An illustrated timeline of the Sober Rabbit comic strip’s title character’s journey includes Rabbit losing some years, finding sobriety, doing stand-up, and embracing recovery. Credit: Courtesy of Whitney Wasson
“Since I was a little kid, I’ve been drawing rabbits,” said Whitney Wasson.
The Chicago-based comics artist and comedian said that rabbits are cute and easy to draw, which were two ideal qualities for their early childhood doodles.
“[The drawing] could be terrible, but as long as you [make] long rabbit ears it reads as a rabbit,” Wasson said. “You can draw a rabbit very cute or you can make them deranged because of the way their noses and teeth look.”
The 1978 animated film Watership Down comes to mind. The film follows a group of animated rabbits on a bloody journey across the English countryside, and likely still lingers in the nightmares of anyone unlucky enough to have seen it during their childhood.
It was a similar schadenfreude of sending a cutesy bunny through the ringer that partially inspired Wasson’s web comic, Sober Rabbit.
“I did a drawing of a rabbit hungover on the toilet throwing up. That drawing is sort of what started the comic.”
Shelby, a character from Sober Rabbit, thinks about their cycle of drinking. Credit: Courtesy of Whitney Wasson
Started by Wasson in 2019, Sober Rabbit is a webcomic that follows the titular Rabbit and their animal friends through the recovery process. Rabbit works to find life balance after becoming sober and a life-changing accident. Brenda the Pigeon recovers from a history of disordered eating and self-image issues. Shelby the Squirrel relapsed during the pandemic.
“My dad is a bartender and bar owner, so I was in his bar as a little kid sometimes, and I would draw the regulars as characters when I was very little.” Wasson said. “My dad’s friends at the bar were very cartoonish people. There’s always like, bar archetypes you know, I know that from my experience as an alcoholic.”
In December, three years and a pandemic later, Wasson released a comic book in print, Scars and Strips Forever, which highlights panels from Sober Rabbit’s Instagram posts and more. They said it was a rare opportunity to take a holistic look inward at how the series had progressed.
“[Sober Rabbit] is grounded in reality and then has elements of fiction. But it’s still all sort of coming from and is based on what I’ve observed in recovery,” said Wasson.
Rabbit’s adventures cover subjects ranging from death and grief to disability and LGBTQ+ relationships. Sober Rabbit strips are concerned mostly with daily struggles and small victories. Wasson says that giving an honest look at the recovery process was paramount.
“Being a person in the world and absorbing how recovery is shared in art, people tend to focus on very black and white stuff. Someone hits rock bottom, then they recover. It’s heroic or it’s tragic.”
Before Sober Rabbit, Wasson worked as a self-described “road dog” comedian from 2013 to 2018. Originally from Fort Smith, Arkansas, Wasson performed and produced shows across the south and midwest before landing in Chicago in 2015. Comedy was a much-needed creative release but also helped to intensify drinking habits Wasson had struggled with before picking up the microphone.
“Stand-up is a brutal world if you’re not also consuming substances like everybody else is. It was pretty rough,” Wasson said.
Wasson originally leaned into their drinking within their comedy, but concerns over the level of dysfunction the drinking was causing were piling up. Motivated by friends and the future of their stand-up career, Wasson got sober in 2016.
“I didn’t plan to get sober, I had to get sober,” they said.
Wasson continued to hit the stage throughout the process. Sobriety had made doing stand-up easier to manage for them thanks to more sleep and an easier time remembering sets. Motivated by the experience, Wasson began hosting the Serenity Now!sober space-oriented comedy show in 2018 to benefit other comics and audience members also in recovery.
Whitney Wasson Credit: Courtesy of Whitney Wasson
Stand-up held Wasson’s complete focus until 2019, when an injury left them disabled.
“I was walking to a show by my old job, regular day, nothing going on,” they remember. “This woman in a sedan runs two red lights and hits me in profile while crossing the street. If she had hit me a little bit head on, I would have either gone underneath the car or over it.”
Wasson’s foot was broken, among other injuries, and a misdiagnosis meant it never healed correctly. A layoff followed shortly after, forcing Wasson fully into freelance visual arts, which they had done occasionally to support their standup.
“What the fuck do I do?” Wasson said, remembering the seismic shift in priorities.
“I basically just said to people, ‘can I draw you a podcast logo? Can I make somebody a poster? What can I do?’ I started literally just sitting there and drawing stuff.”
Scars and Strips Forever: Selected Strips (2019-2022) by Whitney WassonSelf-published, paperback, $15, soberrabbit.bigcartel.com
Sober Rabbit, which Wasson had begun officially only a few weeks before their accident, graduated from a hobby to full-time project
“Obviously Sober Rabbit is a project about recovery, but I think it really is a rediscovering of a hobby thing, that I was like ‘oh yeah, I love doing this.’”
Wasson had already published a few zines on recovery, and the 15-page The Farewell Party, a sort of prequel comic to Sober Rabbit. Wasson describes The Farewell Party on their website as “a standalone comic about my—er—RABBIT’s teenage hijinks.”
An excerpt from Whitney Wasson’s comic The Farewell Party shows Rabbit drawn in black and white. Credit: Courtesy of Whitney Wasson
“[The Farewell Party] is sort of like a supercut of a lot of things,” they said. “Yes, there’s some exciting spicy stories to tell about me cleaning up, but my adolescence is when I became an alcoholic. I sort of have to go back and talk about it pretty hard and the emotional problems that jump-started the drinking.”
Sober Rabbit was also motivated by what Wasson felt was a lack of first-person stories about addiction, especially in the world of comics.
“I’ve had a lot of newly sober people reach out to me, and that’s probably one of the most touching things that’s come from this.”
To Wasson, recovery is a long game. Getting sober is an unglamorous daily commitment and remains so well after the fact.
“In reality, for me anyway, it’s mundane. Drinking is monotonous,” Wasson said. “You think about the Johnny Cash movie. They sort of only do the highlight reel of the most dramatic stuff. I bet Johnny Cash sat there in rehab a little bit.”
“He probably did some journaling. He probably lit a candle.”