The instant “Candorville” creator Darrin Bell got word of Osama bin Laden’s death on May 1, he knew he’d be scrapping a week’s worth of strips. The California-based cartoonist felt compelled to comment — and fast.
In Bell’s words: “It was instant.”
Within 48 hours, the cartoonist had worked out not only a week’s worth of gags, but more incisively, he’d decided on an overarching theme and how to structure the layers of his commentary.
Comic Riffs caught up with Bell — who has a brand-new “Candorville” book out — to discuss how he turned around his Osama strips that saw the light of newsprint within one week’s time:
MICHAEL CAVNA: So Darrin, how rapidly after the fatal bin Laden raid did you decide to create a week of reactive strips?
DARRIN BELL: I was checking my iPhone every few minutes for news about the president’s ”incredibly rare” Sunday address to the nation. I told [a friend at dinner] it had to be one of three impossible things: (a) extraterrestrials contacted us, (b) the ice caps had melted and we all had two hours to learn to swim, or (c) we caught Bin Laden. Just before my iPhone’s battery died, I opened my ABC News app and couldn’t believe my eyes when I read that we’d killed Bin Laden. ....
Ordinarily I’d have been frustrated about losing a week, but this was different. The strips I was about to turn in were about the die-hard birthers who were still refusing to believe Obama was an American, even after he released his long-form birth certificate. It featured Figmond Tripp dressed as a magnifying-glass-wielding Sherlock Holmes, and having suddenly become an expert on Photoshop layers, on typography, and on the ink and paper Hawaii used for its certificates in the early sixties. It felt good to have something substantial come along and make the entire issue irrelevant.
MC: Did it take much persuading to get the syndicate onboard with the deadline turnaround?
DB: Washington Post Writers Group didn’t need any persuading. I think they’d have been shocked if I hadn’t dedicated a week to this. We launched “Candorville” in 2003 when the nation was still reeling from 9/11. We were still shellshocked, still consumed by fear, paranoia, and bloodlust. Our leaders were still using the attacks and our fear to shame their critics, curtail debate, and fight an unnecessary war. Osama bin Laden caused this to happen, and this was the mindset Candorville commented on on a regular basis. So I’m sure [they] expected “Candorville” to comment on his end.
MC: Obviously this terrain is more sociopolitically sensitive than doing a week’s worth of saying, the ghost of George Carlin. Which came first: The gags or the decision to take a philosophically cohesive tack on the matter?
. DB: I didn’t think of it in terms of gags. I wanted to get across one point: Ultimately, bin Laden was a narcissist and a failure, and he’s going to be just another footnote in history. With that point in mind, each strip wrote itself because there’s a natural arc to follow: It begins with showing the vanity and pride of the villain (who in his own mind considers himself a hero, hence the Obi Wan reference), then comes the reality check (Lemont points out the suffering Bin Laden inflicted on Muslims), then the larger context (Bin Laden compared to Kruschev). Then comes the gradual fade into obscurity (as shown through Lemont’s complete disinterest in anything Bin Laden has to say). Then it was a matter of going back through them and finding what made me laugh about each point, and turning that into the punchlines.
MC: What was your personal reaction in the minutes and hours after you learned of bin Laden’s death?
DB: My initial reaction was the polar opposite of my reaction to 9/11 itself. On 9/11, I felt like everything changed. Like the weight of the world had been strapped to our shoulders. This time, I felt like everything changed. Like someone had taken the mountain off my back. I felt free. I felt like the nation had just unclenched its collective sphincter for the first time in 10 years. It was the same sensation I get when a car alarm I’d tuned out and forgotten about minutes ago finally shuts off. It was the same sensation I got when I was 6 and my mom turned on the light in my closet to get something. I peeked from under my covers and I saw there was nothing in there but my shirts; and suddenly realized that for years I’d been afraid to look at my closet at night because I was just sure the boogeyman would be inside, looking back at me.
I closed my eyes at the dinner table in the noisy restaurant and tried to picture the bodies of our people falling from the burning towers. It was an image I thought would be seared into my brain forever. Since 9/11, every time I heard “9/11” or “Bin Laden” or anything having to do with it, those images would be there as if they were projected in high definition on the inside of my eyelids. But that night, in that restaurant, I closed my eyes, and saw... nothing. ...
Hours later, I was sitting at my desk writing the bin Laden comics, with CNN on in the background. And I realized that it wasn’t the spontaneous street parties that were making me proud of America — it was that there were only a few of them (on TV anyway), and they lasted only a few hours. We were already putting him behind us. And for once, it didn’t strike me that it was due to our insanely short national attention span. This time it felt like we were coming out of a spell we’d been under for a decade. We were shown in no uncertain terms that Emperor Bin Laden had no clothes. He wasn’t the invincible embodiment of all our fears anymore, he was just a thug who hid from us and got caught. In this case, it’s not that we don’t have an attention span, it’s that he’s no longer worth our attention.
MC: So what’s the reaction — and range of reactions — been from readers and editors?
DB: I haven’t heard any reaction from editors, which is always a good sign. Reader feedback has been uniformly positive. But my favorite reader reaction came from somebody who posts in the discussion forums at somethingawful.com. He never misses an opportunity to dump on the strip. ... A couple of days ago he posted one of the Bin Laden strips, along with this comment:
“Candorville is...not as immediately terrible as I thought this arc was going to be but I’m sure he’ll change that soon enough.”