S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “A Fine Line,” Park talks about the life of a cartoonist.
I’ve always taken my ability to cartoon for granted, even as it’s the gift I’m most grateful for. (Well, along with a sense of humor, anyway, and they’re pretty much the same thing.) I did two Get Well Soon cards for friends yesterday, and the day before that a high school classmate e-mailed me a character I’d drawn her in 1962. (It’s been hanging on her wall—wherever she’s lived—since.)
I barely remembered it, of course, but it’s the Puritan Stain aspect that interests me, how I’m as quick to enjoy old drawings as I am to cringe at early writing attempts. It’s because the words have always been a struggle, I suppose. Cartoons? No matter how long it takes me to do one it’s always, in the end, as if it arrived fully formed.
I was five or six years old when I watched Winky Dink (a daytime kids’ show) with my brothers. It featured a caricaturist who stood in front of a drawing pad, encouraging kids in the audience to come up and draw a squiggle; once they had he’d quickly turn it into a face.
And I remember thinking, Well, anybody could do that.
They couldn’t, of course, but it was so automatic for me I didn’t know any better. Couldn’t foresee that the right side of my brain (and the oversized imagination it contained) would always run the show. So the older I got the more absurd existence became until—by my tenth birthday—if I could imagine something, I could draw it.
Which was usually naked African villagers at the time; I tried blaming it on National Geographic but Mrs. Desmond, my fourth-grade teacher, wasn’t amused, finally summoning my father for a conference.
He was the go-to guy by then, as my mother had sworn off contact with my teachers the year before. (“I’ve heard enough” as she liked to say.) The irony was no one was less likely to punish me (whatever the transgression) than my dad. Oh, we’d do the prescribed routine in the front seat of his Buick afterwards, him expressing his disappointment and me feigning shame, but there was always this implicit wink in there, this notion he secretly admired what a weird little bastard I was.
Or so I liked to tell myself, anyway. (It wouldn’t be the first or last time I overvalued my comic relief.) In the meanwhile how good a drawing was depended on my age and experience but the facial expressions? That knack came into the world with me, they were such a natural facility that even my mother, the least artistic person I’ve ever met, would exclaim over them.
No, my contribution was the process, thousands of hours of drawing and re-drawing until today—from a pen-and-ink perspective, anyway—I’m happy with the results. Have even begun (after a thirty-year hiatus) using color again.
So I did the work (as every cartoonist must), though it’s only a shadow of what I’ve given to writing since. What distinguishes the disciplines for me is my approach to them, i.e. I knew I could make funny faces but longed to be a novelist.
It was Connor, my nephew Brad’s son, that made me think of this lately. He’s had a thoughtful, old soul aspect to him since he was born. As soon as he could speak, in fact, he was asking adults around him what they were thinking.
When I visited my brother’s farm a couple years ago he’d just turned four. I’d met him maybe twice before, and he plopped down across from me, very intent and watchful. When I replied to something my brother had said, how I’d never heard of anything like that, Connor rose, circled the table and stood beside me.
“Oh, I’m sure you have, Uncle Wilson,” he said. “It’s just that you’re old now and well, it’s getting hard to remember stuff.”
What!? Where’d that come from!? Even more galling … the little shit had the temerity to pat me on the back.
Then his mother took me aside, claimed Connor (on his own initiative) had begun cartooning. She even handed me his latest effort, an 8 X 11 page covered from one end to the other in orange crayon. In the center were three black dots.
“Ehhh … ladybug?” I asked.
“How’d you know?” she marveled.
It might have been crude and messy, but it was still better than anything my brothers or parents had ever drawn.
I didn’t get my hopes up, though. For openers the penchant for the ridiculous that cartooning requires (life saver that it’s been for me) is a minefield I wouldn’t wish on just anybody. And if the boy had a cartoonist in him it’d emerge of its own accord, anyway.
Two years later it has. I may not be around to see Connor grow up, but I wanted him to know the old chimp in the troop recognized him.
So I wrote the following letter to his parents:
Dear Brad & Jane:
I have to admit I was skeptical when Connor first evidenced an interest in cartooning, as most people don’t realize how rare cartoonists are. Not only have I never met one, but none of the friends, artists and teachers I know have, either.
There’s a multiplicity of reasons for this, beginning with the fact that it is (ironically enough) one of the most “cerebral” of arts. Nobody (fine artist or otherwise) just decides they want to cartoon, and if they do they don’t get far: you need to be born with the sort of irreverent, absurdist viewpoint that makes it (not just possible) but necessary.
That’s an unusual phenotype and it barely sets the stage, as there’s no “right” way to do humorous illustration. You have to create a unique world of characters from scratch: how they move, how they think, what they look like, what they say … this develops gradually and constitutes the individual cartoonist’s “style.”
And then there’s the work. Lots and lots and lots of work, way more than most people realize. (For little—if any—financial gain.) The upside is that it doesn’t seem like work as a kid and drawing funny pictures requires virtually no “artistic” talent. I can cite a number of successful cartoonists who showed zero when they began and are unparalleled masters now, particularly Gary Larson (“The Far Side”) and Garry Trudeau (“Doonesbury”). Their early efforts were so primitive they made you wince.
(But the humor was there and the fact they kept after it is admirable. It’s like Bob Dylan: who ever told him he could sing?)
For such an endless trial-and-error slog, though, cartooning is incredibly rewarding and (better yet) provides a ready escape hatch. As busy as my brothers and I were growing up, for instance, I can’t remember a day when I didn’t cartoon. Mom, in fact, claimed I was barely out of diapers when she took me to the pediatrician and I leaned over in the waiting room, scooped up a pencil and paper and began drawing a face.
And for all I did at home I produced twice as much in classes, filling whole notepads from first through twelfth grades. I drew so much, in fact (never saying no to anyone who asked me for a poster, card, sign, sketch, etc., as if they’d do it themselves if they didn’t have better things to do) that by the time I was eighteen I was totally burned out.
This was partly my all-or-nothing personality, partly mental and emotional exhaustion, mostly ignorance as to the rare and special gift I’d been given. I quit drawing altogether and—not only didn’t I miss it—but I went twenty years before so much as doodling. Once I had everything I’d done as a kid barely constituted a prelude … at seventy-four my skills and personal style are still evolving. (Well, failing eyes, tendonitis and hand tremors notwithstanding.)
Which is why, when people ask me to teach cartooning, I dismiss it out of hand: if there’s a cartoonist/absurdist in you you’re already doing it.
You have to; your head would explode otherwise, it’s the only outlet for a singular way of seeing. So a few Christmases ago, when you guys suggested Connor was interested in cartooning, I drew him a cat and he was so nonplussed I let it slide.
Then two things happened to change my mind, both of them at mom’s hundredth birthday party. Ben and I picked her up at the rest home and we’d no sooner set foot in his living room than Connor ran up to me with that sketch of Hobo. It caught me off guard; that dog was the light of my life and I’d put him down only weeks before. What touched me wasn’t just the memory the drawing evoked, but the generosity of Connor’s spirit. It too is crucial to cartooning, because (with the exception of comic strip professionals, and they’re disappearing with the newspapers and magazines that published them) the only thing you can really do with cartoons is: (1) become an animator; or (2) give them away. (It’s not like you draw them for yourself.)
Then lunch began and, in the course of my conversation with Jennie, a cousin I hadn’t seen in twenty years, I learned her second son was a cartoonist. (He lives in a van in L.A.’s Griffith Park at fifty, doing caricatures for tourists, but that’s another story.)
“Wow!” I thought, “maybe I’m not a one-off! Is it possible that there’s something in our genealogy that produces—of all things—cartoonists!?”
What a notion. (If so it’s gotta be our Irish side, not the Swedes.) I’ve never heard of such a thing but am certainly willing to hope, as it’d be further proof that cartoonists are born and not made. So when Connor expressed interest in drawing at that party I figured I’d send him the same How-to-Cartoon books I used as a kid, see if he had what it took.
I didn’t expect much, as the work ethic required (much less the focus) would be daunting for most six-year-olds. But Jane kept forwarding me his sketches, along with assurances that he was drawing constantly, until I received that basketball player last week and it was every bit as good as my work at his age. (I know because mom saved cartoons of mine from the early Fifties.)
Which means that—assuming Connor keeps after it (and yeah, he has a lonnnnng way to go, but you have to start somewhere)—we’ll have three cartoonists in the High/Murphy line. This is as unlikely as mom and her two best friends from high school all living to a hundred!
So here we are, and I wanted you guys to know that Connor’s potential is exciting to me. I’ve no children of my own, of course, but if I did I’d have given anything for a cartoonist: you’re guaranteed a whacko who—good or bad—has an interesting life in front of them.
Plus you’re the perfect parents for what awaits your son, as you (like my dad) have been quick to appreciate and encourage his imagination. Please keep forwarding his stuff and don’t be surprised if he grows up to be a wisecracking wastrel who’s indifferent to money, prefers his own company and stares out the window a lot.
It’s part of the job description, after all, and believe me … there’s no ride like it.
p.s. I forgot the best part. The rest of Connor’s life, when he breaks the rules or says or does something weird?
He’ll get a pass from the people who know him. They’ll just think “Well, what d’ya expect … the guy’s a cartoonist.”