'It's Geek 2 Me': Tech insider pokes fun at industry with comics

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With one in every three of his friends griping about life as a tech professional, the other two constantly babbling about Facebook statuses and a daughter completing homework assignments from her iPhone, it was hard for Francis Cleetus not to see the hilarity of the digital age.

In fact, it seemed a day couldn't go by without getting a message from a friend about someone who called for help in putting a circle around the letter "a" to send an email. (Hint: The @ sign is found on the typical keyboard on the same key as the No. 2.)

Or without seeing someone use a casual question about the time as an excuse to flaunt that new smartphone, only to bemoan its slow service in the next breath.

When Mr. Cleetus' 12-year-old daughter decided two weeks of tech support was the perfect last-minute gift for his wife's birthday, he knew the world had reached an age where it was time to stop being enamored by the latest gadgets and to start making fun of an all-consuming dependence upon them.

The tech industry was ripe for parody.

All that was left was to start picking the juiciest fruit.

"Every little thing we do now revolves around technology. It's crazy," said Mr. Cleetus, an Upper St. Clair-based advertising consultant and adjunct professor at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He formed Geek-2-Me.com last year to highlight some of the most entertaining stories he had heard from friends and through his own interactions.

Among his examples of a phenomenon gone wild are churches using video games to draw in parishioners and a woman refusing to accept a marriage proposal without a digital copy of the prenuptial agreement in her inbox.

"This is where [the technology] is getting a little ahead of us," he said.

A fan of comics and cartoons since his grandfather gave him a copy of the classic comic "Little Lulu" as a child, Mr. Cleetus said he has been drawing for as long as he can remember. Among his most recent work is a 15-foot ceiling mural painted for the Phipps Conservatory's "Tropical Forest India" exhibit.

The native of Mumbai, India, came to Pittsburgh six years ago after working in Louisville, Ky. He said the bulk of his inspiration came from banter with overseas friends steeped in the world of technology.

"I would get emails from some of them complaining about their jobs, and I saw that a lot of those were hilarious so I started to convert the emails to cartoons," he said.

Once he was able to create 13 solid characters modeled after some of his closest friends, he created Paradox Software Corp., the fictional Pittsburgh company where they all gather by the water cooler to share tech-related gripes.

His site, which features a compilation of more than 100 comic strips created by Mr. Cleetus to recount his friends' stories, is also an homage to the lives of those who brought the very concept to life.

The jokes, varying from the groaner where an employee says she won't attend Mass online because "God only answers knee mail" to wordplay that brands a programmer with "the charisma of a plastic action figure" as CGI Joe, all come from true accounts of friends' love-hate relationships with all things digital.

While the art of staying true to conversations and characters from across the globe was challenging, Mr. Cleetus said he's gotten nothing but positive feedback from friends.

Subhojit Roye, global head of alliances at information technology company Infosys BPO, said Mr. Cleetus' depiction of his son through the character Rio Dos was an "interesting twist" to the idea. Although the comic depicts Rio as much younger, he said the cartoon character's interest in Spanish and Bollywood movies were traits that he could easily see were modeled after his college-aged son.

"It's interesting being able to intersperse friends from the community and folks he's known from around the world," said Mr. Roye, who lives in Upper St. Clair but was on business in Australia when he was interviewed. He said he showed off a copy of the book to colleagues there.

The folks Mr. Cleetus knows from India, Hong Kong, Germany and throughout the world have helped It's Geek 2 Me grow from a single site for an inner circle to an iPhone and iPad app, as well as 1,620 Facebook fans.

Although the public site averages only about two to three hits "on a good day," he said word of the comic is spreading quickly through the app, with 62 people from Manila, Philippines, downloading the app over the past few years.

"There's a culture in the Philippines that's big on cartoons and comics. Somebody must have stumbled upon it and shared it with his or her friends," he said.

The site's book version, "Wish Your Mouth Had A Backspace Key," was self-published through Amazon.com and released in March.

And with Pittsburgh Technology Council making the comic a regular section of its TEQ magazine as of its spring edition, Mr. Cleetus hopes the next step is making the cartoon a regular feature on newspaper comic pages throughout the globe.

William Messner-Loebs -- a writer who used his self-published comic book, "Journey," to score positions writing for titles such as "Flash," "Thor" and "Wonder Woman" to name a few -- might see Mr. Cleetus as being on the right track. In a 2009 interview for ComicArtistsDirect.com, Mr. Messner-Loebs said being published was one of the most important gateways toward getting attention from comic book companies, newspapers and other print publications.

"By the time I had done three issues of 'Journey' -- a book which almost no one was seeing -- a black-and-white independent comic book, I was getting job offers from it because people could look at it and see that I knew how to meet a deadline," he said.

Not long after that article was published, its author -- comic writer and illustrator Gary Scott Beatty -- established Indie Comics Magazine to help independent comic book writers and illustrators promote their work.

For Mr. Cleetus, any means of promotion that will help It's Geek 2 Me achieve its potential is worth exploring.

"I would like it to be a new-age 'Dilbert,' " he said.

For more information, visit Geek-2-Me.com or FrancisCleetus.com.

books - businessnews

Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652. First Published May 13, 2012 4:00 AM


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