Black Friday is the biggest retail spending day of the year, and former comic book retailer Andrew Neal is giving a humorous take on it in a new webcomic series titled Teenage Gender Neutral Turtles.
Mixing Jingle All The Way with a modern appraisal of mass consumerism, Teenage Gender Neutral Turtles is a story of a father looking to acquire certain toys for his children and his own budding dad-blog. Along the way, the webcomic explores what happens when political correctness, Black Friday, the Internet and fame-seeking all collide.
Or possibly just turtles. Without gender.
Adding to the randomness of this is that it’s the first extended comic book story from Andrew Neal, a longtime comics retailer who received widespread acclaim for his running of the indy-friendly shop Chapel Hill Comics before retiring in 2014. We spoke to Neal about these turtles, what he’s been up to, his turn to creating comics, and how this all ties into Saturday’s Local Comic Shop Day.
Newsarama: Andrew, who are these Teenage Gender Neutral Turtles? And does it even matter?
Andrew Neal: Their names are Aubrey, Bailey, Pat, and Jesse. They're turtles who never judge each other's interests based on whether they easily fit into a heteronormative gender role. They're also the heavily-merchandised stars of the hit television show, Teenage Gender Neutral Turtles. Their likenesses grace action figures, video games, breakfast cereals, and t-shirts in various fits for both kids and adults!
Nrama: How did you come up with this?
Neal: For the past few years, I have noticed a growing amount of news stories, think pieces, and blog posts in which people express their concerns about mass-produced corporate properties for children being too tied to societal gender norms.
For example, there have been heated discussions about Target removing gendered signage from its kids' sections, as well as blog posts and listicles in which parents are praised for buying their young boy a My Little Pony or Jem instead of a G.I. Joe or Transformer.
I absolutely agree that we should be more accepting as a society of people who don't fit into simple binary gender norms, but I am struck that every time this discussion comes up, it revolves around mass-produced corporate properties, many of which are owned by the same few conglomerates. For example, all the toys I listed above are Hasbro Properties.
I was thinking about this, and the idea of gender neutral toys, when the name “Teenage Gender Neutral Turtles” popped into my mind, and within a couple days, I started to imagine a story I could tell around that title.
Nrama: This touches on many important aspects of life, the universe, and everything. What deeper spiritual point do you hope to make with this saga?
Neal: I would like people to think about the dangers of defining yourself by which multi-million dollar property they consume, but that's far from the only thing this comic is going to be about.
I'll also talk about other hot topics in just as oblique and ridiculous way as I talk about this. Mostly, however, it's going to have a lot of jokes in it. Some of them are light and silly, and some are deeply cynical. Some will be very broad, and a few that I have come up with are so specific that if one person tells me they thought it was funny, I'll be thrilled.
Nrama: And where do things go from this initial installment?
Neal: I have the next two installments planned out, and I think I can say this without spoiling anything: Things go up, then they go down.
Nrama:Why are you releasing the story this way?
Neal: I'm releasing the story online because I think it's the best way to get it out there. I have a lot of experience in the comics industry, but not as a creator, so hunting for a publisher for a comic I haven't created yet is probably not going to work.
As far as self-publishing, putting the comic out online is cheaper and faster than printing paper editions. If it goes over well, there might be print editions later. Who knows?
As far as why I'm going to drop big chunks of story as I am able rather than putting out a page or two a week like many other webcomics, it's down to taste. I hate reading comics one or two pages at a time unless they are made to be consumed that way.
Two webcomics which update with chunks I enjoy reading are Ed Piskor's Hip Hop Family Tree, and Jen Lee's Thunderpaw. I know Ed, and have never spoken to Jen, but they both do fantastic comics, and they release them online in well-paced chunks which I find satisfying to read.
Nrama: You came from retailing, and did well at it. But you've been off the radar and mostly tweeting since you retired. What all have you been up to, and what made you want to do this as your first big, highly-public, '80s-homaging story as a creator?
Neal: After I sold the store last year, I helped my wife Vanessa clean up the mess I had made in the house over the course of the eleven years I had owned the store. I rebuilt our deck, I read a lot of books, and I brushed the cat every day.
I also retaught myself how to draw, and started taking on design and illustration jobs. I've gotten a good amount of work within the comic book industry doing logo design. In fact, I designed the logo for Local Comic Shop Day, which will appear on all the LCSD comics which will be released this Saturday.
I've also been working on numerous creative projects. I have plans, notes, and early drafts for several comic and prose stories. I'm three drafts into a short story right now. I also recently released a short comic about cats and ghosts which has developed a sizable audience (1500 notes) on Tumblr.
As far as why I'm putting Teenage Gender Neutral Turtles out there as an ongoing, potentially long-form project, the main reason is that the subject matter, the tone, and the art style I'm using are conducive to figuring out most of the story as I go. I don't need to have the entirety of the story worked out ahead of time. I know some of the points I want to hit, but I'm not sure how I'll get there yet.
Nrama: What's the best advice you've gotten from other creators in putting this together?
Neal: Ha! I didn't tell anyone I was doing this until this week, so I got no direct advice.
However, I think I have absorbed a lot of lessons in my time in comics. Here's one of them: I know that some time in the last year, Jason Latour posted online that making comics is about letting yourself make individual drawings that aren't perfect because the storytelling is more important. I'm paraphrasing the hell out of what he said, because I can't find it among the ten million other nuggets of comic-dad advice he's rattled off, but I was absolutely inspired by the message.
Nrama:What are some other stories you want to tell?
Neal: I have a stack of ideas and plans. There's no childhood idea or dream that I need to make into something. I have a pretty big range, I think. That cat and ghost comic is very sincere and sentimental, but Teenage Gender Neutral Turtles has some pretty cynical ideas at its base that will hopefully be leavened with humor.
Nrama: Name your most favoritest '80s property/characters, i.e. cartoons, toys, etc. Bonus points for obscurity and weirdness.
Neal: I mostly had books instead of toys. Most 80's properties I enjoyed were comic related. Bloom County was a big one. There were TV shows I watched, but they weren't out of love as much as because we got two channels.
I loved reading Matt Groening's Life in Hell and Lynda Barry's Ernie Pook's Comeek in the local newsweekly, and was probably one of the only kids in high school who knew Bongo before he knew Bart Simpson.
Nrama: What are some creators/books you'd like to recommend?
Neal: Off the top of my head, my favorite comics this year have been Super Mutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki, Southern Bastards by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour, and Space Riders by Alexis Ziritt and Fabian Rangel Jr.
Nrama: Coming full circle, why should people try Teenage Gender Neutral Turtles?
Neal: Teenage Gender Neutral Turtles is going to be a huge comic sensation. You need to get in right now so you can say that you were there before I sold out and signed the papers to start the mass-production of TGNT toys. You can't buy indie cred like that. Also, it's free to read!