National Cartooning Society came together on Zoom on Saturday 12th September 2020. Members of the NCS are required to work professionally as cartoonists, so this was very much a forum of practitioners sharing ideas on process, practice, and the business of cartooning. It worth nothing that this ‘national’ American conference had international connections with cartoonists from other countries including (off the top of my head) Argentina (Liniers, although he’s based in Vermont these days), and Britain (Gemma Correll, Dave Gibbons). Perhaps because there is nothing comparable in the UK…? (Note: everyone mentioned below is a cartoonist unless described otherwise).
It was a 9-hour conference that started at 10am EST (or 3pm GMT my time) and I fell asleep before the end. It was an inspirational conference and here are some notes to remember from ‘the Great and the Good’. I noted three oft repeated messages that became refrains throughout the conference – these are briefly ‘fall in love with the creative process’, ‘write for yourself’ and ‘develop your characters’. Read on for details or skip to the conclusion.
- ‘Fall in love with the process’ (Maria Scrivan)
In a nutshell the creative process clearly matters, and although these are clearly unique to different practitioners, they all love their process. They shared their approaches with enthusiasm from from doodling mini ‘breakdowns’, to beginning with scripts, to walls of post-its, to compiled lever arch files of movable ideas…there were more ideas than there is space here to recount.
Scrivan was the only one to observe, ‘the most important part of the process is what I learn about myself – it is a sort of healing process,’ but this seems relevant for my pedagogic research in considering transformative learning that transforms the self.
- Write for yourself: the readers will know if you are not authentic.
Mark Tatulli was asked by Jason Chatfield (Director of NCS) whether he is ever concerned about alienating readers. Tatulli said,
‘I really don’t care. I write for myself like most writers’
However, it is worth pointing out that Tatulli does use strategies to manage the reader. For example, regarding the sensitive issue of race, he noted that he only does “fantasy characters because no one can say ‘you don’t know what it’s like to be a cat!’” This is similar to Liniers’s comments on his Domestika programme that he makes ‘olives’ victims of his black humour because no one cares if you murder olives and ‘not even the vegans called’.
Thereby, the reader is considered indirectly, so creators are liberated to express themselves more freely. Cartooning is a versatile medium for this because it frequently uses anthropomorphism (animals with human qualities), zoomorphism (humans with animal qualities), personification (objects with human qualities), and chremamorphism (humans with the qualities of objects). Of course, these can overlap and blur and perhaps the distinction does not matter. It does not matter is the Monkey King is anthropomorphic, zoomorphic or chremamorphic, as long as readers follow his transformative progression from rock to monkey to god (and within these always a connection to the human and human potential through Taoist practices).
- Characters matter – they are alive, they have agency and they form the humour.
Terri Libenson mentioned that her characters changed themselves. Dany Noble also said that she quit her Alan and Ollie strips when they started to tell her what to do, as if they now had a life of their own. To my mind, this has to be the most exciting thing of all – to let the characters really live. Jim Davis deliberately created strong characters and then contrastive characters for his Garfield strips to create the humour. Again, a notion that the characters form the humour and carry their own momentum.
Equally in a practitioner panel for the University of South Wales (2018), comics creators Jon Davis-Hunt and Rob Williams relayed their own ways of working with characters. Rob Williams described his difficulty with a commission to draw and create ‘Captain Boomerang’ comics because he felt that boomeranging was a ridiculous superhero ability. This creation only started to work after he learned the characters’ backstory of his father abandoning him as a child in the outback and the boy sitting and throwing the boomerang and wishing for his father’s return.
Jon-Davis Hunt has an interesting exercise for character development, where he draws the characters on an A3 piece of paper and then add other characters and watches them interact. This is redolent of Quentin Blake’s second ‘Golden Rule of Illustration’ – ‘2. Meet Your Characters’ (the first is ‘Lose your inhibitions’), his suggestion follows:
“Introduce yourself to your characters by drawing them. If you’re creating the character yourself, keep thinking about that character and the situation you’ve invented. The illustration will start to take on the character and you sort of meet them by drawing them. By the time you’ve finished the book it becomes somebody you know.”
I love that practitioners can create characters that live alongside them. There is also the possibility of defying psychiatrist Kübler–Ross’ 5 Stages of Grief model (1969) and never accepting the death of our loved ones, but instead incorporating them into comics characters so that they continue to talk to us. (Or is this the way that madness lies?)
Many of the NCS practitioners created characters based on themselves even if this was not apparent to readers. In character Lio, Tatulli created a character who embraces everything that Tatulli fears and his character has the value that ‘weird things need love.’ Rob Harrell in ‘Wink’ creates a character that has cancer in the eye in middle school (‘secondary school’ in UK English), but channels his own experiences through the child’s voice. This reminds of Scrivan’s earlier point that ‘the most important part of the [creative] process is what I learn about myself – it is a sort of healing process’ – if it is a healing process for processing life through creativity, then this kind of work could also be transformative.
To sum up, this message on characterisation, there is much indication from practitioners that it is essential to know character creations well. As a result, it makes sense to ‘write what you know’ and channel your own experience through characters, as many creators here do. Other examples of funny characters created in this way include, Bill Watterson’s ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ comic strips, where he admits to being both of his protagonists. Or Liniers’ channelling of his emotional landscape into his characters – for example he is Henrietta, the shy bookish child character, who allows him to remember his own experiences and memories of childhood,
He is also himself as cartoonist manifested into an alter ego of hybrid rabbit-mouse (that he recounts is a hybrid homage of Gröening’s rabbit character from ‘Life is Hell’ and Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’),
If you are not directly working with autobiographical or familial characters, then it appears essential to take time and space to really develop characters, to meet them and to get to know them intimately. Preliminary work on funnies is about getting to know characters and developing them, so that they not only possess a visual look, but history, values, beliefs, flaws, communication style, and expressions. This work creates a character that then works with you to create the stories and to build the humour.
To sum up, the NCS Fest, it is reassuring to note that I have a new beloved creative process and that I already write for myself, but it underlines the fact that I have done very little work on developing characters with depth. In my PhD proposal zine of a year ago (September 2019), I finish with this intention,
It remains an intention still…and it becomes clear that it is essential to develop much more time on characters. This will also have the advantage of preventing my usual ‘kangarooing’ between ideas and creative projects to a more solid development of ideas and consistent characters for funnies. To help myself get there, it would be useful to do the following future work with characters:
- Make characters fantastical, animals, and hybrids to avoid the sensitivity issues.
- Develop my characters in creative space and ‘noodle-doodles: talk to them, spend time with them, discover their values, flaws, drivers and definitions, create their families, their friends, enemies and opposites. Once characters take shape, then get them to talk to each other on A3 doodle sheets. Challenge them with situations, poke sticks at them, and get them to annoy each other.
On a final positive note, my overriding impression of cartoonists is that they are happy people who love life, and love humour and its creative construction.They also seem to own pets! I wonder how much getting a dog would help with my practice…?
Blake Q, (n.d) ‘Quentin Blake’s 7 Golden Rules of Illustration’
Davis-Hunt, J (2018) ‘CICE Practitioner Panel’ at University of South Wales Cardiff: Comics Symposium – Creating Comics, Creative Comics (02.06.2018)
Kübler-Ross, E. (1969) On Death & Dying, (NY: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone).
Liniers (2020) ‘Graphic Humor Give Us Our Daily Comic Strip’ Domestika course available at :
https://www.domestika.org/en/courses/623-graphic-humor-give-us-our-daily-comic-strip [accessed 17.09.2020}
Noble, D. (2018) In conversation with Alex Fitch, Graphic Brighton (19.07.2018)
NCS Fest, recorded 9 hours of conference and schedule available here:
https://ncsfest.com/ [accessed 14.09.2020]
Williams, R. (2018) ‘CICE Practitioner Panel’ at University of South Wales Cardiff: Comics Symposium – Creating Comics, Creative Comics (02.06.2018)
Wu, Ch’eng-en (1973) Monkey. London: Penguin Classics