BIG NATE alone, set against a stark classroom. “Zits” characters looking almost haunted. And Elephant and Piggie clutching each other for solace and comfort.
This week, after months of work, a diverse array of almost two-dozen cartoonists released a Demand Action video supporting gun control.
“The reason it came together so beautifully is that the cartoonists were so incredibly enthusiastic and cooperative; this is clearly an issue that people are so eager to join the fight on,” says Ruben Bolling, the creator of “Tom the Dancing Bug,” who spearheaded the effort. “We assembled the art not long after Sandy Hook, and as each piece came into my inbox, I was as grateful for the contributions as I was moved by the images.”
The shift in context is striking.
“Just seeing a character you love, and are so accustomed to seeing in humorous circumstances, in the explicit or implicit context of a gun-violence tragedy, is heartbreaking,” Bolling (the nom-de-toon of Ken Fisher) tells Comic Riffs. “For example, Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate alone in an empty classroom clearly evoked the tragedy and got me choked up. But I was equally moved by Mo Willems’s Elephant and Piggie just holding each other and looking at the viewer, and Roz Chast’s Mom character surrounded by photos of her child, and Bill Amend’s father [Roger] and son [Jason] playing.”
And over the montage by so many award-winners are the voices of two Oscar winners.
“I was particularly amazed that we got non-cartooning talent that was brilliant and dedicated,” Bolling tells us, “right up to our narrators Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who both saw a rough cut of the video and were instantly raring to go.”
Bolling says he organized this video, titled “Cartoonists Demand Action to End Gun Violence,” for the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns — which is chaired by New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston’s Mayor Thomas Menino.
“I chose to participate because I’m a pacifist,” Peirce tells Comic Riffs, ”and contributing a drawing to this video was a way for me to oppose those who claim that more guns make us safer.”
The other artists who contributed their work gratis to the film are Lalo Alcaraz, Jim Borgman, Steve Brodner, Jeff Keane, Rick Kirkman, Peter Kuper, Mike Luckovich, David Mazzucchelli, Stephan Pastis, Mike Peters, Dan Piraro, Ted Rall, Dave Roman, Jerry Scott, Art Spiegelman, Raina Telgemeier, Tom Tomorrow (aka Dan Perkins) and Garry Trudeau.
Comic Riffs caught up with Bolling to ask him about the video’s origins, as well as its aims:
MC: When did you hit upon this idea, and did you approach your cartooning colleagues gradually over time? And how did you come into contact with the mayors’ group — who approached whom?
RB: Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG) had already done a bunch of videos with people from various groups [celebrities, retired military leaders] reading this type of script, and they approached me to see if one could be done using cartoonists. I had the idea of a slideshow with narrators, and quickly began asking cartoonists if they would join me. This was in January, and we had the completed artwork by the end of that month.
It took all of February and some of March to create the video from the illustrations, and by then it was decided by MAIG that it was best to wait until after the Senate vote to release it.
At the time I was approaching cartoonists, our idea was to get the video out as quickly as possible, so that was a determining factor in who I could ask and whether they could participate.
MC: Did you edit the film — because ... the progression of the cartoons is such a fluid narrative?
RB: Once I knew the basic roster of cartoonists, I sent out a script to everyone with assigned lines to be illustrated. But once the illustrations came in, the director, Peggy Stern, and I began to play with the order, and even changed the lines for some of the illustrations, in order to make the video more effective. For example, it was obvious to both of us that David Mazzucchelli’s striking image of the child’s shoe had to go last.
MC: Sure, you’ve got Pulitzer and Reuben winners and other cartooning “royalty” [involved], but ... how did you get these two Oscar-caliber actors to participate – how did you connect?
RB: What a pleasure that process was! We sat down and tried to figure out what celebrities were in New York at the time, and who we would want. Peggy Stern ... and MAIG had ways to get in touch with people, but basically we decided to go for Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and we got them! I think my secret agenda was to stage a mini “Big Lebowski” reunion. After the amazing cartoonists who agreed to contribute, this process really brought home how willing and passionate people are to join the fight on this cause.
MC: The narration that they voice-over is very direct in its emotional to us — invoking everyday place-setters — college to classroom — to heart-tugging words like “Dad/Husband” and “Mom/Wife” and “American,” as well as “action” and “leaders” and “enough!” Who crafted the script, and what was the thinking behind it — because clearly the plea aims for the heart?
RB: After working almost exclusively independently my entire creative career, this was an amazingly rich experience of collaboration. The script chiefly came from the standard script MAIG was using for all their videos, which I used as a template. But each illustration transformed each line and made it so personal, creative, and meaningful. Peggy and her team then took those illustrations and added connective animated elements that brought them them to life and made the piece cohesive, but remained absolutely true to the integrity of each illustration. Of course, Ron Sadoff’s music made the video soar. Then, when Julianne and Philip did their reading, I stood in the recording studio, after having crafted the script and staring at it for weeks, I still got choked up watching them perform. Every part of this process brought new layers of meaning and life to what had been created before.
MC: So what do you do with the video now — do you show it in schools ... take it to statehouses and the Hill? How do you circulate its power?
RB: Our concern right now is publicizing it to maximize its Web viewership and effectiveness. After this initial period, we’ll have an idea of the way it has reached people and moved them, and we’ll strategize on how best to further its use then.