Cartoonist Zach Weinersmith draws humor out of science

Armed with a background in physics, cartoonist Zach Weinersmith incorporates wit and wisdom into his Sunday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic and his book projects. Image courtesy of the artist Armed with a background in physics, cartoonist Zach Weinersmith incorporates wit and wisdom into his Sunday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic and his book projects. Image courtesy of the artist

If you saw Zach Weinersmith around town, he might not immediately stand out. His thin frame and shoulder-length red hair fits the bill for an average guy in his 30s—he wouldn’t be out of place browsing at New Dominion Bookshop or catching a show at the Jefferson.

He’s not out of place at Three Notch’d Brewery, either. Weinersmith sits comfortably at one of the restaurant’s tables and chats about his life. “It’s not very interesting,” he says at one point, a statement sure to make aspiring cartoonists scoff. Aspiring physicists too, for that matter.

If the name doesn’t ring a bell, Weinersmith is better known as the creator of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, a successful daily webcomic. It’s often one panel, sometimes more, with few recurring characters, and its themes are just as varied—topics range from neoclassical economism to world religions to imagining (tastefully) what Medusa’s pubic hair would look like. In short, SMBC follows the trajectory of Weinersmith’s brilliant, delightfully random mind.

So what brings him to Charlottesville? According to Weinersmith, his wife Kelly was the main reason for the move. “We thought we should move somewhere and buy some land to build a little laboratory,” Weinersmith says, explaining that he and his wife met in college—when Zach was a physics undergrad, and Kelly a biology grad student. He expresses their desire to pursue research “like gentlemen scientists from the 19th century, without having to deal with the tough stuff in academia.”

This tough stuff is “bureaucratic” and “very stressful,” Weinersmith says, adding that it only gets more difficult once you have kids. He and his wife have two—Ada, 4, and Ben, 1—and they romp in the background of the interview. Ben makes multiple bids for freedom throughout the interview, gleefully padding across the restaurant as Weinersmith dashes after him. “The problem is, he thinks it’s a game now,” he says after snatching Ben for the umpteenth time. Weinersmith feigns annoyance, but it’s clear he’s enjoying himself as much as his son.

Charlottesville “checks a lot of boxes for us,” Weinersmith says. “There’s a vibrant academic community, lots of yuppie stuff—used bookstores, coffee shops, stuff like that. And despite all that, you can buy a little farm for not that much money.”

The original tip-off as to Weinersmith’s whereabouts was a nonfiction cartoon he published earlier this year featuring caricatured versions of him, his wife, and anonymous small business owners of the community. The strip dealt with exorbitant health care costs, and “even when it was really awful, the community came together,” Weinersmith says, calling the experience very heartening.

Politics aren’t frequently tackled in his strips, but Weinersmith is working on a project that he expects will ruffle some partisan feathers. He describes it as a nonfiction graphic novel making the case for open-border immigration. Weinersmith is mostly doing illustrations, working with an author he labels as a right-wing economist. “The thought was to reach out to a different audience than would usually hear about it,” he says. “It’s a little bit terrifying, but as a rule I try to do at least one terrifying project every year or so.”

He’s also just finished a book co-written with Kelly, titled Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything. It’s exactly what it sounds like, an alternately hilarious and academic nonfiction work predicting the future of concepts like gene editing and 3D printers. Weinersmith’s comics are dropped throughout the text, one-panel punchlines to lighten up intellectual (and sometimes worrying) topics.

Weinersmith is modest about the success of the bestselling book. He also brushes aside the idea that explaining complex scientific theory is hard, saying that the trick is to “remember what was difficult to understand in the first place.”

The couple has other ideas in the works, but Weinersmith won’t go into detail, saying he doesn’t like to discuss projects that are “too tenebrous.”

As the conversation winds down, Weinersmith circles back to SMBC. Though he started it in the ’90s, he doesn’t foresee ending the comic. “You get to a point where you do a thing so often, it’s almost like a daily workout,” he says. “The comic has kind of become the launch pad. I’m working on other projects that are more narrative-driven, more involved, because I can. The comic is a reliable source of income. I know my family will be taken care of, so now I can try risky, crazy things.”

And this city is the place he and his wife have chosen to take risks. “I hope I die here—but not soon,” Weinersmith says.

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