fantasies/own ideas?
– Once in a while some event will inspire a storyline. For instance there was a town recently that wanted to ban dogs from the downtown core, so I riffed on that a bit. Also when I had a dog there were a few times I dropped the retractable leash handle and it skidded down the sidewalk making a huge racket and scaring the heck outta the dog. I’ve put that to good use in the strip. From tragedy… art.

Can you ever feel limited by what you can joke or write about? Or do you simply avoid grey areas?
– Oh, it’s amazing what you can’t put on the comics page. Stuff that’s been common on prime time television for 20 years will still land you in hot water. Even the mildest curse words are verboten, and subject matter like breast enhancement or vasectomies are no go. It’s not that it’s illegal or anything, it’s simply that it’s been such a high-decorum zone for so long that even slight indelicacies can provoke angry letters to the editor, and you don’t want to give them any extra reasons to yank your strip. Then again, I’ve gotten away with a few things because my characters are — on the surface — dogs. In one strip I had Poo Poo the male Bichon Frise being hired out to stud. He heads off to his appointment wearing a cowboy hat to the theme song from Midnight Cowboy. Male prostitution on the comics page. My friend Rob Harrell (“Adam @ Home”) told me he spit coffee all over his keyboard when he saw it.

Now a very personal question. What do you really think about cats?
– I like cats. Don’t tell anybody. I do prefer dogs.

PaulDo you read much comics yourself?
– Like everyone I was influenced early on by Shultz, Watterson, Breathed and Larson. But past that I never much followed comic strips, I was more into “alternative” comics by Daniel Clowes, Chester Brown, The Hernandez Brothers, and — perhaps my biggest influence (writing wise), Peter Bagge. Because of him Pooch Café has a lot more conversation than the average comic strip. Perhaps to its detriment, (certainly to the detriment of those who need reading glasses). Although lately I’ve been redeveloping an appreciation for the quicker, simpler gag. Mark Buford (“Scary Gary”) is a master of this. Sometimes they can be the most difficult to pull off.

What do you think is most important if one is to succeed in creating a successful comic?
– Writing, hands down. A strongly-written/poorly-drawn strip can succeed, but the other way around and it’s no dice. Also (and I’m going to assume we’re talking about humor comics here) drawing funny is more important than drawing “well”. I’ve seen strips drawn by fantastic artists who draw like Disney, but I don’t think humor can breath under such well-crafted lines. Larson and Scott Adams and Stephan Pastis have been accused of not being great artists, but their drawings are funny. They’re also unique and perfectly meshed to the writing. This is harder to accomplish than craftsmanship. (This point notwithstanding those enigmas Watterson and Richard Thompson who have managed to find the magic middle ground).

Do you have a favorite pen or other tool that you usually use?
– I’m still analog, (read: behind the times), although I do scan in to make alterations and add type and color. The Faber Castell brush pen is my instrument of choice. (If you’re listening, FC, I’m willing to be paparazzi-ed in coffee shops cuddling your product).

What is your life like – what do you do on a typical day?
Pacing. Lots of pacing. If the world were even slightly more like a cartoon I’d have an oval trench worn in the floor. It’s a circus up there in my head sometimes, but for whatever reason pacing helps keep me focused on whatever I’m supposed to be thinking about and away from the nagging urge to check Facebook.
Drawing time gets paired up with podcasts and phone conversations. It only takes about 10% of my brain to draw Poncho, which leaves the unused remainder (roughly another 5%) free to be put to work on other tasks such as listening thoughtfully and going “hmm”.

And when you have some spare time? …
All my work, projects and hobbies involve me sitting by myself and rarely putting on proper pants, so free time is best spent socializing to help keep me from becoming a translucent-skinned Gollum-esque creature who fears the light and makes too much conversation with bank tellers.

Quick questions:

Summer or winter?
Summer, definitely. Unless winter vacations count.

City or country life?
Whichever’s closer.

Early mornings or late evenings?
I’ve recently taken up being a morning person. There is way more daylight in a day then I previously thought.

Favourite food?
Are Manhattans a food?

Favourite holiday destination?
I’ll tell you at the end of my life.

Ted Stridh
ted.stridh@digitalescape.se

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