Review by Frank Plowright
Can one have too much Too Much Coffee Man? At 566 pages this compilation of the first five paperback collections might suggest so. However good the strip can be at solidifying a thought, roughly fifteen years of despair, disillusionment and crying from the soul is certainly something to be dipped into rather than read from cover to cover.
The pagination begins by re-ordering the chronological publication, so Parade of Tirade’s content precedes Guide for the Perplexed. Shannon Wheeler took some time to settle into his milieu after designing the gloriously ridiculous Too Much Coffee Man, and the Omnibus begins with a fair amount of content in which he doesn’t feature, before moving into his original incarnation as a whimsical superhero featuring coffee themed jokes. Among these early pages, though, are hints of the vehicle Too Much Coffee Man would become for Wheeler, able to exorcise his fears, irritations and concerns. Eventually marked political satire would also be blended in, the strip coming to fruition with the content of Amusing Musings.
Over the next two hundred pages we have the peak Too Much Coffee Man over a period covering roughly 1996 to 2005. Wheeler has now dispensed with any pretence of superhero satire, and all-but dropped the coffee jokes in favour of wide-ranging existential angst. TMCM becomes the mouthpiece for Wheeler’s observations about a continually depressed and self-centred society lacking the sense of purpose to do anything other than complain from the sofa while easily pacified by TV or a bargain. It’s a depressing view of the masses, but nonetheless an idealistic cry to action rather than patronising, as Wheeler skewers our indolence and lack of passion as we always take the easy option. At it’s core Too Much Coffee Man is about pressure in its various forms, to conform, be industrious, impress others, of the unhappiness among the masses about the constant need to fit square pegs into round holes. There’s an authenticity to the depression that can’t be faked over such a sizeable body of work, and occasional strips will remove the distancing mechanism of the lead character and have Wheeler speaking directly to the audience. A couple of times it’s about his own agonising regarding content, and it’s difficult not to see him as a character briefly featured late in the book, the Overthinker. There’s a brutal honesty, yet Wheeler sometimes surprises by supplying a perfectly formed sequence where the gag is the point, and the comments secondary.
By the time of what was originally presented as Screw Heaven, When I Die I’m Going to Mars, the bubble is beginning to deflate a little, with Wheeler’s ideas lacking, although the occasional gem still shines though what was originally the shortest collection. The autobiographical hindsight of a college architectural project stands out. A second edition was retitled Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus Plus, further featuring 32 colour strips from the mid-1990s. Most are coloured versions of material featured in black and white earlier in the book, but a few are otherwise unseen.
The introspection and downbeat mood means Too Much Coffee Man will never have universal appeal, but zone into his world and you might believe there’s someone worse off than you are.