Saturday, March 12, 2005

Another Classic

If you've never noticed the similarity between Watterson and Hemmingway, it's finally made clear.

I am on the hunt. My hands feel gritty against the stock of my rifle. Sweat and dirt have tightened my grip. I turn to my faithful friend, Hobbes.

“Do you have the scent of the prey?”

“What prey?”

“An antelope. A buck, I’d prefer. I think we should climb that hill. We can settle in a bower and wait, just as we did that time in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.”

“Sure, what ever you want to do, Calvin. But don’t you think that your dad will be upset with your taking his gun?”


Disquieting Speculation

Political comic Will Durst speculates on frogs and hot water:

Ever since I was but a tadpole I've been hammered under the weight of this urban myth about putting a frog into a pot of water at room temperature then slowly raising the flame. Supposedly, the frog continues to acclimate itself to the heat until it finally boils to death. I have questions. First off, who goes to the trouble of boiling one frog at a time? Smacks of wastefulness, not to mention the macabre. Do you need to keep hitting the frog in the head with a slotted wooden spoon to keep him submerged or can he loll about with his little front arms over the edge of the pot like a pool patron in search of a towel?

That Awkward Age

I've been drawing Spot off and on since 1990. Here's a drawing from the first year that can't be explained by puberty. Spot's one year old, an especially awkward age when the artist doesn't know how to draw him.

Something Old Is New Again

Sometimes a change can seem new, but is actually a return to the past; if not in look, in spirit. Courtesy of Peter Sanderson at

Look back at some of the examples I gave of successful reworkings of classic comics characters. After the debacle of the "camp" TV Batman of the 1960s, Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams, among others, returned "the" Batman to his roots as a dark, driven avenger. They did not simply recreate the look and style of the Batman stories of the late 1930s and 1940s, which would have seemed dated, but found a way to translate the essence of the character and those kinds of stories into contemporary forms. The O'Neil-Adams Batman was new, innovative, and cutting edge at the same time that it was a homage to the character's classic past. John Byrne's motto, whether he is merely ridding a series of accumulated, irrelevant clutter (as in Fantastic Four or his new Blood of the Demon), or rebooting the continuity from scratch (as in The Man of Steel), has always been "back to the basics." And Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films are acclaimed for capturing the spirit of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original comics stories in a contemporary cinematic framework.

It'll be interesting to see if Buzz Bunny is somehow more Bugs, than Bugs has been for the last few decades.

We All Change

In the last few months, I've gained some weight. In the last few years, I've lost some hair.

We all change.

Even cartoons aren't safe from the passing years. Look at Bob Clampett's Bugs Bunny and Chuck Jones's Bugs Bunny. Look at Steamboat Willie Mickey and Fantasia Mickey. Look at early Snoopy and later Snoopy.

Look at Spot.

I knew this would happen. But I didn't think it would happen so quickly. In less than a year's time, Spot began to favor oval eyes on the verge of tipping over, and a fatter mouth. Clearly the usual metamorphosis of changing from egg to tadpole to frog wasn't enough.

I mention this because there will be a Spot book in the next year, and I'm feeling a little embarrassed by the alteration in Spot's appearance.

Perhaps I should think of it as puberty. When a pudgy boy squeezes through puberty it's no surprise when a tall and thin boy stumbles out. It's startling, but not surprising.

If Spot starts shaving, that will be surprising.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Funny & Familiar

Here's an insightful post from The Comics Reporter on getting syndicated.

It's said that the early episodes of the television show M*A*S*H always had a scene with the doctors in the operating room, because it was believed if they didn't show the costs of war on every episode, audiences would be like to forget about it. Similarly, comic strips have to explain themselves to an audience for a time before they can rely on their audience's knowledge of the characters to be part of the joke.

Take Calvin and Hobbes. After a few years of his popular run, Bill Watterson could make his readers laugh simply by showing a picture of Calvin grinning from ear to ear. It was funny because readers knew Calvin, and could tell by an expression that something mischievous and funny was on the way. But early in the strip's run, before audiences got to know him, Watterson wrote jokes that in addition to being funny explained who Calvin was. At his most daring, he might do a joke that depended on Calvin being a little kid and saying something that might not typically come out of a little kid's mouth -- because any reader could see with a glance that Calvin was a little kid. But he could not count on readers knowing his characters the way he knew them, not for a while.

Each strip in your submission should be funny if it's the very first strip someone reads.

Though some readers might find this surprising, I try to be funny with most of my strips. The tricky part -- aside from writing the punchline -- is reminding myself that not everyone is as familiar with Spot the Frog as, say, the guy who writes it.

That demands a degree of backstory that shouldn't feel like backstory. For example, when Norm entered Cheers and delivered his dour commentary, that might have seemed like a five second throwaway, a little joke to get us closer to the actual story. But in those five seconds you learned a lot about Norm. After a season of Norm shambling into the bar and grumbling en route to his stool, his character seemed as solid as the actor playing him.

In time, just seeing Norman made you smile. You could imagine what he might say, or what he was thinking.

When a comic strip character begins to wear his personality on his sleeve, that's when the familiar becomes funny. But until that happens, let the funny be familiar.

[disclaimer: I can't comment on the mechanics of writing and drawing a strip without mentioning that I submitted for 13 years before becoming syndicated, and I've only been syndicated for a year. That's a lot of rejection, and not a lot of experience. So take everything I say with a grain of salt and any other spice well-equipped to put things in perspective.]

Thick Skins

At first glance, this seemed an odd assembly: Hippos in Magazine Cartoons. I came across this support group while Googling information on Michael Maslin, one of my favorite single-panel cartoonists. I didn't find much, beyond his presence at The New Yorker, and thanks to a hippo in one of his cartoons, a chair at HIMC. It turns out that the page of hippo cartoons belonged to a larger site celebrating the hippo in all things.

But the First Chair belonged to James Thurber with this cartoon:

This is one of the earliest cartoons I remember from my elementary school days. The first thing I noticed was the uncanny resemblance between a hippo and a large dog. The second thing I noticed was the vicious and sweet quality of a Thurber cartoon -- which is a fine description of syndication. You create your strip -- that's the sweet part -- and then you present it to the public (still sweet) and wait for its comment. The critique can be vicious (that's the vicious part), and it's not always easy to hear.

I know that elephants are artists, and I wouldn't be surprised if Hippos shared the same nature.

That would explain their thick skin.

Hey, Look!

This is a comic I've seen in bits and pieces, but never whole. There's a book collection if you'd like to get the full eye-experience, but in the meanwhile you can sample 154 pages at the Cartoonist Group.

If you'd like to buy the book, I see that used copies are priced to sell at Amazon for $246.99. But, alas, not to me.

This is work Harvey Kurtzman did before MAD. But there's MAD in every panel.

Another cartoonist who carries on in the manic spirit of Kurtzman is Keith Knight. Word and art would leap from the page and bite the nearest finger were it not for the safeguard of two-dimensions.

And speaking of words, I was reading a thread on the importance of a cartoonist's lettering at Darrin Bell's Toon Talk board. Though I occasionally fantasize about the apparent ease of using a font, it's hard to imagine a Knight cartoon having the same lunging impact if the letters didn't leap from his pen.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Tick Tock

A confession: I've never read a Tick comic. I watched the Tick live action program and shrugged a shoulder.

But the Saturday morning cartoon?

Loved it. One episode in particular sticks in my mind -- or sticks as well as anything does -- featuring a villian who was a sentient corn stalk or some such thing -- And now I discover it's available on DVD. I'm blue with envy.

[Update: Mike Bannon, who has a sharper eye than mine, pointed out that the above DVD is a bootleg compilation, and can be had at a better price at ebay, to pass the time while waiting for an official release.]

And here's my chance to correct my Tick illiteracy:

As The Tick would say:

Dry And Finished

Because this is for print, I use CMYK colors. When I squeeze it through the press for a RGB conversion, the colors shift a bit. So what you see isn't actually what I finished (for example, that bit of branch in the upper left should be brown, not a mix of green and orange; that's how it looks on my screen, anyway), but you get the gist. I'm sure there's a way to make conversions with more fidelity, but right now I'm like the chimp who hasn't figured out that a wet stick poked into an ant hill will yield fruit, and possibly some ants.

Eye Of The Beholded

Here's a photo to set a frog salivating. Click on the header for a larger image. I thought the fly's eye was gorgeous and disquieting; like spying a rock with a pulse. Mary thought it looked like a stone in a ring.


Dotting the T's, Crossing the I's

I think the line art's finished. Right now I'm wondering about the wording in the final panel. Then I color the art and send it off to United Media.

Also, I'm listening to the Lost Treasures CD I mentioned a week or so ago, the collection of unpublished Herb Alpert songs. I feel like I'm back in fifth grade, learning to play the trumpet (or not play, according to my music teacher.)

Today's Entertainment

Two things have occupied me today. The first is a Spot sunday. The above is cropped from the rough; the topic is Mud Season. The second distraction is blogger, which prevented me from posting. It may still prevent me from posting. I won't know until I hit the button. Life has more in common with a James Bond movie than you might think. It all comes down to punching the right button. Will it fire the missle, stop the bomb, ring a doorbell.

Here goes:

Out Of Sync

A good way
to start the day is with a 59 second clip of The Jetson's theme. Not only is it jazzy, it epitomizes the creative process.

To begin with, here are the lyrics:
Meet George Jetson.
His Boy Elroy.
Daughter Judy.
Jane his wife.
Creativity often begins with a bare idea, and these lyrics are as spare as a desert bone.

The other end of the scale: chaos. Writing a dozen ideas to find one that works. Sketching a snow drift of roughs to find the right picture. Shaking it all down so the pieces come together. I tried to find a more authorative source for the following, but I couldn't immediately find it, and I'm behind deadline, so I'll settle for paraphrase and addled memory. When the song was recorded, the track for the strings was slightly out of sync with the score. This wasn't intentional, but they let it be because the whirlwind of violins was wild, exciting, over the top.

Sometimes chaos is just chaos and noise. And sometimes it isn't. Creativity is knowing the difference.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Non-light table Blue

Now that I've bragged about my light table, I'll show you a studio that doesn't depend on one, courtesy of Mike Philly's blog, Draw!

As I mentioned, my lamp is fluorescent, with a hum that knots my muscles -- the almost subliminal buzz forecasts a train crashing through my office wall, if my life were a movie, or if I had poor taste in real estate. His method of printing out the pencils -- my roughs -- as a non-photo blue looks soothing.

Frogs And Sidekicks

Every hero needs a sidekick. Sometimes the sidekick is a frog, or a frog in name only.

According to this site, sidekick originates from a character in an O. Henry short story (The Cisco Kid and his sidekick, Pancho, first appearing in "The Caballero's Way," in the July 1907 Everybody's Magazine), and this site points to the collection Heart of the West. But according to Schmik at, Henry might have known the term this way:

American pickpockets once called the side pants pockets side-kicks. These are the hardest pockets to pick because they are closest to the hands of a victim and are constantly moving with the motions of the legs. Therefore, any man wise to the ways of pickpockets kept his wallet in his trusty side pocket, or side-kick.

Side-kicker thus became a slang word for a faithful buddy, a partner who is always at one's side. O. Henry First recorded the term in one of his stories in 1904 and about ten years later side-kicker was shortened to sidekick.

And there you go: a faithful Buddy is a sidekick. I suspected as much, but a second opinion is always appreciated.

Sidekicks predate the Western story and movie -- I don't recall Watson with a ten-gallon hat, or Robin Hood firing a rifle -- but it took a Frog to make the word stick.

Ask Not For Whom The Lamp Buzzes

I'd like to report that I draw my strip on a finely-tooled desk the size of a couch, or that my light table is a frosty miniature of a skating rink tipped on its edge. But it's actually a cheap drawing table -- I believe it was advertised for school kids or budding artists -- with a sheet of plexiglass propped on it, and a humming lamp slipped beneath it. It's actually an upgrade from my old light table, which consisted of a turntable's acrylic lid on my lap, and the desk lamp swiveled down to shine up from below.

It's not a coincidence that Rube Goldberg -- famed for proving that a kite, some moths, and an electric iron were as good as a pencil sharpener -- was a cartoonist.

You, Too, Can Build A Punchline

If you've been antsy since January 7 (when this strip ran) to build an igloo of your own, here's a primer. I'm not sure if it's mentioned, but the construction will probably go best if you use a special snow saw, and if you're not using it in Florida.

Pen Jazz

I'm not the first person to set jazz and cartooning on the same shelf. The common element is improvisation. It's what you create when you pick up your ax or your pen (though in some cases the ax is the pen. Or a chainsaw.)

This comes from Ward-O-Matic, the blog of Ward Jenkins. He gained some notoriety awhile back when he illustrated how The Polar Express could have been easier on the eyes and brain. I like his jazz illustration because it captures something you won't generally find in a comic strip, but will always find in good animation -- the synchronization of many hands to form the illusion of one.

And considering his other non-blog employment, it's not surprising that his drawing evokes this so perfectly.

Inside Jokes

Mark Anderson does a bold Show & Tell with his single-panel cartoons, footnoting several with commentary on why they didn't work.

I could go on the road with my own show of misguided, mishandled and misconceived cartoons. But I'd have a hard time finding an audience.

Here's one I never sold, out of hundreds that never sold.

I don't think it's a bad cartoon. But it's one that amuses me more than any editor.

Ice Out, Ice In

Spot the Frog features frogs that can inflate into balloons, turn into snowballs, and in one instance, develop an infatuation for Marg Helgenberger.

This strikes me as perfectly normal.

(Spot's compressed profile is the result of holding back a burp that might reveal to C.S.I. that he's eaten a leftover snowman, which soon leads to the resurrection of the Headless Snowman -- though I suppose that all goes without saying.)

But a while ago I wrote a series on Spot's pond thawing out. I was ready to draw them when I noticed that the strips would run in mid-March, which is generally too soon for New Hampshire lakes and ponds to shake off their ice. I found a website that showed early April as the more likely date for emancipation.

It's funny how poetic license extends more easily to burping frogs than to thawing ponds.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

If It Sounds Like A Burp

I got an email the other day from a reader who suggested that frogs don't burp. I don't know for a fact that they do, and I don't know for a fact that they don't. But I do know for a fact that Spot does. In an early Spot strip from last year, Spot reveals that the chorus of frog song Karl hears at the pond is actually a chorus of burping.

(my apologies for the especially grusome pose Spot assumes in the third panel -- I was still working out my burp visual shorthand.)

In the spirit of research beyond the strip, I Googled frogs and burping and came up with this, this, and this.

From what I know, burping is the result of gas; either produced from what you eat, or by the air you swallow. If you chew fast with your mouth open, it could be both.

Spot's talents don't end with burping, by the way, though they occasionally overlap:

Looking For Signs

Another sure sign of spring arrives March 25, shrewdly spotted by The Frog of the Wild.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Say A Little More

Contrary to Spot's instruction, sometimes it's better to say a little more. After I wrote today's strip and sent it to the syndicate, I discovered that the punchline was clear as water to me but mud for all others. And since I try not to live in a solipsistic world, I clarified the joke in the last panel and sent it to the syndicate -- too late, it turns out. So for completists and my yen for clarity, click on the above for the revised strip.