Like other iconic black-and-white comics characters with cult followings—Cerebus, Concrete, Zippy the Pin-head—Too Much Coffee Man is instantly identifiable but incredibly hard to define. In fact, Portland cartoonist Shannon Wheeler's creation has a special disadvantage when it comes to being understood or taken seriously: The mug-headed, eternally anxious title character is so iconic he's more widely known for his merch (coffee cups, especially) and advertisements (you may remember him from a grunge-era Converse TV spot) than for his actual comics.
In the new Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus (Dark Horse, 536 pages, $24.99), which repackages five previously published books with multiple essays (Henry Rollins, the real-life Too Much Coffee Man, tackles the main introduction) and very little helpful context, Wheeler acknowledges this very problem. "People tell me they love my comic because they love coffee," he writes. "I wish that they'd tell me that they love my comic because it's clever or well drawn, or insightful."
Too Much Coffee Man is indeed all of these things, and quite often it's all of these things at once. This is especially true of the omnibus' first 200 pages or so, which collect Wheeler's early, long-form Too Much Coffee Man stories. Here we see the cup-headed one as more of a ringmaster than a central character, and it's a thrill to watch Wheeler juggle multiple unrelated plots (sometimes funny, sometimes desperate) around him, with TMCM jumping in as the rather befuddling comic relief. Even Wheeler himself—depicted as a Frankensteinish gentle giant—makes increasingly frequent appearances as a distraught creator who longs only to finish issues of TMCM so he can "read a book, a real book" or "go on a date...enjoy my life." All of this is fascinating: We see a young cartoonist developing at light speed, tackling oversized existential problems and deconstructing conventional comics plots all at the same time.
I'm not sure the one-page comics that make up the majority of Wheeler's book—syndicated in alt weeklies like this one—were any easier to put together than his long-form work. If anything, the quality of his draftsmanship and the creativity of his panels increases (the book's misleadingly titled "Amusing Musings" section features several unconventional strips reminiscent of Art Spiegelman's Breakdowns). But by the end of the omnibus the reader feels a jarring disconnect between the free-form character development of the book's first half and the editorial cartooning of the second. We see glimpses of the Coffee Man we first met—like everyone else, the political fallout from 9/11 more or less drives him insane—but we just wish we could spend a little more time with him. Maybe that's why people always tell Wheeler they love coffee.
READ IT: Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus is in stores now.