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Talking '90s alt-comics, satire, and internet toxicity with 'Snelson' writer Paul Constant

Comic Books

Talking ’90s alt-comics, satire, and internet toxicity with ‘Snelson’ writer Paul Constant

Over the years, AHOY Comics has published a few rather interesting titles. That list includes Second Coming, about the return of Jesus Christ (spoilers: that decision was a teensy bit controversial) and the snark-fest that is Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Blood. But with Snelson: Comedy is Dying, the publisher has reached a marked new direction.

Starting with issue #1 last month, creators Paul Constant and Fred Harper unfurled the story of Melville Snelson, an edgy comedian from the ’90s who is as much a has-been as a never-was. The book itself comments on everything from cancel culture to internet trolls to SJWs, doing so with boundless wit and humor.

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Ahead of issue #2 debuting this week (September 8), we spoke to Constant about the series and its influences, the culture of the ’90s, making an unlikable main character, and much, much more.

AIPT: You described the book as “mocking the dying breath of the entitled white male toxicity.” Was there a particular moment that compelled you to write the series or was it a feeling that was simmering for a while?

Paul Constant: Definitely the latter. Snelson: Comedy Is Dying and my first book for AHOY, Planet of the Nerds, both were inspired in large part by my relationship with the internet—specifically, how straight white men like me use the internet. If you’ve spent any amount of time in comics fandom, you don’t need me to tell you that white dudes have done some pretty atrocious things online in the name of their precious hobbies.

I worked at a newspaper for almost a decade, and coworkers of mine—specifically the women I worked with—were terrorized by anonymous men in comments, and by threatening emails from men. And those threats almost always were a response to innocuous observations my friends made about the world, like “the Seattle stand-up comedy scene is pretty unfriendly to women comedians and non-white audience members,” or “there should be more diverse perspectives on TV and in the movies.”  

Talking '90s alt-comics, satire, and internet toxicity with 'Snelson' writer Paul Constant

Courtesy of AHOY Comics.

At the time, I mistakenly agreed with the paper’s philosophy about that: hate-clicks are still clicks and clicks equal dollars, so don’t read the comments and don’t let words on the internet hurt your feelings. But the hate my friends would receive for those honest observations was unrelenting, and all that venom would negatively impact their emotional states and their lives. At the time, I didn’t take it seriously enough, and I really regret that.

So Snelson is my attempt to identify and satirize that white male backlash—to really pin it down, cut it open, and identify all the ugly insecurity and desperation at the heart of it. I was probably being too optimistic when I characterized the current moment as “the dying breath” of white male toxicity, but I do think that we’re closer to a better world than we’ve ever been. Still, we won’t get there until we acknowledge and exorcise these demons, and this book is my attempt to do that.

AIPT: You also called the series a response to alt-comics of the ’90s. How was it writing a character that responds to something like that?

PC: I grew up reading superhero comics, but when I turned 16 I discovered Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly comics, and the way they demonstrated the wider possibilities of the medium blew my brain wide open. Unfortunately, at that time (the mid-90s,) the alt-comics scene was in the middle of a pretty toxic autobiographical comics explosion, and I wasn’t yet a mature enough reader to understand that just because someone is the protagonist of the story doesn’t mean they’re the hero.

So I kind of idolized the Joe Matts, Ivan Brunettis, and Chester Browns of the world. I didn’t grasp the complex satire that Peter Bagge was creating in Hate, so I ended up rooting for the wrong characters in that book, too. And I definitely was not sophisticated enough to handle some of the ironic racism and sexism of alternative comics like the first few issues of Eightball.

This book is in a lot of ways my attempt to write those same kinds of stories that I loved as a teenager, only with the ugliness laid bare and the romance stripped off—again, to get to the rotten parts of those stories that I loved and really examine them through the lens of all the intervening years of experience that I’ve had.

AIPT: It feels as if several real people could be Snelson. So, not to put you on the spot, was there a single inspiration for the character?

PC: There was no single towering inspiration, but there were a million tiny inspirations. Some pieces of his dialogue are basically rephrased troll comments from Reddit. In the second issue, I make fun of a few idiotic YouTube influencers I bumbled into, and some irresponsible podcasters that you may or may not recognize. There’s no one single person who you can put your finger on a photograph of them and say “this is definitely Snelson.” But you could probably point all over Twitter at random and find an inspiration or two.

Snelson

Courtesy of AHOY Comics.

AIPT: Were there any pitfalls writing a protagonist as unlikeable as Snelson?

PC: It’s emotionally hard, sometimes, to write Snelson. His whole thing is that he doesn’t really learn, and he lies a lot, and he doesn’t particularly care about the consequences of his actions. So having him in your head all the time is a little like being best friends with a horrible freeloader who creates awful drama for the fun of it.

I also wanted to be sure that Snelson didn’t come across as sympathetic or heroic. Basically, I didn’t want a reader to make the same mistake I did when I was young: reading stories about irresponsible, awful men and thinking of them like they were role models. So I had to be careful writing the book not to write him as the hero.

But that mental exhaustion was more than balanced out by the other characters in the book—particularly the group of young comedians Snelson goes on tour with in the first issue. They’re supporting characters, but they’re really also the heroes of the book, and I enjoyed every minute I spent with them. While Snelson always disappointed me, they always surprised me. They kept the experience of writing Comedy Is Dying from feeling like a bummer. I love all those characters and I hope I get to revisit them sometime and give them the full spotlight that they deserve.

AIPT: What was it like working with artist Fred Harper?

PC: I said this at our SDCC panel, but it’s the best analogy I have and so please forgive me for repeating myself: When I got my first Snelson page back from Fred Harper, I think I understand how Chris Claremont must’ve felt when he got his first New Mutants page back from Bill Sienkiewicz—”Ohhhh, I thought I was just writing an X-Men spinoff, but now that I see who I’m working with, it turns out we’re making art.”

Fred’s at a whole other level. All of his characters, even the background characters who wander in for one panel and disappear, are excellent character actors who are worthy of their own book. He can do realism and fantasy and satire and raw, real emotion, and he can do it all on a single page in such a way that it always looks seamless. And as a happy accident, he’s also a big fan of the NYC comedy scene, so the book is full of references and easter eggs that only hardcore comedy aficionados can understand.

For all my talk about unpleasant protagonists, the fact is that Fred makes every single page of this book a pleasure, a surprise, and a delight for the reader. He’s an incredibly gifted artist who should be working with masters of the medium like Alan Moore, but I’m so thrilled he’s slumming with me.

Talking '90s alt-comics, satire, and internet toxicity with 'Snelson' writer Paul Constant

Courtesy of AHOY Comics.

AIPT: Certain panels and pages are more violent and/or sexual than others while some are more cartoony. How was it striking a balance?

PC: I think that’s all down to Fred, honestly. It was really important to me that the book be full-on adult in tone so that we could explore the subject matter, and happily AHOY backed us on that every step of the way. So in film parlance, I was going for a hard R rating. And the reason that there are sudden bursts of violence or sex or general ugliness is that I thought it was important to recognize that there are consequences to Snelson’s actions, and they’re not just words said on a stage, or written in an internet forum. Words have consequences, both physical and mental, and when you’re cavalier with the words you choose, those consequences can get really ugly.

And I can’t think of many artists who can handle that transition as well as Fred can. He can draw a conversation, and he can draw a fight, and he handles them both with the same care and skill. There are some crazy dream sequences in this book, and Fred gives them the same weight as real life, because he creates a consistent universe in his art and the reader immediately understands the rules of that universe. It’s really transporting as a reader to be in the hands of someone who can build a whole world like that and draw you in (pun intended, I’m so sorry.) If a character gets slapped on a page drawn by Fred Harper, the reader’s cheek turns pink. That’s a pretty special gift.

AIPT: Final question(s), where does Snelson’s hairstyle come from? Does it have a name?

PC: The hairstyle is all Fred’s design, so he really should be the one to name it. Back when we were creating the character he drew a bunch of different Snelson designs, and he and AHOY editor-in-chief Tom Peyer and I immediately keyed in on the Snelson you see today. It was perfect—the facial hair was straight out of the 1990s and really helped to animate his facial expressions, while the column of hair coming off the top of his head made him stand out in a crowd.  

But if I had to name Snelson’s hairstyle, I’d call it “The Ivory Tower.” 

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