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High School Cartoonist: A Retrospective

My high school had a murky mascot identity; we were the Dorados, but nobody knew what a Dorado was. The image we used was a stylized Native American head wearing a psychedelic headpiece. It was bizarre enough not to seem offensive. We were forced to attend pep rallies in which we listened to our student government and key administrators babble on about some canyon of gold. It was out of this that I came up with the name for my high school comic strip: Fool’s Gold.

High school was not the first time I had been published. In middle school, I did a few comics in the school newsletter (it was photocopied, not run on newsprint). They were met with critical indifference at best. The thing I learned from that experience was to not make your 2’s look like Z’s.

Fool’s Gold was the first comic strip I drew consistently and with an idea of who my audience was. Up until that point, I kept a sketchbook and made awful (even by kid standards) drawings. My first passion was writing, but I always liked the way comics looked. It was a much more powerful way to tell a story – pictures AND words! I naturally gravitated toward the four-panel format. It didn’t take long to create a finished comic strip, and there was always a joke at the end. It seemed achievable.

My submissions freshman and most of sophomore year failed to make it past the gatekeepers: the newspaper staff. As a teenager, there is nothing easier than putting your work out there only to have it mocked by the very peers you so dearly want to impress. I’m surprised I kept at it. But I was a Cartoonist, and nothing, not even my own terrible cartoons, could stand between me and my dream.

These first submissions were not in a normal format; they were really just sketches and ideas. I think the newspaper staff expected a finished comic strip, and when they saw my loosely-drawn ideas, they thought that was the finished product. Another strike against me was that I used a superhero parody I’d been drawing for a while, Vigil the Ante. Vigil was a man, possibly Asian, in spandex with antennae growing out of his helmet. It was impossible to tell where the superhero outfit began and the person ended – which was kind of the point. Even in his own home, he wore the same clothes. Vigil, though funny to me, was lost on the newspaper staff. I never got a direct rejection – I just never saw the comics printed in the paper. I kept trying.

By the end of my sophomore year, I figured out that what the newspaper staff wanted was not page-long superhero parodies but real, actual comic strips. My first attempt was a joke about how the administration would lock boys’ bathrooms if they smelled of cigarette smoke. In my comic, desperate boys would sneak into the girls’ bathroom. They published it. I was overjoyed.

After that, I was a regular in the school paper. I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of reaction, and generally I didn’t hear of any. One notable exception was a boy who approached me between classes. I had never seen him before, but he knew who I was. He told me that my comic was pretty bad, but “at least you do a whole strip, and not just a panel.” He was of the opinion that any loser could draw one picture with a sentence underneath, but to draw four panels with speech balloons required some minimum level of skill. He gave me the first of many backhanded compliments about my comics.

If my comic didn’t seem hugely popular, it was partly on purpose. I was constantly writing jokes that subverted people’s expectations. I was determined not to be a political cartoonist, but I did write about life in the high school. When I referenced P.E., people expected me to talk about a scandal regarding that class, but I just wanted to use P.E. to talk about a broader issue. I didn’t want to be limited by the events of the last few weeks. I wanted to write whatever I felt like. Instead of political commentary, I wanted to do social commentary.

Social commentary is much more fun, because it’s more open to interpretation. One person’s experiences can be used as an example of a bigger concern. Calvin and Hobbes did that a lot. It was relevant without being too obvious. Part of what makes that strip still accessible today is that Bill Watterson rarely (if ever?) mentioned a specific current event. He kept it universal.

I did make one comic that was strangely prophetic. I drew an eight-panel comic about a chemistry experiment gone awry. Between the time I turned it in to the paper and the paper was distributed, there was an incident in my chemistry class that resembled my comic. The punch line to the comic : “I wonder what they got on their lab report?” was answered by one of the guys in that lab group. “We got a C.”

I can’t remember where I learned this, but I write comics by brainstorming topics. I start by writing down big ideas, then get more specific. In high school, I’d start with English, track, lockers, cafeteria. Eventually one of these things caught my interest enough to write more about it. I’d write what I thought was funny about the lockers. Specific stuff; stuff that I had noticed or that had happened to me. I’d get a little story about whatever it was, then I’d cram that story into four panels.

I never reused characters in Fool’s Gold. I never drew enough of them to create ongoing stories. Besides that, I was annoyed at other cartoonists who would spend months building up a story only to abandon it. I wanted to read something that had a good payoff now, not sometime in the future. There. Maybe that’s why I like comic strips so much. Short attention span.

My senior year, I wanted to make the drawings better. I was pretty good at facial expressions, but couldn’t do backgrounds. The summer before my senior year, I took a bunch of pictures of my school. The halls, the buildings, the stairs. My high school was big and sprawling. The buildings were all separate, so you could have quite a hike if you had one class on the south end of campus and the next on the north. I decided that each picture could be the background of one panel. I slowly worked each one into my comics. The results were pretty striking. I went from this :
To this:
I felt like I was doing something specific, that people at my high school could relate to, but also wasn’t disposable. Timeless!

As you’ve probably noticed looking at these comics, I changed drawing tools frequently. I began with basic ball point pens, then jumped over to a brush for a while (I read that Bill Watterson used a brush, so I had to try it). By the end of my high school career, I had gone back to pens. I still experimenting with materials to this day.

Here is the final comic strip I drew for my high school newspaper. It ran the week I graduated. Since I didn’t get to speak at my graduation ceremony, this was my forum for saying goodbye and to sum up “my high school experience.” I always liked to tell stories, and here I got to tell two: one for the present, and one for the future. Enjoy.

One reply on “High School Cartoonist: A Retrospective”

I feel a little silly leaving such a random comment, but I had to tell you that I remember reading Fools Gold at CDO and specifically the “Everything for a Day” strip you posted. It’s fun to see your blog! I’ll definitely add it to my feed reader.

(My blog is probably linked, but just ignore it… its WAY out of date)

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