This is a long post about comic strips, taste, personal history, and
failure postponed action. It is inevitably narcissistic. I’m writing it, instead of the million things I could otherwise be writing right now which would arguably be more productive or at least more worthy of your attention, because I’m sick of the particular mental and even physical block that’s formed around this part of my life, and this is one more attempt to break it down.
So, uh, you might want to think twice about clicking Read More unless you’re really minutely invested in my thought/“creative” process.
When I was eight or nine years old I began to draw a comic strip regularly. I recall little about it at this distance except that it was about an ever-expanding family. This would hardly be surprising — an expanding family was just about all I knew at that age, since I was homeschooled and friend-shy, the oldest of four children who were constantly trying to add to that number by adopting pets (I remember two cats, a dog, a ferret, two chinchillas, and assorted turtles, lizards, fish, and birds within this general time frame) and an extended family that always seemed a phone call away from staying with us indefinitely. The pets in my comic strip were, of course, just as sentient and indiscriminately charitable — the basic refrain of my strip, as I recall, was “oh! we can help you!” — as the humans, and by the exhausted end of the run I was adding characters simply by drawing furniture, granting sentience if not personalities to potted plants, lamps, and ladders. (The Oz books, with their cacophonous cast of animate inanimates, and Bloom County’s fondness for the reductio ad absurdum of its premise (remember the walking computer?), were, I think, my primary inspiration here.)
I bring all this up to note that I was interested in comics, and in making comics, from a very young age. Some of the earliest things I remember reading were Peanuts and Garfield collections, and there was a (don’t laugh) paperback of Marmaduke Sundays that was actually something of an imaginative touchstone for me as a young child. And in the mid-to-late 80s, when Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side, and the aforementioned Bloom County were at the peak of their popularity, I cut out Gasoline Alley strips from the newspaper and collected them in a big photo album (I even sent away for the Wallet Family Tree), cementing three preferences that would stick with me for life: a love for longform narrative, a fascination with things that had a long and rich history, and an insistence on adoring things that weren’t what everyone else I knew liked.
When I was ten years old, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was in the movie theaters. I didn’t see it then — I wouldn’t see it for another ten years — but the advertising haunted me. Sure, there was Jessica Rabbit (oh boy, was there ever — I’ll come back to that), but more than that, the idea of a new classic cartoon character, a new classic cartoon cast, thrilled me deeply. I grew up with Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons on Saturday morning television, with the Disney library on VHS and in storybooks and in brief, magical glimpses on the television sets of people who had cable. I was aware of competing cartoon stables the way I was aware of competing comic book universes: and Roger Rabbit’s unprecedented joining of the dots between Disney, Warner Bros., and Fleischer was something between Philip José Farmer and an All-Star Game in terms of mindblowing border-crossing.
But the lasting legacy of the film, at least in my imagination, was the idea that you could just create a new cartoon character. I had not seen the movie; I assumed that Roger Rabbit was the stable center of a cast of eccentrics, which was the setup I knew (or imagined) for all cartoon-character casts. As Kermit the Frog was to the Muppets, as Charlie Brown to the Peanuts gang, as Pooh to the Hundred Acre Wood, as Mickey Mouse to the Disney cast or Bugs Bunny to the Warner Bros, and — especially, totemically — as Pogo to the Okefenokee swamp critters.
Because much more than any other cartoon cast or collection of characters, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, which ran from 1948 to 1973 and which never appeared in a newspaper that I saw with my own eyes, was my lodestar, my touchstone, my Favorite Comic. I knew it only through the library, bound volumes of strips, of reprints of the books he did on the side, of scholarly and critical analysis — and by the way reprinting — of this most human, literate, and narratively unsatisfying of funny animal comics. I could go on and on about Pogo; but I will leave you with the observation that, at ten years old, I had sheets and sheets of tracing paper covered with as many characters from the strip as I could track down, including caricatures of politicians of whom I was entirely ignorant.
So, immersed in that world, an old and dead one (so it might seem), it came as something of a revelation that someone, in the modern world, the one that I also walked in and breathed the air of, could design a new cartoon character. And if they could do it, so could I. And so I did. I remember drawing him for the first time when I was eleven or twelve: barely a scribble, a dog with floppy ears and a mustache in overalls (Roger Rabbit wore overalls, and Mickey Mouse’s buttons were a vestigial remnant of overalls, which I knew because I was a nerd who read about these things), and — because I was not very imaginative, and the mustache and overalls made me think of my father, who taught construction — I added, in a fit of inspiration, a toolbox, which gave me something to do with the one hand, anyway. I named him Ace Yu, after a bad joke on a Jim Henson special (“What’s your name?” “Ace Yu.” “Gesundheit”), decided he was a plumber, and drew him with a Jessica Rabbit-a-like, mostly leg and bosom.
And there things rested. That original drawing has probably long been destroyed (or it’s in a pile of papers in a box in the back of a closet), and I did so many of them, so many briefly enthusiastic character designs, casts of characters, always taken from whatever I was reading or watching or looking at newspaper ads of at the time, that this seemed just another; after the brief fit of enthusiasm had passed, it could fade into oblivion with all the other thoughts we leave unspoken, un-acted upon, stillborn.
But Jessica Rabbit. And (though I wouldn’t know the character by this name for many years) Tex Avery’s Red. I had a book of cartoon instruction by someone apparently connected with Avery’s MGM cartoons, because Screwy Squirrel and the Wolf and Red figures were all over it, but there was a particular two-page sequence in which he layed out every key frame of a dance performed by Red in the “Swing Shift Cinderella” cartoon, and my pubescent sexuality was off to the races.
There were other books of cartoon instruction, these borrowed from the library — and several of them had all kinds of adult comics, from the pages of National Lampoon and other overground-underground comics venues: Shary Flenniken and Bobby London and Jeffrey Jones and Richard Corben and Wally Wood (whose Sally Forth was excerpted in a book of Pogo memorabilia) and then there were darker, more horrifyingly adult comics in the 741.5 stacks, books of Crumb’s violent sexual fantasies and sequences in Bros Hernandez books in which horrible things happened to naked people, which made me feel sick to my stomach even as they stirred other feelings deeper down, and I wouldn’t work out that arousal and disgust were different things for many years to come.
But there too a seed had been planted: and when I was twelve or thirteen I designed a character modeled after a Crumb woman, with thick legs and breasts with nipples large enough to be virtually secondary breasts. Only she was a duck. (I believe this was Bobby London’s Dirty Duck at work, combined with DuckTales, which I did not yet know was Carl Barks dumbed down, and had adored.) I called her Daphne Duck, which I thought was pretty clever, a nice pun on Daffy, and drew (then, mission accomplished, promptly threw away) a total of one “erotic” strip starring her.
So far, so furry, I suppose; but I was entering adolescence, and entering it in a foreign country, and the hints and explanations of sexuality I could find as I grew up were adult, and literary, and I read John Cleland and Anaïs Nin and left certain things behind. I was old enough to begin to look back on my childhood obsession with comics through the lens of nostalgia, which covers everything with a patina of innocence, and in high school the cartooning I did (in class and at home) were first a wholesale theft of Prince Valiant, second a dull series of superhero comics, and third a full-on attempt at doing a one-man Disney fairy-tale film, a version of “Rapunzel” that owed much to The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. (I did character designs, wrote a script, including songs, collected it into a loose-leaf binder, and showed no one ever. I was a sophomore in high school; not that I had any credibility to lose, but, yeah.)
Among the characters in the Rapunzel mock-up was a fat, grumpy raccoon. (This was, to the best of my memory, before Pocahontas; which I still have seen only excerpts of, in a Native American Studies class.) Visually he was as close to Disney as I could get (which wasn’t very), but he also led a motley cast of woodland creatures, and this role was, I think, borrowed entirely from a similar character in Bill Peet’s picture book Farewell to Shady Glade, perhaps the earliest (in terms of my encounter with it) of the totemic works I’ve discussed here. Peet was a Disney animator in the Sixties and Seventies (The Jungle Book and especially 101 Dalmatians have his fingerprints all over them), who turned to children’s picture books, drawn in rough, appealingly scratchy colored pencil, after leaving the studio. Farewell to Shady Glade is an ecological fable about a bunch of animals who escape the destruction of their woodland home by suburban developers; they are led by a wise (though not as wise as he thinks) raccoon. Stories about animals were always charged for me as a child; I loved Beatrix Potter, The Wind in the Willows, and Rabbit Hill long before I knew Watership Down.
But even after I abandoned, or forgot, the Rapunzel project, I kept drawing that raccoon in margins and on scrap paper. Many years later, when I began to seriously think about comics again, I found myself drawing him as an Oliver Hardy figure next to a Stan Laurel-esque tall, silent verson of Churchy LaFemme, the turtle from Pogo. They became a vaudevillian duo in my imagination, and I dubbed them Mr. Coon and Turtle; at first without thinking about the connotations of the shortened word, and then, as I learned more, I kept it as a sort of queasy tribute to the origins of vaudeville in minstrelsy.
But now I’m getting ahead of myself.
I kept drawing the dog, too, the one in overalls with a toolbox. It helped that he was very easy to draw: a circle for a nose, a scribble for the mustache below, two eyes, another circle for the head, and squiggles for the floppy ears, the rest to be filled in at leisure. I don’t remember when I stopped calling him Ace Yu and started calling him Ace Terrier — whenever it was, I suppose I had at last reached the age when outright theft was embarrassing — but it was immediately apparent that the latter was a much better name, even if he didn’t resemble a terrier (or any other kind of actual animal) in the slightest.
Around the time I “developed” the Rapunzel cartoon I surrounded Ace with a cast of not-very-imaginative characters, thinking, I suppose, of trying to create a cartoon short that would run before the feature (as Disney had done with Roger Rabbit for a few movies, and as Pixar does now invariably). I got as far as a few character designs — all I remember is a cyborg penguin, equal parts Opus and Robocop, balanced on a single wheel like a Gyro Gearloose creation — and lost interest.
But I was in high school now, and comics and cartoons could not be all my diet. I read everything I could get my hands on, figuring out what I liked and what I didn’t. I discovered a taste for P. G. Wodehouse, a taste that would carry me far into certain domains. I discovered that I liked Dorothy L. Sayers, which I at first thought meant I liked mysteries but eventually discovered meant that I liked Dorothy L. Sayers. I discovered that I didn’t care one way or the other about Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury, that my childhood love for the fantasy of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander did not map onto a love of fantasy more generally, that those dull books that as a kid I had turned away from in the library, the ones in which ordinary people went through ordinary human interactions and nothing exciting happened, were, or could be, in fact full of profound insight and vibrant language and recognizable life. I began to try to write poetry — first song lyrics, then narrative epics, then free verse. At the suggestion of my English teacher, I took a semester off — I still haven’t read The Scarlet Letter because of it — in order to write a novel. (I hadn’t learned that I disliked science fiction yet, and it was a bald Star Wars imitation. I sent it off with an SASE, and Ace Science Fiction said they were full up.)
And then I graduated, and in the in the tremendous clearing-up and clearing-out which any major life change requires, almost everything got left behind.
The first thing I searched for on the internet was either comic books or superheroes. I’d like to think the former, but it was probably the latter; out of all the objects of curiosity which floated before my field of imagination during my time in Guatemala, superheroes were the one thing I could never find an adequate answer to in the libraries and bookstores and rummage sales that made up my accumulated store of wisdom. Now that all four-color history is available to me for the price of a file search, I care much less about any of it; but in those days the bright costumes and catalogs of powers called with the power of myth or the vast unknown of sex.
From reading about them online to finding the stores that stocked them and beginning the first of the many ruinous collections that have crater-blasted my adult financial life was barely a step; and in the waning years of the second millennium I read almost nothing but stories in which plots were resolved with a punch, or a magical blast, or tricking the world’s media into believing an alien species was destroying New York.
And then, because again I had begun to haunt the 741.5 section of the library, I read Understanding Comics, and my world was unmade.
This was not, I believe, an unusual experience for people of my generation; the Children of McCloud are all over the internet, and extremely active. Very nearly the first thing I did after reading it was to gather paper and pen and begin to draw. Not the drawing I had been doing in the margins of my college notes, where various superheroic insignia and one or two recurring Steve Ditko characters still reside, but free form, no story in mind, just drawing and writing as a single unit of activity, expressing thoughts, working out how to space and structure a panel, a page, a sequence. How to compress thoughts into balloons, how to trim and edit and all the other things that Tumblr has taught me to unlearn in more recent years.
Less than a year later, I read The Comics Journal’s list of the twentieth century’s 100 Greatest Comics, and I was done with superheroes forever. Walt Kelly, Charles Schulz, Frank King, Bill Watterson, George Herriman, Edward Gorey, Saul Steinberg, Cliff Sterrett, Chris Ware, Seth, Jules Feiffer, Al Hirschfeld, Carl Barks, John Stanley, E. C. Segar, Jaime Hernandez, even R. Crumb — the extravagant convolutions of superheroes may have been the limbs and flourishes of my young manhood, but the simplicity of cartooning cut to the bone. I hastily began a second self-education in cartooning, one which continues to this day.
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when, realizing that the Journal’s list covered only North American comics (into which the work of several Brits was grandfathered thanks to certain transatlantic publishing arrangements), I began to look at the rest of the world.
I don’t remember where I first saw the name Lewis Trondheim — some message board thread or other, perhaps. Fantagraphics (whose owners also published The Comics Journal, and so in the weird incestuous world of alternative comics were therefore trustworthy as to taste) had recently translated two of his Lapinot albums. I found one in a Los Angeles comics shop I visited with an Angeleno I was collaborating on an Inferior Five proposal with; the other I found at the San Diego comics convention, which was the real reason I had flown out to California. I inhaled them both immediately, and I was in raptures.
Trondheim showed me that I didn’t need to wait until I had mastered anatomy, perspective, chiaroscuro, and life drawing before I began to make comics. I could just draw whatever I wanted, and say it was what I said it was, and it would be comics. I’ve learned in the interim that actually, yes, he can draw — in fact he can draw rings around almost any other living cartoonist, Sergio Aragonés possibly excepted — but the revelation that you could be that apparently sloppy and still produce hilarious, moving, and compulsively readable stories was a revelation. The Hoodoodad and Harum Scarum (Pichenettes and Walter, respectively — I have the entire Lapinot series in French, because that’s the kind of nerd I am now) remain among my favorite comics ever made.
Trondheim, like Walt Kelly, like Carl Barks, like Berke Breathed and Bill Peet and Bobby London and Jim Henson, worked — works — in animals. “Funny animals” was the jargon of the cartooning trade, and it was one of the standard comic book genres, back in the days when comic books had more than one standard genre. Trondheim sent me back to my old doodles, to the dogs and ducks and raccoons and turtles I had drawn since before I knew about multiverses or Negative Zones.
I sat down one quiet afternoon, opened a book of drawing paper, and drew the dog, giving him big feet the way Trondheim drew Lapinot’s feet, and wrote Ace Terrier, World’s Greatest Plumber! underneath. And then I drew a female duck — not fleshy and voluptuous like a Crumb woman, but tall and thin, like my best friend, whose kidneys were failing her — and I wrote underneath her, Daphne Duck. Yes, I would use even that.
I turned the page, and drew a fat raccoon in a tuxedo, and a big-eyed turtle in working-class clothes, and wrote Mr. Coon and Turtle beneath.
I turned the page, and drew more: a little guy of indeterminate species with a bowler hat, bowtie, suspenders, and cigar. A big bear guy in a sailor cap and shirt. A cow-lady in Victorian dress. A tall guy of indeterminate species with spectacles and long curly hair in an old-fashioned ribbon tie. (The inspirations were, respectively and unashamedly: Frank Willard’s Moon Mullins, Frank King’s Walt Wallet, Walt Disney’s Clarabelle Cow, and a story by Anthony Hope called The Philosopher in the Orchard, which I read while all this was brewing in my head.) And I wrote the words The Boarding-House Boys underneath, adding in a smaller script Mulligan / Wally / Miss Klara / Perfesser.
I drew a handful of strips featuring Ace and Daphne, largely in a modified Hergé style because nobody I knew of was trying to draw like Hergé. But then I realized that I wanted Ace to meet Daphne later, and that he should start out alone. (I was, in fact, developing a hazy biography for my little dog, patterned surprisingly thoroughly on the Lord Peter Wimsey books. Peter’s relationship with Harriet would remain my ideal of romance until I finally grew old enough not to have an ideal of romance.) So he needed, if not Daphne, another best friend. None of the Boarding-House Boys seemed suitable: Mulligan was an obvious rascal, Wally too dumb, the Perfesser too pompous, Klara (as the landlady) too officious. One more.
I drew a bird with a scowl on its face — it was, in fact, a taller, rangier version of Trondheim’s own self-portrait — and named it Dornford after Dornford Yates, the writer of the “Berry” stories, light comic sketches from 1920s England which provided one template of the kind of stories I wanted to tell. (The later stories are all too scowly; Yates was a fierce racist, anti-Semite and snob, and hated Labour almost as much as he hated Germans and Jews; the last decades of his life were spent in a failed attempt to escape the twentieth century.) And the cast was complete. He would be the grumpy, obstinate Porkypine to Ace’s mild, reasonable Pogo.
In 2004, I began to fill a book — a book with porous, disintegrating paper, and very little margin for error — with Ace Terrier stories. In 2007, I completed it. The entire thing is archived here. I do not particularly recommend the experience.
It was only supposed to be a practice run. I was supposed to keep drawing after that, and the stories to come would make up the first volume in the imagined Adventures of Ace Terrier series, books whose dimensions I had plotted out far more minutely than I had plotted out the first story I began working on … and, some weeks later, stopped.
I’ve barely picked up a pen since. (2010 was going to be my year … and then it wasn’t.) I could blame computer death — I’ve burned through two laptops since then, and I no longer even have a way to connect my old scanner to my current laptop, let alone the iPad I’m writing this on. I could blame a growing social conscience, which has left me uneasy (to say the least) about my depiction of, uh, jazz musicians in one story, and conflicted about the uses of cartoon simplification. I could blame this Tumblr, and all you nice people who reward me for writing about music with likes and links and reblogs. No one ever said a word during the year I posted my comics to the internet.
But more than that, I’ve stopped regularly reading comics. I’ve stopped regularly reading anything, except my RSS feed and Tumblr dashboard and Twitter stream and Instapaper archive. (Even now, I’m playing hooky from reading twentieth-century fiction in order to gas on about all this self-involved nonsense.) I’m no longer in touch with my cartooning roots, no longer hold the canon of things I love in my head when I sit down to draw, and all I can do is feebly retrace the lines of things I’ve drawn many times before. I no longer think in narrative, in panel and page and sequence. I’ve spent too long wandering in essay and blog and music criticism; I don’t know (if I ever did) how to be funny and engaging and reveal character through dialogue and action. I miss trying to, anyway.
So, in order to try to clear away the brambles that have collected in these once-worn, now-seldom traveled paths in my brain, I wrote the above and publish it here. Excuse, please, its solipsism, its unexplained referentiality, and especially its length. I did warn you.
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- natepatrin said: I’ve got my own (eventual) thoughts on the similar process I went through, though where our experiences diverge is where things get interesting/ridiculous.
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