In 2009, Josh Mecouch, who had just graduated college a year before, purchased a book on how to get a comic published in the newspaper. He had grown up reading many of the titans of newspaper syndication, from The Far Side to Calvin and Hobbes, and back then the newspaper — in his case, his hometown paper The Oregonian — seemed like the gateway through which all great cartoonists pass. The only problem was that this book he’d purchased in 2009 had been published in 1996, which, in newspaper years, spanned a gulf between ostentatious profitability and the decimation of an entire industry. “Getting a spot in a newspaper syndication is like getting a spot as a Supreme Court judge,” he told me recently. “The odds of you actually getting in there and receiving syndication are so low that you’re better taking it elsewhere.”
Mecouch’s hilarious and insightful webcomic, Formal Sweatpants, has a surprisingly Dilbertian origin; just as Scott Adams’s character navigated the absurdity of modern American corporate bureaucracy, one of Mecouch’s earliest forays into drawing regular comics occurred while dealing with the monotonous, soul-deadening life of working in a call center, a job he took shortly after graduating college. His earliest pieces drew praise from his fellow coworkers and he originally wanted to draw a comic that took place exclusively in a call center. Though that never panned out, Mecouch was eventually fired from that job, an event that, in retrospect, turned out to be “a really good thing.”
His firing allowed him to pursue comics and freelance illustration, and it wasn’t long before the web iteration of Formal Sweatpants evolved into a weekly comic (he told one interviewer that he liked that the name had the same initials as The Far Side, though it was originally meant as a temporary placeholder). I was actually surprised to find out how young Mecouch is. The phrase “formal sweatpants” denotes a kind of failed ambition, the kind where you wake up at 38 and realize that you haven’t been aging gracefully and whatever career you have has long since plateaued, leaving you with not even enough money to indulge in a midlife crisis. Indeed, his characters are bulbous, hairy creatures who are often balding. They face their lives without much grace or dignity, and the humor we get from reading it is mostly derived from their misery. In a cartoon titled “The Watch,” a middle-aged man opens the door to find the Grim Reaper waiting. “Are you here to take my life?” he asks. “Quite the contrary,” the Reaper replies, explaining that he’s there to deliver a watch that will tell the man the exact moment he’ll die. “Wow, thanks Death!” the man says. “I’m gonna quit my crappy job and live the life I always wanted! I might even take those dance lessons I’ve been putting off.” He then opens the watch to find that he only has 16 seconds remaining to live.
One of the more striking aspects of Mecouch’s comic is the amount of detail he places in his illustrations. When you think of webcomics, you think of the stick figures of xkcd or Cyanide & Happiness or the simple drawings of the massively-popular The Oatmeal. Formal Sweatpants is drawn with painstaking attention to detail, with the illustration itself sometimes as entertaining as the dialogue that comes with it. “It’s definitely a conscious thing,” he said. “I’m aware of how other cartoonists draw. I think it probably stems from different influences. Calvin and Hobbes was a huge influence of mine and Bill Watterson was an incredible illustrator. He could really draw quite well as far as realism goes, and so I tried to emulate that some … I try to make my drawings look as funny as possible so that if you don’t like the joke or the writing, I hope at least the illustration is entertaining and fun to look at.” Later in his life, Mecouch became a huge fan of R. Crumb, the underground comics cartoonist who has achieved now-legendary status, and it’s easy to see parallels between the two artists’ styles, particularly in how unattractive their characters are (Incidentally, Mecouch enjoys drawing ugly characters because it’s much easier. “It’s a bit of a shortcut,” he said. “Because drawing a symmetrical, handsome looking human being is actually quite difficult.)
So how did Formal Sweatpants rise to popularity? It was really just a steady drumbeat, with Mecouch putting out his comics every week and slowly amassing an audience. He began getting traction on Reddit’s r/comics and r/webcomics and he saw a huge explosion of traffic when Matthew Inman, the creator of The Oatmeal, gave Mecouch a shoutout on his Facebook page, an event that crashed the young cartoonist’s website. Mecouch eventually branched out into other projects, most notably when he began illustrating the tweets of Rob Delaney, the comedian who adopted a satirical alter ego as Mitt Romney’s closest supporter and confidant during the 2012 election. This Mitt & Rob series evolved into Twitter Illustrated, a regular feature in which Mecouch dips into the surreal, comedic tweets of what has affectionately been called “Weird Twitter” and, well, illustrates them. “There are just so many funny creative people on Twitter,” he told me. “You only have 140 characters to come up with a joke, and some of them are so funny, It’s very similar to a three-panel comic, to have to set up and deliver a punchline. And it’s a nice break because I don’t have to actually write them. I just have to come up with an image that hopefully adds to it if I can.”
It occurred to me that Twitter and webcomics go well together because they rely on brevity to succinctly set up a punchline and deliver it. While longer webcomics do exist, many of the best ones can be read and digested in a matter of seconds, and I’ve often opened a webcomic and then promptly closed the tab when I realized I’d have to scroll down to read all of it (The internet neologism for this is “too long, didn’t read”). Mecouch agreed with me that the longer the panel, the bigger the payoff that’s needed to sustain it. “Personally, one of the things I try to do is write out a comic that’s nine panels,” he explained. “And then I’ll say, ‘You know what, I can get this down to three.’ And it ends up being a much tighter, better joke and it’s easier for people to read it.”
It’s only been a few years since Mecouch left that dreadful job at the call center, and when I spoke to him last week he seemed to be one of the rare few who, after wandering in the post-college wilderness for a short period of time, had found what he wanted to do with his life. The popularity of his webcomics has led to steady freelance illustration work and he subsidizes his living by selling prints and merchandise featuring his comics. He even has a new book coming out soon. After getting off the phone with him the irony struck me that Mecouch’s life had turned out the complete opposite of one of his characters. Plus, as he admitted in an interview recently, he doesn’t even own a pair of sweatpants.