By Walt Hickey
Numlock is off until Jan. 2, 2019! During the week between Christmas and New Year’s we’re doing best of’s. Today: a reprint of one of my favorite Sunday specials of 2018: Zach Weinersmith, the writer and artist behind Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Soonish, Laws and Sausages and now Love: Ruining Everything Since 1.2 Billion BC.
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition. This week, I’m trying something a little different: I spoke to Zach Weinersmith, a cartoonist and author who’s written a number of things right up Numlock subscribers’ alley.
Best known for the webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Zach has branched out into a bunch of other directions. With his wife Kelly he co-wrote Soonish, a popular science book all about futuristic technologies that are actually on the cusp of happening soon-ish, and just a few months ago he launched Laws and Sausages, where he and his political scientist brother go deep on civics. He’s got a new collection, Love: Ruining Everything Since 1.2 Billion BC that just launched for preorder.
He’s smart, funny, and daily, so I felt like you may enjoy hearing from him. This interview has been condensed and edited.
You’ve written a long-running webcomic since the early 2000s, but recently you have branched out into all sorts of projects you do with family and friends.
It’s been awesome. The comic generates a steady supply of income and doesn’t take my entire day to do: I have safety. So three years ago, I decided to do weirder and riskier stuff. It’s been delightful. I cannot say how many times I’ve said to myself, “I wish I just stuck to comics,” but it’s been delightful. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to work with people on various collaborations. There’s a couple in the pipeline, but that’s been great because one of the perks of this job is you get to meet really interesting people.
Let’s talk about Laws and Sausages.
That one I already knew the person I was working with, my brother. Laws and Sausages, to give the basic rundown, the idea was there’s this common complaint — one I’m actually a bit skeptical of, but let’s take it as if it were true — a complaint that people don’t know anything about civics, they don’t know how laws work.
I had wanted for years to do a comic as an explainer for these things. I have this older brother named Greg Weiner. He’s a Provost at Assumption College in Massachusetts. And this is his thing. Political science is what he does, it’s normative political science. He is what you might call a process conservative, a person extremely interested in and concerned about institutions and norms. He was talking about this during the Obama era and he was a bit of a voice in the wilderness.
Then Trump came along. I was a bit shocked: left, right, and center, we were all like “Can we talk about norms for a minute? Can we talk about institutions? Because it seems like they’re all getting bulldozed.” But this comic isn’t purely a response to Trump.
Right, it’s all about broad changes in the presidency going back decades.
So much of what I learned in this comic is how executive power has fundamentally changed even since Johnson — I read the one about War Powers. LBJ and Truman were working around what was once fairly unambiguous in a letter between Hamilton and Madison.
Absolutely. I published this thing where people were like, “I’m concerned about separation of powers but I don’t have any arguments.” I help write the comics but Greg is the one who knows it all. So whatever their viewpoint is, I want them to argue about the right thing. I feel like there’s people who will make political arguments not grounded in the history or the philosophy of the government. Maybe they believe in them, and that’s fine, but if you’re trying to couch it in the language of what our government is and was, it helps to have some facts.
That’s what we’re about. I will say I’m not all-in on “hey we need to civilize discourse.” I think humility is a lot more valuable than civility, but we are trying to make a non-partisan, “hey everyone, here’s to what extent possible all the facts of the matter.”
This seems to give you a chance to have fun with the format. I’m not going far to say SMBC doesn’t do a lot of instruction or lecturing
This is the thing when I have a polite argument with my wife. I think when trying to get people interested in science, it’s not always best to lead with a lesson. Even with BAHfest, which some people think of as a science communication. We’re not trying to imitate science, it’s really just comedy. My view is basically that makes a better show and quite possibly gets people interested in science.
BAHfest being the scientific convention you started where people talk about specious and entirely full of shit ideas.
I describe it as a game where you try to give the best justification for an entirely wrong theory of science.
Using the medium of TED talks for getting a joke across
And my friend Olivia won a thing.
Yeah! We give away a few prizes, there is the winner and then there’s the arguably more prestigious prize for best manipulation of data.
It was really quite something.
The statue is a man boiling pee?
Yes. The statue is of a man named Hennig Brand. I won’t go into it, but basically he is famous for discovering phosphorous, a very important scientific contribution. He found it by boiling his own pee. Well I was actually wrong about that, he actually boiled all sorts of people’s pee, he got it wherever he could. What’s actually quite funny if you are a scientist is it’s not just that he discovered phosphorous by boiling pee he took from a bar, it’s that he actually had a step in his protocol where he removed most of the phosphorous. He didn’t know what he was doing. And yet he made this huge contribution. And I hope to honor the spirit of that process.
Soonish came out last year. How’s the response to that been?
I’ve been a bit shocked by how good it’s been. We did pretty high level research, if you look through the bibliography it’s pretty extensive, dozens of interviews and hundreds of sources. I’ve been very happy that people have commented that, yeah, this is funny, but the level of detail is really incredible. My big thing is I didn’t want to do like you read a popular science book and it reads like they read a couple of Wikipedia articles. We read tons of really obscure primary literature, just the sheer quantity of stories.
I have a newfound respect for the book because for the first month of Numlock my boyfriend was copy-editing it, and anyone working on a creative endeavor with someone who they’re in a relationship with has my profound admiration.
Yeah! We had a very good working relationship my wife and I, but there is an element of it where you have to learn to bite your tongue a little bit. In the process, both of you are going to say to each other at some point some version of “I think you wrote this poorly,” or “I think you didn’t do quite enough research about what you’re saying,” and the process is only going to work if you’re able to accept it, discuss it or both ideally. If you really want to drive your relationship into an iceberg, if you thought it was already going that way, writing a book with your significant other would be a good way to do it.
But if you have a nice solid relationship, well then you’ll be fine.
Apparently my use of commas was a crime against his people and he also considers me illiterate.
I like this guy. The total difference between my wife and I is — and I think she’s right and I’m wrong but whatever — when I read writing that I consider bad it actually makes me kind of angry. I don’t know why it’s a thing in me! It actually bothers me. For her, if it’s bad you fix it. But for me it’s very visceral. When she wrote something and I didn’t like it as much, I had to be like “you absolutely are not allowed to be literally mad at your wife about a paragraph because clearly you are the asshole of this situation.”
I actually think that was very good for me. I got better at critiquing.
Is there an editor for SMBC?
No, my wife and my assistant — he’s actually beyond that now — my wife and the guy I work with read my jokes in advance, but the only editing I get is one of two things, either “this joke sucks” or “this joke is good,” or “this is close to good but this part sucks.” I don’t get close to hands on stuff, the comic is the most personal thing I do.
Wanna talk about love?
Let’s talk about love!
I have a new book out, it’s a collection of love comics. I went through my archives to look for comics strictly about love, and it turns out there aren’t that many. So I had to add in any that were remotely about relationships and also about sex. It’s not “not safe for work” but you probably should not bring it into work.
It’s in that grey area between “safe for work” and “You know what? Just don’t.”
Exactly. You won’t violate any rules but don’t do it. That’s technically true of all my books. But the thing I’m more excited about: I’ve wrote things before where I abridge some classic literature into a pocket book as a joke. Basically as a sales gimmick, I abridged the whole Bible, but it sold like crazy. It outsold the book it was supposed to go with! We are almost through our third printing. I did the same with science books, and it sold well too.
So, for the love book, we condensed all of Shakespeare’s sonnets into a rhyming couplet, which was an extraordinary amount of work. It was one of those things where you get into it and realize it’s a terrible idea, but I’m already in it? But I’m very happy with it, I don’t know if it’ll have the same nerd appeal for the literary types, which I am in my heart, but I think it’ll be quite good.
What are you reading these days?
I’m working on this graphic novel project, so I’ve read more comic books and graphic novels in the last six months or a year than I have in my whole life. The problem is I’m an absolute snob about it. I don’t go for superhero or fantasy stuff with exceptions, it’s just not my thing. The quantity of American comics that are literary and good is slim, so I’m into French stuff. I don’t speak French, I ought to pick it up. But I’ve been reading some snooty French comics and that’s been quite enjoyable.
Any specific one in particular?