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Saturn on Fire

When I look back at my comics, even the ones I think of as weirder than the rest, I see a high level of autobiography. Whatever I’d read, or seen, was exactly what went into the comics. It’s kind of surprising.

Comics are commentary on society, so I’m basically doing what comics are constructed for. Editorial comics comment on politics, and regular-comics can pretty much do as they please. I love the broadness of topics you can cover with comics – you can even decide whether you want to go in depth or stay skimming the surface of a particular idea. Looking back, though, I always concentrated more on getting surreal moments into the comics than references to the book I was reading at the time.

Surrealism is something I’ve always enjoyed. In high school I loved the paintings of Dali and Magritte and the poems of ee cummings. I loved that they were so full of ideas, and that they could juxtapose them at will. Bob Dylan, too, with his albums Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. Those albums fascinated me. There was structure, but it was not a well-worn narrative. I did a lot of strange drawings in high school.

Adapting Surrealism into a four-panel comic strip is not as hard as it sounds, although going all the way would give you a comic less like mine and more like Zippy. I find that, if I stick to my characters, and make sure there is a joke at the end of the road (and hopefully a few funny lines along the way), I can sneak in a few moments of the surreal.

Some time-honored comics traditions are already pretty surreal. The changing landscape of Krazy Kat made Coconino County as animated as the characters themselves. Whenever you see a character in motion, with arms and legs flailing every which way, that’s pretty surreal. Same with the eyes. When you see a character turning quickly so his eyes appear to have multiplied, that’s pretty surreal. You’re accustomed to looking at those pictures as movement; but take a second and look at it as a static drawing (which is what they are after all). It wouldn’t be out of place in a Dali.

To get away from all conscious meaning is really something. I enjoy it for its own sake; but then, I’m entertained by things that are puzzling to others. To take that ethic and turn it into a four panel joke, well, that would be a pretty neat trick.
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Sometimes when I draw a batch of comics (I usually draw 20-30 new strips at a time, after writing for a few weeks) I forget things. One of the more embarrassing things is when I sign a strip twice. I always put my signature somewhere on each strip. For some reason, there are times when I forget whether I’ve signed one or not. The thing that amazes me is, there isn’t that much space to put my signature. So if I’ve already signed it, that means I’ve had to find two suitable places for it. Fortunately, I check my strips many times before sending them out; I can usually catch these mistakes before they become public. But if you happen to see my signature twice, that doesn’t mean I’m especially proud of my accomplishment. It just means I’m forgetful.

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The Set

I’m a big fan of backgrounds in comics. I think they get neglected, for the most part because there is so little space. But a few well-placed background elements make for a more expansive world. It’s amazing how far a well-placed shrub or cactus will go to setting a scene.

Garfield succeeds because of, not in spite of, it’s minimalist nature. You rarely see a background. You see the single line representing the counter, or table on which Garfield and his co-inhabitants live. If Jon needs to make or receive a phone call, there is a phone. If Garfield is sleeping, there is a box for his bed. It would be scary to picture a real house of solid white walls and waist-high counters, but this is the world of Garfield. It works because of Jim Davis’ writing style. If he wrote florid, descriptive dialogue, well maybe there could be more decoration in the drawing. But as it is, there’s really no need. The drawing does everything the writing sets out for it.

I like to include background elements into each panel, unless I’m doing a close-up or a very emotional scene. Since I don’t care about continuity, I like to change the elements around on purpose. I like to think that the characters are walking around and so you’d see different views of the surrounding desert each panel. Sometimes I’ll deliberately move around the same background elements. When I do that, I think of the characters as being on a theater stage and the stage hands keep shifting the sets for no reason. On a recent comic, I had two plants and two mountains. In each of the three panels I shifted them just a bit – not drastically, but enough so that they don’t look like I’m trying to make them look the same. Do I do this out of boredom? I know I hate drawing the same picture over and over. But I’m also not going for realism in my stories, so why go for realism in backgrounds?

Krazy Kat was the comic strip that did this best. When I saw the original drawings at the Cartoon Research Library, it made perfect sense why. Herriman was writing a fantastical strip, and drawing solid, unchanging backgrounds wouldn’t have jibed with the writing or the characters. It made sense, in the terms of the strip, that a house would morph into a plateau then into a tree. Nothing was stationary. It’s part of what makes Krazy Kat so fun to look at.

I’m going to talk about Calvin and Hobbes again, so read no further if you’ve heard enough from me about that comic.

While thinking about backgrounds, I remembered that Watterson said he used the landscape of the Southwest (Welcome to Falling Rock National Park territory, in case you’re wondering) as his inspiration for alien worlds. Spaceman Spiff crash lands into a canyon that resembles the Grand one in Arizona; Calvin and Hobbes go searching for aliens on another planet that resembles Aches National Park, in Utah. It was completely accepted that these strange worlds would look like the Southwest. I wonder now, had Watterson grown up in Flagstaff or Moab, if he would have done the same thing. Would Calvin be tramping through the canyons and dry riverbeds in his backyard and flying off to forest-covered worlds resembling Ohio in the summer? I don’t think it would have worked.

Even though I’m so used to the landscape of the Southwest, I never thought it strange that alien worlds resembled the one that surrounded me every day. Heck, even NASA uses the Arizona desert to test their Mars rovers before shooting them into the void. It’s natural, to us anyway, that the desert is not our natural habitat. It’s otherworldly; we live there now thanks to technology. Air-conditioning and water piped in from the Colorado River allow people to reside there, for now. But when resources become scarce, we may have to leave the desert. We can only be visitors there.

The desert is a good setting for the fantastic. So when I move a cactus here or a mountain there, don’t be alarmed. It’s all part of the story.
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Maple Syrup

I’d like to begin rating my jokes in the same manner as maple syrup. You know, kind of like my own private Ebert & Roeper, except without the thumbs. Does anyone know the standards of maple syrup ratings? Dark, Amber, Light…A, B…I’ve seen them on labels, but have no clue as to what they mean. Plus, I’ve found that almost all real maple syrup tastes pretty darn good, regardless of rating. I won’t get all depressed if I run a weeklong series of Amber jokes.

When I got to thinking about the different type of jokes I tell, I wondered about the ones that are quick to come up with and require little dialogue. They don’t happen often, and they often seem so “light” that I wonder if it’s even worth the time to draw them. Not that they aren’t any good – I personally like comics that are witty but don’t employ endless dialogue (think Mutts). It’s just one of those things I think about, as I sit at my drawing table. “This comic takes a while to draw. The person reading it will likely stare for less than 20 seconds, grunt, and move on.”

Should I really make that person sit another 5 seconds? Should I be making “heavier” jokes if I’m going to invest my time into drawing them up real purty-like? I think, no: comics are funny because they are light. If I wanted to write dialogue-heavy, meticulously reworked jokes, I’d write a 500-page novel and be done with it.

It sounds absurd, but this is the kind of debate I have in my head as I draw comics. “Should I even be doing this? What’s the point?” Then I have to prove to myself why I’m doing comics and not anything else. Fortunately, I manage to persuade myself.

It’s about building up just enough self-esteem to continue on. I love seeing the finished product, printed on newsprint. When I get to that point, I’m always happy.

This post started on one topic but ended on an entirely different one.

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Should I post this twice?

Here’s a question that used to bug the heck out of me when I was a kid. How does a cartoonist refrain from repeating a joke he has already made? I don’t mean variations on a joke. Lucy yanks away the football Charlie Brown is going to kick; Calvin goes sledding while philosophizing. In those cases the joke is different, but the frame is reused. No, I mean the exact same joke. Same wording, same setup, punchline. Everything. This becomes more pertinent as time goes by; when you’ve been drawing your comic strip for ten or twenty (or, like Charles Schultz, fifty) years, how do you keep track of the jokes you’ve already made? Do you keep a file? Do you know you’ve already made a joke the way you know to keep breathing all the time?

The question was answered for me not long ago when I read the introductions to The Complete Far Side and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. Both Larsen and Watterson pointed out a joke they unconsciously drew twice. Amazing! No one noticed! And the fact that it was only one joke in fifteen years (the Far Side) and ten years (Calvin and Hobbes) made me feel better. I’d be worried if I started repeating myself more frequently than once a decade.
I have to assume that their editors missed the repeat as well. That makes me wonder: what if you started repeating jokes on purpose, just to mess with people? How long would it take before you got a reaction? I don’t think that’s the kind of “joke” people read the newspaper funnies for, but it’s an interesting thought.
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Why not?

I would love to see a great adventure comic strip in the newspaper. I think it would be fun to do one myself. However, I don’t think it can happen unless a couple of fundamental things change in newspapers. I don’t think either of these will happen, but here’s my scenario anyway.
First, an adventure strip needs more space than an average joke-based comic. Part of the fun of reading an adventure comic, like Tintin, is the art. Your characters can be anywhere. It’s like a James Bond movie without the crappy song at the beginning (except, of course, Live and Let Die). A few comic strips rely so heavily on dialogue that it literally reduces the characters to tiny floating heads in the corner of the panel. My advice is, run comics in different sizes. They already do this on Sundays, why not the rest of the week as well? I believe Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine) made this argument in his comic: to prove his point, he reduced the final panel down to a fraction of its original size. It didn’t take anything away from the joke (although, I wouldn’t reduce the entire comic to that tiny scale: you’d need a magnifying glass to read the funnies. I’d say that reducing by half would still allow legibility while making more room for my AWESOME ADVENTURE STRIP).
The second roadblock to SUPER FUN ADVENTURE is how comics are read. For an adventure to be successful, you need it to be accessible for new readers. I can’t stand discovering someone’s web comic only to search back months and years in their archive to figure out what’s going on, who these characters are, and why I should care. People don’t read comics on a daily basis, and I’ve been told you have to assume a new person will be reading every strip you draw. That’s tricky for ongoing stories, to say the least. My solutions follow.
Make each adventure short. Two weeks, maybe three at most. Don’t introduce a whole lot of new characters. Have a recurring cast. Make something happen every day. It doesn’t have to be a major plot point, but each strip should have a mini-story. Make it well drawn. That sounds obvious, but I think if the drawing style catches the eye, people will linger for the extra couple of seconds to read the strip. Then they may read the next day’s installment. At the end of a storyline, publish it either online or as a pamphlet. If these sell well enough, you can publish a big book every couple of years. That way, you’ve got easy access to recent events in the story without having to go clicking around online to figure out why the helicopter turned out to be flown by the arch-nemesis, and why the mountain was really a secret fortress.
Sure, there are restrictions. The cartoonist can’t just follow a story endlessly, and must find a way to link daily episodes to the larger picture. But I think the restrictions could prove useful. It won’t allow self-indulgent wallowing. It will also promote forward momentum in the comic. It will be exciting to read! because even the cartoonist may not know how it will end.
So that’s my modest proposal. Who wants in?
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Picasso and Garfunkel

At the risk of starting my blog on a serious note, I’d like to speak for a moment about ART.

Not Mr. Garfunkel, specifically. Generally.

When I was a kid learning to draw from other people’s comics, I never really knew what the creative process was. I mean, I know what a duck looks like. I know a realistic drawing of a duck can be done by looking at the duck and drawing what you see. But I couldn’t figure out how Chuck Jones got Daffy Duck from a real duck. How many steps were there? Did he first master ducks, then distort the features? I didn’t know.

Further complicating things was a man known only as Pablo Picasso. His drawings (and, okay, some pretty good paintings, too) were so far from “real.” How did he make the connection? I was also wondering, though I wouldn’t have put it to myself that way at the time, how I could look at one of his drawings and immediately understand it as a depiction of a real thing.

An answer came in the form of an old movie of Picasso drawing on a pane of glass. The camera was situated on one side of the glass, looking directly at Picasso. Picasso was looking at the camera. He then went on to draw on the glass. It was perfect! You got to see how he drew, without that annoying “over the shoulder” shot so common when showing cartoonists at the drawing board. And lo and behold, he drew a bull exactly the way he might have on one of his canvasses. He didn’t draw a regular bull, then draw his bull over it and erase the first bull. It was directly from his brain to the page (or, glass).picasso2 picasso1

When drawing something I haven’t drawn before, I still tend to make an attempt at realism first. I’ll draw the gecko as it looks in the photograph. Then I’ll start embellishing. Make the eyes bigger, the fingers more prominent. I’ll streamline things to make the whole picture more cartoony. And of course I have to start imagining the way it moves, to see it from different angles so I don’t end up drawing the same picture over and over. This last part has become much easier as the internet becomes faster and more image-heavy. Instead of having one reference picture, I can find five or ten fairly easily. There are lots of geckos on the internet.

In this way, I think of drawing as a way to get from A to B, but B is an unknown destination. It is terrifying at first (some may say paralyzing), but as you become accustomed to not knowing where you’re headed, you start to like it.

One other thing I got from that movie. Picasso had obviously made a visual language for himself. It wasn’t a formula – that bull looked different every time. But it was a way for him to draw anything and still make it look like he drew it. I think that this is the ultimate goal for a cartoonist. To create a world that is unique yet recognizable, where everything fits together but doesn’t look cut from a mold. That is great cartooning.