My Life As a Cartoonist: In Words

March 10th, 2011

In Omaha, Nebraska, where I live, an urban legend exists that I’ve been struck by lightning—twice. The truth is I have been hit by lighting, an incident I write about in my memoir, Inklings. But when I explain to friends and strangers alike that I’ve only been struck once, I often sense their disappointment. And who can blame them? After all, when your belief is that someone has survived two lightning strikes, anything less just isn’t as compelling.

I have no idea how this story morphed into what it has become. Still, as an editorial cartoonist, I’m used to misunderstandings, shrugging off the occasional assertion that I’m either a conservative or a liberal (I consider myself a passionate centrist, taking shots at both sides of the aisle). It’s understandable to see how such perceptions come about. Most of us are inundated with information; in our busy lives our subconscious selves package the world into this category or that, attempting to make order out of the chaos. I’m just as guilty. How often I have concluded whom the culprit is based on a newspaper headline only to read on, beyond the first few paragraphs, discovering that the story is far more complex than I first thought, discarding all my initial cartoon ideas.

So I guess it should have come as no surprise when a few readers came to my book expecting a graphic memoir. After all, it is the recollection of a cartoonist. And doesn’t the cover include a drawing by the author? What threw me was that a few readers seemed to have a difficult time reconciling that a cartoonist had disavowed drawings in favor of words. (Inklings does include a few sketches. More on that later).

Truth be told, it never occurred to me to go the graphic route.

On the surface, my reasons were simple. After nearly two decades as a full-time political cartoonist, I wanted to spread my wings. As much as I enjoy creating a daily editorial cartoon, let’s face it, the space can be limiting—cartoon word balloons with too many characters are unsightly and cumbersome. On average, readers spend roughly seven seconds with an editorial cartoon. Here’s the setup. Here’s the punch line. Bam. It’s over. How about a little time for exposition? Character development? Foreshadowing?

On the other hand, finding myself in the thick of things while on deadline, working closely with editorial page colleagues, has provided an invaluable education on the art of writing clearly. It is said that in good writing one must put every word on trial for its life. How often this principle has forced me to hold court at my ink-blotted drawing table—beyond passing judgment on various political figures—employing bottles of correction fluid and X-ACTO knives, smothering or flicking to the floor, superfluous words.

Aesthetic Madness

When I first tried my hand at creative nonfiction—over a dozen years ago—I was at once intimidated and excited for the possibilities that existed on all those blank pages. Even though I was writing on a computer, that’s how I saw it—a towering stack of paper reaching into space. There was no limit to what I could write, for a thousand pages if I wanted, going off on as many tangents as my brain would allow. And then some. Eventually, of course, I would discover that even in literary writing, one must limit one’s words, depending on the story at hand. Still, it was intoxicating to know that I could draft sentences more complex than any string of words I might put into a cartoon.

In some ways, I suppose, I also believed I had something to prove. Certainly, to those who knew me only as a cartoonist, to those in the newsroom, to readers of my cartoons, but especially to myself—that yes, I am capable of  “real” writing.

Most importantly, there was an aesthetic method to my madness. Ironic as it may sound, because I so wanted to create a book rich in visual landscapes, I realized that it was words that could deliver me, not drawings; I didn’t want my artwork getting in the way of the visual aspect of my story. Some of the strongest images in my mind have come not from viewing a painting in a museum, or from reading a cartoon in a newspaper, but from absorbing a story rich in description and detail. I not only see the image in my head, but I sense it, feel it, in my bones, on my skin. Whether we draw or not, I like to think that most of us have a vivid imagination, capable of filling in the blanks, consciously or unconsciously forming images in our heads.

As intimately as possible, I wanted to show readers what I had witnessed as a child, in the home where I grew up—a small working class bungalow near the packing houses of south Omaha—its rooms congested with the stacks of broken TVs my father repaired and sold from our front porch. Some TVs had been gutted, their veins and organs strewn about or jumbled in cardboard boxes. Others flickered and glowed, throwing strange shadows throughout our living and dining rooms. Wedged in among the TVs: my father’s drum kit where he occasionally smacked out his life’s frustrations in big band style, the cymbals hovering above the junk like flying saucers, shimmering and wavy from the light of the TVs. I wanted to show readers not just what I saw, but how it felt to be there, from my point of view, in the present tense, with all my senses.

The Unconscious Cartoonist

A drawing is limiting and can only be expected to work so hard. Besides, to have created a graphic memoir showing every scene from my point of view, as though my eyes were the lens of a movie camera, would have been tedious, visually speaking, for the reader. This approach would have prevented the reader from ever seeing me, only everyone and everything else in my path. Besides, I did want readers to visualize what I looked like, and everyone else in my book, in their own way, based on just enough details. This was more than respecting the bond between reader and author. I wanted this memoir, about a cartoonist’s life, to engage readers’ imaginations, and the visual parts of their brains. In other words, I wanted to connect with the readers’ unconscious cartoonist.

Generally, graphic memoirs don’t work this way. Yes, the narrative is written in first person, but the panels often include drawings of the narrator, usually shown from another point of view. In this way, graphic memoirs are like movies—perhaps more specifically, like foreign films with subtitles. We are then watching the narrator’s story unfold, from across the room, or from across the yard, or from high above, going back and forth, to the words, to the images, again to the words. We see the narrator’s expression, her every twitch. But we are not in it, inside the narrator’s head, feeling that twitch right along with her. There is space, air, between the reader, or at least the view of the “camera” in the panel, and the narrator. We, the reader, are out “here,” looking in on the storyteller.

Don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite books are of the graphic variety, including Alison Bechdel’s touching Fun Home and certainly, Art Spiegelman’s work of genius, Maus. I can’t imagine either existing in any other form. The bluish-green images of young Alison and her family’s gothic house and its inhabitants are exquisitely rendered. And the stark black and white and horrific scenes depicted by Spiegelman are as compelling and moving as anything I’ve seen on celluloid (I’m also a fan of foreign films). I suppose one might argue that it is the very separation between the written word and the image that engages the reader, not to mention that the artist’s particular style can save plenty of words by evoking a mood by something as simple as color choice. And yes, to invoke a cliché, often, a picture can speak a thousand words, the drawings showing the details of a room, the expressions on a face without having to describe them in words (Conversely, sometimes a few sentences can do the job of a full page of drawings.)

Ultimately, I’m not saying one approach is superior to the other. It’s just that a graphic memoir wasn’t the right approach for me this time around, for this particular book.

Indeed, I’m not ruling out creating a graphic memoir in the future. For one thing, despite the rigors of deadlines, I enjoy drawing. Especially after the pencil sketch is finished and all that’s left is inking, when I can lose myself in the lines, daydreaming or meditating. It’s tempting to believe that a graphic memoir or graphic novel wouldn’t take as long to produce as a written narrative. I admit this is a delusion, a fallacy, especially for someone like me who is practically addicted to revising.

As I was writing Inklings, it didn’t occur to me to include drawings. It wasn’t until after I had completed a rough draft that the concept of including sketches within the text of the narrative suddenly made sense. I remember talking to my literary agent, Amy Moore-Benson, about the possibility of including a few drawings inside the pages. Amy was enthusiastic about the idea and this became part of the proposal she sent to Becky Saletan—at the time with Harcourt, and later Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—who acquired Inklings. Becky loved the idea of incorporating drawings within the text, images that wouldn’t appear predictably at, say, the start of each chapter, but rather, would be sprinkled throughout—little surprises. My words, therefore, would become the cake, a really good and tasty cake—the drawings, an occasional dollop of frosting. Soon I was clearing my desk of my laptop and putting on my illustrator’s hat, pen and paper at the ready, imagining I had just been handed someone else’s manuscript, rereading the pages with fresh eyes, taking notes as to what might make for an interesting sketch.

I knew right off that I would avoid showing myself and the other people who appear in my memoir; instead, I would focus on the objects that play a role in my story, objects that often carry a talisman quality. My father’s fedora, for example, makes an appearance during a pivotal scene. Also, my mother’s wigs on her Styrofoam heads. And a Dizzy Wizzy, a toy my father invented.

One incident I attempted to capture in ink, but eventually abandoned: the moment I was struck by lighting. I just couldn’t find an image that came close to expressing the piercing flash of light, the power and magnitude of that electrical charge that entered and exited my body, the instantaneous crack of thunder that rattled the earth when I was seventeen and watching an approaching storm.

Some things are better left written.