Sunday, June 19, 2011

FYC Replay: Satisfactory Comics with Isaac Cates & Mike Wenthe

Another column from my stint at the Pulse, this one looking at Satisfactory Comics from Mike Wenthe and Isaac Cates. These are fun comics. And their blog is really interesting too. Definitely worth checking out.


For Your Consideration: Satisfactory Comics #6 & 7, and A Treatise upon the Jam
By Chris Beckett

FRONT PAGE: One of the unique features of the comics medium is the fact that anyone with an idea and a bit of talent can easily create their own comics for sale at conventions, in shop, or online. Two such guys are Mike Wenthe and Isaac Cates, creators of Satisfactory Comics, some of the most literate and fun comics one could hope to find. Come in and find out about some of the coolest comics being made that nobody knows about, but should.

The 411:

Satisfactory Comics #6

28pp. b/w, $4.00 (cheaper in person)

Satisfactory Comics #7

28pp. b/w, $3.00 (cheaper in person)

A Treatise upon the Jam

24pp. b/w

All stories written & drawn by

Isaac Cates and Mike Wenthe

Satisfactory Comics

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

Most fans – whether of prose, cinema, comics, etc. – often feel that, given the right circumstances, they could do as good, or better, a job than whatever piece of entertainment they may be digesting at the time. But with most endeavors of this sort, there is often a large prohibitive hurdle standing in the way (the time it would take to write a 100,000 word novel or the cost of an electric guitar and lessons) that precludes these attempts. With comics, those hurdles are almost non-existent. If one has some artistic talent, a bit of imagination, some paper, a pen and ink, and access to a photocopier, which can be found at one’s local Staples or Office Depot, one can create a comic and distribute copies to people of a like-minded persuasion.

Unlike vanity publishing in prose, the self-publishing movement in comics has not suffered any similar stigma, but is, in fact, embraced by fans and creators alike. Many of these self-publishers wear their autonomy as a badge of honor, believing that rejecting the assembly line process common throughout comics’ history imbues their creations with an inherent artistic legitimacy. This is far too broad a statement to be true. As with any form of entertainment, one will find it necessary to wade through a lot of poorly done books in order to find the hidden gems. But that’s half the fun.

When I attended my first MoCCA Art Festival in New York last June, a few of the gems with which I returned home came from the minds, and pens, of Isaac Cates and Mike Wenthe. Their creations, Satisfactory Comics and A Treatise upon the Jam are some of the most literate and thought-provoking comics I have read in a while. Isaac and Mike work collaboratively on all of their comics, and when they talk about collaboration, they truly mean it as a commingling of two creative minds. This fact is made most obvious when one reads their Treatise, which delves into their thought processes regarding comics and how best to create them. They also peel back the layers of the creative process, noting the rewards and pitfalls that can result collaboration.

As a fan, and aspiring creator, I found their Treatise to be a thoroughly engaging intellectual dialogue in comics form. One can sense these two friends have put a lot of thought into how they approach storytelling for the medium. The points made within this tiny pamphlet form a persuasive argument for collaboration within comics, in stark contrast to those who argue for the unadulterated expression of a single cartoonist such as Frank Miller, Jack Kirby, or David Mazzucchelli. But I expect most people understand that these three artists, along with a handful of others, are decided exceptions to the rule, and besides, Cates and Wenthe aren’t so much arguing against this as arguing for a method that has gone out of favor in the minds of many due to the dehumanizing effect of the assembly line method.

Cates and Wenthe specifically tackle that idea, stating unequivocally that they are not advocating the “bullpen” program that allowed large companies such as Marvel and DC to churn out an endless supply of periodicals for the marketplace, but they are talking about actual collaboration in which two or more creators come together and build off one another’s strengths while adding their own editorial voices and unhindered imaginations to the process in order to create a comic better than either one could have created singly. It is a different outlook upon the process that encourages these two friends to work together in all aspects of the creation rather than being isolated to one discipline – inking, lettering, writing, etc. – and then discover a common ground that mightn’t have been evident before, but which comes into sharp focus upon completion of the work at hand.

A Treatise upon the Jam is an important comic from Cates and Wenthe because it predicates all that they do within their other comics. Having laid bare the process through which they work, the short stories that are found within Satisfactory Comics now become even more impressive. Each thirty-two page pamphlet is a small anthology with a number of short stories to be found within. And like any good anthology there is a wide variety of stories to be found in each issue, both with regard to style and genre. In issue 6 of Satisfactory Comics, one can find a short fantasy, a graphic adaptation of Chapter 41 of the Book of Job, and an autobiographical essay adapted to comics that delves into the addictive quality of turn-based strategic conquest video games and the lessons learned from the experience. Issue 7 holds an array of short stories – most of which are two pages long – all created from sentences submitted by friends and readers, each of which was written and drawn through a variety of collaborative processes with various creative challenges – among them having to draw one story backward from the last panel to the first and one in which each panel was captioned by the guy who drew the previous one. It is an interesting experiment in creating comics, and one that these two cartoonists pull off with a large measure of success.

There’s something for everyone in Satisfactory Comics, whether you like fun comics such as “The Graveyard of Forking Paths,” which, depending upon the choices the reader makes, can lead one to a number of different narratives on a two-page spread reminiscent of a Parker Brothers game board, or a serious intellectual argument such as the autobiographical “Killing Time, or How I Beat Civilization,” it is all here for one’s enjoyment. These are smartly written comics drawn in a clean, simple style that allows the tales to breathe.

Text pages round out each issue and add a lot to these books, in one instance explaining the formal constraints and varied collaborative processes used in issue 7, which only adds to the enjoyment of these comics. If you’re looking for something different, and like to be challenged by your reading choices, then these books are for you. Check out the Satisfactory Comics site, or hope to run into these guys at MoCCA or SPX where you can get a “personal interaction” discount on the books (predicated on the lack of shipping or PayPal charges) and in the process discover something new.

An Interview with Isaac Cates and Mike Wenthe:

Chris Beckett: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium and prompted you to go the self-publishing route?

Satisfactory Comics: Mike had wanted to be a cartoonist from the age of seven, so he has been attracted to the medium ever since he first fell in love with a great comic strip (Walt Kelly’s Pogo) and wanted to do that. Though he kept drawing cartoons, he hadn’t written any comics stories in years by the time we became friends in graduate school. Meanwhile, although Isaac before graduate school had read a lot of comics, his cartooning had pretty much been at the level of the in-class doodle until he started reading comics seriously again in 2001.

Eventually we discovered that we had both been comics fans earlier in life, and learned about contemporary minicomics from Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics and from a casual acquaintance with Jesse Reklaw, who was still living in New Haven when Isaac met him, and who gave us a lot of inspiration. We both tried our hands separately at making minis in the fall of 2001, and a couple of months later we teamed up to make the first issue of Satisfactory Comics. At first, Satisfactory Comics was just a diversion, an experiment in doodling up a story for our friends. It probably wasn’t until we were finishing the second issue that we felt pretty sure we’d be making more of them.

And really, self-publishing was the only option for us, given our amateurish work riddled with in-jokes. We had already self-published an illustrated pamphlet describing members of our English department in verse; from there it was only a question of buying a booklet stapler and drawing some comics, and we were “in business.”

Beckett: Judging by A Treatise on the Jam, you two put a great deal of thought into your comics. How do you avoid over-thinking a story and keep the creative process spontaneous?

SatCom: Well, sometimes we may in fact be guilty of over-thinking a story. More often, though, we can’t help being somewhat spontaneous because most of our comics have been finished in a pell-mell rush to meet a deadline before a show or to make the most of the limited time available to us when working together That said, there are so many different stages to the creation of a comic that just because we put a lot of thinking into one aspect doesn’t mean that others won’t have more spontaneity to them. It’s also true that revising comics in the draft stage has spared the world some really bad spontaneous puns.

When we’re working in the same room, you’d probably be surprised to see how often one of us will hold work up for the other guy to inspect, correct, or make suggestions about. You’d probably also be surprised at how often we act out the dialogue the other guy is trying to draw. Some of that helps to keep us spontaneous, too.

Beckett: Collaborating on the artwork is fairly common within comics, while collaborating on a script is somewhat less prevalent, and yet both of you work in tandem on almost all aspects of your comics. With regards to the scripting specifically, why work in this manner instead of writing your stories individually?

SatCom: We remain convinced that we make better comics when every stage of the work has input from both members of the team. Sometimes that’s just an editorial nudge here or there for a page (or a story) that’s mostly already written; at our best, we’ve bounced dialogue for a page back and forth across the table until one of us said the thing that just sounded right for the character to be saying. We almost always talk out a story’s plot together, trying to figure out what direction we’re heading in, if not exactly what events will lead us in that direction.

On the other hand, one or the other of us has occasionally written a story solo. Issue #7 has collaborative methods of all stripes, scripted in all manner of ways, including one in which the story was told entirely in the drawings by one guy before the other guy applied a script to it. (Which of us “wrote” that one? Ask Jack and Stan, I guess.) A lot of the stuff we’re doing now has us “alternating” the scripting from one page to the next (or one strip to the next), with only the barest of outlines for the story’s direction.

There’s really no solid answer any more to the question of how we break up the responsibilities of scripting; we use different processes in almost every story. But it has always been a really richly collaborative process for us. In our best stuff, I think, we have a hard time remembering who came up with what. (But Isaac wrote all of this response apart from this parenthetical!—Mild-mannered Mike)

Beckett: You both also seem to enjoy the challenge of creating a story within predetermined constraints – whether it be comics sestinas (highly structured poems) or working from last panel to the first as with “Nightlights” in issue #7. Why work this way so often, and do you find these challenges more satisfying than creating stories sans constraints?

SatCom: Constraints give us a purchase on a story even before the story is fully there. The piece we’re working on right now, for example, is heavily constrained, and it has turned out that most of the plot of the story has emerged from our need to fulfill one requirement or another. Many of our ideas emerge as solutions to problems.

And we like the way that constraints have compelled us on occasion to stretch outside our comfort zones. It’s also nice to involve other people in our work.

There’s also something that we say in the Treatise Upon the Jam about the fact that all artistic media are actually constraining: there’s no such thing as perfect freedom in the mediated world of art, and we think that working with constraints is a healthy way to remind yourself of that.

Beckett: Where did the title Satisfactory Comics come from?


Mike says: “If I recall correctly, we were sitting at the dinner table in my old apartment, talking out our plans for how we’d build the first issue around panels contributed by our friends. We wanted to choose a rubric that our friends would be willing to draw for, so Isaac, I think it was, suggested ‘something that would make you happy: that would make for a satisfying comic.’ I believe it was I who took up the hint and said we could call the book Satisfactory Comics. So as usual, it came from a conversation in which we were reflective about our process and revising each other’s suggestions.”

Isaac says, “My memory isn’t exactly like a steel trap, but I have to admit that I remember that conversation a little differently. I think we had come up with the rubric that involved having our friends draw panels that we’d include in the comic, and were sort of fishing for a title. I seem to remember some brainstorming along the lines of ‘Adequate Comics’ and ‘Tolerable Comics’—things we could actually lay claim to. ‘Satisfactory’ had a nice ring to it, especially in light of the fact that we both grade a lot of papers. At least in my mind, I have always resisted any connection between ‘Satisfactory’ and ‘satisfaction,’ since we have never actually promised to satisfy anyone [with our comics].”

Beckett: If readers are unable to get to a convention you are attending, how might they be able to preview or purchase your mini comics?

SatCom: This is an easy one. We’ve got a website / blog now, at We try to update it at least twice weekly. There are sidebar links to each of our back issues for sale, and we also post about a variety of other things.

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

SatCom: Some of the recent posts on our website have been devoted to a story we’re going to submit to the next volume of the Elfworld anthology. The story (which is formally constrained in an elaborate way) involves an apprentice magician trying to get a map of an invisible place from a blind mapmaker. We’re having a lot of fun telling it.

Once we get done with that, we’ll be setting up the next round of the Mapjam project, which you can read more about on the website. It’s a project in which we’re exploring a big chunk of shared territory, taking turns with a group of other cartoonists including Damien Jay, Tom Kaczynski, Matt Wiegle, and Tom Motley. That’s a fun project, too, and full of surprises.

And we’re also building a story, at a glacial pace, about a sort of medieval scholar-explorer who twice visits a distant city, his visits separated by a ten-year interval. It may take us ten years to finish it at the rate we’re going, so that one is a good candidate for being over-thought!

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