Interview: David Willis on “Shortpacked”
As the opening day of San Diego Comic-Con International looms ever closer, it seems only right to turn the spotlight on a webcomic that draws from the world of comic books and toy collecting — the often-overlapping fan cultures that have long provided the backbone of the comic convention scene. With that in mind, this week’s interview subject is David Willis, the author of one of the toy scene’s most popular webcomics, Shortpacked!
Since ending his celebrated series It’s Walky! in 2005 and turning his full attention to Shortpacked, Willis has managed to elevate his semi-autobiographical account of the lives of toy store employees to a prominent role in collectible toy culture — so much so, in fact, that Willis currently produces both the original, ongoing Shortpacked series and a special version of the comic for Toy News International, one of the most popular toy news sites on the ‘Net.
While much of the series chronicles the oddball cast of characters who work at the toy shop where the series’ main character, Ethan, earns a paycheck, the series often detours into commentary on superhero culture, contradictions and fandom, and rarely shies away from poking fun at the fan culture it calls its own.
I spoke with Willis about the origins of Shortpacked, his decision to "pull the drama tag" in the series, and what toys are on his must-buy list for this year’s Comic-Con.
COMICMIX: Can you tell me a bit about the reason you started Shortpacked? I know it started out semi-autobiographical, but what elements of your life at the time inspired you to run with Shortpacked and end It’s Walky!, your previous series?
DAVID WILLIS: It’s Walky! was coming to its natural end, and I wanted to try something different. I’ve collected toys for most of my life, but what really spawned Shortpacked! was working for a few years at Toys "R" Us. So much of retail work is spoofable. Laugh at the "Customer Protection Rackets" in Shortpacked! all you want, but they’re real. They’re just called something slightly nicer.
CMIX: Often, strips that start out somewhat autobiographical become less so as time goes on… is Shortpacked still "semi-autobiographical" to you?
DW: As long it’s about being a fan of toys and being a reluctant fan of reading message boards about toys, that semi-autobiographical hook will always be there. On the other hand, now I have to write this gay guy. That’s really tough, for a hot-to-trot, chick-banging, manly-man such as myself. Seriously, I’ve had sex with a woman. She even wanted to.
CMIX: I worked in a toy store throughout much of high school, so I get a kick out of a great many of the references in Shortpacked. What made this particular job such a great source of material for you?
DW: As I mentioned above, I’ve walked that employment road myself. Plus, there’s this intrinsic train wreck quality to the retail environment. On one hand, you have the "idea men" up the corporate ladder who’ve got crazy ideas to make quick easy money… ideas that totally work on paper! And this time, they’ll work! And on the other hand, you have the high school and college-aged employees who really don’t give a crap. It’s just not really a formula for success.
CMIX: The strip definitely took a turn when Robin pulled the "drama tag" — why did you chose to move the series in that direction and explore more dramatic storylines?
DW: If you insert a reasonable amount of drama and continuity, it really opens up the possibility for a wider range of humor. Comedy is seeing bad things happen to other people. Consider the Drama Tag storyline itself — sure, Amber’s abusive father was introduced, but that created a whole new framework for comedy as Robin tried to "fix" everything. It really opened up the world for more jokes.
CMIX: Ever since the drama tag was pulled, one of the recurring themes in the series is characters’ ambiguous sexualities. Can you tell me a bit about your thought process in deciding to make this a prominent theme?
DW: I don’t like to make things easy for myself, is all. Shortpacked!, if you had to categorize it, is a farce. It’s really easy to set up a girl/boy romance and have it play out. I should know, I did a buttload of them in It’s Walky!. But I’m more cynical these days, so every time one of the old romance tropes pops up, I end up subverting it.
CMIX: You’ve become somewhat of a celebrity in the toy collecting scene with your TNI series and convention reports. What have been some of your favorite experiences as you and Shortpacked have become more prominent in the toy collecting scene?
DW: I have always been a loudmouth who has cared way too much about things that aren’t really important. So in a way, it’s not too different at all. I get in trouble in the same ways now as I did before, but now it’s because I have a comic that’s read by a larger audience than the old message board of choice.
What I really enjoy is seeing the comics posted to message boards to help win (or stop) dumb arguments. I like to think I’ve made the hobby a teeny bit smarter. And you know it’s working when 4chan gets angry.
CMIX: As the admin for the Transformers Wiki, I have to ask: What is the best thing to happen to the Transformers universe in the last few years, and what is the worst thing?
DW: Oh, God, the movie. Forget the content of the movie itself. Let’s table that. Put it aside. What it’s done for the franchise is introduced Transformers to another generation of children, and given the franchise another 25 years. It’s to today’s kids what Generation 1 was to us. And it allowed things like Transformers Animated to come to pass. For five years we’d gotten this barely-translated anime dreck, and thanks to the mindless entertainment of Michael Bay, we have a shot at some good stories again.
The worst thing is how the franchise is increasingly feeding in on itself. There are only so many times you can redo the original 1984 cast. But at the same time, we’re at least getting two new directions, with the hyper-realistic, live-action movie designs and the super-stylized Animated stuff. So at least while we’re getting 30 different Prowls, they’ll all look wildly different.
CMIX: What’s next for Shortpacked?
DW: It’s hard to say! So much of it is by-the-minute reactions to whatever I come across online, be it the next Batman joke or someone new for Ethan to yell at. There is a slight story going on in the background of the store that is meandering, but I can’t really let those kind of secrets out. They’re too twisted.
CMIX: Are there any toys you’re looking forward to picking up at Comic-Con this year? I know you’ll be there with the Blank Label Comics crew…
DW: Let’s seee…. Titanium Skywarp, Classics Nemesis Prime, President Cobra Commander, probably the Galactic Heroes-style Snake-Eyes and Timber… Giganta from Mattel’s JLU line… and I’m sure Maggie will get the Futurama Santa-and-Bender set. Oh, and I need to try to pick up all these things for my local friends, too. Damn! Maybe I’ll have to enlist help. I have a booth to run, dammit!
Shortpacked! updates regularly throughout the week at www.shortpacked.com, and is a member of the Blank Label Comics webcomics collective. David Willis can be found at San Diego Comic-Con International this weekend at Booth #1330.
Want more interviews with webcomic creators? Check out the ComicMix Webcomic Interview Archive, and feel free to send your suggestions for interview subjects to: rick [at] comicmix [dot] com!