Funny pages are a nice place to visit
As dreams go, this one wasn't a biggie, but realizing it expands my professional resume roughly in tandem with my expanding waistline.
In my Walter Mitty-ish world, one of my dreams was to become a cartoonist published in papers all over the country. I had all the attributes needed to become a successful cartoonist except for one: the ability to actually draw cartoons. I tried all kind of scribbles and tricks to turn my cartoon ideas into cartoons, but they came out looking like the scratchings of a raving lunatic, an inartistic one at that. I realized that the only way I'd be a cartoonist was to get an actual cartoonist to use one of my ideas. I'm not the first frustrated humor writer to come to this realization.
Renowned humor essayist Calvin Trillin actually had a paying writing job at the New Yorker magazine, which many writers would think was good enough. But Calvin, in his Walter Mitty-ish way, wanted to be a cartoonist. In an essay he wrote for the book "The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker," Trillin relates how he pestered New Yorker cartoonists for 10 years to use one of his ideas.
He cornered them in elevators and trapped them by the water cooler but to no avail, until one day when he wrote a piece on New England shopping areas called "Thoughts Brought on by Prolonged Exposure to Exposed Brick." By the water cooler, he told colleagues how he had come across a pile of bricks in Charleston with a sign reading, "Another historic Charleston house awaiting restoration." A few weeks later a cartoon appeared in New Yorker with that punch line. Trillin was ecstatic that he apparently had succeeded in having one of his ideas made into a cartoon, even if somewhat inadvertently.
Ironically, one of Trillin's famous predecessors at the New Yorker, James Thurber, had his own cartoon problems. Thurber shared an office with E.B. White and wrote many of the witty essays that appeared in the magazine's "Talk of the Town" segment. But he also doodled on the side, creating cartoons he implored Editor Harold Ross to publish.
Ross did not consider the doodles up to New Yorker cartoon standards, and for a long time refused. But he finally relented, and Thurber's strange little doodles, often featuring seals in living rooms and bedrooms, became a magazine staple. It is not surprising Thurber suffered Walter Mitty-ish desires to become a cartoonist because he was the person who actually wrote the book "The Secret Lives of Walter Mitty."
So with Thurber and Trillin as inspirations, I set off to find a cartoonist who shared my peculiar views of the world. And I found him in Dan Piraro, the award-winning creator of the "Bizarro" cartoon panels. Piraro has been recognized repeatedly by the National Cartoonist Society for his work, and his syndicated panel appears in more than 250 newspapers, including, at one time, this one. So I knew the odds of him looking at my ideas were long, but I figured I'd start at the top and work down.
Piraro is the cartoonist who picked up where "Far Side" left off when Gary Larson retired several years ago. I love Piraro's offbeat perspectives and quirky characters and animals. We exchanged a few e-mails, and he amazingly agreed to look at a few of my ideas. It is not unusual for cartoonists to use gag writers for punch lines. In the early New Yorker years, few of the cartoonists actually came up with their own punch lines. And as a columnist, I rely heavily on ideas from readers for inspiration.
Nevertheless, I was surprised that Piraro would take a look at my ideas. I sent him several, most of which I have to keep secret in the hopes of luring yet another cartoonist into my gag trap. But one I really like involves a kindly old woman who looks like Aunt Bea in a kitchen filled with baking utensils reading a list of ingredients. The caption is Aunt Bea reading the list out loud: "One cup ricin, teaspoon C-4, dash of cyanide, a third cup of anthrax, one pint of botulism extract, a spritz of nerve gas. ... Oh my! This looks like a recipe for disaster!"
I think it's hilarious. But perhaps in these terrorist times it's not quite the thing.
Piraro did find one of my gags that he liked, and it is reprinted above. It's called the "8-Blade Razor of Justice" and is a weird take on absurdities of both the criminal justice system and safety razors, whose blades seem to multiply exponentially these days. The cartoon was published all over the United States and, I think, in Burkina Faso.
As with most creative enterprises in Charleyworld, I won't get paid for the idea, but Dan is sending me the original drawing. That's cool enough. Because now I can say I'm a published cartoonist. Sort of. And I can move on to my next Walter Mitty-ish dream: brain surgery. Now, where's that doctor's e-mail address?
, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' 2004 First Place Award winner for humor writing, appears Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org