Joe Chiappetta Interview

He could’ve quite easily been a wrestler or chess champion if he followed his high school gifts, but ultimately Chicago resident Joe Chiappetta chose to become a cartoonist. And he’s been doing it for a remarkable two decades. After becoming a father Joe launched his Silly Daddy comic in 1991, starting in print and then working his way to the web in 2004. Along the way, he’s gathered Harvey and Ignatz nominations, as well as a Xeric Award in 1998. His deceptively simple, usually one panel gags seem to be inspired by both reality and fantasy. They are sometimes groan inducing, sometimes thought provoking and more often than not, just simply funny.

Was this always going to be your dream job, rather than part-time wrestler/part-time chess champion, or were you always going to be some sort of artist?

Not exactly. At the age of four I wanted to be a police car when I grew up. I’m serious. The black and white blocky cop cars from the ’70s were so impressive to me. And they had such important duties –carrying guns and bad guys. However, by my early teen years, the idea of being an artist became more of a drive for me. Yet in retrospect, I do acknowledge that both the career paths of an artist and a police car were equally obnoxious. It still baffles me today that many of my key teachers in high school and college encouraged me to get further into fine arts as a career. And that’s what I did, completely oblivious to the fact that the demand for new fine artists was microscopic compared to high growth industries like the healthcare field. Yet I was willing and eager to drink the Kool Aid that the fine arts field was serving. I came out of Northern Illinois University thinking that becoming the next Andy Warhol was only a few paintings away. Being dangerously prolific and self-centered coming out of college, I had time to not just make great paintings, but also make comics while the oil paint was drying. I never dreamed that the mini-comics I was printing would get more praise and money than the paintings… but that is exactly what happened. And that is why today my social networking profiles say, “Cartoonist” in the occupation category rather than “Artist.”

What were the challenges and blessings of moving from print to the web as your medium of choice?

The biggest challenge of moving focus to webcomics over print comics for me is the eye strain of looking at the light emitting from the computer screen. In fact that’s why I was very slow to expand my web presence as the internet became more commonplace. Before I knew what to call this condition, I would get intense burning and aching in my eyes that I couldn’t explain. It turns out that I have something called “photophobia.” Literally it means “fear of light,” but practically, it means my eyes are more sensitive to light than the majority of other people. At first I thought it was some sort of made-up wimpy gen-x health disease, but after going to a few doctors in real pain, and struggling for years to get work done using a computer the way most people do, I finally accepted the truth of it; my eyes were not invincible. Once I accepted this, then I was able to make a number of adaptations to how I use the computer so it isn’t a pain to look at.

What are some of the adaptations you’ve made to still be able to use the computer?

It’s a lot of little things that make a big difference. Used in tandem, I can pretty much use the computer just as long as the next person. But take away just one of these and it’s like kryptonite:
1) Lower the screen contrast and screen brightness on every device you use. I even do this on my Pocket PC Phone.
2) Increase the screen font size on every device you use.
3) Lower your screen resolution. This makes everything bigger.
4) Keep desktop monitors about two arm’s lengths away from your eyes.
5) Take a lot of breaks.
6) Wear sunglasses as needed on screen.

7) Make your website background black. That is the only reason that my site is colored the way it is. It has nothing to do with how some people say art looks good on a black background. I could care less about that. For me it’s a health issue. I can look at my own site longer without pain in the eyes because the dark background blocks a lot of the screen from blasting my eyes. So that’s the biggest challenge for me. Back to your question about what are the blessings of moving from print to webcomics, there are so many. The biggest one is ease of distribution. I scan an image, press upload and publish, and bam. It is available to the entire online population. That’s a big contrast to the laboring I drudged through: prepping the work for the printer, getting printer quotes, dealing with packaging books, paying for shipping, dealing with distributors, etc. There’s no comparison. Click — I’m done.

How has becoming a Christian changed how you view your work?

When I started in the art field, I couldn’t say this but now I can; being a cartoonist is not my main purpose for living and comics are not my god anymore. Let me explain that, because it’s not like I was bowing down three times a day to a statue of the comic god. One of the definitions of “god” is this: “one that is worshipped, idealized or followed.” And that is exactly what I was doing with my cartooning. I was devoted to it — so much so that there was little left to give to other relationships. Can you get some impressive art and comics out of such a setup –where the artist is fully committed, and in essence, worshipping his craft of making art? Absolutely. But then when you go and look at the relationships in that artist’s life, they are usually a mess. That was me. That’s where my heart was: worshipping, idealizing and following the business of comics. It should come as no surprise that this is one of the definitions of “god.” I was a practicing idolater. It should also come as no surprise that such a life may be filled with incredible activity, but that life is also terribly empty. Having other high-profile cartoonist like Jeff Smith of “Bone” plug my work is certainly an honor. But it doesn’t keep me warm at night. Again, that was me. Creative people are so susceptible to the pull of idolizing their career that many of them are simply unprepared to recognize and oppose the pull of idolatry. They think idolatry is just some sort of ancient practice that the uh… the people in that one third world country still do with statues and stuff. But it’s much more than that. Idolatry is alive and well in the entertainment industry. So becoming a Christian has exposed all these truths to me about what I was doing with my life: how unloving I had been compared to the love of Jesus Christ. That’s the kind of love that I want. And that’s the kind of love that all people really hope for, whether they acknowledge it or not. There’s a proverb that says, “What a man desires is unfailing love,” and that is so true. Who doesn’t want that? But only one person gives that sort of love — Jesus. He proved that on the cross. Everyone else, as hard as they try, will eventually fail you. But Jesus doesn’t fail. He conquers death. That’s where the real action is. So I must get in line with his plan. What that understanding does to me as a cartoonist is it puts things in perspective. Now cartooning is just another thing that I do, like riding a bicycle. But it’s not who I am. It’s like Number 6 would always say defiantly to the bad guys in the Prisoner TV series, “I am not a number. I am a free man.” In my case, I have become free in Christ. I am his disciple. That’s who I am. I also happen to make comics.

What has the response been like from your readers? Are there many other parents out there who can identify with your lessons and adventures?

The response continues to amaze me. Of course parents have a special appreciation for my work since they live this stuff every day. But most surprising is that I also gather deep interest and readership loyalty from people nowhere near having kids. They just appreciate the laughs and insight in a safe family place. Who doesn’t want that?

In a 3 year period, you received nominations for Harvey and Ignatz Awards, and then won the Xeric Award in 1998. Was that level of recognition a sigh of relief for you, knowing that people appreciated your work?

I think that’s a good way to put it. But awards and nominations are tricky, especially back then when my security was in my work and not in God. So once I started getting nominated for awards, the relief gave way to anxiety. I was looking for joy through the status that comes from awards and reviews. And so it became a point of frustration when I didn’t win or didn’t get nominated now and then. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with awards. In fact, if you’re giving one I’ll gladly take it. But I developed a bad attitude about them. I was the problem. I sought the praise that comes from men rather than the praise of God. And again, that is a dead end trip.

I hope you don’t mind me telling the world you are 40 years old this year, which effectively means you’ve been a cartoonist for half of your life. Is it still as scary/frustrating/rewarding today as it was when you first began?

Oh, not at all. Back when I started doing comics, all my hope, joy and faith rested on the success or failure of my comics. Anyone in the industry for more than a minute knows that this was a recipe for disaster. So now when I do comics, my hope, joy and faith is not in them. My hope joy and faith is in God. So if the Internet gets destroyed and no one can access Silly Daddy webcomics anymore, my faith doesn’t go down with the ship. What I am trying to say is that back when I started, my emotional investment was in cartooning. Think about that. I was beholden to the whims of a industry being overrun with video games, decreasing readership patterns, decreasing retail outlets and increasing corporate dominance. It’s crazy to be emotionally vested in such a situation. But that’s what I did. I can’t really say that I have a better attitude about approaching the comics industry because I am older, wiser, and have spent half my life in it. But I can say that I have a better perspective on navigation through the comics industry securely because of the clarity that comes from following Jesus Christ.

You’ve covered some pretty broad subjects over the course of Silly Daddy. Do you find there are certain themes that you continue to revisit?

Humor is huge in the series, but I don’t guarantee humor every time. Instead I go for profound or preposterous, and humor is often part of the mix. Most of the recurring themes in Silly Daddy revolve around family situations, particularly parenting, marriage and relationships. Then there is a much smaller percentage of my work that has a surreal, sci-fi, technology or Christian theme.

Those last four themes seem like an odd mix.

I think that’s why it works so well. I would boot up the Christian Robot strips as an example.

There must be times when you simply don’t feel like creating three new strips a week, and you just want to spend the day in front of the TV watching day time soap operas. How do you keep the momentum going?

Hah! My days of watching daytime soap operas (General Hospital) are long gone. But I know what you mean. Thinking in pictures really helps to keep the momentum going. You might say that is how I’m wired. I say that’s how God makes certain people. I think we all have been given some ability to think in pictures, but for most artists, thinking in pictures is a gift from God. The problem comes when you don’t acknowledge the giver. That’s when you turn the gift into a curse. Back to the question, on days when the ideas aren’t flowing like a river, I use to panic and think I was all washed up. But now I understand that there is a time for everything. On such days I might just do sketches or focus on other aspects of the business.

How do you see the future of your work, (besides perhaps Silly Grand Daddy?) Do you think you’ll ever go back to print on a regular basis?

Just to set the record straight, it’s not that I have abandoned print comics. Rather, in between big collections of my work, instead of releasing singe comic book issues of my work, which is so labor intensive, I will just release them on the web. Then when I have enough material for a solid collection of new Silly Daddy comics, a new book will come out. My next big graphic novel will most likely be called, “Silly Daddy Short Stuff” and it will be full color. In fact I am also toying with the idea of releasing the graphic novel at the same time I release a science fiction novel (all text) that I wrote. The working title on that is “Star Chosen.” But I might just call it Silly Daddy in Space. Yeah, I’m real creative — it’s about a father… in the future.

Finally, are you still a Silly Daddy after fifteen years of parenting, or have you now become Serious Daddy?

I think my wife and kids would agree that I still range between the two extremes: silly and serious. The difference now, and I do hope readers continue to pick up on it, is that reading Silly Daddy, you see the silly, the serious, plus the big deal: the everlasting joy.

New Silly Daddy comics can be seen every Monday, Wednesday and Friday here.