Profile of Minnesota Cartoonist Steven Stwalley
By Britt Aamodt
STEVEN STWALLEY - creator of Soapy the Chicken
Soapy the Chicken has a problem;
she's dead, kicked off her comic strip like an old can of beans, and now the
ducks, Quackers and Waddles, are holding elections to become the featured
character in the Soapy the Chicken
strip. Where is Bubonic the Rat when Soapy needs him? Or Frog the Frog? Well,
thanks to Soapy's extravagance, a collections agent has collared Bubonic— for
Soapy's debts. And Frog, last anyone heard, was tumbling down the alimentary
canal of Quackers the Duck, ingested by said duck to silence his protests over
It’s not easy being a cartoon
strip character. If Soapy's looking for counsel or resurrection, she can do
better than a therapist's couch. Much better. She can go straight to the source
of creation, to Steven Stwalley, the man behind the drawing board and the agent
of Soapy's demise. But Stwalley, who by day works as an interactive developer
and animator for the Minneapolis ad agency OLSON, can't be reached for comment.
He's got a full plate, what with work, family and a slew of extracurricular
cartooning activities that—sorry, Soap—take precedence over the minor agonies
of his comic characters. Busy, busy, busy. That's the life of a modern-day
cartoonist. So, Soapy, you'll just have to lump it.
Stwalley's story begins in Iowa
City, Iowa, where he was born in 1970. His father had a collection of Walt
Disney comics he'd collected as a boy, which he passed down to his son. In his
twenties, Stwalley moved to Minneapolis to attend the Art Institute, and
incidentally to leave an impression on the school's library.
"I was working as a
librarian at the Art Institute when I was going to school there," says
Stwalley. "It was a great job because I got to stock the whole library
with comic books because they needed to buy books. The librarian let me decide
what to order. So I basically helped them buy this incredible collection of
Stwalley remained in Minneapolis
after graduation, and, having drawn cartoons since he was a boy, wanted to
connect with other cartoonists. But how? Stwalley conceived the idea for the
Cartoonist Conspiracy, a group of cartoonists who would meet every month to
hang out and draw cartoons. He posted fliers all over the Twin Cities. Eight
cartoonists showed up to the first meeting in 2002. Since then the Conspiracy
has gone international—reflected in its name, the International Cartoonist
Conspiracy—with cells in cities across the United States and abroad.
In Minnesota, the Conspiracy
meets once a month in Minneapolis and once in St. Paul. Altered Aesthetics, a
gallery in Northeast Minneapolis, regularly exhibits members' artwork; and
every year, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts hosts the Conspiracy's 24-Hour
Comics Day. The point of the 24-Hour Comics Day is for cartoonists to gather en
masse and then individually crank out a comic in 24 hours. Some produce a comic
in less time; others take the entire 24 hours.
The Conspiracy has developed an
infrastructure for local cartoonist activities and networking, and has
encouraged more cartooning work from its members. Minnesota cartoonist Kevin
Cannon produced his first graphic novel, Far
Arden, with nudging from fellow conspirators. "Kevin would produce
these amazing comics at 24-Hour Comics Day that were basically better than what
some cartoonists made spending a whole lifetime at it," Stwalley says.
Cannon remembers the 24-Hour
Comics Day that Stwalley posed the following challenge: "'Hey, Kevin, why
don't you one of these days every month for an entire year, but have each
24-hour session be a chapter of a longer book?'" Cannon took the
challenge. He sat down for 24 hours each month and drew.
"After a long 16-hour
sleep, after the fourth marathon, I woke up and my right arm was numb,"
Cannon says. "I was like, Oh god, if
this is how it's going to turn out I'm not going to do these marathons anymore."
He ended up finishing the book but without the marathons. His graphic novel, Far Arden, was published by Top Shelf in
Encouraged by Cannon's success,
Stwalley and a few other conspirators undertook what they're calling the
288-Hour Graphic Novel Challenge. Stwalley hasn't finished his, Ezekial Fishman Versus the Martians, but
he's been posting finished pages online. The book features train-riding hoboes,
Martians, cops and zombies.
Stwalley originated his webcomic
Soapy the Chicken in 2005. His
process is to sit down and draw without a preconceived plan for the comic.
"Usually by the time I reach the last panel, I've figured out what I
wanted to say," says Stwalley. By the last panel, too, one character at
least has landed in hot water. Stwalley is merciless. Soapy dies only to be
cloned and sold as processed chicken meat at a chain of fast-food joints.
Bubonic the Rat, Soapy's devoted sidekick, goes missing, so Management's hires
a temp, Frog the Frog, to fill the position.
Frog makes a great temp worker.
He shows up for work, one point in his favor, and he does what he's supposed to
do: he looks for Soapy. Because you can't be a supporting cast member without a
lead character. But Frog can't take the stress. His amphibian nerves crack. He
seeks the end of a rope, a warm bath with toaster, a bottomless pit.
"A lot of my favorite comic
strips feature animal characters, and it's definitely a tradition in comic
strips to use animal characters," Stwalley says. Carl Barks's Uncle Scrooge comics for Walt Disney and
George Herriman's Krazy Kat were
particularly influential. Stwalley illustrates very human, if not exaggerated,
foibles through his cartoon characters: greed, power mongering, drunkenness,
addiction, loss and misplaced love. "Soapy loves this can of beans,"
explains the cartoonist, "and Frog loves Soapy. But the can of beans is
not reciprocating anyone's love."
Stwalley posts his Soapy the Chicken comic strips on the
web. He is also working on an illustrated children's book, The Most Delicious Cookies in the World.
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