With Minimum Wage, Bob Fingerman established himself as an intelligent, funny, wonderfully smutty, authentic, and bold storyteller during the mid 1990s. Admittedly restless, Fingerman walked away from the semi-autobiographical story of Rob (a struggling cartoonist) and his girlfriend Sylvia after ten issues, just as they were headed toward what seemed like a potentially conflicted future.
In the intervening years, Fingerman has written two prose novels and graphic novels like You Deserved It, but he has also gone back to Minimum Wage, polishing the old material in the pursuit of perfection. You can find the most complete example of that in Image Comics’ Maximum Minimum Wage collected edition, but following his latest return to that world, something came into place for Fingerman that pushed him to further Rob’s story, absent the wife.
In the all new Minimum Wage, Rob is three years older, days away from legally severing his ties to Sylvia, and living with his mother. Many of the career frustrations and friends are the same, but we’re getting a chance to see Rob struggle to find love anew.
In this lengthy interview with Bob Fingerman, we ask about the decision to go back to Minimum Wage, why he jumped the book ahead three years instead of taking Rob into the present day, the challenges of writing about sex and talking about hot button issues in the current climate, and much more.
Den of Geek: Can you tell me a little bit about putting Maximum Minimum Wage together?
Bob Fingerman: The thing about Minimum Wage is — and I think I even wrote something about this in the foreword — at a certain point it became sort of an obsessive compulsive kind of thing. Every time it came back into print, I went back in and revamped the art — and in this case– revamped even some of the script because it’s always been a matter of trying to get it right, you know?
So in putting together that collection I had a few things I wanted to address, to hopefully try and get a larger audience for it. One of those things being, kind of toning down some of the more explicit sex and nudity while maintaining the integrity of the piece. I know comic retailers used to be pretty gun shy about that stuff, but I think that they’ve actually relaxed about that over the years. But, you know…
Well, some. You’ve got a situation like what Sex Criminals is experiencing with iOS, Apple and ComiXology, and I guess with the new book [Minimum Wage], that’s going to be digital too, so is that a concern [an iOS block] going forward with regard to keeping that stuff toned down?
Well, see this is the thing, I’m trying to find that little sweet spot of balance because in the new series I’m dealing with Rob being single and dating and kind of exploring his sex life with people other than Sylvia. On the one hand, I want to depict it as frankly and as honestly as possible, in another way, I also don’t want to shoot myself in the foot with stores not wanting to catch it. Since comics is such a visual medium, in a way, the balance that I think I’ve struck is more explicit thinking, less explicit visuals — if that makes any sense.
We’re getting a lot more inside Rob’s head. In a way, it’s a fun challenge for me too, because I’m actually a little bit apprehensive about giving coming issues to my mother and my mother’s not a very prudish person, but at the same time, I’ve never opened up Rob’s brain to the audience as much as I have now. We’re really getting into some of his thought processes and those are the most explicit. In fact, the most explicit sex scene that I think I’ve ever done is one where you don’t see anything and that’s goona be in the second issue.
You talk about going back and tweaking the art and tweaking the script. Just devil’s advocate here, that’s a George Lucas kind of thing, and I’ve seen you make that comparison. Is it fair to your past self and to the audience that first found Minimum Wage, to go back and change past work around? Does that go through your mind?
Oh, it definitely goes through my mind and I’ve even been talking with Image about the possibility — at some point — of maybe doing a digital release of the original completely un-reworked material for the purists. Maybe even as a freebie. But yeah, I mean on the one hand, the whole Greedo vs. Han Solo thing which makes every purist bristle. I don’t think that I’ve had any moments like that. But by the other token, I would be the first to admit that I would lack that kind of objectivity.
For me, I’m looking at it as I’m making the work better and I have a feeling, even though he’s wrong, that George Lucas probably thinks the same thing. So of course, if he thinks the same thing and is wrong, I’m very cognizant of the fact that some people could think I’m wrong for any tampering that I’ve done. I suppose any kind of tampering, even if it’s manifestly better, is making something less pure than it was, but I don’t know. For me, it’s always about trying to get it where I want it to be in making it the best I think it can be. I hope that the majority of readers will feel the same way.
Being back surrounded by that world while preparing Maximum Minimum Wage, what brings you back? What makes you want to come back? Is it a sense of unfinished business? Is it something that you want to say with these characters? What takes you to the point where you are starting this new series?
Yeah, all of the above. The way that I had wrapped it up years ago was an oblique ending that I thought worked, but there was always more story that I wanted to tell — I just wasn’t sure how I wanted to tell it. At the time, it just wasn’t practical to keep going forward with it the way I was doing it with my original publisher. The sales were never spectacular and I had kinda hit a wall.
Somewhere in the back of my head I thought, “Someday I’ll come back to this” and then, you know, life just moves forward and 15 years go by and I move on to other projects and so forth and so on. I really had no intention — at a certain point — of coming back to it, but putting that big collection together did get the juices flowing again and at that point I’d also gotten a sense of Image and of their level of interest and it just seemed like the right time. Also, I have had a decade and a half to think about where to go with this and the pieces began to fall into place writing wise that had been missing for so long. Really, it was kind of a confluence of events that lead to making doing it seem feasible.
I know that you have talked pretty openly about how you would like to see this become a TV show. What are the elements of the Minimum Wage story that you think will play well on television?
I think it is such a good ensemble piece. In a way, the second wave of Minimum Wage that I’m working on now, even though it’s an ensemble, it’s become far more Rob-centric. It is his story at this point. But I think that even though television has changed since I first conceived of Minimum Wage, that is part of why I think it actually could succeed now. There really was nothing comparable to it when I was drawing back in the mid to late 90s.
Things like Louie and Girls that I think represent or depict a kind of lifestyle that you wouldn’t have seen depicted all of those years ago. But even there, Girls is a very specific kind of story. Louie is a very specific kind of story. And I think that the story of Rob and his friends is a very specific story that we haven’t seen yet. Though tonally, I think there are things analogous to Minimum Wage now, I still think that Minimum Wage has its own unique feel to it and I would like to see those characters. There is something very stripped down about their lives. Even a show like Girls, where it’s still pretty glamorous. Even Louie, in its own way, it’s kinda glamorous because he’s in show business, you know? Minimum Wage really did tell a story about a certain kind of group of young people that still hasn’t been shown on TV.
We’re in the year 2000 with the book right now. Why not the present day and would that have been too big of a gap for you to fit in and do you want to write this character in his 40s, in 2014, in a New York City post Bloomberg and post Giuliani? Obviously, it’s a very different city from what you wrote the first time around.
No, I really don’t. I’ve got several story arcs mapped out, but I think I probably wouldn’t want to move Rob’s story past the age of 30 for him. I think it really is the story of a younger guy, so there is still plenty of story left to tell. But no, I don’t want to see him middle-aged. I don’t want to see him when he’s gotten where he’s going. To me, for him, as an interesting character, it’s about the journey. I don’t want to show him actually arriving.
Is it a happy ending? Is it that you don’t think people want to see that?
Yeah, that’s partly it. For one thing, I also like to leave the door open for myself to experiment. Even though I already have this outline, I’ve already begun deviating from it a little bit just because, if stuff comes to me that I think will be more interesting, I’d rather pursue that.
But as it stands — I don’t think that this falls into the realm of spoilers — I think a contented life is a very boring life to depict. So eventually, if this thing is to head toward a happy ending, that would have to be where the story would end, because if Rob has a happy life, who gives a shit? Who want’s to read about that? You know?
Now, you’ve got 18 books planned right now, as I said, we’re in the year 2000. Is there a purpose to putting these characters through the cultural changes, the social changes, the changes to the city that occurred after 9/11? In general, is there any big statement or social commentary that you want to make in the book? Anything that is going to push boundaries like issue 3 of the original, the abortion themed issue. Is there anything like that that you have coming, or that you want to speak on?
Well you know, I mean, I think when I was younger I used to… not that I would consider the abortion chapter to be getting on a soapbox, but I don’t really want to do any comic book proselytizing about anything. But I mean, by the same token, there is going to be stuff that will hopefully have some kind of relevance to readers.
You brought up September 11th, I don’t want to get into that too much now but if the series hopefully does get to the third arc, it would be happening around then as the timeline moves forward and it’s definitely something that I want to address. And it’s actually something that I have assiduously avoided addressing in my work because it’s just, you know, to this day it still remains incredibly painful to think about. But by the same token, that’s not a reason to avoid it forever. I don’t like sticking my head in the sand either.
One of the things that I want to deal with, which maybe is very meta, is how the comic’s world dealt with September 11th and how, in a lot of ways, when you deal with something in the heat of the moment, that’s not the best time to deal with it. I think some reflection and some years passing can help you actually look at a situation with more clarity, less fogged by emotion. I mean, it’s still very emotional, but I know that I can deal with it better now than I would if I had tried to sooner.
Do you want to go past 18 issues?
I think that remains to be seen. Yeah, that remains to be seen. I mean, right now I’m really enjoying it and it’s fresh and even though it’s old, it’s new again to me. Talk to me in three years and we’ll see how I feel. I get very restless. I mean, that’s one thing that has kind of, kept doing what I do fresh, but it’s also possibly held me back from keeping an audience — eventually I do tire of things and I want to move on. So, I think I’ve gotten smarter about dealing with things like this, but like I say, we’ll have to see how I feel in a few years.
I ask because, Rob is now 25. Going forward, if this does push past 2001 and 2002 in the storyline, would that open you up to more political commentary about the Bush years, about the economy if it got that far in? Would Rob feel the way that the world was back at that point?
Yeah, and actually one of the things that I did want to start addressing with the character [Rob] is kind of a burgeoning interest in the world around him, beyond his own extremely narrow scope. Him becoming more interested in politics and so forth. Again, that’s the kind of thing that I don’t want to be heavy handed about, but it’s definitely stuff that I want to address within the framework of the comic.
Is this new chapter less biographical for you now then the original Minimum Wage?
I think that there is more of a mixing and matching. Some of it is still informed by… the other thing about going forward that had always given me pause was I didn’t want to just completely rely on mining my own life for material. Some things you want to keep private and also some things aren’t going to necessarily be as compelling to other people as they are to you. I mean, I’ve always been a fiction writer so now my emphasis is on dovetailing fiction and reality in hopefully a seamless way and I think that I’ve been doing a pretty good job of it.
Not that this is an indicator of what everyone will think, but I figure if my own wife is asking me questions as I’m doing this — “Did this really happen?”, “Did that really happen?” — if I can make her have a moment of doubt, of whether something happened, then I feel that I’ve probably done my job.
This goes back to the hardcore fans and the purists: if they hear you say that it is less biographical in some parts, do you worry that some may judge this more harshly? Do you worry that they’ll say that Minimum Wage has lost some of its honesty and its realism?
I don’t know that I worry about it, but I’m aware of it. Again, if I’ve done my job well, I don’t think that they’ll be thinking about that. I think that they’ll just be enjoying the story. And also, when I say that there will be more elements of fiction, it’s not like they’re going to be radical departures from the kind of reality that I’ve been depicting.
All of a sudden, there’s a pet dragon…
Exactly, yeah. Or Rob takes a job at the NSA and he becomes a super spy or whatever. That might be fun to write, but it’s not goona happen. I mean, if anything, it’s probably more in the realm of conflating events, which I’ve always done to kind of make things read better. Compositing several people into one character, so that way you’ve got verisimilitude without actually depicting anyone specific and real.
There are ways of my moving forward with this and with the characters and especially with the new characters where fiction and reality are hopefully being meshed in, as they say, a “seamless way”, particularly with some of the women that Rob will be dating, you know? That’s where I have an opportunity to composite people.
You’ve said that you’re not going to go back and show the end of the marriage. Will we see Sylvia at some point and is the script from number 11, the lost issue, is that canon in terms of laying the tracks for the end of the relationship? Did that happen in this story, or is that just dismissed at this point?
Oh no, no. I would say that, yeah let’s go with the word canon. Yeah, that definitely would have been stuff that would have been — I mean in a way, that chapter kind of almost works as a shorthand between the original run and the new run. That chapter definitely begins to show some fissures in the relationship.
Honestly, one of the reasons why I didn’t want to do the whole crashing and burning phase is I just thought it would be a miserable slog for me to write and draw and I thought it would be a miserable slog for people to read. So as a writer, I think it’s actually more interesting to just skip ahead. But yeah, that chapter, I think, is a little piece of connective tissue between the two series.
Now that was supposed to be the first story in a new arc back in the late 90s, was your plan then to skip ahead, or were you going to get into the muck and mire and really flesh out the end of this relationship? And if that was the case back then, what was it that made you change your mind? Is it just the realization that it wouldn’t be any fun for you and for the readers?
Yeah, a bit of that, yeah. It was the plan, the next book would have definitely been the whole dissolution of the relationship. As I say, there were certain practical reasons for deciding not to do it, it was just… as I say, the sales of the book were never spectacular. I just couldn’t justify taking the time to do the work and not only have it not be selling what I needed it to be selling, but also be an incredibly miserable experience to go through. I just said, I gotta do something else.
At that point, I was beginning to feel, as I say, I get a little restless, and I was feeling a bit burnt out on it. I needed to move on to something else for awhile and even between the final serial issue of the comic and the first collection that I did [Beg the Question] there was a three year gap between final chapter and then collecting it and adding new material to wrap it up. And in the intervening time between the final comic and that collection, I had started writing prose and had written my first novel in that time and I probably worked on some other things as well, so the writing, the desire to get away from it and do other things had already begun to happen.
With the 25 year old version of Rob, what is the worst part of him that has carried over? What are some of the things that he still needs to grow past that are still connected to when he was 22?
Well, he’s probably still a bit more sour than he should be, a bit more reactionary than he should be and now add to that — I don’t want to make him seem like a character that nobody would want to spend time with — but he is feeling a bit bitter because of the divorce.
The one thing about the character is he’s always been pretty responsible and pretty level headed and ambitious about what he wants to do with his career but he’s also thwarted by reality. He has to make a living. I mean, one of the things I always wanted to pursue about doing this comic was to do a story about someone which is very familiar to me, I mean this is definitely autobiographical.
In a way, it’s really fun to depict it in a comic that has meaning to me but for the first I don’t know how many years of my career — and probably a lot of people in creative fields [can relate] — there is this compromise of using your ability in ways that you’d prefer not to be using it. I was working for mens magazines and Cracked and doing illustration for lots of publications where I really had no feeling for anything. It was just a matter of I will do the best work that I can do, but it began to feel, in a way, no more satisfying than being a plumber and at a certain point that’s where it was like, jeez what’s the point?
In a way, it seems very ungracious because a lot of people would say, “Well, you’re still doing your art”, but the people who always say that you’re still doing your art in a way are betraying a lack of understanding because it doesn’t feel like you’re doing your art at a certain point, it just feels like a grind when you’re doing stuff that you hate with your so called talent. So that’s always been kind of an important factor to the character of Rob. Here’s a guy who is working in his chosen profession but finds it incredibly unrewarding, so part of what I want to do with him, which I think will make him grow as a character, is to try and find meaning in what he does.
Minimum Wage #2 is out now.