Year X at MX

A recent Twitter tweet about a Facebook post about making fun of the evergreen topic about current residents complaining about how Asheville isn’t like it used to be, caused me to remember a cartoon I did on the very same subject, and that caused me to realize that said cartoon was now ten years old, almost exactly to the date. Then, all of that caused me to make this blog post, and construct that crazy run-on sentence.

So it seems that today, November 14, 2017 is exactly ten years from the date that Mountain Xpress first published the cartoon I created a month earlier to respond to their call for new local cartoonists. That’s not a huge deal in general, seeing as how their longtime political cartoonist, Randy Molton, has been drawing for them for over 22 years now. Other than Randy’s mainstay status, and David Cohen‘s memorable tenure until 2006 (when he moved to be the still-current Asheville-

The publication of my first cartoon in the 11/14/2007 Mountain Xpress, along with Johnny Cantrell and some others that were not chosen. The color version is at the bottom of this post.

Citizen Times cartoonist), I rather got the feeling as an occasional reader (living in rural Henderson County, I didn’t get a chance to pick up the Asheville alt-weekly very often) that the “local cartoon” slot was hard for the paper to fill. If you defer the local political cartooning to Randy, that leaves only local non-political, non-national things to lampoon each week, so after making the easy jokes about the few local issues that seem to stay the same, and some local event or people, you kind of run out of “local” and revert to a general cartoon about… something. The Mountain Xpress seemed to go through a lot of different artists in that spot, from what I could tell, and I heard from them later on, that such was the case. Getting the cartoonist to remain on-mission as doing “local” cartoons was a difficult cat to herd.

So, being that my main, long-time freelance graphic design client had recently gone the way of many other Ad Agency/Design firms in the newly-evolving world of cheap internet alternatives and self-publishing, I decided to leave the commercial art world once and for all and try my hand at my real love, cartooning, once again. I had given it a go back in 1993, creating a strip that I sent out to all the syndicates to some very nice rejection and no takers. I had also been surprised to sell my cartoon idea to MAD magazine, but deflated somewhat, that they had their in-house artist redo the artwork to save costs of just paying me as a writer only. After some more promising, but ultimately rejected submissions, I got off-track from doing cartooning/illustration, and into the more lucrative and dull world of layout and prepress of industrial marketing. Sure, industrial caster catalogues and industrial freezer brochures can be fun (not really) but do they really feed the soul? No, but when they stopped feeding the family, I was kind of glad to let them go.

When I saw the Mountain Xpress call for submissions in October 2007, I spent some time creating three of them, one color and two black and white (the paper didn’t publish color inside back then, but I think they called for one anyway) and emailed them off (I had moved on to the nascent world of digital cartooning by then). When I got a phone call from then editor, Jon Ellison (the same man whose quoted Facebook post cum Twitter tweet would create this unrequested book of a post a decade later), telling me “we really like your cartoons” I was quite pleased to hear it. He told me they would run my cartoons in the “all comics” ‘issue they were planning for 11/14/2007 and that afterwards, they would need a cartoon from me every other week, as they would alternate between me and the other local cartoonist they chose, Johnny Cantrell.

Now, however, I was terrified. I used up all my ideas to make fun of Asheville on those three cartoons already! “How the hell am I going to come up with another cartoon, much less another one every other week?” said I to myself after hanging up the phone. I had always just flirted with the idea of being a regular cartoonist. The realities of coming up with some hilarious and local idea twice a month were now staring me in the face, but it was too late to back out now.

Somehow, I made a go of it. Handing in a new cartoon (well, emailing in, I was still digital) each two-week deadline became a regular exercise and they were usually shrunken down and placed in the back amongst the classifieds. Eventually, Johnny Cantrell’s “Tooth and Jaw” comic was dropped. (It was a very well-rendered and bitingly satiric strip that I think ruffled more than a few feathers and caused much consternation with the editors. More than one of his comics attacked the Xpress itself as being too bland. A look through the comics he still has on his blogspot page reveals that more than a few never saw print due to what can only be assumed to be their libelous or profane elements for a paper that was becoming increasingly more family-friendly.. For whatever reason, his final cartoon was not published, but one can assume the final letter from MX that he portrays in his final, unpublished comic was pretty close to the real thing.)

This caused two things to happen: 1) I would now be in the paper every week, as opposed to alternating weeks, and 2) my deadline panic about what to do a cartoon about was now going to doubled from bi-monthly to weekly. One day, I met with Jon Elliston in person, and he let me know the paper was going to move my comic to the front of the paper and increase the size to the full width of the page with a headline of the title. The comic had no name to put on the new, decorative headline. The first comic I did with a recurring character was going to be called “Land of This Guy” to play on the old Asheville nickname of “Land of The Sky” and to infer it was about the cranky old man character I had as the main protaganist in the first two or three comics (a leftover from my failed Vast Wasteland comic strip). So I told them to just call it that.

 

The second comic strip I sent in started the “old man” character as the outsider looking in on Asheville’s “freaky” people and positions. It also addressed some local news stories about the freaky people in the surrounding rural counties.

 

The third comic I submitted was a continuation of the second. It addressed some local controversies that were in the news at the time.

 

That was around 2009, and the comic has been in the same place in the paper, at the same size since. Editors have come and gone, and the headline with the name was eventually dropped, but otherwise, not much has changed. The paper used to have more national, syndicated cartoons, like This Modern World by Tom Tomorrow and The City by Derf, but those seemed to have been dropped in past years, perhaps to fall more in line with MX’s focus on “local” extending to its contributors as well, or maybe as a cost-saving measure.

I gained some notice and notoriety early on. That seems to have died down, once everyone got used to the presence of another cartoonist that didn’t change every other quarter. There would very occasionally be an email or letter forwarded to me from the editors and if I saw the publisher or editor at one of the rare times I would actually meet someone from the paper in person at a party or event, they would relay positive feedback they had received. Only a few times did I get a call about someone angry or threatening to sue. Eventually, the paper started putting the cartoons online as well, and the old MountainX.com web site would elicit many comments on the posted cartoons, and that was a good gauge of reactions, but once the paper went through a site redesign a few years ago, the comments stopped, and now It’s hard to tell what, if any impact the cartoons have, or if anyone is seeing them at all.

Some of the other cartoon submissions from that issue.

Whether as many people are looking at print at all, compared to just ten years ago is another consideration. Trying to share the cartoons through social media has been pretty uneventful, as the local nature of the comics make them relevant only to a very limited audience and, of course, topicality gives them a very short lifespan in addition. I’d like to say that I used this local exposure to launch into the broader world of regional and national publication, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I have neglected stoking those aspirations for whatever reasons (I like to blame the never-ending deadline of the local cartoon for not being able to concentrate on making something more marketable to a larger, general audience, but I’m pretty sure I would still be procrastinating on that front without it breathing down my neck each week.)

So now ten years have passed. I’ve done nearly 500 “local cartoons” to varying degrees of success or failure and to reactions ranging from outrage to apathy (mostly the latter in recent years, as I’ve learned to tamp down any possible offensive material that may cause headaches for my editors and me, but at the same time make for somewhat safe, tepid, unmemorable work). I’ve gotten used to a weekly deadline, but it never became any easier or less fraught with despair about what I’m going to do this week. I’ve seen my colleague David Cohen say how the never-ending eccentricities of Asheville  provide him with an endless supply of cartoon ideas. I wish I had the same Olive Garden-like “endless strips” view of the subject, but most times it seems like I have covered the same ground of “low wages”, “tourism economy,” “newcomers vs. natives,” “affordable housing,” “development,” “traffic,’ etc. etc. so much that there is nothing left to say again. Sometimes I have nothing for the week, and have to just comment on the weather or the season or (horrors!) just do something general and non-local just like I am not supposed to be doing. I was kind of waiting for that “we no longer require your services” letter from the Xpress that Johnny and others must have received, but it hasn’t yet arrived, and since I didn’t really have the initiative to do anything else, I guess, here we are.

Should I look at this 10 year anniversary as a milestone, or a wake-up call? Would stopping at a nice, round number and moving on to something more far-reaching and better-received be a forward-thinking, visionary approach to becoming a career-minded go-getter, or would ungraciously giving up a guaranteed regular gig for the unlikely chance that the modern marketplace is looking for new, fresh works from 53 year old white male cartoonists with huge gaps in their employment history be a dumb move?

I don’t know, but I assume that my indecision will likely result in another 10 years of me going through the same routine of starting the week thinking I should not wait until the Friday deadline to think of a cartoon and then spending Friday wishing I had listened to earlier-in-the-week me until the paper finally decides they want to try someone new or I actually create something worthy of moving on to.

Even if the cartoons are similar to this blog, in that nobody is actually reading them but me, at least they both have one quality in common: VOLUME!

Full color version of the first cartoon I did. The color version was put online. I have since corrected the “1,000s” date in the last panel to an unspecified one, after getting flak about how native Americans were here long before even that.

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