Sunday, June 8, 2014

When College Cartoons were Great

I started my comix career as a political cartoonist for the Ohio State Lantern in the early Eighties, as I've written here before. Here's one on Ronnie Reagan (above). It was a great era of college cartooning, an exceptional era, in fact, unmatched, before or since. Student papers in the late Seventies and early Eighties spawned some of the giants of their respective fields; mainstream political cartoons, daily strips, alt-weekly strips, indy comix, you name it. 

I've followed the careers of my accomplished contemporaries at other colleges over the years.  I started this hobby when I was still a student at Ohio State. There was a room in The Lantern offices where stacks of other college newspapers were available, dozens of them. Papers sent each other comp copies back then, in some kind of collegiate sharing arrangement. It was great for me, because I got to check out the competition, both as a fan of comix and to get a heads up on people against whom I'd be eventually vying for jobs, I thought. I was right about that last bit, as you'll see. Curiously, I've met very few of these creators.

I'll start with my predecessors at The Lantern. During an amazing 10-year period, The Lantern was the launching pad for at least a dozen cartoonists who would go on to be pros. My own three-year tenure, from early 1981 to the end of 1983,  landed smack in the middle of this run. People in the comix biz marveled at this output and wondered what the university was doing to foster such a "cartoon factory," as the head of the College Press Syndicate called OSU.

The answer? Not a damn thing. But what Ohio State had was The Lantern, a daily paper with room for comics. And its readership was huge, 35,000 a day, making it the biggest college paper in the country. As an added bonus, it paid for cartoons, $15 each. A pittance (although I had weekly papers that paid less!) but if I did three political cartoons and a couple spot cartoons in a week, I got a $75 paycheck. That was decent money for a student in 1981! More than I could make delivering pizzas and I was making fucking cartoons! The editors used to grumble that I made money more than them. Last time that happened in my career. What a college paper offered more than anything was a chance to be published. I wouldn't be here today if not for The Lantern (as rotten as my cartoons were). 

Brian Basset. He was the first of the outstanding Ohio State cartoonists, starting in 1975. He was an art major who had a jones to draw political cartoons. Basset drew like a pro from day one. Scratch that. Better than a typical pro! The dude was superior to 75 percent of the pro political cartoonists of the era, most of whom were somnambulant geezers who were still drawing with grease pencils and using tired tropes and label-happy cliches from the Fifties. Basset left The Lantern in 1978 for a gig at The Seattle Times, which he held until he was laid off in 1994, an early victim of the downsizing apocalypse that has ravaged newspapers. 

His college cartoons (above) had the heavy Ronald Searle influence that was popular with the new generation of political cartoonists at the time. Man, the S.O.B. could draw. You can see why a big paper snapped him up.

He later created a couple daily comic strips. He's still at it. 

Basset was followed by Scott Willis, who held the political cartoonist job from 1978 until he graduated at the end of 1980. Willis became an even bigger campus legend than Bassett. I started at Ohio State in 1979, in the middle of Willis' tenure, fresh off the garbage truck, a kid with a vague idea of doing something in comix, but not sure what. Every morning, I grabbed a Lantern off the big pile at the entrance to the dorm cafeteria and read it while eating breakfast. It didn't take me long to notice Willis' cartoons. "I could do that," I thought. A year and a half later, I was. 

He wasn't the artistic prodigy Basset was (although he was pretty darn polished by the end) but his gags and ideas were very strong. He wrote a lot more about campus, too, which really resonated with student readers. I noted that. Write to your audience. It's a lesson I always remembered.  Willis wasn't a groundbreaking stylist. Like all of us fledging political cartoonists, his style was a derivative of Jeff MacNelly's, the dominant political cartoonist of the Seventies, and maybe of the last 50 years. And MacNelly himself was an Americanized version of the before-mentioned Searle. Four decades later, political cartoonists are still pathetically aping MacNally, even though he's been dead for almost 15 years! So, for that matter, has the political cartooning genre. The two things are hardly unrelated. But Willis had a very pleasing style in college, I thought. Clean and solid.

Willis' departure opened the door for me at The Lantern, although I had several rivals for the position I had to fend off first. Willis was worshipped in the J-School, by faculty and students alike. Not an easy act to follow. I always felt I came up short in the comparison. I made my mark, particularly as a generator of controversy, but as a college scribbler, I came in a disappointing third to Basset and Willis. At least in my head. 

After The Lantern, Willis landed immediately at The Cleveland Press. A plum spot. I cursed that he got that job, figuring he'd never leave, and it's a position I would have killed for. He was an immediate hilt in Cleveland, easily kicking the ass of the old hack who cartooned at the rival Cleveland Plain Dealer. Leave he did, however, because The Press folded in 1982. By then, Willis had built a rep and was snapped up by The Dallas News. Later he joined the San Jose Mercury-News. He drew a daily panel for awhile, too, although I can't recall the name of it and can't seem to locate that info. Strangely, Willis' online presence, at least for his cartoons, is very sparse. The San Jose paper was horribly mismanaged., so I'm not sure if he left on his own or was laid off. 

I only met him once, when he was with the Cleveland Press. Never told him that he was the one who first inspired me for my short-lived and ultimately disastrous political cartooning career. Willis is now a muralist in California. I love murals. Examples his work are on his site. 

Outside of Ohio State, there were some other college cartoonists who I viewed as my rivals and/or fellow travelers. Whether they had any clue who I was, I don't know. 

Mike Luckovich was the political cartoonist for the University of Washington Daily.  Can't find exact dates of his career there, but he graduated in 1982.  

Luckovich is just about the most successful mainstream political cartoonist of his generation. He has won three Pulitzers and every other major prize in, admittedly, a dying profession, where the competition grows weaker by the year. Even so, he's kept his chops. The mainstream political stuff is not my cup of tea, of course, but I admire the dedication to the craft. He's been with the Atlanta Constitution for many years. His critics gripe that he's predictable, but it's tough job to crank out that many cartoons every week. I certainly couldn't do it! He's not breaking any stylistic ground, true, but those mainstream guys are hamstrung by authoritarian editors who have zero tolerance for experimentation. His college cartoons, as I remember them, were very polished Jeff MacNelly knockoffs and he's still firmly in that school. Lots of ink, lots of cross-hatching. What sets him apart is his writing. The guy is the master of the political gag. 

He also spent the first part of his career kicking my ass! Luckovich Beat me for the top college cartoon award given out yearly by the Society of Professional Journalists. We were both finalists in our final years of college eligibility  That one hurt, because that's the award both Basset and Willis had won.  

A few years later, Luckovich beat me out again, this time for the cartoonist position at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. We were the two finalists for that gig. I was a pro for a paper in West Palm Beach and I think my political cartoons were every bit as good as his at that time, but, if you've ever heard the guy talk, he is a spazzy extrovert. He just fills the room with personality. At age 24, I, on the other hand, was a hunched-over mumbler. He won the interview hands down. He didn't stay there long, and it probably wasn't a very good job, so in hindsight it was a stroke of luck I didn't get it. Six months later, I moved to Cleveland, gave up the political stuff,  and started developing the weirdo comix that would make my "name."

Couldn't locate any of his college toons, unfortunately, or any ones older than a couple years. 

Jack Higgins was a Chicago native who started freelancing for the Chicago Sun-Times right out of college. I became aware of his work through a college journalism newsletter that featured the best of the student press. Higgins stood out from the pack of college political cartoonists. I think he won the big college award, too, but I can't locate any info on that. 

He stepped into the plum job at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1981 just after the death of the legendary John Fischetti, as a fill-in cartoonist. The Sun-Times made him work for the gig and didn't hire him full-time until 1984. He won a Pultizer in 1989. He's unusual in the field. Higgins cartoons almost exclusively about Chicago politics. He's not syndicated and is seldom reprinted anywhere else. He writes for his town alone. Last of a breed. He's an institution in Chicago, which must be cool as hell, and has survived the Sun-Times' many recent travails. Let's hope he continues to thrive there.

Couldn't locate any of Higgins' college stuff, but to my eye, his style hasn't changed much over 35 years. I recall the same heavy brush stokes, lots of cross hatching. I could never master a brush (still haven't) and envied guys like him who did. He's another cartoonist sprung from the MacNelly tradition. We were all drawing that way in 1980. That's what editors wanted. Still do!

Jack Ohman. Up at the University of Minnesota, Ohman was the political cartoonist for over 3 years. He was quite a prodigy. I think he was 17 when he started! Another guy who was very polished at a ridiculously young age. He signed a syndicate deal before he graduated, and was regarded as the next big star political cartoonist. He was regularly reprinted in news mags like Time and Newsweek.

He landed the cartoonist gig at The Columbus Dispatch just as I finally broke into The Lantern. Don't think he had a very good time. The Dispatch was an awful rag, very rightwing, and owned by the meddling rich family that ruled Columbus. He stayed a couple years, then split. He had a long career at the Oregonian, then the Sacramento Bee. Won a Pulitzer. He's still plugging away, certainly one of the the greatest political cartoonists of the era.

He was followed at the Minnesota Daily by Kevin Siers, who had a long career at the Charlotte Observer and also won a Pulitzer. Back to back Pulitzer winners! That's only happened once. These are the guys against whom I was competing, along with a dozen or so others who were good enough to have turned pro, but didn't for one reason or another.

Now it starts to get really interesting.

Bill Watterson. Yep. The Bill Watterson. He was the political cartoonist (that's right, a political one) for the Kenyon College paper.  Here's one of his college cartoons above. Kenyon is a small school about 50 miles north of Columbus where Ohio State is. Very posh with what is routinely ranked as the prettiest campus in the nation. Watterson drew cartoons at Kenyon from 1978 to 1980.

After graduating, he got a pro gig at a dying afternoon daily, The Cincinnati Post. The paper was owned by Scripps, the same company that drove the Cleveland Press, Scott Willis' paper, into the grave. His college cartoon career ended just before mine started, but I remember seeing his cartoons in The Post, copies of which we also received at The Lantern.

The Post fired Watterson after just six months! One of those legendary editor fuck ups (The Seattle Times axed Gary Larsen's first panel, drawn exclusively for them, at about the same time). I wonder if the editors who made those bonehead calls spent the rest of their careers being snickered at in the newsroom? 

The political cartoons themselves are only ok. The Post ones feature a lot of gags about the weather and sports teams. I did similarly lame ones when I started my first pro gig in Florida. It's the mark of a cartoonist without a lot of freedom! Watterson's style here is pretty clunky and overly inked. Doesn't look all that different from Higgins' style, especially the heavy brush. Just a year later, when Calvin & Hobbes debuted to rave reviews, he had upped his artwork many levels. Sometimes it takes awhile to find your genre. I'm a prime example of that!

Here's how Watterson describes his unhappy Post experience: "The agreement was that they could fire me or I could quit with no questions asked if things didn't work out during the first few months. Sure enough, things didn't work out, and they fired me. My guess is that the editor wanted his own Jeff MacNelly, and I didn't live up to his expectations. I was only getting a couple cartoons a week printed. I would turn out rough idea after rough idea, and he would veto eighty percent of them." 

It's no fun to work for a guy like that, I can tell you that from experience.

He was doing political cartoons for a chain of weekly suburban rags in Cleveland when I arrived in 1986 and had just launched Calvin & Hobbes the previous year. But I never met the guy, despite our criss-crossing paths.

Berke Breathed. Every big college paper at the end of the Seventies had one, if not both of the following: a Jeff MacNelly political cartoon clone, and a Doonesbury ripoff comic strip. Breathed drew the latter, The Academia Waltz, for the Daily Texan at the University of Texas from 1978 to 1980. 

The Academia Waltz can generously be described as "inspired by" Trudeau. You see the same Trudeau characteristics: the balloon-less dialogue, and the signature double beat punchline in the last panel. Aw, who are we kidding? It's an outright rip-off, which Breathed himself later freely admitted. But these early strips feature several of the strong characters that would populate later Bloom County, like the smarmy frat boy, Steve Dallas (above) and, more importantly, the writing is exceptionally strong for a college feature.

In 1980, the Washington Post Syndicate tabbed Breathed to develop a counter to Doonesbury, which was distributed by the rival Universal Press Syndicate. What developed was Bloom County.

Gary Trudeau, of course, was the first college cartoonist to make it, when Doonesbury went straight from the pages of the Yale Bullhorn into mainstream syndication in 1970. The arrival of a hippie strip full of political potshots and drug references, on a staid comics page sandwiched between Miss Peach and Andy Capp, blew the minds of an entire generation of would-be comix creators. Over the next decade, hundreds of Doonesbury-esque strips were launched in college papers. Only Breathed's led to a syndication deal. He's the only one. The syndicates wanted nothing to do with strips like that. Corporate media gave that a big thumbs down. Give us another Garfield instead. Trudeau, by all rights, should have been the most influential cartoonist of the Seventies. Instead, he's a stand alone, almost a curiosity.

I myself toyed with the idea of Doonesbury ripoff strip. I opted for political cartoons instead. The reason? To be perfectly honest, because The Lantern printed the political cartoons much bigger!

Trudeau was less then pleased at Breathed's emergence as a lookalike rival, and wrote several letters to Breathed and his editors when Doonesbury gags were lifted or the imitation got a little too close. Breathed responded with potshots of his own. 

"We exchanged some tough letters the first few years of the strip and I was not as respectful as I should have been. A few years later when I'd hoped we could meet and I could apologize, he desperately avoided me."

I met Breathed once, when he visited the very first cartoon fest at the Ohio State Cartoon Museum. I had just graduated a month earlier and was looking for a gig. I wrenched up my courage and introduced myself to him... and he totally blew me off! Couldn't be bothered with a scruffy college cartoonist, even though he himself was one just a couple years earlier. The first of many disappointing encounters with cartoonists I admire. Ha. 

To Breathed's credit, he later owned up to pinching Trudeau, and he soon transcended the label of "gifted imitator" to forge his own path. In the end, his talent was too great to be a mere copy of someone else. In the late Eighties, Bloom County was far funnier and more interesting than Doonesbury, to be honest. Bloom County won the Pulitzer for political cartooning in 1987, which set off howls of protest from traditional political cartoonists. He retired the strip in 1989 (the first of the big-time cartoonists to do so) then morphed it into the Sunday-only Outland and followed that with Opus. He's still out there, doing his thing in books and whatnot.

Lynda Barry. She was attending tiny Evergreen State College, a hippie enclave in Olympia, Washington.  Student editor Matt Groening (yes, the Matt Groening!) first published her crazy cartoons (above) in the school paper. It was he  who named it Ernie Pook's Comeek, without clearing it with her. The title stuck. She graduated in 1979. She calls herself the "grandmother of alt-comix." She's right, because there would be no genre without her. She was the one who inspired me to try my hand at a weekly strip in 1989, ten years after she left college and six years after I did. Personally, I think she'll go down as the single most influential cartoonist since Robert Crumb. Groening achieved more, far more, commercial success, as did others who followed her, but she blazed the trail.

Her first book collection, above, came out in 1981. This collection featured the best of her early college cartoons.  I ran across it at the underground comix shop just north of campus, The Monkey's Retreat. I remember standing there in the store flipping through that book in amazement. They were the punkiest comix I had ever seen. How could someone in their early 20s produce such wildly imaginative work? It's like there was nothing holding her back! No inhibitions, no worries of trying to fit into this or that genre. She just flipped open her head and these incredible images flowed out. And why were my fucking cartoons so boring and lame? It would take me six more years before I managed to, in my own lesser way,  lose my fears and uncork my creativity. But these comix lingered in my brain that whole time, until I finally cut loose.

Lynda and Matt.

Matt Groening. He graduated in 1977, a little before my time in college. And I'm cheating a bit here, because he was a college editor and writer, not a college cartoonist. But he's too important to leave out of this list. After Evergreen State, He moved to LA and, also inspired by Lynda's work, came up with his own comix, which he self-published as a xeroxed mini-comic featuring an early Life in Hell (above). He sold it at a record store where he worked. In 1978, Wet magazine bought the feature and he was on his way to glory. The comix voice of a generation. Maybe two!

There could be plenty others on this list. Some went on the have careers in other fields like animation or illustration. Some were terrific college cartoonists, but gave it all up after graduation, for reasons unknown. Maybe they couldn't handle the tough road it takes to make it. Maybe they found decent work elsewhere. Maybe they just lost interest. There were four or five at Ohio State alone, piled up behind me and champing at the bit for me to graduate and clear off.  

But I'll end with one more.

Jeff Smith. It appeared suddenly in The Lantern at the start of Fall Semester 1982, my last year at Ohio State. A 4-panel comic strip that was a thousand-fold better than the usual amateurish fare that ran on The Lantern comics page. Usually editors ran new cartoons by me for my opinion, but the two that selected Thorn were a pair of fairly "strong willed" types that the J-school produced regularly. The joke was the first class for a J-major was Ego 101. They were dead right about Thorn though. The writing was a tad stiff at first, but the art was incredibly advanced. And he obviously had an entire universe all his own, fully formed in his head. Dude was a prodigy. It was a daily strip (The Lantern published five days a week), so he paced it like one, like the classic adventure strips of the Forties and Fifties. The whole Bone cast of characters was there. Smith says he dreamt up his epic as a little kid. 

The reaction from student readers was, as I recall, mixed. Comix fans loved it. The rest, and they outnumbered us comix dorks 1,000 to one, thought that it was weird, a nerdy strip for the Dungeons & Dragons crowd. Halfway through the first year, Smith turned it into a political strip, like Walt Kelly's Pogo, his greatest inspiration. It was something of a disaster and a firebrand African Studies prof got so worked up over a storyline on racism that he and a small band of his students stormed the newsroom in protest! Smith stayed at The Lantern for a year after I left, then published Thorn in a Columbus comics paper, Hoot. I lost track of him after that and always wondered what happened to such a talented guy. Then one day in the late Eighties, I wandered into a comic book shop and was surprised and delighted to see a copy of the latest issue of Bone, published by his own company. He's been an A-list comix creator ever since.