Drawing is my oldest friend, and I’ve often wondered if cartoonists are more directly connected to their childhood than the average person due to the act of drawing. When I talk to most people my age, it always seems like there was a point in their lives when they stopped thinking about cartoons and cartoon characters, and started spending more time thinking about adult things like careers and mating. I guess that’s normal, but the act of cartooning draws an unbroken line in the life of a cartoonist—childhood never really ends and adulthood never really begins. Which isn’t to say that we weren’t thinking about money and sex once puberty hit, because we were! However, most of us probably tried to understand those things by drawing cartoons about them.
When you’re a kid, you’re in a constant state of taking in new information, and each new piece of information slowly solidifies your understanding of reality. Cartoons are part of that reality. Drawings hold a lot of power. I can remember books in my house that I was afraid to touch because the drawings were too terrifying (seriously, go look at the cover for Jelly Belly by Dennis Lee, and you’ll see what I’m talking about). It was as though the horror of the drawings would spill out of the book and get me if I touched them. I also remember wishing I could eat the food I saw cartoon characters eating. Not a real version of a cake – the actual cartoon cake. When Who Framed Roger Rabbit came out, I fixated on the texture of the cartoon characters set against real-world backgrounds. They looked like they would feel rubbery, like a balloon but softer, and warmer. I used to daydream that my body would take on the rubbery properties of a cartoon character.
Most kids draw. Most kids find that they can comment on and create reality using a pencil. I love children’s drawings because they are not about the finished product, instead they are about the process of creating the drawing. The drawings are real, alive, interactive. But most people also reach a certain age and stop drawing for some reason.
For those of us who continue drawing, we inevitably end up spending a lot of time drawing alone. Most jobs force you to interact with a few coworkers, but the life of a cartoonist is usually spent alone in an apartment, drawing, and drawing, and drawing. Personally, I like it that way. I usually feel energized when I’m left alone with my thoughts to work on my projects, with nothing but my pen and my brain to keep me company.
The act of drawing, especially inking, is meditative. Your hands more or less work automatically, performing practiced movements and gestures while your mind wanders. And the mind often likes to wander to familiar places. Memories. Things you said last week that you regret. Things you thought when you were six years old. Sad thoughts, fears, happy times. Your brain, like always, is working to make sense of it all.
This is a long way of saying that this reflection on the past, and childhood, seeps into my comics one way or another. My story in this issue, The Best Donald, is loosely autobiographical. My brother Jonah (who also grew up to be a cartoonist) and I have always loved comics and cartoons, and many of the games we played together as kids involved reenacting cartoons we watched (we had the Bugs Bunny cartoon Bunny Hugged completely memorized). We especially loved Donald Duck. His emotions were always so raw and unhindered, and uncontrollable forces always seemed to conspire against him despite his initial optimism and effort. Pretty easy to relate to when you’re a child. Everything about the way we talked, played, moved, and thought was informed in some way by the cartoon characters we saw in books, TV shows, and video games … even when we didn’t understand what we were seeing.
The “Apple Core, Baltimore” word game seen in my comic is a direct reference to the 1952 Donald Duck cartoon Applecore. In this cartoon, poor Donald Duck plays an apple farmer who is terrorized by those assholes Chip and Dale. The characters play a word game in the cartoon that involves Chip and Dale holding an apple core and saying “Apple core,” to which Donald replies “Baltimore.” Chip and Dale then ask, “Who’s your friend?” and Donald replies “Me,” so Chip and Dale hit him in the face with a rotten apple core.
Of course, growing up in the Canadian prairies of Saskatchewan, my brother and I had never heard of Baltimore, so we just said “bordabore” in our best duck voice when we were reenacting this cartoon. I also didn’t understand why Donald didn’t just name someone else as his friend, thus (maybe) avoiding the apple core to the face. I guess Donald didn’t have many friends. He probably just wanted to be left alone with his own thoughts so he could work on his own stuff. Though maybe I’m projecting a little.
I like to say that drawing is my oldest friend, but perhaps it’s more accurate to say that drawing is how I’ve connected to almost everything else: my brother and the rest of my family, other cartoonists, my wife, and cartoon characters that can still seem real sometimes.