03 February 2013

Recycling Mr. Squish.

When I took charge of the CSU Sacramento Hornet’s Arts & Features section in spring 1991, my workload went up appreciably. We published two editions a week, a Tuesday issue and a Friday issue. That meant two production nights a week, usually from noon to midnight, Mondays and Thursdays. Production nearly always went later than midnight. The printer’s deadline was supposed to be 11 p.m., but we never made it that semester.

Back in the fall semester, when I was Graphics Coordinator, my workload was pretty much from 8 or 9 p.m. till midnight. See, I had a staff of 12, and farmed all the work out to them. So my job, really, was to be on duty during production nights. It was round 8 or 9 that everyone suddenly needed last-minute art and graphics and space-fillers. So I did that. But other than those crunch times, it was a pretty cushy job. That’s why I wanted the A&F job. I wanted a challenge.

Well, at the A&F desk, I got that challenge. And then some.

I likewise had a staff of about 12. But unlike the graphics staff, not all of them were all that competent. Seven of them could write. The rest, I hired ’cause I was figuring more is better. If I only got half-assed work out of them, at least I got half an ass’s worth of work. Problem is, one was a total ass: He did nothing but hang out at the office every production day, and had the nerve to complain when I had our faculty adviser give him an F that semester. Another was a would-be Voice of a Generation who kept inserting herself and her uninformed, undesired opinion into every article, and could never get any of them done on time, and I couldn’t print any of them without heavy, heavy editing. Another could only write in poorly-spelled sentence fragments. Honestly, some of them really needed to consider another major than Journalism. Something that didn’t involve writing. Or cogent thought.

So I was busy from noon or earlier, to midnight or later. My assistant, Warren, wrote his page-long music column, and helped me copy-edit the articles. If it needed to be entirely rewritten (and sometimes it did), that was my job. Warren’s rewrites, God bless him, made the entire article sound like Warren. And since Warren was all thumbs when it came to PageMaker, I had to do the page layout.

There was one laser printer in the whole shop. It wasn’t the fast one; Graphics had that. So when I sent my pages to the printer, my job had to wait in the print queue while the printer spat out other sections’ pages. Our computers weren’t yet able to multitask: When I sent the printer a job, I couldn’t use the computer for anything else. I had to sit there waiting while the screen blinked, “Printing,” and the printer slowly rendered the page. Sometimes for an hour. Sometimes unsuccessfully: Instead of the fonts I wanted, I’d get a page of oddly-shaped Courier text. Instead of the graphics, I’d get a gray box and an error message. There were no print previews: The printer did all the rendering, not the computer, so I didn’t know what I’d get till I got it. Many times, in frustration, I had to resort to printing out one page element at a time, then take it to the layout room and physically paste it all together. Ah, the low-tech days before instantaneously-generated PDF files: I don’t miss ’em at all.

So I tried to make sure my pages were done before News and Sports got to printing their sections. I didn’t always succeed. However, I’m very glad to say I finished my section before deadline more than half the time that semester. (Sometimes with enough time to spare so I could help out the Sports desk. The sports editor, Kevin, had the bad habit of not saving his files, which didn’t help when his computer froze.)

All this work meant, of course, that my comic strip took a back seat. I could only draw it during the several minutes of downtime we had while we were waiting to clear the print queue. That is, if I weren’t interrupted with other editorial duties.

Okay, that’s enough backstory. Now to the strip du semaine.

Mr. Squish, CSUS Hornet, February 1991.

As I’ve said before, writers get our ideas by stealing them. There’s nothing wrong with that: Technically you can’t steal an idea. Ideas are free, no matter how much corporations may try to copyright them. If I want to write a book about teenage wizards in a wizarding college who are fighting an evil wizard, it’s been done, but otherwise nobody can stop me from doing so. Unless, of course, I decide to name my hero “Harry Potter”: You can copyright names. And unless, of course, all my ideas form a sequence which exactly parallels a Harry Potter novel: You can also copyright sequences, as well as the specific text of the novel. But individual ideas are free. Boarding schools for wizards, cloaks of invisibility, spells in Latin, jellybeans that taste like dirt: I can steal all of those if I wish. Writers do so all the time. That’s why Harry Potter knock-offs exist.

But writers rarely come right out and say they’re stealing ideas. They fudge around it. Some years ago I read Stephen King’s book On Writing, in which he pointed out how one way to become a better writer was to become a better reader. This is why he constantly reads or listens to audiobooks. Of course what he didn’t say was he was mining those books for ideas. Somewhere, within all that fiction, will be an idea which strikes King a certain way, and he’ll play with it. “What if I took that character and did this with him?” Or, “What if that circumstance took a left turn instead of a right one?” And that’s how the creative process works.

Now, when you have a thousand such ideas rattling around in your brain, you may not necessarily remember what the originals were, or the way in which they combined. Actually, if you’re trying to give everyone the impression that the creative process is some sort of magical mystery, it’s more likely you don’t want to remember. That way, when you get sued for copyright infringement ’cause your stolen ideas were a little too close to the originals, you can claim ignorance. You’d rather pretend you had a truly unique idea which just sprang out of nothing but your own pure genius, like Athena popping out of Zeus’s head. Which is rubbish. There’s no uncaused First Cause except God. Writers steal ideas. Lazy writers—or writers on deadline—don’t bother to change them on the way out, and thus become plagiarists. But everything else comes from something else.

I know this, and I have a pretty good memory, so I know where my stuff came from. Here it is.

First of all, the basic idea of taking an old strip, removing the words, and plugging in new words, came from Mad Magazine. In the oldest copies, when Harvey Kurtzman was editor, and he didn’t have enough art to fill the book, he’d swipe a page from Tales from the Crypt or one of the other EC comic books, and change the words into something ridiculous. Sometimes it wouldn’t even be English.

So I did likewise. I dug through my old strips and found one where people were arguing—one which can easily have the dialogue swapped—like this strip from last September.

Mr. Squish, CSUS Hornet, September 1990.

Next, the idea of having someone else do it—in particular, someone really inept—came from Bloom County. I stole far too many ideas from Bloom County. And in turn its cartoonist, Berkeley Breathed, stole far too many ideas from Doonesbury, so what goes around… well, you know. The first panel, where I introduce how some other guy will be doing the strip, comes from the following Sunday strip.

Bloom County, 4 October 1987.

Now, to show just how very little thought I put into my strip, you’ll notice the dialogue (and lettering) doesn’t at all resemble that of any nationally-known syndicated cartoonist good enough for The Saturday Evening Post. It resembles that of an 9-year-old child. In fact, I kinda stole that idea from myself.

At that time, I was still going to Valley Evangelical Free Church. In Valley’s bulletin every week, there was a “sermon notes” page for the kids, where children were instructed to draw a picture of the pastor’s sermon. After the service they’d turn in their drawings to the church office, and the office would photocopy the drawings and put them in the next week’s bulletin. One Sunday, back when I was in high school, during a really boring sermon, I drew a picture.

The feedback was so overwhelmingly positive, I did it again. And again. And every week. I had fans, including the pastors. I also developed some imitators, as other teenagers and even some adults would draw their own “sermon notes” and turn ’em in. Over time my “sermon notes” evolved into a multi-panel comic strip. Sometimes it had an extremely loose connection to the sermon. But there was some connection… somewhere.

You might recall I was in my hypocrite phase at the time: I believed in Jesus, but didn’t act like a Christian, except at church. I listened to the sermons, but never actually applied them. In democratic churches like Valley where the deacons run them instead of the pastors, the pastors tend to avoid challenging their congregations all that much, lest they offend the wrong person and get themselves fired. So there was rarely anything all that challenging, or that we were encouraged to apply.

And sometimes I even mocked the sermon. Earlier that month, the pastor shared the story of the prophet Daniel in the lions’ den. I had grown so tired of hearing this story. You see, many churches (Valley included), in order to save money, recycled the same Sunday school curriculum year after year. All this curriculum was coordinated, across the grades, to cover the same subjects at the same time: On July 3, every Sunday school class, kindergarten through high school, would tell the story of Samson and Delilah; on the 10th, every class would tell the story of Jonah and the whale; on the 17th, Jesus and the loaves and fishes; on the 24th, Moses and the burning bush; et cetera, ad nauseam. Hence I got a Daniel and the lions every year growing up.

The story, for those who don’t know it, is this. Daniel, a Jew, was a government official in Iran. (Really, the ancient Persian Empire, but it’s more fun to say Iran.) He was so competent at his job, the Iranian bureaucrats got jealous and managed to pass a law forbidding prayer for a month. I know, no prayer in Iran; hard to fathom, but it was the olden days. Daniel, who made a daily habit of praying every day facing Jerusalem instead of Mecca, was arrested and tossed in a pit of hungry lions, who miraculously didn’t eat him. As most Christians teach it, the moral of the story is that when you stand up for God, he’ll rescue you. (But because Valley was a cessationist church—meaning they didn’t believe God did miracles after bible times—God would rescue you, but not miraculously. Exactly how God would non-miraculously rescue us was never properly explained. But somehow, miraculously, they figure he could pull off a non-miraculous rescue. Just try not to overthink it.) Of course, God doesn’t always bail people out like he did Daniel, as Jesus points out elsewhere in the bible. But Christians tend to skip over any bible stories which lack happy endings.

Well. The pastor didn’t tell the Daniel story any different from Sunday school. So I said as much and drew this strip for the bulletin:

Sermon notes, 10 February 1991.

The sloppy results were achieved by using my left hand. Clearly I’m not a lefty.

The reason the last panel is blank? The church censored it. Whenever the church leadership didn’t run my “sermon notes,” they got questions. ’Cause I was very regular about attending church, and I was very regular about turning in the strip. So when the church leaders objected to what I drew, they wouldn’t drop the strip entirely, ’cause they’d get questions, and have to explain why my strip was inappropriate, and look foolish and paranoid for not just sucking it up and running the strip. It’s not like I drew anything other than G-rated material. So they just removed the offending panels. That way it looked like I didn’t have time to finish it… just like the drawings which other kids turned in. Except that wasn’t the case with me. If I wasn’t done by the time the sermon was over, I’d stay in my seat for a few minutes after the service and finish, dammit.

So that’s where the childish amateur cartooning came from. As for the childish political philosophy, I stole that from this old Peanuts strip.

Peanuts, 1959 (reprinted 16 July 2007).

Lucy wanted to draw political cartoons, but she didn’t know anything about politics. So she just made all sorts of vague statements. That’s what I was going for with this week’s strip: Imagine someone who didn’t know jack about political cartooning, who figured a lot of non-sequitur buzzwords was the way you did it. “AIDS is bad” and “So is taxes” is hardcore political dialogue to someone who never engages in political dialogue. (Just like “God bless it” is strong language to someone who’d never say the F word.)

So as you can see, I was full of ideas. But I didn’t really get across any of those jumbled ideas in the strip. I was too busy to write a strip which expressed them adequately. Instead, I just cranked out an odd strip which really isn’t funny. And the George Wallace quote was just awful. At the time, I hadn’t thought at all about the Civil Rights Era context in which he said it: Out of context, I just found it amusing. In context, it actually makes me look racist. Although I could explain that racism away as belonging to out-of-touch guest cartoonist Bob Weston. But no; it was me being sloppy.

As you can see, having a lot of influences doesn’t necessarily produce a good strip. It’s how you put them together. You gotta put them together well. Which I didn’t have the time to do.

Gradually I realized drawing my strip in mid-production was stupid. So I started drawing it the day before. Annoyingly, this now meant Wayne, our op/ed editor, and Dave, our editor-in-chief, had time to read it. And edit it. Wayne, a cartoonist himself, gave me a pretty free hand, but Dave would occasionally (though rarely) say “Try again,” and I’d have to try again. I don’t always agree his edits made it better. But I’ll discuss them when they come up.