Posts Tagged ‘comic’

Say it ain’t so, Garfield

I suppose everyone has a story of the time their youthful ideals were crushed to the ground. Usually these ideals are crushed by some adult who is unaware of the catastrophe this causes in the life of the child. You cease to be amazed at life. The sunset no longer holds such rapture, the spring is just another season in which to drag your corporeal self through the days, your glazed eyes uncaring, your tongue lolling, your feet shuffling. You have left the wonder of childhood and entered into the jagged world of adolescence. It will take you years to regain that wonder. Some never do. For me, that slide began with a Happy Meal.

In the heady days of my youth, McDonalds was my Valhalla. I’d beg my parents to go at least once a week. It was bliss. Even better than the food, of course, was the toy in the Happy Meal. Now, for those of you thinking to yourselves, “Happy Meal toys are not for playing with. They are for collecting, like comic books, baseball cards, and license plates.” You people make me sick. How many times was I in a toy store as a six year-old, vainly searching for that last Transformer I couldn’t find ANYWHERE because jerk collectors had bought them all up? When I’m President, kids will get first crack at toys. All of us over the age of 10 will just have to wait.

Okay, I got off topic. If McDonalds was my culinary delight, then Garfield was, in my mind, the pinnacle of artistic expression. Garfield was my favorite comic strip as a kid. My first comic book purchase was a collection of Garfield strips. I was into Garfield in that way kids can be really into something. I set up a Garfield club with my cousins (we called it the Garfield Club). I read the books obsessively. I would think to myself, “What Would Garfield Do?” in a given situation. I knew Garfield like I never thought I could know another person. Was it love? It may have been, because Garfield broke my heart.

On a sunny day in Tucson my parents took me to McDonalds for my Meal. I was especially happy because this week Garfield was the theme. I was looking forward to my Garfield-related toy. As I was eating, I gazed at the Happy Meal box. It had jokes, games, and puzzles that would keep the average child rapt for about .01 seconds. However, one side of the box gave me pause. It was a maze. Garfield stood in the top left hand corner, smiling his catlike (but utterly non-catlike) smile. At the bottom right sat a steaming plate of lasagna. The instructions told me to help Garfield find the lasagna so that he could eat it, and then presumably sleep or kick Odie off the table. But there was a major problem with this maze. Can you see it, kids? Garfield would NEVER go through all that trouble for anything, even his favorite food. He may trick Odie into bringing it to him, or command Jon to go get it. He may devise a fishing rod of sorts that he can hoist over the maze walls and lift the lasagna up and into his waiting mouth. But he wouldn’t go on a “Labyrinth”-style quest just for pasta. My first thought, and keep in mind that I was still a pre-preteen, was that Garfield would most likely fall asleep in the entrance corridor of the maze.

On my way home from McDonalds, I became more curious about the obvious misstep. Jim Davis, creator of Garfield and therefore knower of all things, would never have drawn that maze. He would know better than that. It was totally out of Garfield’s character. So I wrote him a letter. I told Mr. Davis that I was a huge fan and that I was troubled other people were doing things to Garfield that Garfield would never want to do. I asked him to stop the production of these wrongful things. I hoped, at the very least, for a few sentences of explanation:

“I had no idea this was happening to Garfield! I will put a stop to it immediately.”
“The Happy Meal Garfield, the suction-cup Garfield, and the assortment of other un-Garfieldlike objects for sale are not condoned by Garfield himself, but a clone of Garfield specifically engineered to do those things Garfield has no time for. Garfield sleeps, eats, and kicks Odie off the table. All is well with the universe.”

6-8 weeks after I wrote, I received a letter from Jim Davis that was a real kick in the teeth. It was a form letter! It made no mention of my questions. It was worded in a way that was obviously targeted at someone two or three years younger than myself (I fancied myself a regular Man of the World at 10). At the bottom was Jim Davis’ familiar signature.

So not only did Mr. Davis not deign to check for obvious out-of-character displays of his beloved feline, he couldn’t even be bothered to dictate two sentences to his secretary in response to a letter from a worried fan. If there was ever a “Say it ain’t so” moment in my life, that letter was it.

I still cared for Garfield after the incident, but things had changed. If Jim Davis didn’t care about Garfield, why should I? I began noticing flaws in the comic strip. Why did Garfield’s look change so dramatically from his inception? I learned that Davis stopped drawing the strip long ago. I noticed that certain jokes were repeated too much. Garfield and I grew apart.

When it comes to licensing comic characters, it doesn’t need to be all or nothing. As long as the creator can maintain the integrity of the characters by strictly controlling the products they appear on, I have no problem. But when it gets to Garfield-levels, the character becomes nothing more than a shell, a mascot, a hypocrite. It destroys the magic the creator works so hard to conjure, and once the magic is gone, it don’t come back.
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I’ve been really digging the new Popeye book, a collection of comics that span 1928 to 1930. There is nothing like this today. Even the current Popeye comic strip has a much different style (which is fine; I’d rather see a cartoonist bring his own style to an existing comic strip than ape the previous one).

Anyway, I did a few quick sketches of favorite panels, and I thought I’d share.

The first panel is the single reason I bought the book in the first place. With characters like that, it’s no wonder Popeye was such a popular strip. The fact that he sits in his cabin (he’s on a ship) with a loaded gun, shells, and a large dagger totally lets us, as readers, know that he is one bad dude. I bet newspapers today wouldn’t allow an evil character to lustily stroke his gun. Back in the Roaring 20’s, however, the lax morals must have let that one slide.

popeye_flowersFor those of you into moustaches, Popeye (the strip, not the character) had some real good ones. The NOML would be proud.

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Hamlet and the Modern Comic Strip

Why do comic strips have four panels? When Charles Schulz began Peanuts, it was four panels. This made it easier to stack on the page. You could have four panels across or stack two by two. Or you could stack one by two by one. Or three by one. Like building blocks! What could be more fun than reading building blocks? Nothing.

The strange thing about four panels is, it goes against much of what modern storytelling teaches us. Most movies and TV shows are all about the three act structure. See how easily it works out: beginning, middle, end. You can tell a story in three anythings. Panels, rutabagas, sausages, onions. Three of anything makes a story. Or so they say.

Don’t be fooled into believing the three act structure evolved from plays. Many plays had four or even five acts. It’s true. Hamlet, a little-known play by Shakespeare, has five acts. For Better or For Worse, a comic strip by Lynn Johnston, has five panels. Therefore, For Better or For Worse uses the same structure as Hamlet. Really it isn’t the only thing Johnston stole from Shakespeare. The elevated dialogue, the death of all the main characters in the final panel: these elements come directly from the Bard. I’m surprised Kenneth Branagh has not adapted For Better or For Worse for the screen yet. (He’ll get there right after he does Two Gentlemen of Verona.)

To be fair, the first panel in a four panel comic is often a summary or a scene-setter. Are your characters in an old abandoned warehouse filled with toxic fumes? You need that first panel to show this. Then your characters say something witty about their dire circumstances before they perish. Are you continuing a story from the previous day? The first panel is a good way to remind readers what happened yesterday before you plunge them into today’s adventure.

Shakespeare might have been a competent cartoonist had he not slummed it with the actors. He certainly had the knack for creating new characters. Tom Batuik (Funky) proved you can kill off your character in the funny pages, so Shakespeare’s tragedies would fit right in as well. In closing, I hope to continue the grand tradition of the four act play in pictorial form with Falling Rock. Think of this: the Cliff’s Notes for a comic strip would only be a single sentence.

How the Comics Section Should Look

There’s even room for a cat on the page.

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Without Further Ado

I present to you…cats with umbrellas.cats_parachutes


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My Writing Process

I often find it liberating to write about writing. Instead of having to come up with original ideas, I can sit back and bask in the glory of the mind.

Today I’ll briefly tackle that cloudiest of subjects: the writing process.

My writing process is quite simple. First I make a nice cup of tea, which I sip with my eyes half closed. This really gets my brain juices flowing. Then I flip through the stacks of magazines and books I never will have time to read. There are lots of ideas in there. People have been paid to write their own ideas and I puchase those ideas. Those ideas then become my property under US Copyright Law.

After a brainstorming session or two, I hang up my pens with a great sense of accomplishment. I heave a sigh of relief and pat my belly contentedly.

Then my good friend Eric Clapton stops by and we wail on our guitars. A good jam session with “the Clap” is always enjoyable after a long day of coming up with funny comics.eric clapton

Six Degrees of Rejection

Right now I’m in the middle of the semi-annual self-flagellation that I call “sending out comics to syndicates.” That’s right! Every year I try my luck at the pot o’ gold, the summit of four-panel cartooning: syndication. Like your Bar Mitzvah, being syndicated means a lot of things. You get your strip in national newspapers (not the New York Times, though!), you get actual money for your work, and most importantly you get to call yourself a syndicated cartoonist at cocktail parties. I attend a bevy of cocktail parties.

I have been submitting comics since about 2001. I’ve become something of an expert on the syndicates’ rejection process. What follows is a brief outline of what I can expect over the next six months or so.

The first level of rejection is quite painless. Between one week and one month after the time I send out the packet, I’ll receive my comics back in the mail along with a xeroxed, form rejection letter. It is doubtful a human being read my comics, despite the xeroxed letter’s false promises. My guess is a trained monkey takes the comics packets out of their original envelopes, pulls a xeroxed letter from a large pile, then seals both comics and letter into my self-addressed, stamped envelope. He may even spit on my cover letter before crumpling and throwing it towards an overfilled trash can.

If I receive an answer between 1 and 3 months after submission (Level 2), I will still likely receive a form rejection letter. However, the odds are in my favor that a person has at least halfheartedly flipped through my submission. She or he may have even chuckled at one of the jokes before cramming the packet back into my self-addressed, stamped return envelope along with the xeroxed rejection letter. Although still dispiriting, this non-response is better than Level 1.

Level 3 comes 3 to 6 months after I send out my submission. It is by far the best kind of rejection I have received to date. I still get my comics returned to me with a rejection letter, but this time the letter is personalized. It is either a handwritten note on the xeroxed rejection letter or it is an entirely unique, typed response. These letters offer real advice and criticism and prove that, not only did a human being read my comics, she or he thought highly enough of them to respond in kind. These are the rejections every cartoonist – nay, every writer – needs to keep the hope alive that someday their characters will dance and sing in front of millions of bleary-eyed readers.

After syndication, of course, comes instant wealth and fame. Ask any syndicated cartoonist. That is, if you can get past their moat, security guards, and laser-guided stealth missiles.
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My Muse

marine_iguanaI was going to post a short story today about the death of my muse. Instead, I think I’ll talk about animals.

Animals, real and imagined, continue to inspire me. When I was in high school, I took as many art classes as I could. There were two art teachers, one for 2D Art (as it was called) and one for 3D Art. I took one semester of 3D art, but the rest of the time I spent drawing and painting.

In the art room there was a photographic encyclopedia of animals. When I was out of ideas and just wanted to sketch, I’d grab a volume of that encyclopedia and flip through it. I would soon find a strange looking animal and start to sketch. It was never long before I had my next idea for a drawing.

I recently saw a nature documentary on the Galapagos Islands. They were many shots of the marine iguanas that inhabit only those islands. In all the world, there is only one type of lizard that looks and behaves exactly as those do. That’s amazing. It’s the kind of thing that makes the earth a surprising and wonderful place to live.

Details make a story more interesting, and animals are nothing if not details. The way they look, the way they act. The not knowing what it is they’re thinking. Everything about them is at once knowable and mysterious.

So here’s to our roommates. From the ghostly tiger to the fuzzy baby hawk, here’s hoping we can share many more days with them.

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ranking the comics

Most newspaper editors keep “legacy” strips (those comic strips that have outlived their creators) based on a negative-feedback system. That is, they may try to pull, say, Blondie, but quickly recapitulate when a few irate readers write or call to complain. They don’t get a lot of positive feedback (eg “You should run Cul de Sac because it’s actually funny“). There must be a better way to find out which comics are actually being read in the newspapers.

The Nielson Ratings, although somewhat obtuse, seem to work for television networks. They can judge how successful a show is by its number of viewers. Box office sales determine the success of a movie. Bookstores literally count the number of books sold, which contributes to bestseller lists.

The popularity of comics is a harder commodity to tabulate. You can’t judge how many people flip to that section of the newspaper, let alone which comics they peruse.

One good indicator of a comic strip’s popularity is how well it sells when collected into book form. Calvin and Hobbes books were still selling very well when I worked at a bookstore, and that was about seven years after Watterson decided to retire from the biz. I never saw a Blondie book collection, although the local paper did run it. That isn’t the only comic not to be regularly collected. Check the newspaper, then check your local bookstore or Amazon. Some comics really do disappear after they run in the paper.

Another indicator might be how often that comic is viewed online. People who don’t believe computers are the Great Satan like to read comics on the internet. I would like to ask the syndicates which comics receive the highest hit counts per day. Instead of hiding this information, syndicates should be sending it to every news organization. What comic is #1 online? Just like people are interested in the top-grossing movie of the week, we would love to follow the success of our favorite comic strip characters.

Knowing which comics are the most popular would only increase people’s interest overall. How often do comics get mentioned in mainstream media when they’re not being made into a movie or TV show? Talking about comics for the sake of comics would get people more interested in the art form itself. It would also turn the conversation from the dreadful “all comics are stale and out-of-touch” to a more positive tone.

So what do you say, syndicates? Is there a way to tabulate the most widely-read comics of today?

know when to stop

This public service announcement brought to you by Falling Rock National Park.good-idea-bad-idea

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