The blog is settling into a new cozy location, on the actual Center for Cartoon Studies server, and I can tell you it is ever so glad to be there. Now at cartoonstudies.org, our gentle blog will be closer to the homepage, where you can find all the latest in CCS news and events, as well as links and information about the school. There Visiting Artist Blog will join her fair sister, the Schulz Library Blog, where you can catch a glimpse of the goings-on at the CCS library, and take a peak into our ever-expanding collection of comics and related ephemera.
When he was still in high school, Stuck Rubber Baby author Howard Cruse made his first stabs at a career in cartooning. Having absorbed the lessons of the Famous Artists cartooning course, he submitted sample strips to every comics syndicate he could find. He was dogged and determined, developing no fewer than five strips. As an adult, he can understand why none of them were picked up. One was obviously derivative of Nancy, another was blatantly indebted to The Little King, and there was even one strip starring a girl who turned out to be nothing more than Charlie Brown in drag. But, the young Cruse persevered.
After studying theater in college, and an aborted attempt at “making it” in New York in the early ‘70s, he returned to his roots in Birmingham, Alabama, where he worked in the art department at a TV station. Still itching to make his way into the funny papers, he created a new strip called Tops & Button. Every day featured the same vertical panel, with a simple hollow tree toward the right, and two squirrels poking their heads out of holes in the trunk.
At first the two squirrels were as diagrammatic and identical as the rows of dancing mice in a Fleischer brothers cartoon, just ovals heads seen in profile, their necks thrusting out of perfectly circular holes. Tops (on top) had two long hairs, and Button had buckteeth, but otherwise they were twins. The early gags were corny and inoffensive, the better to work their way into a Birmingham paper. Eventually, though, the jokes took on a psychological and philosophical nature, and as Tops and Button found their voices, they also found their look, and gained individual personality and style. The work took on a life of its own.
Encouraged by his local success, Cruse started to work out a new strip, called Barefootz. Barefootz was a man with enormous bare feet who felt constrained by the workaday world. The characters had the big heads and little bodies demanded by a daily strip’s cramped proportions. They found their way, though, in the larger format of underground anthologies. The Barefootz world expanded and the storylines became more personal, particularly when a struggling artist character named Headrack came out. To Cruse, Headrack had always been a stand-in for himself, and he’d always known the character was gay, just as he is.
An openly gay character in any medium was practically unheard of at the time, and Denis Kitchen tapped Cruse to edit a new anthology simply called Gay Comix. As his notoriety increased, Cruse made his way back to New York, and the gay-themed alternative weekly The Advocate commissioned him to develop a new comic featuring gay characters. He created Wendell, about a bright-eyed young man in an anonymous and his diverse set of friends. Although the style was less cute than Barefootz, the hero was still a clear optimist. Says Cruse, “I don’t like cynicism. I’m as skeptical as the next guy, but I’m not cynical.”
In the early ‘90s, Cruse signed on with an imprint of DC Comics to make a graphic novel addressing the Civil Rights movement in the South of the 1960s. To him, this book was a shot across the bow of the aggressively selfish Reagan-Bush era that was so dismissive of the more hopeful period a generation earlier. But the subject matter was raw and gritty, and Cruse felt it couldn’t be addressed in the open style of his earlier work. He decided that texture and skin color needed to be applied with a dense crosshatching technique, and advised today’s aspiring cartoonists at CCS to “surrender to what your story demands, even I that contradicts what your lazier side wants to do.” Although this meant that a book he figured would take two years to draw wound up taking four, the awards and acclaim won by Stuck Rubber Baby were worth the toil. His graphic novel was an achievement this cartoonist doesn’t intend to try to match, saying “at heart I’m a bigfoot cartoonist, and nothing could make me happier than drawing a person slipping on a banana peel.”
Joe Sacco traveled to the Middle East for the first time in 1992 and came away from Israel and the occupied territories with the material that would make up his groundbreaking 2-part comic book series Palestine. An accessible, thoughtful, and moving book of Middle East political journalism achieved through the innovative use of comics, Palestine won an American Book Award. Sacco’s first major follow-up to the book was titled Safe Area Gorazde and based upon Sacco’s recent travels to the war-torn region. It received major attention from the mainstream press, such as TIME magazine, The New York Times, and NPR.
When someone like Tom Gammill comes to CCS and talks about comedy, a student is sure she’ll listen. When the speaker’s resumé includes writing for Bill Murray-era Saturday Night Live, then Seinfeld, Monk, and The Simpsons, she’d better pay attention. And when he comes packing a hilariously curated selection of vintage promises, tidbits and advice on How to Make Lots of $$ in Comics, she takes notes. She might not be able to discover the secret of an extremely lucrative career in cartooning, but she certainly will pick something up about finding knee-slapping humor in the ludicrous and the mundane.
Gammill also showed his own videos featuring a dopey alter ego in a series called Learn to Draw with Tom Gammill. The inept and overconfident cartoonist character doles out wisdom and demonstrates with marker drawings on oversized pads. He sometimes understands the iceberg’s tip of information on designing characters, finding inspiration, and occassionally drawing, but he always misses the vast underwater mountain of understanding, personal voice, and true comedy. He refuses to accept that what he’s doing isn’t working, and insults from his family, friends and other, more respected cartoonists wash over him with no apparent effect. Which is hilarious.
The Learn to Draw series was inspired by the Writers Guild strike of 2007 and 2008, when many TV writers looking for something to do after they’d hit the picket line for the day turned to producing their own web videos outside of the studio system. Gammill had wanted to be a cartoonist his whole life, and his comics ran in small magazines while he was in school, and eventually in the Harvard Lampoon in college. He collected instructional books on comics as a kid, devouring their lessons and guaranteed recipes for fame and success. And so, he decided to make a YouTube series featuring a terrible cartoonist lecturing the youth about how to be a terrible cartoonist. Then he thought he might as well make an actual comic strip, and make it as funny as he could, and pitch it to syndicates while he was at it. Thus, The Doozies was born, a comic conjoined to its video twin. “Among TV writers, I was a pretty good cartoonist,” said Gammill, “It wasn’t until I started to actually make cartoons that people started to tell me I suck.” However, with success on GoComics.com, and with increasing popularity on YouTube, he was able to convince a handful of newspapers to run his strip.
He only got into writing for TV when, soon after graduating from Harvard, a Saturday Night Live producer asked him and Lampoon-mate Max Pross to pitch a script together. They’ve been partners ever since, working on some of the best-loved and most memorable TV comedies of the century, but they couldn’t have scored all their successes without mounting piles of flops and failures. Gammill encouraged CCS students to prepare to fail, and to keep failing. He also promoted taking creative and professional risks, saying “You’ve got to get used to getting yelled at. I still get yelled at.” These might be the same dictates by which a certain cartoonist, from a certain instructional YouTube series, lives.
For good measure, Gammill advised his pupils to save their money, when they make it. Perhaps his best recommendation, though, was to keep a small comedy journal. It shouldn’t be filled with things that strike you as funny, but things that make you mad or confused. This may well be the key to compelling humor.
The day after his talk, CCS students got to help Gammill shoot a new episode of his Learn to Draw with Tom Gammill web series.
– Pat Barrett
photography by Jon Chad
The son of a Baptist minister, Howard Cruse was born in 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama. His proximity to that city’s racial turmoil during the early 1960s affected him deeply and ultimately provided the basis for his internationally acclaimed graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby. In 1979, Denis Kitchen asked if he would edit a new underground comic book series called Gay Comix. Editing and contributing to Gay Comix provided Cruse with a perfect opportunity to be totally open about his sexuality. Drawing with new honesty on his personal experiences as a gay man gave his work a heightened impls, leading to platforms for political satire in The Village Voice and an invitation from The Advocate, the national gay weekly, to create a new gay-themed comic strip exclusively for its pages.
In the midst of the infamous Golden Age project, Jodie Mack jolted energy into the Colodny classroom, just when the CCS first-year students would need it most! With a spunky, playful style, she introduced the differences between “character” and “experimental” animation, and how she hopes to connect a current between the twin halves of her beloved medium. She came bearing a handmade-looking Power Point presentation, and a bundle of cutout animations shot on film, or even made directly onto a film strip.
As she put it, “Most of the stuff I’m interested in, nobody’s heard of or cares about.” This is familiar territory for students of the graphic novel. She broadly defined the stuff she’s interested in as abstract more than representational, and more sensational than narrative. The catch-all term for this kind of stuff is experimental animation. Character animation is what shows up on TV and in movie theaters, whether it’s comedy or action, made for children or adults, and is usually made with a large team rather than an independent artist.
Of course, there is plenty of overlap between the two sects. There are the independent animated stories that used to thrive at touring animation shows in the ‘Nineties, and the godfather of experimental animators, Oskar Fischinger, worked for Disney creating the sparkles of Pinocchio‘s Blue Fairy and the semi-abstract introduction to Fantasia. Jodie Mack is currently working to expand these kinds of connections. One of her more recent independent films is a cut-paper musical about the difficulties of living the suburban American dream, called “Yard Work is Hard Work.” She uses experimental animation techniques, relying on magazine photos and tissue paper to tell her story, written and animated solo, but also embraces a popular form of narrative, the romantic musical.
Mack is an artist who draws with her scissors, and she hates to waste anything. This past summer, before relocating from Chicago to our area to teach animation at Dartmouth, she was possessed by the need to make films out of her scraps before she threw them away. So, amongst all the agita involved with moving cross-country, she found herself being accidentally prolific. Her short films sparkle with the same enthusiasm and love of life that she does in person, and they’re made to please a crowd. As she says, “the avant garde isn’t just for Black Turtlenecks.” You can see some of her work at vimeo.com/jodiemack/, but she isn’t fond of the lo-fi, small screen restrictions of the web, and prefers the live film experience, and interactive sing-alongs. You might be able to catch her on tour or at a film festival near you.
Tom Gammill is a TV writer whose credits include “Saturday Night Live,” “Late Night with David Letterman,” “Seinfeld,” and “Monk.” He has been a Consulting Producer at “The Simpsons” since 1998. His syndicated comic strip “The Doozies” riffs on the clichés associated with comics and humor, and his related series of “How to Draw” videos finds him in the role of an inept but cheerful cartoonist/instructor.