Brian Sendelbach’s comic strip Smell of Steve features a cast of characters who are insane even by the broad standards of comics. There’s President Carter and his alien advisor Kenny, Black Aquaman, Bigfoot, Sammy Hagar, and of course the motley crew of astronauts on a never-ending quest for the mythical Planet of Beer. Their harrowing journey forms the framing sequence for Dark Horse’s new collection Planet of Beer!: A Smell of Steve Treasury. Sendlebach talked with us about how this collection came about, his struggle to get it to readers, and answered some very stupid questions about the Planet of Beer.
Newsarama: Brian, describe the storied history of Smell of Steve, and how this archive came about.
Brian Sendelbach: Before I started Smell of Steve, I created a person in my head. Kind of a dumb person, very naïve, very “into” pop culture. Then I tried to write and draw the kind of comic strip that this person might write and draw.
It’s hard to explain, but it wasn’t really me. It was him…this other guy. I never even signed my name to the strip.
Anyway, Smell of Steve started out in The Stranger, a Seattle newspaper, but eventually began running in cities such as Portland, New York, Baltimore, and Miami. And in Vice magazine as well. And in TV Guide every once in a while.
As for how Dark Horse came to publish this collection: Mike Richardson called a little over a year ago and said, “We should do a collection of those strips of yours. It’ll make for some mind-blowing bathroom reading.” (Which is an in-joke, because I once took a nap in Mike’s bathtub.)
NRAMA: Tell our Newsarama readers of the damned souls they will find in its colorful pages.
BS: Well, there’s Black Aquaman, who is black. And there are other characters -- such as President Carter & Kenny, Bigfoot, Domu & the Dream Pig, and Bougle Gluce – who I made up, more or less.
And there are still other characters – Fonzie, Sammy Hagar, Nick Nolte, Henry Kissinger – who I kind of…borrowed…from pop culture. These characters wear flowery dresses, huge top hats, paper bags over their heads, and/or frequently run naked through the White House rose garden, but I’m not sure exactly why.
NRAMA: Relate, if you are willing, the tale of your epic battle against this horrific economy to bring this volume to an unsuspecting public.
BS: Apparently, the book sold poorly in pre-orders… in part probably because it’s a shitty economy…in part probably because Planet of Beer a difficult book to market.
After that, lots of stuff happened. SOSes were sent out. Friends posted on secret message boards. Friends posted on blogs. Fistfights were fistfighted. Armies clashed by moonlight. Alcohol was consumed.
And at last, bloody, beaten, and more drunk than I’ve ever been, I stumbled to the base of a very large tree and fell fast asleep for what turned out to be well over three months. By the time I awoke, Planet of Beer had been released. Also, I was sporting a long beard and had fathered another child.
NRAMA: Of all your characters, I have a peculiar fondness for "The Big Kids." How did they and their nicknames come about?
BS: My cousins and I had a club called The Big Kids, in which we chose the “big kid” names we wished we had (mine was “Barry”). And then we called each other by these names. That was pretty much the extent of the club.
NRAMA: Which of your characters proved the most popular, and why?
BS: None of my stuff has ever been ever popular in any sense of the word. But I always thought the Planet of Beer thing had a shot.
In fact, the PoB concept was once optioned by a celebrity, who wanted to use the idea for a Molson commercial. This celebrity had mostly been famous back in the ‘80s. I had dinner with him once, which was a little weird. Right in the middle of this Chevy Chase story he was telling, he accidentally spit a piece of salmon onto my lower lip. I don’t know why this detail has stuck with me.
NRAMA: Why did you go with the two-tiered Sunday-strip format? What was appealing to you about it?
BS: I liked reading the Sunday strips in the newspaper when I was a kid. The content usually sucked, but the pretty colors entranced me.
So with Smell of Steve, I tried to draw what appears on the surface to be a Sunday newspaper strip (pretty colors included)…but with content beamed in from some alternate universe. I suppose I took a childish and seemingly innocent form -- the Sunday comic strip -- and corrupted it to my own selfish ends.
NRAMA: Did DC ever give you trouble about "Black Aquaman?"
BS: Nope. At first, Dark Horse was afraid the DC lawyers would just pounce all over Black Aquaman. Before the book went to print, they “suggested” I change his name. So a friend of mine came up with Blaquaman, Aqua-Afro-Man, Black Underwater Man, and a bunch of others.
Eventually, Dark Horse’s lawyer stepped in and pointed out that Black Aquaman was protected under parody laws, so it was all for nothing.
NRAMA: For that matter, there's "Captain Americas of the World..."
BS: I’m actually surprised at what you can legally get away with.
NRAMA: How would Obama's presidency be unfolding differently if he had an alien advisor like Kenny? Would such an advisor have proven advantageous for Bush?
BS: Don’t all presidents get assigned alien advisors? I’m only half kidding here. I think a lot of evil in the world could be explained by the Alien Advisor Theory.
NRAMA: Why has Sammy Hagar proven such a popular character in your strip?
BS: Again, nothing I’ve done has ever been popular. Snoopy is popular. Calvin and Hobbes are popular. I love those characters, but everything in Smell of Steve is just conceptual art gone wrong.
As far as Sammy Hagar goes…I draw a dwarfish guy with a top hat and a big cigar and call him “Sammy Hagar.” Some people laugh at this -- and it’s supposed to be laughed at -- but I’m not sure exactly why.
NRAMA: How has your quest to earn his endorsement gone?
BS: Anticlimactic, thus far. But I’ve been pretty half-assed about it.
NRAMA: What are you doing next?
BS: Mostly I’m writing. I’m putting the wraps on a Stone Temple Pilots band biography for Random House. It’s called Profit From The Riddle, and it should be out by this time next year.
Also, I’m working on a science fiction novel for another publisher called Why Do I Wear The Mask?
And there’s always illustration work.
NRAMA: I’d like to close this out with a special bonus round I call, “Blindingly Stupid, Over-Thought Questions about the Planet of Beer.”
Describe the complex metaphor at the heart of the quest for the Planet of Beer.
BS: Oh man, I have no idea.
NRAMA: Do you believe in the Planet of Beer?
BS: Nah. I think it’s a stupid but potentially profitable idea. So far I’ve been proven only half right.
NRAMA: What kind of Beer is the Planet of Beer made of, or is it somehow made of different types of beer that co-exist simultaneously? What would be the physics behind such co-existence, and assuming such basic microbes are protazoans allowed for the evolution of life, what sort of life would come from these seas of beer?
BS: I don’t think I’m smart enough for this interview anymore.
Planet of Beer!: A Smell of Steve Treasury is in stores now.