Funny Business: The National Cartoonists Society 2018
“Monet had his lily pads. I had my Ninja Turtles.” Will Henry was showing members of the National Cartoonists Society pictures he drew as a child, from the scratchy crayon drawings of a pre-schooler to more skillful ones he drew as an eight-year-old, already showing the eye for detail and draftsmanship that would lead him to become a professional comic strip artist. His Wallace the Brave is inspired in part by his childhood in an ocean side Rhode Island town. It follows a young boy and his friends as they play, argue, have fun, and learn about the world. Henry (real name William Henry Wilson) says the themes of the strip are “family, friendship, ocean, nature, kindness.” The visual style was also in part inspired by the Where’s Waldo books, which give kids so much to look at. “I want kids to explore with their eyes.” Like the other cartoonists who spoke at the three-day event in Philadelphia, Henry also has to consider the various platforms people will use to read Wallace the Brave, to make sure that the jokes, the word balloons, and the pictures are as accessible on a cell phone as they are on the page.
We also heard about The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee, a genre-blending comic strip by John Hambrock. In the guise of a charming story about a very bright little boy and his friends, Hambrock told the group, he balances “science, social commentary, and super silly.” A bright girl character named after scientist Rosalind Franklin is included to allow for exploration of some gender issues, too.
There were many examples of the combination of enduring themes, the history of comic illustration, and new issues and technologies that came up in the presentations at the annual gathering. The MAD Magazine panel featured legends Nick Meglin, Sam Viviano, and Sergio Aragones, along with relative newcomers Tom Richmond and Ryan Flanders, MAD historian Grant Geissman, and new Executive Editor Bill Morrison, immoderately moderated by comics/animation pantomath Mark Evanier.
It was notable how many people on the panel and in the audience mentioned that they first saw MAD in a friend’s basement — and how many said it was a life-changing moment that shaped their idea of humor as inherently and delightfully subversive. That was evident in Evanier’s introduction of the editor as “interloper/carpetbagger Bill Morrison.” He and the staff are working out of MAD’s new California location after 66 years in New York, much of it on MADison Avenue.
Viviano, Richmond, and Meglin said that what makes MAD’s movie and television parodies work is that the caricatures are all in service to the story. “Just getting a good likeness of Jack Nicholson is not enough. We don’t need a damn good artist. We need a damn good storyteller,” Meglin explained. Viviano said, “It’s not enough to draw a celebrity. Tell the story and get the gags.” They talked about MAD’s history of ad parodies. “We were making fun of the advertisers,” said Viviano, “not the products.” He noted that advertisers responded, with a new era of self-aware, slightly snarky commercials starting in the 1960's.
Morrison talked about bridging the past and future of MAD. “I think about how I felt as a kid discovering MAD. We want readers to have that same sort of thrill. As an illustrator myself, I want artists who make me jealous and kick my butt all the way down the street.” His list of the essentials for any issue of MAD: Alfred E. Neuman, Spy vs. Spy, TV and movie parodies, “A MAD Look At…” some part of American culture, marginal drawings, and the legendary MAD fold-in created by Al Jaffe, the Guinness world record holder as the longest-working cartoonist at age 97. “Without any of those, it isn’t MAD anymore.” He’s now looking for the MAD essentials of the future. And while they are still inundated with submissions from people who write, “My friends all say I should be in MAD!” Morrison finds new talent online, from the smart, funny people who create web comics and viral tweets.
The NCS meeting always blends the past and future with presentations by new young comic artists and oral histories of the classics. One panel featured the sons of three men behind some of the most beloved comic strips in history: Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois — did you know, by the way, that Lois is Beetle’s sister and that the earliest days of the strip had Beetle pre-Army days as a slacker college student?), Dik Browne (Hagar the Horrible), and John Cullen Murphy (Prince Valiant).
Cullen Murphy, who wrote the strip his father illustrated for 25 years, has a marvelous new book, Cartoon County, about the Connecticut cartoonists, dozens of artist and illustrators who had to be close enough to New York to bring their portfolios in to magazine editors for the weekly “look day,” but wanted to live in the suburbs. He showed us some of the photos his father took for reference, using himself and his family as models for his very detailed, thoroughly researched drawings of knights, ladies, jousting tournaments, and castles. Greg and Brian Walker and Chance Browne, who took over their fathers’ strips, reminisced with Murphy about growing up in a community that was all about “cartoons, church, cocktails, and golf,” where all the parents were witty and all the dads could draw.
A panel of women comic artists moderated by Pulitzer and Reuben award-winner Ann Telnaes included legends Lynn Johnston (For Better or Worse) and Cathy Guisewite (Cathy), along with “alternative” (naughty) greeting card pioneer Barbara Dale, Sandra Bell-Lundy (Between Friends), and Jan Eliot (Stone Soup). Johnston said she began doing cartoons for the ceilings of OB-GYN offices, to give women something to look at while they were being examined. Guisewite talked about “food, love, mother, and career” as “the four basic food groups” of her strip, and her “two-Betty” influences: Crocker and Friedan.
Jennifer George is the granddaughter of Rube Goldberg, who designed the top trophy given out each year, called the Reuben in his honor. She discussed her popular new STEM-friendly children’s book, Rube Goldberg’s Simple Normal Humdrum School Day, illustrated by Ed Steckley, and the invention contests inspired by Goldberg’s machines for accomplishing simple tasks in many complicated and very funny steps.
A panel that attracted a lot of interest was devoted to adapting comics for film and television. Cartoonists, used to working alone and making all the decisions themselves, had some challenges in adapting to the group-centered and bureaucratic world of television and movies. And there was a lot of frustration in being told that what they considered the essence of the worlds they created was not right for a different kind of storytelling. Pointedly, Lynn Johnston was told that her stories needed to be edgier (Couldn’t Elizabeth get a job as a pole dancer?) while Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead needed to be less edgy (Does he really need to wear a polka dot muumuu?). “They wanted to de-weird-ize Zippy,” Griffith said. The panelists said despite the frustrations, their comic strips improved from the experience. Having to do detailed schematics of their settings, create story arcs, and work with other writers taught them a lot. And they enjoyed the envy of writers who were amazed to hear how much freedom they had (“Who gives you notes?” “Uh, no one.”) until they asked, “And how much time do you get off?” Cartoon strips run every day, which means that cartoonists work every day.
And there’s always a lot of discussion about drawing at NCS, from demonstrations of the latest technology from Wacom to trading tips on pen nibs, inks, and paper. There was a murmur of appreciation when Steckley explained that publisher Charles Kochman insisted that the Goldberg book’s illustrations all had to be hand-drawn. As cartoonist Nick Galifianakis said, “Using Command Z [as in Photoshop, to erase a mistake]when learning to draw compromises your mental approach as there’s little chance you’ll follow a mistake into new territory. It’s fine to use it once you know what you’re doing (akin to the way Rockwell used photography after he learned how to draw — and I should say, I still prefer the pre-photo Rockwell). Otherwise the safety net of Command Z eliminates the certainty of accidents, which is one of the primary ways we push our boundaries and discover our voices.”
A highlight of the NCS gatherings is always hearing about what one cartoonist called the “may a bus run over you” hate mail, which the cartoonists almost always accept with equanimity, and sometimes with delight. After all, as one said, if the readers didn’t care so much, they would not take the time to write. I note that the last two Saturday editions of the Washington Post’s “Free for All” letters page both had comments about Mark Trail, one fiercely against, the other just as fiercely for.
The caricaturist expert panel members each recalled their subjects’ angriest reactions. Caricatures “squeeze and stretch.” They amplify and exaggerate. And some subjects object very strongly. MAD’s Tom Richmond recalled a page he did of the cast members of HBO’s The Sopranos, with star James Gandolfini in the center. The producer liked it so much he asked to have a copy, and Richmond said he would be glad to send it, and would appreciate it if the actors would autograph a copy for him as well. It came back with the signatures of the performers in the drawing, except for Gandolfini, who just scribbled a message to the man whose portrait he did not find flattering: “F*** you.”
Attendees included not just comic strip artists and writers but also gag cartoonists from the New Yorker and other outlets, political cartoonists, and animators. Sometime cartoonist Jake Tapper accepted the Amateur Cartoonist Extraordinaire award given to celebrities who have a special connection to cartooning. And the annual event’s top prize, the Reuben, went full circle, underscoring the real and psychic family ties in the world of cartoonists. It was presented to animator Glen Keane (The Little Mermaid, Tangled, Rapunzel). In 1982, the same prize was awarded to his father, Bil Keane of Family Circus, now drawn by Glen’s brother Jeff.