Aspirin pizza and the Everyman as Death

Ed. – For examples of Mr. Garbaukas’ work, see this issue’s “Aesthetic” article.

Americans can depend on the comic strip. The art form’s traditional simplicity – a fixed number of characters who rarely change clothes, style limited to panel(s), and a snappy oft-humorous message – is comforting and generally urbane. Elliott G. Garbauskas’ comic strip, Buttercup Festival, gracefully exemplifies each of these techniques, all the while pitching intelligent curveballs in a batting cage reserved for seekers of the absurd.

The lone reoccurring character in Buttercup Festival is a kooky everyman dressed like a slouched, unthreatening Death. Always on a Socratic mission to inexplicably baffle, he travels (more like transports) to forests, marshes, and places obscured totally by white space to converse with animals, plants, unidentified voices, and himself. In the world of Buttercup Festival, nothing is what it seems, or perhaps, its one resident is just insane, lame, or chronically sarcastic. Either way, Garbauskas, who resides near Boston, has created a unique forum to subtly comment on the human mind’s irreverent concerns.

Unlike most novels and art cheapened by demographic targeting, Buttercup Festival, which Garbauskas solicits to college newspapers, is not overly pompous, territorially indie, or cynically hog-tied. It’s more like a shrug that says or represents whatever one’s imagination prefers. Imagine the dry, random wit of Larry David banished to the zoned-out fantasy land of Sam Keith’s The Maxx, skim it down into three illustrated panels and you have…

This is a Life & Art interview with mysterious creator Elliott Garbauskas.

Q: Several of your strips focus on small things like dirt, birds, and aspirin. Is this triviality symbolic?
EGG: A lot of jokes, both mine and other humorists’, come from absurd groupings of ordinary things, as the ideas associated with those things collide and interact. Aspirin isn’t funny, and pizza isn’t funny, but a pizza piled high with aspirin has a humor to it — there’s some sort of chemical reaction there.

Q: Is irony very much alive in your everyday life?
EGG: I think I have a love-hate relationship with irony, although that’s an overused and watery term now. Nearly all of my jokes take their energy from an exaggeration of simple irony – whenever the character holds something and says he’s holding something else, or takes something and uses it to some absurd end, or entirely misreads a situation, there’s an ironic element that tension between what is expected and what actually happens, or what is expressed and what plainly is. At the same time, however, I don’t want irony to run across the character’s expressions of joy. When he’s looking up at the sky, waxing poetic about the birds or whatever, there’s no irony there — the expressed and the real are one and the same. Sincerity is important. Sincerity creates lasting importance. That’s why I don’t take irony very seriously in my comic — it’s a means to silliness.

Q: What is the story behind the title?
EGG: It’s a simple play on the fact that the only character is so Goth that he dresses like death. Putting so grim a character in a strip called Buttercup Festival has set the tone of the comic since day one, and it really hasn’t changed at all. It’s also a reflection of how fond the character is of the world — despite dressing as he does, he’s always taking great joy in simple things like birds and rain showers and whatever. Nature’s one big festival for him.

Q: When the character eats a blueberry pancake flying in the sky for example, it renders a very childlike semblance. Does your imagination run wild 24-7?
EGG: I try to let it. A lot of the time when I write I’ll just stare out the window, running ideas through my head, turning them over and over as they get increasingly absurd, and suddenly, after an hour of not moving muscle, I’ll write a week’s worth of jokes in 20 minutes. I try to look at things from a place of complete ignorance and confusion.

Q: There’s a slight pessimism that jogs throughout the strip, yet there’s also a love for nature and the four seasons. Does this mirror your outlook on life?
EGG: Absolutely. That’s exactly me. I don’t think any reasonably aware person could live in this world and not succumb to pessimism now and then, but it’s very important for me to continue to take joy in the world, not to give in to the pessimism. If nothing matters, what’s the point? Why bother doing a comic and sharing it with others? It’s important to me that I think of the world as a place of beauty and significance. And I’ve always loved the outdoors — wandering around in the forest is a regular pastime of mine. I make no apologies for all the time the character spends watching clouds pass and conversing with birds. This is important stuff. More people should take it up.

Q: The action in the panels barely shifts from strip to strip, why the simplicity?
EGG: If I were to develop the character at all, or introduce any consistent elements to the comic’s world, or have story arcs, it would begin to limit the sort of jokes I could use. Right now I can do anything, introduce any element necessary for a gag or idea, and not worry about having it ruin some larger design.

Q: What is your main goal for Buttercup Festival?
EGG: The strip itself I’m pretty satisfied with. I have plans for the future. I’m working on a 21-page mini-comic I plan to have ready for sale maybe mid-March. I’m spending a lot of time on the art, and the writing is more than just a long string of the usual Buttercup Festival absurdity. It has a strange sort of sadness and whimsy mixed together, with a few quieter jokes here and there. I’m extremely pleased with how it’s shaping up, and can’t wait to finish it.

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Hunter Stephenson can be reached at