Updated: May 14
1120 Press was introduced recently to the excellent comic book 'Chaotic Neutral,' thanks to
Buffalo’s Hertel Avenue jewel Gutter Pop Comics. Created by Andrew Burgess, the cartoon is a fascinating and entertaining read full of weirdness, jealousy, betrayal, kidnapping, and rock ‘n’ roll. Burgess — a cartoonist, University at Buffalo English professor with a PhD in rhetoric and composition, and the bass player for the Buffalo punk band Skyway — is as interesting as the world he’s created. And, he was nice enough to sit down with 1120 Press. We’re grateful for his time. Meet Andrew Burgess. (You can purchase Chaotic Neutral at Gutter Pop Comics, and keep up with his band Skyway on Instagram @skyway_punk and on the Web at skywaypunk.com) – Images provided/ Performance Photo by Jay Rosado
1120 Press: Hey, thanks so much for talking with us. Can you catch us up on what’s happening on the Chaotic Neutral front these days and what the future holds for the book and its characters? Volume 1 is out, and it's awesome. What next?
ANDREW BURGESS: Sure thing. I've gotten two more chapters drawn since Volume 1 came out in 2020. It's been on the back burner for a while, but I'm hoping to publish Volume 2 this year, hopefully by the end of summer. I've got about thirty pages left to draw. I originally published the chapters that make up Volume 1 as eight-page minicomics. I kept myself to a strict deadline of one a month, so every month, I would spend a few days writing a loose outline and thumbnailing, and then I'd jump right in. I was able to publish all of Volume 1 in a six-month period between 2019 and 2020. But, I also burned myself out by working so fast. So I'm really taking my time with Volume 2. It's cool that there are still folks out there waiting for me to finish it, and I don't want to let them down!
1120: Please tell us about the origin of Chaotic Neutral. Where’d the idea for the plot come from? In spreading the word to some people about your work, we mentioned how it begins with a love triangle within a Dungeons & Dragons group, and one person who plays D & D said: “Yeah, that sounds about right.”
AB: Ha, yeah, D&D groups can get pretty weird! I get asked a lot if Chaotic Neutral is autobiographical when people start reading it, but by the time you get to chapter three or so, it's pretty clearly not my life story. That said, I used to play in a D&D group that was great. We had the best Dungeon Master I've ever played with. But then, when the pandemic happened in 2020, the group sort of fell apart. We tried a couple of online sessions, but it just wasn't the same. I love that feeling of sitting around the table and throwing dice together. But I also wanted to look at the interpersonal relationships of the players, especially in places where those relationships are falling apart or getting complicated. So, I had the idea that it might be interesting to see what happened if a long-term couple broke up right before a session, but decided to play anyway.
The other interesting thing about my D&D group was that we were all busy adults with kids and jobs in academia, and that brought a different energy to the sessions. Game nights were really a chance for us to drop our baggage and dive into our characters, so I wanted the comic to reflect that as I bounced back and forth between the "real" world and the world of the game. Things that happen in one world have a direct impact on the events and outcomes in the other. And as the story in Volume 1 progresses, it kind of gets away from the game as life events become more all-consuming. In my experience, this is pretty true-to-life.
Like I said, the book is not autobiographical, but the character of Jeff is definitely based on me in a lot of ways. He's a bit of an underachiever, he's a musician who hopes for greatness but can't quite get himself out of bed in time to do anything great. I used the character to really explore some of the darker side of human understanding and reactions. You know: How do I keep the reader invested when the protagonist isn't really very likable? I joke that he's me if I made the absolute wrong decision in every situation. He's pure id and it gets him into a lot of trouble. He's also a total knucklehead who jumps to conclusions and acts impulsively. I really liked the idea of writing a main character who shouldn't be the main character, but is too self-obsessed to realize it. And I guess that's the overall arc of the story: a guy who gets hit with a ton of bricks over and over again, and slowly realizes it's time for him to get out of the way and figure out his own issues without relying on someone else to solve his problems or give him meaning.
1120: What’s the process like for you in creating the cartoon? It seems like there’s a lot on your plate.
AB: When I first started the book, I was heavily influenced by Charles Forsman's The End of the Fxxxing World. Chuck self-published those as little, floppy eight-page minicomics before collecting them as a book. And his work has so much energy and life. The art is simple and spare, but it's also beautiful in its simplicity. It was clear that he was working fast and taking chances, and I was in awe of that high-wire act. It was so different from anything I'd ever read in comics and I wanted to capture some of that energy. Looking at the first chapter of Chaotic Neutral, you can see a couple of the rules I put in place for myself: no rulers and no computers. The idea was that I would draw the book at size, take it to the copy center and print directly from the page. But I abandoned those rules after the first chapter. I used a ruler for my panel borders and added screentones digitally, and cleaned up some of my errant pen lines. And eventually, I made a font out of my handwriting to make lettering quicker for me.
You can also see that I'm picking up influences along the way. As I was working on chapter six, I was reading through Frank Miller's Sin City. You can see a lot of that in the art — heavier shadows, thicker lines — and the cover to that image is a direct homage to one of Miller's Sin City covers. I also did a Walking Dead homage for the cover of chapter one and a Springsteen homage for chapter four. I'm kind of a snowball rolling downhill, picking up things as I go, and you can see that in the comic. It changes drastically from chapter to chapter, and I actually like that.
As far as my process, I don't do it in a way that I would recommend. Because I was writing Volume 1 month to month, I only ever had a general idea of where the plot was headed. I tend to end each chapter on a cliffhanger that pushes it in a new direction, but each cliffhanger was really a problem for me to figure out. At one point, I even wrote Jeff into a full body cast and drew a few pages that will never see the light of day. I guess that's been my way of keeping myself interested in the story — I'd create problems that kept me constantly asking a question I picked up from Stephen King's On Writing: "What's the worst possible thing that could happen here?" Although, I guess my question is modified to: "What's the worst way Jeff could respond to this?" So any cliffhangers for the reader were also cliffhangers for me.
When I approach a new chapter, I don't write anything. There's never a script. I draw very small thumbnails that no one else could possibly read (just tiny blobs on the page, really) to give myself a sense of the pacing and how many panels I'll need on each page. Then I rule out my panels and ink the lines. Once the panel borders are linked, it starts to feel like a real comic book, which is cool because it feels like I'm getting somewhere. From there, I draw extremely loose pencils with a non-photo blue pencil so that none of the messiness will reproduce when I scan the page into the computer. A lot of comics creators recommend drawing the whole page (or even the whole issue) in pencil and then inking it all. But I'm impatient and I want to see a finished panel before I move on to the next one. So, I pencil and ink one panel at a time and watch as the page fills up. I also draw and ink my speech bubbles and narration boxes before I ink the drawing and before I actually know what I'm going to write in them. Haha, I also do not recommend this method! But it's fun because early on in making comics, I realized how much distance there was between writing a joke or an emotional scene and actually seeing the finished product. If you write a joke and then it takes three or four weeks for that joke to actually find its way onto the page, you no longer have any idea whether it's funny or not. By writing dialogue directly onto the finished art, I was able to keep myself more immediately involved in the process.
Like I said, the schedule of self-imposed monthly deadlines kind of burned me out, so I abandoned that for Volume 2. I knew this meant Volume 2 would take a little longer, but I didn't expect it to take another three years! Part of it is just needing a break from the characters to give them space to live in the back of my mind for a while. But I'm working on chapter nine now, and I'm really excited about the unexpected direction the story has taken. In fact, answering these questions has got me really looking forward to getting back to the drafting table, so thanks for that.
1120: How, if at all, does your academic background — especially in rhetoric — influence your work as a cartoonist and/or in Chaotic Neutral?
AB: I teach writing courses in the English Department at UB. I got my PhD in rhetoric and composition from Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL (my hometown). I don't know that my understanding of rhetoric has done much for my comic writing except to make me aware of audience, purpose, and context. My first comic was an outer-space paranormal thing called Zed in Space, and it took me almost two years to draw sixteen pages because I was swinging for the fences with every panel. At the time, I thought I wanted to make a more mainstream comic because that was all I had ever really spent time with.
So, with Chaotic Neutral, I've dialed into the kind of punk, DIY side of comics, which is a way better fit for me, and I'm more aware of how the book operates in a much smaller, more interesting (to me, anyway) niche. I think that's freeing, actually. I love hearing from people who have read the book and found moments in it funny or engaging, but as I work on it, I'm the audience. I'm trying my best to make a comic that I like, and it is amazing that other people might like it too. That's a part of the process that I never really expected, and it's fantastically cool to know that there are at least a handful of people out there who want to know where the characters end up.
I'm a lifelong reader, and I'm always thinking about that line between plot and character, and the interesting ways you can blur those boundaries. I never took a class with Robert Olen Butler at Florida State, but I learned from him that "Plot is yearning thwarted." So, it's an interesting exercise to create characters, give them things to yearn for, and then put obstacles in their way. I'll admit that I'm not great at that. I really like Jeff and Mary, Chuck and Sheila, and even Gary. I want to see them succeed! But it's my job to make their lives harder and see what they do about it. In Volume 2, I'm really trying to find the balance between fleshing out the other characters while also continuing to focus on Jeff's journey. I won't spoil anything here, but I'll say that if you thought you knew where things were going at the end of Volume 1, I'll bet you didn't guess anything that actually ends up happening in the book. That said, even I don't know how it turns out. I've had the last page planned since day one, but the thirty or forty pages between here and there are still a really fun mystery to me. My process might actually be a knee-jerk reaction to the way I teach writing as a recursive process of invention, drafting, feedback, and revision. I'm not revising anything as I go here, and I certainly don't recommend that method to my students. But this isn't academic writing! I'm doing it backwards for a reason: because it makes it more fun for me, and I hope that that energy and enthusiasm come through on the page.
The one other thing I'll mention about my PhD (which I self-deprecatingly apologize for in my author bio) is that the process of completing my dissertation might be the only reason I've had the tenacity to finish this book. The dissertation was a 200-page doorstop of academic writing on the topic of Bob Dylan's 1968 Newport Folk Festival performance analyzed through three different lenses of multimodal analysis. It took years of writing and revision and I constantly felt like giving up on it, but I powered through the process and got it done. So, if nothing else, that proved to me that I have what it takes to complete a big project.
1120: Can you talk about the concept of ‘Chaotic Neutral’? When we looked it up, and not being familiar with D & D ourselves, we saw that it comes from the D & D world and the definition included “….characters promote the ideals of freedom; it is their own freedom that comes first — good and evil come second to their need to be free...” That seems like such an ‘America thing’ and not necessarily in a good way. Was there something about this term or concept that inspired you to go down this path with your strip?
AB: Great question! I've always played chaotic neutral characters in D&D. I think that the alignments really reveal a lot about the person playing them. It's always baffled me that anyone would choose to play ‘lawful good’ because that seems to me like such an uptight way to play the game, but some people like that, some people have a strict code for what it takes to be a hero. And if that works for them, they make the party more interesting and well-rounded. But that's one of the cool things about D&D: you can try on different personalities and worldviews, try out systems of ethics and morality that don't necessarily line up with your own. In real life, I'm a pretty nice guy, I guess. I care a lot about the people around me and I'd do anything to help them.
But in D&D, I'm there to be the wildcard and keep the DM guessing. I love the look on a Dungeon Master's face when I walk into a room and throw a fistful of ball bearings on the floor. I like that being chaotic neutral gives you the freedom to do whatever you feel like doing. If it helps out your party or advances the story, that's fine, but more often than not, you're a stick in the spokes. So, with the character of Jeff, I wanted to see what would happen to a guy who really lived like that — as a stick in the spokes or a self-obsessed wildcard — as he navigated between the real world and the fantasy world of the game. Because, you're right: it's a uniquely American outlook, and one that can cause some major problems in relationships, community, and government. That's actually one of the tricky things that I navigate when people ask if Jeff is based on me because, yes, I have a lot in common with him, but he's a total jerk! For now, anyway. He'll learn his lesson along the way (I hope).
1120: What’s happening on the ‘Skyway’ front?
AB: I love being in Skyway. I got in touch with Brandon Kapral (drums) and John Mikulski (guitar/vocals) through Stephen Floyd at Gutter Pop Comics. Actually, most of the things I love about being in Buffalo since I moved here in early 2019 have grown out of being involved in Gutter Pop Comics, so I absolutely have to take this chance to thank Stephen Floyd for all the ways he and his excellent comic shop have made my life better. Stephen even bought copies of my first comic and told me it ruled. Thanks, Stephen! I've played in punk and ska bands since high school, but after I left Tallahassee, I moved to Hawaii for four years before landing in Buffalo. I never really fit into the Honolulu punk scene and pretty quickly after I got to Buffalo, the pandemic happened, which pumped the brakes on a lot of people's musical endeavors. So I went about eight years between bands, and kind of thought that was the end of that. But I spent most of 2022 writing and recording an album of solo punk songs, and Stephen (bassist for the Buffalo band Personal Style) played it for his drummer, Evan Wachowski. Evan works at Oxford Pennant, where Brandon works, and that got me in the door to jam with Skyway, which at that point was just Brandon and John. And as soon as I hit the first bass note in Green Day's "Basket Case" with the guys at my first practice, I knew it was something special. We're all dads and we joke that we're "Buffalo's newest, oldest pop-punk band." I really love the Buffalo punk scene, and the music scene in general. I've never lived anywhere else that would've had space for a new band like us.
Skyway has this wonderful, chaotic, frenetic energy to it. I've only known John and Brandon since October 2022, but in these few months, they've become like brothers to me. We're writing songs at breakneck speed and recording as we go. On April 14, we released our first EP, Buffalo's Worst Dancers (the title is an homage to the excellent Lifetime album Jersey's Best Dancers). We recorded it in February with Doug White at Watchmen Studios in Lockport. To give you a sense of what it's like to be the old guys in the punk scene, we have a guest vocal on one of the songs on our EP ("The Night is Ours") from Brett Biro, who sings for the excellent Buffalo hardcore band Exhibition. John taught Brett in middle school, so that's how that came about. Thanks, Brett! I'm really proud of how the EP came out. You can find it on all the streaming services if you're so inclined. It rips. We're approaching the band the same way I approach the comic book: we're making music that we want to hear, and it feels like 2001 all over again. John and I have a great push and pull to our vocal styles that makes it really fun to sing with him. He's got the Jordan Pundik (New Found Glory) melodic qualities while I'm a bit of a gruffer Tim Armstrong-lite (Operation Ivy, Rancid, The Transplants). And Brandon is by far the best drummer I've ever played with. It's all intuitive, and we write the songs collaboratively in a way that is really refreshing after years of bands that fight all the time. No drama in Skyway. We're best buds.
I think the plan is to release a full-length record later this year. In the meantime, we're playing shows. Our next show is May 21st at Mohawk Place with some excellent bands (including Skamagotchi, who rule).
1120: Aside from Chaotic Neutral, what else is happening on the cartoon front?
AB: Well, I recently bought my first new laptop since 2009 and I finally installed Photoshop on it. I've been doing graphic design work for all of the Skyway stuff and designing posters for punk shows and events at Gutter Pop Comics. That's forced me to use a different part of my brain, and it's been fun to shift gears. I worked as a graphic designer and media specialist for a few years after undergrad, so it's been a while since I've done this kind of work. As far as other comics projects, I've made the decision not to work on anything else until after I finish Chaotic Neutral. But, my next project will likely be illustrating a series of older autobiographical prose essays and publishing them as a zine. So, haha, look for that in the summer of 2027!
1120: Is there anything you’d like to add that we didn’t ask?
AB: I want to mention my two amazing kids, Henry and Arlo. Henry's six and Arlo will be five this summer. When I first started making comics with Zed in Space, I never could've guessed how becoming a father would change my worldview or my priorities. I try to treat everything I make as something my kids will read one day, and they're already listening to Skyway (Arlo's favorite part of the EP is Brett's screaming). I juggle a lot between being a professor, helping out at the comic shop, being in a band, and everything else, but without my kids making me a dad, I probably wouldn't have the discipline required to maintain that balance without dropping things. I've got one son who only draws with a number two pencil because that's what Jack Kirby did, and I've got another who loves the Ramones. It's really cool to see their personalities develop, and the chaos and energy of keeping up with them keeps me younger and more invested in the world than I could ever be without them.