When I was a wee lad of indeterminable age, I became accidentally exposed to my first non-mainstream comic, a satirical lark by the name of Too Much Coffee Man. My family was driving upstate to Ulster County, New York to see my grandparents up in the Catskills, and there was a comic shop we occasionally stopped at along the way in scenic New Paltz. My sister and I picked up a handful of Bongo’s Simpsons comics, or some of its many spinoffs, and my dad would venture into the back of the shop, the dank corner that smelled like ozone and overripe bananas, packed with alphabetized white crates three stacks high.
None of the comics I recognized. No Marvel, no DC, no Simpsons, so what could they be? I asked him, as he pulled a skinny issue from the crate. On the cover was a massive, steaming styrofoam cup, dwarfing a man clad in a woolly red jumpsuit. I had no idea what this unusual comic was, or why it would be buried so far in the back of the store, but the cover reassured me that it was, in fact, “The Lawsuit Issue.”
“Adult comics,” Horrible Dad said. “You probably wouldn’t get them.”
I was in shock.
My dad was buying pornography.
Naturally, I had to sneak a look.
Later that evening, when everyone’s backs were turned, I put down my Radioactive Man and headed straight for the brown paper bag containing two or three issues of Too Much Coffee Man and a handful of other oddities that, I soon discovered, were hardly pornographic at all. There was a story about an old lady spilling hot coffee onto her crotch, but that was the only lady crotch in sight. Less disappointed than perplexed, I felt compelled to read on. It was the same compulsion that drove me to revisit Waseca AfterDark over and over again: I was experiencing something new, strangely beautiful, and beyond my capacity for understanding.
I wish I had those issues of Too Much Coffee Man in my possession right now, but unfortunately it’s once again relegated to the musty archives, this time at my childhood home on Long Island. They tackled existential quandaries and irreverent fluff with the same elliptical wit, to the point that it became difficult to distinguish one from the other. The titular superhero (if he can be called that) is a great creation as well, equal parts everyman and exaggeration, an amorphous blob of irascibility who, in retrospect, might have been on more than just coffee. As an eight-through-twelve year old, I was behind my time in being able to relate to his on-edge antics, his ability to cycle through human stresses like a virtuoso violinist, but I could at least pick up on the surreal tone. To my childish brain, its unprocessable je ne sais quoi was nevertheless remarkably easy to describe.
Too Much Coffee Man was “weird.” It was weird as hell. Eleven-to-fifteen years later, can author Shannon Wheeler still bring the weird goods?
To my (slightly) more cultured present-day eyes, I would say there’s still a spark there yet. I had no idea, before my preliminary research for this post, that Wheeler started updating TMCM as a webcomic since the practical inception of the world wide web. Updated since 1995, it very well may hold claim to being one of the first webcomics ever—it beats User Friendly and Sluggy Freelance by two whole dag years. Longevity is impressive enough, but Wheeler’s art and writing define its legacy.
Like a good, strong cup of coffee, Too Much Coffee Man‘s humor is dry, and often bitter. Like the aftereffects of that same cup of coffee, the art hides spastic jolts under familiar disguises. At a distance, a strip like this one might be indistinguishable from the pastel stylings of a mainstream newspaper strip, but a closer look betrays more deranged details. Wheeler’s greatest tool is Too Much Coffee Man himself, whose body and shape literally bends to the whims of his mental state. Puffing and shrinking as the metaphor demands it, he seems to exist in a pocket reality, a plane centered around his stressors and emotions that, strangely, is entirely beyond his own control. “Hey, I wrote a book,” he says, genuinely surprised, ending the comic on a self-deprecating non sequitor.
Despite having such an unstable, potent center of gravity, Too Much Coffee Man (The Website) is a bit of a slog to go through, flooded with ranty illustrated blog posts, dry New Yorker-style cartoons (some of which, I believe, were actually published in the New Yorker), and the all-too-rare true-blue TMCM strip. Without a functional archive, it becomes a bit of a drag to chase the dangling carrot as the bottom of the page refreshes more slowly with every new gulp. It’s an arbitrary stress that Too Much Coffee Man himself would be keen to observe.
Still, when TMCM is on, it’s on. Even if my enjoyment of the comic can never match up to the intense nostalgia of that first moment, my first brush with an underground comic, the strip still has enough vim and vinegar to keep me satisfied all these years later. It may no longer be the most unusual, hilarious, or innovative piece of art around these days, but I would love to hunt down the remainder of its print issues in odd-smelling stacks to guzzle down some more bubbling mania.
(Epilogue: Too Much Coffee Man is also an opera now apparently? Send it to Chicago, if you can! You’ve got at least one ticket sold, I’ll tells ya. Plus, I can’t find any recent strips on the TMCM website or Wheeler’s Medium stream that capture the essence of Coffee Man’s rival Espresso Guy, so I regrettably left him out of this bumbling retrospective. Know this, Espresso Guy: somebody out there still loves you.)