Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cartooning: The Original Social Media

My friend the talented and prolific cartoonist Jamie Smith wrote in his blog recently about how he likes to work in public spaces like cafes because the background noise of people helps him concentrate.

As often happens with Jamie's observations, it made me realize something: cartooning is inherently social. As also so often happens, I feel like an idiot for not realizing it sooner and incorporating the principle years ago.

It makes perfect sense. Who is the cartoonist? The doodler draws in the back of class and hands the sketches around for the reward of laughter. Even the most awkward social outcast who draws will try to find someone with whom to share it. Fine art might or might not be snooty, but cartooning is always looking for a friend.

Writers have been known to haunt cafes and bars, too, but their art takes more time to absorb. A cartoonist has the unique ability to dash off a sketch that can be appreciated in seconds, but viewed over and over.

A stand-up comedian can snap off a hilarious observation, but repetition might make it tiresome to the performer or the audience. For the cartoonist, the panel or page can be as fresh as when it was new. If the material doesn't depend on a topic that goes stale, every new viewer can enjoy it at full potency. The cartoonist can draw in a room alone or with a handful of people, but the product can be reproduced and distributed almost infinitely.

When I moved to the woods in 1987 I did not fully appreciate how the isolation of rural life would affect my ability to work. I have the same need for social contact that any cartoonist has. When I lived in a small city I liked to go out into it to watch people. I didn't need to meet them, just to have them around. Then I got pulled off into outdoor writing, which is a strange name for the genre, if you think about it. I did do a lot of the writing outdoors, but the term refers to writing about activities conducted outdoors. The craft required that I do these outdoor things. I wanted to know if they were really a good option for the working class compared to the more expensive and destructive pursuits marketed to them. The answer turns out to be yes and no. By the time I came back around to my original goals I was already here with a snug home and an income that looks better and better as other sectors of the economy topple.

A recent public radio segment I heard featured some people interviewing for jobs at a call center. The salary was $20,000 a year. The company they were applying to work for has very strict policies. One applicant came in with very businesslike attire and years of experience to try for this job that pays what would barely be a living wage in many parts of this country. Seriously, try to have a halfway decent place to live, a somewhat reliable used car and regular dental checkups for $20,000 a year in the Baltimore-Washington area. Forget trying to live in a truly nice place and have a solid vehicle and maybe a family for that kind of money. So my steady trickle, which has actually managed to exceed call center money after all these years, doesn't seem like such a stupid choice.

Jamie mentioned that some other cartoonists have said they run the radio or have the TV news on in the background. I get drawn into the broadcast, which can be good for generating ideas, but hard when I'm trying to follow through on one of them.

Ideas flow when I'm supposed to be doing something else. The social context of work or school provides the base level of activity that stimulates the brain and offers the promise of someone to laugh as soon as you finish and show them your work. In Jackson I could often do good finished renderings. In Wolfe City I can't. I drag home bedraggled scraps of scratch paper with scribbled doodles and notes and hope I will have the energy to overcome my media paralysis and actually finish some of them on my so-called "days off."

Web publishing offers the possibility of a worldwide audience. The tricky part is hooking up cash flow to this exposure. You also have to avoid getting sucked into the vast array of truly fantastic passive entertainment and educational material on that same worldwide buffet. Your odds of being seen are really no better than if you scrawled on the wall of an alley in a second rate city on the skids. The difference is that the city can now be anywhere in the world, with the correspondingly greater number of lost pedestrians who might stumble into your seedy neighborhood and appreciate your doodle. Unless they leave a comment, the social aspect is conspicuously lacking. And processing and responding to those comments requires another chunk of your time.

Home alone today with cats climbing on me or my table, I have to try to get some work done.

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