Phil Nelson, Creator of Coconuts Comics
Phil in his studio. see more >>
 
Interview with Phil Nelson
by Shirley Harshenin

This issue I chat it up with Phil Nelson, one of our fadulous cartoonists! Phil's the creator of Coconuts Comics - A crazy mixed-bag of characters whose endlessly absurd and hilarious ventures on a small desert island are the basis for this witlessy witty race to the edge of madness.

 

 



SH: Hey Phil! Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Let’s start with the basics: How did you get started in cartooning?

Prehistoric Times  
Prehistoric Times

PN: I can't sing and dance. Actually, I CAN sing and dance, just don't wanna go on the road. I'm a homebody.

I started drawing as early as I can remember, but I didn't get serious about it until a little over a year ago. Never had any ambition, until one day it hit me: I'm gonna spend the rest of my days working in this lousy print shop unless I actually do something about it. I may very well do just that, but it won't be for lack of trying to get somewhere better.

SH: I don’t see that happening, Phil. Coconuts is too good to sit on the back burner for long.

When was Coconuts born? How? Why? And all that?

PN: Gee, that's a loaded question...I vaguely recall trying to draw Charlie Brown and Snoopy when I was six years old. I drew boxes around them and called it Coconuts. I thought Walnuts, or Pistachio Nuts sounded awkward. I drew constantly when I was young, but got away from it for twenty years until my daughter got old enough to appreciate my drawings. They made her laugh, so I made up a strip about two characters I invented as a kid. Luke Warm was actually my pen name when I took a creative writing course in high school. I drew his face with a stick in the dirt between two giant maple tree roots when I was in first grade. Bananu is a Tarzan rip-off I invented when I was twelve. I was really into Tarzan books. I wanted to live in the African jungle when I grew up, and that was my jungle name.

I'm not technically a very good artist. I draw like the ancient Egyptians. They too never mastered the art of perspective, so I figured it best to keep it simple. A desert island setting requires only a crude depiction of sand and ocean, and that's it.

Fishy EatsWhen I started it, I was so careful to keep it real. The guys were always hungry, bored out of their skulls, and sometimes getting eaten by Fishy. Of course, THAT they could come back from.

Then, again, one day it just hit me. What's WRONG with you? It's a freakin' comic strip, stupid! You can do whatever you feel like doing! That was very liberating.

The crabs are my little tribute to Walt Kelly. He did a brilliant strip called Pogo about a possum in the Okeefenokee swamp. While the main characters acted out the main plot, he'd have little birds or mice or some other little critter making side comments that were often the best part of the strip.

Fishy is there mainly because I like sharks. They have that great primeval look. I have Bananu look like a fairly normal person so I can draw Luke as insanely demented as I'm able. Drawing his face is my favorite part of the strip

SH: Oh yes, the crabs are a perfect, vital part of the Coconuts strips! Too many bang-on moments to list, really, but one that comes to mind is Crabby’s side comment to Luke and Bananu’s discussion of birds not being able to pick their noses: “Not a bird!” says Crabby, nostrils flared, claw digging deep! Oh crap, it’s the element of surprise, the unexpected, that got me! Who’d expect that? hahaha

Another more subtle side humor you add to the strips is the sun!

The many faces of Sun.

You just can’t skim these babies, you’ll miss the layers of humor both written and drawn. I mean, I can reread some of these series several times and pick up new subtleties every time!

You downplay your artistic abilities; some of the scenes you’ve created certainly defy that statement. Like in the Frankenstein series, the scenes you drew of the occupants in the cabin are fantastic!

Frankenstein frame
Frankenstein frame

And some of the outdoor snowy nature scenes in Vacation are beautiful!

Which are some of the scenes you are most proud of?

PN: Some ideas work better than others, but definitely the winter scenes from the Vacation series. The single panel of the "dear deer”, was real proud of.

'Dear Deer' - Vacation Series

I copied it from a Christmas card my aunt sent me. As soon as I opened it I just had to find some way to use it.

Golf SeriesRapunzel in her window with the messy bird. I ripped that off from one of my daughter's fairy-tale books. I like it when I use some reference material and it works. It's more of a challenge to solve a problem than it is to just doodle talking heads.

One thing I'm MOST proud of is the Haunted Forest of the Golf Classic series.

I had NO idea what I was doing, just kept crosshatching sort of aimlessly. When they light the candle and see the big cat for the first time, that actually came out BETTER than I imagined it would. That don't happen that often!

SH: Oh yeah, that was well done, Weldon! Oops, sorry. Can't say "well done" singularly now  thanks to that Daryl the Deplorable scene in the Creative Writing series.

PN: I also have to mention the Adrift series, when the guys are sinking and get accidentally saved by the sea monsters. I have a 1930 edition of "Moby Dick" with beautiful illustrations by Rockwell Kent. The scene where the guys are flying through the air, I copied the background from one of his etchings. Not nearly as effective as the original, but I really got to stretch myself there. Also want to say, that series was inspired by another of my favorite books, "Adrift", by Steven Callahan. It's the true story of his experience being lost at sea in a rubber raft for 76 days. Riveting stuff.

Adrift

SH: Oh yes, that is a great scene!

PN: The writing is what I really think makes the strip. I think some of the best writing I've done is in the two Bootman series. That's when I started using the thesaurus a lot, and really having fun with wordplay, and alliteration. One of my very favorite strips is the finale of the first Bootman. All the alliteration I thought was good enough for a wrap-up, but the eating the thesaurus gag popped into my head. Really proud of that one. Oh! The Delirium production's presentation of Gone Was My Mind from the Treasure Hunt series. That's one of my favorite segues when Bananu offers to direct the bit.

'Gone Was My Mind' Production

SH: Hehehe...yeah, there were several coffee spluttering gags in that production for sure!

It’s amazing how you transform Luke and Bananu and even the crabs (ie. The Dream series, where one of the crabs becomes the Great God Crabbeus!) into all kinds of animals, characters and creatures!

As wild as it gets, your guys are always recognizable. Talent, my man!

The Guys in Disguise

And no matter which character you’re drawing, you manage to nail facial & body expressions throughout! I’m impressed.

Are the characters based on any real people?

PN: The characters are all just figments of my imagination. Coconuts is a place I go to get AWAY from people I know.

SH: Luke appears outright simple and teetering on the edge of sanity, whereas Bananu comes off as the brains (and self-proclaimed beauty!) of the pair, but reality reveals itself rapidly. They’re both NUTS!

I love the way Luke uses the “Tom Sawyer” maneuver in the Treasure Hunt, and similarly in The Bag series.

I mean, Bananu goes from not wanting to see what’s in Luke’s bag, (aka Mabel), to falling in love with it/her!

As much as Bananu would like to maintain his “image”, Luke’s absurd ideas and ventures lure him in every time.

So, you’re absolutely sure these guys are not based on real people, eh?

Phil and Bananu

What equipment and materials do you use? Do you have a studio? Or designated room?

PN: I use India-ink pens, Faber-Castille, mostly. The paper for my originals is 28lb. Hammermill 11 X 17. It's great!

I do have a "studio" in the basement. I have my drawing table, giant ashtray, drink holder, and a completely disorganized collection of pens of varying line thicknesses. I use a total of around 5 or 6 different pens. Also keep many little bottles of white-out, a GREAT tool. Gets cold in the winter, so I keep a barely functioning space heater between my feet. I like to call my studio, "Bob Cratchit's Office."

SH: In an ideal world where money isn't an object (hahaha) what tools/materials would you add to your "staples"? I know in the web building world, there are a few items I'd like to have...but yeah, money is an object. blah. But it's good to dream!

PN: Money is a HUGE object! If I could have the resources to replicate what I see in my head, well...I see a lot. Someday I hope to make it visible to the masses.

SH: Where do the ideas – some of them are truly mad – come from? I know I asked you this question a while back, and your answer cracked me up: "I just have a conversation with myself, and write it down." Want to elaborate on that?

PN: The ideas are the best part of the job. I sit in front of my drawing table, stare at blank paper, and try to make myself laugh...then I put down the text, and pencil in the rough ideas.

Ideas are everywhere - books, movies, conversations I have with other people, including myself. The donuts/go nuts/DOING donuts scene in the Vacation series, I got from a story YOU told me. I just kind of keep my mind open to any and all sorts of conversations and scenarios. What would be my response if someone asked me this? What would be THEIR response to that? And on...and on........and on.......zzzzzzzzzz...

Family Reunion - Survey

SH: Do you ever use real events as a base for your strips? I know the Family Reunion series was inspired by a real event, but were any of the events in the strip based on real events at the reunion? or is that not somewhere we want to go? hehehe

PN: Yes, the Family Reunion series. I attended a family reunion last August in the Blue Ridge mountains of Georgia. It was held at this sprawling cabin resort, so cousins, siblings, aunts, uncles etc. were scattered far and wide. To get from one end of the resort to the other, you had to drive through this raging mountain river that crossed the main "road." So everyone's driving rental cars and complaining about driving them through this little stream that was probably all of 12" deep. That's where the gag about the sand bar came about. We also visited a scenic waterfall. My cousins from the wilderness of the west scoffed at its unimpressive size. Also my sister took my keys and left me stranded at the top of a mountain. Luckily I got a ride down from one of my cousins. That's the "gimme my keys" gag. Oh yes, there was cheating at poker by my cousin Scott, a survey that nobody filled out, and lots of drinking. It was beautiful.

SH: Right on, Phil. Sounds like a good time.

Which cartoonists have inspired you?

PN: Charles Schultz got me at an early age. I still love Peanuts. Walt Kelly was so great; I steal a lot of his ideas. Looney Toon Cartoons...the Three Stooges. Anybody I thought that had talent. You can tell right away. Charles Shultz, Walt Kelly, Dik Browne, Johnny Hart, Al Capp...and of course Ray Collins, creator of syndicated comic strip Cecil and Dipstik, currently presiding over the Bolder Bugle. Great site! Check it out! heh-heh My biggest influence over anything or anybody was Walt Disney. My mom never failed to take me to see one of his movies when they came to a theater near us. Bambi, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, all of 'em. They absolutely blew me away. His old black and white cartoons got me to think, well, I can't do the raindrops scene from Bambi with a pen and paper, but Steamboat Willie without the movement, THAT I could shoot for.

Also I'd be grossly remiss if I didn't mention Dr. Suess and Maurice Sendak as influences. I read A LOT of Dr. Suess when I was young. Horton Hatches an Egg, Horton Hears a Who, Fox in Socks. I won't run down every title, but one of his stories that really made an impression on me was Green Pants with Nobody Inside Them. It was really creepy, but it fascinated me.

Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are was a great book. The bedroom turning into a forest was just such a beautiful fantasy, and the wild things were so imaginative...that book made a big impression on me.

SH: Which cartoons/comic strips do you read regularly? Which is your favorite?

PN: I do read the comics every day, but my favorites are mostly old ones. I like Zits, and Mutts. Hagar the Horrible went to Hell in a Handbasket when Dik Browne died. That was one of the best strips when he did it. That's all I gotta say about that.

SH: I think it's important for Coconuts readers to know that these guys are on a deserted island. That is key in getting the wildly-whacked humor/insanity of their every action and thought. I mean, it's all in their heads, eh?

Writing CirclesPN: That's a really good question, because I'm stumped! I suppose I can't really say where the line between reality and delusion exists. I honestly have never thought of it. I just try to make myself laugh. If I do, it's in, whether it be a pun, bad play on words, random prop, or hideous drag queen. I just attempt to write nonsensical escapist material.

SH: It’s funny, because I too never really thought about it. It was my fifteen year old daughter who wanted to know!

How much time, say in any given week, do you devote to cartooning?

PN: I do a new strip every day. I come home from work, eat something, and make a beeline for Bob Cratchit's office. It's my favorite part of the day. Depending on the size and complexity of the strip, it can take anywhere from one to three hours, much of that time spent looking for the right pen, erasing, applying white-out, and changing cds.

SH: How long does it take to do one strip? Tell me a bit about the process.

PN: A double strip, black and white, takes about two hours. It took me just about two and a half hours from beginning to end to finish the Frankenstein finale , and it's a double-size strip. It varies, too...sometimes I have the whole thing laid out in my head before I sit down, and I LaLaLaLabreeze through it. I had a bloody FIT with that frame where Bananu has his arms over his head saying "lalalala, can't HEAR you". I tried like 10 or 15 times to pose him FACING the viewer with his hands over his ears. FITS!!! I stood in front of the mirror, had my wife Julie pose for me, and STILL couldn't get it, but that doesn't happen often. Sometimes I forget my limitations. Anyhow, after I draw the frames, I do all the lettering, then pencil the figures in, do all the basic inking, which is just outlines of the figures, then I do the shading, backgrounds, and ALWAY the last thing is, give Bananu's hair its "highlights". Then Luke's mouth and eye "make-up" as I like to call it. THEN I can sign and date it! Sorry you asked? TOO BAD!!! Nobody else ever does, so you were BOUND to get an earful, hope I didn't disappoint!

SH: Not at all!

Which Coconuts series, thus far, would you say is your favorite? And why?

PN: Oh, geez, I love all of 'em. They're all so GREAT! Ha-ha...really, if you're gonna make me PICK one...and you are, aren't you? I'd have to say the Golf Classic series. Because that's when I realized where I could go with this. I had a real sort of epiphany when I got to the end of it. Laura had eaten the big cat, and Bananu is carrying her out of the Haunted Forest, and that was gonna be the end of it. Then it just popped in my head. Luke says, "I found my ball!" I was just really satisfied with what I thought to be a nice, neat little wrap-up.

My favorite parts are the finales, some work better than others, but I think my real best one was the Vacation series finale and epilogue.

SH: Oh I agree with you on that! LOVED the Vacation series finale and epilogue. hehehe

The Golf Series – Yeah, Laura eating the big cat, that was RANDOM! And perfect! And Luke finding his ball was the icing on the cake, for sure!

PN: Another favorite series, The Odyssey. THAT'S when I realized I could just let my imagination go wild, at least within the restrictions of my drawing abilities. The Magic Mountains, the Mad Marshes...all the surreal shape changing...I did ALOT of stuff that I decided to scrap because it was getting so "out there", I was afraid it wouldn't make sense to the casual reader, so I had to rein myself in more than a few times. But it was really fun breaking all of my self-imposed "rules." Also the finale with the octopus and hairdresser on break I felt was a real nice wrap-up.

Magic Mountains

Mad Marshes

The Frankenstein series was something I'd wanted to do for a long time, but thought it was too complex to address when I was just getting started. It's such a familiar story of pop-culture, but the actual novel is a truly disturbing and emotionally moving piece of writing. I tried to bring some of that into it while keeping it light and remembering that this IS a comic strip. I've read it many times, and it was fun interspersing some of the original text with my own input. I may go back to it someday when my skills are more developed, but am very proud of what I ended up with.

Frankie, Play with me!

SH: Where do you want Coconuts to go? I know where I think it should go – to syndication!

PN: I just wanna make some money from it. Really, it's lots of fun, but baby needs a new pair o' shoes, y'know? Actually, I'm starting to think of it as more of a storyboard for an animated project. Just a thought, don't have the resources for that sort of thing. But yeah, syndication would be great! Maybe if I dumb it down a bit, I'll have a shot!

SH: What have been your greatest obstacles in getting Coconuts the visibility it deserves?

PN: There is SUCH a glut of online comics. It really is mind boggling. What do you do short of jumping off a building to get noticed? I don't know!

SH: Yeah, there are so many online comics, most very amateur and senseless. Not in the same league as Coconuts.

Do you draw/cartoon for any other strips?

PollyPN: Funny you should ask! I do the drawings for a political strip on this very site called The Perils of Patriotic Polly. Carol Novack writes the scripts and I do the drawings. It's a lot of fun, because Carol's nuts, and I have to interpret somebody else's material. Very challenging, and I love the characters, especially Hump and Frith...such hideous, naughty boys...heh-heh-heh...

SH: Indeed they are! Polly’s definitely got her work cut out for her!

You’ve used real-life people/characters in your strips. Clint Eastwood in The Ol’ Wild West series, which I LOVED!

Clint Eastwood 1
Clint Eastwood 2
Jesus

You’ve even featured Jesus in The Da Pinchy Code. Any plans for future celebs appearing in Coconuts?

PN: Good question! Yeah, I REALLY wanted to do something with Keith Richards falling out of a coconut tree a while back...heh-heh...I love the guy. Just a thought.

 

SH: Love your spoofs, Phil – The Da Pinchy Code, Frankenstein, Romeo & Juliet and of course the Bootman & Ribbon and Bootman Rebooted series, to name a few! Your whacked, off-the-wall renditions are a hoot! Never know what’s going to happen! Your character depictions are fantastic – I mean, Luke Warm as Juliet?! "Well, I do feel pretty" His pure and simple inanity makes him irresistibly lovable. And Laura the Mermaid as Jesus’s mother, Mary. "Immaculate, my ass! He was done in two minutes!" Love it!

Any other films or historical events in the works for future strips?

PN: Oh, yeah! I've had an idea to do something with Greek or Roman mythology that I haven't quite got a handle on yet. Also been thinking about Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. I mean I KNOW who would play who, but then again it could go the other way, too. Lots more.

SH: Oh cool, Phil. Can't wait!

There are so many frames that have made me burst out laughing. Honestly, I’ll be sitting quietly at my PC working away and read a certain dialogue, or see the expression on one of the character’s faces and that’s it - coffee splutters all over my keyboard and monitor. Hubby or one of the kids will hear and say, “Coconuts again?” hahaha

I think one of my all-time favorite frames is when Laura catches Bananu kissing, Mabel (the bag of sand!). Oh man, nothing could’ve prepared me for THAT! hahaha Which scenes have just made you lose it? I mean, I know you’ve "lost it" a long time ago…hahaha… but answer the question, eh?

PN: Frames that ALWAYS work for me are when Luke dresses in drag. The pink parasol scene, Juliet, oh yeah! Edgar Allan Ho' is one of my favorites. I just think a guy in women’s clothes, especially underwear is funny. The Three Stooges did that a lot, and it always cracked me up, still does. At the end of the Odyssey, the bunny ears behind Bananu's head. Bootman reading the Poker's mail, and "dibs on Cosmo".

SH: Yes! Me too. All of those! hahaha

Also the frame in the Vacation series where Bananu’s entire body’s buried in a snow bank save for his feet (thanks to Luke taking over the wheel, spinning a donut in a desperate attempt to not miss the donut shop, knocking Bananu clear outta the boat!), and Luke straight-facedly says, “Why are looking at me like that?”

Another frame that makes me laugh every time is the one with Bootman and Ribbon free-falling past the mean goblin. "Ignore him, Ribbon. Act casual."

Love that! hahaha I mean, how can one act casual whilst free-falling from heights unknown to depths not yet reached whilst the mean goblin hover-hovers, smugly watching the “casual” clods whiz by! But they DO it! hahahaha

Oh yeah, and the "privacy fence" with the peep hole for "watching baseball games for free". Hahahahaha….baseball games? On a deserted island. And a privacy fence? There’s just two of 'em on the island! hahahaha Yeah, I LOVE that one!

 

I know you use the mirror to try and get the different character poses, and there are some challenging ones.

What about some of their "outfits"? I notice the guys have quite a varied and revealing skank wardrobe! Anything you want to say about that? I mean, where do you get the ideas for those outfits, eh?

PN: I'm a fashion designer on the side, ha-ha. I just make 'em up. I want Luke to look sexy, like Bugs Bunny in drag. He was a dream, y'know? If he's gonna wear women's clothes, I don't want him looking like a frump!

SH: Indeed! You’d do well as a drag designer, the guys never look like “frumps” when in drag. hahaha

You mention Disney being a big influence. I see Cinderella makes a cameo in the Creative Writing series. Who else of the Disney characters are we going to see?

PN: He's working his way through the princesses, heh-heh. Actually my first idea to end the Dream series was for Bananu to be Sleeping Beauty, and Luke to be Prince Philip. They were gonna be waltzing around like the end of the movie with swirling pink and blue for a background. I just couldn't get it right, figures in perspective, y'know? So I had to abandon that idea. Who knows in the future? Snow White and the Seven Crabs? Someday, my prince will come....

SH: Snow White and the Seven Crabs! Love that idea. hahaha

On the topic of character cameos, the Invisible Man’s made repeat appearances, beginning with the Series Series, then pubbing it with Mabel, and then again in the Vacation series. Will we be seeing more of him?

Somehow I think yes.

PN: The Invisible Man will definitely be back! I love him. He's so easy to draw.

SH: Hahaha, for sure.

Color is a recent addition to some of your strips. Is this an avenue you want to continue? Expand upon? Coconuts stands strong all its own, but the color really is an eye-catcher, eh?!

LOVE this addition, although I’m sure it takes a fair amount more time to do color than black and white.

PN: Yeah, I LOVE IT! Especially since I've had A LOT of help recently with the backgrounds. The computer generated effects have turned the strip into a whole new animal, and I like it. My goal right now is to try finding a program so I can do everything myself. Been looking but no luck so far.

SH: All in good time, eh?

Well, thanks so much, Phil. It's been great getting a bit of background on these nutty characters I've grown to depend on for laughs, and learning about the cartooning process! Well done, Weldon!

PN: I REALLY want to thank you for asking me to do this Shirley. It's a great opportunity to expose myself before people who might not otherwise know about my strip. Cyberspace can be such a disconnected world, y'know? You wonder if there's anybody out there, so...thanks for being out there...ha-ha...now it's time for The Good, The Bad, and The Studly to go hit a western saloon. See ya!

More Mad Hatter Comics:
'Tristan, Miss Julie and Steve' by Marja Hagborg
'The Perils of Patriotic Polly' by Carol Novack & Phil Nelson
by Marja Hagborg
by Carol Novack & Phil Nelson
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last update: June 25, 2007