It’s official. Jim is now an award-winning cartoonist.
I found out today through the illustrious editor of Touchstone magazine, Paul Titus, that the above cartoon won the Bronze Award in the Humour category at the Australasian Religious Press Association’s 2011 awards that were held in Australia over the weekend.
Judges comments were as follows: “Topical, dry and very realistic. This ‘toon shows that working with youth will always take a bit of extra effort, and that being relevant doesn’t just come with keeping up with technology.”
Aw. Aint that special. Jim’s first ever award. Made me feel a bit fuzzy inside today, I must admit.
Thanks Paul! You’re an awesome editor. (Congrats too for your a Silver ARPA Award for the excellent feature article on Prostitution Law Reform.) It’s great to be able to cartoon for a church magazine that isn’t afraid to tackle the big issues so fearlessly, and still retain the ability to not take itself too seriously.
Ah, I love a good pun. Or a bad one. In fact, any joke, headline or turn of phrase that plays with words in a humorous way is almost always guaranteed to bring a smile to my face.
The above cartoon was one I originally did for a Halloween greeting card a few years back. It was commissioned on short notice, and all that I could come up with at the time.
I do like it, but I discovered not long after that the joke had been done before and, not surprisingly, in a variety of ways. (Google ‘spooksperson’ and see for yourself) While this was my “original” version of the idea, it’s hardly an original idea.
Still, that’s the case for a lot of jokes. I’ve just finished reading a fantastic book called 'The Naked Jape: Uncovering the Hidden World of Jokes', which was co-written by one of the most successful modern British comedians, and one of my favourites, Jimmy Carr, who is a frequent punster.
It’s mostly about the art of the spoken joke (and stand-up comedy in particular) but I'm reading plenty that's applicable to cartooning as well.
There's discussion of the science of laughter – physiology, psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary theory plus an intriguing political history of the clown – which is all fascinating, and made less drab than it sounds by including plenty truly hilarious jokes amidst the academia.
The authors explore the extremes of humour, from gender-based jokes, to ethnic and religious jokes, the latter of which had particular resonance for me as Jimmy describes himself as a self-confessed recovering fundamentalist. (Read this in case you need some background on my own story on that.)
There’s so much great reflection and discussion on humour in this, I felt a bit drunk with all the great stuff I read, so it’s hard to pick a favourite quote, but here’s just one that grabbed me:
Laughter is indeed a serious business. It’s a practice which finds the measure of our humanity. Laughter sets us going, marks the real beginning of our journey. If we’re lucky, we count on it as a constant companion – for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. If we’re very, very lucky, laughter book ends our lives.
That gives me great inspiration as a cartoonist. It makes me feel less annoyed about discovering a joke I thought up had already been done in another way by another humorist, and accept that I am – like you are – part of the global collective consciousness that finds life inherently funny. But damn it, I’m still going to keep questing for that truly original joke till the day I die.
Until then, I’ll keeping reveling in the serious joy generated by master punsters like this one, a Mr Tim Vine, who recently won the second best joke prize at the 2011 Edinburgh Comedy Fringe with this gem:
“Crime in multi-storey car parks. That’s wrong on so many different levels.”
Cartooning has been described as a lonely art form – one person sitting hunched over a blank piece of paper silently scribbling in the search for a joke.
This is definitely true at times for me. But more often than not I find ideas emerging far away from the blank page, springing out of discussions and interactions with the people I see every day – family, friends and co-workers.
The above is one such cartoon that arrived this week. My thanks to the co-worker friend who inspired it. You know who you are!
All Black Aussie
I’ll come clean. I’m an Australian who barracks for the All Blacks.
When it comes to rugby, I’m a dead-set traitor to my country of origin’s team. A Wallaby infidel, if you will. I couldn’t name you a single player on the Aussie team if you tortured me. It’s not for any ideological reason. I wasn’t into rugby in the slightest when I moved to New Zealand 12 years ago, but I’ve since found I’ve become an All Black fan by way of immersion therapy.
It’s hard to avoid the All Blacks in New Zealand. You can’t eat breakfast, open a newspaper, turn the TV on or walk down the street without seeing an All Black jersey fronting up to sponsor a product on a billboard, screen or print ad. In fact we probably see more of the All Black players’ armpits, thighs and bulging pectoral muscles on a daily basis than we do those of our nearest and dearest.
Aside from their ubiquity in the media, you also can’t swing a dead cat around your head at any major product launch without hitting one of the boys in black in the face. I rarely met any Australian Rules Football player when I lived in Melbourne (apart from one bizarre, random meeting with legendary Geelong player Gary Ablett) but I must have met at least a dozen All Blacks over the years, and been within spitting distance of many others at this or that event.
What’s been more fascinating, however, is to see just how personally this country takes their rugby. If the All Blacks are doing well, New Zealanders seem to feel good about themselves. If they aren’t , Kiwis tend to get a bit grumpy, self-conscious and fidgety about their place in this world.
And then there’s the World Cup. Crikey. I was here in 1999, 2003 and 2007 and witnessed the sackcloth-and-ashes mourning first hand when the All Blacks didn’t win or, let alone, make it to the final. And now we are hosting the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. God help us. Literally.
As a PR consultant, the RWC has been a consideration for almost every piece of activity that I’ve been involved in or planned for this year. Seeing all that up close, I’m certain that amidst the non-stop hoo-haa of planned events, crazy ad-campaigns and PR stunts, Kiwis are turning their eyes to heaven and pleading with whatever almighty deity they can envision that the grand prize will be won by this beloved All Black team this time.
While it’s ultimately a bit silly to make such a fuss over a game of football, I must admit I’ve found that I can’t help but get caught up in the All Black fervor. For me, it starts with the colour. Black. It’s inherently cool. Anything that has its coolness measured is compared to black; ie. It’s the ‘new black’. It’s unrelenting. Definitive. Earthy. Primal. That’s hard not to love.
Then there’s the haka before each game. God, I love the haka. It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It’s a primal thing again, and maybe something you can appreciate best if New Zealand has ever been your home for any length of time. It goes beyond words. Just watch this and tell me that isn’t true.
Then there’s the game. While I can pretty much take or leave the sport, because to be honest I don’t really understand the rules, it’s fun to watch the mock brutality of it nevertheless.
What I have come to understand though is the love New Zealand has for the game. And love makes you do silly things. It makes you believe things are going to be great, even when the outcome could be affected by any one of a million things. That love makes us believe we can win each and every time.
Of course, as we’ve seen from the past few RWC’s (cue the ‘choker’ jokes), though the love from New Zealand will still be there if the All Blacks don’t win the Cup this time, they might not be on speaking terms for a long while. They’ll get over it though. We always do.
And there it is. That’s love.
So, all the best guys, and know that there's at least one Aussie out there who is proud to admit, like the rest of New Zealand, that he'll always love the All Blacks.
Remember those late night TV infomercials for Tony Robbins' “Personal Power”? I never bought the tapes, because I got his whole point in about five minutes. I enjoyed the ads though. They were a bit like that book, “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”. Excellent piece of advice! No need to buy the book, it's all summed up in the title. Done. Do it, and move on.
'Realise your potential'. 'Be all you can be'. The phrases that are used so often shot through the pages of self-help books and in the tirades of motivational speakers can seem a bit trite on first glance (and can have a good deal of plain bullshit in them, as the brilliant Penn and Teller might describe it. Still, there's an underlying truth even in the worst pop-psychobabble.
I do firmly believe that it is a truly good thing to believe in yourself. Believing that you can be and do and write and say and draw great things, and then giving it a go, is surely a more enjoyable way to live than never doing anything because it's apparently all bullshit. You might not do it the first or every time, but the constant striving to be better and enjoying the process as you go – even if what you produce sometimes is crap – simply makes life better. (Check out this inspiring reflection on this fact by Ira Glass.)
(Another lesson from a book title applies here: “Fail Forward”, ie. Fail often, fail early, and always fail forward. Brilliant. No need to buy that book either!)
Realising potential is a philosophy that's engrained in the Get A Grip program that I cartooned for recently. (The above 'toon is from that series.) Encouraging young people to realise their potential by thinking about the choices they make and helping them make smart ones is not empty psychobabble. It's a foundation for life.
Get a Grip
What was the sex education like at your high school? Probably not as cool as this course.
It was great to hear this week about the successful launch of the Get a Grip Teenz high-school program, produced by the Youth Wellbeing Project in Brisbane, Australia.
It’s not just because the program manuals feature 20 cartoons by Jim (one of which is above!), but also because it’s something that I reckon is long overdue; namely, an education program for high-school students that doesn’t shy away from discussing the real issues and questions that young people face when it comes to sex and relationships.
As it says on the site, in this program “youth are encouraged to make smart choices; believe in themselves; set positive goals; and aim for healthy relationships.” That’s a great philosophy, and one I was pleased to help promote with the few cartoons I did to accompany the text.
You can download PDF versions of the student manuals here to see all the cartoons, and if you work with high-school students and have been looking for a program like this, you can order a sample kit here.
Down with lame sex education in schools! Get 'Get a Grip' instead!
Despair & Hope
It’s been a busy week with not much time for cartooning, so here’s one I pulled from the vault that’s never seen the light of day before.
It’s from a comic strip series I started developing for a magazine about 10 years ago about a struggling young three-piece punk band called Turkeyroll. It was one of those creative endeavours that never really saw its full potential, having never got to publication, as the magazine in question closed down before it properly got off the ground. It was a fun series to draw though; sort of a modernized version of my first published comic strip, The Twangups.
I originally just drew it black and white, so it’s good to see it light up in colour for the first time. It reminds me of that quote from The Shawshank Redemption, “No good thing ever dies.” The full quote is “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
One writer describes hope like this, “Hope literally opens us up and removes the blinders of fear and despair and allows us to see the big picture, thus allowing us to become creative and have belief in a better future.” I agree with that wholeheartedly, but I imagine those in the United States who believed Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogans about hope, are questioning that belief right now.
Following a week where the world seems to have struggled with finding hope in its leaders, the economy and belief in the basic goodness of humanity, taking time to remember precious memories and celebrate the small joys of life seems all the more important.
Speaking of good things not dying, a friend of mine / fellow comics enthusiast in Australia has finally got a project of his own off the ground again. After publishing six issues of John Dixon’s Air Hawk magazine in 1990, the project ended up languishing in the wilderness for almost 20 years.
Having originally been a subscriber of this comic, it was great to finally see the resulting new compilation volume of this classic Aussie adventure comic strip be published and launched. If you’re into that sort of thing, it’s well worth getting a hold of by clicking here.
So meanwhile, stay hopeful, stay creative; and if anyone has any idea where I can get a hold of a shirt like Wayne’s, let me know!
To be a fan of the band Tool is to learn the art of patience.
With only four full length albums over the last 18 years, the most recent coming in 2006, it’s been a long time between draughts of their beautifully dense, complex music. There were rumours that a new album was due this year, but according to some very recent comments by Maynard James Keenan, it is currently “just progressing as it progresses.”
I like the sound of that. Considering the high quality of music that has come out so infrequently from the Tool boys, I don’t think I would have it any other way. The anticipation ends up being part of the enjoyment.
Another musician I love, Gillian Welch, has just released her first album of new material after an eight year break. The delay, she says, was because she felt just wasn’t writing music that she liked. The resulting album is a stunner, which Allmusic.com describes as “timeless, if hard won songcraft”. I like the sound of that too.
Note to self: keep this principal in mind when doing cartoons. Don’t sacrifice quality on the altar of ‘feeling like you have to produce for the sake of it.’
(Side bar … Is it weird to like Tool and Gillian Welch? I’ve never thought extreme variety in music appreciation was weird, but you would think it is going by the looks and comments I get from music store sales people when I purchase certain albums together.)
For those times when I am berating myself for being in my own view, less than prolific with my cartooning, here’s a news story I find inspirational about the world’s longest concert, a performance of avant garde musician John Cage’s piece “As Slow As Possible”, which started in 2001, and is not due to be completed for 639 years.
My favourite quote from the curator of the project, Professor Rainer Neugebauer, is this: “I think it teaches us patience, inner peace and that the world goes on and we must not hurry.”
‘The beauty of slowness’. I especially like the sound of that.
The Creative Quest
When I was a boy, I was obsessed with two movies; The Dark Crystal and The Neverending Story.
This was the mid 1980’s, well before home VHS was readily available to me and DVD was unheard of. So after seeing them once in the cinema, I would read and re-read the picture book and novel versions I had, draw endless pictures of scenes I remembered, and refer to them as often as I could in my nightly school writing homework, reliving the adventure. I even wrote a short novella inspired by their rich symbolism, amazing sets and visual effects.
Both films are pretty dark. The both feature a bunch of genuinely terrifying and trippy moments that are rare in kid’s movies today. I still rate the death scenes of Artax (the hero Atreyu’s horse) and the planetary obliteration caused by The Nothing, not to mention the Garthim attack sequences, the ‘life essence’ draining scenes and the Roast Nebri in The Dark Crystal, as all seriously traumatic!
Watching them again today on DVD, I’m amazed at how well they’ve held up over time, and how I still get that same thrill of adventure from watching them now as I did back then. It’s not hard to see why the fantastic tales they wove of young boys embarking on great quests to defeat powerful enemies against incredible odds resonated so strongly.
As kids, we are fearless creative copycats, wearing our inspirations on their sleeve without a second thought, learning from what works and adding our own version of the Hero With a Thousand Faces.
The same principle applies to cartoons. While certainly not epic in scale, the above cartoon idea is actually about 20 years old. It originally came out of a period of creativity in my teenage years where I decided to just sit down every night, free associate and draw whatever cartoon came to mind, no matter how crazy it was. I took my inspiration from the strange cartoons of Matthew Martin that featured in The Melbourne Age weekend magazine at the time.
A wealth of weird and wonderful cartoons came out of that zone, and took me in a creative direction, the thread of which I still see in my cartoons today.
And yet, it’s a creative zone that I find harder to access these days. More often than not I get bogged down in trying to be creative instead of just being creative. I need to take my own advice and just dive in. Break a few more rules. Experiment. Make mistakes. Fail. Learn. Progress.
Who knows where that adventure will lead?
Randomness has been on my mind lately. Maybe it’s because my iPod has been stringing together some pretty awesome mixes when I hit the shuffle button. (It’s enough to make me believe in ridiculous things like iPod shuffle angels!)
Or maybe it’s because this week I’ve randomly met a few people in random place that know other people I randomly know. (That sort of randomness happens a lot in New Zealand … two degrees of separation and all that.)
Whatever it is, I’m embracing randomness this week. In the spirit of that, this blog post will be made up entirely of random thoughts. I’ll try not to hit the delete button too much. (A tough ask of a perfectionist!)
Immediate side bar recommendation. Read the Wikipedia page on randomness! It’s endlessly fascinating. Especially the bit about the ‘Monty Hall’ problem, all about cars and goats. (Scroll down to the bottom to find it.)
That reminds me. My son has created a new swear: “Satan’s bottom!” he yells. Brilliant! Simple. Cathartic. I might try to get it trending on Twitter.
Twitter. I’m growing to love that site (or whatever it is.) Talk about glorious randomness! That never-ending blending of friends trending is a godsend, and is upending my intentions of spending the weekend pretending to attend to backbending errands. (Sounds like a Guy Noir script.)
Speaking of which, Is there anyone else there that loves Guy Noir as much as I do? I’ve listened to some of those scripts a dozen times. Garrison Keillor is my hero. There’s something about that voice, and the stories of how that depressed gumshoe manages to get through his days that makes mine seem less grey.
And now I’m back to thinking about my iPod. I must admit, I love the shuffle button. I always get a small thrill at seeing the display say ‘Now playing 1 of 11357 songs’ because I know that it would take about 3 months of non-stop listening to complete the full mix. Who knows what incredible sequences of songs would be linked randomly together to form a meaningful musical story?
All I know is, in the history of the world, a radio DJ would never think to play songs by Joy Division, Tenacious D, Built to Spill, Dave Matthews Band, Fatboy Slim, Spock’s Beard, Incubus, Violent Femmes, Death Cab for Cutie, The Polyphonic Spree, Ministry, Bob Dylan, Faultline, Sleater-Kinney, Public Enemy and Bon Iver in a row and make it sound so good. That’s the magic of iPod randomness.
Of course, sometimes it all goes horribly wrong. Some mixes just suck. Who knows why? I guess that pulls me back to the point of celebrating randomness. Making sense out of randomness is kind of what humanity has been trying to do ever since we became aware that we are evolved beings. It can be terrifying, and so many tend to avoid it, hiding instead behind black and white religion.
But for me, finding meaning within meaninglessness is where life’s real beauty lies. So onward I go, eyes and heart wide open to the endless possibility and thrill of randomness. Feel free to join me, and may the iPod shuffle angel bless and keep you always.
While I love cartoons, I don’t think I could live without stand-up comedy.
For the number of times that my head has been so full of stress and worry that I could barely think straight, I can equally count the number of times that listening to a quality comedy routine has diffused those cerebral time-bombs and poured balm on a brain going ballistic.
Here’s a shout out to some comedians who have salved my mind in troubled times, and made my sides ache from laughter:
Patton Oswalt, Christopher Titus, Jim Gaffigan, Garrison Keillor, Bill Hicks, Brian Regan, David Cross, Eddie Izzard, Demetri Martin, Bill Cosby, Danny Bhoy, Jon Stewart, Jimmy Carr, Mark Watson, Mitch Hedberg, Ross Noble, Steven Wright, Steven K Amos, Tim Minchin.
I hold high reverence for comedians like these that can get up in front of a crowd, make eye contact, and deliver insight and wisdom through their own twisted perspective, turn of phrase and dick jokes. For me, such comedy enters the realm of the sublime; a truly spiritual experience.
For those who share my devotion for stand-up comedy, pray with me the prayer that Bill Hicks prays at the close of his brilliant “Rant in E-Minor” album. All together now …
“Lift me up out of this illusion Lord. Heal my perception that I might know only reality and only you.”
It was UN World Refugee Day earlier this week, and an editor friend in Australia asked me for a cartoon on the topic. This is what fell out of my brain.
As an Aussie who has lived in New Zealand for a full third of my life now, I don’t feel as close to this issue as I might if I was still living back across the ditch, apart from a sense of shame and revulsion at the racism that still appears to be so clearly engrained in much of Australian society.
New Zealand sometimes seems like a virtual utopia in comparison, considering the news that has floated across from my homeland over the years – Cronulla race riots, mandatory detention centres and ‘Stop the boats’ political campaign slogans – to name a few that have made me shudder.
Still it seems that hope for redeeming the racist part of the Australian soul might be springing anew in the form of a reality TV show, of all things.
‘Go Back To Where You Came From’ has been stirring discussion in the news lately, as it puts a bunch of everyday Australians through the refugee experience and captures it all live on camera. For all the contrivances that obviously go with reality television, apparently, it’s powerful stuff if this review is anything to go by.
As one who was freed from the mental captivity of religious fundamentalism, I can imagine what it might feel like for a xenophobic to come to a new understanding of themselves and those they once hated. Essentially, it’s the feeling that comes with being released from fear into love.
It’s what the Jesus story is all about too – which is why I’ve put him behind the fence at Villawood. (With a case of leprosy having been discovered there last week, I think he’ll be needed – along with the antibiotics that can treat it.)
My ears are still ringing, and my fingers are a little raw. There's a lingering aroma of beer in my nose and a dull ache in my shoulder. I have sweat running down my back and a big stupid grin on my face. There can be only one explanation …
The band is back together.
At 36 years old, I have long given up the teenage dream of becoming a rock star. Yet over the last couple years, I've had the privilege of playing bass guitar for a band made up of some mates from work. (I say 'privilege' because - as I'm well aware – the bass player is pretty much the most replaceable position in the band, requiring about as much skill as it takes to play the triangle - for the songs we play anyway. )
Although our predominant state is 'on hiatus', we get together for a few months every year and rehearse a bunch of mostly 80's New-Wave and punk rock songs for an industry-related Battle of the Bands competition. We don't sound half-bad most of the time. And for 15 glorious minutes on that stage every year, I get as close to being a rock star as I'll ever get. It's all a bit silly really, but damn it's fun.
One of the songs we're jamming on at the moment is 'Transmission', by English post-punk band Joy Division, whose late 1970's hey-day was tragically cut short by the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis, who had suffered from severe depression and epilepsy. I had a much-loved cousin who also committed suicide following a long struggle with epilepsy and depression, so the words of the song always hit home hard for me.Listen to the silence, let it ring on.
Eyes, dark grey lenses frightened of the sun.
We would have a fine time living in the night,
Left to blind destruction, waiting for our sight.
And we would go on as though nothing was wrong.
And hide from these days we remained all alone.
Staying in the same place, just staying out the time.
Touching from a distance, further all the time.
Well I could call out when the going gets tough.
The things that we've learnt are no longer enough.
No language, just sound, that's all we need know,
to synchronise love to the beat of the show.And we could dance.
There's something to be said for losing yourself in the joy of music – or any art for that matter (even cartooning!) when things feel hopeless.
I'm not saying it's a solution to all or any of life's problems (Ian Curtis is evidence of that) but for me, in those moments when I'm with the band and we're tight and pounding out a great riff, or I'm sitting in front of a blank white page and the ink is starting to turn into a cartoon, I sure do feel alive.
St Matthew-in-the-City, as most Aucklanders would be well aware, is the most progressive Christian church in New Zealand. Its reputation for pushing the boundaries of what a church can be, do and say is legendary. Just Google the words 'St Matthew's' and 'billboard' together and you'll see a few examples of what I mean.
St Matthew's remains a treasured part of my cartooning history. As Communications Manager for the church from 2002-2005, I was responsible for running the web site and the church e-zine. Quite naturally, my cartoons found a place in that mix, and were whole-heartedly welcomed by vicars that were unafraid about challenging established perceptions of church and Christianity. (Take a bow Ian Lawton, Glynn Cardy and Clay Nelson!)
The majority of the cartoons that appear in my book Gone Astray were thought up in the midst of my life and work at St Matthew's. Another was featured on their Easter billboard last year. Having that defaced with spray-paint by an unknown critic and deemed blasphemous by more than one blogger were, for me, accolades on par with winning a Reuben Award.
The above cartoon especially, while drawn after my time working at St Matthew's is nevertheless infused with the spirit that abides there. Those are St Matt's pews and St Matt's people sitting in them. What's also represented is this church's true embodiment of the values of love and acceptance.
St Matthew-in-the-City demonstrates these values like no other church I have ever encountered. With St Matt's, no matter how you interact with them – be it through a Sunday service, via the Internet, or as an attendee at one of the many public events held there – you are truly free to be whoever you are, no matter what you think, or do, or say. Their doors will always be open to you. You will be accepted.
Of course, there are some things that St Matthew's finds unacceptable; that is, anything that is the antithesis of love and acceptance – hate, discrimination and oppression. St Matthew's is embodying this ethos yet again with their latest campaign, opposing the discrimination against gays and lesbians becoming priests.
One hundred years from now, I'm sure the grand St Matthew's building will still be standing as a place where people are loved and accepted for whoever they are. What I'm not sure of however, is whether issues of individual sexual preference as they affect someone's capacity to be a priest will have passed into antiquity. I have hope though, with churches like St Matthew's leading the charge, this may one day come to pass.
For now, if you have a moment, I encourage you to sign their petition. If you'd rather not sign it, that's fine – St Matthew's will still accept you. I have a giant pink bunny rabbit you can cuddle instead.
Fads, memes – call them what you will – are a very human thing. We’re suckers for novelty. Take planking. It made the front page news in New Zealand this week. Last week it was the ill-fated Rapture predictions of Harold Camping. Naturally it seemed a fitting thing to combine them in the above cartoon.
It’s fascinating to me how these two things have lit up the web. Planking amuses me simply because it strikes me as a very low-brow form of performance art. (As one who did performance art as a study and a hobby for several years, I feel I can comment with some authority on that.)
The Rapture response encourages me more than anything though, because it shows that humanity on the whole doesn’t seem to be as beholden to the ravings of religious lunatics as much as it perhaps used to be. The predictions received the ridicule they deserved, pounding another nail into the coffin of such religious superstition. (As one who was also inclined to believe in ‘End Times’ mumbo-jumbo at one point in my life, I definitely feel qualified to comment on that as well.)
General psychology suggests we follow fads for emotional excitement, peer pressure or because it’s perceived to be counter-cultural. That’s funny. It sounds a lot like my experience of church for the first 30 years of my life.
Not that it was all bad though. I made a lot of friends, many that I still have. However, some who knew me in my younger days might be either surprised or concerned that I’m reading and enjoying books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens these days.
To tie this back to cartoons (as is my wont in this self-indulgent blog), I suppose cartooning is one thing that has been a constant for me in my life, even when I was a fundamentalist teenager. Humour, especially in cartoons, provided much of the real meaning in life for me, and still does.
I had reason to reflect on that again this week when I read online the obituary for the man who edited the book ‘No Mean Feat’, a collection of cartoons that featured some cartoons of mine when I was a teenager. That experience was one of the most memorable of my life, and a large part of the reason I am still cartooning today.
I had had some email correspondence with Bill Robbins back in 2007 when my ‘Gone Astray’ book was published and I had listed him in the acknowledgements. It was great to renew the connection at the time, and I’d hoped we could keep in touch. To look him up online again and discover that, unbeknownst to me, he had died of cancer at the relatively young age of 55 two years ago was saddening – not just for the fact that a warm, creative man I once knew had died – but that I had not made the effort to get to know him better and stay connected.
To come full circle to where I began this (now overlong) post, I think I realize now why humans love fads. They are a simple, humour-filled way to connect to others. Not necessarily – nor importantly – an entirely deep and meaningful way, but a simple and enjoyable one. That’s all we need to keep going sometimes. That moment of recognition is a human sharing that reminds us that we are all in the same boat on this planet, and the most meaningful thing we have is each other.
The fact that we will all plank on our deathbed someday, should be inspiration enough to get out and connect with those old friends and people we love before it’s too late - even if it’s emailing them a link to the latest Internet meme as a starter.
If the world really was to end and we all started planking involuntarily, wouldn’t it be great to go out with a collective smile on our faces?
For someone who is not really into religion anymore, I’ve been religiously listening to a grizzled old prophet this week. Mr Bob Dylan. As the poet laureate of rock and roll celebrates his 70th birthday this week, I must admit I’ve developed a serious admiration for the man, the myth and his music.
I’m only a relatively recent convert actually. Somehow – amazingly – appreciation for his music passed me by until the age of about 33, when I found a cheap copy of ‘Time Out of Mind’ and thought I should see what all the fuss was about. I was gone on him after that.
So it was with a slight feeling of foreboding that I attended his recent Auckland concert. It was my first, and could well be my last. The man is 70 after all. The never-ending tour has got to finish one day, and who knows when he’ll be back.
Reading the reviews in the paper the next day was amusing however. People apparently walked out of the show complaining it was too loud, or that his songs “all sounded the same” or basically that he just didn’t give them what they wanted, whatever that was.
What’s funny is that he’s been getting performance reviews like that for forty-five years. And yet, he’s still recording, still touring, still producing incredibly vital music, and doing it his own way. You’ve got to respect that.
I do wonder though, what it must be like to be the legendary Bob Dylan, still being told constantly that he sucks. Even though there are millions who still listen and love his sound, I wonder if it still sticks in his gravelly craw when another fan yells “JUDAS!” from the stalls, be it verbally, or virtually with their feet as they exit the venue in the middle of “Tangled Up in Blue”.
Performance reviews. They suck. Be it at work, on a stage or on the page, being measured against what someone else thinks you ought to be can be soul destroying. No matter what someone thinks about you, it never compares to what you think about yourself.
One of my favourite Bob Dylan quote is this: "A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do."
Bob Dylan’s reaction to that legendary ‘Judas’ heckle at his 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert inspires me too; “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar”, he said, then to his band, “Play f**king loud!”
Thanks for the music Bob. Keep playing, and I’ll keep listening.
And I’ll try to cartoon f**king loud.
Eye for an Eye
My favourite cartooning anecdote is about Gary Larson and his 'Cow Tools' cartoon.
If you've never encountered this particular panel from this cartoon genius, it might be best to read this first. Otherwise, if you get a hold of his book "The PreHistory of the Far Side" you'll see the full story of the cartoon that wasn't funny and no-one understood.
Briefly, 'Cow Tools' depicted - in common Gary Larson iconography - a cow on a farm standing in front of a table strewn with some odd looking objects, and simply titled 'Cow Tools'. It was meant to be a twist on the outdated anthropological observation that "man was the only animal that made and shaped tools." It was "weird and obtuse", as Larson puts it, and drew an unprecendented number of letters from readers who were perplexed at to its meaning.
I had my own 'cow tools' experience recently. I drew the above cartoon, riffing pretty clearly (I thought) on the 'eye for an eye' concept that's turned on its head by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, as I reflected on the recent killing of Osama bin Laden by US forces. I liked how it turned out as a drawing and thought it made an impactful statement with a bit of wry humour. Job done.
Then I showed it to three different people (two of whom are very trusted editors of mine - if they like the idea, I'm pretty sure most people will.) All I got were blank looks. Nobody got it. Even with some explaining, there were still only vague acknowledgements of the point ... and I guessed those were just being generous.
What happened? Who knows. All I do know is that the maxim "It's not funny if you have to explain it" applies probably tenfold to cartoons. So it was (and still is) back to the drawing board.
Still, I seem to remember when I first read Larson's 'Cow Tools' cartoon, I did understand it. (I had seen enough David Attenborough documentaries to get the idea of animals that made tools.)
Maybe someone out there gets what I was aiming at with this cartoon without having to read my explanation. If so, please email me and stroke my pathetically fragile cartoonist ego with any reflections on the cartoon itself, or the whole concept it was trying to communicate. I value reader response very highly ... apart from that guy who keeps emailing me saying 'Dude, you suck'. (He's just jealous.)
I came to a realisation today. I am heading into my 25th year as a published cartoonist. That freaks me out. (In a good way.)
If you read the 'About Me' section of this site, you'll get a bit more of the background of how I got the opportunity to do a weekly cartoon strip called The Twangups for a dinky little weekly country newspaper in the Riverina region of Australia at the ripe old age of 12 years old, so I don't need to repeat that here.
What I will do here, for the first time - and quite probably the last time - is publish some of those strips online. (i'm sure my 12 year old self would freak out in his own way at the very concept of the Internet.)
It's been interesting (and a little cringe-inducing) to look back through those first 100 or so strips, which I haven't done in almost a decade. It's a slightly unnerving peer into the primodial soup of my pre-pubescent brain.
For the uninitiated, The Twangups were a struggling punk rock band doing their best to survive as musicians, with an incompetent manager, frequent personality clashes and a tendency to freak out in frustration when things got the better of them. Not a bad premise. There are worse sitcoms out there.
By all accounts though the cartoons are awfully drawn. It was an exercise of trial and error, with about 90% error, and I know I should consider myself lucky that the paper actually agreed to keep publishing the thing for two and a half years. The writing is almost illegible and the plots of the strips are frequently confusing, and the humour often lame.
I can also see now how heavily influenced they were by the Charles M Schulz's Peanuts strips which I read all the time, with the 'wide-shot' layout and the body movements of the characters.
What does appear to me - like shiny buttons in a mud puddle - are signs that this 12 year old did understand some of the basic fundamentals of cartooning, such as how to set-up for a punchline, and even include the occasional humorous twist. Over time I got to know and like certain characters and enjoyed the banter they would have between them.
However, what shines out most brightly for me is the memory of how much fun I had drawing them, and how I looked forward to every Wednesday morning when I would see them in print - and watch the faces of school mates on the bus who read them and laughed.
I learned a lot from the process and discipline of having to produce something to a deadline, and how to communicate humour to a reader by putting myself in their shoes and asking what they would see as funny, not just what I would see. It's something I still try and work to today.
I'm too ashamed to put up too many of them here, so I've picked out three of my favourites, which just barely survive the test of time. I do still like the "Free measure and quote" gag, and the action sequence of the skateboard episode shows a pretty good grasp of cartoon character movement. I also like looking at the one of the punk rock band who have just been lined up for a gig at the Sydney Opera House - a classic Spinal Tap style moment ... written before I'd even seen Spinal Tap!
What I like most about it however, is just the fact that it was the first cartoon I ever had published. I'm really happy to still be drawing cartoons and having them published a quarter of a century later, and hope I'll be doing it in another quarter century.
Thanks for the memories Twangups, and for everything I learned from you. Until we meet again in 2037, keep freaking out!
Does anyone use the term 'snag' anymore? (ie. Sensitive New Age Guy). I think this cartoon was probably more linguistically relevant a couple decades ago. Putting that aside for the moment, they say that writers (and cartoonists) should write what they know, and I think I recognise the two guys in this cartoon.
About 15 years ago I was the guy on the left. These days I like to think I'm the guy on the right (minus the skin-head haircut and the anger management issues.) Truthfully, I'm probably somewhere in between.
Still, if the 36 year old me met the 21 year old me, I think I would want to punch him in the face too and say "Harden the f*** up!" (a la Chopper Read, as interpreted by comedian Heath Franklin.)
Now I've just realised that I released my inner snag by using the words "a 'la". Oh well.
Tomorrow night I'm off to see another comedian, Wil Anderson, in his new show, 'Man vs. Wil'. Sounds like it will be relevant to my current train of thought.
From what I've heard of his material to date, he sounds like the kind of bloke you can respect; one with heart and backbone - a phrase I first heard in Steve Biddulph's excellent book, The New Manhood.
In that book, he outlines The Five Truths of Manhood, which he borrowed from another writer, Richard Rohr. I repeat them here, for your own thought provocation.
THE FIVE TRUTHS OF MANHOOD
1. You are going to die
2. Life is hard
3. You are not that important
4. Your life is not about you
5. You are not in control of the outcome.
Wow. That's a punch in the face to most modern views of manhood. But as Biddulph says, "When we fail to accept these truths, we become a culture of perpetual childhood." Read the book yourself to get the full explanation, but I think those are wise words.
Maybe that's what this cartoon is all about. That is, recognising that it's good to keep an inner balance between the bastard and the wimp, the bloke and the metrosexual, the tough guy and the snag, the heart and the backbone.
All I know is, we need more blokes with both.