On cartooning

A pair of breasts.Flamingo.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.

Phil the Lizard (or chameleon).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.

The Chicken Devil and His Son Junior.In sixth grade I compiled my most extensive opus of cartoon drawings: ChickenlandChickenland 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.

The original and best Karate Fungus ever.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.

Semi-morphous blob.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.

Cactus preacher and his disciple.

Wacky computer.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.

Digital cartoon drawing of chickens in heaven, hell, and earth.
A rough cartoon resembling one I drew in sixth grade.

This week’s Doonesbury

A couple of Iowa newspapers have supposedly backed off on their decisions to censor this week’s Doonesbury strips. There is never any good excuse for a newspaper to avoid controversial topics. On the other hand, I can see it from their point of view. Most readers don’t turn to the funny pages to see a patient getting raped by her doctor. Just put in the OpEd section.

Chimps in the news

I’ve been a little perplexed over the uproar about the recent New York Post cartoon. The cartoon depicts two police officers and a chimpanzee they had just shot, who they identify as the author of the economic stimulus bill.

The outrage was predictable but I didn’t get why the police officers in the cartoon killed a chimpanzee. It turns out police in Stamford, Connecticut indeed shot a chimpanzee earlier this week, though for other reasons than passing bad legislation.

Context may not be everything, but it is nothing to outrageaholics.

For Better or For Worse

I don’t write about it much here but I am a comic strip junkie. If asked I probably wouldn’t say that For Better or For Worse by Lynn Johnston was a favorite but I did grow sort of fond of it. Johnston is a really good cartoonist. This summer she appeared to have discontinued the strip, and “re-runs” were appearing in its space.

I looked this up and it turns out that Johnston is still drawing the strips. She returned to the strip’s roots, and even her early drawing style, by terminating the complex plots and reverting the principal characters back to a young family. In a letter to her fans on her website, Johnston explains:

Gone was the loose, funny, free-hand line I had started with. As the adventures of the characters became more defined, so did the drawing, until I researched everything, from forklifts to faces, from aircraft to arcades. I was out for accuracy. Every house, every apartment had a floorplan. The furniture and the color schemes had to be consistent- as did the information I gave about the “players”, and if I made an error, you would let me know!

I wonder if her new-found fundamentalism takes as much mental discipline as I think it does. I always assumed creators of long-running comic strips just let them grow organically. Doesn’t keeping your foot on the creative brake take some of the life out of the product? I can barely stand to look at Berkeley Breathed’s post-Bloom County strips. It’s like stuffing and mounting your pet after it dies–Fido’s just not the same as he was. How did Charles Schultz managed to keep Peanuts so simple?

Over the Hedge and The DaVinci Code

Last night I watched “Over the Hedge” and “The DaVinci Code” with Susan. “Over the Hedge” was pretty good. It was funny and the animation was excellent. I know it as a really good comic strip that I don’t see everywhere. It’s the first comic strip about urban sprawl: wild animals have to adapt to suburban encroachment on their turf.

“The DaVinci Code” was disappointing, but I thought the banter on theological issues was pretty interesting. I’m not even going to try to verify any of that stuff, but at least it provokes some rethink about conventional wisdom.