Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our continuing look at the best of the web! Today, we take a look at a hilarious all-ages strip about a little boy with a…unique way of seeing the world.
Meet Max, who is an ACTOR! in the Master Thespian sense. Max sees everyone and everything in his world as part of his sweeping drama, and tries to draw everyone into it – from his parents to his unrequited love Janet to his older sister Andromeda. He can drive you crazy, but there’s plenty of fun when Max Overacts, which you can read at www.occasionalcomics.com.
We got up with Caanan Grall, author of the Eisner-nominated strip, and previously the author of the DC Zuda webcomic Celadore. Grall talked with us about his inspiration for Max, the challenges of doing a webcomic, and what the future has in store for our young dramatist.Newsarama: Caanan, the strip just celebrated its second anniversary, so congratulations! What’s the experience been like over the last two years?
Caanan Grall: It’s been an exhausting ride, for one thing. I was reluctant to do a webcomic to begin with, because I’m not a big fan of putting stuff out there for free, but now that I have the book, I feel like I’m back on track.
That was sort of what the first two years were about, getting this book together. Money troubles are always in contention around our house, but my wife has a steady job, so she brings home the bacon and lets me play around a little bit, which is an excellent situation if you’re a cartoonist. But it can’t go on forever.
Nrama: You’ve gotten an Eisner nomination and put out a collection – what’s been the most interesting reaction you’ve gotten to the strip so far?
Grall: The Eisner was probably the biggest surprise, and a nice one. That gave me a sort of validation, and a slight bump in traffic, though it went back to normal afterwards. It’s nice to hear from other comic-makers and fans, too – I’ve got a small-but-loyal following, I guess, and that keeps me going!
Kurt Busiek came out and said he bought a copy of the book, and even Tweeted during the Indiegogo campaign, which gave me a nice bump in pledges – and in the end I made about $8,000 out of a $14,000 target, which was enough to get 2,000 copies of the book made – though not enough to send them out! So I’m still scrambling to do that. Only a dozen left!Nrama: You’ve worked in illustration a bit, and proposed some print comic strips before doing Max – how is that experience of pitching for print different from doing it for the web?
Grall: You get to play with the form a bit – if I were doing it in a newspaper, it’d be 3-4 panels with a punchline, I guess. But doing it in the Sunday format every time, you can have several punchlines, and a more conversational tone, I think, than the classic format. Max probably wouldn’t survive in that classic format – like all newspaper comics, it’d be shrunk down and hard to read.
And there’s been some jokes I couldn’t have gotten away with in a newspaper. There’s the third or so strip when Max makes a joke about “lipstick and angry sex” – that wouldn’t have gotten into a newspaper.
Nrama: I was thinking that was a bit edgier than you’d expect with the strip’s look and subject matter when I read that.
Grall: Yeah, that’s my litmus test. I can show that one to parents and go, “If you’re okay with this, then you’ll have no trouble with the rest of the book.” That’s as bad as it ever gets.
Nrama: How’d you initially conceive the character of Max?Grall: He was born out of everyone calling me quiet – especially when I was working at an ad agency, where everyone is kind of working to be the loudest one in the room. The idea was initially a short story where everyone tells Max he’s too quiet, so he rebels against that, and he winds up getting a role in a movie production by being loud and overacting, and eventually he gets to the point of being so obnoxious he sickens himself, then just shuts right back down again. He gets fired from the movie and his parents lose all this money they’d already spent and sort of teaches them all a lesson that it’s okay to be quiet and not going around being loud all over the place.
So it was kind of a moralistic fable to begin with, but then I noticed that it had a lot more legs as a strip than as a single comics story.
Nrama: How much is drawn from your own childhood experiences, or what is the biggest trick you’ve found for writing child characters?
Grall: Yeah, it’s drawn from childhood experiences, but it’s nothing like how I was as a kid. (laughs) I just think back to how I was, and have Max do the exact opposite. I was a shy kid – I hated standing up in front of the class, and doing public speaking, and I still do. He’s very much the kid I wish I had been, I suppose.
Nrama: Did you have any favorite comic strips as a kid, and was Calvin an influence?
Grall: I didn’t read Calvin and Hobbes until I was about 15, because it was never in the papers in Australia, it wasn’t a big deal there. I didn’t find it until the seventh or eighth book collection had come out, but after reading that I went back to the first collection and just devoured them.
But it wasn’t a major influence growing up – I read Peanuts and Harvey Comics and Disney stuff, but definitely when I found Calvin and Hobbes it changed the way I viewed strips. But I try to do some things differently than Calvin and Hobbes.
One thing is a lot of people picked up on the visual representation of imagination, which is great, but I try to stay away from it, keeping everything as realistic as possible to show people’s reactions to Max and Max’s reactions to them. But Peanuts has always been the biggest influence.Nrama: You’ve done some longer stories in the strip and on your site – would you ever consider doing a full-length Max graphic novel or hard-copy series?
Grall: There are some stories coming up that may require a format change – I might have to jump out of that gag-a-day structure that I’ve given myself to do fuller stories. I think the story coming up where Max goes to summer camp may require different tactics. And there’s stories from the strip’s past that I’d like to do as long-form stories, such as how his parents met and the circumstances of Max’s birth.
And down the line – because Max is going to age and go into junior high and high school – there’s room for anything.
Nrama: How long do you see the strip running, and how did you come to the decision to have Max age?
Grall: I think it’s just a matter of me maybe having a bit of ADHD when it comes to my concepts. Having Max age gives me range to do things differently as time goes on. If he just stays at a young age and never ages, it might get boring, and I’ll always be itching to do something new and leave it all behind.
But having Max and all the other characters age allows for so many more story possibilities that it will be easy to stay in the same universe and not disappoint tons of readers by flaking out when my interest wanes. I could see doing this for 20 years and it will probably stop when he reaches the end of high school. But he’s a slow-aging kid, and it takes a few years for a year to pass in the strip.
Nrama: What comics are you currently reading, online and off?Grall: I’m not reading a lot of webcomics, actually, or “regular” comics – my funds are pretty low right now, so I’m not buying a lot of stuff, and I don’t have a lot of time to read stuff online. You start reading one, and you just get sucked in!
But I read The Hero Business by Bill Walko and Cleopatra in Space by Mike Maihack, and I was reading The Adventures of Superhero Girl by Faith Erin Hicks, but that’s on hiatus now. I just discovered Marooned recently, and I also enjoy Rigby the Barbarian, which recently relaunched.
When I do get to buy actual comics, I get Snarked, Ultimate Spider-Man, Reed Gunther, and just discovered Takio! I’ll usually try and buy new things rather than settle in to habits.
Nrama: This is something I’ve asked about everyone I’ve interviewed on webcomics – what do you think of the opportunities opened up by new delivery systems such as iPads and smartphones, and what can creators and companies do to take advantage of these possibilities?
Grall: Definitely it seems like a way to make some money, as opposed to just putting your stuff up online for free, though you probably have to learn the technology to translate your material to those formats. I don’t know about other artists but technological stuff like that always looks like a daunting task.
If you’re going that route though, I feel the best way to do it is to have your app at one price, like six dollars for a lifetime membership, rather than pay a small amount per issue. Hopefully that means, through word of mouth, you might end up with a million readers within your first year, and six million dollars in a year sounds alright to me.
But I don’t know anything about that stuff – I’m still camping in book territory. I always wanted to have that book! I don’t know much about tablets – I don’t even have an iPhone. I’m not exactly technophobic, but I just don’t see the value in having one yet.
I definitely see it as worthwhile if you have a lot of stuff, though, because we’ve moved recently from one side of Canada to the other and books are the worst thing to move! (laughs)
Nrama: How do you feel you’ve evolved as an artist and a writer since you started doing the strip?Grall: The biggest way is probably that before I was never a big reader of nonfiction, but I changed that a few years ago – rather than devour fiction like crazy, I started reading science magazines and nature magazines and branching out. I was that kid who would never stop talking about comics, but eventually I realised you have to be well-rounded, and I think that new material’s seeped into my work.
Nrama: What else are you currently working on?
Grall: Just Max at the moment. I may take a break sometime, so I’m developing a superhero idea for younger kids, that I might do sometime after the second or third Max book. It’ll be set in the real world and be about characters going out and using their powers to help ordinary people, but it’s still in the formative stages.
Nrama: Anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?
Grall: I really want to push the book – buy the book! Keep it going!
Max Overacts regularly at www.occasionalcomics.com.
Next: We take a trip back in time with the Hominids, followed by high adventure with Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant! And down the line: Free Mars, Feel Afraid, Sarah and the Seed and much more as Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics continues!