Do you regret not pursuing your dream to be a graphic designer?
One of the reasons I stepped away from design was I didn't think I could get there. The first time I heard the Beatles, I thought, "That's going to inspire 10,000 bands, and it's going to cause another 10,000 bands to leave the business immediately." They would just be overwhelmed at what it sounds like to get it right, note-perfect, every song.
Charles Schulz used to speak as if the characters in Peanuts were the ones writing the strip, as opposed to him. He'd be asked, "Is Charlie Brown's baseball team ever going to win a game?" and he would say, "I don't know," as if the characters were in control.
Certainly, I relate to "I don't know." I haven't a clue where my characters are going. Now it's not that I feel they lead me — obviously, my imagination is what leads me, and often it will lead me in tiny little increments. Occasionally, it will jump ahead and I'll have to reverse-engineer it. I'll say, "Oh, yeah, this is where they've got to go," and I've got to figure out how to get them there. Usually I'm moving forward at such a snail's pace that there's not much thinking far ahead, because there's no time. Sparky worked, what, three months ahead? He was, like, a full season ahead, so in the summer, he'd be writing Thanksgiving stuff. That was his comfort zone, to be that far ahead. I think he just felt more comfortable knowing that if catastrophe struck, he had a real cushion.
Were you friends with him?
We were acquaintances. I think he was a bit skeptical from the very beginning about what I was doing, whether the kind of work I was doing belonged on the comics page.
What were your favorite comic books growing up?
All the superheroes. I started, as most kids in the Fifties did, with Batman and Superman, and then the revelation of what Stan Lee was doing at Marvel took over, and I fell into that rabbit hole with Spider-Man and his peers. But a very heavy influence was a serial in the Sixties called Phoebe Zeitgeist. It was written by Michael O'Donoghue, who later became the head writer of Saturday Night Live, and it was illustrated by Frank Springer. It was an absolutely brilliant, deadpan sendup of adventure comics, but with a very edgy modernist kind of approach. To this day, I hold virtually every panel in my brain. It's very hard not to steal from it.
You've made a point of having your original characters grow and change over time. Which ones were the hardest for you to evolve and bring into the present?
I'm not sure degree of difficulty really enters into it. Fictional characters obviously can't act independently of their creators, so how or even whether they evolve is simply a matter of artistic choice. Of course, in real life, some people learn more from the journey than others, and I hope the strip reflects that. Zonker is stuck in adolescence, but that's because it's fun to have his sustained innocence in the mix. Certainly, I know plenty of recovered hippies and could have made him one of them. On the other hand, I literally blasted B.D. out of his life of settled complacency. Exposed to sudden, brutal loss, B.D. became vulnerable in a way that was unfamiliar and frightening to him. He had to change to survive, to rebuild his resilience and create a new normal for himself.
None of this is planned, by the way. I just try to get through the week. There really isn't any time to worry about how well everyone is aging.
After 40 years, you have so many different characters. Do they live within you? Do you wake up and Joanie says, "Hey, it's time to pay attention to me"?
No. I don't live with them at all. I'm never happier than when I'm not working. The strip is a job — that's why I take money for it. It's a job I'm passionate about, but it's a job I totally leave in the studio when I walk out of here, unless I'm late and I have to work at home. I never think of the strip unless I'm compelled to.
On occasion, as I'm thinking about my characters, I do feel that one of them has been underserviced, and that their story line needs to be developed further in some way. If I start with a topic, then I will cast it. If I start with "Oh, I want to write about the Tea Party. How can I find an interesting way into that?" I'll choose the least likely character, which is Sam, Boopsie and B.D.'s daughter, who has a Sarah Palin action figure. While Sam sleeps, the action figure has little tea parties with the other toys. That came to me as I was watching Toy Story 3.
Is that the kind of training in conceptual thinking you got at Yale?
[Laughs] I do tend to break things down into a set of problems, but I think any artist does that — they create problems that they then set out to solve. Perhaps I became less chaotic as a cartoonist as a result of that training, less anarchic. I didn't want to get rid of it altogether, though, because that was part of the fun of the strip. It came out of nowhere, and it dealt with material that had never been on the comics page in such an overt fashion. Little Orphan Annie and Pogo and Lil' Abner had certainly brought political themes to the comics page, but I was the first to play around with the idea of moving beyond allegory and just having politics be part of the everyday lives of the characters, as they were of my peer group. My cohort in the early Seventies was primarily interested in sex, drugs and rock & roll, and politics. When you're young, you don't feel iconoclastic — you're just kind of doing what seems natural, what moves you.
And filling a void that you felt.
That turned out to be true from a marketing sense. When John McMeel, my boss, who was then selling the strip, went out into the marketplace, the way he framed it was: Yes, it's crude. Yes, it's not what you'd expect to see in a comic strip. But these are scribblings, dispatches, from the front lines of a generation that you care about — that you, the newspaper editors, care about, because you're trying to reach them. This is somebody who is, at least generationally, on the bus, this is somebody who is, in fact, living this right now. So these reports have a certain authenticity. I certainly never pretended to be a spokesman for a generation. But my journey, to some extent, reflected that of my generational cohort.
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