I was 13 years old when I got my first computer. As I hopped between Livejournal, Napster chatrooms, anarchist forums, and MSN Messenger, I discovered something darker than anything I'd ever seen before: Neil Swaab's Rehabilitating Mr. Wiggles comics.
While Mr. Wiggles wasn't the internet's first webcomic, it was my first webcomic, and the overwhelming incongruity between the strips in the Saturday paper and Swaab's deviant panels about a drunken teddy bear on the screen before me delighted my tween-aged mind. I dropped shocking and hilarious links into chat windows and Hotmail threads as pals and I shook in hushed, secret giggles to comics both relatively innocent, decidedly un-parent friendly, and shockingly inappropriate. Over the years, Mr. Wiggles somehow made its way into major newspapers and magazines across the world, and also released a number of trade paperback collections.
After over a decade, Swaab laid Mr. Wiggles to rest on comic number 666 (hail Satan) after the movie Ted pretty much killed Swaab's Hollywood negotiations for the feature film or animated series fans were hoping for. While he tells me there's no chance of a reboot for the much nastier, much funnier Wiggles bear, Swaab isn't bitter: "I don't think Seth MacFarlene stole my idea or anything, I'm not one of those crackpots" (apparently the conspiracy theories are real).
When Swaab announced this spring that his new book—The Secrets to Ruling School (Without Even Trying)—would be intended for middle schoolers, I wasn't surprised, since those were the years was when I was first thrilled by Swaab's weird and terrible world (which has since coloured animated series like SuperJail, Ugly Americans, and Annoying Orange). But I was curious how someone could let this happen.
The Secrets to Ruling School is almost a choose-your-own-adventure–style journey—except that you, the new kid in school, are helpless, and your only choice is to follow middle-school survivalist Max Corrigan as he introduces you to school cliques and tries to make you cool, or possibly ruin your life. Secrets isn't a comic book—it's actually a pretty handy guide. Tweens learn different types of comedy, how to fake genius—"Just go about your regular day like always, but tell everyone it's performance art!"—plus how to forge a signature, hack email, lie to the principal, or skip class.
Some of those might be a little troubling to parents, but this isn't for parents—this is for kids to pass around gleefully. Dids who, in Swaab's/Corrigan's words, "just want to make their horrible lives a little better."
Swaab himself seems unsurprised by his own leap from the world of shock humour to teen-lit, which I find comforting: why should there be a gap at all, when the tweenage years are often life's most brutal? I chatted with Swaab over Skype about his second chance at adolescence as the creator of Max Corrigan's Middle School Services, and the guidebook we both wish we'd had at thirteen.
VICE: Is The Secrets to Ruling the School really just for middle schoolers?
Swaab: It's pretty much for middle schoolers or kids entering middle school—but obviously there are adults who could enjoy it. I tried to write it for everybody, but the target audience is kids in middle school.
Do you wish you had this guide when you were a kid?
Yeah, definitely. It's funny and interesting, and I liked thinking about how to game the system, so that experience would have been a very cool thing for me. In terms of if there was anything I actually would have used, probably not, because I was such a goody-goody little nerdy kid. This would have blown my mind, even to read it; when I was that age, the idea of even doing something wrong would have blown my mind.
What was middle school like for you? I picture you in the "class clown" clique.
Oh god, no. I was painfully quiet, awkward, kind of heavy, and had a mullet. Definitely nerdy: I was in all the smart classes but didn't have a lot of friends, didn't know how to talk to people. Middle school was definitely awful. It was really terrifying. It's the worst time because it's when kids are at their cruelest, because they're so focused on fitting in and identifying anything about you that's different or weird, and pulling it apart as much as they can. And that's what you're obsessed with too: you don't have any idea who you are, and all you want it to have some friends, get through the day, and not get made fun of or embarrassed. And it's constant embarrassment and getting made fun of and feeling like an outsider.
Where did the idea for writing a guidebook for middle school, of all things, come from?
I've had this idea for a long time: I used to work as an art director at a big publisher, and had been working for publishers for many years, and was reading tons of these middle grade books. I had this idea for doing something like a guide book for kids that would be a cool "here's how to get through life" thing—not so specialized as "middle school," but just a general guide that wasn't fiction.
Eventually I started wrapping my head around the idea of doing something fun and comical for it. I had two connections who really liked my work: my editor Charlie Kochman who did Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and then my friend Chad Beckerman who had also moved over to Abrams. We kept running into each other—I think we ran into each other at a MOCCA convention a few years back—and finally, that idea I'd had years ago clicked. We had this idea of mixing a fictional story with a how-to guide. So that's how the idea evolved.
I have to remind myself that you're not the guy from Mr. Wiggles, you're just a nice man who can draw. Where did those two characters come from?
The character of Neil really was based around me: a bald guy who looks kinda like me. He was me but a much more extreme version—a caricature. Much in the same way Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm isn't the real Larry David, it's just a strained caricature of who he sees himself as.
So that character was definitely me, but Mr. Wiggles—I mean, they're all me in some way, as a writer it's always some aspect of your personality. Mr. Wiggles was really the id unchecked, like what you think about in your worst thoughts if nobody said "hey, that's bad, don't think that." So I gave freedom to that and put an image on it.
That character started with a drawing first. I'd drawn—it looked kind of like a teddy bear, but I think it was an alien or something. It was cute and cuddly, and then there was this grotesque alien it was friends with, and the joke in the comic was that the evil character was the adorable one. The comic was for my school paper, and when the deadline came, at the very last minute I swapped out the monster character for myself.
Mr. Wiggles ended up in some pretty huge papers. How did that happen?
The climate was a little different back then. When I graduated college, I started sending it out to all these newspapers. There used to be alternative weeklies in every major metropolitan weekly—they've died off, which is part of why I don't do the comic anymore—and immediately got picked up by one in my hometown in Detroit, and one in New York, where I'd just moved. That really helped me get picked up, and every year it was growing more.
I launched the comic in 1999 and it was on the web by 2000, and there weren't a lot of webcomics back then. You still had to know HTML and FTP to get stuff onto the web. So that was great too, because I got a very large web presence, and as the web picked up more people were reading my comic. I think at some point—I can't trust those web stats, but it seemed like I was getting 200,000 people on the website every week just to read the comic. At some point I was on the front page of Digg.
It just grew organically as my name got out there. The biggest one was this magazine in Italy called Internazionale, almost the equivalent of the New Yorker here. I have no idea how or why, but the strip became one of the most popular things in that very smart literary magazine, and that really took my comic to a whole other level too because it became an international thing—I got flown out to Italy and had books there and stuff.
If you had to pick one Mr. Wiggles comic, out of all 666 of them, which would be your favourite?
I can tell you the most popular one—the one that got on Digg—it was about atheism, about how atheism is better than other religions. That was an interesting one.
But as raw as they were, my first book has some of my favourite things. I was experiencing so many new, different, and crazy things at that point in my life—college, maturing, figuring out who you are, dating for the first time since I was such a loser in high school—all of those things got wrapped up into those first 100 comics. Even though I can't even bear to look at the drawings because they're so ugly, and the writing... it's so raw. I hadn't quite figured out how to be a cartoonist yet. But when I revisit them there's something visceral: I can relive every experience I had. I can tell you where I was and what was happening in my life.
Do you think you've chilled out since Wiggles?
Yeah, definitely... yes and no. I definitely feel a lot more confident than I was. A lot of Mr. Wiggles stuff was fuelled by neurosis and lack of confidence: emotional instability. I definitely feel a lot more stable and like, I have less problems, which doesn't mean that I'm doing less interesting work—I think some of the work now is more interesting. With the new stuff I feel more connected with narrative work and trying to tell a story and weave a lot of those feelings I had into newer things.
Eventually when I have kids—and I'm getting married next year—I'm told you get much worse, because you start looking at the world as "this is the thing that could kill my kids" and "my kids are going to grow up in this" and all those things that got pushed aside come back even worse and you probably start crying at commercials.
So the next book will be dark?
Not the next book—maybe the third book.
Are you worried parents will buy Secrets to Ruling the School for their kids, find out about Mr. Wiggles, and rally against you?
It's a concern. I do have to be honest about it. It's something I expressed to my editor very early on. He said I didn't have to be too concerned—there are other cartoonists who are doing stuff for kids, like Johnny Ryan: there are a lot of adults who have done really out there stuff who are now doing things for kids, and I think people know to separate the two.
I stand by almost every Mr. Wiggles comic I ever did: there are some I read and I'm like "uhh, maybe that one was a little much"—but I was 22, 23, until my early 30s doing that strip, and I can stand by that stuff. It was funny then, and I still find stuff funny, but I have a weird sense of humour. I also know what stuff is for adults and what stuff is for kids.
At some point they put "Rehabilitating Mr. Wiggles" in the author bio for the [new] book, and I was like, "you maybe want to cut that," and my editor realized... [now] we just say I've done a comic strip—we don't want kids googling it.
I started reading Mr. Wiggles in middle school—it was shocking for us—like, "whoa, this exists."
That's the thing—we think kids are innocent, but they're not. We're living in the internet age where kids are downloading god-knows-what every day. There are parental controls but kids are smart enough to know their parents write the password down somewhere where they can easily see it.
That's one thing with this book: I don't want to talk down to kids or pretend they don't know what's up.
You always need something as a kid that is kind of too much for you to handle, that makes you say, "I hope we don't get caught with this." If you don't have that then what is growing up? It's really safe and boring.
Do you see the guide as a potential cartoon, or feature film in the future?
I do: I think there's a story and an interesting character here. I have a Hollywood agent and I just sent them a copy of the book and an outline on how I would treat it as a live action movie or a TV show.
If you could give one more piece of advice for middle schoolers—like, actual middle schoolers—what would it be?
None of it matters. When you're that age you think every little thing is so incredibly significant and deep—if I was doing middle school all over again now, I would just let everything roll off my back so easily. "Ah, so what, this kid's a jerk. Who cares. I'm never going to see this kid again after I'm 18 years old and move away. So I hate this teacher—who cares, just get through the day, it doesn't matter." It's hard because you don't have that life experience at 12 years old.
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