2008/04/18 – Cartoons

Nancy questioning questioning authority.

Postmodern tautology? Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy

I wanted to be a cartoonist when I was a young boy. This was after I realized that I could draw in kindergarten. When it came time to draw a house, I’d draw a house in two-point perspective, capturing one side of the house. Because just drawing the front of the house was b o r i n g.

Cartoons were something very easy for me to understand. They normally told jokes, and were very simple in presentation. In my hometown newspaper, the Toledo Blade, there was a peach-colored insert that was called, “the Peach Section.” Apparently named for the Mel Lazerus cartoon, “Miss Peach” that was featured every weekday along with the Family Circus cartoon. I liked “Miss Peach,” because the titular character was a teacher and the cartoon took place inside the classroom at Kelly School. Funny jokes, simply drawn and easy to relate to. Of course I had to read the comics section in the Blade, too. My favorites were Peanuts, Beetle Bailey, The Wizard of Id, B.C., Blondie and Hi and Lois. Nancy was probably the funniest of the all, right up there with Peanuts. Laughing at comic strips was just so much fun.

I discovered comic books at the old Kroger grocery store located at Swayne Field, which used to be the old ball park where the old Toledo Mud Hens baseball team played. It was a Green Lantern comic book. I saw a rack full of comic books and asked my mother to buy me one, and to my surprise, she did! Oh, my “God,” I was hooked. I decided to try and draw super-heroes and while I wasn’t particularly good, I was always getting better at it. At least the other kids at school thought so. I was always the best artist in my class, always! I doodled and drew in my notebooks instead of studying, which may be why I did so poorly in school when it came to certain subjects I hated, like math and science. For some reason Language Arts and History were always my favorite subjects, but I still doodled more than I  studied.

You know, I used drawing as a protection in a way, because I was a shy, skinny shit and could not defend myself from bullies. If I couldn’t joke my way of getting beat up, then I’d draw them something, which seemed to hold a strange, fragile power to mollify them for a moment.

This carried on until I got into high school. By the time I reached my second year in high school, the stoner next to me would poke me in the ribs and would want to look at my notebook to look at the pictures a I drew – well, actually, I drew heads of different people – hundreds of them. Goofy, realistic, cartoony, stylized – my heads were a big hit with the “heads” in my class.

But by the time I left high school and entered college, I knew that my cartooning “career” would never get of the ground because I didn’t think I was “good enough” or “funny enough” to get paid for it. So I put my cartooning aside and concentrated on music, because I always wanted to be in a band. I know, what can be more vain that being in a band?

So the years pass and I find myself in my late twenties getting the itch to draw again, This time around I was being influenced by hip cartoonists like Dan Clowes, Chester Brown, Harvey Pekar, Crumb, David Boswell, Bill Griffiths, Charles Burns and many others. These comics were  bizarre, anarchic, shocking and brutally funny. I gave it another go. I managed to sell my idea of a comic strip to a small local paper in Isla Vista, California called, “The Alien.” It was a cross between Bill Griffith’s “Zippy” and Chester Brown’s “Yummy Fur.”  It ran for ten issues before the newspaper went out of business. Devastated but not deterred, I worked with a pretty good gag writer to develop a comic strip for the syndicates, but that didn’t work out because he was always doing coke and was too difficult to work with, really.

Then in 1990, while I was living in Hollywood, my biggest break occurred. I received a tip from my ex-girlfriend who was attending CalArts with the news that some animation studio was desperately looking for storyboard artists to help with the second season of “The Simpsons” television show. Apparently, nobody expected it to be a hit, and the network had ordered another year’s worth of animation.

So I went down to the studio, picked up a tape of about 15 minutes worth of dialog that I was being auditioned for, and holed up for a long July 4th weekend, scribbling like a madman.

I was very pleased with what I did. I felt I really nailed it cold!

I turned in my audition. I was supremely confident! I was already spending the money I knew I was  going to make in my mind. I waited and came back the next week for an answer. “Oh,” some young guy behind a desk said slowly. “Yee-yaah. The directors didn’t really like your work.”

My heart sank like a stone. “Why? What was wrong with it?” I was confused, because I had really nailed the sonuvabitch.

“Well, the directors said it was too weird.”

“What?” I had seen a couple of shows. The Simpson’s was a weird cartoon. “I though “weird” was what you were going for.”

“Would you like to be a background artist?”

I had no clue what a background artist did, so in fear of getting the gig and being exposed as a fraud, I declined and walked out of the building.

It was a couple of years later when I happened to be watching the very same episode that I did the storyboard for, and those bastards used my storyboard, anyway! I was told that this was a common practice in Hollywood. Free labor, and if you bitch about it, you’ll get blacklisted.

So I kept drawing, because I had found my “line.” All good cartoonists have a “line.” It’s that stroke that defines the cartoonist, and all strokes are like fingerprints. This made drawing interesting, and I suppose I became another boring, self-obsessed goober.

Fast-forward several years, I pitch my cartoons without much success, until I hear from this guy who’s looking for cartoons to be placed in a comic book he was publishing on his own. So we met at the Coffee Table in the Short North of Columbus, Ohio and I showed him my cartoons, which he LOVED! He said he couldn’t wait to print them, so he took my originals so he could run off a proof copy for me –

– and I never saw him again. He’d left town with my artwork. I guess I just gave up. Because I put the Rapidograph pen down and never picked it up again. What was the point, right?

And what is the point of this long-winded article about my failed cartooning “career?” Well, I am reading the biography of Charles Schultz, the late, great, world-famous creator of “Peanuts” newspaper strip, and I’m floored that Charles Schulz, the cartoonist’s cartoonist, the king of the heap, the most influential force outside of R. Crumb in the history of Sequential Art, with all the success and the  recognition and everything that he had garnered, was a very unhappy man who thought that people didn’t really like his work! According to David Michaelis’s book, “Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography,” while he enjoyed what he was able to accomplish, success failed to make him happy. According to this book, Schulz was depressed most of his life. And here I am believing that there’s nothing left wrong with me that money couldn’t cure. Here I am, a complete, absolute  wash-out of an artist and only moderately depressed. And here is Schulz, the Giant of Comics since the early 1960s, wealthy, successful, with an adoring family, who had everything, and he was, according to this book, allegedly nearly clinically depressed his entire adult life. It just doesn’t make any sense!



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