Posts Tagged ‘cartoonist’


Evolution

Comic strip characters are known for their stability, and yet they are constantly changing.Calvin wears the same striped shirt every day; Snoopy sits on the same doghouse. But if you take examples from early in a strip’s run compared to years later, you’ll find striking differences. When first seen, Snoopy’s snout is much narrower than in later years. Calvin in 1985 is much more flat-looking than his 1995 counterpart. It takes a while for a cartoonist to get to know his or her characters. The characters look the way the cartoonist wants them to, but that vision is always being refined. I would call it a distillation, but cartoon characters are already distilled from real life. I’ll call it Super Concentration. The 1995 Calvin (sounds like I’m describing a car model) is what Bill Watterson was aiming at all along.

calvinearly calvinlate
The interesting part is, I would say that the 1992 Calvin is what Bill Watterson was aiming at up to 1992, and the 1988 Calvin was what he was aiming at up to then as well. So, the most current drawing of the character is the most essential drawing done yet, only to be supplanted by the next drawing. At least, this is my theory.

snoopy1 snoopy3
When I began drawing my characters for Welcome to Falling Rock National Park, they hardly resembled the characters they are today. Their personalities weren’t focused, and so my drawings really didn’t get to the essential Ernestoness of Ernesto. I did my first drawings a few years before I actually started the strip (I did a comic strip called The Family Monster for four years before I started Falling Rock in the Fall of 2006).

ernestoearly
Ernesto, in the beginning, had a differently-shaped head.His eyes were smaller, and his shoes were but little blobs at the end of his legs.I’ll be the first to admit that I’m still not happy with Ernesto’s shoes.It’s a work in progress.You can see the progression in the two pictures I’m posting; one from 2005 (from my sketchbook) and one from this year.Now that I’ve had time (and about 200 comics) to understand him better, I know more of the subtleties of Ernesto’s personalities. I can also draw him better.

ernestolate
Every new batch of comics I draw, I feel it has improved on the last batch. I’m always trying to better my drawings, but when the characters look on the page closer to the way they look in my brain, I consider that a victory.
Do all cartoonists see it this way? I imagine that for those who use assistants or have their kids carry on the strip, there is a push to keep a character’s look static, the same way a retiring CEO would want to see his company going down the same path he set out for it. It’s also easier to have character models (like they use in animation) when there is more than one set of hands at the drawing board. The less room for interpretation, the less chance of messing up a lucrative property.
For those noble few who draw the same character day after day, decade after decade, I imagine there comes a point where they know what they want and exactly how to create it. For me, that time has not come. In some ways that is frustrating – I always want to make it look better! But I enjoy the process. In a couple of years, check back to my early Ernesto. I’m sure he will look strange to you.


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.

Cartoonists on TV!

Throughout the history of time, cartoonists have been perceived by the public as third-rate goof-offs with little artistic merit. Cave painters told stories on the rocks, but were often mocked for not portraying the mammoth with enough pathos. Hieroglyphics were lambasted by critics as “having no vanishing point perspective” and “toeing the Pharaoh line.”

Cartoonists today are an oft-maligned group. Nowhere is this more prevalent than on TV. They are portrayed as cowering recluses, simpering in their dark drawing rooms like vampires without the sexual prowess or the bite. This is a hurtful rumor. What follows is a list of a few key offenders. Do not believe their lies about cartoonists.

On Sex in the City, there was an episode that involved a cartoonist as love interest to the character Miranda. At first promising a portrait of a cartoonist who can have a healthy relationship, I was soon disappointed at how the plot developed. It was clearly written as a thin excuse to make fun of cartoonists. Instead of the expected handsome gent, this man was played by a Drew Carey look-alike. I have no problem with Drew Carey, but his physique does not represent all cartoonists. A young Harrison Ford, perhaps, or Cate Blanchett (who can play a woman or a man). To further the insult to cartoonists, this character’s main characteristic was peeing with the bathroom door open.sexandthecity_cartoonist1

This cartoonist was not a recurring character, needless to say. The writers had their fun then disposed of him. Do you think the target demographic for Sex in the City has any respect for cartoonists after watching this episode? This final shot of him should tell you:sexandthecity_cartoonist2
Of the three shows I discuss, The Office is the most understanding of cartoonists. In the episode where Pam, the receptionist, has a blind date with a local editorial cartoonist, there are plenty of jokes designed with the cartoonist in mind. This does not make up for the fact that the cartoonist character is a dim-witted egotist.theoffice cartoonist1
Pam tries to have normal conversation with this cartoonist, asking him where he gets his ideas.

“I just think about stuff that I see, or I dream them,” he remarks.theoffice cartoonist2
Later, he draws a comic on a napkin for her. Then he proceeds to explain the joke, because obviously a joke is much funnier if you explain it. “This one is funny because it works on two levels.” And, “People say ‘don’t be edgy’ but I don’t know any other way.” Pam is naturally repulsed.
To top it off, he pulls this stunt, worthy of a twelve year old boy.
theoffice cartoonist3theoffice cartoonist4
I like that the writers have got all the ‘bad cartoonist’ traits down. If there is a stereotype of a talentless cartoonist, this is it. However, it doesn’t help those people who don’t know a cartoonist personally. They probably assume that cartoonists are all like this. It breaks my heart.
In perhaps a conciliatory gesture, NBC ran a series called Caroline in the City, about a cartoonist named Caroline who drew a comic strip about a character called Caroline. In the real world, this comic would either
1) never be syndicated in a million years, or
2) get syndicated instantly and become more popular than Cathy.

I remember very little about this show. The only reason I watched at all was the connection to cartooning, but when I saw the show itself, all interest dissolved. Wikipedia describes the premise thusly: “Caroline Duffy is a cartoonist living in a Manhattan loft. She spends many episodes searching for a husband and meddling in the lives of those around her.” And, “Continuing a trend in 1990s NBC sitcom broadcasting, she spends almost no time working.”

So, a show about a cartoonist that involves little to no cartooning. Not that cartooning would make scintillating TV. My proposal for the Most Boring Reality Show Ever is American Cartoonist. Hours of footage of people hunched over drawing boards, filling in tiny boxes. Even if you put them all in a house together, you wouldn’t get any drama. They would sit around talking about cartoonists you’ve never heard of, and about line quality and Bristol board paper and the latest movie adaptation of a comic book.

Caroline in the City ran for a few seasons and has yet to produce a devoted following to match Ziggy.

We’ve learned today that, although the movie industry needs the fertile minds of cartoonists to feed the summer movie machine, television treats them with utmost contempt. While I could theorize that this contempt stems from envy, I suspect television just hates all people in varying degrees.

Don’t believe everything on TV. When you see a cartoonist on the street, give him or her a big hug. They’re fighting the good fight.


how to be a real cartoonist

[NOTE: I found this essay while perusing old notebooks last weekend.  It was probably written in May or June 2002.  I hadn’t yet started drawing The Family Monster and was uncertain if I’d succeed as a cartoonist.  The stakes were high.  This was probably an attempt to build myself up for what was to be the beginning of the rest of my life.]

You must posses at least one drawing hand.  It can be either left or right, or both, but it can’t be two lefts or two rights.  Once you’ve chosen, there are no take-backs.

Pick up a pencil or pen.  A pen is better suited for writing dialog, because when people talk they talk in ink.  Pencils are better for drawing because you can erase your many mistakes.  You will make many mistakes.

Find a comfortable place to sit and compose.  You can’t take my place because I’m there already and I can’t work with you sitting on my lap.  You also can’t take Charles Schulz’s place because, let’s face it, he was a giant in this field.  Also, his place is in a museum, the Charles Schulz Museum, and the docents won’t let you sit there.  Sit and compose.  You will find that, upon sitting, you will want to do anything but compose.  Resist this urge.  Eventually the phone will ring or you will need the bathroom so so bad.  Don’t get up before you absolutely have to.  Don’t take a break before you start composing.  That is not a break.

Stare blankly at a blank sheet of paper.  Do not think “How will I fill these?”  Think of something funny your character would say.  Think of the funniest possible thing your character could say, then think of the reason why she would say it.  Write all that down.  None of this will seem funny to you.  It never will seem all that funny to you.  This is a good sign.  As soon as you find yourself witty and urbane, you should stop composing.  When you begin to find yourself funny, it is the exact moment you have stopped being funny.

Don’t try to finish a joke if it is taking too long.  Move on.  Come back to it if you think the setup is unique or has merit.

Compare yourself unfavorably to published cartoonists.  Compare yourself favorably to published cartoonists who you feel don’t deserve their sweet publishing deals.  Try to understand why they have been published, regardless.  Spend lots of time hoping you’ll get published.  Spend more time doing something about it.

Follow the above directions to become a Real Cartoonist, unless you already have a better plan, in which case you should follow that instead.

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the end of daily Falling Rock

Hello friends.  This is the last week of daily Falling Rock.  Not just for the season, but forever.  As you can imagine, this is not a decision I came upon lightly.

Since I was a kid I’ve wanted to be a comic strip artist; I used to read and reread Calvin & Hobbes in the morning paper.  I drew a comic strip in my high school newspaper and my college newspaper, and when I ran out of school I found other papers willing to run my comics.  It has become a part of my identity: I draw a comic strip.  Lately, however, a number of things have changed.  Daily newspapers are slowly becoming anachronistic.  People don’t subscribe to a city’s daily like they used to.  Heck, even I don’t get the daily paper.  Because of this, the number of new comic strips being introduced each year has plummeted, and the strips that do get introduced often languish due to low readership.  Great strips have ended simply because the newspapers aren’t delivering the size audience a strip needs to (financially) survive.

I’ve changed too.  When I wrote Dancing with Jack Ketch, it was 2006.  This year I published Tomb of the Zombies.  Six long years stand between those books.  I’d like my next book to come out before 2018.  As you know, doing a daily strip 9 months a year takes up most of my time.  Not having that commitment will allow me the freedom to tell many different kinds of stories.  This idea makes me happy.

Fear not, dear readers, Falling Rock is not ending.  I’d like to turn it into a quarterly comic book.  I’ll sell subscriptions and bring individual issues to conventions.  I’ll be able to tell Falling Rock stories in a way a daily strip doesn’t permit.  It will also give me time to work on other comic projects, like Dancing with Jack Ketch and Tomb of the Zombies.  We’ll essentially have it all.

This does not completely allay my sadness at not drawing a daily comic strip.  This will be the first time since 2002 (when I graduated college and began The Family Monster) that I won’t have that daily commitment.  I guess what I’m saying is, I reserve the right to bring Falling Rock (or some other comic strip) back.  I’m going to try this out and see how it fits.  It is quite possibly the biggest change of my life, because it means not working on the profession I’ve been preparing for my entire life.  Sadly, daily comic strip artists are slowly disappearing, like snow leopards or some rainforest beetle nobody’s ever heard of.  I have nothing but admiration for those people who are able to make it their living; they are working at the greatest job ever created.

Keep reading this blog over the summer for updates and amusing (but factually inaccurate) anecdotes.  I’m not going anywhere.

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exposure, a dirty word

David Byrne wrote a spot-on, depressing opinion piece in The Guardian recently.

This is how I feel about putting my work on Tumblr (or Instagram), except instead of a “pittance” I would get zero dollars.

When I first started shopping The Family Monster around, I got offers of “exposure” but none of real, actual money. I am glad I took The Colorado Daily up on their offer, because it led to me getting paid (however small an amount) by McClatchy-Tribune Campus. However, even after I was getting a regular paycheck, I continued to receive offers of exposure (not money) by other publications. Did they think I was so desperate for an audience, any audience, that I’d give my hard work away for free? The old metaphor about giving a plumber exposure instead of paying him for his work comes to mind. Artists, it seems, are easily exploited. It is true most cartoonists are somewhat masochistic, but there is a limit.

While I love posting pictures of Reed on Instagram, and have begun sporadically posting favorite single panels of comics I’m reading on Tumblr, I cannot see the point in doing to myself what others have tried to do to me in the past: make my work worthless.

I’m not even sure what Tumblr means. I’ve seen about 50,000 amazing images for less than one second each. Is the human brain able to process any of that?

Here on this blog you’ll find plenty of my work which I happily post. The difference is, I own this blog. I own this website. All the folks who visit are here to see what I’ve got cooking (sorry, no jambalaya today). With those other websites, I’m merely providing free content to help generate revenue for someone else.  I understand that’s part of the deal: I get to use Instagram to look at everybody else’s pretty pictures, and they can look at the pictures I take. I’m just not going to mix that up with my comics.

I hope this doesn’t come off sounding too curmudgeonly. We are all figuring out how best to use social media. In 20 years we’ll all laugh at our hilariously dumbheaded efforts. In the meantime, I thank each of you for supporting me, for buying my comics, because each time that happens I realize the dream I’ve had since I was a kid.


Writing Process Tour

My friend and sometimes tablemate Tyrell Cannon asked me to participate in “My Writing Process Blog Tour,” online tour of creators’ writing processes. Never one to turn down a survey (he promised I’d be entered to win $1,000,000), I accepted his challenge. Here we go!

1) What am I working on?

For the past eight years, the main thing I’ve been working on is Falling Rock National Park. It began its life as a comic strip and, as of January 2013, is an ongoing comic book series. In between issues of Falling Rock, I’ve been working on a new graphic novel. Progress on that is slow but I feel that on longer stories with characters I’m not familiar with, taking my time actually improves the resulting book. The longer I have to ruminate on an idea, inevitably the better it comes out.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

It’s different in that I’m working in a paradigm that saw its peak in the 1950’s and is largely forgotten now. There aren’t a lot of people making funny talking animal comic books these days. I’m not sure why; I find it allows me to talk about whatever I want and the world my characters inhabit is almost endlessly malleable. As a writer, there isn’t much more you could ask for. As a reader, it strives to make you happy. Seems like a win-win.

In the 1950’s Falling Rock would have been one in a crowd competing at the newsstand and drug store. The work of Walt Kelly and Carl Barks are my signposts. They made great comics and I hope Falling Rock can be considered in the same tradition as those fine works. Falling Rock is a print comic in a digital world, a relic in both style and format. But fashion goes in cycles, so why not comics?

3) Why do I write what I do?

I grew up loving adventure, science fiction, and comedy stories. I love the excitement of different worlds, of weird-looking characters and bizarre plot developments. All that said, what I loved most was the humanity behind all that strangeness. I can talk about my own problems and issues through a creature who looks like a giant slug wearing a fedora. I find that exciting and magical.

I’ve never been interested in telling realistic stories about human characters. I guess I’d rather be drawing lizards or owls or zombies or spaceships. Autobiography is out as well. Since everything I write has me all over it anyway, why make myself a character in the story? It just seems too on the nose. Plus I’m not all that interesting to draw.

4) How does your writing process work?

j I am strange among cartoonists in that I am a writer first. There are many, many excellent artists out there. I am not one of those.

I write big ideas first, usually just a list of words or phrases. When I find a topic I like, I begin writing dialog. My earliest drafts look kind of like a screenplay. I sometimes accentuate my dialog with little doodles of a scene or facial expression that I don’t think I’ll remember later.

The writing process can take weeks, depending on the story. When I was doing the comic strip, I’d write until I had about 30 strip ideas. Then I’d reread all of them, revise the ones I thought had promise and discard the ones that seemed boring or derivative or just not salvageable.

Sometimes my revision process changed the strip completely. The kernel of an idea has a million different ways of being expressed. I was only looking for the funny way. I’d look at it from different angles, try different pacing, start it from different points in the story. When I had about 20 good strips, I’d start drawing them.

Now that I’m doing a book, this process has changed somewhat. For the longer stories, I’ll start with a topic. (So far this has been Uncanny Valley, Ghost Town, Alien Abduction, and Bigfoot.) From that Big Idea, I’ll go narrower. What do I want to say about this huge topic? There’s always something. I like to take on these topics that have well-worn precedents. It doesn’t worry me that many writers have dealt with these topics before me. I want to see what I can say about them that is different.

Like the comic strip, I start by writing dialog. I let my characters talk and see where it takes me. I’ll just write and write until I have finished a draft. Then I go back and see if I’ve covered what I wanted to cover. Usually it is lacking, so I’ll do a full rewrite. I add more jokes. The Simpsons taught me that no story can be funny enough, that there is always room for more jokes. I’m not trying to make Falling Rock as jam-packed as The Simpsons (a fool’s errand!), but at the same time I hate wasting even a single panel. Every single panel should be interesting.

Once I’ve rewritten, I draw it in very sketchy form. This helps me decide panel layout and pacing. Once I have the story in this form, I begin drawing the final pages.

Time to tag the next three contenders for “Writing Process Tour.” They are: Reid Psaltis, Katie Chase, and Hannah Blumenreich. I hope they can all participate!


the cartoonist at his desk

After the iconic Bill Watterson photo.
josh-watterson


one thought podcast

I had the great honor of being interviewed by David Gardner of One Thought Podcast. We talked about my practice, influences, and a whole range of digressions. It was a lot of fun, and I think I don’t come off sounding completely incoherent. Have a listen! David is a great host.

Listen here.

(Or find it wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.)