Monday, January 4, 2010

Schulz Cartoonist-in-Residence Q&A

If you're in the neighborhood of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., next Saturday, January 9, drop by and say "Hi." I'll be their Cartoonist in Residence between 1 and 3 p.m.

I was disappointed to learn that despite the "in residence" part of the job description I don't actually get to sleep over for the night, nor rifle through the archives to pick out a few Schulz doodles that would look great over my mantel. Instead, I'll be sitting in the museum's neat little classroom upstairs, drawing and talking with anyone who pokes their heads in the door. I'm planning to show off some original art from Mom's Cancer and WHTTWOT, and the museum should have both books on hand to buy and sign. I'm expecting a very relaxed, low-key event. If nobody shows, I may pop some corn and use the room's AV system to watch the "Star Trek" DVD I got for Christmas. My only question: If I don't actually get to live in the museum, why did I have to pay a security deposit?

Anyway, in advance of my residency, the museum people sent me a list of questions that they'll use to prepare signs and such. I answered them this morning, and thought they'd make a fine dual-purpose blog post. Regular readers have already seen a lot of this stuff (especially my wife's joke about new talent), but every post may be someone's first. Here's what I wrote:

1. Tell us about your cartooning. Where can we find your work?

What I call my semi-professional cartooning career began in 2004 when I created the webcomic Mom's Cancer to tell the true story of my family's experience with my mother's diagnosis and treatment for cancer. The webcomic got some notice and won the 2005 Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic, the first year that award was given.

Mom's Cancer was published in hardcover by Harry N. Abrams in 2006. I followed that with a graphic novel titled Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, published by Abrams in 2009. That book is about the period of American history between the 1939 World's Fair and the end of the Apollo program, when people thought the future might actually be better than the past, and science and technology could help make it so. In addition to the Eisner Award, I won the Lulu Blooker Prize for the best comic that originated as Web content, the 2007 German Youth Literature Prize for the German edition of Mom's Cancer, and a 2007 Harvey Award for Best New Talent. My wife Karen says I look like the same old talent to her. Both my books are available from online booksellers and all quality bookstores.

2. When did you start drawing/cartooning?

Although I didn't get any notice for it until I was in my forties, like most people in this line of work I've been doing it as long as I can remember. I can't not do it.

In my late teens and early twenties I tried to find work in cartoons and comic books. Like most aspirants in most creative fields, I failed. I went on to do other things for which people would actually pay me, but always tried to maintain and improve my drawing skills, occasionally sending my work out into the world. I submitted comic strip ideas to newspaper syndicates and pencilling samples to comic book publishers, and got good feedback but no bites. For a few years after college I worked as a reporter for a small daily newspaper, where I published quite a bit of art and learned a lot about professional graphics--photostatting, color separations, etc. I illustrated a light bulb catalog once. When I got the notion to do Mom's Cancer as a comic, I was ready.

3. Where did you get your art training?

I'm largely self-taught in cartooning, although I took as much art as I could in both high school and college. My high school art teacher was very supportive, and I had some excellent university instructors. The best art class I ever took was Life Drawing, which broke a lot of bad habits that cartoonists tend to accumulate. Since college, my "training" has pretty much been buying "How To" books and experimenting with different media on my own.

4. What comics did you read as a kid?

I read all kinds of comics, both newspaper and comic books, and absorbed them all. Superman, Batman, Dick Tracy, Peanuts, Harvey Comics, Marvel Comics. I have a complete run of Marvel's "Avengers" series, which I began collecting when I was about 12.

I mentally split comics into two categories: those I simply discovered and enjoyed haphazardly as I grew up, and those I deliberately sought out later as I tried to learn about the history and craft of comics. A few, such as "Peanuts," fall into both categories: I loved them as a casual reader and then appreciated them as artistically and culturally important examples of the artform. My tastes are pretty mainstream. I missed the boat on underground and independent comix, which I only learned to appreciate much later, and have no feel at all for manga, which shames me in the eyes of my children. These are shortcomings I hope to overcome.

5. Who are your main influences today?

That's almost impossible to say. There are many people whose work I've admired and studied, including some who have nothing to do with comics. For example, I love the prose of E.B. White, and try to keep his clean, economical elegance in mind when I write.

The long, long list of comics creators whose work I'd say influenced mine would begin with Charles Schulz, Walt Kelly, Gus Arriola, Cliff Sterrett, Winsor McCay, John Buscema, Neal Adams, Jack Kirby, Julius Schwartz, Stan Lee, Curt Swan, Milton Caniff, George Herriman, Alex Raymond, Charles Addams, Jules Feiffer, and continue for another hundred pages.

You'll notice they're all "old school" creators who got to me when I was young. There are many contemporary writers and artists doing work I like, and many I try to learn from, but I wouldn't consider them influences in the sense that they affect my approach or style.

6. What is your day job? How do you balance your art and your day job?

I'm a self-employed science writer, which is a nifty way to combine my education and experience, and still give me time to cartoon. I majored in Physics in college, and worked at different times as a newspaper reporter, freelance journalist and environmental chemist, so a job that lets me stay home and write about science is just about perfect for me. My schedule is flexible enough that I can usually fit in cartooning, although never as much as I want. Despite my very fortunate circumstances, it's still a hard balance. My luckiest stroke of all is having a wife with a regular paycheck and good benefits, which allows me the flexibility to be self-employed in the first place.

7. How much time do you devote to drawing each week?

It varies a lot depending on where I am with a project. Sometimes months might go by with no drawing at all, while at other times I might have to draw 20 hours a day for two weeks. The writing and drawing parts of cartooning are really almost the same thing for me, which I think is a very important aspect of the job that people overlook.

Cartooning is primarily writing. It's storytelling. The prettiest pictures in the world are empty if they have no meaning. For example, I'm now writing the first draft of what I hope will be my third graphic novel and I've barely drawn a jot in weeks, but I still consider it cartooning. A cartoonist has to be able to do everything a writer does plus draw.

But the real answer to the question is that I never stop drawing. I go through reams of scrap paper and sticky notes every week, filled with sketches and doodles. Drawing is what my brain does when it's on idle.

8. What are you working on now?

I'm about halfway through the first draft of what I hope will be my third graphic novel. My editor at Abrams is very encouraging and says he's interested, but if they don't take it I'll find some outlet for it. It'll be straight fiction, which is a departure for me; Mom's Cancer was a memoir and Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? had a lot of historical nonfiction in it. It's a great story I'm very excited about. And that's all I'm saying about that!


Anonymous said...

Oh sure, pick a Saturday when we're out of town! Seriously, this sounds like a fun event and I envy the folks who are going to get to talk to you.--Marion

Brian Fies said...

But . . . but Marion! We talk all the time! You know I'm lousy at it!

Sherwood Harrington said...

Cool! You now have your very own FAQ!

And as for:

If I don't actually get to live in the museum, why did I have to pay a security deposit?

... haven't they had some experience with Pastis? That would explain it.

Namowal (Jennifer Bourne) said...

I was going to answer your security deposit question with a crack about Pastis...
...but Sherwood beat me too it.

By the way, I agree that storytelling is an important chunk of cartooning.