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Comics: Meet the Artist
With Rick Detorie
"One Big Happy" Cartoonist

Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor

Friday, Nov. 8, 2002; 1 p.m. ET

Welcome to the Washington Post Style section comics discussion, hosted by Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin. This week, Tobin is joined by "One Big Happy" cartoonist Rick Detorie.

Tobin and Detorie were online Friday, Nov. 8 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss "One Big Happy" and the art of cartooning.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Suzanne Tobin: Greeting, comics fans, and welcome to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is Rick Detorie, creator of "One Big Happy," who is joining us from his studio in Venice Beach, Calif. Welcome, Rick, and for once we can tell you how beautiful our weather is here today, and the foliage is absolutely stunning. I know you grew up in Baltimore, so you know what you're missing. Eat your heart out! Hah!

Rick Detorie: Thanks very much, Suzanne. I'm very happy to be here to answer any questions your readers might have.

Decatur, Ill.: You are my favorite cartoonist. I have something to ask you. What day did the cartoon about Ruthie singing her own version of the Gilligans Island come out?

Rick Detorie: That strip ran about two years ago, I’m not sure of the date. Neither I nor the syndicate store them by subject matter, we would have to know the date. So the only way to find the actual date might be to go through The Washington Post microfilm at a library, but that would be an extremely time consuming task, going from Sunday to Sunday. So I guess it depends on how bad you want it.

Racine, Wis.: Dear Mr. Detorie: I just wanted to let you know that your comic strip "One Big Happy" is the highlight of my paper-reading session in the morning. Your characters remind me so much of my childhood in Virginia, living on the same street with not one, but two sets of grandparents (different sides of the family, too). My brother, sister and I were not unlike Ruthie and Joe and, of course, there was a James in every group. I also work as a 'Bookmobile Lady' so Ruthie's exchanges with the librarian are a real hoot. We quite often post your strip in the Staff Room at the Racine Public Library in Racine, Wisconsin. Please, don't even consider retiring anytime soon. The comic pages need you and your talent.

Rick Detorie: Thank you very much. I have no intention of retiring any time during my lifetime. And I plant to live forever, by the way.

Sterling, Va.: Hi Rick, Greetings!

Mrs. Vaeth (my mom, from Baltimore) was often featured in your cartoons. Do you often insert real characters like mom in your strip?

My 15-year-old daughter Julie loves one big happy!

Rick Detorie: Hi, Bobby! No, I don’t often insert real people into the strip because most of the characters who are not members of the family are either annoying, rude or just not very nice people.

Arlington, Va.: I really like the little boy and little girl team. Are they related brother/sister (twins?)? Are they neighbors? Are they the same age, if not which is older?

Rick Detorie: Joe and Ruthie are brother and sister. Ruthie is 6 and Joe is 8. The little dark-haired boy, James, is their neighbor.

Baltimore, Md.: I just love little Ruthie and her problems with the English language. Your "One Big Happy" is charming, sweet, and funny. I work at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn, Md. Word is that your mother works/worked there. She must be very proud of you! Is your comic strip based on real life?

Rick Detorie: Yes, my mother retired from SSA about five years ago. And while she was there, she used to display my comic strip and other things she collected for her scrapbook about me in the lobby display case of one of the buildings. Thank God my mother retired or the embarrassment would have continued.

Dunwoody, Ga.: Put that little girl in a dress once in a while, OK? She's as cute as she can be, just put her in a dress. Thank you.

Rick Detorie: Ruthie would prefer not to wear a dress. As a matter of fact, in one Sunday strip she listed the "Ten Good Reasons Why I Don't Wear Dresses." A few of the reasons are:
They tend to multiply.
They're too complicated.
My brother doesn't have to wear them.
And the No. 1 reason, was "I don't want to."

Forestville, Md.: Since your characters look a lot like you (really, they do!), are they autobiographical? Ruthie is my absolute favorite.

Rick Detorie: Yes, the family is based on my own childhood family, growing up in Baltimore in an Italian family. My grandparents lived next door. I have two sisters. My sister, Sandy, looked like Ruthie, and my sister, Terry, behaved like Ruthie. I relate most to the character of Joe, the brother, but I look like Frank, the dad.

Columbia, Md.: I knew you were from Baltimore -- caught the "Hons" that crop up occasionally. I'm delighted to have the opportunity to tell you that I love "One Big Happy." As a primary grade teacher with 32 years experience of teaching pre-K to grade 3, I can really relate to the humor in the cartoon. I especially love Ruthie and her way of expressing her thoughts. Some of the cutest cartoons are with the interplay between her and her grandpa. This cartoon just tickles my funnybone. Thanks for your wit and the charm which I can enjoy each day.

Rick Detorie: Thank you, hon.

Macon, Ga.: I like the strip very much, and appreciate the effort you put into making it funny every day. My question is this: How much of the strip is done using the computer?

Rick Detorie: None of it. It's all done with ink on paper. My 1980 Macintosh is still chugging along, but doesn't do well with cartoons.

Dallas, Tex.: I consider Ruthie the ideal little girl, and if I had a child, she is just what I would want her to be. Do you know a "Ruthie"?

Rick Detorie: I have no children, but I like to think that if I did have a daughter like Ruthie, I'd be up to the challenge. As I said earlier, Ruthie is actually a composite of my two sisters, and I was Joe. With time and a lot of therapy, both my sisters have managed to survive very well and lead happy, productive lives in spite of me.

Washington, D.C.: Hi, Rick. Just wanted to ask a couple of questions about your strip: Because she misses pronunciations so often, is Ruthie a dyslexic child? Or is her character simply mispronouncing things, meaning I am reading too much into her character?

Rick Detorie: Ruthie is not dyslexic, nor she does she have a hearing problem. A lot of her humor is based on malapropisms, and I have always liked that particular kind of humor. Sometimes as children tend to do, they hear things differently. For example, my first use of a malapropism in the strip came after was listening to the radio, which was in the next room, and I heard someone describing the ancient Romans "throwing the cushions to the lions." That's how I heard it, and I thought "Now wouldn't that make a good cartoon?" So that's how that got started.

Chantilly, Va.: I, too, am from Baltimore and frequently can detect the local humor. My parents, too, were always card players, thus I really have to chuckle when the kids play cards in the strip. Your strip really shows the real thing and it just makes me laugh because I can identify with so many things. I knew only one person whose had a dog named Rowdy. Her name is Mary Evans (now). Any connection?

Rick Detorie: No relation to Mary Evans. I got the name Rowdy from a neighbor in Santa Monica whose dog was named Rowdy.

Lawrenceville, Ga.: My family and I thoroughly enjoy "One Big Happy." We noticed in one of last month's strips what looks like a kiln in the house. Is Ruthie's mom a potter? Since my mom is a potter, we are always excited to discover celebrities who are potters. If so, will the kids try the craft some time?

Rick Detorie: Yes, Ruthie's mom Ellen has a small ceramics studio in the back of the house. And the children often participate with their friends in pounding clay. I have friends who are potters who have a studio locally in Venice and I spent a lot of time there watching their children pound the clay into dinosaurs and monsters and ashtrays. The studio is Luna Garcia (plug, plug).

Harrisburg, Pa.: Do you attempt to do a strip a day, or do you work in batches and then rest, or do you not follow a set schedule? Do you ever face writers block and, if so, how do you overcome it?

Rick Detorie: I work two hours a day Thursdays and Fridays, from 8-10 a.m., writing the strips for the next week. And then, Monday and Tuesday, I draw the six dailies, assembly line style. On Wednesdays I draw the Sunday strip. I've never had writer's block, but sometimes I've had drawer's block.
At the moment, I'm working 13 months ahead, and the other cartoonists hate me because I'm so far ahead and have no deadline pressures. I could break my and you'd still be seeing original strips in the newspaper every day.
The reason I'm so far ahead is because when I started in 1988, I was so enthusiastic and the ideas were flowing so easily that I did more than a week's worth of work each week. So eventually, I was six months ahead, which was great but it meant I was totally off-season, in that I was drawing Christmas strips in the summer. I just kept working ahead until I got about a year ahead of schedule, which meant I could work in the same sort of seasonal time frame everybody else is, it's just I'm doing for it for 2003.

Bethesda, Md.: What is the setting for "One Big Happy," in terms of time and place? It seems like a more innocent time, where kids have free rein to roam their neighborhood without direct supervision.

Rick Detorie: Because I base so much of the strip on my own childhood, the children are actually engaged in more creative play activities than kids today who spend more time with video games and computers. As far as the place setting, it's set in Baltimore, although I never actually say that in the strip. One of the most basic pieces of writing advice is "Write what you know," so that's what I try to do, although it may be more like "Write what you'd like to know."

Playground, USA: We are glad to see someone finally recognize the thankless job facing playground monitors. They only get noticed when something goes wrong. More important, that must withstand continual screaming children. Thank you for bringing attention to the world of playground monitors. Now, how do you make the perpetual screaming noises in my head stop?

Rick Detorie: I've received many, many messages from playground monitors and they all have the same theme. Perhaps you should look into starting a 12-step support group. I'm sure it would be extremely popular. I, myself, can provide you with thousands of prospective members' names.
As for the noises in your head, perhaps you should consult Dr. Phil.

San Antonio, Tex.: This online chat is a cool idea. Thanks for doing it. I can't remember if Ruthie belChristmas themed sketches. (Especially if you use James). Keep up the great job.

Rick Detorie: Thanks for joining us, but your question seems to be gargled. Can you please repost?

Silver Spring, Md.: Ruthie spends a lot of time trying to sell her art work, but she doesn't seem to actually make many sales. Is this your way of commenting on how difficult it is to make a living as an artist? I also wonder if Ruthie might at some time draw the strip for you while your on vacation the way Billy takes over for his Dad in "Family Circus."

Rick Detorie: I hear from a lot of artists who love the theme of "Good Art by Ruthie, still only 10 cents." I get a lot of requests for reprints for many of those strips. I assume it's a universal theme most artists can identify with...the struggling, underappreciated writer/artist/cartoonist.
As for Ruthie drawing the strip sometime, I would avoid that since Bil Keane already does that shtick. However, if you notice sometimes in the Sunday strips Ruthie and Joe will write a homework project that is done in their hand.

Bethesda, Md.: Are you planning to put "One Big Happy" in a book?

Rick Detorie: Actually, there are four "One Big Happy" books available. You can buy then from online booksellers or regular bookstores. They are published by NBM Publishing, which is located in New York. My last one, "All the Dirt," came out in Spring of 2001.

Arlington, Va.: Rick, I've been a fan of your comics since I read your book "How to Survive an Italian Family." You really hit the nail on the head with that one! Just wanted to say how much I enjoy your humor.

Rick Detorie: Thankyouverymuch (Elvis imitation). I still receive a lot of requests for that book, although it is out of print. "How to Survive an Italian Family" was the jumping off point for "One Big Happy," so it will always have a special place in my heart.
Soon after graduating from Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore in 1978, I worked in advertising as an art director, and sold cartoons to magazines like Saturday Evening Post and TV Guide on the side. Then I worked for awhile drawing Alvin and the Chipmunks and during this time I was also writing and illustrating books such as "No Good Lawyers," "No Good Men," "Totally Tacky Cartoons" and "Catholics: An Illustrated Guide." But now I devote all my time to "One Big Happy." It's a terrific job. There's no dress code, no heavy lifting and I'm employee of the month every month, except for last February when I was charged with sexually harassing myself, but that was never substantiated.

San Antonio, Tex.: Sorry about that. I was hoping to read some Christmas cartoons in the near future and I was wondering if Ruthie believes in Santa Claus (I can't remember) and also if you were going to use James in these sketches. He is awesome.

Rick Detorie: Yes, Ruthie does believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and all those other magical beings. And James, the skeptical one, is going to be participating in visits to Santa Claus.

Suzanne Tobin: Rick, Can you tell our readers a little about the 9/11 themed strips you did on Thanksgiving, 2001 and also on the anniversary this year? I understand you've developed quite a relationship with some firefighters in New York, and have even visited them several times in the past year.

Rick Detorie: Last year, the National Cartoonists Society asked us to draw a special tribute in our Thanksgiving strips to the victims of 9/11, and then they auctioned off those original strips and gave the proceeds to the fund for the families of the victims.
After 9/11, I sent cards of support to the firehouses and police stations in New York City, like so many Americans did. One of the responses I received was a letter of thanks from a firehouse in Chelsea, and at the end they wrote "Pray for our lost brothers," and it listed five names.
So when NCS asked us to do the tribute strip, I drew Ruthie and Grandpa visiting a fire station. Outside on the memorial wall were the names of those five firefighters lost on 9/11. Ruthie runs back in the last panel and says "Thank you."
After that strip ran, I heard from friends and family members of those five firemen. And over the course of the year, I developed a relationship with many of the families, and have visited New York twice to see them and to visit the firehouse in Chelsea.
It's been the most rewarding thing I've done in my life. And when the 9/11 anniversary came around this year, I drew a strip where Ruthie is asking Joe why the night sky is so bright that night. And he replies, "Angels," which I represented by putting 74 names of 9/11 victims in the night sky. I had read biographies of many of the victims on the New York Times Legacy Web site, and selected those 74 names to include as swirling lights in the night sky in that strip.
Since then I've heard from many more people, friends and families of those victims, thanking me for that tribute.
What I've done is that anyone who writes to me can receive a color signed copy of those strips, free of charge.

Rick Detorie: Thank you very much for this opportunity, Suzanne. I do appreciate it. And if anyone would like to contact me my e-mail address is rdetorie@aol.com.
It's been great chatting with you all.
P.S. Hi, Louie. Hi, Tommy. Sorry I didn't get to your questions.

Suzanne Tobin: Thanks, Rick. You've been a delight. I'm so glad we were able to have you Live Online. And, I want to let our audience know that on Nov. 22, we will have a very special treat. Jean Schulz, the widow of Peanuts' creator Charles Schulz, will be joining us to talk about the new Charles Schulz museum in Santa Rosa, Calif. Sparky would have been 80 years old on Nov. 26th, so we're going to give him a birthday tribute a few days early. Hope you'll all be here to help blow out the candles!

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