May 5th, NATIONAL CARTOONIST DAY (be sure to worship them as gods for the next 24 hours)

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I drew a comic strip off and on for about 20 years. It’s a pretty exacting medium. Every line, every word, has to be exactly in the right place in order to convey the punchline. And it doesn’t take much to throw off the timing and ruin the gag. Plus, you have to be able to conceive a worthy punchline out of your head, out of thin air, in the first place. It requires an odd combination of skills that really can’t be taught. You can either do it or you can’t.

Drawing a comic strip is like doing sketch comedy. Only you do everything. You write it, you draw it, you create the characters, you act out all the characters, you design the set, you design the costumes. You’re actor, writer, director, set designer, everything. And you have to be skilled in all these things to pull it off.

One thing it really requires is the ability to be concise. You have to pack all of this information into 3 or 4 little panels. So you can’t waste a single word. Doing a comic strip taught me how to express myself directly and forcefully. It is an in-your-face medium. You are reaching out and grabbing the reader by the collar and demanding: LOOK AT ME!!

It also teaches you how to package your thoughts and present them to others in an easily-digestible format. It’s like being an advertising executive, except instead of selling a product you’re selling your ideas.

A cop was once detaining me and grilling me about a possible offense I might have committed. In the course of the conversation he asked me about my employment history.
“I was a cartoonist for 20 years,” I said.
“Why’d you quit?” said the cop.
“I ran out of punchlines,” I said.

The cop laughed and let me go. . . I still know how to deliver a punchline if I need to.

R. Crumb and Weirdo

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When you think of the classic underground comix anthologies, I guess it all starts with ZAP. And then the way under-rated ARCADE. And then WEIRDO and RAW — who will always be joined at the hip as two sides of the same coin.

RAW never appealed to me — it was too artsy and pretentious for my tastes. I much preferred the skuzzier, funkier, down-to-earth WEIRDO. If the cartoons in RAW were supposed to be appreciated like fine art hanging in a museum, WEIRDO was appreciated while sitting in an over-stuffed easy chair in your underwear while scratching yourself. If RAW was akin to Emerson, Lake and Palmer and prog rock — rock musicians wanting to be taken seriously like classical music. WEIRDO was akin to the Sex Pistols and punk rock — bratty, rebellious and a little smelly.

My friend Duncan got a big spread in WEIRDO #1 when it debuted in 1981. So I felt a part of WEIRDO right from the beginning. Duncan’s cartoons were particularly outrageous (“Duncan is the quintessential underground cartoonist,” said Crumb, and Crumb would know). Which certainly put Duncan on the map. Probably nobody but Crumb would have dared to publish those comics by Duncan. But Crumb was making a statement right from the beginning that he hadn’t lost his affinity for underground comix. And that WEIRDO would be a force to be reckoned with.

I had aspirations myself for a career as an underground cartoonist (along with about a dozen other aspirations I was dabbling in at the time). So I spent several weeks pain-stakingly crafting a batch of cartoons to submit to WEIRDO. As an afterthought I also submitted this one page doodle that I had hacked out off the top of my head in an hour. It was just stick figures, and I had given so little thought to the thing I had actually drawn it on a cheap, 8-and-a-half-by-11 piece of typing paper that had been lying around (when you look closely you can see where the ink bled into the cheap paper). And of course that was the one Crumb chose to publish.

Getting into WEIRDO gave you a certain cache. Crumb was quite possibly the greatest cartoonist of our times. So to have him accept one of your cartoons was like receiving blessings from the Pope.

I followed every issue of WEIRDO avidly as they came out, all 28 issues from 1981 to 1993. And even though I didn’t get many pages of my comics in it, I had the odd distinction of making it into all three editorial regimes — Crumb, Bagge and Kominsky.

I think one of the great geniuses of Crumb is that he has that follow-his-own-weird, completely-indulge-his-own-artistic-obsessions aspect. Combined with the ability to put out a highly entertaining and commercial product. I think this as much as anything made WEIRDO a double threat.

In typical fashion Crumb went out with a bang with the final issue of WEIRDO, publishing one of his most outrageous and infamous cartoons — “When the Goddamn Niggers and Jews Take Over America.” And I always suspected it had been inspired, in part, by a long-running debate I had been having with Crumb at the time on the pages of my TWISTED IMAGE newsletter (on the subject of the Holocaust Revisionism controversy, white racism, Jewish liberalism, political correctness, and etc.). Not that I was particularly eager to take the credit and/or blame for that one.

So from beginning to end I felt a personal connection to WEIRDO that I never felt towards other publications.