Oddly Enough: Russ Miller reflects on his own strange-but-true tale

Pirate image by Russ Miller.

By James Dungeon

[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and Russ Miller, Prescott-based illustrator, polymath, and creator of “Oddly Enough,” which runs in, among other places, the publication you’re reading right now.]

How did you get started doing “Oddly Enough”?

Probably one of the big reasons why I started “Oddly Enough” was because of a library. It was the one here, actually, in the Carnegie building. It was in the late ’50s or early ’60s. I used to get dropped off in the summer there because, well, I’m sure my folks had other stuff to do. But I was in the kids’ section at the Gurley Street corner, the bottom section of that building. At one point, as a kid, you’ve read everything of interest in there, but the upstairs was daunting. It was dark, hardwood, and quiet. I remember I started looking around up there and, man, there was some really good stuff. I remember this one particular book I kept trying to check out. It was about strange people — basically, about freaks, when you get down to it — people who’d been in horrible accidents and other stuff. At the time, librarians could say, “No, put that book back on the shelf, sonny.” So, I kept trying and one day they had someone else working there and he just stamped the book and handed it over. I turned around and headed straight for the door thinking I was getting away with something. It was that book, reading about really strange phenomena, and just the curiosity factor just exploded. That curiosity has always been with me. I’ve collected weird stuff since then, since I got introduced to that in a library. The fact that I ended up working in a library is kind of weird, actually.

You’ve just retired from working at the Prescott Public Library for, what, nearly two decades? How did that happen?

There’s the honest answer, or I could say that I was born for this, which isn’t really true. At the time I started, I’d been working with high-risk teens, the kinds of kids with parole officers. It was dangerous and, honestly, violent work sometimes. I had the realization that unless I started getting combat pay, I really needed to find something milder. I started teaching at the college — both of them, but primarily Yavapai — which was nice and was mostly at night. It was a massive gear shift and, at one point, the Prescott Public Library had a part-time opening for a shelver. Once I got into it, I realized there were really good perks, including health insurance. At the time, I had a sick wife and that was really important. This was about 2000, which was a really horrible year for everyone, but especially for me. My dad died and my mom had a stroke and my wife was diagnosed with two types of cancer in six weeks. I’d just started working at the library and it was all quite jarring. So, there was all that at the fulcrum. … Eventually, there was an opening in archiving, so I applied and, boom, got that. Next, I went to circulation. Then there was an opening for manager at the mall library, so I did that. Then there was the remodel and the library had five locations in town and, in the midst of that, I was sort of supervising a lot of the transit, and there wasn’t really a building for that, so it was a logistical nightmare. I became a circ(ulation) supervisor after that, then the mall lost their manager and I went back there again. Then, when the mall library closed, I started working as a reference librarian, and that’s where I’ve been for the past 10 years or so. It was a good fit. I liked the work.

Still, everyone who comes to see you has hit a wall in one way or another. By definition, you’re only working with people who’re having problems.

I know it sounds a little pretentious, but everyone is needy to some extent. They might need to know how to get on a computer, run down a topic but have no idea how to start, or have an idea but are stuck. It’s people with projects. It’s people with ideas. Sometimes it’s, “How do you spell ‘annihilated’?” Sometimes it’s someone trying to sell a house. Even after all this time, it’s an almost daily occurrence: Someone throws something at me that just stuns me. I’ve had people tell me really personal, medical problems. And some of them want advice. I’ve had a few times when they’ve called me up with symptoms and I’ll look them up and … jeez, how do you tell someone you looked it up and it’s terminal? I’m not Dr. Miller. I can tell you what John Hopkins thinks. I can tell you what the Mayo Clinic website says. I’ll tell someone they’d better see a doctor soon.

Back to “Oddly Enough.” When did you start writing and illustrating those?

I’ve done “Oddly” since 1982. At least that’s when it was syndicated. I did it before that as an occasional column. To this day, I still find staggeringly remarkable stuff because I’m looking for it. You’d think I’d be desensitized or get jaded, and in some aspects I probably am, but I’m still surprised and excited or disgusted by things I find. You find stuff like that and then you want to share it. I mean, you find out about a car that had 16 wheels. You’ve got to tell someone about that, right?

Has the way you find info for the feature changed since the ’80s?

Basically, it’s similar to the way I did it then. I have a tendency to binge-read. I might get a book on a topic and it launches me in one direction and on to something else. It might be a book that mentions something about a decaying body and the next thing I know, I’m reading a book about cadaver decomposition. Then the next day, I move on to something else. … As an example, there was an “Oddly Enough” about the Puckle gun. It’s an early attempt at a naval machine gun. It was noted that it had fired at a high rate of speed – at sea – during a rainstorm! And, hey man, it’s a flintlock! I’d been reading a story about naval actions, and it was mentioned in a court document where someone was being court marshaled. It mentioned an event and this gun came up, and it said he fired it 17 times in a minute. For that year, I thought, how is that possible? Then I found an account of this gun, and that patent for this gun, and cross-referenced them. A lot of times you look stuff up and it turns out it’s bullcrap or someone’s remembering it wrong — and sometimes that someone is me — or sometimes it’s from a source that’s totally fanciful. But other times, it’s there and it happened. That’s why I don’t do specters or ghosts; there needs to be something behind it that’s verifiable. Sure, weird things happen, but what can you prove? There are things — like William Hughs, the name of the sole survivor of three different boat sinkings — which are extraordinary, but they can be verified. The ones I like best are things you think you know about already, like Lewis and Clark taking air rifles with them. It was the latest technology so, when you think about it, it makes sense for the shock and awe. That’s amazing, right? … Sometimes they come in clusters. I have a tendency to collect them that way, for instance, with the ones about deep-sea life. I still have a boatload of those that I’m not sure how to represent yet. Another thing that I’ve learned by doing “Oddly Enough” this long is that brevity is your friend. Some of this stuff is really good stuff, really bizarre, strange stuff, but it can’t be packed into three paragraphs. If it takes too long to set up a joke, it’s not going to land. There’s tons of stuff about Johnny Appleseed, for instance, so many strange but true things, but outside of writing a book of them, which I might do some day, there’s too much to qualify, too much to chew up, trying to get through entire sagas in order for a punchline to mean something.

Was it always titled “Oddly Enough,” and how did you decide on the name?

It’s always been “Russ Miller’s Oddly Enough.” It was one of those nice little things to hang it on. At the same time, that expression, “Oddly Enough,” can be so commonplace that it doesn’t stand out. That’s why I added “Russ Miller’s.” That’s directly from “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” It’s not just anyone’s “Believe It or Not.” I wanted “Oddly Enough” to literally have my name on it.

You deal in specificities and qualifications; I’m sure people have reached out to you over the years to weigh in on different contentious topics.

There have been a couple of times. No one’s ever written me, though, that so-and-so was my grandfather and how dare you mar his name. Anyway, I’ve always been really careful about what I say. A lot of times people take issue with claims I’ve never made. I’ll get something from someone that says, “You don’t know anything about snakes. That’s not the biggest snake ever.” And I have to remind them that I never said it was “the biggest,” that I said it was “the heaviest.” A lot of it’s people looking at pictures and barely reading the written part and writing me. It’s half remembered stuff, and I’m always polite and remind them to read it again and make sure they see what was actually said.

It’s natural to look at the picture first and fill in the gaps, I think, before you even read the words. That’s the challenge of your medium.

Sequential art is very different, and it’s more nuanced than you might realize. In early Mickey Mouse cartoons, for instance, everything was really Vaudevillian, very grand, because the artists didn’t realize how subtly people could read it. We’re a lot more sensitive to sequential art, and we’re really tuned in to some things. Look at that movie, “The Incredibles”; there are things in there, moments you could never do better with live people. We’ve come a long way. … My early stuff wasn’t very nuanced, but it got picked up. My first one was for Singer Media, I think, and when I look at it now, it strikes me how flat it is. Getting internationally syndicated, incidentally, doesn’t exactly mean what you think it might. It’s great, but you don’t get the same response. You may be big in Italy or Latvia and never realize it. You get royalty statements that are in rubles and marks that look good until you see the exchange rate. People always ask, “What have you been in?” and saying, “I’ve been in the Media Tribune in Florence,” doesn’t do you any good. … In terms of sequential art, I knew I wasn’t clever enough to produce a gag every four panels over and over again. With realistic stuff, like “Steve Canyon,” I didn’t have the vision or the man-hours for that kind of work. So I thought I’d create something that could be cartoon-like when it needed to be and more realistic when I wanted it to go that way. I knew I wasn’t going to get bored if I did the feature that way. It’s whatever mood I’m in that day. We like extremes. You can go so far beyond a standard and then it’s crazy. That fringe, that crazy, is where I want to be. I want to push the limits of believability. It’s got to be something I can do in one panel, but the style can be all over the map and it’s still me. I can do something realistic if it’s a visual thing I’ve got to illustrate or I can do something cartoonish if it’s something we all know and recognize.

Some of your primary subjects are animals, especially fish, and technology, especially cars, weapons, and ships. I’m assuming those are all lifelong areas of interest for you?

They are. Some of the other tropes are weird behaviors and, as I mentioned earlier, things you think you know about. I never knew that Julius Caesar was the first person to bring a giraffe back to the Western world. I mean, we all know a little bit about Caesar, but not that. Then there are strange people, like Caligula, who’s got such long list of nuts, why even bother. … Right now, I’m working on a deal to do something on John Paul Jones, who had such a strange life. He’s one of those people we think we know, but, man, he was brutal, and kind of an ass, and brutal. I’m not sure how to play him yet. There are so many strange things that I don’t know what I’ll focus on. … Framing is a funny thing. I have a slush fund of ideas that I want to do, but when I revisit them, I get rid of the stuff that’s not quite odd enough or weird enough or that I don’t know how to spin. Sometimes you look into something further and you either misremember it or it was taken out context.

Are there any topics you avoid simply because you don’t enjoy drawing them?

Probably not. I’ll draw pretty much anything. There’s some abhorrent behavior that I’m not going to depict. Anyone can do gross things, but I want to maintain a certain kind of dignity or at least playfulness in “Oddly Enough.” There’s some shock factor, obviously. And, if you’re not going “holy cow!” once in a while in your profession, you should probably find another profession.

What’s it feel like to hang your spurs up at the library?

Like a lot of things in life, it was kind of a necessity. It was important for me to fulfill that need, to be a public servant, which is what that position is. There’s value in it, and I genuinely got a sense of satisfaction from it. Some days I went home feeling really good. Recently, the Comic Con at the library was a big thing for me. I’d made a plea to The Eisner Foundation for a grant for more graphic novels because, as everyone in libraries knows, you can never have enough graphic novels. As part of the petition, we needed to demonstrate how this would pull in more people and not just laud on praise for the foundation and the library but enrich the community as a whole. One of the ideas I put out there was having a miniature circulation, a little bookcase, to take to outlying places like Wilhoit and Paulden to show people what they can get through their library, not just what’s on the shelf. One of the other ideas was the Comic Con, and that idea just sort of stuck in the psyche and imagination of the people in charge of the library. They asked, “Why don’t we do one of those?” There was enthusiastic, gung-ho help, and we put it together. It was either going to be a miserable failure or a tremendous hit. It turned out it was the latter, and it was extremely gratifying. We doubled the normal weekend visitor numbers. … I don’t have the exact figures, but an average Saturday has about 1,800 people there and we roughly doubled that. It’s funny, I drew three pirates for that, and the one we ended up using and that everyone liked was one that I thought was one of the weaker ones. It’s a lot more whimsical, not quite as flamboyant as the other ones. But that’s always the way it is with that: You’re in love with one, but it doesn’t resonate as much with the public. I get the same kind of feedback from “Oddly Enough.” The ones I think are really cool and strange aren’t the ones people talk to me about. They get excited by ones that I consider kind of knock-offs. Oh well.

As an aside, there’s a collection of “Oddly Enough” strips collected in 1998 on Amazon going for $118.80. And, what’s more, it’s sold for that before. What’s going on there?

I have no idea. There’s a guy who has a clipping service — someone who has way more time than I do — who collects offbeat syndicated features. I came across mine in his collection, and he mentioned this book sells for astronomical prices. I don’t have a clue why. I don’t see any of that money and there are no pawn stars knocking down my door. I’ve got a copy or two of it, but I’d have kept a box of them if I’d known that’s what would happen. I used to give them away at cons trying to drum up business for “Oddly Enough.”

You’re a prolific freelancer who’s worked on quite a few projects. How was working with Disney on “the ducks”?

The work itself was fun. You’re using all the same tools, thinking creatively, coming up with and solving new problems. I do remember a few times being stunned. I wrote a story once for Donald. He was always trying to impress his uncle. So, he comes up with the idea of making felt hats. Someone tells him rabbits are good for that, and he thinks he’s going to be shearing these rabbits — he doesn’t realize the hats are made out of hide, which is the big reveal and, oh my god, he can’t do that. So, as the story unfolds, there are more and more rabbits in the background, and he’s broken all these shaving tools. Naturally, the people who are buying the hats are weasels. They’re always the go-to bad guy in that universe. So, I submitted the story and the editor kept asking me questions. He couldn’t wrap his head around the last couple of pages. He didn’t get the gags. I slowly realize it’s all the parts involving the weasels. There’s this part where one’s having a conversation with Donald and they’re talking past each other. So, I’m talking to this editor about this and I can tell he’s getting angrier and angrier. And finally, he says, “Well, a weasel would never say that.” I’m just gobsmacked. Well, I’m thinking, ducks don’t live in Duckburg and live in money bins, either. Anyway, that one was never published.

Any favorites from over the years?

The horror comics. Another thing I loved when I was a kid was the old EC Comics, like the “Tales From the Crypt” series. The endings — I always liked those stories. Working in horror comics, you get to get in to some of that gross stuff. Actually, the talking ducks and horror comics have a lot in common. You have to put the ducks in some sort of fear or dread for them to work and, honestly, I didn’t really see a big difference between working on them and the horror comics. The setups and the twists have a lot in common. … I mean, think about it: You don’t really have to do that much to a clown to make him look creepy. Comedy and horror both deal with different kinds of exaggeration. It’s in the writing and it’s in the art.

What are your plans for retirement?

I’ve got at least three graphic novels I’d like to do. I’ve already started pushing harder on “Oddly Enough.” It might sound kind of crazy, but I’d like to get really into the bagpipes. I’ve been playing nine years and play well enough, but there’s so much more to learn. I’d love to sit down for a couple of hours with a piece and really learn the music, which is something I’ve never done. Maybe I’ll get up to speed and do more competition or solo work. [Editor’s note: A lengthy reporter-spurred aside about the ridiculous nature and notation of bagpipe grace notes goes here.] It’s a ludicrous instrument, but there’s nothing else that sounds like that in the world.

Wait — I’m not sure how we got this far without addressing this — how did you learn to draw in the first place?

That’s a pretty interesting question; everyone’s got a different answer for it. I’d say I had an aptitude for it, which is very different than a natural ability. Someone like Bret Blevins has a natural ability to draw. He drew better at 17 than I do now. He’s the anomaly. There are a few of them out there, the naturals, and he’s one of them. I had an aptitude and I decided when I went to college that I wanted to develop that aptitude. As far as learning the craft, though, that didn’t happen at school. That came in the workplace, especially when I got into pen and ink. That became my meat and potatoes; the overhead was low and you could do pretty much anything. It’s not like throwing pots and having to invest in a kiln or something like that. You can always afford a pen and ink. Anyway, I wanted to grasp what those really great illustrators were doing. It was almost magic, their line work, and getting greys and the finesse, and getting the light just so. I couldn’t figure out how the hell they were doing it. So, I’d take prints off and Xerox them, blow them up, and dissect them. Suddenly, you see all these little things, subtle dots here and there on lines and all this other stuff. I started copying those techniques and things really took off from there. I look back at my work before then and it was so static, almost like woodcuts, and that’s not the language of sequential art. There’s more motion to it, more dynamics. One of the reasons I got so much work with comics is that I could match other artists’ style. When I went into Disney, I’d been doing logo design and, in order to school myself, spent a lot of time looking at and dissecting the old Disney comics. So, when I went to audition, the first thing they said off the bat was that I drew like Carl Barks. I didn’t know who Carl Barks was at the time, but he’s basically the godfather of the ducks. Somehow, I copied his style so, automatically, I was a genius. Lucky me.

*****

Russell Miller is an illustrator, cartoonist, writer, bagpiper, motorcycle enthusiast, and recently retired reference librarian. Currently, he illustrates books for Cody Lundin and Bart King. Contact him at RandJKLM@Aol.Com.

James Dungeon is a figment of his own imagination. And he likes cats. Contact him at JamesDungeonCats@Gmail.Com.

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