Bringing a comic to life is hard enough in today's market, but making it big with a website: even harder. Still, it's a dream come true for online comic book creators Ramon Perez and Rob Coughler, whose popular "Butternutsquash" comic strip has made the move to Speakeasy Comics. CBR News spoke with Perez and Coughler, who were happy to add insight into the genesis of the book, though the origin of the unique name is a secret for now.
"The name aside-- as that's another story in itself that we're saving for another day-- 'Butternutsquash' began when I was approached, in the summer of 1999, by an agent looking to put together a comic page as an insert into Canada's national independent papers," Perez told CBR News. "She was seeking out people who could supply original content and someone recommended me.
"Back in high school I used create comic strips ridiculing my friends and, of course, myself. I figured this would be a nice avenue to revisit. In turn having made many new friends since starting my life in Toronto I now had so much more new material. At the time I was using Rob as a sounding board on another comic I was writing for an RPG publisher. So it was quite natural to ask him if he wanted to come in on the pitch. We put together a few ideas and I drew one (which will appear in 'Butternutsquash' #1) of them out. After a few months the Comic insert project was shelved due to lack of support - and so 'Butternutsquash' was shelved as well.
"I later put up some of the Butternutsquash images on my art website and, before I knew it, many of my RPG fans were clamoring to see more. So after about a year I decided to go ahead and do it as a web comic and Rob, who was quite eager to resurrect the idea, joined me as well. Having never heard of web comics before I thought this would be pure genius. Obviously I was waaaaay behind on the times as there was already a web comic's nation on the web. And the rest, I'm guessing, you can figure out..."
Joining Speakeasy wasn't always the plan for Perez and Coughler, with the latter admitting that some good Canadian beer-- Labatts and Molson-- helped to make the huge transition. "You know when a bunch of guys get together and drink a lot? Then one guy comes up with some lame brained scheme that, to the highly inebriated, seems like pure genius? Well throw Speakeasy Comics and us into a comic convention with an open bar…" smiles Coughler.
"The idea of print was always first in my mind when coming up with 'Butternutsquash,'" adds Perez. "The original pitch was intended for newspaper and the format we use for the comic is that of traditional newspaper funnies.
"We had been approached a couple of times about taking 'Butternutsquash' into print. There is actually an urban living magazine from the west coast that only lasted a few issues that showcased 'Butternutsquash' every issue.
"We had a chance meeting with the Speakeasy crew, as Rob so lovingly put it, at a local convention," continued Perez. "A few months later they approached us regarding a publishing deal. They put a nice little contract together, smiled their winning smiles and asked for our firstborn - how could we say no?
"We're extremely excited about bringing 'Butternutsquash' to a whole new audience, and who knows what other doors will open? Perhaps I'll get my own action figure one day!"
Many fans have commented that the main characters seem multi-faceted, especially for such a short strip, and Coughler admits that there's a good reason for that. "You are talking to them. We are the main characters and our friends Vince, Evan et all are bona fide real people. We are a bunch of goofball friends, who always seem to get ourselves caught up in outrageous situations in the great city of Toronto, Canada.
"Many of our stories are autobiographical, with only minor embellishments for the sake of story cohesion. Rob is a multi-employed, bacon lovin' freak. Ramon is a suave fashionable Spaniard whose constant pursuit of the ladies is a largely unsuccessful and harrowing experience. Vince loves his beer and his dog Cola, perhaps to the point of excess. Evan is our token Jew who happens to have an unnatural love of corduroy and three striped shoes. Living our lives is what inspires us."
Looking at the "Butternutsquash" website, the team's twisted sense of humor is apparent, touching upon a multitude of subjects, without pulling any punches. "I think Rob and I have taken the humour we share between our friends and ourselves and transposed it into the comic," explains Perez. "As much as I may be making fun of my friends in the comic I am also ridiculing myself. I think it's this honesty that brings the flavour to the comic strip."
"There are few things that are off limits," admits Coughler. "We have never used expletives in the comic that did not contain "shift Key" characters. No more nudity then our bare asses. As well, there will not be any subjects that would bring too much shame to my mother (not that I haven't partaken of any, I just don't want to be disowned)."
Perez agrees, adding, "I am willing to broach any subject as long as we keep things in the realm of a weird innocence. I've never laid out any boundaries-- but there have been a couple of times when working on a particular strip that I've said "no, this just doesn't fit-- we'll have to take it in another direction."
"Although Rob seems to be hardcore, even he has his limits," continued Perez. "I remember there was a particularly humorous scene I had come up with of him being knocked in the head with the 'rubber lover' and thrown unconscious. Rob out rightly refused to be hit in the head with it! Being disgusted with the idea altogether! Heh - it's only a comic but I guess even rob has his fears…."
While "Butternutsquash" is a slice of life series, it eschews the typical scenarios of the genre and the "emo" vibe of some other series. This isn't a conscious statement on their part; instead, the tone speaks to the creative perspective of Coughler and Perez, as the latter explains. "There are always interesting things that happen during everyday life. All we do is take those little moments and expand them into something much more. But as I tell people I can't make this stuff up. I just sit back and listen to my friends and pay attention to the absurdity that goes on around me.
"I have a little notebook that I keep little ideas in that pop into my head as I observe the people and world about me. All the materials there - we just exploit it!
"Our main focus is to entertain and make people laugh," continued Perez. "The topics we tackle, that may carry serious undertones in real life, are things we've dealt with in our own lives, Being very open individuals allows Rob and myself to lay these aspects of ourselves bare - people take things way to seriously and I think we're just trying to tell people to relax and laugh at yourself a little."
Part of the series' success has been based on the accessibility of the art, with Perez's line work and color palette impressing readers, old and new. "The look came from my natural style of cartooning," said Perez. "While growing up I often copied my favourite comic strips such as Garfield, Hagar the Horrible, Mother Goose & Grimm and so on. All of which have very clean and simple styles. So I would guess over the years this carried over into my own work.
"But there was a conscious effort on my part to keep the inking to simple lifework and a very traditional colour palette. I find this sort of style is more inviting to new readers, especially to non-comic readers."
The move to Speakeasy signals a huge change for the "Butternutsquash" crew, moving from the web environment to print media, which Coughler explains will influence the series. "The first few issues will be a collection of our online fare, but with plenty of cool new extras and 'deleted strips' to be fresh for our regular web based fans.
"With each issue you will see less online strips and more original, never before seen items. By the third to fourth issue we plan to be running and entire comic of new material and expanded story lines."
Perez also feels that the new format will allow for a different approach to storylines, though fans need not worry: there'll be no Crisis here, Infinite or not. "Over the course of the past couple of years while working on the online comic we've had to cut short storylines as we tried not to carry a gag/story for more than four strips which would equate to about a month based on our schedule. We've also dropped other ideas completely because we felt that the funny strip punch line format wouldn't do them justice.
"With the Speakeasy book we will now have a chance to develop these ideas a bit more and create a more concise story that readers can follow. Also with issue 4 I will be adopting the regular comic book format for telling the stories - this will allow me to play with the art and visual dynamics more.
"I see the format of 'Butternutsquash' (beginning with issue 4) being similar to that of the Archie digests which contain short stories of varying lengths allowing them to tell 10 page tales or a one page joke. I think this is where 'Butternutsquash' will truly begin to shine."
Perez and Coughler have mentioned that special guest creators will be working on "Butternutsquash," and Perez is finally able to reveal who will join the book. "The format for Butternutsquash will be 40 pages. The first 30 (for the first three issues) will be devoted to reprinting the online comics rearranged to form a stronger storyline with new strips added in to smooth things out.
"The remaining 10 pages will be filled with other fun stuff. The first issue will contain six pin-ups; we'll have pieces from such people as Eric Kim ('Love As A Foreign Language' from Oni Press), Kalman Andrasofszky (artist from DC's 'iCandy'), Shane White (creator of 'North Country' for NBM) as well as a few more. We have to have a few surprises, so you'll have to pick up the book to find out the rest!"
If you haven't checked out the online scripts, or you're not one of those lucky Canadians who can watch "Hockey Night In Canada" and flip through the latest "Butternutsquash" strip in a local paper, Coughler hopes you check out the book. "'Butternutsquash' has a universal appeal because it is real. The characters have real elements to them that audiences relate to. Fans often tell us that their friend totally reminds them of a 'Butternutsquash' character.
"You can't really lead your audience with a 'soft gloves' approach nowadays," continued Coughler. "With reality TV and shock comedies, audiences have started getting bored. But you still have to connect with them or they'll never care where your story is going. You can't write like this if you're not willing to show the dirty laundry, that's why we've flown our leopard briefs high and proud."
And for the final word , Perez says, "As much as the stories are based on the lives of my friends and myself 'Butternutsquash' is the story of everyman - and that's why everyone can relate. We make everyday out to be the fun that it should be. I'd be hard pressed to find anybody who wouldn't find a bit of themselves or their friends in 'Butternutsquash' - and that's why they should pick up the book and give us a read!
"As for what's next - I have about another dozen ideas waiting to pop out and have their turn at entertaining people. But for now Butternutsquash deserves the spotlight!
"And perhaps a cartoon as well … nudge, nudge."