You read the life of comic book heroes and villains all the time, but what about the people who create them? You think you know what comic creators are like in real life? You only know the half of it.
In the newly relaunched series Minimum Wage, writer/artist Bob Fingerman documents the life of an up-and-coming comic creator who is transitioning from a life as a starving indie cartoonist into the bright lights and big dreams of work in the superhero mainstream. Fingerman himself has lived the life of a comics creator and worked with virtually all of the publishers (both superhero and independent), and the stories in this recently relaunched Image series are filled with true stories, backstage gossip and Fingerman’s imagination to create a fictional view of being a working comics creator that is brutal, heartening and humorous.
With Minimum Wage #2 going on sale February 5, Newsarama talked with Fingerman by phone about this new era and the return to his signature slice-of-life series, and explored the cartoonist’s thoughts about working in comics, about returning to his semi-autiobiographical character of Rob, and pushing Rob away from Fingerman’s own personal story to explore a broader and rockier life.
Newsarama: Bob, what’s it like to be back on Minimum Wage and in the thick of it?
Bob Fingerman: Well, it’s interesting being on a monthly schedule as it were; the original run of Minimum Wage was much more sporadic. With this new series, there’s much more a sense of deadlines, which is all to the good. It keeps me in that frame of mind all of the time, and it’s interesting focusing so intently on these characters.
Nrama: And at what point in doing it again did it stop being new and feel like you were back at home?
Fingerman: That’s a good question. At this point I feel pretty comfortable drawing the old gang again. People have read the first issue and can see that it’s a very different looking book than the way it was before. Even though the old gang is there, artistically it’s a new approach; I draw very differently than I used to. I kind of redesigned all of the characters to a greater and lesser degree. So it’d been a matter of getting comfortable drawing them the way I draw now.
Nrama: Getting into the book itself, it shows your character Rob a newly minted divorcee trying to carve out a life for himself. You’ve said before you’re using this new run and the time since the last to break Rob away from being strictly a fictional version of you into something even more fictional for storytelling. So how’d you decide where to place him as this series opens?
Fingerman: Again, that’s a good question and I don’t have an easy answer.
I didn’t want to jump too far ahead with the new Minimum Wage because, in essence, it’s still intended to be a story about a young man. I didn’t want to push him too far ahead; if I made him in his mid-30s rather than his mid-20s, which he is now, it’d be too different. He’s still young and trying to find his way in life,
Speaking to the other point, Minimum Wage was quasi-autobiographical in its original run, and that can be very limiting. With this new series I’m allowing Rob to go down a different path, but if I do my job people who don’t know me won’t be able to tell the difference. There’s still plenty of stuff based on my experience, but alongside stuff created out of whole cloth. This new approach opens things up a bit.
Minimum Wage would not be able to go as long as I want if I was just mining my own life. At a certain point, even with fictionalizing it, I don’t want to share certain aspects of my life; particularly my present life. I’m a middle-aged married guy, but Minimum Wage is the story of a young single guy. So it’s me looking back at my own life experiences, but also extrapolating that to Rob having his own life. That’s where I, as a writer of fiction, have to be able to keep it feeling real without necessarily being real.
Nrama: One of the meaty parts of this new series some mainstream superhero fans will enjoy is seeing Rob venture into working as a comic creator in superhero comics. You had a dalliance with that, but it looks like Rob is attempting to go all in. What took you and him down this path?
Fingerman: Well, it’s not ideally what Rob wants to do, but it’s a compromise. This is a character that pretty much has to compromise his artistic goals to pay the bills. It’s something most people do, myself included. This is a guy who was pursuing being a comic artist as his career, but to make a living he has to put what he really wants to do on the back burner over and over again.
In Minimum Wage, he’ll be working on this mainstream franchise book; on one hand, it’s a great opportunity as it helps him make a living, but he’s also paying his dues. Successfully working in a creative field is kind of a privilege, and it’s a privilege that has its own costs.
Nrama: Sounds like Rob isn’t 100% happy; is it easier or harder to write Rob when he’s disgruntled?
Fingerman: Rob is a character who is more fun to write when he’s frustrated than when he’s happy. He might laugh here and there, but the disappointment and frustration is there.
No one wants to write about someone pretty content with his life; it’s pretty boring. That’s another reason why continuing to base Minimum Wage on my life would have been wrong; I must say I’m pretty content. I have a great marriage. I live in a nice place. If I was writing Rob at this stage he might feel good, but readers –and I – wouldn’t.
Nrama: But Rob’s looking for happiness, namely in the online dating scene.
Fingerman: Yes. It seems like, even in 2000 when this is set, computer dating was already going strong. Not as big as it is now, but it was there and it’s an ideal place for Rob to kind of throw his hat back in the ring. One of the things I wanted to explore is the idea of a single guy in the profession of comics. Meeting women’s not so easy when you work alone at home. But online dating definitely opens up a Pandora’s Box.
Nrama: For readers of the previous Minimum Wage series, Sylvia was a memorable part of the book. It’s always been Rob’s book, but will we see any old characters from the previous comics —or potentially Sylvia – at some point?
Fingerman: Pretty much the entire old gang is here, with the exception of Sylvia. I don’t want to say too much, though. Suffice it to say, you haven’t seen the last of her but I can’t elaborate any further.
But other than that, most of the old gang is back with Rob. But also new faces. Rob is working with different people. I do want to keep expanding the cast of the book; the deeper he gets into doing mainstream comics, the more interesting characters can come up and I definitely want to explore being part of that world.
Nrama: I was somewhat surprised when I read the first issue of Minimum Wage and saw it wasn’t just black & white. Part of me sees you as an ardent B&W comix (with an X) fan; is it a big deal for you to go to color?
Fingerman: It’s a big deal for me as it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s not full-color but one-color; a lot of European comics employ this technique, as do Daniel Clowes and Darwyn Cooke to great effect. It’s something I’ve always liked the look of; it adds a little extra dimension to the work. Like I said it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while and with Image I’ve been able to do everything I want.
Nrama: We touched on this briefly earlier, but I have to ask about this new Minimum Wage being more fictional and separating Rob from Bob. What’s that like for you with people you know who read the book? Could your friends and family be confused about how Rob’s new stories could veer show sharply from how you turned out?
Fingerman: Well, we’ll see. I can’t answer that just yet. I’m probably doing the job somewhat well because something I wrote in the third issue made my wife ask, “Did you actually do that?” If she doesn’t know, and she’s been with me for 20 years, I must be crafting pretty good fiction here.
Nrama: In Minimum Wage #1, at one point Rob is reading a Philip K. Dick novel and comments “Alternative realities don’t sound so bad. I think I’d rather live in Dick’s shitty reality than this one.” Is there any part of you that would rather live in your Minimum Wage reality than the real one, sometimes?
Fingerman: Rob’s reality? Absolutely not. I have had that thought about Philip K. Dick’s universe, though. As messed up as things are, he does create fascinating worlds. But I absolutely do not yearn for anything Rob is going through here.
Nrama: Although he’s going his own way, on some level Rob is still you – or was you, in a way. Do you feel at all masochistic about putting Rob through the paces so much?
Fingerman: It has to be balanced. Few want to write or read about a completely miserable character. Rob has good days and he has bad days. I think it really is all about the balance.
And I think that most writers are a little bit sadistic with their characters because it makes for a more compelling story. I don’t want to beat up on Rob in a way that seems unnatural because it might veer into melodrama or whatever. But it’s good to keep him constantly on his toes. He can’t get too comfortable. It wouldn’t be compelling to read about and wouldn’t be compelling to write. When I think of Minimum Wage, I see the final ending point to be where Rob is finally happy; that’s the end of the book.