this is NOT a blog post

A few months ago, Field Notes sent out blue exam notebooks along with an assignment. Submit an essay about a notable event in high school. I wrote the following essay about an event in my senior year Astronomy class. Since the grading is now complete (I did not win the contest) I thought I would share my work with you, dear readers.

My astronomy teacher had an air of grumpiness that I found appealing. As a high school senior, I appreciated the lack of false pep I saw in more than a few adults. My phoniness radar was dialed in. The fact that my astronomy teacher didn’t care about putting on a happy face for his students made me appreciate him. He was there to do a job, and he did that well.


In his classroom there were two doors, but we only used one. The back door was locked, and to make it even more clear for us dimwits, my teacher taped a sign on it that read “THIS IS NOT A DOOR.” (Emphasis his.) Me and my friend Mike found this endlessly amusing. At the end of class, we’d head for the back door, read the sign aloud in mock surprise, then turn and use the front door along with the rest of the class.


One day my teacher was out sick and we got one of those substitutes who sits at his desk reading a paperback for an hour. A free period! As long as we didn’t burn the place down, the place was ours. Mike and I decided to be productive. We made signs, dozens of them.







We taped them to the appropriate places. For “THIS IS NOT A CEILING” we taped the paper to the ceiling. “THIS IS NOT AN ASTRONAUT” was taped to a poster of an astronaut. It was actually the only true statement we made, since it wasn’t an astronaut but a photograph of one.


By the end of the period Mike and I had labeled most of the room. We took a moment to enjoy our handiwork then went to our next classes. During the day, I wondered if the signs would stay up long enough for my teacher to see them the next day.


Mike and I nearly burst into the classroom the next day. It was the most excited I’d been to begin a class, possibly in all my years of high school. We were disappointed to see that all our signs were gone. My teacher made not a mention of them, which led me to believe either students or some poor janitor had removed them.


My girlfriend had astronomy class later in the day. She told me later that my teacher had entered the classroom early that morning to find our signs everywhere. He said it was him, alone in a classroom, removing signs from everything and laughing hysterically the whole time.


high school art class

Since today is Throwback Thursday, I thought I’d throwback a little art from my high school art class. The first colored pencil drawing represents the first of many explorations of those mysterious Easter Island heads. The second is a portion of a final exam. Our teacher had us draw one picture for the final – whatever we could do in an hour. I went with comics. This is packed with in-jokes that I don’t remember and features all the people who sat with me for the year. We were a good group.


autobiography Blog

giant thumb tack

I took art all four years of high school. My junior year I took art twice, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. There were other electives available, but I didn’t take any of those. Why bother?

For the majority of my high school career I focused on what the registrar called “2D Art.” Painting, drawing: anything done by making marks on paper. There was, however, “3D Art,” that bizarro art class where you made things out of clay or plaster or whatever consumed that mystical third dimension.

The first year you took the art elective, you had to take one semester of 2D Art and one semester of 3D art. This, I suppose, was to ensure we were exposed to both kinds of art. I took 3D Art spring semester of my freshman year of high school. My biggest accomplishment was building a giant thumb tack.

Mr. Gillis, our art teacher and later one of my cross country coaches, wore aviator glasses and had floppy hair that covered his ears. His favorite expression was “lunchbag.” When kids teased him about his ‘70s fashion sense, he’d retaliate by calling them “lunchbags.” It was the perfect non-profanity that still got the meaning across just fine.

Why I chose a thumb tack is unclear, but I probably believed it would be simple to make. I had very little faith in my 3D art abilities. I was never good with tools, had never assisted my father with projects around the house. When I had to make a Pinewood Derby racer for Cub Scouts I sanded the corners of the block of wood, painted each side a single color, and snapped on the wheels.

The thumb tack was big, maybe three feet tall and two or three feet in diameter. I used chicken wire for the rounded edge, covering it in plaster of paris. The rest was cardboard.

Mr. Gillis took a shine to that huge thumb tack. I thought I had distinguished myself for figuring out that pennies newer than 1974 used zinc, which, when put through the kiln, would explode and leave a white cloudlike burst in the pot. But as I was clearing out my projects for the summer, Mr. Gillis asked if he could take a picture of me with the giant thumb tack. He presented a slide show on the first day of class and wanted my thumb tack to be a part of it.

Mr. Gillis called to me on my way out, in the way a teacher does right before he has something life-changing to say.

“Hey Josh,” he said. “Don’t sit on that!”

I promised I would not.

The thumb tack is long gone, but these two pictures remain. They are the legacy of my brief foray into the 3D arts.

autobiography Blog comic

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.