Looks can be deceiving. Even innocent-looking comics characters with wavy arms and huge hair have bummer backstories. Such is the case with Desmond Reed's Cola Pop Creemees comics. They're a colorful pop band to be sure, but they've got baggage. It's not all a drag though. There's plenty of humor and empathy to be had in his latest book, Opening Act, (Birdcage Bottom Books) which collects seven Cola Pop Creemee's stories of rejection, depression, and substance abuse (and more).
REGLAR WIGLAR: If I understand correctly, the Cola Pop Creemees strips originated during the COVID shutdown when you began posting one comic a day, but the characters had already been created. In their previous form, were Ralph Jonathan, Wallace T.J., Mona Gertrude, Gil Christopher, and Henrietta Susan already in the Cola Pop Creemees, or was that the way you get them together in the same comic?
Desmond Reed: Great question! I think it deserves a really long answer! Haha Yes, these five characters were always a team. They began a couple of years before the pandemic as my first (and only) attempt to make a comic in color.
The characters were there on a superficial level, but I definitely hadn’t landed on the right way to use them yet. Originally, they were supposed to be in a cult, and the humor was a lot more weird and violent than it is now. I actually pitched them in their original form on an old call-in internet show called “Pitch Meeting” where creators could pitch show ideas to Adult Swim! The hosts were very nice and seemed to like the art, but when they asked what my personal connection to cults was… I froze! I didn’t have one. I just wrote them that way because it seemed like something that would be on Adult Swim!
It was a tough way to learn to “write what you know,” but it helped me immensely in the long run. After the pitch, I considered them a failed experiment and shelved them indefinitely. In fact, I’d pretty much stopped doing comics at that point. I’d kind of outgrown the dumb stuff I was doing at the time and felt like I needed a break.
When I got back into it a year or so later, I decided/needed to write comics that meant something to me. I didn’t want to be a character in the comics or for them to be strictly autobiographical, so I required a cast of characters… and that’s when I remembered the gang!
I messed around with them in black and white for a few months before the pandemic, but it was really that page-a-day exercise once everything shut down that got them where they needed to be.
RW: What is the chronology of the Cola Pop Creemees comics? How many books are in the series? Does Opening Act contain all the stories from the minis?
DR: There really is no chronology for the comics, they can all be read as standalone books. Besides a few introductory pages, Opening Act does not contain ANY stories from the minis. As of this writing, there are four minis and the graphic novel (with more on the way!).
Despite the release dates, Apples, Trash and Opening Act were all written at around the same time, while Lefty and Memories are newer stories — releasing indie comics is weird! Haha.
RW: Opening Act opens with the story “Pilot” in which the band members have the voices of their parents in their heads who are trying to guide their decisions. Do you experience the voices of family or friends while you're drawing or writing the stories?
DR: I definitely do in my day-to-day life, like when I’m making mundane decisions, but not when I’m writing or creating anything — that’s MY time! Haha That may be why I like making comics so much!
RW: Despite the bright colors of your covers and the visually endearing quality of the characters, there’s an underlying sadness to the books, but there's enough humor and relatability to give them depth and make them interesting. Did this develop naturally or was it something you tried to do from the start?
DR: Well, first of all, thank you! You know… I think it was a little bit of both. When I decided to use these characters for the sadder material I was writing, I knew their look would make for an interesting juxtaposition. The series is essentially about depression, and having a wacky cartoon band dealing with it just seemed interesting to me. It’s also great for me as the creator because the characters have enough range that I can essentially just write about whatever I want, happy or sad — the bus drives itself!
RW: What style of music do the Cola Pop Creemees play?
DR: Another great question, but I’m gonna have to plead the fifth :) I have been toying with recording some music as The Cola Pop Creemees, but don’t want to get locked into a genre until I know for sure. To be continued…
RW: Some of your short strips depict awkward social interactions or moments of self-doubt and regret, or trying not to act on impulses. Are these based on personal experiences? And if so, do moments like these generate ideas in real-time?
DR: Unfortunately, these are absolutely 100 percent based on real-life interactions. Haha. Sometimes they pop up in real-time, but I think the most relatable strips come from situations that come up multiple times before I think to write about them. Imagining the advice friends and family would give me when making a decision is actually a great example of this. I must have done that for decades before realizing I was doing it… I love weird little quirks like that… bizarre things that we all do but never acknowledge.
RW: Lefty is a mini-comic you drew with your left hand. What was the injury that led to its creation and what did you learn from the process?
DR: I started lifting weights! Ten-pound weights. Everything was going well until my ring finger started clicking and sort of locking in place. I did some “internet research” and discovered terrifying pictures of something called “trigger finger” and got all freaked out. Haha Luckily, I got a little splint and rested it for about a month and the problem just... went away!
RW: Do you feel confident that if necessary you could be a productive artist using your non-dominant hand?
DR: NO! Haha. After a while, I got sort of used to drawing with my left hand, but it never felt totally natural. I thought about penciling comics with my left hand and inking them with my right in order to save some years on my drawing hand, but once my right hand was back in action, I completely lost interest in the plan.
RW: Obligatory influences/inspiration question here: What are your influences be it art, movies, music, pets, family, or friends? What inspires you to draw?
DR: Man, so much — I have always been a huge fan of animation. As a kid, I loved early NickToons, early Simpsons, Liquid Television, The Maxx, Mike Judge, Adult Swim… Same with BoJack Horseman, The Venture Brothers and Adventure Time in more recent years.
I really like this old Adult Swim show called Moral Orel, which starts out as a goof on religion, but over the course of three seasons, becomes one of the darkest and saddest shows I’ve ever seen — not for the faint of heart, every trigger warning imaginable, but an unbelievable depiction of depression — way ahead of its time!
RW: What did you read or watch as a kid and what did you like to draw? Were you creating comics or attempting stories and if so, at what age?
DR: The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men all the way!!! Haha. I was obsessed with both cartoons, and they were definitely my gateway into comics. I was constantly drawing those characters.
Tim Burton was a big deal too. I remember drawing my own comics with my own characters too but have no memory of what the stories actually were! I’m sure they were really well thought-out and smart.
RW: What’s next for Desmond Reed and the Cola Pop Creemees?
DR: Whew, well I’m getting so close to finally finishing The Cola Pop Creemees: Mixtape, which will be the follow-up to Opening Act. I’m really excited about it, but am also looking forward to not working on it anymore. Haha. I need more time to play on my phone! I’m also working on a super secret non-Cola Pop Creemees project that has the potential to be pretty big — I guess folks will just have to follow me to learn more about that in the future!