The Non-Cartoonist Cartoonist ~ The Non-Political Political Cartoonist

By James Donahue

As someone who creates a politically oriented comic strip, I’m sorry to admit that I’m not actually very politically savvy. However, 2014 is already shaping up to be big year for politics and political cartoons, so I expect that to include I’ll Kick Your Ass and Asskickin’ Jim.

The landscape in American politics could see some very serious changes by the end of 2014. For the briefest of overviews, I can tell you that it’s an election year for the House of Representatives, which is currently controlled by the GOP. Of the 435 congressional seats, the Democrats need 17 more than they currently hold to take back Congress. In the Senate, 33 of the 100 seats are up for election, and the Republicans need six more seats to take control. Each state will deal with its independent issues, of course, but some nationwide themes could end up making the difference in the end.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the most incendiary issue today and will probably be the issue most Republicans use as a jumping off point when facing their Democratic rivals. More commonly known as “Obamacare,” the ACA took a major hit when the October launch of healthcare.gov turned out to be an epic failure. It could not be accessed by many of the people who visited the site and was rife with technical difficulties and glitches. The president had to address the issue multiple times and even had to apologize for the errors in launching a government website that didn’t work. This does not bode well for an already controversial program or the people who backed it.

On the same day as the launch of the website, the United States government shut down. This was due in part to disagreements over the ACA and the fact that Congress would not agree on a variety of fund appropriations for fiscal year 2014. This shutdown saw many government agencies closed or understaffed and some employees furloughed or asked to come to work not knowing when they would next be paid. It even closed down the National Zoo’s Panda Cam!

Congress was finally able to reach an agreement to get the government up and running again 16 days later, but the issue will be revisited in February 2014. This agreement was reached one day before the US would default on public debt. The debt ceiling has remained an issue since 2011 and will no doubt be revisited again in the coming years. A failure to solve the debt ceiling problem would cause the credit rating of the United States to be lowered, affecting its economic power in the future.

But the real question for political cartoonists is who will garner the most attention by saying or doing something stupid on the campaign trail. Considering that an army of advisers surrounds most politicians, it’s especially disconcerting that they are so notorious for saying and doing unwise things.

Here are a couple choice doozies, both spoken by former vice presidential hopefuls. How these two statements ever saw the light of day is anyone’s guess:

But obviously, we’ve got to stand with our North Korean allies.
—Sarah Palin

I was recently on a tour of Latin America, and the only regret I have is that I didn’t study Latin harder in school so I could converse with those people.
—Dan Quayle.

Not that I’m complaining. It makes the job of any political cartoonist easier when politicians have a huge public platform and endless media outlets from which to share their too often misguided opinions. Politics is a passionate subject for many people, from supporters, rivals, and members of the media, all the way down to the average citizen. When emotions become involved, logical thinking has a way of exiting stage left, resulting in wildly unpredictable statements. Celebrities often get involved or are actively recruited by political parties, to interesting results (see Clint Eastwood, Chair).

As such, you can expect to see a bit of evolution for the I’ll Kick Your Ass strip in the new year. Politicians have been targeted in the past mainly because of the reasons stated above. It’s the same reason celebrities and athletes are often the butt of the joke: With social media and countless networks dedicated to every word they say, they have a constant platform to spew their every thought.

I think this is a good time to evolve and become more aware of those making the decisions that affect the country in which we live. I’m certainly not going to stop picking on other public figures who say idiotic things, but may make an effort to focus more on politics. The 2014 federal elections could be even bigger and more hotly contested than ever because the issues are so emotional. The ACA and Debt Ceiling are hugely disputed, for starters, but as long as politicians continue to vomit careless rhetoric at their every chance, the possibilities are endless.

The Non-Cartoonist Cartoonist ~ Love Hate Like

By James Donahue

I remember when I first started loving comics. I also remember when I started hating comics. I’m trying to just like comics again.

The first comic book I ever read was Marvel’s G.I.Joe. My parents had given me a few dollars at a local fair. I wandered around trying to find something to buy, the money burning a hole in my pocket. Under a small tent was a booth with comics new and old. I picked an issue off the rack and bought it. My uncle had a trailer at the fair, where he was selling pumpkins painted with goofy faces and red noses. As I sat in his trailer reading it, I was instantly hooked. I think I went back to that tent two or three more times, buying one or two more each stop.

The first job I ever had was in a comic book shop at age thirteen. I was too young to be paid cash, so I was paid in comics, a setup that suited me just fine. Friday was new book day. I would help bag all the new comics (cover priced at just 60 cents!) and fill the customers’ files with the books they requested each week. At the end of the day, I would take my own new books and ride my bike home. Thus began my comic book collection.

Issue 21 of G.I.Joe made me love comics. It was the silent issue featuring the revelation that both Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow had matching tattoos.

Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns made me love comics. I remember the day we opened the box of new books from the distributor, and sitting on top was the first issue with its iconic cover of a silhouetted Batman and lightning striking in the background. The other kid and I just stared, our jaws on the floor. He lifted the issue from the box like Indiana Jones lifting the idol at the beginning of the first Raiders film. We had come upon something sacred and magical.

Issue 78 of Cerebus made me love comics. A psychedelic dream issue where reality is stretched and oddly transformed. I had never seen anything like it and was mesmerized.

Finding or being given old comic books from tag sales and flea markets made me love comics. Different books like The Unknown Soldier and Weird Western Tales featuring Scalphunter. They were torn and tattered and smelled of a damp musty attic, and they were great. They were just a little bit older and slightly less politically correct than the newer books. It was as if I were reading something meant for adults.

lovehate

Lots of things influenced my love of comics. I began “collecting,” but luckily was too young to see the investment aspect. I knew it existed, knew old comics were valuable, but it wasn’t really on my radar or within my means. I would never be able to afford a copy of The Amazing Spiderman Number One. Hell, I never even got a copy of Daredevil Issue 158, which was considered “affordable” at the time. Why would I? I could buy a dozen new comics for the cost of one older comic.

The first shop I worked in was eventually sold. The investment era was upon us. A chain outfit from somewhere down south named Big Bob’s bought out the previous owner, a super nice guy but terrible businessman. His most common phrase was “I have it, I just don’t know where it is.” This was true; he had most everything, but it was lost somewhere within his vast inventory. The shop went from a dingy, disorganized, chaotic mess to a cold, commercial, heartless entity. The walls were all painted bright yellow (Big Bob’s signature color), the cases were shiny and new, and professional shelving was installed. I continued to work there, seeing as I was practically part of the deal when it was sold. It was never the same, though. They even brought in sports cards! Sports cards in a comic shop? This was not a good sign.

There is an old saying: “familiarity breeds contempt.” This is how I started hating comics.

I had overstayed my welcome. I was too familiar, too close, had seen too much. The “investors” made me hate comics. They bought multiple copies of certain books and would complain if one tiny crease existed in the spine. One guy would come in with what looked like a shammy towel and lay each issue out like a precious antique (similar to how we treated The Dark Knight, but for the wrong reasons).

The gimmicks made me hate comics. The Investment Era is also sometimes nicknamed the Chromium Era for this very reason. Chromium covers, hologram covers, die cut covers, glow in the dark covers, bagged issues, trading card inserts, all of it was hard to take.

Death of Superman made me hate comics. Not that I cared that Superman died. I knew he wasn’t going to be dead long. That storyline combined the worst traits of the era in one neat little package. A gimmick for the investors and everyone else in the world. People I had never seen before came into the store asking for five or ten copies of the black-bagged book—a comic book you couldn’t even read! At one point the owner of the store took copies from the regular customers’ files to sell to strangers off the street, leaving loyal customers empty-handed. I worked at the shop a little while longer, but didn’t love comics anymore. I read less and less. The things that made me love comics were killed by what made me hate comics.

On occasion, while in college I would visit the various comic shops of New York City in search of something to read. In was an exercise in futility. Little to nothing interested me, at least from the superhero side of things. Part of it was I was older and had different interests, but part of me still held a grudge against the big companies and what they had done by making comics into something to be put in a vault instead of scattered about the living room. I read Hate by Peter Bagge, Eightball by Dan Clowes, or other independent autobiographical-style books. I would purposefully treat the books casually, even badly, to remind myself they weren’t for investing or even collecting but for reading and enjoying.

I want to like comics again. Not sure I will ever love them. Certain characters still interest me, mostly ones on the fringe like Swamp Thing, Demon, or Deadman, who exist on the spectrum of the supernatural. The movies help, too. Seeing larger than life characters done well on the big screen is pretty neat. They make me want to go back and find out their origins, although I’m not sure I’ll ever be a regular reader again. I would be more willing to give smaller publishers with new ideas a chance at my money than the movie studios. Chances are, next time I’m in a comic shop, I might look in the bargain bin for a well-read copy of Sgt Rock or Machine Man instead.

The Non-Cartoonist Cartoonist ~ The “B” Word

By James Donahue

“Do you want an ass-kickin’ boy?” is more or less how each and every I’ll Kick Your Ass strip starts, no matter who the subject of the eventual ass-kicking is. Man, woman, black, white, real, fictional, or even if Ass-kickin’ Jim is speaking to an inanimate object or idea of sorts. This is the way the first few strips were written in my college newspaper/newsletter, and when restarting the strip after a very long hiatus I kept the intro exactly the same.

I did this partly to establish the theme of the strip right off the bat. I wanted to highlight that AKJ was always ready to hand out an ass-kicking and that it’s a fairly ridiculous comment to start with. I left the term “boy” included to add to how silly it was.

Calling a smartphone or a tropical storm “boy” is kind of absurd. Calling Avril Lavigne, Katy Perry, a high-ranking official, or politician “boy” just goes to show that AKJ treats everyone the same. Usually the people he is addressing do not deserve a whole lot of respect. This started with the origin strip, in which a character got walloped for pretty much no reason. Senseless and silly is all it was, and so it continued apace.

AKJ recently addressed some poorly thought comments made by Serena Williams concerning the Steubenville rape case. Some of her original comments and apologies (it took her two tries to get it correct) can be read here. For the record, I think rape and sexual assault are some of the most cowardly crimes that can be committed against a person. So when someone tries to deflect the seriousness of this act or make light of it, I feel the need to point out the wrongness of that thought process in comic strip form.

After my comic was posted, someone took issue with the strip targeting Serena not because AKJ attacked her for what she said but because he referred to a black woman as “boy.” The reader made the following comment: “Poorly worded, esp with the white man using term ‘boy.’”

I will admit this gave me certain pause. If one person saw this as offensive or racist, chances are other people might feel the same. I responded by explaining that it has always been this way and does not reflect on the race, creed, or color of AKJ’s foil, but is simply the strip’s “opening statement.” The person who left the comment thanked me for responding and agreed that Serena’s remarks were uncalled for.

Wikipedia has a very long and detailed listing when looking up the term “boy,” including a brief section on race. The definition under is as follows:

Historically, in countries such as theU.S. andSouth Africa, “boy” was not only a “neutral” term for domestics but also used as a disparagingracistinsult towards men of color (especially of African descent), recalling their subservient status even after the 20th century legal emancipation (from slavery, evolved torace segregation, viz.Apartheid) and alleged infantility, and many still consider it offensive in that context to this day since it denotes that men of color (especially of African descent) are less than men.

So while many definitions of the word “boy” exist, at least one individual thought of this context when he read my strip addressing a black woman. So the question is, how do I proceed in the future when addressing an African American in the comic? If I am going to call out Kanye West for, well, just being Kanye, or Lil’ Wayne for his recent stomping of the American flag, do I start the strip as always—referring to these individuals as “boy”—or do I play it a little more safe and say “Do you want an ass-kickin’ Kanye/Lil Wayne?”

I’m still undecided on how to proceed. Is the potential controversy and publicity that “boy” could cause worth it? I think anyone who took the time to do some research would see that I’ll Kick Your Ass is anything but a strip that promotes racism. If anything, AKJ targets the racist, sexist, elitist, and stupid.

Sooner or later a prominent African American is going to say something that is going to line him up for an ass-kickin’. At this moment I’m not sure how I will address it, but you can be sure the possible implications will be on my mind.

The Non-Cartoonist Cartoonist ~ Dedication & Consistency

By James Donahue

When I first started reading comics, probably around the age of 11, I read a lot of the mainstream titles from Marvel and DC, Marvel’s G.I. Joe being the very first comic I remember collecting. Gradually, I drifted toward more off the wall small press and independent titles—Cerebus, Megaton Man, the really early issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the like. One of my very favorite books of that era was Flaming Carrot Comics by Bob Burden.

I liked the Flaming Carrot because he was such a ridiculous character. His backstory is that he read 5,000 comics all in one sitting to win a bet, thereby suffering brain damage and in turn becoming a superhero of sorts himself. He wears a giant carrot mask with a flame on top (of course) and scuba flippers. His foes were always bizarre and original and he spoke a language seemingly all his own.

The biggest problem with being a Flaming Carrot fan was the schedule in which issues came out; as in, there really wasn’t one. You were pleasantly surprised when a new issue showed up, but it was completely unpredictable as to when this might actually happen. Flaming Carrot had five different publishers and thirty-one issues in the span of a decade. Dark Horse comics collected the older issues in a trade paperback for the first time years after the series started. So you can see how this could be frustrating to fans. I have no doubt that Bob Burden was dedicated to his character, but in the world of the part-time comic book artist or self-publishing company, consistency is very hard to come by.

In September of 2012, Burden ran a Kickstarter campaign to print a collected issue of older Mysterymen stories and some new material. His goal was $12,500 and he raised an amazing $42,048!

I really don’t know much about self-publishing. Right now, my simple three-panel comic strip only appears online on Facebook and one other website, and I have been woefully inconsistent in keeping to a regular schedule. I am not publishing a complete story, figuring out shipping and printing costs, or trying to get funding. I am just drawing and using the computer to scan and touch up the strip a bit before putting it online.

After about six months of doing strips, I printed some various promotional booklets collecting a variety of the strips and sent them off to newspapers and smaller magazines: The Village Voice, The New Haven Advocate and Hartford Advocate, and Mental Floss magazine, which I thought might be good vehicles for AKJ. Once again, it was all done on the computer—query letters were designed with a template and sent off to the printer with the click of a button. I included self-addressed stamped envelopes when they were shipped, but only received one back (with the comment sheet I included left blank, no less).

So all these years later I have a lot more sympathy and respect for Bob Burden, Eastman and Laird (Ninja Turtles), and Dave Sim (Cerebus), who were all self-publishing or part of small companies. To see their dreams become reality, they had to be creative not only in making their comics, but also in marketing and figuring out ways to get their work out there.

So how to follow suit? For me, the first step is to become more dedicated and consistent online, and then continue to learn more about the world of self-publishing. Online is good testing ground that creators in the ’80s didn’t have. It allows you to gauge whether there is enough interest to pursue publishing or syndication. These guys basically had to go through the printing process and just hope they didn’t end up with basement full of their comic books.

I may have to use the Flaming Carrot’s ability to achieve “Zen Stupidity” to face the world of online publishing without trepidation.

The Non-Cartoonist Cartoonist ~ Comic Strip Evolution

By James Donahue

Does a comic strip evolve naturally or does it evolve from the desire for commercial success? Is there a point at which the evolution should stop or is it an ongoing process? Can a cartoonist continue to change and advance his style yet still please the reader?

Peanuts, Beetle Bailey, and Hagar the Horrible didn’t change much over the years. Certainly, they changed from the very earliest strips, but once they reached a certain point—a certain level of success—the changes stopped. This isn’t because the artist couldn’t do any better, but rather because the audience expected to see something familiar each and every day.

Two of the most successful strips over the last few decades took very different approaches on handling evolution and change in the world of the daily comic strip. The two strips I want to compare are Garfield by Jim Davis and Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson.

When the Garfield strip first began, Garfield himself was much more cat-like: He had a bigger body and smaller head, walked on all fours, and looked more like a real-life but caricatured cat with a smarmy attitude. But he underwent an amazing evolution after 1984: His head and body became more proportional, he stood on his hind legs, used his “arms” more, and in all honesty was a much more marketable-looking character.

Left panel from 1980, right panel from 1990.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Copyright PAWS, Inc.

Once it became successful, the strip didn’t really change much from that point on, and remains simple and inoffensive today. Merchandise earnings of $750 million to $1 billion annually would be a good argument not to mess with a successful formula, and creator Jim Davis makes no secret of the fact that all along he had intentionally developed Garfield to be a marketable entity.

The strip centers on Garfield the cat’s enjoyment in torturing his owner (Jon), the dog (Odie), and other household pests. He likes to eat, hates the vet, and rarely leaves the countertop where most of the storylines take place. He evolved to a certain point—a point at which he was successful and marketable. Then the changes essentially stopped, though the strip still continues to appear in more than 2,500 daily newspapers worldwide and is largely drawn by Davis’s assistants.

Calvin and Hobbes also underwent evolution during its ten-year run. A vastly different story than Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes started out in a simple, almost Peanuts-like style, but underwent almost constant evolution. The characters themselves did not change much but the topics, environments, and exploration of different artistic styles were nearly limitless.

The only thing that seemed to limit Bill Watterson was the space he was given to work with. He became increasingly frustrated with the size constraints offered to the daily comic strip artist and fought for the limits to be expanded. As such, his later Sunday strips became unbreakable half-pages that allowed him a great deal of artistic and panel flexibility. He could design his Sunday strip in close to any manner he chose.

The first Calvin & Hobbes Sunday strip, from November 1985.

The last Calvin & Hobbes strip, from December 1995.

The last Calvin & Hobbes strip, from December 1995.

Watterson also rejected almost any form of merchandising, though he was strongly pushed to do so throughout the life of the strip. Barely any legitimate merchandise exists aside from the daily strips collected in book format. After ten years, Watterson stopped drawing Calvin and Hobbes, citing the need to do different work without daily deadlines and the restriction of small panels.

I chose these two examples because people often ask me when my own comic strip will change. I think it will, and it already has in small ways both artistic and content-wise. When I’ll Kick Your Ass first began, it was about pointless violence, but has since become much more purpose-driven.

Ass Kickin’ Jim picks on people who deserve an ass-kickin’ and doesn’t kick ass just for no reason. Artistically, it’s a battle between wanting commercial success without compromising my original ideas and meeting somewhere in the middle. In some ways, I would like to be able to keep the strip simple without having to change its look much. I’d like to continue adding color on occasion and perhaps tell longer stories. Instead of only three or six panels, it could be nine.

Ideally, I’d like to be published in smaller newspapers or added to more websites—maybe even print a book of its own some day if it continues to change. Animation has been suggested to me, with AKJ interacting with his victims through dialog.

I’ve come to realize that all these different viewpoints and opinions are a good thing because it means people are paying attention. In some ways I have the Jim Davis attitude of wanting to create a marketable character. I wouldn’t mind seeing AKJ on tee shirts, mugs, or beer glasses as long as I could continue to keep the integrity of the strip intact. I wouldn’t want to turn AKJ into a cute and cuddly kid-friendly character with no connection to the original concept…but an action figure would be pretty cool.