by Samantha Thompson Hatem
photographs by Tim Lytvinenko
Paul Friedrich has found his audience.
After nearly three decades creating cartoon characters beloved by Raleighites, the city’s best-known pop artist and cartoonist is on the cusp of taking his off-beat sense of humor to Hollywood. His resilient spirit and unrelenting work ethic – often involving all-nighters when he’s got an especially inspiring, zany idea he wants to run with – is finally paying off. A Disney company is negotiating to turn a version of his Man v. Liver book, which he created with local writer Neil Hinson, into a TV cartoon for the web. It’s the latest in Friedrich’s ever-evolving art career. Among cartoonists, it’s fair to say that he’s flirting with rock-star status.
“Everything I’ve been working for is happening,” he says.
Friedrich’s been part of Raleigh’s pop culture scene longer than most hipsters have been out of diapers. He’d just graduated from college in 1989 when he created Onion Head Monster, the cartoon strip drawn from the point of view of a B-movie monster that ran in The Independent Weekly until the early 2000s and earned a cult following. Friedrich’s boldly colorful, large-scale paintings of Onion Head launched him into the local art scene, and the character took on a life of his own with star turns in three books, on posters, stickers, handbags, T-shirts, and rock CD covers. It’s safe to say that in his heydey, Onion Head Monster lived large.
But Man v. Liver is bigger yet. The cartoon panels, featuring a single guy’s witty musings about social drinking, have exploded into something neither Friedrich nor Hinson ever expected. Within a few months of scribbling the idea on a bar napkin in 2012, they had a book, a licensing deal, a book tour – and now a TV deal on the table.
“It’s what everyone is hoping for,” Friedrich says. “And it was the simplest, dumbest idea that either one of us has ever worked on that has become the most successful.”
Friedrich is smart enough to know, though, that his breadth of work over many years – and the lessons he learned from disappointments along the way – are what eventually got him in the door to pitch his idea to the Hollywood machine.
So did the strength of a long-held dream. Because if one of Friedrich’s original teenage hopes was to be a syndicated newspaper cartoonist (the evaporating newspaper industry all but killed that one), he also dreamed of having his own TV cartoon.
It started when he was a kid. Friedrich was always drawing, say his parents, Denise and Al Friedrich, who still live in Friedrich’s boyhood home in North Hills. His teachers at Brooks Elementary would make deals with him: If he paid attention in class, he’d get to decorate the classroom door or board. “We realized early on this was his thing,” says Denise Friedrich. “He was never without a pen or pencil. He was always doodling.”
The Friedrichs encouraged their son, who showed promise early on, winning art contests including a $200 cash prize from WRAL’s late Fred Fletcher for an Art in the Park contest painting of Pullen Park. The Friedrichs’ home is peppered with their son’s work over the years. Onion Head Monster painted on a flower pot. Refrigerator magnets with drawings he did for the City of Raleigh. A framed black-and-white cartoon he drew of his dad during a dispute as a teenager.
Friedrich’s artistic talent was obvious. But just as important was his knack early on to get out and sell his work, despite his often-quiet nature. His parents first noticed it when Friedrich was 8, and the family spent a year living in France just north of Nice. He and his younger sister would paint the flat rocks from the Mediterranean and sell them in town to Dutch tourists.
He got more formal art training back in Raleigh at Sanderson High School where his art teacher, noted local artist Bob Rankin, encouraged him. Some didn’t. When Friedrich told another teacher he wanted to be a cartoonist when he grew up, she told him he needed to come up with a real answer.
“Paul has always been relentless,” Rankin says. “He’s not afraid of rejection. He was part of a great wave of students who all fed off of each other.”
That helped when he entered East Carolina University’s School of Art, Rankin says: He had more talent and training than many of his peers. Again, he was told cartoons weren’t a valid art form and that he should focus on more traditional painting, sculpting, and drawing.
Undeterred, he created a name for himself on campus with his Hubie the Dead Cow comic strip in The East Carolinian, which ran in the paper until he graduated.
Once back in Raleigh, Onion Head Monster took over and eventually became his bread and butter. “It put me on the Raleigh map,” Friedrich says. “You can tell when people knew me by which comic strip they talk about.”
There have been other signature Friedrich characters along the way, including the Batman and Star Wars parodies, the “Evil or Pie?” evil scientist, the Spaghetti Western cowboys, and Stormy’s Cup of Awesome for the Carolina Hurricanes. But none have been as commercially successful as Onion Head Monster.
Until, that is, Man v. Liver saddled up to the bar.
Friedrich and Hinson had talked about doing something together. Even mutual friends encouraged it, seeing their similar dry, sarcastic sense of humor. But mostly what they did together was catch up over drinks after work.
That’s what they were doing one day in March 2012. Sitting outside the Raleigh Times with a few beers, “Neil said something kind of funny, and I wrote it down on a napkin and did a quick drawing of someone saying it,” Friedrich said.
The server came by and asked if she could have it. “We said, ‘If you buy us a round,’” Friedrich says. A deal was struck. Then another server came over and asked to have one. “We said, ‘OK, buy us a couple of shots.’ And she said, OK. So we made another one.”
Then a bartender came out and said he wanted one.
“We were like, ‘We’re on to something,’” Friedrich says.
Friedrich’s a little fuzzy on exactly what he drew on that first napkin, but it went something like “I’m bored, which makes my liver shudder.”
The next day, they redrew the cartoons, put them into Photoshop, and posted them on Facebook and Twitter. The response was huge, so they did some more. “Anything we thought of, we just wrote it down,” he says. “And we did a drawing quickly for it.”
Within a month they had 100 cartoons, enough for a book.
“It was deceptively simple because it is a really quick drawing,” Friedrich says. “But it’s also all the years of experience that goes into it. Same goes for the writing. You have to know what makes a good quote and what’s funny. It’s not as easy as we try to make it look.”
By July, Friedrich was at Comic-Con International, a comic convention in San Diego, selling the duo’s self-published book. He wasn’t sure how the book would do, because it wasn’t superhero-related, like most Comic-Con books.
But Hinson knew they were on to something when he got a call from Friedrich as he was packing up to join him in San Diego. Bring all of the Man v. Liver books you’ve got, Friedrich told him. He’d never experienced such sales at Comic-Con. People were picking up the book and asking to buy it before they knew how much it cost. By the end of the conference, Friedrich and Hinson were asking $25 for books they’d sold for $10 a few days earlier. “I kept upping the price, but nobody ever pulled it back out of their bag.”
The book, he says, resonates with people. Everyone has a drinking story, even people who don’t drink (especially the ones who don’t drink, Friedrich says).
The pair left Comic-Con with a licensing deal, and by the end of the year, they had a book deal with Andrews McMeel Universal, the same publisher of Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, Peanuts, and Doonesbury, all Friedrich’s childhood heroes.
“I’ve done this long enough to know how unusual it was,” Friedrich says.
Next came a book tour around the Southeast, followed by coasters, koozies, doormats, T-shirts, and barware, much of which is sold at area gift stores such as Deco and NoFo.
And then last year, they found themselves in California pitching TV producers. As of press time, a deal is on the table to create web episodes based on panels from Woman v. Liver, a spin-off of Man v. Liver with a woman musing about drinking and the single life.
And even though Friedrich’s been almost this close before – he once spent a year massaging a cartoon idea that got shelved at the 11th hour – he’s optimistic. He says that experience taught him story structure and the art of the pitch, skills needed to navigate the TV cartoon world, and both useful for this latest Hollywood adventure.
He also sees this new interest from TV producers as evidence that humor trends are changing, and in his favor. “The world is finally catching up with my sense of humor,” he says.
Regardless of what happens, Friedrich says he’s got plenty to do, and Raleigh’s the place to do it in. He has five stories written and storyboarded and has plans to put his various characters on more paintings, T-shirts, and other merchandise. He’s working on an idea for a novelty app. And he promises that Onion Head Monster is close to making a comeback.
“My cliché is that if I was working this hard for someone else, I wouldn’t like it,” he says. “But it’s OK because it’s for me.”