It can’t be easy to turn a meme into a full-fledged comic with multiple stories, but Grumpy Cat, née Tardar Sauce, is no ordinary meme. She’s a social media icon, merchandise queen, and even TV movie star (though she sounded suspiciously like that actress from Parks and Recreation).
Rather than have her interact with humans as Lifetime did for the movie, however, comic-book writer Ben Fisher and artist Michelle Nguyen — one of several talented teams working on the books — mine humor primarily from Grumpy’s interactions with her brother, Pokey, whose energy and enthusiasm makes him easy bait for big sis’ occasional mind games.
Putting words in the mouth of a favorite feline is something probably every Catster reader has done at some point or another — my wife, Julia, is particularly fond of uttering the phrase, “Look at the kitty; what is she saying?” and expecting an answer every time — so we had to ask Ben and Michelle all about what it feels like to actually get paid for it.
Luke Y. Thompson for Catster: Grumpy and Pokey remind me a bit of Pinky and the Brain — if the Brain already had total control of the world. Was that a source of inspiration?
Ben Fisher: Not consciously, but I loved those cartoons as a kid, so it’s certainly possible. I don’t think it’s a perfect parallel, though — Pokey is really more earnest and naive than dumb. He and Grumpy share adventures, but he’s just as likely to be the one convincing Grumpy to join him on a misguided journey as the other way around. At their core, they’re siblings with entirely different outlooks on life. Exploiting that juxtaposition is usually where the best humor can be mined.
Michelle Nguyen: I’ve never made the connection, but I can see it now! But I agree with Ben — Pokey is more childlike than stupid, and I think Grumpy, while capable of taking over the world, may find it too tedious and will never pursue it.
Were you always pet people? Are you now?
BF: We had cats and dogs growing up as long as I can remember. I have one of each now. In fact, I wrote my dog, Marbles, into “A Grump in Time” (in the third issue). Because she’s awesome, Michelle was gracious (and talented) enough to use a photo reference of Marbles for the art. Now he’ll forever be memorialized as a tinfoil-hat-wearing doofus. I’ll be bringing him back in a future issue coming out later this year.
Cats will always have a special place in my heart, though. I’m a fairly solitary guy who bounces back and forth between my desperate need for attention and a crippling social anxiety disorder — so I can relate to cats completely.
MN: As a kid, we lived on a ranch with many, many different types of animals, but I wouldn’t really think of them as pets, per se. Though I may have been a bit obsessed with cats in my earlier years, to be honest. I had a large amount of books about cats and dedicated a lot of time to learning as much as possible about them. In high school, I volunteered with cats and have always thought their attitudes towards life could be well adapted. I think I could be that crazy cat lady right now if my significant other, bless his heart, didn’t keep me in check.
Ben, your stories always bring the dog into it. Do we detect a hint that you’re more a dog person, or are dogs simply funnier to write?
BF: I think having dogs appear in my stories so often is a product of my writing style. I tend to prefer dialogue and interactions played between a large cast of characters, and they can’t ALL be cats. So dogs (and pigeons, and anything else I can use) get brought in frequently to fill out the ranks. Also, playing off the imagined difference between cats and dogs is a lot of fun. I’ve had an inside joke running for a few issues now that Dog, himself, never says anything except “Good dog!” … so we’ll see how long I can keep that up before somebody makes me stop.
Is there a bible of things you can or cannot do? Is Grumpy allowed to be named Tardar Sauce in the comic, or if not, is that specifically banned? Do her owners get or ask for veto power over each storyline?
BF: There’s a rough bible of sorts that mostly can be boiled down to “keep it family friendly.” The owners are given a chance to review our pitches, scripts, and art — but there’s no sense that anyone is micromanaging anything. They’ve been completely supportive from the very start, and I’ve had almost no vetoes for my scripts.
Early on, there were a couple hiccups when we were all sort of feeling out the boundaries (for example, I had Grumpy make a joke about “burying the bodies” that was deemed a bit too morbid for kids), but that was all sorted out, quickly, and I really can’t complain about creative interference at all. As far as Tardar Sauce — I haven’t a clue. But now I have no choice but to work in an inside joke about the condiment and see what happens.
MN: The rules are pretty easy to abide by as an artist. We were given the initial character sheets that were created early on, and we were told to stay close to the designs but explore the characters in our own style. I was told that I made Grumpy a little too grumpy in a few areas but was allowed to keep my art as is. After that, I’ve been much more conscious of not pushing Grumpy past the grumpy stage into the angry stage. All in all, everyone has been very kind about their feedback and support!
How challenging is it to constantly draw and redraw a character who is famous for hardly ever changing her facial expression? Likewise, how hard is it to give her a character arc in every story?
BF: That’s a really good question. When I was originally approached to write the book, I was concerned that I’d be stuck hitting repetitive beats with Grumpy, but after plotting out my first few pitches, I found that she organically became a multidimensional character.
Despite her gruff exterior, she does occasionally allow herself to enjoy simple pleasures (albeit sometimes purely as schadenfreude); she has interests and dreams and ambitions.
But that isn’t to deny her defining characteristic remains one of general pessimism, and she certainly finds Pokey’s unshakable enthusiasm grating. I tend to focus more on the situational humor of the scene, rather than relying on a single dour punchline. Moreover, the self-contained short-story format tends to eliminate a need to develop a fully realized character arc in any one issue. That isn’t meant to suggest the characters won’t evolve over time — but not in the same way you’d expect for a graphic novel’s protagonist.
MN: Actually getting to draw Grumpy over and over has really allowed me to become comfortable with her. I often find myself doodling her sour mug on scrap pieces of paper, receipts, or when my notes at work start to lag in character. There’s something comforting about drawing Grumpy’s frown, but it is also a treat to draw her breaking her normal demeanor. Ben has been great to work with because he will add subtleties into the script about various reactions from the characters, and I can instantly see their faces in my mind.
Ben, does your experience as a lawyer give you any extra insight into grumpy characters?
BF: In my other books, I do pull from behavior I’ve witnessed in my practice — patterns that I’ve seen emerge during heated negotiations and arguments. But part of the Grumpy Cat “Bible” is that we try to minimize direct dialogue between humans and animals (and, in general, to avoid using humans as central plot points altogether). I also don’t actively try to draw upon those same experiences when writing comedic animal dialogue. The situations are more absurdist — it’s less important to ground character actions in “real life” motivations.
Having said all that, a big part of my job as an attorney is to identify the most direct path to making my point, so that it sticks solidly in the audience’s mind (whether that audience is a juror, judge, or opposing counsel). There’s a bit of that in writing comedy: I’ll rewrite the same line multiple ways, reading the dialogue out loud, until I hit the mixture of succinctness and word choice that (hopefully) gets the biggest smile. And, of course, one of the fun challenges of the comic book medium is that you’re forced to work within a relatively small amount of real estate. You have to find the most efficient route to tell your joke, because there’s only so much of Michelle’s great art that the publisher is going to let me cover with word balloons. So legal writing might help with that a bit, also.
How did you both come to Grumpy Cat? If someone had told you five years ago it’s what you’d be doing, what would you have said? How does it compare in popularity, feedback, and sales to other things you’ve done?
BF: An editor at Dynamite wound up with a copy of a superhero comedy comic I was writing (Splitsville — which will be a Comixology exclusive a bit later this year, incidentally) and thought that my style might be a good fit. He asked me to pitch a few ideas, and the owners gave me the thumbs up. A shout out to Rich Young, by the way — he’s a great editor, and I’m lucky to be working with him on a project like this.
It’s hard (read: daunting) to compare any creator-owned project I’ve done to the overwhelming popularity of Grumpy Cat. The sales have been tremendous (most issues have either sold out or are awful close, and the hardcover collection broke 100,000 in preorders almost immediately — which is a really strong number for the industry).
MN: Rich Young (director) was scoping out artists for the comic, and he reached out to my friend Cat Farris. She was already working on some pretty intensive and awesome projects, so she recommended that Rich contact me due to my outspoken love for cats. I could hardly believe it when he and I started corresponding about the project. There were a couple rounds of art tests to make sure my style worked well with the story and the general look Dynamite and the licensor wanted for the comic.
Considering Grumpy Cat is my first published comic, I think a five-year-ago-me would be incredibly happy and proud. My love for animals and love for comics could have no better combination!
In the time-travel story, they kinda don’t really do anything in the past. Was there more planned, or was this a commentary on cats’ inactivity?
BF: That was meant as a side joke, yeah. Page space is very limited for these short stories, and I felt like there was more humor to be found in the interactions between Pokey, Grumpy, Marbles, and Milka than in concentrating on the setting. But I also thought that it would be kind of an amusing gag that Grumpy, upon traveling back in time and facing with the possibility of endless adventures, would immediately jump back to the present (after trolling Tesla), and then just sum up the whole experience by writing “no tuna.”
Have you met the actual Grumpy Cat? If so, did that give you any inspiration in particular?
BF: I haven’t! I missed opportunities at Powell’s here in Portland and again at New York Comic Con. But meeting her is on my bucket list — she really is just ridiculously adorable. When you write about this interview, please replace all that with something suitably macho. Maybe talk about my time as an MMA champion.
MN: I got to meet Tardar Sauce when she visited Portland a few months ago. When I told Tabby (the owner) and Ben Lashes (the agent) that I worked on the comic, they both got very excited. They were incredibly generous with their time and I was so starstruck to meet them both.
Then I got to actually hold and cuddle Tardar Sauce for a little while. She was so tiny and soft that it almost broke my heart giving her back. It was an awesome experience, but seeing her in such a loving, cute state made it hard to see her as the Grumpy we see in the comic!
Fundamentally, to you, what is the core thing about Grumpy Cat that strikes a chord, that you always keep foremost in mind when creating stories for her?
BF: I prefer to write Grumpy from the perspective that she doesn’t necessarily WANT to be grumpy, but experience has shown her that it’s the safest route. And she doesn’t like to be wrong about her opinions, so there’s a certain level of satisfaction when things go terribly wrong for others. A kind of “I told you so” justification. To me, that perspective gives her a bit more nuance and allows for some room to breathe creatively, and opens a channel of relatable connection between her and the reader.
MN: Ben really hit the nail on the head. She is by no means outright mean; she is never spiteful. She may be slightly annoyed at times but mostly she is uninterested in the happenings of her life. This realization helped me take a step back in the early stages and realize I needed to make her less angry-grumpy and more bored-grumpy.
Are you amazed by how many people still think she’s a dude?
BF: It’s interesting. I’m not really sure why it happens so frequently. Maybe there’s some perceived inherent masculine quality to grumpiness? I honestly have no idea.
MN: I try to correct people when they call Grumpy a dude, but it honestly gets tiresome after a while.
What’s your favorite/least favorite Grumpy Cat meme?
BF: I love the Dungeons and Dragon meme with Grumpy Cat as dungeon master. I’ll probably put together a pitch centered around that particular gag at some point. Role playing games were a big part of my life growing up (I was a skinny kid who was really into cats and elves. There’s no denying my universal popularity in high school).
A least favorite is a bit tougher — so many people have built their own awful, awful memes with her face. It could fill a hard drive. But every minute spent building a bad Grumpy Cat meme is one less minute spent filming a Harlem Shake Vine so, I dunno. It’s a wash, I guess.
MN: I love any Grumpy Cat meme image that involves a play on words. There are some incredibly clever ones out there.
While not a meme, my favorite Grumpy thing is a video called “I’m not Grumpy,” which explains that Tardar Sauce really loves to sleep and eat coffee cake, and that she’s not grumpy, it’s just how she looks. I really relate to that, being someone with resting angry face.
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About the author: Luke Y. Thompson has been writing and editing articles about movies and pop culture for money since 1999. He lives in North Hollywood, CA, with his actress wife, Julia, and their fur-babies Francis and Toby. He is eternally grateful to Allegra for allowing him to become a cat person late in life after years of having to avoid feline friends. Follow him on Twitter.