The Ballad of Jon and Richard
I’ve been drawing cartoons since before I started writing. The first stories I told were comic strips I invented when I was seven-years-old.
Comics have always fascinated me. Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, and For Better or For Worse were among my earliest and most influential writing instructors.
I have limited depth perception, so I can’t draw three dimensional objects. I can’t draw much of anything, in fact, except for cartoonish facial expressions. That’s never stopped me. Over the last twenty-two years, I’ve created three comic strips that I’ve drawn on a regular basis.
I want to talk about the most recent of these. It’s called Sticks, and I created it in my last semester of high school.
More specifically, I created it in my philosophy class. I’d been looking forward to philosophy for years. I mean, can you imagine? A class devoted to sitting around and thinking about life? That’s awesome.
Unfortunately my teacher was completely burned out- he retired before the end of the semester- and did nothing but make us read and discuss Plato’s The Republic. For three months.
I’d always drawn in class- doodles and weird faces filling the margins- but faced with months of Greek philosophy, my cartooning got increasingly elaborate. I started writing actual comic strips in the margins, complete with two regular characters. One of the characters resembled a generic stick figure face. His name was Jon Johnson. The other character looked the same as Jon, but had glasses. His name was Richard Glasses. I called the comic strip Sticks, because Jon and Richard were stick figures.
Jon and Richard didn’t really have discernable personalities. They bantered with each other and got into various mishaps. I don’t remember many of these early strips, but they kept me sane and entertained.
Then I started university. I went from a suburban high school of two thousand students to the University of Toronto, which consisted of countless imposing buildings sprawling across dozens of city blocks.
I attended a two-week-long orientation seminar for disabled students just before class started. It was held in a dingy, windowless classroom in a brutalist concrete slab on the edge of campus. Early in the first morning of the first day I drew a comic strip featuring Jon and Richard. Their presence reassured me. Maybe things would be all right.
I drew approximately twenty more Sticks comics that day.
The seminar was a bust. It seemed to be designed for students with reading disabilities, which isn’t something I’ve ever had a problem with. I spent my days drawing Sticks, and only occasionally tuned in to the instructors.
When my real classes started, my stress level only increased. I’ve always had difficulty listening to people talk for sustained periods of time, and when I’m under stress, it gets worse.
The first months of university were a perfect storm of circumstances that disrupted my functionality.
Now, here’s a funny thing about my writing ability: when I’m too happy or too comfortable, I feel unmotivated to write. Let’s call that a 1 out of 10 on a scale of emotional distress. When I’m totally freaking out, I lose the ability to write. That would be a 10 out of 10.
But just before the point of total mental dysfunction, there’s a sweet spot. This would be anywhere between 7 and 9. When I’m in that sweet spot I become manically productive, and the stuff I create is generally high quality.
I was in university for four years. During that period of time, my stress level rarely dipped below a 7 out of 10. I constantly felt sad, anxious, angry, trapped, or hopeless, or just flat-out bored. For the first three years of university, I also didn’t have any friends, so I was isolated as well. I also had undiagnosed and untreated P.T.S.D.
Sticks was my main conduit for all the difficult things I felt, as well as all the thoughts I thought which I couldn’t express, either because I was alone or because the thoughts were too bizarre or anti-social to share.
There’s a subgenre of comic strips called the diary comic. The best example of this is American Elf by James Kochalka. A diary comic follows the day-to-day activities of its author, however unimportant or dull. Over a long period of time, the mundane details in a diary comic accumulate and become profound and transcendant.
Sticks was like an emotional diary comic; instead of my activities, it focused abstractly on my shifting mental state.
I see this in retrospect. At the time I deliberately avoided analyzing Sticks. I’ve always had a tendency to overthink things, and I didn’t want to overthink my comics. They were just something I did that I consistently enjoyed.
But looking back on it, I see that the best Sticks strips I did were the ones I drew when I was in the worst shape.
Sticks was one of the only things I ever wrote that didn’t have a lot of clear external influences. For the most part, Sticks was just me goofing around. But there was one comic strip that influenced its tone and trajectory.
That was the underground comic Life in Hell by Matt Groening, which he drew before creating The Simpsons. Like Sticks, it was a poorly drawn, sharply written chronicle of Groening’s turbulent mental state when he was an angry, hungry young man.
For most of the ‘80s, Life in Hell was consistently excellent: unyieldingly dark, despairing, and funny. In the early ‘90s, its tone changed. It became repetitive, stale and soft.
I studied these strips, hoping to understand what had gone wrong, hoping to save Sticks from the same fate.
What happened- I think- is that Groening found happiness and success. In the late ‘80s he launched The Simpsons, and around the same time he got married and had kids.
Life in Hell thrived on Groening’s insecurities and misery- just look at the title of the strip. Without that foundation of suffering, the strip simply didn’t work.
So I made a deal with myself. When I became financially successful, or found myself in a happy, long-term relationship, I would end Sticks.
I knew I would inevitably go soft like Groening did, and I didn’t want to drag Sticks down (or up?) with me.
When I met Hannah, I knew it was only a matter of time. The last batch of excellent Sticks cartoons were drawn on a chilly morning in early June 2013. I’d asked her to be in a relationship with me the day before, and she said she needed time to think.
I had to go to Trent University to see my sister graduate. For some godforsaken reason the ceremony was held outdoors, under an enormous grey sky. It was boring, and I was worried about what Hannah was going to say, so I drew about fifteen strips that day. They were weird and dark and savage.
The next day Hannah messaged me and said that while she felt it was too early to make things official, she was definitely interested in me and wanted to keep dating.
While I drew a few Sticks strips in the weeks afterward, that was basically the end of the strip. It couldn’t survive a happy ending.
I kept the strips of course; over three thousand cartoons filling almost a dozen notebooks, jostling for space alongside notes taken in classes and homework assignments.
While I was creating Sticks, I’d wanted to post them online as a webcomic, but never got around to it. After I stopped writing it, the idea fell by the wayside.
A few months ago, Hannah and I were talking about my writing. The novel I wrote had just been rejected by the 24th agent, and none of my other projects were coming along either.
“Maybe you should start a webcomic,” said Hannah.
I pulled out all my old notebooks and decided to mark the publishable Sticks comics with a sticky note.
Some of the comics, after all, weren’t that good in hindsight. They were sloppy or nonsensical, or simply didn’t land. Some I thought were funny, but were also horrifyingly offensive.
Still, I thought most of the comics were pretty good. I went through many pads of sticky notes.
Putting the strips online is a more complicated process. I’m inept with technology and Hannah has had to teach me how to scan and crop images. I’ll be starting a new WordPress blog to host the strip- easy enough- but I’m supplementing that with Twitter and Instagram, which I’ve never used before.
I’ve muddled my way through most of the challenges, and should be able to start posting comics some time before the end of the month.
I have about six hundred comics that are good enough to go online. Maybe I’ll even create some new ones. I haven’t decided whether stress is necessary for the creation of this particular strip. Maybe I won’t necessarily get soft as I get older and better adjusted. The strips would be different, but they might not be worse.
That’s another thing I’ll have to figure out.