Transcript

Comics: Meet the Artist

Cory Thomas
Cartoonist, "Watch Your Head"
Thursday, May 18, 2006; 1:00 PM

Join Washington Post Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin online once each month to discuss the comics pages. From artists to writers to editors, Tobin is joined by a different guest for each show. This week, Tobin was joined by " Watch Your Head " cartoonist Cory Thomas .

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Suzanne Tobin: Welcome, comics fans to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is Cory Thomas, a newcomer to syndication, whose "Watch Your Head" has been running in The Post since March 27 on an 8-week trial basis. Cory is joining us from his home in D.C. Welcome, Cory, and thanks for joining us Live Online.

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Cory Thomas: Thank you. Glad to be here. I'm blindfolded and tied to the stake, ready to go.

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Suzanne Tobin: First, can you give our readers a brief biographical sketch.

Cory Thomas: Briefly... I was born in San Fernando, Trinidad. (Put your maps away. It's in the Caribbean.) I've been in the US since 1998, going to school and such. Got my degree in Mechanical Engineering. Getting my Masters degree next. I started the strip in 2003. It's been a refinement process since then.

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Fairfax Station, Va.: Hi Cory!How much of a culture shock did you go through when you came to D.C. from Trinidad?

Cory Thomas: Unlike comic-strip-Cory, I'm pretty phlegmatic and even-tempered. I wasn't particularly phased by anything I encountered.

Really, most of our television in Trinidad consists of American programming. Add to that music radio, magazines, movies. We're pretty much familiar with American culture before we even hop on the plane.

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Arlington: So, I guess this is an obvious question for this chat, but how did you get started doing a comic strip?

Cory Thomas: The strip was originally conceived for Howard University's Hilltop newspaper. (I was already the editorial cartoonist) It ran like... three times because of space restrictions. But I developed it on my own for my own amusement. Then I decided it was good enough for the rest of the world to see... or ignore. I don't know yet.

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Burke, Va.: How do you feel when people compare your strip to Booondocks?

Cory Thomas: Honestly, I think it's a lazy comparison. Apart from the characters being predominantly black, the strips are nothing alike.

The comparison actually does me a disservice, because readers approach the strip expecting edgy, controversial political discourse. So, naturally my strip would pale in comparison. That's not what the strip's about.

It's like comparing Peanuts to Prince Valiant because the characters are white. Then complaining because the Prince never talks to birds.

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Boondocks: Hello!

Yesterday, during Mr. Downie's chat he said that Boondocks was not running because the artist was taking a leave of absence to work on other projects. Can you tell me when Boondocks might return?

thanks

Suzanne Tobin: Aaron McGruder, the "Boondocks" cartoonist, decided to take a six-month sabbatical that began on March 27. For several days before and after that, we ran a note to our readers explaning that we would be testing three different strips, each for 8 weeks, in the "Boondocks" space. Today we have a note asking for reader feedback on "Watch Your Head" which ends its trial run Sunday. Monday we will pick up "Pajama Diaries" for eight weeks. We also have run a line above "Watch Your Head" saying that Aaron McGruder is on sabbatical for six months. Just out of curiosity, do you read the print edition or the online edition?

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Silver Spring, Md.: How did you pick the name of the university in the comic strip, I mean Oliver Otis?

Cory Thomas: The school is VERY loosely based on Howard University in DC. Oliver Otis is General Howard's first two names.

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Washington, D.C.: Just wanted to say I will miss your strip in the Post and hope it comes back soon. (Suzanne, you could free up a lot of room by dropping BC, Broom Hilda, Hagar, Dennis the Menace...) Anyway, Cory, where can we read Watch Your Head online?

Cory Thomas: It's available at www.comics.com as well as www.ucomics.com

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Washington, D.C.: So the main character has your name. Is this really you? Did you have a crush on an unobtainable, gorgeous girl in college?

Also, are your characters going to age? Will they graduate and get jobs?

Cory Thomas: The main character is me making fun of myself. I'm not that neurotic or naive or nerdy. Well... I am that nerdy but...

The girl is just an amalgam of every girl I've tried and failed with.

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Bowie, Md.: How did you become syndicated? Are you finding it hard to do a strip every day?

Cory Thomas: I submitted my work to the major syndicates. The Washington Post Writers Group took an immediate shine to it. I spent about a year developing it with them. And... there you have it.

Cory Thomas: Also, I have a lot of work already completed. I'm about four months ahead. So the real pressures of daily creation haven't really overwhelmed me as yet.

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Washington, D.C.: Cory, I love your strip and I think that it's great that the Post took a chance on it. Were you worried about setting a strip at an HBCU especially since many folks could have made the claim that it is impossible for them to relate?

Cory Thomas: There are strips about cavemen playing baseball. Strips about lazy soldiers and angry sargeants. There are strips about talking cats, pigs, rats. And those are some of the most popular strips out there.

Anyone complaining that they "can't relate" to the strip's setting or characters just isn't trying.

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Annandale, Va.: You're a talented artist and your art brings style to the 'style' section. I also enjoyed your 'bio' at planetcory.com.

I have a couple of questions that maybe you've thought about....

I can't recall ever seeing a one-panel cartoon by an African-American cartoonist. Has it just been unexplored or is there a reason? The styles, of course, are very different.... Is it necessary to develop characters to impart the "black experience"? Is it something one panel can't do?

Also, are there any A-A cartoonists who don't "broadcast" their background? I mean, it's obvious that McGruder, Bell, et al, are "drawing" on their experience. But Mr Brooke McEldowney has several major female characters in his strip. And I have it on good authority that Larson is NOT a cow.

Cory Thomas: One such strip I'm familiar with is called (th)ink by a cartoonist named Keith Knight.

Cory Thomas: There's also another single panel strip done by an African American artist who's name I can't recall. It's based primarily in an office environment with predominantly white characters... Which I guess answers your other queston.

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Fairfax County, Va.: Ms. Tobin: Why not let humor guru Gene Weingarten have his way with the comics section for a month -- and see if people prefer those to the current ones? Don't you think the comics syndicates would sign a one month contract for such a trial run? Then let the readership vote. Would it really kill people if they didn't have, e.g., their Peanuts reruns for 39 days? (You could make the serial comics off limits so people could keep up with their story lines.) No, I am not Gene Weingarten.

Suzanne Tobin: While I, personally, would love to see Gene "have his way" with the comics section, the powers-that-be have a different opinion. Gene and I would both like to see "our" versions of the comics pages come to life, but there's this little group that our bosses care more about than us: the readers. The ones who actually buy the newspaper. Gene and I have a running battle over which comic deserves to be killed first: He says "Classic Peanuts" and I say "B.C." I believe we will see more comics changes if you readers stop wasting time preaching to the choir (me and Gene) and send your opinion to comics@washpost.com or call the comics hotline at 202-334-4775. The higher-ups get a breakdown of every call, e-mail and snail mail letter you send and THAT pulls alot more weight with them than either of us, lowly peons that we are!

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Burtonsville, Md.: Cory, as a Howard (as in Oliver Otis Howard University) grad and faculty member, I am extremely proud of you and a big fan of "Watch Your Head." Just as Spike Lee's "School Daze" and Bill Cosby's "Different World" made 'America at large' familiar and comfortable with the concept of high-achieving Black Kids aspiring to and succeeding at HBCU's (Historically-Black Colleges and Universities), your strip offers balance to the pervasive image of Black youth that 'America at Large' is fed through the media, music videos, and to a lesser extent even through "Boondocks." I especially like the dynamic between intellectually-gifted but socially-awkward Cory and the students who feel they have to portray themselves as more "street" to avoid the 'nerd' stigma which attaches to Black males in college. One question though: your draftsmanship has improved exponentially since your "Hilltop" days. "Watch Your Head" is exceedingly well illustrated, to the point that I have to ask: are you responsible for the writing and artwork, or are you (as Aaron MacGruder did) writing the strip while the artwork is done by other artists? No offense, I still love your strip either way and I am hopeful the Washington Post sees fit to continue to find a place for "Watch Your Head" in their comic pages. Keep up the good work.

Cory Thomas: Yes. I'm solely responsible for the art, writing, coloring, etc. The Hilltop stuff was the first time I'd produced work like this regularly. It was the training ground for my creativity.

Also... the version of WYH that ran in the Hilltop was a lot more "cartoony" just because I thought it had to be. I always worried that my natural style was too realistic for the funny pages.

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Prince Valiant: I think Prince Valiant would be greatly improved if the Prince talked to birds. Can we have a chat with that cartoonist?

Suzanne Tobin: Well, I don't think talking to birds would be any more far-fetched than the current plotline with ghosts in the tower!Right after 9/11, I didn't feel like I just didn't feel in the mood to do chats with humorous cartoonists, so I did have a chat with John Cullen Murphy, who did Prince Valiant. He has since departed this earth, and his son, Cullen Murphy, who used to do the illustrating, and was the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, resigned from that position after his dad died. So, yeah, maybe we can get the new artist or writer on and you can make your suggestion then!

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Washington, D.C.: Do you intend for your characters to grow and age a la For Better or For Worse, or to stay perpetually the same age a la Zits, etc.? (Or have you thought that far in advance?)

For what it's worth, I find I can relate to many things in the strip just from having gone to college... I don't think being able to relate depends necessarily on the HBCU connection.

Cory Thomas: I don't think I can convincingly write about college when I'm 45. My characters will age veerrrryyy slowly. But they WILL age and graduate and enter the real world. Not anytime close to soon, though.

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Alexandria, Va.: How often do you interact with other cartoonists? Is the field supportive and collaborative or is it so competitive that you're worried other artists will lift ideas?

Cory Thomas: I occasionally post on internet message boards where other creators are members. I've also solicited advice at times from other creators. The responses have been generally supportive and constructive.

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Zombie comics: Seconding DC's recommendation. The Post needs to make room for up and coming cartoonists by getting rid of stale, boring, irrelevant 'zombie' comics like BC, Family Circus, Wizard of Id, Beetle Bailey, etc. etc. You're running Peanuts, a cartoon drawn by a dead man, ferchrissakes!

Suzanne Tobin: Ferchrissakes, when we took out "Classic Peanuts" for two lousy days to squeeze in a note to readers we had 80--count 'em--80 phone calls about it! And that was AFTER we had the outgoing message explain that it was just for two days! Will you people PLEASE call the Comics Hotline at 202-334-4775 or e-mail comics@washpost.com. They think Gene and I are just troublemakers!

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Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.: If the Post wants to attract and retain young readers it should have more edgy comics. The Post hides Tom the Dancing Bug in the Weekend section, and Bolling is sometimes as good as Toles. LuLu 8 Ball (City Paper) would be a great addition as a weekly strip; you'd just have to get the creator to clean it up a bit.

Suzanne Tobin: Question: Will you call the comics hotline and tell my bosses that? I hate to sound like a broken record, but you really do need to go through the channel that gets to the top brass. The "change-phobics" don't hesitate to let us know they want things to stay the same. We need more readers who relish change to weigh in at comics@washpost.com or 202-334-4775. Believe me, they'll hear you if you just take a moment or two to use the avenues that are specifically set up for comics feedback.

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College Park, Md.: Are Robin and Cory going to get together??

Cory Thomas: Honestly... I don't even know. Depends on what's funniest.

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Edgewater, Md.: I've noticed you do some edgier gags. Have you had any trouble with papers running strips that say things like "pee in this cup for me" or the sperm bank strip you did?

Cory Thomas: Some papers were nervous about the sperm bank and requested an alternate version. No one requested an alternate for the pee joke, though. Which is odd, since that was the more blatant of the two.

Along with the "edgier" strips, I create safer alternate versions for editors nervous about upsetting the more conservative.

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Riverdale, Md.: Good afternoon,

Here's the good news: As much as I miss Boondocks, I've really enjoyed your run in the Post comics section. Thank you!

Now for the bad news: I'm a 40-something, middle-class white female. I hope that doesn't make you rethink your writing style!

(tongue firmly in cheek here)

Cory Thomas: It, honestly, sometimes does. I'm still learning not to edit myself before I even put pen to paper. I'm still learning to trust my own voice.

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Washington, D.C.: How come there's no link for "watch your head" on the post's comics page?

Suzanne Tobin: It's not? There must be some kind of mistake. I've put in a call to their features editor but haven't heard back. Submit a question with your e-mail address and I'll forward it to them. (I won't publish it on the chat, I promise.)

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Weingarten.: Tobin, as you well know, 80 phone calls is NOTHING. They were from three people. All over 80 and living in Gaithersburg. We must stop being extorted by wrinklies.

Suzanne Tobin: But our bosses don't KNOW that! And 80 phone calls IS something! Please, pretty please, encourage your legions of fans to call the hotline or e-mail their opinion. Then those people who make lots more money than you or me will not be able to dismiss us as a couple of cranks!

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Washington, D.C.: So, Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist, once told readers that we would know when Dilbert lost his virginity on a day when he drew Dilbert's tie uncurled.

Are you going to give us a similar clue for when Nerdboy gives it up? And will it be with Hotchick?

Cory Thomas: Why do you assume that Cory's a virg... OK, so maybe he is.

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Washington, D.C.: Hey Cory. I'm enjoying Watch Your Head in the Post - you definitely have your own style. What are your humor influences?

Cory Thomas: Comic strips like Peanuts (to me, the greatest in my lifetime) and Calvin & Hobbes.

My humor (and art) were also heavily influenced by comic book creators Keith Giffen, J. M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire.

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Former Subscriber: Suzanne -

We moved out of the DC area, but before we left, we were long-time subscribers to the Post. Do our comments (non-subscribers) have less weight now we no longer subscribe? Even if we WANTED to? Or hope to move back some day? I long to see reform on the comics page, and while we were living there, wrote in a BUNCH of times (most recently about running Candorville).

Suzanne Tobin: I believe if you're out of the area your comments probably aren't taken to heart as much as those of people in our subscriber area. Hope you come back soon! We need more folks like you.

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Mechanical Engineering?: Admittedly I don't know what mechanical engineering involves, but is it similar to cartooning at all?

Cory Thomas: Only if you're amused by simulation of wake vortices or isentropic expansion of ideal air.

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Bowie, Md.: Wow, it looks like you know your comic strips. What other strips are you a fan of? Which do you think influenced you most?

Cory Thomas: All time fave: Peanuts. It's the only zombie comic I don't mind taking up space. And Blondie. Blondie's still funny.

Current faves: Big Nate, Pearls Before Swine, Get Fuzzy, Foxtrot... too many to name. I'm a fan of the artform.

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Washington, D.C.: Hey, Cory. Good strip. In the first or second week, I was astonished to see you introduce a character who appeared to be a monkey. He was taking a test, as I recall. At a predominantly black college. A monkey. And I said to myself that this cartoonist better Watch His Head, as it were. I figured we were not going to see the next day of that strip.

Then we did. And the day after that, too. I also discovered to my relief that you are African-American. Still, what gives? Isn't this making light of a very hurtful stereotype? I seem to recall that Howard Cosell almost destroyed his otherwise impeccable career by referring to a black running back as "that little monkey."

Are you either too young to know this epithet, or cannily appropriating this stereotype to blunt its power to injure?

Or is it something else that I, as an elderly clueless white guy, cannot possibly understand?

Cory Thomas: I'm aware of the stereotype. That wasn't what I had in mind with the character, though.

I just think monkeys are funny. Monkeys in clothes using people tools and doing stuff? Funny. That's as deep as the thought process went.

But I knew someone somewhere could potentially misinterpret it and take offence. I willingly took the risk.

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No, not Peanuts: Charles Shultz dead is better than half the stuff out now (present company excepted).

Hart, otoh, could just as well stay in the Wichita paper.

Suzanne Tobin: Okay, what's otoh? And, while I believe Schulz was a genius, you can buy his complete works in book form. Space on the comics page is just too scarce, I feel, to give to comics--even classic comics--that are readily available elsewhere.

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Washington, D.C.: Are you Jewish?

Cory Thomas: If I am, Mom's going to have some explaining to do.

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And another thing: How about running some of Shirley Povich's columns instead of the guys you have?

Suzanne Tobin: Okay, is this George Solomon promoting the compilation of Shirley's columns that he edited, "All Those Mornings...in the Washington Post"? You're not fooling anyone, buddy! But it does give me a chance to tell one of my favorite anecdotes from when I was the gofer in the Sports Department and a rare female presence there in the late '70s and someone wrote in a letter criticizing one of Povich's column and saying in effect, that it was garbage because it was written by a woman. I always loved that one. Wished I'd kept it for posterity.

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IJOCA.com: Cory, when did you launch the strip in syndication? Just recently? If so, how many papers are you running in?

Cory Thomas: The strip was launched on March 27th. Less than two months ago. At present, it's in about 15 papers, including a paper back in Trinidad.

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in good hum, OR: this is The Washington Post, fella. we know where trinidad is.

Cory Thomas: Great. Then maybe you can help me. My breadcrumb trail appears to have been eaten by birds.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you like to do for fun besides cartooning?

Cory Thomas: Um... err...

That question implies that I have a life. Unless you count reading comic books and watching court shows on TV.

Speaking of which, Judge Alex is on. I have to go. I wish I could have gotten to all the questions. I appreciate the interest and support of everyone. Thanks for a fun hour on a rainy Thursday.

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Suzanne Tobin: Thank YOU, Cory, for letting our readers get to know you "up close and personal," to steal the ABC Sports line. Much luck with the strip. As a native Washingtonian, I always love to see my neighbors live long and prosper. And just a final reminder to the readers that we're awaiting your feedback on the strip at 202-334-4775 or comics@washpost.com.I hope y'all will join me next Friday at 1 when we'll be Live Online in Chicago with the nominees for the Reuben Award, the Oscar of cartooning. See you then.

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