Endtown was another case where I’d been reading comics on GoComics, and one of the “Recent Comics” (I think they were actually using “Featured” at that time) caught my eye. It had a panicked-looking anthropomorphic cat trying to run away from his pursuers in a post-apocalyptic universe. The backgrounds were realistically rendered, and the cat guy (Wally) reminded me of a character drawn by a friend, Reed Waller (creator of Omaha the Catdancer). I went back through the entire archive, starting with the Jan. 19, 2009 strip, and when I got to the (at the time) present, I did two things. I finally got around to creating an account on GoComics, and I contacted Aaron on Facebook to ask if he knew about Omaha (he didn’t). The conversations expanded from there, and eventually I wrote up a big description of Endtown on wikipedia. That article has the distinction of being one of the very few that some “genius” named “10-pound hammer” on wikipedia deleted for having “insufficient reference material” (if that were a real justification, over 50% of the articles on wiki, and nearly 99% of every anime and manga article would disappear overnight.
Anyway, I love Endtown for many reasons. The top three are that the story is great, the jokes are wicked-funny, and the artwork is just really, really good. It’s not for everyone, which is ok. But, if you like darker stories of people trying to survive a blown-out planet, in the veins of Douglas Adams, Tim Burton, Warren Zevon, and Mobius, then you’ll like Endtown. Especially if you like Mobius. The initial plot is simple: In a world not that dissimilar to ours, it’s The End of Civilization As We Know It, as every country with weapons launches everything they’ve got at each other in the shortest of the World Wars so far. This causes what remains of humanity to split into two main factions – the mutants that turned into “anthros” because of the atmospheric miasma; and Topsiders who protected themselves from the mutagen by hermetically sealing themselves up in suits, and are convinced that they can only come out if they manage to kill all the mutants. The story starts with a few characters living in an underground colony named Endtown, and grows from there. Which brings us to Endtown’s creator, Aaron Neathery.
BC: Who are you?
AN: Depends on who’s looking.
BC: What personal details do you think are relevant to readers to know about you?
AN: Not many. The fewer specific personal impressions readers have of the person behind this kind of story, the better. Nothing breaks the spell of an extended narrative faster than the impression that the author has an axe to grind and is gaming every scenario and line of dialogue to get that message across. Better that readers are left wondering what intentions, if any, a writer has, and the fewer personal details, the better able a writer is to recede into the background and let the story take center stage.
BC: Then, are you a cosmic muffin, or a writer?
AN: A writer first, and everything else after. Unfortunately, my ability to draw has severely limited my development as a writer of prose. I tend to think in pictures and dialogue and not in written *descriptors*.. It’s just easier for me to draw a character displaying the correct emotion than it is to *describe* that emotion. But I guess that kind of makes me a cartoonist, so maybe that’s what I am.
BC: How did you get your start?
AN: I started earning regular money as a cartoonist in college, working for two student publication departments on two campuses at the same time. I drew Albert and a lot of editorial cartoons for both the University of Houston Daily Cougar and the University of Houston-Downtown Dateline, pulling in enough money to pay for one half of an artist’s loft studio in the warehouse district with my friend Jason Clemons. I then did a stint in advertising and commercial animation before the economic bust wiped out the agency I was working for.
BC: What do you think your biggest breaks were?
AN: I’ve been at this since 1993. My two biggest professional breaks have been Shaenon Garrity’s acceptance of Endtown for her Modern Tales site in 2008 and Gocomics’ acceptance of Endtown in 2010. My biggest financial break has been Patreon, without which I wouldn’t be able to make Endtown a proper occupation.
BC: What led up to your starting Endtown, and do you have anything else going on right now?
AN: In 2006 and 07, I’d been creating a radio comedy series for the Pacifica network called Electromatic Radio, but after 23 episodes and a lot of work, it was clear that it wasn’t going anywhere. It was running on college stations in the dead of night and no one but the programming directors were hearing it. I sold some episodes in syndication for a few hundred dollars and that was about as much money as I made from it. So after a few years of pretty much not drawing at all, I’d decided to make a last ditch attempt at getting a webcomic off the ground. I didn’t want to go back into advertising so I sat down and brainstormed a kind of dream project where all of my previous comics work could be tied up into one strip. I drew about four or five months’ worth of material without any idea where I was going to feature it online. Fortunately, Shaenon came to my rescue and gave the strip a home.
AN: No other pokers in the fire.. at least, none that aren’t Endtown related.
BC: Which of your works are you most happy with, or proud of?
AN: I’m proud of Endtown and Electromatic Radio because they’re both projects that took on lives of their own. Also, I’m not embarrassed by them.. which is what counts.
BC: Where can readers find your books?
AN: Jarlidium Press is handling the Endtown print editions. Endtown’s third volume was released just last year. Gocomics has also released a few Endtown “sample” ebooks covering a few months’ worth of the strip in each. It’s all available on Amazon.
BC: Endtown has had several major leading characters, primarily Albert and Gustine, Wally and Holly. We’ve also seen Prof. Mallard, Jacob Jackrabbit, Flask, the erstwhile ex-Topsiders Jim and Sarah, and now we’ve been introduced to proto-heroine Kirby. But, I’d like to talk about Al, Gustine, Wally and Holly. Can you tell us your views of who they are? What are their motivations, and how do they see themselves and their places within this Great Waste that they’ve found themselves in?
AN: Al and Gustine are an established couple that are learning how to adjust to new circumstances. They’re essentially unique in the strip as they’re the only couple we’re ever introduced to who made it through WWIII together. Because of this, I’d felt, at the time I’d started work on Endtown, that they’d be ideal characters to introduce readers to Endtown’s post-apocalyptic world. They’re both very, very average people coping with extraordinary, life-changing events, and they’re both rather anonymous as far as their pasts are concerned, which makes them easy for readers to experience events through. But once their story is told.. Gustine’s identity crisis and how the relationship survives it.. there isn’t really much more to be said about them.. at least, not as the leads of the strip. Holly and Wally, on the other hand, drive narratives forward on their own. Readers still learn about Endtown’s world through them at the same time the characters are also learning about each other and themselves. Also, unlike Al and Gustine, Holly and Wally are products of this world, not just survivors. This world changed them physically and mentally and emotionally. They’re a portrait of a crisis relationship, brought together out of a very understandable kind of emotional desperation given the desperate circumstances they’re in.
AN: Al and Gustine just want to get down to the business of day to day life.. essentially maintaining their pre-War lives as best as they can. When I’d first imagined Endtown as a dark comedy with dramatic moments, I figured that would be a good source of material; the former video store clerk who has to forage for canned beans for his mutant girlfriend. That quest for normalcy is ultimately their motivation across the board. Once we catch up with them during the “Milk Trial” story, Gustine is cooking and Al is reading the paper, and their biggest complaint is that their community is becoming as unpleasant as the pre-War world had been. Once Endtown transitions to a dramatic strip with moments of dark comedy, Holly and Wally become the more suitable leads. Their world has been so shaken up that they don’t know what they want from life, at least as a couple. Wally finds himself in Endtown due to his guilt and his need for human contact and almost immediately tries to escape it. He’s former military and has been soured on society because of what he’s witnessed and participated in. Holly has already had her ideal life and had it entirely stripped away from her. She is in Endtown solely because her stepfather was a doctor and his services were needed. Otherwise, it’s more than likely she would have died in the War. They’ve found each other, but what is really at the core of it all? Over time, we’ll find out.
BC: How do you approach your pages?
AN: When you’re telling a story, you pretty much know what’s going to happen on that blank sheet of paper ahead of time. The question is how best to present that next bit of narrative. I usually begin with a concept of what I need to put over, story-wise, and draw a few thumbnail layouts to establish what will work best visually. The dialogue follows, and the layouts are tweaked to make room for the word balloons. It’s only after that that I start drawing the final strip.
BC: If your strip had a soundtrack, what would it be/sound like?
AN: Aboriginal Electroswing. Thumb pianos, didgeridoos, Charlie Barnet, concertinas and Nine Inch Nails.
BC: Who are your favorite artists/writers?
AN: In comics, almost all of my idols have been dead for 70 years. Elzie Segar and George Herriman are at the top followed by Roy Crane, Carl Barks, Osamu Tezuka and many others. Among the living, I really like Bill Griffith, Carol Lay, Chris Ware, and Gilbert Shelton. Film is probably a larger influence on Endtown overall, though, in terms of the layouts and the pacing of the stories as they unfold. Terry Gilliam is a huge influence, and so are Kubrick, Lynch, Tarkovsky, Hitchcock, and Orson Welles.. directors whose visual styles and storytelling styles are actually completely joined.
AN: As far as writers are concerned, I almost never read fiction.. I have almost a thousand books crammed into my apartment and almost all of them are film reference books, biographies, and history. As a kid, I read everything that H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote, and in high school, it was E. E. “Doc” Smith and his Skylark and Lensmen books, and a lot of Adams, Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury. But ever since, apart from occasionally rereading Catch22, I just haven’t had the impulse.
BC: Have you met any of them? Got any dirt on them?
AN: Carol Lay was kind enough to write the intro for the latest Endtown volume, and she’s very, very clean.
BC: Do you follow any other comic strips right now?
AN: Zippy is a must-read because I share most of Bill Griffith’s obsessions.. Carol Lay has been doing very funny, very fine work with Murderville, also on Gocomics. My friend Craig Hilton draws a great strip called Doc Rat that is kind of a sister strip to Endtown in a way.
BC: Doc Rat will appear here at Basket Case in a few weeks, too. So, what do you look for when you read someone else’s strips?
AN: The artwork has to grab my attention.. the more personal and unique the style, the better. My eye tends to gloss over work that has that cookie-cutter manga influence.. or Marvel influence.. or too much John Kricfalusi styling.. Nothing inherently wrong with any of those influences, but the closer a cartoonist hews to them, the more likely it is that they haven’t begun to make strips that are truly their own.
(Young love, in Endtown.)
BC: What do you think makes for a good comic?
AN: Depends on what we’re talking about. Gags and funny drawings make gag strips. Narrative strips have their own unique demands, the biggest of which is emotional legitimacy, without which there’s nothing for a reader to hold on to. If a cartoonist is aiming for emotional depth, they need to have a solid handle on the artwork. I’ve seen a lot of attempts at depth in webcomics that fall flat because the cartoonist utilizes too much in the way of cartoon shorthand or uses poses that are far too broad. It’s like trying to pour your heart out with nothing but emojis or ham actors. What’s odd is that cartooning should make it easier to portray emotional depth, not harder. Simplified, reflexive designs can actually make a complex emotion “read” better in a strip than more polished and realistic drawings.
BC: Do you use Patreon or Kickstarter?
AN: I use Patreon. Endtown’s patrons are 90% responsible for keeping the strip alive. I literally cannot continue this without them because I’d lose my apartment.
AN: In a very real sense, I think Patreon is poised to keep webcartooning alive, and it needs to be taken very seriously by the artists who use it because I believe it’s going to become increasingly necessary over time. Diversification of your revenue is vital for a webcartoonist, but unless you’re part of a team, you’re going to find yourself stretched pretty thin trying to keep all of those different streams flowing well enough to make a living. Patreon allows you to concentrate primarily on the work. It’s fantastic.
BC: Do you have any projects coming up?
AN: I’m still trying to figure out how to get Endtown into animation. This may actually happen one of these days.
BC: Appearances scheduled for conventions?
AN: I lost money at the last one! I’m not good at the whole convention thing.
(All artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Copyright Aaron Neathery © 2016.)
(This interview is the copyright © of Curtis H. Hoffmann 2016. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.)