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.

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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.

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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.

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