24 February 2013

Unmasking Mr. Squish. (And myself.)

I said last week, after recycling a strip in order to meet deadline, I realized I couldn’t draw last-second strips anymore. So the next week, I clamped down and drew my strips a little bit ahead of schedule: I drew them the day before they were due, or at least the morning they were due, rather than the hour they were due. Slightly more responsible of me, I suppose.

First thing I realized I had to do was get rid of the “The Early Years” gag. As you recall, I killed Leonard off in December, and continued the strip by claiming all the current strips were just flashbacks to before I killed Leonard: “Mr. Squish: The Early Years.” But the flashback idea didn’t have legs: After a while, it’s no longer funny to remind everyone how your main character is dead.

And I couldn’t just pretend Leonard wasn’t really killed off. Oh, I thought about it. Ignoring continuity, after all, is the easiest way to sort things out. I actually drew a rough draft of the following strip where Randall complained how Leonard was dead, and Leonard explained that no, he hadn’t died; he’s a toon, and toons are indestructible. Remember how Daffy Duck kept getting blasted by Elmer Fudd in “Rabbit Fire,” and all that ever happened was his beak would be knocked askew? Like that.

But as Stephen King’s characters in Misery so rightly pointed out, changing the continuity, then pretending you’d changed nothing, is a dirty cheat. One I don’t like either.

So I went with the “comic book death.” (I previously explained what that is.) I invented a convoluted way to legitimately bring Leonard back. I started the storyline with this strip.

Mr. Squish, CSUS Hornet, February 1991.

Once again, I borrowed a character from “Squidman,” the Hornet’s other comic strip at the time. (You might recall I parodied it in December.) In this case I borrowed Henry, who was one of the more mercenary characters. It figured it fit his character perfectly to portray Leonard so as “to make some extra dough on the side.” (Of course, the whole idea of comic-strip-as-film-production was stolen from Bloom County, which as usual stole it from Doonesbury.)

Stealing other strips’ characters gradually became a running gag of mine. After all, why populate my strip with minor characters, and spend all that time developing their personalities, when I could just rip ’em off fully-formed from the other strips? But while most of the other cartoonists were game, one wasn’t. Mostly because I made a crack about his strip, and he took it personally, and went a little nuts. But I’ll get to that story later.

Since I’m writing about “unmasking,” I’ll tell this story now.

As I mentioned already, I was in the habit of reading five papers a day. I read a blurb about a comic strip in the Los Angeles Reader (now defunct) drawn by David Lynch, director of Blue Velvet and creator of Twin Peaks. It was called “The Angriest Dog in the World.” The first panel described the situation:

The dog who is so angry he cannot move. He cannot eat. He cannot sleep. He can just barely growl. …Bound so tightly with tension and anger, he approaches the state of rigor mortis.

The next four panels were of a polliwog-shaped dog, straining the limits of its chain, growling. The last of them was at night. The only thing that ever changed was the dialogue.

A sample, you say? Yeah, why not.

The Angriest Dog in the World, by David Lynch, L.A. Reader, 1990.

Nah, not really funny. But it had a following. Morbid curiosity, methinks. Anyway, Lynch’s strip was the genesis of the idea.

In order to get the Arts & Features section done by deadline, my assistant Warren and I decided to produce it the night before. While everyone else was hastily slapping their sections together on Monday and Thursday evenings, we’d have completed the A&F section on Sunday or Wednesday, and be done—or so close to done, we’d have lots of time to goof off and actually enjoy our jobs. Makes sense, right?

Okay. The first night we did this was a Wednesday. We stayed up till 3 a.m., got the section entirely laid out, printed out, pasted up, and done. Full of typos, but done. Yeah, once our editor-in-chief, Dave, saw it, he sent it back with tons of blue pencil marks, and we had to reprint the bulk of it, but still: Done. Honestly, I was expecting people to be more impressed than they were. Instead, they chose to razz us for all the typos. Meh. They were just jealous.

Well, that Wednesday was the last time we got the entire section done the night before. Mainly because I was too exhausted the next day to go to class. For the rest of the semester, Warren and I finished half our section the night before, and finished the rest the next day. Yeah, Warren had the bad habit of saving his music column till the very last minute, and I had the bad habit of drawing Mr. Squish in the morning, but whatever. We were finished on time, or early. Because we could be. A&F rarely had any breaking news. (And whenever it did, I usually wrote the articles, which wound up in the News section anyway.)

But getting done early meant Warren and I had a lot of time to goof around, come up with insane story ideas, or post embarrassing flyers on the wall. Fr’instance. One of the more common sayings at the Hornet was “I’m tired.” Understandable: The Hornet was a full-time job in itself, and if you had a full load of classes, plus a part-time job, plus someone you were dating, plus the student newspaper, it didn’t leave you a lot of time for sleep. So one day, after hearing it 20 times, I printed out a flyer which read, “We don’t give a f--- how tired you are,” and tacked it on the back side of the Classified Ads sign. The Classified Ads sign, indicating where students could drop off their classified ads, hung in such a way that only the staff could see the back side of it. Well, unless you came in through the back door. One day somebody did, and was outraged at this blatant, easily-visible profanity. So Dave ripped down the flyer.

Then there was this insanely large photo of CSUS president Donald Gerth. Dave had printed it out in sections, and tacked them to the wall in a giant collage, right above the op/ed editor’s desk. I don’t know why he made it. Maybe, like Warren and I, he just had too much free time. But over the course of the semester, we gradually defaced that photo in nasty, nasty ways. Not that we had anything against Gerth. It’s just that it was there. And so were we.

Well, one day The Angriest Dog in the World came up in conversation. I joked that such a strip was the easiest strip in the world to do… but Lynch’s strip wasn’t funny, or even amusing. I didn’t see why such a strip couldn’t be made funny, with a little effort.

“Why don’t we do the strip?” Warren said. “You draw it, and I’ll write the dialogue.”

Well, we couldn’t do “Angriest Dog,” ’cause of copyright. So we invented a direct parody, called “The Angriest Freshman in the World.” Premise: A freshman, chained to a fraternity’s basement during a wilder-than-usual Rush Week, forgotten, and so angry he cannot move. He cannot eat. He cannot sleep. He can just barely growl. …Bound so tightly with tension and anger, he approaches the state of rigor mortis. You know.

Four panels of an angry freshman, just sitting there in the basement, growling. I drew a blank strip, then duplicated it with the photocopier, which is really all the work that ever went into drawing it. Warren wrote the dialogue. I lettered it. We laughed our heads off. Then we invented a name for the artist, “Phil Anders,” a rather obvious pun which nobody ever seemed to get. We stuck it in Wayne’s box as a submission. We made up some ridiculous story about how the dude came in to submit it that evening while we were working on our section.

Wayne and Dave found it amusing, and it ran for the rest of the semester. Some days Warren wrote the dialogue, and some days I did. Easiest strip in the world, because no one ever had to draw it; all we had to do was write funny dialogue. Only once did I ever change the artwork: In a desperate search for the bathroom, someone had accidentally found the Angry Freshman and vomited drunkenly all over him. Half the time we just wrote conversations verbatim which we’d overheard from various frat boys. It kinda wrote itself.

The partnership ended when Warren quit the Hornet, in rage and despair, in the Fall semester. That’s a story for another time, which I’ll get to. But I didn’t care to keep producing the strip without Warren.

I have no copies of it, sad to say. I couldn’t very well collect the originals without tipping my hand, and while I did keep some back issues of the Hornet, I don’t think I kept those. Oh well.