Cartoonist Nick Seluk brings our internal conversations to life with his web comic empire, ‘The Awkward Yeti.’
“Lars might be a little awkward, but that’s what makes him Lars.” That’s how Nick Seluk explains to me the origin story of The Awkward Yeti, a web comic that began as a self-published children’s book in 2012. Lars was moody, anxious and, of course, awkward.
“I wanted to introduce very young kids to the idea that not everyone thinks and acts the same way, whether it simply be introversion or even autism spectrum disorders,” Seluk says in an interview from his Detroit home.
What grew from that seed has now become a worldwide phenomenon of yeti-like proportions: He’s authored four books collecting his comics. His Facebook page has attracted more than 2.2 million likes. His Instagram feed has reached over a million followers.
The Awkward Yeti website is now home to spinoff comics such as Heart and Brain, which anthropomorphizes the heart and brain to give them distinct personalities, based on the id and superego we all carry in our breastplate.
I first came across a Heart and Brain comic eight months ago and I’ve been hooked since. Each comic draws on an experience we’ve all endured, such as being insatiably hungry or feeling anxious for no reason, and you can’t help but laugh at the final panel’s punchline. Brain will complain to Heart, or vice versa, and you can practically feel that fight take place in your own nervous system. The character makeup of each organ or body part Seluk enlivens has such realism etched into the dialogue that it’s instantly accessible.
Take one of Seluk’s favorite comics, filed in the “miscellany” category and starring a cowlick. Yes, that bit of hair rebelling against the obedient nature of its follicle cousins. Defiant and tyrannical, the cowlick snaps an impending comb and cries out, “That only makes me more powerful!”
Is it just mine, or do some strands of your hair exhibit that dangerous confidence too?
Seluk knew he had to add more characters to Lars’ world in order for the web comic to take off. He says, “When Heart and Brain joined Lars, it got a lot deeper into what goes into everyday decisions. They started talking about things that we go through but don’t think about, and it turns out much of it is universally relatable. And apparently many of us make terrible decisions.”
We are all Heart and Brain. Part of us wants to satisfy our most impulsive desires, and part of us activates logic and quashes those wanton wishes. Look at the comic below that adeptly illustrates Heart’s penchant for doing anything but work, as Brain reminds this antsy aorta about obligation and responsibility.
It’s easy to spot the parallel in Seluk’s life: Disenchanted with a graphic design job, the Heart inside him overran the Brain and decided to go full-time as a pro cartoonist. But his strategic mind also recognized the value of this monumental decision.
As Seluk described it to me: “By the time I quit my job, I was making the same amount from cartooning as I had been from my job as an art director, and rather than using my new 40 hours as free time, I reinvested it in my cartooning and the merchandise business that supports it.”
To call The Awkward Yeti a cartooning empire is no hyperbole. Beyond the buffet of merch you can buy sporting Heart, Brain, Lars and other iconic characters, a new card game is in the works, thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign. He’s regularly invited to Comic-Cons, cartooning conventions and universities to discuss going professional.
Strangely enough, neither Heart nor Brain nor Lars is the most popular character Seluk created. It’s Gallbladder. Why? “I think it was well received because it’s such a common procedure to remove a gallbladder, but an uncommon cartoon character,” Seluk told a reporter in 2015. And it’s fair to say such an original idea — turning an undervalued body part into a complex character — made Seluk stand out among the many cartoonists plying their trade online.
Similar to how Gary Larson’s The Far Side instilled personalities into animals, The Awkward Yeti reminds us about the unspoken dialogue bubbles swirling around us. Our bodies might not be in concert with our minds, and we finally can see a transcript of that conflict play out in bite-sized scenes.
It’s not all fun and Kickstarter games for Seluk. He took a departure from his usual characters in 2015 when he heard from a reader named Sarah Flanigan who explained how she suffers from severe depression. He wanted to illustrate her struggle through a comic, so he published a concise depiction of a girl battling these two creatures, Depression and Anxiety, who keep her from living a normal life.
Such an outlook on mental illness requires a considerate and respectful touch, and Seluk has it. You can see how he exhibits such creative range as a writer and cartoonist, going oddball in a Heart and Brain comic and then empathetic with this comic on depression.
The humor in The Awkward Yeti comics features simple epiphanies. Such truths work perfectly for the internet era, in which newspaper comics are replaced by online panels designed for quick consumption and easy sharing. It’s hard not to retweet a Heart and Brain joke that you know others can appreciate.
Seluk’s work has the kind of appeal that can give it a healthy life no matter what media he turns to next. Seluk says he would like to venture into TV and animation in some form. To that I reply with a resounding “Do it!” because few web comics can work as well as an animated series as The Awkward Yeti can. If there’s any way Seluk can get more eyeballs on his poignant comics, he should make it happen.
And if any studio execs are reading this, you heard it here first: The Awkward Yeti is a winner, and it can do more than just entertain us. It can enlighten us to the drama and comedy taking center stage under our skin.