Literature 1-2-2007

Weird-Shaped Heads and Internet Toasters: Barrett Chase

Chris Godsey interviews Barrett Chase, cartoonist, blogger, writer, postal worker. Read on for dark wit and wisdom, and a bunch of recommended blogs.

Barrett Chase
from ograte
barrett Chase
from ograte

Barrett Chase has both a fictional character’s name and mundane-yet-surreal existence. He’s a 34-year-old Duluth Denfeld graduate, West Duluth ex-pat (somewhat recently relocated to the city’s East Hillside, which culturally is not unlike moving from 1991 to 2001, all in the space of about 20 or 30 blocks). He works at a post office, often for 12 or 14 hours at a time, six days a week. He’s also remarkably creative, perceptive, and clever, as his multiple blogs and comic strips (and his under-mentioned photography) illustrate. And he is perfectly of his time: expressing anonymous, workaday existence in ways that show all human stories–the ways we all experience and negotiate life–are valuable.

I e-mailed him 20 (or so) questions; he e-mailed back with answers.

When did you start creating comics?
When I was a really little kid. The first comic I remember doing on a consistent basis was for my sister when she moved to Germany back in the early 1980s. I used to draw them and then mail them to her in the mailbox at the end of our block, probably because I didn’t know what else to do with them. I probably did one a week. They were pure slapstick, low-grade comedy, with aliens and talking dogs and regular people. I don’t think any of them exist anymore. I hope not.

Were you most interested in creating words, images, or the combination?
Definitely the combination. I’m no artist, but I think I’m probably a fairly good writer. I really hate comics that are lacking in one or the other, that are just well-drawn but have no substance, or where the pictures redundantly illustrate what’s been said. The combination is where the magic happens. It’s like the difference between a book and a movie, or a movie and a still photograph.

Besides Occam’s Razor and Ograte, what comics have you done?
Before Occam’s Razor, I had a short-lived comic in the Northland Reader, which didn’t officially have a title. That was pure coincidence. They needed a comic and I happened to be doing a lot of drawing at the time. Other than that, I have a lot of stuff I started but never finished. I started a comic called Judge Mental that I really liked, but the truth is that I consistently spread myself too thin. I wish I could live without sleep, and then put a couple extra hours in the day.

What other comic creators’ work do you admire?
When I first started Occam’s Razor I was really into Harvey Pekar, and I think that probably shows. That’s how I got the idea to do a semi-autobiographical comic, which incidentally was really just a pre-blog. Charles Burns (Black Hole) is probably my favorite cartoonist, but I don’t think I emulate him at all. He’s way darker than I am. Also I like Lynda Barry’s Ernie Pook’s Comeek and Paul Koob’s Hamster Man. Maybe there’s some of that in my stuff. It’s hard to say. My influences aren’t just comics, they’re everywhere. I imagine TV influences me more than anything else.

Is your novel done?

Uh. No. I got bored. Not bored with the novel, but bored with having to write during every minute of my free time. That’s the problem with NaNoWriMo for me–it falls during my second-busiest month. Once I wrote enough to prove to myself that I could write a novel and that I could finish it, I lost interest. Maybe next year I’ll write the rest of it.

Do you have any interest in creating a graphic novel or an animated piece?

I do and I don’t. Ograte was supposed to be a graphic novel. If you think about it while you’re reading it, you might be able to tell that there are huge holes in the story. I have that whole thing mapped out in my head, and I was procrastinating about doing it when I was asked to do a serial for the Transistor. I thought I’d make life easy and just tell the story I already had, but space and time constraints made me have to work really hard to condense it. I could make Ograte into something along the lines of 75 pages long. But I probably won’t.

Do you aspire to publish comics beyond Duluth?

I’m on sabbatical when it comes to comics. The thing is, I work 50-60 hours a week, plus I have all these creative projects, and I try my best to have a social life. These days my number one project is looking out for number one and trying to enjoy life. That doesn’t necessarily involve writing and drawing so much. I have to scale back.

How would you describe your comic work to someone who had never seen it?
People with weird-shaped heads. Low-key humor. Observational humor.

How autobiographical are your comics?
I’d say about 35% autobiographical. But at the same time, Occam’s Razor really was my blog back before blogs existed. That said, my blog isn’t necessarily all true, either.

Do you have any guiding principles for the visual and textual elements of your comics?
Make jokes at every opportunity. Or if not jokes, make a point.

What started you blogging?
No one was visiting my website, which at that time (2003) just had comics and occasional biographical updates. I realized that the content needed to change regularly and frequently in order to keep people coming back. It was about that time that I stumbled across the first blog I ever read, Weapons of Massdistraction ( and thought it was a great idea. I still read that site every day.

Why are personal, minutiae-filled blogs so popular?

Because people are always comparing their own lives to everyone else’s. They want people to emulate and people to act as foils. They want real stories and real drama. Train wrecks and love songs.

How do you describe blogs to people who’ve never heard of them?
I don’t. I stopped doing that because if you’ve never heard of a blog, in 2006, you will probably never understand why someone would create one. I’m not here to spread any kind of blog gospel.

How many blogs are you involved in maintaining or posting content on?
Three: The Product (, Perfect Duluth Day ( and my new Vox site, which is private ( Vox is a new service offering what I think is the future of blogging. Namely it allows you to control who can see your content, and it integrates with all the fantastic Web 2.0 sites like Flickr and YouTube. I’m really excited about Vox, because sometimes I just want my posts to be more like a mass email rather than something that just anyone can read.

Whose blogs do you read? Why?
I read a whole helluva lot. But the ones I read religiously are Que Sera Sera (, Big Giant Tampon Commercial (, Leah Peah ( and Minnesota Stories ( which I don’t read but watch because it’s a videoblog. Truth be told, I’ve made some sort of connection with all these people outside of their blogs. Christa from BGTC is my girlfriend–we met mainly because of blogging. Sarah Brown of Que Sera Sera is my personal advice-giver. But I read/watch them because they’re talented people. Oh, also, I think Fimoculous ( is probably the best blog out there. Not my favorite, but the best.

Got any thoughts on myspace and facebook?
I hate MySpace. God, I hate it so much. It’s ugly, clunky, and ridiculous. Oh, sure, I have a MySpace account. You practically have to if you want to live online the way I do. But still. Ugh. The only good thing about it is what it does for indie bands, but that could be done so much better and so much prettier. I’m too old for FaceBook. MySpace, too, for that matter.

What common misperceptions about blogs exist–both among bloggers and non-bloggers?
That blogs are online journals or diaries. That people tell the truth on blogs, or that people should tell the truth on blogs. I’m talking about personal blogs here. I think the media is always attacking political blogs, dismissing them as dolts sitting around in their underwear. When the media says this kind of thing, they don’t realize they’re talking about their most loyal viewers or readers.

What defines a “good” blog and separates it from “bad” ones?
Writing. My initial reaction is to say that a lot of pictures of food and cats make for a bad blog, but some of my favorites contain just that. It’s all about drawing the readership in. Having opinions. Being charming. The same things that apply for making friends in real life apply for gaining an audience.

Do blogging and creating comics scratch any similar artistic, emotional, intellectual, or other sorts of itches for you?
Very similar although comics involves this weird addition of drawing, which I’m not that good at. Therefore, my comics are more thoughtful than my blog posts, which are more off-the-cuff.

Does unaffected reality exist?

What is the appeal of melancholy?
I don’t see any appeal in it. Honestly. I can be a very depressed person at times and my only reason for putting it out there is to try to get rid of it for myself.

Can you see yourself ever living somewhere other than Duluth?
I’ve said on my blog that I could see myself living in Toronto or in the U.P. I could also see myself living in New York if I could make enough money, though I’m really just a blue-collar guy so that’s hard to take seriously. The thing is, I’ve got a good thing going here, so I’ll probably stay here as long as I can.

What social/technological phenomena are coming?
More interaction. People are going to realize that the Internet is not just about email and blogs and ordering stuff on Amazon. In 10 years every device in your home will be connected to your wireless network and therefore the Internet as well. We don’t see the use for it now, but in the 80s Bill Gates said that no one should ever need more than 640Kb of memory. Trust me – your toaster needs to be connected to the internet.

Is there any uber-perfect Duluth day?
The second day of Homegrown 3 was one. I’m waiting for the next.