1987: The Epoch of the Cartoonist

In 1987, I wanted to be a cartoonist. That was a dream that persisted for a number of years. My parents even bought me a copyright for my silly little comic strip at the time, a comic called “Odds n’ Ends” featuring… I dunno, some nebulous gathering of hedgehogs, led by one ‘hog named Botch.

I am not, obviously, a cartoonist.

At some point, it occurred to me that I did not have the patience to learn how to draw, but I apparently did have the patience to learn how to write. Or, rather, learning how to write came naturally to me. Cartooning was ultimately just another form of storytelling (I used to make flip books and “comic books” where, for some reason, Pac-Man would fight the Aliens from the Alien series), and that’s why I did it. It wasn’t so much the drawing, or the three-panel set-up. It was a way that my brain wanted to tell stories.

Still, one of these days I’d like to learn how to properly draw. Now that my brain has matured to that of a proper 12-year-old, I figure I could handle the mighty load.

That, however, is not what this post is about.

Rather, it’s about how you best be good to your fans.

Eventually, I’ll amble around to the point.

Part of why I wanted to be a cartoonist is because I was a rabid fan of comic strips. I started off with Garfield — the equivalent of beginning your drug habit with a half-a-tab of Sudafed, maybe, but do you remember when Garfield didn’t suck? I do. The first several books had stories to them. Hell, whole storylines. In the late 80s, you had Garfield running away, Garfield awakening to a future where his house as abandoned and he was a ghost, Garfield tracking down his parents, all that. Big, interesting stories. I mean, for a comic strip about a fat, angry cat.

See, we used to go to the Jersey Shore every summer. Long Beach Island. Fun times, even with the medical waste. I wasn’t exactly a beach person, so mostly I hung out on a towel or chair and read. I read a shitload of Lloyd Alexander, but this bookstore in Surf City used to have a rather robust “humor” section, and from there I received my first tastes of Garfield, Calvin & Hobbes, Far Side, and… eff-yeah, Bloom County. These four comic strips informed (and continue to inform) my sense of storytelling and humor as much as, if not more than, anything I absorbed when I was a Wee Lad. I’m just realizing this recently, by the way. Sometimes, the bricks that build you are so deeply hidden, you can’t really see them unless you peel back the wallpaper now and again.

Garfield probably seeded in me a layer of mainstream humor, but it’s episodic storytelling also revealed how stories could be unfurled in such a way, in small arcs, in short, week-long punches.

Calvin & Hobbes, c’mon. What’d I learn? The anarchy of youth and the power of the imagination, I expect. This was a good storytelling strip, too, but it also had that great philosophical bent.

Far Side injected me with a healthy dose of absurdism. I didn’t always understand what I was seeing. Gary Larson sometimes demanded that your brain work in a different way, and that’s a good thing to learn. I have whole synaptic maps in my brain that, when viewed at a distance, probably form the image of a cow with a bee-hive hairdo and lipstick.

But, really, the cream of the crop was probably Bloom County.

Once again, I know I didn’t understand it all. It was intensely political at times, and I was 10-12 years old. The humor sometimes escaped me, but it forced me to keep up. You could argue that it actually did a very good job marrying all the elements of the three previously-mentioned comic strips. The absurdism of Bill the Cat, the sweet stories of Opus and his imagination, the anarchy of Milo and Binkley. Plus, you had those political elements, social issues, a little sexiness. Great. Yes. Sign me up. (Oh, and don’t think I didn’t have and adore the Billy and the Boingers EP.)

Okay, circling around to the point, now.

I loved these comic strips so much, I used to send letters to the creators. I was probably very annoying.

I don’t recall what I got back from Larson and Watterson, though to be honest I don’t believe I ever got anything from them. (Not surprising, perhaps, as both have a bit of a reputation for being a bit odd and standoffish. Hell, Watterson won’t even communicate with the outside world or give interviews. People see the Yeti more often than they see him.)

From Jim Davis, I got a form letter. Signed by him, by the looks of it, but a form letter.

From Berkeley Breathed, I got…

Well, these.

Berkeley Breathed, Letter #1

Berkeley Breathed, Letter #1

Personal letters from the creator. Signed by the creator.

That meant a lot to a creative little idiot like me. Things like that keep you going.

So, that’s the message. Be good to your fans. You might further inspire them with your humanity. You might give them a boost when they need it. They’ll damn sure keep supporting you. I don’t think it’s the creator’s job to interact with fans in this way. It’s no obligation or necessity. But it’s what maybe separates you from the others. People will remember you above all others.

Read more from Berkeley Breathed, if you like, over at the Onion’s AV Club. Great interview.

4 comments

  • I had a similar experience with Zilpha Keatley Snyder just a few years ago. I realized that two books I’d adored as a child (The Headless Cupid and The Egypt Game) were written by the SAME PERSON, and then I tracked her down on the web and told her she’d probably contributed to my literary delinquency. And that, as a child, I’d made my mom check out the records of her books again and again from the library. So she wrote back and, well, y’know. It was sweet. A connection. Validating.

    -G.

    • See, that’s the greatest thing. The connection forward and backward. I figure most writers and creators are pretty happy when that kind of connection happens — but, not all of them will really embrace it, either. (And, given that some creative people are just cranky or batshit crazy, they might not even be happy with it in the first place.)

      — c.

  • That would explain why you were so gracious with my fangirly ramblings about your blog. (Other than you being cool in general, obviously.) Good on ya for paying it forward. :)

    I’ll have to dig through my old letters and see if I ever got any responses to some of my childhood fan letters. (You’d think I’d remember something like that vividly, but brain/nerve damage does funny things to the memory. Oh, well.) I do know I got an AWESOME personalized letter and autographed photo from Erin Brockovich in college, though. I was a stage hand for one of her appearances, and though we chatted for a few minutes before she went on stage, I never thought in a million years she’d remember me. . .but she did. It gives me all kinds of warm fuzzies to this day. :)

    • I’m not gracious. I hate all you people. You’re like rats in my walls. Always scritching. Always scratching. One day I’ll come after you people. With poison. And traps. And a giant cat.

      Okay, not really. I don’t have a giant cat.

      MOOHOOHAHAHA.

      Ahem. What I mean to say is, “Yes! Thanks for visiting!”

      — c.

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