Sunday, September 27, 2015

Watterson and Me

Spoiler alert: If you intend to read the Diva comic strip on The A Cappella Blog, this post does include several spoilers.

The fall of 2012, I launched a comic strip on The A Cappella Blog, called Diva. It was the story of a superficially diva-like young woman named Gabigail who goes to college and has her heart set on singing with an a cappella group, only to discover that the only a cappella group on campus is all-male. Rather than direct her musical aspirations elsewhere, she tries out for the group anyway, woos them with her talents, and becomes the first female member of the group. Over the 140 strips to follow in the first season, she finds a home with the group, starts dating her musical director, suffers the disappointment of coming up short in competition, and endures a lot of the bad puns that, alongside talking heads illustration, turned out to be my calling card as a cartoonist.

After a total of 412 strips, I put the story to bed last spring.

*

I’ve always loved comics. I remember reading the full-color Sunday comics each week growing up. By the time I got to my middle school years, I had transitioned to favoring Calvin and Hobbes. I loved the self-contained story arcs that Bill Watterson unfurled over a period of weeks. I appreciated the call backs and reprisals with babysitter Rosalyn and the cardboard box transmogrifier. I loved the imagination, the idealism, and the sheer artistry of the strips.

And, as if to guarantee that I would always hold Calvin and Hobbes dear to me, just as I came to love the strip the most, it went away.

Having accomplished all that he wanted to, and readying himself for a life focused on his family and his painting, Watterson brought his comic strip to a close in 1995, after ten years in syndication. Moreover, he promptly disappeared from the spotlight. Folks have likened him to JD Salinger and the comparison isn’t baseless, for he avoided the media and interview requests, and resisted any urge he might have had to reprise Calvin or launch a new mainstream creative endeavor.

I pined. I came to enjoy Bill Amend’s Fox Trot as a poor man’s Calvin and Hobbes and liked Scott Adams’s Dilbert a fair bit, but neither really broached the level of excitement Watterson had engendered in me. And so, whether it was my own process of maturing, or the absence of a strip to truly love, I left behind the funny pages.

*

In 2011, I came upon Nevin Martell’s Searching for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip. It’s an off-beat part-memoir, part-biography, part-ode to Watterson, his comic, and his fans for a pretty fascinating read that comes about as far as it can without any voluntary participation on the part of Watterson himself.

Part of the book that stuck with me was Watterson’s initial struggle as an artist. That for all of his gifts, it was such a fight to worm his way into a local paper, then into the outskirts of syndication, before finally arriving at a modicum of mainstream attention.

Watterson operated in a pre-Internet world, and his journey got me thinking about how much greater access I had to an audience than Watterson did in his day. While he had to scrape to find space in a newspaper with a circulation of a few hundred, I had a website sitting, waiting with a low end of a thousand unique visitors per week.

I thought about writing my own script--that for all of my lack of experience and training, it would be not only creatively challenging but fun to get back into drawing, which I hadn’t really done since the tenth grade, and that this would be a new format for storytelling.

*

The Diva project was not, by most measures, a success. It failed to garner a very vocal niche audience among visitors to The A Cappella Blog and didn’t boost readership in any recognizable way. To be fair, neither did I go out of my way to promote the comic after the first few weeks; shortly after it started to run, I grew self-conscious about my limitations as a visual artist, and didn’t feel compelled to draw anymore attention to the strip than it would organically receive from appearing on the site.

Still, when I look back on the best that the strip had to offer, I’m not sorry for having pursued it. I crafted a story that tackled gender inequities in a cappella (and by thinly veiled extension, American society); I told love stories; I crafted musical jokes. And perhaps best of all, I drew. Over the two years it took to draw, ink, scan, and file the strips to be posted over a period of three years, I best remember the process of taking thirty to forty five minutes--after a stressful day at the office, after dinner and studying vocabulary words for the GRE, and before sitting down to write my prose--to put pencil to paper and sketch. It was totally different from any other practice I engaged in at the time--artistically, professionally, or personally. And regardless of the visual aesthetics of the end result, I dare say it was beautiful.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Feel Like Home (Part 2)

For many years, I referred to the Center for Talented Youth (CTY)--and particularly my times in the summer at Skidmore College, both as a student and later as a staff member--as home.

I’ve had the good fortune of having plenty of good friends in my life, from childhood through college into adult life. Yet, for the longest time the people I would encounter at CTY seemed fundamentally different. There was an element of self-selection and elitism there. To over-simplify a bit, CTY kids take a test like the SAT in seventh grade and score at the level of the average graduating high school senior or higher. Thus, they tend to be bright. You might profile them as bookish and nerdy, and that perspective isn’t entirely inaccurate. After all the kids selected to test for the program are traditionally top performers in their schools and on state testing, and while nerdy stereotypes aren’t universally true, there is a kernel of truth to the idea that many of them are avid scientists, readers, or mathematicians from a young age.

Growing up, at home, I found friendship based in common interests like video games, basketball, and pro wrestling. The friendships that stuck matured into more than liking the same things. But as a CTY kid, at the ages of 12, 13, and 14, I discovered connections on a different level. The thing I marvel at in retrospect is how many friendships I struck up and even maintained over hand-written letters, then email, then Facebook for years to follow, with people with whom I shared so little in common on a superficial level. People who I talked with about love, family lives, politics, religion, different styles of throwing a Frisbee, and Monty Python.

And I think that was always one of my favorite parts about CTY: getting to know other people, and getting to know myself better through the process of sharing parts of me with them. This held true as a kid and equally so when I was in college and immediately after, forging new friendships with people from around the country and around the world.

Then I started working for CTY full time. And the magic died.

That’s a melodramatic way of saying it, and to be fair, working with CTY full-time was one of the most rewarding professional opportunities I’ve ever had. The problem is that the longer I stayed with the organization and the better I got at my job, the less fun I actually had during the summers. I managed logistics. I answered questions from parents. I hired people. I fired people. I sent misbehaving children home early and took a hard line with parents that, no, they could not get prorated refunds on their tuition.

I still met some interesting people, and dare I say even cultivated some new friendships with the people I supervised, but just the same, there were barriers in place. Most of them would only open up to me but so far and to be fair, I’d only open up to them so far as well, ever conscious that though we got along in that moment, in a matter of weeks I might be facilitating a conversation with them about correcting how they taught or how they supervised children; I might be telling them they were no longer welcome to work with CTY.

Throughout my first nine years with CTY--as a student, RA, senior RA, and dean of residential life--I looked forward to my arrival on location as nothing short of the best three-to-seven weeks of a year. It was when I had the most fun. When I learned the most. When I felt comfortable.

It was home.

And I lost it.

I decided to leave. I had quite a few reasons to head out of a full-time position with CTY, most of which had more to do with aspirations outside the program than disillusionment with it. Just the same, I’d be lying if I said that losing that sense of magic about the summer didn’t have something to do with it.

At the end of what I expected to be my penultimate summer working full-time with the program, I spent my last couple of nights hanging out with people the senior administrators I had supervised that summer. We talked while we were packing boxes. And over dinners. And back at the apartments before, after, and during a late-night viewing of Pitch Perfect.

And I talked with Heather. Heather, who of all the people I talked with at the time I had the least personal history with, and with whom I’d probably interacted the least during that summer. We talked about beginnings with CTY. And movies. And music we liked. She played me a video of her playing piano and singing a song she’d written for her father. And I told her about my a cappella blog and my intention of applying to MFA programs in creative writing that fall.

We talked for hours on consecutive nights, a rotating cast of characters joining us for parts of those conversations. And much more than enjoying good conversation with a pretty girl, I felt an old familiar magic begin to spark once more.

I had the sensation that I was talking with the single most interesting person I had ever met. Not so much out of common interest as sometimes-common, sometimes-complementary perspective.

I wrote earlier that CTY had felt like home. And I wrote much earlier about the way in which some people feel like home. Like they can find a foundation in one another and they can build a frame. They have electricity and they work out the plumbing. Given enough time, they fill in the drywall and the insulation.

I found Heather over vegan entrees and conversations on the worn and dusty couches of an on-campus apartment. And I found a new home.