Written by Neil Greenaway
I first met Mister V at Denver Comic Con 2016, where he had contributed a story to the Uncanny Adventures: Duo anthology from 8th Wonder Press. In the two years since then it has been my pleasure to grow better acquainted with his works; his two graphic novel series (DNR details his own experiences in the healthcare field & Mile High recounts his adventures in medical marijuana), his choose-your-own-adventure GN Death By Dive Bar, his numerous mini-comics and 'zines, and his little 8-pg. Tijuana Bibles. I even have the children's book he wrote and illustrated, Craterface. However, when I heard that Mister V would be starting his third ongoing comic strip in the Grand Gazette, it occurred to me that I knew next to nothing about his newspaper work. I gave him a call and we talked about what its like to work for a newspaper, what his newest comic strip is about, and what we can expect to see at his upcoming appearance at DINK 2018.
Neil Greenaway: I know that you write comics under the pen name Mister V. For the readers who might not know, what is your real name?
Mister V: Well my real name is Matthew R. Veraldo so I basically just used my initials as my pen name.
NG: Why do you use a pen name?
Mr. V: Originally it was because I was working in healthcare and I wanted to write about my experiences there. At the same time, I was employed when I started writing my DNR series (which was about my experiences at work) and there are things like HIPAA that are designed to protect patient privacy. I was so scared of violating federal law, and I was so scared of losing my job if someone found out that I was writing about my employment. It seemed the easiest way to avoid that was just to change my name and then I stuck with it.
Mr. V: You know mostly in the beginning I was just looking for a way to hone my chops. I look back at some of the early DNR stuff and - of course it's embarrassing. I was just a rookie. I think it was Dave Sim that said that you need to draw 1,000 pages of bad comics before you can start drawing good ones. I think he said that. Anyway, I attribute that to him and I really take that saying to heart. When I sent in my first submission to Top Shelf Comics they said something very similar. "You need to draw a lot more comics". So DNR served its purpose for me as a sounding board for the things that I wanted to talk about at the time - which was the state of American Healthcare - but it also was a great excuse for me to sit down and draw page after page after page of comics. That series is just a little bit shy of 900 pages long.
In Mile High I had a fun topic and I was able to use what I was doing with that to tell an interesting story. But really those two (DNR and Mile High) are separate from what I do up here in the mountains. A lot of people here in Grand County don't even know that I have written a series of graphic novels. They think I just draw the comic for the newspaper, and I'm okay with that.
NG: If it was not a matter of the graphic novels translating into the newspaper work, how did you come by the job at the Grand Gazette?
Mr. V: In a really roundabout and strange way. The reason we moved to Grand County is because my wife got a job and it was a great excuse to get out of the Denver metro area. The healthcare job I had been working while I was writing the graphic novels had been slowly grinding me down to a nub. It was a really tough job and it had me really unhappy with almost all the aspects of my life. When my wife got her job and we moved, I knew that I did not want to go back to that same type of scenario. I had been working at places that had my name on my shirt since I was 18, and it didn't sound like something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. In Grand County there are not a lot of places where you can get a job. There's a fairly small population - we don't even have a Wal-Mart or a Trader Joe's or anything like that. We have a City Market and a Subway, and that's it. So there was nowhere for me to get a job that would follow on my current trajectory and I sort of didn't want to. I started writing the Them There Hills strip, which is a single panel strip. I developed that for a restaurant up here. They had table flyers that they would put on each table - and the idea was that they would include some of my comics as well. But the gentleman I had spoken to about setting this up wanted to pay me $20 a week for unlimited comic strips - which is slave labor. (laughs)
Mr. V: There are four newspapers up here in Grand County, which is really strange for a dying industry. Who sees newspapers anywhere anymore, right? But there were four newspapers up here, and it seemed like the perfect soil in which to plant my seed - if you will forgive my metaphor. I had originally wanted to work for a few of the papers at the same time. Life Is Grand was originally intended for one of the county's other papers, the Sky-Hi News. But when they found out I was already working with the Gazette, they didn't want anything to do with me. There's a lot of factionalism and competition among the county newspapers. No one takes too kindly to freelancers. I'd originally hoped for syndication among the papers when I moved up here. When that didn't happen I tried making individual comics for each paper, but even that wasn't feasible. It's all or nothing with small town newspapers, apparently. That's how I wound up with all three of these comics in the same publication. Anyway, there can be a preconception that rural areas are very conservative and redneck, but in working with the papers up here I have found that there is a real thirst for literature. It has been an incredible experience to work on these projects
NG: You currently have three ongoing comic strips in the Grand Gazette, correct? Can you tell us a little bit about those?
Mr. V: Sure. I already mentioned Them There Hills - my single-panel gag strip which - I should be so arrogant as to say that it is reminiscent of Gary Larson's The Far Side. It is basically utilizing Colorado native animals to make bad puns and that sort of thing. Them There Hills is my least favorite comic project I've ever done, but for reasons I don't understand it is also the most popular comic I do among Grand County locals. Both my wife and Kim Cameron (the editor of the Grand Gazette) have forbidden me from ever quitting this comic. Sometime around this summer I'll be drawing my 200th TTH strip.
My other comic strip (which is weekly) is called Life Is Grand - that is a historic nonfiction strip about the history of Grand County. Grand County has a long tradition of preserving its heritage and the trials and tribulations of its previous residents, going back to the very founding of the county. There are collections of pioneer newspapers that go back to the 1860s and '70s. I have always been interested in the historical aspects of this particular area because some of the stories out here not very well known - but they are just giant in terms of scope and mythology. I would say that they are the equal of any American myth that you would find out there - say Johnny Appleseed or John Henry, that kind of stuff. We have Ute Bill Thompson, Texas Charley, the Commissioner Shootings, all these weird crazy things. It has been my absolute pleasure to dig through the history of this county - the old newspapers and Pioneer recollections - and just find good crazy mountain shit, essentially. Those two strips I have been doing for a newspaper called the Grand Gazette on a weekly basis for just about 4 years now.
I have also just launched my third strip in that same paper, which is called the Main Street Dirt Sheet. This strip is very topical to the area that I live in, they are human events stories. I actually go and talk to people and dig up stories to sequentialize for the paper bi-weekly. I'm drawing inspiration for this one from the works of Joe Sacco. For many years I've been in awe of how Sacco's work combined journalism and the sequential arts. It's a fascinating combination. Even though I'm reporting on a much smaller and fluffier scale, it's still so exciting to be dabbling in the same pool.
NG: When you lived in Denver and were writing more controversial content,
Mr. V: Yes, much more controversial.
NG: What was it like to move to more of a small town setting and start telling more rural stories?
Mr. V: Initially, it was very uncomfortable. I lived in perpetual fear of crossing some line - but I have spent so much of my career going way, way over the line that I had a hard time recognizing where the line was anymore. There were a couple of times where I would make a joke that wasn't necessarily naughty compared to my past work, but it might have been bad when you looked at the area I was living in. In this area, if you make a reference to marijuana, drinking beer, or sex - you never know who is going to be up in arms about it and writing angry letters to the editor. I was very gun-shy about it at first. I don't have another job, this is how I bring income into my home. It was stressful knowing that if I mess up I could be costing myself a whole bunch of money. On the other hand, as I have progressed and done this couple of years, I have been floored by the way the community has embraced what I do. Which is not something that I ever expected! I am regularly stopped on the street by people up here, people from all walks of life - farmers & ranchers, government employees, retired people, people who are 10 years younger than me and 40 years older than me. They stop me to tell me how much they appreciate my work and how much they enjoy seeing my comics in the paper. I have had several people tell me that they cut my comics out and hang them on their refrigerator, which is something I never thought I would achieve! that is something I have never heard any of my contemporaries say, but why would they? Who writes comics for newspapers anymore? That was definitely an item on my bucket list that I never thought would be checked off. It has all been incredibly rewarding.
NG: That's cool! When you do the comics do you do all of the art yourself?
Mr. V: Yes, I do all of the art and all of the writing.
NG: I only ask because the color choices that you use in your comics - particularly when representing the old west are very bold and bright. I wondered what leads to the colors you choose?
Mr. V: Are you referring to Texas Charley?
NG: Yes I am.
Mr. V: I have really been messing around with the colors that I'm using in Texas Charley. One of the reasons I'm doing that is because I knew it was going to be violent. It is the story of a cowboy who was essentially mob lynched by the prominent citizens of the town. At some point I knew I was going to have to draw Charley getting blown away - and I did not know how to do that for public consumption. So a lot of thought went into that and I finally decided that the best way to do it was to completely abstract the color scheme. It is something I have toyed with before and it has been fun to do, but it came about out of practicality
NG: I like it. It gives the strip a very bold look.
Mr. V: Thank you, I am glad! That is something I have to consider as well. This is only being printed in the paper one page at a time, and if I want someone to read it I need it to grab their attention before they ever read a word. So it would be an unforeseen bonus if the coloring helped to grab people's eyeballs.
NG: If I could go back to your graphic novels for just a moment - in the past your books have centered heavily around healthcare, with your DNR series and then the Mile High series. The current state of health care in America is very much in flux right now. Could you see yourself writing another story about what is happening now?
Mr. V: It is a more difficult subject for me to approach now that I am not working in the healthcare field. Particularly with what the Trump administration is doing. God, what a nightmare! Of course I'm not happy with the state of healthcare in this country. In my mind there is no debate that our country needs a single-payer system. I have worked in insurance data entry, and it is a scam! Everything that is done in healthcare in this country is done to make a profit. Even the Affordable Care Act did not do anything to help people who were struggling with their healthcare. It expanded Medicare, which is a great thing - I'm all for that. And it made it so that insurance companies could not deny people coverage, I guess. So it let the people who had not yet been screwed by the American insurance system participate. But it is still useless. it is shameful and I don't understand why there are not more people just rabid for Medicare for all in this country. There is no reason not to have it. We are just waiting for our government to realize that insurance profits are not more important than people's lives.
NG: We might be in for a bit of a wait on that one.
Mr. V: That's true, which sucks because across the world all the other countries are doing it. I remember talking to someone from Australia who was complaining because their government insurance only covered 80% of their total costs and they had to get supplemental insurance for the final 20%. I was just thinking in America we have to wait until we're 65 for that kind of coverage.
NG: And this is why I asked about a future comic. (laughs) You obviously have passionate thoughts on the subject.
Mr. V: I do, but to me it feels like such a pointless debate. I don't understand how people can actually defend the way our insurance system works in this country. I guess that's why I have not pursued that one further. I think it is a stupid argument to have. (laughs)
NG: Last year at DINK 2017, you debuted a new choose-your-own-adventure graphic novel - called Death By Dive Bar - and that was nominated for a dinky at the show.
Mr. V: It was nominated yes.
NG: I picked up a copy and I really enjoyed it - but I am a choose-your-own-adventure junkie from a young age. Do you plan on having any new books to premiere at DINK this year?
Mr. V: I will have the third and final volume of Mile High. I am wrapping that story up. I also have a mini-comic dream journal that will be in full color that I hope to have out for that show.
NG: Is it your dream journal? Are they your dreams?
Mr. V: It is, yes. I want to say that it's pretty honest and slightly embarrassing - as most people's dreams would be - and so I look forward to humiliating myself, yet again. I am also really trying to finish up Texas Charley. I put about a year's worth of research into this book. I have used a lot of sources that have never been used before when exploring this topic, and so I am really looking forward to that one. The story has been a lot of fun to tell and to assemble and I would love to debut that book at DINK. However, February has been kicking my ass so I don't know if I will be able to finish it that soon. I love debuting new books at DINK. DINK is my go-to show for premiering a new book.
NG: How long would be collected edition of Texas Charley be?
Mr. V: Not long, it's a fairly short tale. The comic itself should be 25 or 26 pages when it's done, but I'm also going to include a short essay about who I believe was responsible for Texas Charley's death. And it will also include some artifacts that I was able to scan in from primary sources. I think releasing 3 new books in one show is good enough.
NG: I think that is perfectly reasonable. How about at the Grand Gazette what have you got coming up there storyline-wise?
Mr. V: Well after Texas Charley I am going to go back to a non-storyline format for Life Is Grand for a while. I do have a melodrama I would like to adapt called The Moonshiner's Daughter which was written around 1900. In the long term, next January I'm going to be delving into the Grand Lake Commissioners Shooting of 1884, which is one of the quintessential Grand County stories. As far as the Main Street Dirt Sheet goes this week coming up I have a comic above the Kum & Go in Granby which is (within its chain) the number 2 retailer of pizza in the nation - which is an odd random fact.
NG: Yes it is.
Mr. V: And where else could I cover stories like that? That is a weird story! I love it!
NG: Do you have any other projects that you are working on right now?
Mr. V: On top of everything else I've been doing I do also have a year-long fan journal about the WWE, because I am a huge professional wrestling fan. It is called Marking Out 365 and I am releasing it online - either through my Twitter or my Tumblr. Any professional wrestling fan ought to check that stuff out, BROTHER!
Mister V sent me an email shortly after we spoke offering a look at one of his comic strip ideas that was never picked up. He included this note:
"I've included two examples from my failed comic strip THE COLORADO CANNABIS TIMES. Marijuana is still a hot-button topic up here, and I wanted to cover the debate. I created this strip last summer (2017), but unfortunately it proved too hot for everyone, including me. It wasn't picked up."