Acid Heroes

April 8, 2016

So you’re interested in a career as a cartoonist . . .

Filed under: Backwords from Ace — Ace Backwords @ 8:29 pm
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I was an underground cartoonist for 20 years.  10 of them full-time.

Doing a comic strip was an interesting discipline.  For it teaches you how to package your thoughts in this powerful and concise way.  I mean, you have these tiny little panels.  That you have to pack with information.  So every line, every word, has to be exactly right.  And instantly recognizable to the reader (if he has to stop and think in confusion for even a moment, that can blow the whole timing of the punchline).   And every line and word has to work in service to the idea you’re trying to convey.  It’s a lot like commercial advertising in a way.  Except instead of selling some crappy product, you’re selling an idea or concept.

Some of my stuff I guess you’d call “satire.”  Satire is similar to propaganda in a way.  In that you’re manipulating words and images in a slanted and one-sided way,  in order to persuade the reader to your point of view.  But, unlike propaganda, your satire is hopefully in service to some kind of truth.  Whereas propaganda does the opposite.

Every now and then I’d come across one of those “How To Be A Cartoonist”  books.  They were almost always written and illustrated by unsuccessful cartoonists.  I think it’s because you really can’t teach somebody how to be a cartoonist.  Cartooning is such a weird and peculiar skill.  You can either do it, or you can’t.

My Achille’s Heel as a cartoonist was that I wasn’t a natural draftsman.  I had to really work at it just to reach the bare minimum level of drawing that was acceptable as commercial art.  It would often take me 3 or 4 hours just to draw one 4-panel comic strip. I really labored over those thing, often painfully so.

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Whereas there are other cartoonists that I call “genetic cartoonists.”  They were born to be cartoonists.  They have to draw. They have a compelling need to draw.   And they fill up countless sketchbooks with drawings whether they’re being paid for it or  not.  Myself?  I almost never had a sketchbook and I rarely even doodled.  In fact, the first cartoon I sold back in 1977 was virtually the first finished cartoon I had ever even drawn.  And once I stopped getting paid to cartoon back in 1995 I almost never drew again.

What I enjoyed about cartooning was coming up with the ideas.  The problem was: I would come up with what I considered an amusing joke for a comic strip.  But then, over the next 4 hours of actually drawing the comic strip, it’s like telling the same joke over and over in your head for 4 hours.  By the time I was finished with the comic strip I would be so sick of that joke.  And by that point I would have no idea if the joke was still amusing or was successfully conveyed in the strip. I’d just have to trust my original instinct that there was something amusing in there somewhere.

When I turned 38 I got hit by a massive mid-life crisis.  “Am I really going to spend the rest of my life sitting here by myself at this goddamn drawing board?”  I wanted some action.  So I packed all my stuff into storage and hit the open road.  I figured after awhile I would have sowed my wild oats, got it all out of my system, and returned to cartooning.  But it’s been over 20 years now.  And I’ve never felt the slightest urge to “get back to the old drawing board” (as the saying goes).  And my eye sight is getting so bad from the glaucoma, I can barely read comics these days, let alone draw them.  So I guess it’s a moot point now.

The thing I miss the most about cartooning isn’t actually drawing the cartoons.  But being a cartoonist.  Being a cartoonist was like being a part of this really cool, secret club, with members scattered all across the  country.  And cartoonists are almost universally clever, witty, entertaining, sharp-minded and surprisingly modest and self-effacing (compared to the artists in the other fields).  So when I quit cartooning, it was like being kicked out of this really cool fraternity.  It was like having all these great drinking buddies, but then you join AA and become a tea-totaller.    You no longer have the common bond that connected you with those people.

To this day, people still regularly say to me:  “Ace Backwords, you have got to get back to drawing comics!!”   Which is nice in a way.  That people still remember what I did.  And want more of it.  But it’s a little sad in another way.  It’s like being a musician who’s a one-hit wonder.  And people are always wanting to hear him play that one song he did years ago.  But they’re not really interested in hearing what he’s doing now. . .

Since I quit cartooning, I published 15 issues of a photography magazine.  Recorded an hour-long CD of original music.  And wrote two full-length books of prose.  Among many other artistic endeavors.   All to some acclaim. But to this day, I’m still primarily thought of in the public imagination as:  “Ace Backwords former cartoonist.” And I probably always will be.  Oh well.  I guess there are worse things you could be called.

 

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