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David Boswell

Milk money

Cartoonist David Boswell may not be known for his consistent release schedule, but that's the price you pay for a very consistent comic book. Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman has been Boswell's most popular creation since its debut 20 years ago in the Vancouver underground newspaper The Georgia Straight. Reid Fleming is, as the title would indicate, a milkman who takes no guff. He roughs up anyone who crosses his path, demolishes countless milk trucks, and delivers the morning's milk better than anyone. When Boswell's publisher (Eclipse Comics) went belly-up in 1991, he took a six-year break that many thought would spell the end of the title. Fortunately, however, he has not only started producing new issues under his Deep Sea Comics imprint, but also reprinted the hard-to-find back catalog. The new issues are packed with visual non-sequiturs and flawless pacing, and are just as lively and humorous as his classics. Boswell recently spoke to The Onion about his comic and the movie it may someday spawn.

The Onion: Did you want to take a break from Reid Fleming?

David Boswell: Oh, yeah. I needed a very big break from Reid Fleming. Just to reel back a little bit, Reid first appeared 20 years ago, in June 1978. If you've ever seen that first page, which was used again in the first Reid comic book, Reid does a number of horrible things. In the very first panel, he's beating the tar out of some guy who's making fun of his milk truck. Then he peels off with a bottle of rye—the one thing I wish I hadn't done, because drinking and driving is not fun. Then he threatens an old lady, grabs her by the collar, and says, "78 cents or I piss on your flowers." How do you top that? To me, that was the entire character in one page. The real raison d'être for that was I had an idea that if something is awful enough, it becomes funny. That page appeared, and it got a fairly good response: People began pestering me for more and more and more. I finally broke down and thought I'd try another one. So, that went on in the newspaper strip for about two or three months. I didn't do a book until 1980: I had a different story and about 28 newspaper strips, and I managed to get a good 32-page comic out of that. I've managed to squeeze a couple hundred pages out of the character, out of what was supposed to be a single page. It's very tough to keep on at that level, because the bar was so high at the very beginning that it's just taxing to one's ingenuity to keep the character fresh and surprising. I had to have a psychological break. Reid is a very difficult character to write for. One of the essences of comedy is surprise; familiarity, of course, is the opposite of that. The more you do, in a way, the harder it gets to surprise readers and get a laugh. How do I keep this guy funny without just being mean? Some people think he's just a bully. He's just mean. [I think there's] nothing's funny about him. I can accept that. In a way, it's true. A real-life Reid Fleming would be in jail.

O: But he has scruples. He's the saint of the service industry: He's the patron saint who turns the tables on the people who are ordinarily dismissive of the service industry, and he doesn't get fired for it. That qualifies him for sainthood to anyone who has ever worked a demeaning job.

DB: I think one of the strengths of the character is that he represents the little guy trying to make something out of what could be a fairly dead-end, mind-numbing job. So, in fact, he's a very creative person: He's creative in his way, because he won't accept the routine and tries to enliven it in his own special way.

O: What happened to the Reid Fleming movie?

DB: Oh, God, what a can of worms that is. Well, I wrote a screenplay for Warner Bros. in 1987. Eleven years ago. The genesis of that was that at the time, a Warner Bros. internal survey indicated that the next big comedy talent would be Bobcat Goldthwait, so they wanted something for him. He had just made a film called Hot To Trot, which I haven't seen. The producers, who had been gung-ho about Reid for years, are still in business. They were the ones who shepherded this to Warner Bros., and got Warners to agree to let me write a screenplay, which I did. Everybody was just thrilled with it. There was a lot of excitement. It was for sure that it would get made. Then, Goldthwait put out a movie that went nowhere, so they didn't have an actor. They began trying to find somebody who could play Reid Fleming, and at that time, there was nobody. They gave it to Dan Aykroyd. He's just the wrong physical type.

O: He's too tall and pasty.

DB: Well, Reid has to be smaller than the people he bullies. If he's bigger than them, there's no joke. The fact that he's a small man can make that funny, because he's working from a position of inferiority. Giving it to a big actor... I mean, they wanted John Candy. A whole bunch of people wanted to play it. There have been people ever since then who have wanted to play Reid Fleming. For a long time, Jim Belushi was dying to do it. We had all kinds of potential deals worked out with other studios for Jim Belushi to be Reid Fleming, but for various arcane reasons, that never happened. In the last seven or eight years, Jon Lovitz has wanted to play Reid Fleming. I know for a fact that he memorized the script years ago. In 1996, he organized a reading at Warner Bros. Apparently, it went over very well, but it's done nothing since then. I don't have any idea what's going on. I don't know if they'll ever think about making it. I think the real problem is that there are no actors out there who can really be Reid Fleming.