When I was a kid I wanted to be a comic strip cartoonist. Some characters that I still doodle from time to time have been with me in one form or another since I was a child. I don’t know of any extant cartoons from my childhood. I know my earliest work was Superbird, a superhero comic from perhaps as early as my pre-school years (I remember dictating the text to my dad, which he wrote under the pictures). Superbird was a typical alpha-male protagonist with small assistant named Cuckoo, and an evil-genius arch-nemesis pig. He also had a girlfriend who was always being tied up by the pig-villain. I had such a good grasp of superhero clichés that I even knew enough to draw large breasts on Superbird’s oft-distressed sweetheart. I sometimes still draw breasts and birds, but never together.
Superbird was my last superhero comic. I moved on to newpaper-style comic strips. And by newspaper-style I mean panel-bound pencil sequences on the backs of the scrap papers my dad brought home from work. I think I first ripped off Garfield when I was around seven years old with a cat strip called Zig Zag. But then I created a character called Phil the Lizard. Phil was also heavily influenced by Garfield, of which I was quite a fan. The latter-day version of Phil is depicted here. Now he is more of a chameleon.
In sixth grade I compiled my most extensive opus of cartoon drawings: Chickenland. Chickenland was great. It was not a strip, but a full page (8.5 by 11 inches). It was always divided horizontally into three sections: Chicken Heaven, Chicken Earth, and Chicken Hell. It had a pretty rich cast of characters. My favorites were The Chicken Devil and His Son Junior. Junior was an absolute idiot who tormented his father physically and emotionally with his bumbling. I produced perhaps fifty Chickenland episodes, but threw them away when I was in high school. I still regret that. The modern incarnation of The Chicken Devil and His Son Junior are shown here.
By high school (where I wrote a paper on the history of comic strips), I had abandoned sequential comics in favor of random cartoon doodling. I also learned how to draw “for real.” But while researching college programs and careers, I discovered that cartooning was a pretty lousy way to make a living. I lasted about a year as a visual arts major before I switched to the liberal arts. I kept my sketchbook, though. Even as I pursued my career as park ranger, I’d sometimes jot down ideas or scratch out thumbnail sketches. About ten years ago I even went so far as to produce about a dozen strips, intending to create a portfolio to send to a comic strip syndicate. I posted them on another website and then here in the blog.
But I am not a very disciplined artist. I don’t like to paint and I have little patience with ink. My best and most expressive work comes from my hasty and infrequent thumbnail sketches. I also can’t draw people, hoofed animals, or buildings very well. My people look more like semi-morphous blobs— cartooning taken to the extreme, though I can do a fair job with body language. The guy who draws The Oatmeal draws this way pretty effectively.
I recent years I’ve abandoned drawing in favor of writing, with some regrets. Below is a crude attempt at reproducing the spirit of Chickenland, using my wife’s Wacom tablet. The sixth grade version was never quite so gruesome or ironic. As you can see, I need practice with the tablet. I can control a pencil much, much better, but pencil drawings don’t lend themselves to digital scanning.