I was driving along Interstate 10 in Mississippi several years ago. The night before someone must have driven a car right into a big highway sign. One of the legs was completely mangled and the other was bent. The sign looked like it had come to life, started walking along the shoulder, and then froze mid-step as if the life had gone out of it as suddenly as it appeared. The highway department fixed the sign before I got around to photographing it.
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.
It’s been raining all weekend, which means spring is almost here and also baseball. And for that reason I was thinking about this: back in the late eighties, the Yankees radio announcers were a bunch of Greatest Generation-aged meathead ex-athletes. They included the beloved Phil Rizzuto and some other lesser personalities. They knew a lot about baseball and very little about anything else.
For example, once they were talking about a letter they received from a fan, who told them that because the baseball field was a “diamond,” the distance between the bases couldn’t have been exactly 90 feet, but some number fractionally short of that. The announcers spent at least half an inning trying to figure it out, probably only dropping it after their producer, or somebody else with at least a fourth grade education, told them they were being put on.
Another time they were talking about a new player for the Toronto Blue Jays, Cecil Fielder. They noted that he pronounced his name SEH-sil, rather than SEE-sil, as in the well-known Cecil Cooper of the Milwaukee Brewers. They reasoned that north of the border, Canadians said SEH-sil and south of it Americans said SEE-sil.
I mention this because I consider it the only downside to baseball season: a multi-billion dollar sport played by, run by, and announced by complete idiots.
I saw Betty Friedan in person once, when she came to speak at my university. She was tiny; I was close enough to her at one point that I could have reached out and bonked this legendary woman on the head with my fist.
Why would I want to do such a thing? She was really mean to the young lady who headed the lecture committee on the programming council, where I volunteered. Betty Friedan was her hero and was so mean to her that the young lady cried.
I learned something from Betty Friedan about hero worship that evening.