#RIPBeleChere

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Bele Chere, the street festival that began in Asheville during a time of Detroit-level urban blight and downtown deterioration (otherwise known as the 70s) is now coming to an end, due to the city ceasing funding the increasingly revenue-neutral and somewhat now-superfluous event.

It began during my still-under-driving-age year of turning 15 in 1979. Therefore, without a way to get to the big city, and later a lack of desire to drive anywhere at all, I don’t think I ever saw much of Bele Chere during its 35 year existence. I may have gone a few times as a semi-local when the kids were small, but other than participating in a few event-themed 5K races, the one real involvement with the festival circa 1989 when I was a paid vendor.

Me at 1989 Bele Chere, selling caricatures at my booth.

Me at 1989 Bele Chere, selling caricatures at my booth in front of what is now Pack Square Park.

Back then, the booth fee was around $500 and I sold caricatures. Unfortunately, unlike having an inventory of goods that can sell as fast as customers demand, I could only draw so many people at one time, no matter how many (or few) showed up to partake in this service/art form. At $6 each, I would need to convince about 83.333333333 people to have one done before breaking even on the booth fee alone. Therefore, I split the cost of the booth (I only needed room for an easel and two chairs anyway) with my friend Don, who enterprisingly sought to capture the zeitgeist and had several current pop culture phrases (what future generations would refer to as “memes”) printed up on T-shirts to peddle on his half of the booth. I believe he did a pretty good business selling the “I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up!” white on black designs.

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Don selling his “I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up!” T-shirts before LifeAlert™ trademarked the phrase a few years later.

After the three (very long and hot) days, I think I had made a pretty good profit, surpassing the booth fee and markers, pad and tent, etc. costs and then some. There was some hassle with not being able to park anywhere near my booth space and having to drag all that stuff up a bunch of winding stairs and steep mountain roads every day by foot (or leaving it behind to be upturned and vandalized at night) that kind of stuck in my craw and prevented me from working with the festival again. So, I never did become a Bele Chere vendor at any other time after that one experience. I believe the booth fees went up so dramatically over the years, that there would have been no way to make a profit with such a business model anyway.

Once I started doing a weekly cartoon about Asheville and Asheville-related things, I kind of had to address the Bele Chere festival each year. By this time, the festival had outlived the original need for it. The downtown of Asheville had now become a vibrant, booming and hip place to be. The boarded-up, seedy city center that once needed an injection of life was long gone. Eateries, pubs, coffee houses, art galleries, touristy shops and performance spaces were doing a booming business downtown all year round now. Except for when Bele Chere would happen. Now that influx of out-of-town vendors and unruly, sometimes inebriated crowds (along with an influx of professional street-preaching instigators to mock them) would turn up and crowd out the market and space to the downtown business owners who now felt the festival was something to endure, rather than embrace each year.

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There were also now a number of festivals that proliferated all year long, that were much more inclusive of and embraced by the locals than Bele Chere. B.C. was now seen as an outsider festival for outsider vendors to sell to outsider participants. Even local bands were being booked less often for the musical acts and local brewers (which were also proliferating) were often overlooked for larger, corporate sponsors.

BeleChere2SMSo, the focus of the cartoons took on a more adversarial tone, to reflect the feelings of most of the Asheville (and surrounding) community towards the fest. Making fun of both the crowds and the local business reaction to it, as well as the apocalyptic aftermath of the yearly tempest, was the gist of many of the cartoons.

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MCcartoonBB44BIGIn the end, the “Beautiful Living” festival accomplished (or at least became irrelevant because of) what it set out to do and for that, the community should look fondly on its 3.5 decade run, even if the last few legs of the race were like running in a sweater in July.

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Missed Conceptions, Part IV

No need to go into too much detail on this one. The topless protests that have been held in Asheville the past two years or so, have provided much fodder for cartoon and juvenile humor (which I am not above engaging in, hey I like me some juvenile humor!) but the reactionary voices against the horrors of public display of human female breasts made themselves another easy target. Therefore, though I don’t like to repeat subject matter, particularly not close together, I did two cartoons on both subjects within a few weeks of each other. One was just a bunch of boob joke puns:

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The other was a second iteration of the first Calvin and Hobbes style parody about the two protest opponents:

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… and then another, the next year, this time focusing on the Raelian cult that is alleged to be behind the organization that initiates these protests, along with a caricature of a local opponent of the protests tied with the then-current Chik Fil-A controversy:

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(Also, when legislation appeared to counter the protest specifically, I even did a cartoon comparing it to the current gun show incidents and lack of any legislative discussions for those:)MXcartoonBB207WEB

It was the third cartoon that was not appreciated by one particular “conservative portal.” In the words of the webmaster:

Asheville’s Mountain Xpress found that women and some teens taking off their bras in the town square was simply an issue of humor of course, dissing people who were offended such as in this cartoon the pub posted on page eight of its September 4, 2012, issue and drawn by artist Brent Brown. The artist, of course to be politically correct, left out any drawing of the events where strangers were actually photographed fondling the breasts of women while young children were videotaped with their naked moms on the street.

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Now, I would like to just point out that although the puritanical opponent is probably being dissed here, the people he is protesting are not exactly exalted either. The fact that many “supporters” were present only to ogle and catcall them some nekkid women parts is clearly manifested in the cartoon with the non-committal signs and the leering, lecherous dudes taking photos and otherwise showing “support” for more nudity, not whatever their actual message was supposed to be. The crazy-looking, glassy-eyed cult members are not faring well either, so deriding the cartoon as some kind of partisan exercise in blind political correctness is logical incorrectness as far as I can see. They are correct in that I consider the whole thing to be simply an issue of humor. Both the protest and the reactions to it. Everyone in it, however is being made fun of and what could be more egalitarian than that?

Missed Conceptions: Part III

Ideally, a good local cartoon can cover several themes at once. In this case, I thought I had come up with a good way to cover something both topical and fun to draw (the upcoming annual Asheville “Zombiewalk” and the ongoing complaints of downtown panhandlers.

The Zombiewalk, which reached its zenith locally on 10/10/10, had now been relegated to an ordered pub crawl rather than the former large-scale (and apparently unwelcome) city-wide parade through the streets that said city leaders put an end to by way of imposing an unreasonably expensive permit fee upon the walk organizers, forcing them to downscale to a walk the previous year held at a “dead” mall on the outskirts of town, and this particular year within the confines of various downtown drinking establishments.

Combining this sight with the often-complainted-about gauntlet of downtown panhandlers (of which I had just read several gripes in the comments at the bottom of many online newspaper stories regarding downtown) that many have to pass by, seemed to me to be a pretty good joke. Especially since “braiiiiins” sounds so much like “chaaaaange” amongst the other similarities of hapless pedestrians being the recipients of the unwanted attention of large groups wanting something from them.

The cartoon ran as follows:

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Zombies printed in Mountain Xpress circa 10/16/2012

About nine days later, the following article shows up on the Mountain Xpress site:

“Dignity and respect” parade for homeless planned for Oct. 26

Members of the Asheville Homeless Network plan a parade to “promote dignity and respect for the homeless,” tomorrow, Oct. 26 at 2 p.m.

 By Bill Rhodes on 10/25/2012 11:47 AM 
The event starts with a rally at Pritchard Park and a walk to City Hall, says organizer Raven Al’Rashid. She notes the hope of making “a more public voice for the issues of the homeless and homelessness here in Asheville.”
Al-Rashid explains that a recent cartoon in Xpress by Brent Brown was a particular concern to the group. “It is hard enough out on the street without people thinking you are monsters,” she says.In the cartoon, Brown compared homeless people to the Zombie pub crawl held downtown. “We are not monsters, and we invite Mr. Brown to join the parade and educate himself on the real issues,” said Al’Rashid.”Another of the parades’ organizers, Noah Harbin points out “Yes, homelessness is a problem. Homeless people are not the problem, only the symptom.”
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So here we go with the homeless advocates complaining about a cartoon again. Even though I have done many cartoons in the past that are sympathetic to the plight of the homeless and even though this cartoon is specifically addressing panhandlers, not homeless people (not every panhandler is homeless and not all homeless are panhandlers, maybe some people should look at the type of broad generalizations they themselves employ). Also, the “monsters” in the comic are people pretending to be zombies, no one in the comic or real life thinks they are actual monsters.

As a reflection of how different groups can see the same cartoon, the folks over at Ashtoberfest, who sponsor the Zombiewalk, were apparently unaware of the cartoon’s role as a malevolent attack on human dignity and saw it as (gasp!) a funny cartoon!

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Missed Conceptions: Part II

In my experience, most complaints about cartoons seem to be due to a misunderstanding of the premise or punchline of the joke. Or sometimes an understanding of, but objection to the joke, its intent or execution (or even subject) or, in the event of political or social commentary, just a disagreement of opposing ideology.

However, the “outraged” party du jour of this particular comic from 2011 had a complaint that was a new one on me altogether! The cartoon in question was a series of jokes featuring a recurring character, “Ironey The Iron” who was a de facto narrator for Asheville happenings, as he was an anthropomorphic version of the well-known urban art piece (sculpture) on Wall St. and Battery Park Ave. appropriately facing the Flat Iron Building outside the Mountain Xpress offices.

As I had done in previous incarnations of the Ironey strips (here and here), I addressed a number of recent local issues that seemed ironic in some way. One of them, was that a local photographer, though coming off a recent win as Best Local Photographer in the paper, had nevertheless made public his concern about being able to make a living here, or indeed, to even continue to pay to live anywhere. This was stated on his Facebook page and repeated on an Ashvegas blog post about the photog in question, Micah MacKenzie. I thought it nicely pointed out the irony of being “successful” in the arts here and still not actually making enough money to even pay your (inflated) local rent. The cartoon ran as follows:

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Ironey the Iron III printed in Mountain Xpress circa 11/15/2011.

The next week, I hear from an editor that they had received this letter to the Editor by a Patty Cooper which, bizarrely recounted how “offended” she was about the cartoon because… well, just read it yourself:

“I am highly offended by your cartoon that shows someone in a green hat, and brown pants, and who is a photographer [“Brent Brown: Ironey the Iron,” Nov. 16 Xpress]. I walk these streets all day wearing about the same outfit, taking pictures. I would hate to assume that this is supposed to be a caricature of me.

Yes, I sit with homeless, and many others as I spend my days here. I can assure you though, as a land and homeowner in Vermont, and having an apartment to stay in while here, that I am not homeless. I also have viewers of my work all over the world. I do not see any homeless persons walking these streets with photography equipment or handing out cards about the video and photo work I do. Yes, I was offended.

I could not figure out why persons were walking up to me today telling me all about services that the homeless have here. When I told them I do not need those services they seemed shocked. Now I know why. I am sure that you would not have posted a caricature of some better-known local artist like that. I consider this defamation of character.”

— Patty Cooper
Asheville

So, I was tasked with penning a response to this person’s, shall we say, colorful view of the world, before I was told who even wrote the letter. I first wrote Micah to make sure he didn’t write it, as it was about him, but he had not even seen the cartoon, or got the connection that it was about him, until I pointed it out. Assured the letter writer was indeed not the subject of this comic, I replied:

“No, the cartoon was not about you, whoever you are, (the Xpress edited that part out) The cartoon of the photographer who’s forced into homelessness despite, ironically, being the best in his profession, was not based on you. Rather, the cartoon alludes to a Nov. 2 entry on the Ashvegas blog about local photographer Micah Mackenzie, who posted on Facebook of his struggle to survive in Asheville (ironically after just having won the title of Best Photographer in the annual Mountain Xpress Best of WNC issue). Even then, it was not a literal representation of him and other actual artists actually living in boxes on the street, but rather a premise taken to an extreme to achieve what people with senses of humor call a ‘joke.’

The clothes’ colors were chosen at random and not based on any person living or dead. To further set your mind at ease, the iron depicted in the cartoon, while based on an existing sculpture on Wall Street, does not in real life have human limbs or a face and does not narrate local events.”

— Brent Brown
Asheville

That, hopefully satisfied the offended party, but probably not. Additionally, the woman who was pictured being led away by police for distributing fliers was not very happy with the way she was drawn, but in fairness, I never went out of my way to find a photo when I did it and I just drew a generic woman, so no offense was meant.

Missed Conceptions Part I

Sometimes you do a cartoon with what you think are pretty clear intentions, but then you hear back that those intentions were misread or misinterpreted or misconstrued or just missed completely.

Getting complaints about your cartooning efforts, especially when the complaints are based on the reader seeing the opposite of what you meant (or in some cases, just seeing something that is not there at all) is kind of annoying, but some would say it beats having your work completely ignored and receiving no feedback at all. (Hey, they may hate it, but at least you know someone is actually seeing it!)

Therefore, I would like to go back and address some of these “missed conceptions” that have happened and since there are more than a few, I will tackle each independently.

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A Place to Sit printed in Mountain Xpress circa 7/27/2010

The first is this cartoon focusing on the plight of the growing local homeless population (always a touchy subject with well-meaning, but humor-impaired social advocates) and specifically a series of downtown bench removals by the city and private business/apartment buildings in order to deter the use of them by tourist-deterring and unmarketable homeless people, criminals, smokers, and/or other undesirable users.

This led to a reduction of available places to sit. So I did a cartoon with tourist-resident types complaining about the lack of places to sit (made ironic because the places to sit were taken away due to complaints about all the homeless sitting on them). Combining this with the usual stories of homeless being both complained about in letters to the editor and attempts to dissuade their presence by enforcement of loitering laws and I have the complainers actually sitting ON the homeless guy (who complains about not only not having a place to sit, but also not being allowed to stand around either).

So the cartoon was about the absurdity of having the indignity of the homeless guy being even further de-humanized by being made furniture—just so he can legally exist in a place where he can neither sit nor stand around. I thought it was pretty clearly on the side of the hapless gent’s circumstances, and that giving him that last line (which was, I thought, a clever pun on the repeated use of “can’t stand” turned around for his own use) was a clear indication that this was sympathetic to his position!

But noooooooooooo. The next week, there appeared this excoriating letter to the editor, as well as more of the same thing in a post on the very-ironically titled blog Community of the Beloved, decrying what the two people needed to compose this misconstrued missive attack as “appalling” and “blatant prejudice” as well as implying it could lead to “awful violence” against people who are homeless. Here is the full letter, as well as screen shots of the blog post:

Prejudice is destructive to the fabric of our community

It is appalling that, on the one hand, Mountain Xpress can write such a powerful piece exposing the past prejudice of deeply rooted racism in “Back to Summerlane” [July 28 Xpress] and, in the same issue, promote such blatant prejudice against people who are homeless [in the cartoon] “Land of This Guy.” This kind of prejudice ripples out, changing the landscape of our city as revealed in “Benched” [July 28 Xpress] and can lead to the awful violence seen at Camp Summerlane.

We welcome citizens without homes, seniors, tourists and Asheville residents to find comfortable seating, rest and the opportunity to build real relationships that have the power to overcome our prejudices at Be Loved, a community house located at 39 Grove Street in downtown Asheville.

— L. White and A. Cantrell
Be Loved”

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Seeing they had obviously missed the whole point of the cartoon, I tried to reply to both their online letter and their blog post, explaining the actual concept, but got no reply to either.

I wrote back:

You have completely misinterpreted my cartoon. The entire premise of the comic strip is that while the complaining couple are worried about having a place to sit and having to (oh no!) see homeless people while they are downtown; the actual homeless man is forced to behave as their furniture in order to be legally allowed to exist downtown in lieu of the anti-loitering laws displayed on the sign.

This cartoon was (I thought, anyway) obviously taking a sympathetic view of the homeless person’s plight by showing how he is not only ignored, but further degraded by taking such anti-homeless laws and sentiments to an absurd degree, such as requiring them to be furniture. It is not encouraging such behavior at all, merely using the absurdity of it to make a larger point against treating them that way! It was also combined with the recent story of benches being removed.

It’s probably not a good sign when a cartoon has to be explained with three paragraphs. That could mean that the cartoonist did not get his point across well enough. It could, however, also reflect on the inability of the person reading it to recognize parody, satire or sarcasm. In any case, I hope the intended meaning is now clear to you.

For a place that likes to “spread the love” they sure don’t mind going off half-cocked and accusing cartoons, that they are too one-dimensional and literal-minded to apparently understand, of “treating our friends on the street with disdain and disrespect”.

So, that wraps up part one in this attempt to explain myself to the (hopefully) few who do not get my cartoons but are nevertheless so demonstrably and publicly vocal about their “outrage” that I feel I have to be equally public in defending myself, as well as pointing out what they got wrong.

I realize I should take the advice of other cartoonists and just ignore the few cranks (“fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke” my colleague at the Asheville Citizen-Times instructs) and be assured most people either did get it or (more likely) don’t even care about, or notice cartoons in the first place. Also remembering that said majority is rarely heard from the way the very vocal, terminally-outraged are, but hey, I have blog posts to make, and this seemed like a good recurring blog subject since these types of things require a long-form, multimedia approach.

The real tragedy is that this cartoon was also done in a style that evokes Tom Wison, the famous creator of Ziggy and even though I drew the homeless guy as Ziggy himself, no one seemed to notice that, either!

Producing Stereotypes

Here is a good article from Carolina Public Press Written by  about the Southern Stereotypes in comics exhibit at WCU (where they were nice enough to invite me to a cartoonist panel discussing such things). I was also interviewed for this article.

In it, I spoke about my late uncle’s produce business and how he would dress up as the stereotypical “hillbilly” that potential tourists/newcomer customers would expect to see. Here is a collage of some of the label/ad designs I tried to come up with for him, as well as a photo from a newspaper clipping of him and my late aunt:

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Bob and Katherine McCombs at Mountain Man Produce stand in Hendersonville, NC

 

An interesting aside, is that I used him as the inspiration for a cartoon (featured in the same Carolina Public Press article) where I take up the issue of cultural stereotypes that was partially in response to another cartoon by fellow cartoonist, Randy Molton that was featured in the Asheville alt-weekly, Mountain Xpress. Randy’s “pigdemic” cartoon (suggesting certain bestiality inclinations inherent in certain people in certain geographical regions) caused not a small bit of controversy at the time (May 6, 2009 issue).

My cartoon was a little better-received, but still had its critics. As local writer and Appalachian historian, Betty Cloer Wallace remarked:

“Well, Brent Brown’s “Stereotypes” cartoon is quite humorous and a great improvement over Molton’s “Pigdemic,” even though Brown’s “hillbilly” character is the only person of the five types in his entire cartoon who is portrayed as being ignorant for real, ignorant beneath his stereotype. (It’s hard to get away from it, isn’t it?)

Even the double-negative frame, although borderline, is humorous.

I think the cartoon would have been even funnier, though, if Brown had left out the stereotypical language “whatchoo you in fer” and instead had the real person behind the ignorant stereotype saying something unexpectedly erudite.

It clearly is possible to poke fun at stereotypes in ways that are not insensitive or insulting toward a person, group, or culture, and except for “whatchoo you in fer,” this cartoon does that quite humorously.
By Betty Cloer Wallace
05/20/2009″

What she did not know, was that it was based on an actual person, my uncle, who—though he was playing the part of the cartoon hillbilly as a marketing gimmick—was nevertheless a rough-around-the-edges, rural, country type who was still prone to speaking in a NC mountain dialect with syntax and grammar not considered proper or correct and filled with regionalisms. To have him sound like Rex Harrison would, I agree, have been a funny idea, but in this case, I was being true to the comic strip avatar of my uncle Bobby. It was also a way to say that even though the people here may have an accent and non-standard way of speaking, that they are still nothing like the cartoon stereotype portrayals that may or may not even be based on reality, but became so prevalent that even the people they mock eventually used them for their own purposes.

U MAD Bro?

Like a lot of 70s kids, I grew up with MAD Magazine and it had a big influence on me. I still own all my tattered, and sometimes coverless, issues from that period, up to whenever it was there stopped being newsstands to impulse buy one from. Not only was my sense of humor and irreverence affected by the “usual gang of idiots” but as a cartoonist, the way I approach the medium has the DNA of MAD all up in that.

A few cartoons I’ve done for Mountain Xpress have been tributes to various MAD artists, from Don Martin, Antonio Prohias, Sergio Aragones, and Paul Coker Jr., to the first MAD man himself, Harvey Kurtzman. Even when I wasn’t attempting a blatant ripoff, I mean “homage” to the artist’s style, I can’t help but find myself being influenced by years of enjoying work from people like George Woodbridge or Wally Wood or Bill Elder.

Brent Brown local TEDX cartoon using classic MAD man, Don Martin style. Click for larger version.

Brent Brown parody cartoon of Antonio Prohias MAD Spy vs. Spy strip for local paper. Clicken to Enlargen.

Paul Coker Jr. style of MAD feature appropriated by Brent Brown for local version. Click for larger version.

 

Sergio Aragones style for local evidence room scandal. Click for larger.

Woodbridge-esque influences in my work.

John Tenniel-type Alice illustrations with “Bill Elder/Wally Wood” influences comic on local Tweedle-Dum candidates by Brent Brown.

Harvey Kurtzman-esque comic by Brent Brown about local Duke-Progress merger.

In the early 90s, when I went from doing boring commercial art in ad agencies to full-time starving doing interesting freelance, I submitted some cartoons and ideas to my beloved MAD, sure I would get the same nice rejection letters I got from cartoon syndicates I sent my attempt at a comic strip to earlier.

To my delighted surprise, they actually were interested in my submission and subsequently bought it! When issue #321 came out, there I was: Writer: Brent Brown. Oh, they had another artist re-draw my cartoons. So I am still not a MAD cartoonist, just a writer. Oh well, I would still forever be linked to my MAD muse in the history of contributors!

Undaunted, I sent in more submissions and they were considered, but ultimately rejected for one reason or another. I did enjoy the snarky repartee we had in those pre-email days with making fun of each others locations in Noo Yawk and Naw Kerlina:

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A few years later, I applied for, and was summarily rejected from, membership in the National Cartoonist Society (when I found out they existed and contained so many great cartoonists that I would have loved to have met during their yearly conventions, held in various parts of the country). One of these annual meetings in particular was going to be quite close to home. RIght here in Asheville, NC at the Grove Park Inn!  Since I was not a member, I couldn’t go to the convention or the main event, the Reuben awards, not as an attendee anyway, but having such luminaries so close was too tempting. I had to figure out some kind of plan to worm my way in amongst my heroes that were going to be practically in my back yard.

Now, I had been hired by the Grove Park Inn on many previous occasions to draw caricatures for various gatherings at the grand hotel and so my plan was to put on a tux (or as close to one as I could approximate for the black tie dinner being held in one of their ballrooms that night) and just set up my easel and to put up a sign that said “free caricatures” in front of the ballroom where the awards ceremony was being held, pretending that the hotel had hired me to be there! This is what I did.
Of course, I had no right to be there, but no one questioned it. Even when the entrance (where I had borrowed two chairs to set up to draw) had become so packed with participants in penguin suits that I—and the few I was able to draw before the ceremony started—could barely move or be seen any longer.
I wasn’t able to talk to Sergio Aragones, who was being honored that night, but I did meet several cartoonists (one who did a caricature of me at the same time I was doing one of him, he declared me “the winner, hahah” but I can’t remember his name, although I have the drawing here, somewhere, still) and I even met Mad artist Bob Clarke, who recently passed away, who was happy to autograph my “Complete MAD” compendium that I “happened” to bring along with me. I still treasure that, even though he inscribed it “To Brandt.” (see below) as he was not able to hear me very well over the din.
MAD artist Bob Clarke signed one of his works on the pages of my "Completely MAD" paperback I  brought to the Reuben awards at Grove Park Inn.

MAD artist Bob Clarke signed one of his works on the pages of my “Completely MAD” paperback I brought to the Reuben awards at Grove Park Inn. (He didn’t get the spelling right, but I still treasure it, especially now that he is gone.)

It was a pretty crazy idea, but I was glad I went through with it. I never tried to reapply  for membership though.
Years later, I did join the International Society of Caricature Artists (ISCA) in 2011 and was able to meet a lot of very talented fellow caricaturists from all fields from all across the globe. One, Tom Richmond, was even nice enough to lead an impromptu sketch session by the hotel pool during a convention in Tampa, FL that year. Tom happens to be the main caricature genius at the current MAD magazine. He is the goto guy for movie and TV parodies and other parts of the issue that require spot-on caricature work. He even wrote a book on the subject and I was able to get a nice inscription on my copy from him as well as a free caricature (it would be priceless at any price!). Another MAD alumni I met at the 2011 convention was the great-in-his-own-right-but-also-a-sometime-contributor-to-MAD artist, Drew Friedman. Here are a few photos from those epic encounters:
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As far as MAD goes. The last correspondence I got from the MAD editors was in 1994, asking for more submissions for their “potpourri page” but I never got around to coming up with any ideas to send in and I never did.

Just this week, however, I’ve received in the mail, my first issue of MAD in years (from a subscription deal I found online and decided to see what’s been going on) and I see I can now download the whole issue on my iPad as well (with interactive all kinds of stuff). Seeing the many new contributors that make up this modern MAD makes me wonder why I had not sent in any more submissions in after their last request, and at this point, I can’t remember, but time must just have gotten away from me, and other projects came up and I probably also just ran dry regarding new and different ideas that they had not done similar things about before.

However, as I see the modern day MAD, where they are apparently still looking for and accepting such stuff (even more than they used to, it would seem) I’m thinking it’s not too late to try again. I wonder if they accept digital submissions though, as I haven’t had any letterhead since the Clinton administration.

Happy Egg Bunny Day

Why not keep my blog updated as much as my other social media crap, I say to myself? Good idea, I say back to myself, with no quotation marks to hinder the conversation. Why not do it today with that twisted Easter Bunny illustration you drew on your iPad in Procreate yesterday? Hey! Say I, that would be the perfect thing to put there for all me to enjoy, since I’m talking to myself, why not update a blog that only I read for myself as well??

Something Wicked This Way COMES PETER COTTONTAIL

Anatomy of a Cartoon

Well well, no blog entries here since January of 2011, huh? Wow! That’s a lot of not blogging! I aim to rectify that (just this once) with a new entry today! (See below.)

Often I get asked what goes into creating a new cartoon for the Mountain Xpress (alternative weekly free paper based in Asheville, NC and distributed there and amongst the neighboring counties)and by often, I mean never. However, just in case anyone was actually interested in such a thing, I have put together this step by step, behind-the-scenes, DVD extra, cinema verité look at just what goes into those cartoons that you probably don’t see every week. Won’t you please read on? The process starts as soon as the last cartoon has been sent in on the Friday afternoon deadline. Actually, a period of relief and recuperation follows that submission and a weekend of not having to think about the cartoon follows, but honestly, as soon as Monday morning rears it’s weekly head, that sinking feeling of another impending deadline starts ulcerating and the quest for ideas to do the cartoon about starts anew. This need for a new idea becomes more frantic as the week goes on, of course, and the fact that even if several stories of a local nature (the only kind of stories I can do, if I am to follow my mandated function as a local cartoonist for a local paper that is all about local and how local matters, um, matter) are current topics, they may also be topics that A) do not lend themselves easily to cartoon lampooning fodder or B) are in the same vein as similar topics that I and/or other local cartoonists have already done, sometimes many times, before. The search for inspiration within such narrow stipulations can be a problematic one for sure, but having the internet and no actual job to commute to, work at and get paid from to waste my valuable time, I am able to scour the local media outlets, social networks and Twitterverses for that one nugget of a twinkling of a kernel of a spark of an idea maybe that might could possibly work if I try to tie it to some other seemingly connected or divergent or paradoxically juxtaposed incident out of which I can hopefully find a way to squeeze some amount of humor or at least social commentary.

MXcartoonResearch1

Researching ideas for cartoon - clicken to enlargen

Once I have the idea (in the case of this particular week’s cartoon, the news had been about the New Belgium brewery announcement in Asheville, which happened not long after Sierra Nevada brewery announced plans to locate in neighboring Henderson County. There had also been news items about the long proposed, but never started Ecusta Trail from Henderson to Transylvania Counties, as well as news that Transylvania County was becoming a known biking destination. Some talk about a plan to link the two new future breweries with each other by a bike trail and the usual local grump grumbling about rails to trails, and biking in general from the online comments of stories about them, gave me the idea of imagining a future where such a wonder (to a biking and other greenway enthusiasts) could actually happen and then the chance to bring it down to earth with the reality of one of my  favorite targets, the unimaginative rural locals and the unimaginative northern transplants that make up (or at least seem to make up) the population of my home county.

Rough sketch on old-fashioned, actual paper. Clicken to embiggen

With an idea figuratively in hand (the most important and biggest hurdle to clear in getting the cartoon started) I was able to begin sketching out ideas. I’ve pretty much gone completely digital, with my Wacom pressure-sensitive tablet and various software programs that can simulate the look and feel of ink, pencil, watercolor, etc., but I still use a pencil and paper when just roughing out ideas and characters.

sketch layout • click to make bigger

Once I have a general idea where the cartoon (in this case, comic strip, since it will take multiple panels to tell the story) is going to go, I can switch to the computer and (using the Manga Studio software I prefer to work in) decide how many panels it will take and start roughing out the layout and composition of each panel. First though, I need to write the actual dialog of the characters in the comic. This is important to do first, as it not only gives me the direction of what to actually draw in that panel, but depending on how much space the word balloons take up, it limits where and what can be drawn in each panel that will not be obscured by the words.  In this case, and in most cases, since I am dealing with actual local issues and not made up circumstances, I have to research the information to make sure I have it all accurate. The location of the New Belgium brewery was mentioned in the news articles, so that was pretty easy to locate on a map. The location of the Sierra Nevada site in Mills River was much trickier, as it was set in some place called “Ferncliff Industrial Park” which I have never even heard of, much less seen and I have lived in Mills River for most of my life.

type layout • click to see larger

More research for cartoon after idea research • click to see it

The process of locating the location of this purported site was increasingly problematic, as all the news stories and online press releases I could find about it never mentioned a street address or actual location. After much detective work, I was able to ascertain that it must be located somewhere near the French Broad river in Mills River, near the airport and facing Fanning Fields Road. Using Google street view, I was able to, eventually work my way down that road until I found a guesstimate of where it must probably ought to be and now I had the two sites to pinpoint on my cartoon map of the future multi-use, supergreenway path! I also needed to find an accurate map of the route to use in the cartoon for the panel that shows a birds eye/Google Maps view of the route and I needed to be relatively aware of where the Transylvania/Henderson/Buncombe county lines fell in the opening panel. Some reference photos of what the current railroad tracks in the proposed Ecusta trail look like needed to be sourced as well and I was also able to rely on my own experience on them. Finally, some reference photos for the bicycle (can’t get that wrong, or I would hear about it) and I’m ready to proceed. Now, after the script has been written (limited by the space allowed in the panel and the size and shape of the word balloons) and the rough layout pencilled in, the final inking of the comic can begin with the reference sources all pinned down.

comic at the inking stage - click to grow

After all the details have been added in, I can export the Manga Studio file as a PSD layered file and then open that file in Photoshop. Now I can begin the process of adding in all the color that has to meticulously be put in by hand on each item. Luckily, I decided to make the final panel a sepia tone to indicate how backwards and old timey my beloved home county is in the comic. That meant I didn’t have to color in each little thing in that panel at least, but I ended up having to make things various shades of the sepia brown to give them some depth.

colored in strip make it bigger by clicking

Finally, I can send the finished image to the Mountain Xpress. First, however, I have been informed that I must make sure all the blacks in the ink, text, rules, etc. are all in 100% black instead of the CMYK build that Photoshop makes them automatically when I bring it into an RGB PSD file from Manga Studio (if these things mean nothing to you and make your eyes glaze over, imagine how I feel dealing it every week) so I have to find a way to select only those parts of the image and convert them to appear in just the BLACK channel after converting the image from an RGB to a CMYK image, increasing the size of an already large file to email, but it can’t be helped, sorry inbox mail attachment file limits!

finished cartoon for print

Now, I’m ready to mail the file to the MX editor, co-editor, editor when the editor is away, another editor who fills in for that editor and the art department guy. I could be done now, but I have one more chore I have voluntarily burdened myself with: I have to make a special version for the Mountain Xpress web site. You see, the dimensions of the comic I have been given to fit into for the print edition (and the large header that must appear above it each week) leave me with a very wide and narrow, horizontal space to fill. While this fits into the print version of the paper, the web site, in its current columnar layout, does not give much horizontal room for things and that includes the cartoons. Taking my very wide horizontal cartoon and shrinking it to fit into the narrow space of the web site reduces all that detail and text down to an unreadable size online, particularly in anything with more than one, two or at the most three panels. This being a five panel, two row cartoon, I felt I needed to make my usual WEB version of it. So, I had to take the finished, flattened CYMK TIFF 300 dpi print file and change it back to an RGB JPEG 72 dpi web file. Then I had to cut and paste the individual panels in order to get them to stack onto each other (in correct sequential order of course) until they make a vertical cartoon that will more easily fit into the online layout without having to be shrunk down to illegibility.

web version of cartoon

At last, the cartoon has been remade to fit online, and I send it in a second email to the MX editor and the MX webmaster (I send them separately, because in the past, I have sent web versions and print versions together , but found the print versions were being used online anyway and I also have received very stern reprimands from the print art director about “square-shaped comics with the wrong dimensions” that I should know better than to send for print which turned out to be the web version that someone mistakenly sent to the print department) to make sure they go only to those who need them. Then, at last, my cartoon finished for the week and only 40 or so hours spent in thinking of, researching, sketching, roughing, re-researching, writing, lettering, inking, coloring, manipulating, routing and sending my cartoon, I can relax and not think about it again for at least another two days! The $40 I have earned for it will go far, but that is not why I do it. I do it for the knowledge that I am creating something of quality that will be enjoyed by so many readers both in print and online and satisfaction that creating something that touches so many people in such a way that only such hard work and dedication to accurate detail and quality presentation can achieve!

Print version used on MX Facebook page and huge response it garnered.

Oh, did I mention that the online version I worked on and sent to the MX was never used and the web people just somehow tracked down the print version that I only sent to the print people and then converted that to use in a tiny, unreadable image on both the Facebook pages and web site? Did I mention that I mentioned this to them via an email that once again, contained the web version and that they still to this day did not fix it?

PRINT version of cartoon used on the MX web site to the view of hundreds and garnering zeroes of comments.

Did I mention why I bother to spend so much time every week on this cartoon? I’m remember there used to be a reason, but can’t remember what it was now.

Rails to (Snow) Trails

Less than a mile from my house are the now-unused Norfolk-Southern railroad tracks that run for a while alongside the French Broad river as it makes its way through tiny Horse Shoe, NC. There has been some discussion in Henderson County about turning the abandoned and rusting away tracks into a useful all-purpose trail for runners, walkers, hikers, cyclists, etc to promote exercise and non-vehicle based travel to ease traffic congestion as the Rails To Trails program has done elsewhere. Of course, being this county is heavily populated by elderly retirees, sedentary obese people and proudly conservative residents who roll their eyes at any promotion of “fitness” or “environmental” as some kind of hippie, leftist, tree-hugger nonsense that people with common sense have no need for, the idea was not met with a groundswell of public support. The communist-like land sharing aspects of landowners next the current right of way of the tracks having to put up with endless parades of strangers engaging in this frivolity next to their property rubbed a lot the wrong way as well. Therefore, instead of waiting for the implementation of such a pipe dream as a county-wide greenway that would actually take people places they wanted or needed to go (or, horrors, an actual bike path) to spring up in such a setting, I set out to use the tracks myself for such purposes in the here and now.

For at least last year, I’ve been making a weekly run to the “downtown” Horse Shoe business district, under the premise of getting a new Mountain Xpress paper (that comes out each Wednesday) but really it’s just a way to ensure I make at least one attempt at exercise a week. Having a set appointment to do it really seems to work, and unfortunately, in many months it is the only exercise I get until the next Wednesday.

This works great when the weather is nice, but when it rains, I’m not so keen on doing it. When it is freezing cold and there is still 8 inches of snow on the ground, I am even less so. Still, I’ve kept it up, even if I had to layer myself like a wedding lasagna cake and brave through the even-less-shoulder-than usual-(which is none) road conditions to get to the tracks, which are not plowed either and therefore a whole new challenge. This time I took my camera with me and captured most of the trip there on the tracks and the trip back on the road. It would be nice to have an actual path, but it probably would not be passable in the winter either.

Crossing the French Broad River

Bottom lands by river.

I get on the tracks here, where they cross Banner Farm Road.

This and another dog, struggle against their chains to try and kill me each time I run past.

closer view

Cool, old crumbling structure next to tracks.

Me, next to it.

Past the dogs, coming up on the crossing with highway 64 west

Usually, I have to wait for traffic, but not long.

Across the road, two trestles, one over a creek, the shorter one later, crosses just a rut.

The smaller trestle on train tracks

crossing the snowy trestle (usually, I run, but I didn't want a blurry photo)

rear of Horse Shoe strip mall

Where the tracks cross an entrance road.

I leave the tracks at Hunter's Glen housing development entrance, near the post office.

Horse Shoe Post Office

Mailed letter I brought with me.

No new Mountain Xpress delivery today, guess I ran all the way up here for nuthin'!

Parking lot of Horse Shoe "grocery" (actually a convenience store/gas station/Subway)

Back towards home on 64 through the downtown traffic rush.

Old Horse Shoe Hardware store, turned into restaurant/furniture store/Tea Party meeting hall.

Going past new Horse Shoe Hardware store and Brigg's Garden Center.

Past the Horse Shoe Guns and Ammo store and Cummings Methodist Church (across the street, not the same place.)

Past the tracks I took earlier and abandoned landscaping business building by river.

Over the French Broad again.

If I see my shadow does that mean two more weeks of winter?