Smash Pages Q&A: Cory Thomas on ‘Watch Your Head’ and more

Thomas talks about his long-running comic strip turned webcomic, his post-election editorial cartoon that went viral and his work with James Patterson on ‘Public School Hero.’

Cory Thomas remains best known for his comic Watch Your Head. First launched as a comic strip in 2006, Thomas relaunched it in 2014 as a webcomic, tweaking the story and characters, though it has remained the story of a diverse cast of characters attending Douglass University, a historically black university. He continues to update the comic occasionally, though a lot of his attention has been focused on other projects like the James Patterson book Public School Superhero.

Late last year Thomas got a lot of attention for a comic he made for Fusion titled “The Weirdness of being Black in White Spaces After the Election,” which struck a nerve with a lot of people from different backgrounds. Thomas sat down to talk about the response to that comics, the status of Watch Your Head, and what he’s working on now.

You made a comic for Fusion that came out in December, which is titled “The Weirdness of being Black in White Spaces After the Election.” I wondered if you could talk about where the piece came from?

Well, during the presidential campaign, it became clear to many that Donald Trump and his followers had a vision for America that wasn’t inclusive of minorities and the socially disenfranchised. To the point where hate groups and extremist movements were rallying behind his success. The comic was just a representation of my feelings after he won. Just a crushing sense of dread. Disillusionment with how many people around me were willing to either support the hate or were ok with overlooking it. Neither one feels particularly safe for people like me.

What has the reaction to the piece been like because it feels like it really hit a nerve with a lot of people.

Everything from, “This comic exactly captured my feelings,” to “This comic is racist.” Mostly I think any piece of commentary that tries to discuss minority concerns, and how the status quo fails us, is going to upset people who feel represented by that status quo. An attack on the way things are feels like an attack on them.

Most of the responses that came directly to me, though, were positive and supportive.

I was a little surprised by the Fusion piece not because you’re not good or political, but it’s not what I expect from you. Have you done many nonfiction pieces or editorial work over the years? Watch Your Head has always been political but this was a little different.

I used to be the editorial cartoonist for my college newspaper, Howard University’s Hilltop. So tackling political and social issues hasn’t been foreign to me. I definitely tried to tone it down and stay off of the soapbox with Watch Your Head. Because I wanted the focus to be on the characters and story, not the politics. But I’ve definitely always tried to say something with my work, even if the message was subtle.

You ended the piece by asking “Is there any way to push it back? Or will it consume you entirely?” Have you found a way to answer those questions, if only for yourself.

I’ve chosen to not be consumed. This is the new reality. We need to figure out how to navigate it, resist it and eat away at it. We have to work towards making the future that most of us want.

I think it’s fair to say that most people know you for Watch Your Head. But for people who don’t know, what is Watch Your Head?

Watch Your Head started out as a daily newspaper comic strip in 2006. It’s about the lives and relationships (and hijinks!) of a group of college students at a predominantly black university.

That version of Watch Your Head ended in 2014, and I’ve since rebooted it as an online webcomic.

I really enjoyed the relaunch of the series, but what was it like for you to go from doing this as a newspaper strip to the webcomic, which you did as a comic page?

From a creative perspective, it’s been incredibly freeing. There are so many restrictions around writing for a newspaper comic. The tiny format is somewhat useless if you really want to flesh out an idea. The content needs to be sanitized to an extent that completely removes the story from reality. Especially a story about college. The reboot has allowed me a larger canvas and the ability to present more true-to-life relationships.

Financially, though, the webcomic isn’t quite as rewarding. It’s entirely a labor of love.

I have to ask, do you want to punch Kevin repeatedly? Though I admit that some of that is due to my love of Dana.

Well, the Kevin of the webcomic is an amalgam of the original comic’s Kevin (who was a voice of reason) and Cory (a comically exaggerated version of myself). The part you want to punch is the ‘Cory’ part, and it’s deliberately annoying and clueless. Everybody can see how cool Dana is. Except Kevin. It’s pretty infuriating.

This feels like a good moment for Watch Your Head. They do go to Douglass University. There is now a chance to hit the news cycle and talk a little about this Frederick Douglass who’s doing such good work and the visit from HBCU Presidents to the White House. 

I don’t know that I’d ever directly address real life political situations in Watch Your Head. I usually allude to them somehow, though. That whole “keeping it subtle,” thing. In that vein, I have an upcoming storyline that’ll be talking about the Trump presidency without actually talking about the Trump presidency. I’ve already started sowing those seeds in the latest comics.

Tell me a little about the status of Watch Your Head?

It’s… alive. But, as mentioned, it doesn’t currently pay my rent, so at times I have to slide it to the side as I work on more fruitful projects. But I love Watch Your Head. I love those kids. And it’s never going to die.

How did you end up drawing Public School Superhero?

I was approached by Little, Brown Publishing. They admired my work and asked if I was interested in the project. And of course I was. James Patterson is one of the majors. When he calls for you, you come. I read the manuscript, I loved the concept, and so I was definitely on board.

I know that you have a day job but what are you interested in doing more of this year? Are you looking to return to Watch Your Head? Do you want to do something or where is your head? What are you planning?

I have several story arcs planned out for Watch Your Head. Three years worth. The day job thing makes that slow in coming, but I’m totally committed to getting that comic regularly rolling again.

I’m also writing and illustrating my own middle grade adventure novel. Public School Hero gave me the fever for it, I guess. I’ve been working on getting it right for a while now and some publishers have expressed preliminary interest. This year, I’m going to finish it up and work on getting out there.

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