In early 2018, 12 February specifically, musician and comics artist Tommy Siegel embarked on an artistic project to create 500 comics over 500 days. He borrowed the original 365 days of comics idea from another cartoonist, Brandon Reese, eventually extending it and successfully posting a comic across social media for each of the days.
As it so happened, notables like Ringo Starr, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Mark Hamill, came across and amplified Siegel’s work, eventually leading to literary representation and a book deal with Andrews McMeel. The culmination of the challenge is Siegel’s new book, I Hope This Helps: Comics and Cures for 21st Century Panic, described as “an illustrated guide to the absurdities of our phone-obsessed modern life from one of the sharpest wits in webcomics.”
Whereas cartooning is an extension of Siegel’s musical career (he is one third of power pop trio Jukebox the Ghost and part of other musical projects like rock band Narc Twain), many songs he has written possess an apocalyptic sensibility. It’s no surprise that those tastes crossed over — Siegel was often doodling in the van while the band was on the road. His comics offer a variety of humor, from simply punny to satire to absurd, and tackle a wide range of topics, from social commentary to political agitation.
I Hope this Helps is dotted with Siegel’s lightly critical essays on social media, making the book a visual complement to other efforts that address our obsessive and compulsive relationship with social media. And it has more weirdos and more butts (than those “other books”, not social media). Ahead of publication date, Siegel spoke with PopMatters about the book, discussed some of his favorite comics, and teased a forthcoming Valentine’s Day book.
Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash
What did you learn, as an artist, from your 500 Days of Comics challenge?
Part of the reason I jumped into the 500 Days of Comics challenge was because I didn’t feel like my art was up to snuff. I knew that it was something I enjoyed casually, but I also knew it wasn’t where I wanted it to be in skill level. I thought doing something like that might force me to learn how to do it on a technical level.
Also, on a creative level, I’d been doing exclusively requests for drawings for fans of the band for so long that I didn’t really know what I wanted to draw, personally. Forcing myself to do something every day was a way to turn on the faucet a little bit and see if there was anything in there, like if I had any ideas for comics.
The difference was massive, even in the first few months. At first, I was just getting better at drawing, but I was drawing everything on paper still and scanning it in, coloring it and doing stuff after the fact. Then I got an iPad and I was basically finger painting on an iPad for months. I finally invested in an iPad Pro, Procreate, and Apple Pencil. That changed everything because it feels like drawing.
From about nine months into the project, I’ve had the same workflow ever since. Digital art was really hard for me to wrap my head around until I got an iPad.
Did you go from black and white to color or was there always color, but then the ease of digital allowed more use of color?
It was so convoluted, at first. It was all black and white but then, probably a couple of months in, I started scanning in my line drawings and then in Photoshop, removing all the white space, putting my line drawings on another empty layer, creating a color layer, and then coloring it in with my touchpad mouse. That’s how I was coloring it for a little while, which I pretty quickly realized was insane. [chuckles]
Your comics vary in subject matter. Do you consider anything off-limits or did you have any self imposed limitations?
No, I don’t consider anything off limits but I try to make sure that my comics aren’t mean. It can be tempting to take humor into bullying places. I usually find that anytime a comic even verges on that territory, I start feeling not great about it. It’s a fine art but I feel like I’m always trying to balance being funny and raunchy, and surprising with still trying to make sure my comics have a sweet backbone to it. That’s tough to balance, I don’t always achieve that.
During the [original] challenge, you were getting feedback from friends, maybe bandmates, and whoever else. Now, you’re doing a 30-day challenge. Are you still getting feedback from other people or are you pretty comfortable finding the balance between mean and humor?
Yes, I’m much more comfortable on my own. Now, I feel like I understand how jokes are written, which is something I really didn’t understand when I was starting it out. I was doing a lot of cartoons that have a lot of bullet points — I was just throwing the kitchen sink at it and hoping one or two of them was funny. I feel like I have a keener sense of what a punchline is and how it works, but I’m still sending all my comics to a brain trust of friends who are willing to give me honest feedback.
Do you ever put Easter eggs into your comics for your brain trust — or a side gag?
Sometimes, it’s a little bit of that. I’ll draw somebody to reference a specific person that I’m paying homage to or something like that. Usually, it’s more just like, if a comic allows me to be super-niche, it becomes an in-joke with that friend.
Recently, I was working on a candy hearts comic, where it was two candy hearts going to a Phish show. That just felt like an in-joke with me and my friend, Aaron. We were bouncing back and forth with ideas. Hopefully, people will get it but, to me, the funniest part of the joke is the part that only my friend Aaron and I will understand.
(courtesy of Andrews McMeel)
Going back to the idea of text, some of your comics have captions. That reminded me of Gary Larson’s The Far Side. What are some of your influences as a comic artist?
It’s funny because I feel like I’ve gotten back into comics. They left my life for a long time.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with comics, primarily, comic strips. I definitely wasn’t with the cool-kid comic book crowd. I was very much a comic strip kid, which is a lonely club to be in, but I was hardcore into comic strips. The big two for me were [Bill Watterson’s] Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. I was the perfect age for both of them.
I was running out to get the paper every morning, so excited to read both of those comics, and then was devastated when I was 11, I think, when they both left the paper the same year. I think Far Side [disappeared] a little earlier in 1995, and then Calvin and Hobbes in winter 1995, but I was just devastated.
It’s still amazing to me that both of those guys, they’re like the J.D. Salingers of comics or something. They were at the top of their game and they just vanished. I don’t know. More power to them for recognizing that they felt like they’d done what they wanted to do, but, wow, it’s amazing to step away from.
I also liked a lot of older comics and got pretty into the nerdiness of exploring comic strips from before my time, like [George Herriman’s] Krazy Katrazy Kat and [Walt Kelly’s] Pogo. I was into [Charles Schulz’s] Peanuts and [Garry Trudeau’s] Doonesbury. Another one I really loved, the actual comic book that I used to pick up was Jeff Smith’s Bone series, which apparently they’re making into a Netflix animated series. That’s a really amazing comic book series
(courtesy of Andrews McMeel)
In the book you include a comic that mentions “panic-scrolling”. But there is a Washington Post article where you’re referenced for a comic you did about “doom-scrolling”. How did it go from “panic” to “doom”?
Just two different comics. A year and a half ago, I did a comic about the right scrolling endlessly on the rectangle of depression, I think I call it. It’s the first comic in the book. Then, this year, I think I saw somebody casually mentioning — doom scroll wasn’t a phrase that I was seeing everywhere but somebody said something about scrolling the doom or doom scroll. Maybe somebody said the actual phrase somewhere. I was just like, ‘doom is the right word for that’. I drew that comic. That was really cool.
I definitely did not invent the phrase “doom scroll”. I’m sure there are hundreds of people who used it before I drew that comic, but it was cool to know that my comic played a part in that phrase being in the lexicon. Now, everybody seems to know the phrase, which is cool. It’s a useful phrase to describe what we’re all doing.
Your book’s title is, I Hope This Helps: Comics and Cures. It’s not just a collection of comics. It’s got your guidance for coping with social media but not so much your commentary on politics, like your recent work.
I have a lot of thoughts on a lot of things that probably nobody should listen to. In the book, I was really trying to stay focused on how it related to the comics project and making sure that the essays were all tied in with the totality of that experience. They fundamentally are about social media because, for me, it was primarily a social media experience.
I basically became a social media manager for myself across six platforms. Every morning, I had to format it for Tumblr, Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and Instagram.
I didn’t know how they worked. Reddit and Tumblr, I had to learn from the ground up. It’s just what that experience did to me and I suspect is doing to other people — maybe to a less heightened extent because most people aren’t throwing themselves naked into the Internet zeitgeist in that way. The essays were just me unpacking that experience. I don’t know what is art in the social media age and what’s bad about it, what’s good about it, and how can you use it to your advantage without it taking advantage of you.
Has your view on social media evolved since completing the book?
No. Since I finished the text for this book, which was back in March, if anything, people have been more comfortable going harder against social media and the incentive structure behind it. I think, if anything, there are some moments when I used kid gloves because I didn’t want to be too negative. I probably would have taken off the kid gloves, in hindsight, but I’m also okay being the — as far as being in the Trick Mirror genre of “the Internet sucks” books — I’m at least comfortable with my book being the lightest possible version of that.
You suggest in your book that social media could encourage a sense of community. Have you evolved on that, as well? Has the pandemic changed that view?
Yes, I would say that the benefits and the drawbacks of the social media landscape are becoming clearer and clearer as we’re spending more and more time in digital spaces. Now, it seems rather obvious, I think, to most people that these aren’t just tools to connect with friends. They’re advertising platforms that are meant to extract your attention and emphasize the most stimulating content, which, in general, is things that make you mad or confirm things you already believe. It can be a beautiful tool for connecting with people but I would maintain that phone calls and Zoom, and texting are a lot more effective than social media, as far as staying in touch with friends.
We’ve seen a lot of information get disseminated and activism happening through the Internet. The [Black Lives Matter] protests this summer were Internet organized and social media organized. That’s exciting, to see people mobilize for something good.
But then there’s the dark side of it, too, where QAnon groups and other conspiracy theories have really propagated across social media, by and large due to just the total laissez-faire curating approach of Mark Zuckerberg. We’re seeing both. That’s the point that I try to make in my book.
I’m not saying it’s not a reflection of who we are, it’s a reflection for a specific outcome, which is to get you to spend all day on your phone looking at ads. That tends to exacerbate things about us that we probably shouldn’t encourage in one another, like anger, jealousy, and these instinctual tribal feelings of, “I belong to this club and these people don’t belong to this club, and I don’t like them”.
It’s something that I struggle with, with my comics, too, because I can feel myself sometimes slipping into that category. What’s worse is that the algorithm incentivizes you. I’m always trying to make sure that I’m making something that stands up for me, personally, and not just something that happens to benefit an algorithm that’s generated on feelings of extreme titillation, in one way or the other.
(courtesy of Andrews McMeel)
You obviously did the [500 Comics in 500 Days] challenge and it was on social media where you accumulated views, likes, and reshares. With the book, the goal is to get sales and royalties. Which media is most rewarding?
That’s very funny. [laughs] I’m in a phase right now where I’m trying to recenter myself on the reward of just making the comic itself. I’d gotten so objective-oriented during the 500 days of the comics process that I forgot that you could just draw a comic and not show it to anybody. That was a very exciting thing for me, let’s say, for the first nine months.
After I finished the project, I was pretty much exclusively drawing comics and not posting them, and just leaning into like, ‘what if you don’t show it to people? Do I still enjoy that?’. The answer is, I still do. It would not be a great idea to hustle everything towards either likes or royalties. Certainly, they each have their own rewards. I’m trying to sink into the fact that even in a vacuum, as an artist, I simply enjoy drawing butts.
(courtesy of Andrews McMeel)
What’s your favorite fan interaction during the 500 Days project? Did you have one or two favorite memories?
It was very cool to play some Halloween shows with Jukebox the Ghost. People showed up dressed as things from my comics. There were a bunch of people who showed up as candy hearts. A lot of people showed up as the Pringle Man and various other characters. That was very fun.
I’m very used to the idea that my comics just exist in a digital realm. Anytime it appears in my tactile reality, whether it’s in the form of a book, physically, or a person who’s actually talking to me who like my comics, I’m always so excited because Internet stuff can be such an abstraction. Meeting someone in real life who has gone out of their way to dress up as the Pringle Man in public, that makes me very happy.
You mentioned the HalloQueen shows with Jukebox the Ghost. Last year, I asked Ben this question. What’s your favorite Halloween candy? It’s the season. Candy hearts are out of the realm of Halloween candy.
[laughs] Spooky. Spooky Hearts.
I’m a sucker for chocolate bars with Rice Krispies in them. I think there’s the Dr. Pepper and Mr. Pibb of that world, which is, I believe, Crackle. What’s the other one? There’s another one.
Nestle Crunch, right?
So your book’s title is I Hope This Helps. Your recent solo album is named Another Century Wasted. In between March and whenever you titled the album, what changed? It sounds like you’re more despondent.
Something that’s funny to me — I think I’ve unfortunately given the appearance of being insanely productive during the pandemic because I’ve got this book coming out and just put out a record. Both of those things were basically done before the pandemic hit. They just happened to have a timeline on them.
Another Century Wasted, I wrote those songs over the last five years. The whole record was actually done last fall. I was a little too overwhelmed to put it out with other things that were happening and ended up kicking the can.
I was also feeling, ‘this record’s like, I’m really proud of it but it’s also pretty negative. I don’t want people to think I’m too negative’. Then, this year hit and I was like, ‘Now, this record feels right at home’. To me, the 500 Days of Comics project and my record, Another Century Wasted, are just two sides of the same coin. I was really hustling both projects at the same time.
I didn’t realize how long the album had been gestating.
I think some of the lyrics and topics give the appearance that it was a pandemic project for me. I was looking back and — “Terrible News” I wrote in 2015, I think. Some go way back.
Is there any other connection between the album and your comics?
There’s a point where I can find a way to make the musical side of myself and the comics meet. It’s probably in animation. I’ve been dabbling a lot in animation but not as seriously as I would like to, just because there’s a lot of other things happening. There’s a meeting point in the future that I haven’t arrived at. I would say the record and the book are in the same spirit. There’s a train of thought that goes into both of them. They’re not spiritually tied at the hip, though, other than that they are from me.
During the pandemic then, what has been your creative output or creative release? You recently started a 30-day comic challenge, but before that, what have you been doing in the last five months or six months, creatively?
I don’t think this is breaking news at this point, but I’ve got a Candy Hearts book of just candy hearts comics coming out for Valentine’s Day. I have been working really hard on that. I just finished that a few weeks ago.
That was a new experience for me to spend six months drawing comics that nobody can see until the book comes out. It was like I was secretly doing another daily comics project but nobody knew it. I think I drew another 80 candy hearts comics. Those ones are a little more time-consuming. That took a long time.
Then trying to figure out some fun ways to promote the record that I’d just put out. Now, 30 days of comics and then about to jump in with Jukebox the Ghost in the studios. I’m managing to stay busy.
(courtesy of Andrews McMeel)
What is Jukebox the Ghost going to do for HalloQueen?
As far as HalloQueen goes and Jukebox the Ghost, we are going to be “podded up” together–is the new verb–starting next week for a month. We’re going to try and finish the record that we started when the pandemic hit, that was very rudely interrupted.
We’ve obviously talked about whether it would make sense to do a stream, some kind of digital HalloQueen. Part of what we keep running up against, though, is that it really works because it’s a crowd. We’re a trio. Even Queen had trouble pulling off Queen without the arena singing along. We’re subtracting a member and we just aren’t sure if it would be better just to wait till we can actually do the real deal again.
We haven’t made a hard decision there or anything, we’ve just been thinking about options and how we can do online concerts in a way that works for us.
What has been a work of art, movie, book, or whatever, that has inspired you recently?
My favorite band in the world is Deerhoof and they have just miraculously put out two studio albums and a live album during the pandemic. They’re 18 albums deep or so at this point. I just think Deerhoof are genius. It’s very inspiring to see them putting out stuff like this during the pandemic because even though they started working on it before the pandemic, they all live in different places and have been piecing it together by email. There are these really vibrant, strange, chaotic records. They don’t sound like something you would make by transferring files on email and yet, they are.
I found that very inspiring and surprising. Deerhoof’s great last couple of records give me hope that you can make music that’s messy and creative, and meaningful while being socially distanced.
Photo of Tommy Siegel courtesy of Andrews McMeel