College Cartoonist: A Retrospective
My deepest and most rewarding college discovery was the life and times of squirrels. They inhabited the same space as us college kids, but unlike us transients they lived their whole lives in the quiet town. Their leader, the albino squirrel and his family, led them to become better, more productive, and more compassionate squirrels. Yes, they spent their days hiding nuts, but it was with a thoughtfulness never witnessed in squirrels before.
The squirrels made a deep impression and marked a turning point in my artistic life.My freshman year I was a cartoonist without a comic strip. My high school comic strip, with its undertones of Catch-22 and 1984, just would not do in this idyllic, intellectual setting. I also wanted to write characters, instead of the always-changing high schoolers I had used previously. But creating memorable characters is not like walking down the street. No, it’s more like asking everyone you know and finally getting the answer you knew all along. First, I had to get the feel for the place. I couldn’t write about the college until I knew what it was like, and my first semester was all about figuring that out. Only when I went home for fall break did I have the first inkling of what the strip was to be.
A high school friend basically handed the idea to me. We both stood next to his car in the warm Tucson winter night. I was talking about not knowing what to write. I was also talking about the squirrels. My friend, always a smart fellow, said, “Why not write about squirrels?” It was as if he reached into my soul and roped the idea with a golden lasso. Once the squirrel was in place, everything else seemed to click right in.
Instead of making a strip solely about squirrels, I decided to make it about the college in total. Therefore there was only one squirrel, Atticus. Atticus was a wise old squirrel who had lived on campus for many years. He was like the 5th year student who knew all the shortcuts, or maybe the townie, too smart to live anywhere but a small college town or a big city.In the beginning, Atticus befriends Glen, a college freshman. I never asked myself why Atticus chose Glen, of all the freshmen, but I think it was because Glen’s dorm window looked out on Atticus’ tree. It was the path of least resistance for the squirrel. Glen became less naive over time, but he never lost his basic sense of wonder. He never quite attained all of Atticus’ wisdom, which is probably for the best. I wouldn’t ever want to meet a cynical Glen. As for clothes, he always wore a little cap and a shirt with a dot on it. Another character was Dee, who you will recognize both in my last strip, The Family Monster, and my current one. Dee came on the scene as a love interest of Glen’s. Glen was always on the verge of asking Dee out, but he was shy. Either that or he got distracted. In any event, Dee and Glen were never to be together. It was a shame, really, because Dee wore a triangle on her shirt. It seems like she and Glen had so much in common, at least fashion-wise.
I never really dealt with Dee much as a character until The Inevitable Atticus and Glen, the comic book I wrote my senior year as kind of a send-off for my characters. By then I liked her so much I had to find out more about her. That’s why she has been in all of my comics since Atticus and Glen. In terms of continuity, The Family Monster deals with Dee as a child, Atticus and Glen shows her in college, and Welcome to Falling Rock National Park shows her first job out of college. I’m still learning about her. I never lose interest. Possibly my most popular character from Atticus and Glen was Professor Globulus. He looked kind of like Jabba the Hut, but it was ultimately his personality that set him apart. He was more elitist and better read than the Hutt. He could be quite a windbag, using English criticism jargon until his whole class was put to sleep. He could also be fantastically cruel.
Globulus also made an appearance in The Family Monster, as a government bureaucrat investigating the three monsters. Since Glen and Dee graduated college, his whereabouts are unknown. Another character I had to include was Glen’s roommate, Dylan. Dylan was an Artist. His hair looked a bit like Bob Dylan’s in the ’60’s. As far as art, Dylan knew how to play the game. His explanations for projects were always more involved and better thought-out than the projects themselves. When he graduated, he moved to New York City, drank a lot, went bald, and basically lived the life he wanted. I remember sitting down one morning to write that first strip. Feeling faintly guilty I was not doing classwork (a feeling I also had when playing video games with my roommate for hours on end), I sat down to write ideas. I sketched out an idea and drew the finished strip all in one sitting. It was not perfect, but it was a good beginning. I needed to set up the premise and the main characters and hopefully be funny. My thought was, this would be the first of many strips, so once this ran I could write pretty much whatever I wanted.
It was rejected every week for the rest of the year.
Maybe the editors of the school newspaper thought I was one of the many cartoonists who would introduce characters and a Byzantine mythology, then quit a few weeks later. That was an annoyance to me as a reader and I knew Atticus and Glen would do neither of those things. I just had to be persistent.
Atticus and Glen ran in the newspaper beginning my sophomore year and finished when I graduated. Of the complaints I heard, a Byzantine mythology and a propensity to leave unresolved stories hanging were not among them.
The structure of Atticus and Glen was different from all my other comic strips. It consisted of two rows of panels, kind of like one strips stacked on top of another. I can’t remember why I came up with this format. I think I checked the comic that was already running regularly and used that as a template. The newspaper only came out once a week, so drawing a longer comic felt necessary if I was only getting one shot a week. I doubt I could’ve conveyed much with only four panels per week. As it was, I got to do a Sunday-length strip. I could change the number of panels as long as the overall shape remained the same.My biggest breakthrough, silly as it sounds, was in drawing size. It took me years to figure out what size to draw my comics. I’m still tweaking it, but at least I know better how things reduce and how to fit in dialog and pictures without cramping either. Back then, I was drawing my comics on 8 1/2″ by 11″ plain white copy paper. The writing was cramped, the ink sometimes bled. It was hard to fit in detail and hard to read afterward. Sophomore year I finally got it. I bought a big pad of Bristol board paper and suddenly everything fit. Looking back it’s so simple, but back then I was scared to buy “real” art supplies. Fear of messing up the decidedly more expensive Bristol board paper outweighed my desire to make comics that looked good. When I finally took that plunge, and realized a piece of Bristol board could be tossed away just as easily as a piece of copy paper, it was one of the biggest leaps in my finished product I’ve ever had. I’m kind of ashamed it took me so long to get around to it.
The best copier on campus was in the science library. I don’t know why. Copying comics was the only reason I went into that library. Once I made my copy, I took it to the newspaper office, which was located in a dorm’s basement. I always felt like I was going into a janitor’s closet or a boiler room. Many times I never even saw the newspaper staff, I just dropped my comic in the box and saw it printed a few days later. It was weird to think that, while my comic was a regular part of the paper for three years, I rarely saw the people who worked on the paper. The few people I did know were fantastic. I enjoyed feeling like I was a part of something, that I contributed to a periodical that most of the student population read. The biggest thrill of drawing a comic is when you see it printed somewhere. Print is validation. Even if you’re self-publishing, the fact that anyone can now pick up a paper and read what you’ve drawn…it’s the best.
By senior year I realized I had a lot more to say and only a finite number of strips left to say it. I used our short winter term to draw an Atticus and Glen comic book. As an homage to the Calvin and Hobbes treasuries, I called it The Inevitable Atticus and Glen because it was anything but inevitable. The longer story allowed me to show how both Atticus and Glen lived, day by day. I also got to write more for Dee, Dylan, and especially Prof. Globulus. Once I finished drawing it, I was stuck. I’d drawn comics for most of my life, but I’d never tried to distribute them before. The most logical way, in my mind, was not to try and sell it but give it away to as many people as possible. After all, the whole reason I wrote it was so people could read it. I used the campus printer to copy it into booklets, and with a little help from my friends I distributed it around campus. There were only a hundred copies made, so I wrote a preface asking people to share their copies so more people could read it. To my great delight, it did seem to get around.
The final Atticus and Glen was not bittersweet: it was flat-out sad to draw. I wrote an ending which is also not an ending. Nobody dies, nobody gets married. But I did give a hypothesis of what would happen to some of the characters. It’s not necessarily what will happen, but I have a feeling it’s close.
I knew I’d leave those characters in that place. The setting is too integral; change that and it’s a whole different comic. Plus I don’t know how many people would get the references I made. Still, it was hard to leave them behind.
Atticus and Glen taught me how to write for the same characters over a number of years. It was also the last comic I drew as a student. From there on out, I would be working to be a professional cartoonist.