Monday, August 07, 2006

What I Did at Cartoon Camp

As a purist I should produce this post as a graphic novel or a series of gag cartoons. But that would take too long.

A cartoonist from Alaska, a cartoonist from California, a cartoonist from Canada and a cartoonist from New Hampshire walk into a bar...

The first night, before I had met anyone, I carried my luggage and my load of insecurities into my room at the Hotel Coolidge. I scratched and fidgeted on the bed, caffeine and anticipation pushing away sleep. What lay ahead could be good or bad, but either way it would be the culmination of more than four decades of deferred gratification and cherished self-image. All my arm and leg hairs seemed animated to annoy me.

I'd left my bike in the car with the assurance of Robyn, on the front desk, that bike security wasn't an issue in downtown White River Junction. But then, around midnight, a sound like smashing auto glass echoed up from the parking lot below my windows. Perhaps the temptation of my Cross Check lying helplessly in the back of my station wagon had overwhelmed the scruples of some weak-willed citizen. I jumped up from the bed to look out.

The parking lot lay in placid silence. Every car was fine. I saw no reason for the noise.

Back in bed I finally began to relax. The buzzing in my head faded into the kind of restless dreams that plague the night before any big event. Half asleep was better than no sleep at all. I let the surrealistic images flow.

Then the spider dropped on me. I felt it land near the center of my shirtless chest and crawl to my left. I brushed across and upward to launch it away from me, and reached up for the lamp.

The spider was expiring in a crumpled little heap on the next pillow. It had been your basic stripy house spider. I felt bad for killing it, but it did ambush me.

Lights out. Back to scratching and fidgeting, as every tickle of body hair seemed to be another invader.

And then it was morning. The alarm clock on my cell phone went off with a cheery chirp. I peeled myself off the sheets and lurched into the bathroom, where I'd left the last of my travel coffee. Shooting these dregs into my gullet started the first few sparks of brain activity so I could shower and dress to go find more, lots more.

Downtown White River Junction has been conveniently and quite closely bypassed by the main roads, so people don't seem to drive through there on the way somewhere else. It has a timeless quality because of that. Cars did drive down the main street and fill much of the on-street parking, but it was not the continuous pedestrian-grinding conveyor belt of canned humanity you find on the major thoroughfares of most cities and towns.

Coffee and baked goods awaited just a couple of doors down, at The Baker's Studio. At home I only have to crawl 38 feet to the coffee pot. Walking 150 yards from my room to the bakery helped me work on my endurance. Must...reach...finish...line...

Robyn from the front desk at the hotel waited at the front desk of the Center for Cartoon Studies to check me in there. She is actually an accomplished graphic novelist and cartoonist and sort of a graduate student/teaching assistant at the CCS. The Center is such a novel concept that traditional roles seem a little hard to assign. Robyn at times seemed like a magical creature that would appear with whatever was needed.

Inside the classroom, Harry Bliss and James Sturm stood near the door as students straggled in and found seats at the four large tables. James is the school's director. Harry is a highly successful cartoonist.

What's a highly successful cartoonist? One who no longer works as a waiter. A merely successful cartoonist might still have a pull a few shifts at the restaurant, or sell computers or printing presses, or teach art. Harry's website lists 16 New Yorker covers. To sell one cover is a pinnacle for a cartoon artist. Sixteen? We can probably learn something here.

I was fully prepared to be talked down to, and totally ready to accept it. So fantastic surprise number one was the egalitarian nature of the brainstorming and exchange of information. The class immediately turned into a bunch of people who spoke much of the same language, some more fluently than others.

Over beers later on, one of the students remarked that he had never met another cartoonist before this, let alone been in a room full of them. We are accustomed to being outcasts, or at least rare. How do you explain the staggering number of unsolicited submissions that inundate the major markets daily? We each feel so alone, and yet we are replicated and scattered across the face of the Earth, all scribbling in our sketch books and sending little packets of hope to be dashed on the harsh reefs of editors' desks.

One of the students was a psychiatrist. She insisted she could separate her roles and not view the rest of us clinically, but I'd still like to see her notebook.

It soon became apparent that the class was not competitive and had no stars. What it had was a bunch of artists or writers who each had strong abilities and areas to build up.

For our first exercise, each table had to brainstorm as a group for a couple of minutes to come up with ideas to illustrate a premise we had been handed on a slip of paper. Then the group would assign one person to create a drawing in two minutes. Harry would have to guess what the starting premise had been by looking at the drawing. I was blown away when Harry and James said I nailed the composition in my drawing of "nuns in a barroom brawl." But lest I think the rivers were all going to flow my way from now on, mine dried right up in some later exercises. But balancing the good with the not-so-good, I came away feeling pretty damn good. Maybe I can do this after all.

I've said before that teachers of creative subjects might be reluctant to dump on anyone so hard that they decide to quit putting tuition money into the lost cause, but I didn't feel cynically misled. So either the whole thing was on the level or they need to introduce an acting curriculum along with the cartooning, because, damn, they're good.

Jamie from Alaska kept me from following my usual tendency to run and hide. On the night of the first day of class he cajoled me into a late beer and a flip through his portfolio. I had carefully thrown together a small folder of my recent favorites to bring to the school, and then left them behind on the floor of my office. I showed him what I had, and got a couple of good laughs. That's all we ask, good laughs. Jamie's stuff was stylistically self-assured. He decided what he wanted and kept after it from a much younger age than I did.

Harry works in a classic artistic style. I thought of it as "unplugged." While most of the other cartoonists went on enthusiastically about Photoshop, Harry produced his effects right in front of us, with washes over line drawings and graphite shading. This is not to say that he doesn't know or can't use electronic techniques. He just learned the old way and is very comfortable with it. I'm eight years older than he is, and lived nomadically for many years. I like simple media that don't need to be plugged in.

Many of the students drew constantly. The most visually oriented were drawing fairly fully-realized sketches. I could understand them embracing electronic image manipulation the way I embraced electronic editing and revision. Because I pursued writing professionally and drawing as a sideline, I did not run along with the leading edge of imaging technology, but I'll kill anyone who tries to take away my computer as a writing tool.

The evening of Day Two we were technically on deadline to have a finished gag cartoon by 10 the next morning. So four of us decided to hike over to the next state to a brew pub to either increase the octane of our creative juices or kill enough brain cells to make our ideas seem funny enough to spend the ink on.

The walk was longer than we anticipated. By the time we figured that out, we had gone so far that we would lose even more pub time by hiking back for a car. And someone wisely pointed out that we might not want to drive on the way back anyway.

We did a good job cracking each other up. And our waitress had a boob tattoo of Chinese characters. I think it was Geoff the Canadian who finally asked her what it said.

"It means 'high spirits,'" she said.

After she left we came up with alternate translations. The one Geoff finally used for his cartoon was "It means 'sexual harassment.'" We'd also tried "It means 'my eyes are up here, buddy.'"

On the last day, Harry had left. Our instructor was Karen Sneider, another working professional. She observed that she's "kind of the Antiharry" when it comes to drawing technique. She works a lot in photoshop, though not as much as one cartoonist both she and Harry invoked, who does it all in the computer and never puts out anything on paper.

Everyone agreed that the prime objective is a good cartoon. How you get there is your own business. There are many tools.

When the class finally ended, each person demonstrated their style of leave-taking. Some obviously subscribe to the "rip-off-the-Band-Aid" school, while others have trouble jetting away from a great experience. I hung out for a while before drifting slowly out into the summer afternoon. After a leisurely trip through the Coolige Cards convenience store for travel coffee and a chunk of chocolate, I found Geoff the Canadian still around the Hotel Coolidge parking lot. We had one last chat before parting to return to our former lives. We wished each other well. Then it was time to go.

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