RICK KIRKMAN stood on the stage, fairly stunned, as he held his new honor. The trophy shined like gold, but the substance was entirely irony.
The “Baby Blues” creator had just won the National Cartoonist Society’s Reuben Award as “Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year.” Or rather, had just tied for the Reuben win — only the second dead-heat for the big award in NCS history. So as Kirkman stood on the ceremony podium last month in a Pittsburgh banquet room, fairly gobsmacked — and sharing the moment with co-winner Brian Crane (”Pickles”) — he couldn’t help but flash on knowledge of that previous tie.
Kirkman later looked it up to confirm: In 1968, the Reuben was split between two legends: Johnny Hart and Pat Oliphant. Turns out, the newly minted winner also shares a distinction with Hart: The creator of “B.C.” and “Wizard of Id” once professionally “rejected” him.
Or Hart, at least, diverted Kirkman’s entreaty.
It was several decades ago and the young, aspiring cartoonist so admired Hart’s comics, he sent him a letter looking for professional feedback.
“I sent it to Johnny and he begged off,” Kirkman tells Comic Riffs. “He said: ‘Send it to Mort” — meaning “Beetle Bailey” and “Hi and Lois” creator Mort Walker.
Once Kirkman became a professional, he would eventually encounter Hart. “I met him briefly once or twice ... ,” Kirkman says. “I never had a long conversation with him. I wish I’d tried harder — I was too intimidated. He was such a big influence.”
“I look back on it now, and I was really influenced by ‘B.C.,’ “ Kirkman says. “Not about cavemen, but the sparse style.”
Now, Kirkman — who creates “Baby Blues” with Jerry Scott — is officially recognized by his NCS peers as a fellow great. So, did Scott — as a previous Reuben winner himself — have any words of wisdom for his creative partner? “Not really,” Kirkman says, “other than: ‘I’ve got a good feeling about this.’ “
Once Kirkman won, “Baby Blues” became one of the few strips ever to feature the work of two Reuben winners — a notable achievement after his and Scott’s many decades together. (Scott also creates “Zits” with the Reuben-winning Jim Borgman.) “Baby Blues” recently celebrated its 20th anniversary with a new, Eisner-nominated retrospective book, and Scott and Kirkman knew each other for 17 years before they launched their strip.
“My [now] ex-wife and his wife used to work together in a doctor’s office in Phoenix,” says the Arizona-based Kirkman. “They were probably sitting around complaining about what losers ther husbands were — [us] sitting around drawing cartoons — and said: ‘We might as well as get them together.’
“We just really hit off,” Kirkman continues. “We had so many of the same goals and dreams. We were pretty much at the same stage in trying to figure it out all.”
For those 17 years before “Baby Blues,” “We got a lot of that early stuff out of our system,” Kirkman says. “Jerry and I sent a strip [titled] ‘Hide and Zeke.’ If was set around two guys, miners in the desert, Mulehide and Zeke — one-legged prospectors.
“My drawing style was very much Johnny Hart,” Kirkman continues. “I guess that’s why we sent it to him. [He probably thought:] ‘You guys are really just ripping me off.”
By 1992, as “Baby Blues” launched, Kirkman had honed his own style. And the two friends had honed how they created comics together. “I think that’s one reason we work so well together.”
Launched by Creators and long distributed by King Features, “Baby Blues” grew steadily and now is carried by more than 1,200 papers in about 900 city markets, Kirkman says.
“Truthfully, when we started the strip, we thought: This has probably got 10 years at the most. ... We have been incredibly lucky and persistent.”
And to think, when Kirkman and Scott started out, “our goal was to be like them — Johnny Hart and Dik Browne and Mort Walker,” Kirkman tells us. “The life of a syndicated cartoonist — it sounded like so much fun.”
Now, with his rare Reuben tie in the books, Kirkman has indeed followed in Hart’s footsteps — into NCS history.
Rick Kirkman indeed became like them.
Kirkman’s Reubens acceptance speech: