Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Baby Blues

One of the very nice things about being a member of the Charles M. Schulz Museum is that you don't have to waste a lot of time seeking out your favorite cartoonists. Sooner or later, they all come to you.

So it was last Sunday, when I went to a talk and book signing by the gentlemen who do the successful comic strip "Baby Blues," Jerry Scott (writing) and Rick Kirkman (art). Jerry had been scheduled to appear last year with his "Zits" co-creator Jim Borgman but canceled for a medical emergency, so it was good to finally see him. They gave a swell chalk talk in the museum's little theater, clearly something they have a lot of experience with. Jerry spoke and Rick drew, anticipating and punctuating each other's points like a good comedy team, and they did a nice job talking about the origin of the strip, how their partnership works, how they developed the characters and themes, etc.

View from the back row of the theater. My wife and I habitually
sat up front for these things until we figured out that, when it came
time to queue up for book signings afterward, everyone behind us
got to file out of the room and get in line first. We learn by doing.

The most fun part of the talk was a look at some of the outraged letters they receive from readers--some not entirely unexpected, as when the strip jokes about (and shows) breastfeeding, but others from completely beyond left field. For example, I learned that you never want to anger square dancers. They also marveled at the mail they got when cartoonist Stephan Pastis borrowed their characters for his "Pearls Before Swine" comic strip--for example, showing the "Baby Blues" toddlers driving a car to go on a beer run. The very best part of that story? Stephan himself sitting beside me in the theater laughing his butt off.

I was really looking forward to meeting Jerry and Rick afterward. Jerry I didn't know, but Rick and I have met electronically in an Internet forum. He's said some very kind things about Mom's Cancer and even given me some invaluable Photoshop advice. So I figured he'd recognize my name, and it turned out Jerry did, too, and we all had a very nice conversation for a minute until it was time to move the line along.

Rick, Jerry and me

What Rick is drawing in the photo above. This
brings my collection of original "Mom and Dad
cartoon character art" to two (see Borgman).

Once again, after hearing Scott and Rick's talk, I was struck by how hard these guys work. Anytime I've met professionals at the top of their field (any field, not just cartooning), I came away impressed by the time and dedication they devote to it. That seems like such an obvious secret of success--"hard work, huh, who'da figured?"--and yet it seems to be the one thing I've seen that always separates the achievers from the wannabes. It also always strengthens my resolve to do better.



Mike said...

Much jealousy from the other coast.

I did have the opportunity to interview about two dozen cartoonists a few years ago for a series the paper did when it changed out a lot of strips -- I interviewed the new guys as well as the rest. Jerry Scott was very, very funny and we laughed through much of the interview but it wasn't just yuks, which is key. He's quite analytical about his work, but cracks himself up at the same time, which has to be a good way to go through life.

As for the hard work, an actress I interviewed once said, "You have to 'have to have it.' A lot of people want it, but not many 'have to have to have it.'" Since then, I've kept that in the back of my mind as I've run into various folks at the top of the heap -- in the arts, in sports, wherever. The ones who make it are the ones who absolutely have to, and they're rare.

ronnie said...

Thanks for yet another peek behind the scenes. Oh, I do envy you Cal-i-forn-aye-ay-ians with your Charles Schulz Museums and such and such! I guess I'd have to go all the way to New Yawk to catch these kinds of events. Oh well, as long as you keep reporting back on them, I can live vicariously through you, giving some meaning to my colourless, cartoonistless life.

No pressure, though.

Brian Fies said...

Mike, I've heard the same thing, and I think that's it exactly. Two things about "you have to have it" interest me: people who have to have it but never get it--how long do you bang your head against the wall? How do you know when to give up? And what about the middle-of-the-bell-curve people who maybe aren't at the very top, don't really "have to have it," and manage to build a nice professional career anyway? These are things I think about....

Ronnie, your life's not entirely cartoonistless. You'll always have me.

Horse With No Name said...

I think "have to have it" means different things to different people. For some, it might mean that they truly believe that that is their destiny. But for others, it might mean, if I don't get "this," I'll either end up dead, or I'll end up living homeless on the street in the future. There are no other alternatives.

I envy those who can have alternatives, who don't only have one avenue of escape to pursue. But I'm not one of those. And thinking, "I have to have it," hasn't worked out quite yet.

Truthfully, I believe it isn't about "having to have it." I believe it's about opportunities that may come into one's life, either through chance meetings with someone who may be able to help you get where you want to get, or just plain luck combined with hard work. But sometimes working hard is difficult when nothing seems to be going right. You either have to have the incredibly positive genetics of a Schwarzenegger or Gene Simmons, a personality who knows they can't fail, otherwise, you escape into other modes of life, like drinking a bottle of vodka every day, or other similar nonproductive endeavors that do nothing to help you get where you want to get.

But that's life. Like the chance that a single sperm will reach the egg first, the chances of success for the billions of people on this planet are on the same level.

Many extremely gifted people have failed before us. So if that is any of our destinies, at least we are in good company.

Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling said she contemplated suicide in a recent article, when her life wasn't going well. And there are thousands of other authors like her right now, who will never come anywhere close to achieving what she eventually did.

So what to do. Life is a struggle. It's hard. There are no guarantees. So cheers, and here's to another shot of vodka.

Brian Fies said...

Horse, your post deserves a more thoughtful response than I can muster right now. The easy answer is to advise someone to "keep trying, winners never quit, cream rises to the top, etc. etc.," but I don't think that's adequate or realistic. Especially in a highly competitive field, when a thousand people aim for the same spot, sometimes there's just no way to win no matter how good you are. The one guy who wins always gives that advice, and he may sincerely mean it and it worked for him, but no one ever asks the other 999 who were just as talented and hard working and didn't make it. How do you know if you're good enough? How do you know when to quit?

I do have some faith that if a person keeps trying, and keeps working to improve their skills, opportunities arise--maybe not the ones they wanted or expected, but something to grab hold of and build upon. I think an important gauge is objective, external signs of improvement. For example, I used to submit comic strip ideas to the newspaper syndicates. For a long time I got nothing but form rejection slips; a while later I might get a little handwritten note on the bottom of the rejection slip; a while later, an editor might write me a detailed critique. That progress reassured me I was moving in the right direction. You'll note I never became a syndicated cartoonist, so in a sense I still failed. But that experience prepared me for my book and other opportunities that have come up since. Not the opportunities I expected, but I was ready for them anyway.

Conversely, I don't see any shame in a person giving something a fair try, deciding it's not going to work for them (i.e., not seeing objective, external signs of progress), and walking away knowing they did their best. I think there's something to be said for not making yourself miserable for 10 or 20 years in vain. Life's too short.