Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Darrin Bell

Continuing playing catch-up after a lengthy hiatus, here's an interview I did with Darrin Bell, creator of Candorville, for the Patriot-News. Candorville was the fourth and final strip we subbed for Doonesbury while it was on vacation, hence the dated references to Hilary Clinton.

Q: What made you want to be a cartoonist?

A: I’ve been drawing since I was three. My mom taught me how to draw. I always got a lot a lot of attention from teachers when I was caricaturing them. A lot of them told me if I don’t get my mind back on studying I’m not going to become anything. But I give a lot of credit to my mom. She told me if I find something I like doing, just keep doing it and make sure that I do it as best I can and someday I’ll be able to make a living at it.

I kind of forgot about then when I went to college. I wanted to go into journalism. I wanted to be either one of those talking heads on TV like Pat Buchanan or James Carville or I wanted to have my own column. I started writing for the Daily Californian — UC Berkley’s daily college paper. I was excited about it. I was interviewing people like the governor of California, our local congressman, Senator Boxer. I wrote articles and at the same time I had these cartoons that I was drawing in my spare time. I just dumped them on the paper and told them run whenever they feel like.

When my articles ran I asked my friends what they thought. None of them had read any of the articles but everybody had read my cartoons and loved them. So after a few months of that I figured maybe my future lies in that direction.

Q: How did Candorville come about?

A: Candorville grew out of those cartoons that I did. At the time it was called Lamont Brown. It was an autobiographical strip. It gave me an outlet to vent my frustrations about college life. After I graduated from college it gave me an outlet for other things.

I still didn’t want to do that for a living though. I wanted to draw editorial cartoons. I started drawing as a freelancer for the LA Times and San Francisco Chronicle and a bunch of other papers. When it came time to submit my cartoons for awards I submitted both those and Lamont Brown. Again, I got more feedback on the comic strips from people who work at the syndicates. I just thought I’ll develop those and keep sending them and eventually I got syndicated.

Q: Give me a time line. When did the strip became syndicated?

A: In 2003.

Q: How many papers is it running in now?

A: Not counting the papers running it as a substitute for Doonesbury, it should be about 70 papers.

Q: How old are you now?

A: I’m 33.

Q: What are some of your influences?

A: Mainly sitcoms. One Day at a Time, the first season. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that.

Q: Yeah, Valerie Bertinelli.

A: If you go back and watch the first season — not the later ones where they parody themselves — but the first season was really honest and raised a lot of questions even if it didn’t know how to answer them. That’s what I try to do in Candorville. It’s called Candorville not because I think I have all the answers but because I ask what I think are honest questions.

There are other sitcoms like All in the Family, Good Times, The Jeffersons and The Cosby Show.

Q: But as far as comic strips go, things like Doonesbury aren’t as much of an influence?

A: Not really. I didn’t read Doonesbury until just a few years ago. Bloom County I read mostly for the penguin. I was interested in the art work. My main influence in that industry would be Paul Conrad, the LA Times editorial cartoonist. His work was just amazing and I don’t think I’d be interested in politics today if it weren’t for him.

Q: I imagine a lot of people label the strip as political or an ethnic strip. Does that sort of labeling bother you at all?

A: It is overtly political but the labeling does bother me a bit because it’s also an overt relationship strip. It’s overtly ethnic just because it has ethnic characters. It deals with the same issues that I deal with on a daily basis. We all think about politics from time to time but we also think about our girlfriend or our friend saying things we wish they wouldn’t say. It’s a slice of life strip.
Q: Do you feel like you have any unique challenges to doing this sort of strip that touches on political and social issues that say, Hi and Lois doesn’t?

A: Yeah I do. I’m sure they have unique challenges too. For one thing whenever I include a character of color, no matter what I’m talking about someone’s going to write and complain because they thought that I was saying that all black people are this way.

I had one black character who doesn’t like to use the crosswalks. He likes to cross in the middle of the street because that’s an easy way to assert control over his own life. I got an email saying “I’ve seen plenty of black people use crosswalks.”

That’s the kind of thing I have to deal with. In general, whenever you talk politics you’re going to offend at least half the people. I try to make them laugh while I’m offending them. That takes the edge off.

Q: What sort of feedback do you get?

A: Judging by the email feedback and the people I meet at book signings, my readership is largely conservative and many of them actually support what I’m saying. Even if they don't agree with it they like hearing an opposing viewpoint. It gives them something to think about even if what they end up thinking is that I’m an idiot. It’s stimulating. It’s something interesting.

Q: What do you see the viewpoint of the strip being? One of the things I find interesting about the strip is you don’t really take sides. You mock Hillary Clinton frequently for example.

A: I’m thinking of endorsing Hillary Clinton actually. Either her or McCain. Whoever is going to give me the most material. I’m thinking of starting a cartoonists for Hillary fan club. A PAC to help her.

I’ve seen it described as conservative depending upon which people first see. When my strip has been commenting on Hillary and that’s the first week people see it in the newspaper, people think it’s conservative and hold onto that opinion. Even if I go on to talk about McCain, they express surprise to me that a conservative strip is talking about McCain. Conversely other people are sure it’s liberal.

I just don’t like being lied to. Whoever I think is lying to me or insulting the intelligence of the average American, that’s who I’m going to go after.
Q: Do you see the strip’s goal then to expose the lying liars?

A: Yeah, exactly. I’m scouring, looking for some examples for Obama. And if I find it, watch out.

Q: You recently led a group of African-American cartoonists in an event where you all ran the same strip one day. Tell me a little bit about that.

A: Yeah, I did lead that. The goal of it — we were trying to get editors and readers to start thinking about strips featuring characters of color and to think of them in terms of the themes they were dealing with instead of the color of the characters.

For instance, our syndicate did a survey -- you can get the numbers from them -- they found that most papers didn’t have any strips featuring any characters of color and those that did only had one or two. There are a handful of exceptions, I think it was three or four papers that had three. When one is added to a paper another one is taken out. I’ve replaced Curtis in a number of papers even though I don’t think there are any politics in Curtis and my main character is not an eight-year-old boy. It puzzles me why Candorville is always pitted against these other strips. The only similarity is the color of the characters. I don’t want to think that in 2008 that’s what editors are judging strips on. We give our readers a lot more credit that some of the editors do because we get direct feedback from them. We get feedback from people who feel that they’re right but they still enjoy the strip. Race is still an issue, but it shouldn’t be.

Q: Tell me a little bit more about the event and what sort of response you got.

A: We all ran the same strip on the same day. The strip was a send-up of the idea that all black strips are interchangeable. The only goal was to get people thinking that maybe they’re not interchangeable. Maybe when we want to replace a family strip we should look for another family strip.

Q: And not judge it by what color the characters are.

A: Yeah. Replacing Jump Start with Candorville makes as much sense as replacing For Better or For Worse with Doonesbury.

Q: So what kind of response did you get? Do you feel like it drew attention to the issue?

A: It did. It started a discussion just in the confines of the industry the discussion is important. We heard from a lot of newspaper editors who had been operating this way but not consciously. They thanked us for raising the issue. There were a lot of papers that were hesitant to sample our strips because they already ran one or two black strips and didn’t want to get rid of them so they thought "Why should we even try?" There are plenty of those who decided to give us a try. When Doonesbury went on vacation, there are a lot of papers trying out Candorville that already run one or two black strips. I’m told that many of them wouldn’t have done so without the protest. These editors see it mainly as a social/political strip and not a black strip.

Q: It’s hard enough for up and coming strips to get a foothold in the paper. Do you feel like because you have an ethnic strip that you have one more mark against you?

A: Yeah, that’s one of the arguments we were making during the protest. We face the exact same hurdles as all other new strips but we face the additional hurdle of being seen as a black strip. Where all these new strips are competing from six to 36 spots, we were all competing in effect for no more than two. We didn’t think that was a good situation. The thing about most of the editors I’ve met or spoken to — it’s not a conscious thing. People don't’ get into this business in order to discriminate. So we thought all we need to do is bring it to their attention. Once they start thinking about it, maybe they’ll change.

Q: You deal with some touchy topics — politics and race. Of the two, which do you feel is riskier for an artist to be discussing and how do you get your message across effectively without having a flood of hate mails and dropped strips?

A: I’ve always sort of combined the two in my head because the issue of race in this country is very political. When I first started out, I think race was the touchier issue. I used to get a lot of emails from people saying "Not another Boondocks," "Not another angry black man," "I don’t want my kid reading this." After awhile I think people stopped considering the race of my characters so much and I stopped hearing those comments. I started hearing from people thanking me for the diversity, even if they didn’t agree with what I was saying.

A lot of people used to want me to play up the positive of African American culture, because one of my characters isn’t what you’d consider a positive role model. I used to ask them what would be the point of that. This is a real problem, the hopelessness and bad decisions that some people make. This is a real problem and there’s no way to solve problems unless you first acknowledge they exist. In terms of the comics page, unless you learn to laugh at them. The best way to dismiss a problem is to see that it’s not grave. There’s some humor in it. If you can learn to laugh at something, that means you’ve learned to put it in perspective.

Q: What’s your take on the state of the comics industry today? A lot of the artist I’ve been talking to are very critical of the state of the newspaper industry.
A: I think we all [are]. It’s hard not to when you see papers shutting down or ones that survive slashing their comics section. When they haven’t really changed what they pay for comics since 1972 ... There’s also the consolidation in the industry. There’s huge corporations buying up papers.

We have it better than editorial cartoonists though. There are maybe 250 syndicated strips out there. There used to be the same number of editorial cartoonists, and that profession seems to be dying off by attrition.

Q: Does Candorville pay the bills? Do you have a day job?

A: Well I do two strips. My other strip is called Rudy Park.

Q: Tell me about that. I didn’t know about it.

A: Rudy Park started off in 2000 about a dot-commer who the bust happened and he was forced to get a job as a manger at a cyber cafe. At the cafe he’s got a ruthless, conniving boss, he’s got a 80something Luddite nemesis who hates him because he’s enamored with technology.

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