Wally Gropius looks a bit like Archie Andrews, as drawn by Mort Walker and/or John Stanley, but his pocketbook and lifestyle more closely resembles that of Richie Rich or Scrooge McDuck.
None of that is an accident.
Cartoonist Tim Hensley created the ludicrously wealthy high schooler to star in a series of 1960s, teen humor style strips that ran in Mome. Though the light-hearted, brightly-colored designs and silly sense of humor suggested a gag strip, Wally Gropius is—beneath its surface—a smartly observed graphic novel about money and power.
Wally’s graduated from Mome serialization to his own book, wherein the “umpteen millionaire” is interviewed by a suspiciously old-looking hippie school newspaper reporter, struggles with his parents’ wishes that he marry the saddest girl in the world or lose his fortune and courts blonde bombshell and national anthem enthusiast Jillian Banks, all while overseeing his own celebrity empire and rocking out with his band the Dropouts, which consists of three identical-looking musicians named Fred, Red and Ed.
We took the opportunity to talk with Hensley about Wally Gropius (the character), Wally Gropius (the book) and Walter Gropius (the real-life architect whose name is one of the book’s running gags).
Newsarama: Can you tell us a little bit about the origin of the character, specifically how you decided that a teenage millionaire rock band leader celebrity was the sort of character you wanted to devote some time to?
Tim Hensley: This has been the FAQ I've had most in interviews so far, to the point where I feel like the guy being questioned in the box by the police, like, "Let's go over your story again." "But I tell you I don't know! I blacked out at my drawing table and woke up next to a gold ingot."
I read teenager comics when I was too young to know better and have reapproached them from a different bewildering age, I guess.
Nrama: Can you tell us a little bit about Wally’s head? How did its unusual shape come about? Actually, would you mind talking a bit about Wally’s character design in general? While Wally’s well dressed, especially compared to his bandmates, you didn’t go for many of the obvious signifiers of cartoon wealth, as you did with his parents.
Hensley: I thought it would be fun to do a serious graphic novel with a character whose head looks like an inverted curling stone. The main thing is the top of his head is inked with a straight edge, but the rest is subject to the inclination that arrives at its natural element over repetition. I can see why some cartoonists go back in and redraw their characters.
As far as his outfit, the ascot is probably the biggest signifier—though I'm no semiotician—of a kind of Thurston Howell affectation. The "W" patch on his sweater is supposed to suggest a simplified family crest.
A rule I followed was somewhere I read it was a good idea to use process colors on a main character's outfit to make them stand out. That's why Little Orphan Annie always wears a red dress, and Wally always sports a yellow sweater.
Nrama: You have a lot of fun riffing on gags about Wally’s enormous wealth in the some of the same ways that Richie Rich and Scrooge McDuck comics used to. I was wondering, do you think gazillionaire juveniles and/or ducks say anything to readers during times of economic strife like today that they may not have when times were relatively good?
Hensley: Well, it's not like those trapped in derivative mortgages are turning to Carl Barks and Harvey artist Ernie Colon for succor. When I started the story in 2005, I was reacting more to Bush's war money siphon, not predicting the bank collapse/executive bonus siphon we have now.
And actually none of the few rich people I know are anything like Wally; they have much different problems as far as I can tell. I did read yesterday Russell Brand will be starring in a remake of Arthur, so evidently the idea of this sort of character has currency (groan).
Nrama: Do you think having all of the Wally strips between two covers like this transforms them very much from how they might have read when originally serialized? Do you think compiling them like this causes them to lose anything?
Hensley: Overall, I'm much happier with the book; the art looks much better larger. I miss the interaction with the other cartoonists in Mome though. I broke things up into chapters, and when they were serialized it was interesting seeing how they blended with other work.
I hope people reading it all at once will realize there is actually a story, because that seemed to be a criticism I got when it was first appearing.
Nrama: Part of the fun of the book—for me, anyway—was spotting the various influences behind various elements of it. I wanted to ask you about how things like old Richie Rich or Archie comics influenced you. Had you long ago digested these and sort of distilled them into the style you were using when drawing these pages, or would you consciously think, “Now I’m going to draw Wally all beat-up. I’ll do it Mort Walker style”…?
Hensley: The latter. This book is really drawn in a style much more than it is something internalized or off the top of my head.
Nrama The release seems somewhat well timed in that many of the sorts of comics that Wally Gropius draws inspiration from are getting new audiences thanks to ambitious reprint programs from different publishers. Do you think Wally Gropius will read differently to someone who may be coming to it after reading, say, Drawn and Quarterly’s John Stanley Library books and Dark Horse’s Harvey collections, as opposed to how it might have been received say, five years ago? That is, how necessary do you feel it is to appreciate the types of comics Wally Gropius evokes to appreciate Wally Gropius?
Hensley: Hopefully unnecessary. There's a lot of "in" jokes though. I can't afford the John Stanley books, so I just have an issue of Melvin Monster and a few Thirteens. I read the article by Seth about Stanley in The Comics Journal when it came out, and the appeal was that the comics were hard to track down, and I found I had more fun imagining what they'd be like than I did when I actually read them. That's sort of been the key to my approach.
Nrama: I don’t want to give readers the impression that this is merely a pastiche of old kids humor comics. The story you’re telling certainly takes some decidedly adult turns, and you seem more interested in evoking those old comics than recreating them. Do you think that style or mode of comics offer storytelling possibilities that a creator wouldn’t be able to find if they worked in a different style?
Hensley: I feel like some people might be aghast about the idea of a comic intentionally drawn in a particular style. Some prefer a one-to-one correspondence of sincerity that is immediately apparent and unpremeditated.
Over the last few years, some cartoonists have returned to ironic unironic genre though, as many as have rejected referring to old comics at all and turned to, I don't know, Cy Twombly. As with many things, you have to take it on a case-by-case basis. I actually think style has the greater potential for dreariness.
Nrama: One of the running gags of the book is that Wally Gropius is always being mistaken for Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus architect, and I find it particularly hilarious that he shares a name with someone fairly obscure, and yet everyone in the comic seems to be extremely familiar with Walter Gropius. At the risk of deconstructing a joke too far, I’m curious as to how you arrived at Walter Gropius as the source of the famous name your lead character would have?
Hensley: Yes, the idea was to have someone obscure enough and then try to find a lot of details the other characters would be intimately familiar with. But I just grabbed details from an encyclopedia. Since I completed the book, I checked out a book about the Bauhaus movement from the library and discovered Walter Gropius had a complicated love life of his own, but it was just as well to think of him as being nothing more than a repository of dates and significant events.
Nrama: What do you think the Dropouts sound like?
Hensley: Maybe an all-male version of the Shaggs, just as Bell Biv Devoe were the gender complement to TLC, or completely silent pantomime.
Nrama: You recently told the LA Times that this is probably the end of your Wally Gropius comics. Will it be hard to shut-off that part of your brain that, say, thinks of cool money-related sound effects or rich teenager gags?
Hensley: Oh, not at all. I felt like I was scraping the barrel bottom at the end trying not to repeat myself. I'd be, like, "OK, I've done an ATM, a treasure chest, a cash register, a piggy bank, the NASDAQ logo—what else is there?"
One joke I couldn't shoehorn in was "That Milken Boy" instead of "That Wilkin Boy," referring to Michael Milken, the junk bonder and philanthropist, and an Archie spinoff title. This afternoon, that just seems a ludicrous stretch.
Nrama: You draw a great Huey Lewis. Any chance your next book will feature Huey Lewis as its protagonist? If not, can you tell us what you’re working on next, even if only in general or vague terms?
Hensely: One of the things I would do differently if I was writing this story today is I would replace Huey Lewis with a fictionalized celebrity, like how Charlie Brown was obsessed with Joe Shlabotnik.
But right now I'm working in slow motion on a few Alfred Hitchcock strips to keep myself occupied until the turbulence of this book release blows over. After that, I'll try to write another one. Maybe a fictional "graphic memoir," since by the time I finish writing it all the heat from that term will likely have long since dissipated.