After years of working at a newspaper, my uncle Jeff quit his job to follow his true passion: preaching. My aunt Connie commissioned me to draw him an image of a tree with strong roots for his 50th birthday.
This kind of assignment is rough for me, because I’m not a fine artist. For the kind of drawing and cartooning I practice, drawing isn’t just a drawing, it’s more like picture-writing. It’s about writing with symbols…either conveying some kind of information or telling a story.
The biggest problem was that I was trying to be clever by using a cross for the tree trunk:
I almost drove myself crazy trying to get it to look recognizable.
And so, after endless drafts, I learned a valuable lesson:
Don’t try to be clever. Just draw.
As Faulkner put it, “Kill your darlings.”
I threw the cross idea out the window, and went with what I love to do: tell a story in a series of simple pictures.
The bonus of all this was that the tree I drew as the “final” in the series turned out to be the best one I came up with:
So Meg and I headed off and got a three-panel frame:
Voila! A tree triptych.
A couple of days later, I learned another valuable lesson: Do some research.
A tree is a slow explosion of a seed….When drawing a tree, always remember that every branch is more slender than the one that came before. Also note that the trunk splits into two branches, then those branches split in two, then those in two, and so on, and so on, until you have a full tree, be it straight, squiggly, curved up, curved down, or bent sideways by the wind.
You draw, you learn.
So-called creative people understand better than most that there is nothing new under the sun. Working with boulders of granite, with empty stages, with blank paper, they are credited with making something out of nothing, but that isn’t exactly what they do. All art is derived from what is in actuality a remarkably finite human experience. Whatever the medium, the creative person’s task is to interpret an essentially unchanging reality, a dog-eared reality pondered by Homer and Mel Brooks and everyone in between. The artist succeeds if he or she can present something familiar from an unfamiliar angle.”
— Rheta Grimsley Johnson
While everyone else is reading David Michaelis’s new biography, Schulz and Peanuts, I’ve decided to wait and ask for it for Christmas. Instead, I’m reading Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s underrated and unfortunately out-of-print 1989 “authorized” biography, Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz. People have called the book “innocuous” and “flattering”, but I think it deals with Schulz’s depression in a very straightforward and explicit manner, and the writing is really great. Worth tracking down.
Chapter 6 of the book is dedicated to Schulz’s “12 devices”—the twelve ideas that Schulz considered essential to the success of Peanuts:
1. The Kite-eating tree.
2. Schroeder’s music
I was looking through this book on music, and it showed a portion of Beethoven’s Ninth in it, so I drew a cartoon of Charlie Brown singing this. I thought it looked kind of neat, showing these complicated notes coming out of the mouth of this comic-strip character, and I thought about it some more, and then I thought, ‘Why not have one of the little kids play a toy piano?’
3. Linus’s blanket
4. Lucy’s psychiatry booth
5. Snoopy’s doghouse
In the beginning, Snoopy actually slept in his doghouse, and a three-quarter view that worked in perspective was the readers’ most familiar angle….The emergence of Snoopy’s doghouse as Grand Device centered not on actual depictions of the humble abode but on allusions to its fantastic contents…the only view the reader is ever given is a left side view. Yet as its graphic depiction became severely restricted, its function became limitless.
6. Snoopy himself
7. The Red Baron
9. The baseball games
10. The football episodes
Besides losing, the running (and falling) gag is a pure example of another element that has worked so well for Schulz: repetition…Nothing else in Peanuts is so mechanically repetitious as the football joke….One newspaper editor canceled Peanuts, complaining that the author did the same things over and over. He was forced to reinstate the comic strip, with an apology, when his readers set up a postal howl.
11. The Great Pumpkin
12. The little red-haired girl
Hank Williams’s plaintive ballad “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You” spurred the inclusion of the little red-haired girl in Peanuts. After listening to the song over and over again, Schulz was inspired to include in his cast of characters the unrequiting lover….The littler red-haired girl has never been depicted…and he believes she never will be.
On cartooning and design:
Good cartoon drawing is good design. A lot of people aren’t aware of that.
On the skills of a cartoonist:
Schulz: I have a combination of strange abilities I can draw pretty well, and i can write pretty well, and i can create pretty well, but I could never be an illustrator. It doesn’t interest me.
Rose: That’s because the idea doesn’t come from you?
On humor and sadness:
I suppose there’s a melancholy feeling in a lot of cartoonists, because cartooning, like all other humor, comes from bad things happening. People will say, “Well why don’t you have Charlie Brown kick the football?” And I say, “Well, that would be wonderful, it’s happy, but happiness is not funny.” I wish we could all be happy, but it isn’t funny.
Schulz: All of the things that you see in the strip, if you were to read it every day and study it, you would know me.
Rose: To read your characters is to know you.
Schulz: Isn’t that depressing?
From the sketchbook of Adrian Tomine:
I went out to dinner with my wife at a sushi place in Brooklyn. Right as we were seated at our table, the couple at the adjacent table begins the following exchange:
WOMAN: So, did you read that book I gave you?
MAN: Which one?
WOMAN: The comic. Summer Blonde.
MAN: Oh, yeah. I hated it.
My wife and I locked eyes, like we couldn’t believe this was really happening. We sat there in silence, fakely looking through our menus while the guy proceeded to just eviscerate me in way that was not only cruel but also quite insightful and intelligent. The woman started to get kind of defensive, and she said, “Well, I don’t know. I thought the stories had kind of a nice poetic touch to them.” And that just set the guy off even further. He starts ranting, “No, no…you see? You’re falling for his bullshit! It’s not poetic! It’s like…he’s trying to seem poetic without really saying anything at all!”
I was absolutely paralyzed, and my wife couldn’t take it anymore. She asked the waitress to move us to another seat. They moved us to the sushi bar, but even from there, we could still hear snippets of the guy’s tirade. In particular, I remember hearing him say, “Oh, you must be joking. That was absolutely the worst story in the whole book!” When the couple finished their dinner and got up to leave, my wife started rising from her seat, apparently to give the guy “a piece of her mind.” I had to beg and plead and eventually physically restrain her from saying anything to him. The timing and coincidence of it all seems too implausible to believe, but I swear it’s true, and as far as I know, not some kind of elaborate prank.
Hysterical. Here’s another interview with The Believer.
Also, Chris Oliveros at D+Q posted another page of Lynda Barry’s upcoming “What It Is”:
Just in case anyone else is interested in my other favorite female cartoonists: Renee French, Julie Doucet, Hope Larson, Alison Bechdel, Roz Chast, Lilli Carré, and Jessica Abel. I probably left a ton out, but those are the ones I can think of.
Who are your favorites?
The drawing skills don’t matter. It’s can you get down on paper what’s in your head? And if you can in such a way that when I read it you’re opening up a new eye to the world for me or a new ear to the how people talk, or what have you…then it’s cookin’. It’s comics. And that’s all that matters.”
UPDATE 7/8/2011: Fantagraphics is putting out a collection of O’Connor’s cartoons, and I’ve archived a lot more here.
Few people know this, but Flannery O’Connor, one of my favorite writers, was also a cartoonist. She started out publishing cartoons in her high school and college newspapers, then tried to publish some in the New Yorker as a way to make money so that she could write her fiction. (That didn’t quite work out.) A few folks have noted that cartooning probably had some effect on writing her style: dig her grotesque caricatures and gift for combining the comic and the serious.
Flannery O’Connor’s first published works were her cartoons published in the Peabody Palladium, the student newspaper at O’Connor’s high school. According to the Palladium, by the end of 1941, O’Connor had written and illustrated three books about geese: Mistaken Identity, Elmo, and Gertrude, which O’Connor was unable to publish. The same article mentions Mary Flannery O’Connor’s school notebook, which was painted with oils and covered with cellophane. Around this same time O’Connor was also designing handmade lapel pins which were for sale at a local store in Milledgeville.
O’Connor’s career as a cartoonist continued at Georgia State College for Women when her cartoons began appearing as early as October 1942 in the college newspaper, the Colonnade. O’Connor’s cartoons depict humorous views of life on campus including , school performances, social activities, studying, and life on campus with the WAVES.
During her years at GSCW her cartoons appeared in almost every publication the college produced including the alumni magazine, the literary magazine, and on a weekly basis in the newspaper, the Colonnade. In 1944 O’Connor was appointed Art Editor of the college yearbook, the Spectrum, and designed numerous cartoons for the 1944-1945 yearbook, including the inside covers depicting campus scenes. In 1944 O’Connor also submitted cartoons to The New Yorker, but the magazine was not interested in publishing them.
Many of O’Connor’s published cartoons were linoleum-block prints. Linoleum-block printing involves cutting or etching an image on to a linoleum sheet. In O’Connor’s case, she attached the linoleum to a piece of wood, applied a solid color of ink to the linoleum cutting, and printed the image on to a piece of paper. The image was then printed in black and white in the final publication.
O’Connor’s interest in creating cartoons continued as she left home in 1945 to pursue a graduate degree in writing at The University of Iowa. Among O’Connor’s first courses at The University of Iowa were two courses in advanced drawing. She hoped to be able to support her writing by selling cartoons to national publications. O’Connor, however, was unable to sell any of her cartoons, at which time she began devoting all of her energy to writing.
“I don’t enjoy looking at these old pictures either, but it doesn’t hurt my reputation for people to think I’m a lover of fine arts.”
A little bit more in depth, from Melissa Simpson’s Flannery O’Connor:
Her cartoons, which she did with a more conventional charcoal or ink and paper technique, instead of linocut, appeared in nearly every [Colonnade] issue while she was a student, beginning in October 1942, and were popular with students. They also frequently satirized the Women Accepted for Voluntary Service (WAVES), who were stationed at GSCW when the U.S. Navy designated the campus as a site for clerical training, for their nonconformity and their disruption of the male-female ratios in Milledgeville. O’Connor was also often critical of students and faculty for their apathy and of the educational establishment in general for its promulgation of weak-mindedness. O’Connor did not reserve her critical eye for everyone but herself, however. In several of her cartoons, she pokes fun at herself, as in the one which portrays a social situation in which everyone is dancing except for a “bespectacled wall flower who grins behind her hand and asserts that she can always pursue a Ph.D.”
Aspects of O’Connor’s personality and interests that find their way into her later writings are also evident in her early visual work. For example, her signature on the Colonnade cartoons consists of her initials, MFOC, formed into the shape of a bird, a childhood interest that she kept throughout her life. Like her fiction, her cartoons demonstrate her ability to illuminate the absurdities of social convention or of simple everyday life with a combination of seriousness and humor. While many of the instructors and administrators at GSCW appear to have looked at her cartooning with some disdain, O’Connor held a different opinion of the artistic medium. Even though she came from the area’s “aristocracy,” she despised pretentiousness and saw cartooning as just as valid as writing, charcoal sketching, or oil painting….Although several of her contemporaries expected her to find fame through her visual art, that focus eventually shifted to a near total focus on her written art; however, Robert Fitzgerald has noted that she admired the work of New Yorker cartoonist George Price a great deal, and of all the books in her personal library, only one is about art: a book on French artist Honore Daumier whose work helped shape the work of many cartoonists.
Jean W. Cash’s Flannery O’Connor: A Life goes into even more detail about her college days:
During her three years at GSCW O’Connor produced a linoleum block cartoon for each issue of the Colonnade….[asked] to describe how she “went about her work”…O’Connor explained that “first–she caught her ‘rabbit.’ In this case…the ‘rabbit’ was a good idea, which must tie up with some current event of a recent happening on campus…”
Unfortunately, the two images above are the only ones I could find on the net…if anybody has other links, I’d love to see them.
My sketchbooks ebb and flow. Whenever I’m working non-stop on a project, my sketchbook suffers. Whenever I’m meandering, reading a lot, wondering what to do next, my sketchbook flourishes. Is there a correlation to my mental health? Almost certainly. Were food and shelter provided for me, I could be content to spend the rest of my days reading and doodling in a sketchbook, finished product be damned.
This afternoon I read Ivan Brunetti‘s interview in Todd Hignite’s IN THE STUDIO. He was talking a lot about grids, and how if you put objects into a grid, they read as a system, or “pleasing geometry,” and viewers automatically start to structure them and find relationships between them. He pointed to this Kandinsky print as an inspiration:
He also related this “putting things into boxes” as part of his definition of cartooning:
The nature of cartooning seems inherently playful, having its roots in a playful kind of drawing, but because you’re putting things into boxes and organizing pages into panels and shapes of rectangles and circles, it automatically has an architectural quality, too.
I was talking to Dan Chaon a while back and he told me he uses an exercise with his students where he has them divide a piece of notebook paper into six “panels” and then instructs them to write scenes in each box. I really like this idea of looking at writing as merely a filling of black space. Lately, I’ve been playing with grids in my sketchbook pages:
(I’ve also been copying people’s work: the last five panels are ripped from the amazing Tom Gauld.)
I find that gridding gives way to lots of spontaneous doodling and gaglines…
I’ve also been trying to rip off Lynda Barry and treat my writing as calligraphically as possible–varying text sizes and styles within the same space. Brunetti had a great point in the interview when he said that cartooning wasn’t necessarily drawing, it was more like calligraphy or writing…writing with pictures, as Saul Steinberg would say.
Speaking of putting things into boxes, I can’t really keep a sketchbook at my desk at work, but we have all kinds of post-it notes around, so if there’s a bit of downtime and a flash of inspiration, I’ve been using the post-it as a panel, and doing a quick doodle. Jessica Hagy’s wonderful index cards have already captured the cartoon-on-mundane-office-supply market…but Meg thought these were pretty funny:
I have a confession to make. I haven’t been Working. I haven’t been Working, and I won’t be Working until sometime next year, when all this wedding craziness ends.
Does this bother me? Not as much as it should.
Actually, things have been quite pleasant. Minus the wedding anxiety dreams. Last night I had a dream that I overslept until five minutes before the ceremony, and my shirt wasn’t ironed, and I tripped over the power cord and severely burned my forearm, but instead of calling 9-11, I called my mom to make sure she stalled everybody until I could get there…
Now, I should be drawing this. I should be making cartoons of this.
But I don’t have a deadline to make. Thank you, baby Jesus.
There is an excellent Washington Post article today about the editorial process of selecting cartoons for the New Yorker and the new book, Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw and Will Never See In The New Yorker. In case you didn’t already now, even if you get a contract as a New Yorker cartoonist, your rejection rate on a good week is 80 or 90 percent — every week, New Yorker cartoonists send in 10 or more drawings, and at the very best, the editors pick one or two, at the very worst, they reject them all.
It’s tough being a cartoonist.
…these drawings are really my journals. I use them to explore whatever I find interesting, confusing, or upsetting on any given day. But here’s the beauty part—these private thoughts are filtered through the prism of moody children and blasé pets, disillusioned middle-aged men and weary matrons, among others. And so I get to work through whatever I am thinking about in a coded way. No one but me will ever know what the real seed of each image and caption was. So I can be as free as I want to say whatever I want, and no one can catch me. It’s great.