Portrait of the Author as a Young Artist

OK, I know what some of you are thinking. “These drawings are so amateurish. How did you ever get into drawing comic strips, and why have you practiced so little?” That’s kind of a long story, but here goes.

I fell in love with comic strips in infancy. We didn’t have a TV in the house, so my sister and I lived for the Sunday Funnies and its weekly carnival of full-color entertainment. We took to butchering Cathy and Outland strips as soon as we could hold crayons. None of these made much sense in hindsight (not even too us), so at age 4, I started experimenting with a simpler character: Susie the bear. Susie the bear would do simple, funny things like juggling and walking backwards. That way, I could read the book to my kids someday and they’d understand it, even in The Post-Comic Strip Age of the future. (How did I know that was coming?) I finished the book and rushed it off to my mother, hoping for a free introductory lettering job. This is what it looked like:

First question my mom asked was: That’s a bear? Where’s its other ear? That’s the arm? etc. She had to label it so neither of us would forget what was what.

That’s when it first hit me: I couldn’t draw. Who cares though? I couldn’t read or write or tie my own shoes yet. Good drawing would come with age, just like any other skill.

It would just happen by magic.

A few years went by, and would you know it, school took all the fun out of drawing. I was homeschooled, so I was never far removed from my mother’s artistic criticisms. (In all fairness, she had to know what it was to grade it.) There were a few colored-pencil hashings I could be proud of, but these took time, and taking time made drawing a boring activity. With the exception of flowers, birthday cakes, and the occasional cow, I pretty much stopped drawing for pleasure.

On and off throughout my grade school years, my sister and I took the daylong art classes that are periodically offered at home school support groups. We seemed to like these, so my parents signed us up for a weekly art class at the beginning of my seventh-grade year. It was hands-down the only good thing about middle school. Every week, we tried a different medium. Paint, tissue, paper mache, wire, clay – it was all on the table at one point or other during the school year. We even made our own rubber stamps.

(Gas station signs were a favorite motif during this time.) 

This new teacher challenged us to try increasingly complex techniques and showed us how to do things in advance rather than just criticising what we had done. I began to draw for pleasure again and started liking some of the results.

It was around this time that I also started writing for pleasure, something which I always swore I’d never do. Finally, the stars were aligning and my old dream of becoming a comic strip artist started to wake up from its long sleep. 

Yet for years I didn’t draw many strips or illustrations. Who would read them? How would I go about publishing them? The answers to these questions didn’t come about until my junior year of college when one of my professors told me I needed a WordPress account to participate in online discussions.

“What’s WordPress?”

“Only the best medium for free self-publication evahhh!”

Ok, she really didn’t say it like that, but that’s what I thought after checking this site out. I wasted little time in drawing some cat comics and putting them on my blog, because everybody knows the Internet only exists so we can show off our cute kitties.

Thank you Jen for being such a cute kitty! I will always maintain that it was because of your antics that I got my first strip published in the college newspaper, not because they were desperate for material.

This time, I realized that slow, laborious drawing is actually a gift in disguise. When I try to write funny stuff, I’m always too wordy, too off the wall like those old comic strip cut-ups of my early childhood. Having to draw forces me to slow down and think, and only having a small amount of room for text forces me to cut all but the best lines.

Digs Burton only exists because I realized comic strips need some form of loose plot to survive. The theatre plot is helpful for when I want to break form entirely and spoof an obscure piece of Spanish literature or a local news anchor I’ve always had mixed feelings about. (Thank you for your patience when I do this by the way.) Real sketch comedians probably wouldn’t invent that kind of material, except maybe in the early days of the Second City.

The other reason I chose the Digs Burton plot is because I live in (or more correctly near) the decaying part of my city. I’ve always admired the people who try to start new businesses and civic projects in that area. Maybe they’ll succeed and maybe they won’t, but the decision is an endless tug of war, not a flip of the coin.

This year, I plan to continue with Digs Burton, cat comics, election comics, and a few simple but funny strips. Expect an extended 12th Night strip some time this winter or spring too. It won’t lead to a career, but I’ll be submitting strips and written pieces to various publications anyway.

Do you have a love-hate relationship with one of your favorite hobbies? Is there anything you always want to become better at, even though it frustrates you? Does your cat inspire you to achieve your dreams? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Sign in and comment today!

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