Dark Horse has been publishing collections of Portland cartoonist (and multiple Eisner-winner) Shannon Wheeler’s Too Much Coffee Man for over a decade, and now fans of the existentialist caffeine junkie can hold all of them in their lap at once. The Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus collects five of Wheeler’s books, assembling strips from twenty years of cartooning. In the artist’s words, it was “a pain in the ass to put together.”
The Omnibus weighs in at over 550 pages, and each 8-1/2 x 11 inch page reproduces a page from the books, which means that the artwork is enlarged to show more of Wheeler’s intricate crosshatching. It’s Ultimate TMCM, to give comics fans something to compare to. Included with the books are their original forewords from such fans as Black Flag’s Henry Rollins, King of the Hill‘s Mike Judge, and Operation Ivy vocalist Jesse Michaels.
Not all of Wheeler’s output is Too Much Coffee Man, and not all of the Omnibus is focused on the odd little man with the coffee cup head. Wheeler lets his muse take the steering wheel and drive him here and there as needed. Although we do get TMCM and his social commentary mixed with liberal doses of self-analysis and -loathing, there is a wealth of other topics to be found in the Omnibus.
Relationships take center stage at times, portrayed both literally and metaphorically, including the tortured tale of Joel and his ex, Eve. On again, off again, Joel pours his heart out, often into the gutter. Wheeler’s take on the ways of love is not cynical but quizzical.
Drawing himself as a jagged-toothed Neanderthal, Wheeler dives into the glamorous life of self-publishing with glimpses at his early days as a cartoonist. It’s obvious from the frequent references in the Omnibus that every joke or personal story about coffee has already been heard a thousand times over by the author. A particularly inane radio interview is reenacted in excruciating detail, and makes you wonder how the artist stuck with this character (and profession) for so long.
Later in the Omnibus, in “What Degrees Are For” on page 549, Wheeler (this time as a more modern Homo Sapien) describes an architecture project from his years at UC Berkeley. Cynicism and depression drop away as he describes the creation, driven by time pressure. It’s a genuinely touching story about the artistic process and a piece of work that affected the author deeply.
Continuing stories share space with wry one-page ideas, which trade off with amazing full-page illustrations. You can almost see Wheeler’s brain switching gears when an idea appears. Much of this is illusion, however, as the strips are not in chronological order but in the layout they had in their original books.
When reading through the Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus, be sure not to skip the Table of Contents. Each individual cartoon gets its own title and page number, from the cover of the book on page -1 to the back cover on page 568+1. Readers wondering how much of the book’s five-year creation was spent on the Contents would do well to see page 4: Table Of Contents (Do Not Even Ask How Long This Took).
Wheeler’s art evolves naturally over the double decade of TMCM, incorporating inventive layouts and styles. He has the ability to engage the eyes and the brain at the same time, which is a tough challenge for any cartoonist.
There’s not a point in any of the collected books where one feels that Wheeler is coasting, recycling easy gags out of laziness. When he recycles a gag, it’s usually to comment on the temptaion to recycle gags. When he has writer’s block, he doesn’t just draw a comic about writer’s block, he incorporates the quest for inspiration and originality before ultimately giving in. Years of this kind of constant shaping has put Wheeler in fighting shape for his new job as New Yorker cartoonist, a position that demands the best of the best.
Perhaps this continuous drive for perfection will grind Wheeler down until he climbs Berkeley’s Campanile tower with a rifle in hand, but knowing the artist, it will probably be a sketchpad. And a cup of joe.