Paul Gilligan is the creator of Pooch Cafe, a really rather fantastic comic strip that is all about -- well, I’ll let Paul speak for himself and explain all in the interview. When you’re done reading, go check out the strip’s official site and also Mr. Gilligan’s own home on the web.
Gringo: Howdy! Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Paul: My name is Paul Gilligan. I got into cartooning for the chicks. (I was misinformed). I’ve worked in advertising, as a staff artist at a newspaper, and for about 10 years as a freelance illustrator. Currently I live in Toronto and balance getting into trouble and staying out of trouble very skillfully.
Gringo: For those heathens who don't reach Pooch Cafe, please tell us about the strip.
Paul: The main character of the strip is an acerbic little pooch named “Poncho”, who’s master forces him to live with his new cat-loving wife and her brood of evil cats. For the sake of his own sanity, Poncho is forced to seek more palatable company at the Pooch Café, a secret dog hangout where fellow canines can commiserate about life among the humans and work on plans to catapult all the earth’s cats into the sun.
Gringo: What was the spark that led you to create the comic?
Paul: There definitely wasn’t any magical spark thing. I’d tried a few other strips that were a little less conventional, and Jay Kennedy liked my work a lot but convinced me that in the current market a strip stood a better chance if it appealed in an obvious way to a target audience that salesmen could point to when hawking the strip. I tried an office strip (where all the people had human bodies and animal heads) but I’d never really worked in an office so that was sort of ill-conceived. I didn’t have a family or a teenager or anything like that. I figured Garfield had the cat thing covered, so I designed what I hoped was an iconic dog character. That’s how it started.
Gringo: How did you go from having the idea for Pooch Cafe to getting it nationally syndicated?
Paul: Jay didn’t want Pooch when I showed it to him, I think mostly because they’d recently launched “Buckles.” And none of the other larger syndicates were interested, but Copley News Service was quit enthusiastic. Copley mostly syndicates columnists and political cartoonists, they were interested in branching out into strips. But they didn’t have the sales force in place for that, so despite their best intentions Pooch didn’t get very far. I’m grateful to them for helping me get started, but after three years I was still in the same 30 papers I was in after the first year. I was contemplating giving it up. Then John Glynn, who is now my delightful editor at Universal Press, got wind of it and loved it, and so about four years ago I moved over to them. Now Pooch is in about 250 papers.
Gringo: Are there any strips that you've really wanted to try, but abandoned because you just knew they'd never make it past the newspaper editors? Similarly, any that you tried but that were banned from publication?
Paul: I try to push things once in a while, but usually John will advise me not to stir up angry letters-to-the-editor from readers. Strips -- especially less established ones -- are quick to get booted if they’re causing any headaches for the paper. Mostly it’s language; I can’t say “that blows” or “boob job”. My editor vetoed one joke I had about a vasectomy. Conversely I got a joke through recently with a pro-choice question in it, which surprised me.
Gringo: How long do you see yourself writing Pooch Cafe?
Paul: I told John a few years ago that I couldn’t see myself doing this for 20 more years, and he looked a little pained. Syndicates lose money on most strips, they bank on the ones that get big and last many decades, so the thought that if Pooch got popular I might wind up shootin’ the cash cow is not a pleasant scenario for them. Bill Amend ended Foxtrot last year, and it’s looking now like Lynn Johnson might be ending FBOFW after all. Personally I think I may run out of mailman and toilet-drinking jokes after a certain number of years.
Gringo: What's your fan base like? What kind of letters or other pieces of fan mail do you receive? Anything odd or funny?
Paul: The ages of my fans seems to run the gamut. Lots are dog owners, of course, but I get a lot of gratification when I hear from a fan who has no dog connection, since to me Poncho is much more like a guy in a dog suit who is compelled to follow a few dog imperatives than he is an actual dog.
As for mail, I get the most mail when a spelling mistake gets through. I got about 20 e-mails the day I spelled “symbol” when I meant “cymbal” and the un-corrected version went out. A few of them were pretty hostile.
I got an e-mail once from a fan who said that he was tired of anthropomorphized animals not being depicted anatomically correct “down there”. He said that even though he knew that Poncho was neutered he’d like to see his ball sack shown once in a while “where appropriate.” Later, he sent me a link to website that sold testicle implants for dogs in three different sizes so that dogs didn’t feel so emasculated when they went down for a lick.
Gringo: Your comic, along with Pearls Before Swine, Lio, Get Fuzzy and a handful of others seem to loosely share a sense of offbeat humor very different from many long-running strips. Do you read PBS, Lio and Get Fuzzy, and what other daily strips are you a fan of?
Paul: I don’t follow other strips very regularly, I must admit. Every now and then I’ll spend an hour on the net checking out what’s new or checking in on the progress of any strips that haven’t fallen into too regular a pattern yet. I don’t want to get into which ones I like cause I’ll miss some, and also my opinion sometimes changes depending on the batch I’ve read. Generally I like ones that push against the fairly restrictive boundaries of the comics page, which is hard to do because the comics page is the last bastion of Victorian thought and to test those boundaries is to risk damaging your commercial potential. It’s my dream to get Pooch popular enough to have one of the characters get a vasectomy or a boob job. Then I’ll know I’ve made it.
Gringo: Your Web site lists a pretty impressive client range for your illustration work, as well as several cool different styles. What's your favorite style of illustration, and why?
Paul: The illustration style I’ve been doing for about ten years now, which is the guys with the big heads and even bigger eyes, has always been fun, but less and less so as I’ve drawn those little bastards in pretty much every conceivable setting and outfit by now. Although occasionally an assignment will come along that still gets my motor running. The Roy Lichtenstein-esque style is newer. Sometimes I’ll get superhero assignments in that style, and that really gets me juiced up, since I wanted to draw superhero comics all my life and never got to. Comics have advanced way beyond me now, the art being done in the average comic book is astounding, especially cover art. Blows away anything in modern art galleries. Sorry, I meandered there.
Gringo: When you're not frantically drawing, what else do you like to do?
Paul: I’ve just written the first draft of a children’s book. An “early chapter book”, Charlotte’s Web length. It was totally fun. I’m getting opinions now before I do a re-write, and then I’m going to write a movie pitch for it. I’ve also developed pitches for some animated shows, one of which just got optioned. Outside of that I gotta get out of the apartment since I like to be sociable so if I don’t see enough of other people I start having arguments with myself, the witty sparring kind of arguments that mask a burning desire, and then I just feel weird and the work suffers.
Gringo:We always ask interviewees to pitch a question for the next person in line. Last time round, Cuban singing sensation Margarita Pracatan said we should ask: what will you do with your next 10 years?
Paul: I think I could squeak out another 10 years of Pooch, as long as I could keep finding ways to test new waters. I’d love to write the Pooch Café movie and see that get on the screen. I’d like to finish my children’s book and maybe another. And I’ve got my dream animated TV series that’s still percolating which I want to keep hidden until I’ve got more “power”, whether that power is based on success, blackmail material or radioactive mutation. Oh, and I want to learn how to play the Charlie Brown Christmas song on the piano. Although that could be a 20 year plan.
Gringo: And finally, what is one question we should ask our next interviewee?
Paul: What are the 5 things that you think are the best 5 smells in the world?
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