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Comics: Meet the Artist
With Ruben Bolling
"Tom the Dancing Bug" Cartoonist

Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor

Friday, Sept. 13, 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 "Tom the Dancing Bug" cartoonist Ruben Bolling, whose cartoons appear each week in the back of Friday's Weekend section. A unique hybrid of editorial and comic strip cartooning, "Tom the Dancing Bug" tackles a wide range of subject matter, including political and social commentary.

Tobin and Bolling were online Friday, Sept. 13 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss "Tom the Dancing Bug" 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.

washingtonpost.com: Welcome, comics fans, to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is Ruben Bolling, creator of "Tom the Dancing Bug," a weekly cartoon which appears every Friday in the back of the Weekend section. Ruben is joining us from his New York City studio today. Welcome to Live Online, Ruben!

Ruben Bolling: Thanks, Suzanne. It's an honor, privilege and thrill to be here.

Harvey Richards, lawyer for children: Ruben, yours is the only comic I read. Great stuff. Do you have any plans to "unretire" a couple of your classic characters (like Harvey Richards)? And are you planning on putting out a second book?

Ruben Bolling: Thanks, Harvey (if that is indeed your real name). Please continue refusing to read other comics -- I get so jealous.

I've got no plans for next week's comic, let alone a master plan for reintroducing characters. I never want to force a character into the strip; the good thing about my free-format is that I never feel compelled to use a particular character or format. The last time I used Harvey Richards was for a New Yorker magazine page a couple of years ago, but I do feel that his useful life may have expired. He's basically a one-joke character, and you don't want that kind of character to overstay his welcome (if he hasn't already).

With regard to books: I've got two out, and I hope to have a third one out next year.

Long Beach, Calif.: Tom, greetings. I like your cartoons. However, I fail to see why you'd list Haagen Dazs with an umlaut no less, as a French sounding word. In fact, it was MADE UP in order to sound like it was from the Netherlands or Denmark, like chocolate from Haarlem or something. It means nothing! It is Germanic in origin. Troops are massing on the Maginot Line as we speak!

Ruben Bolling: Thanks, Long (if that is indeed your real name). I think you fail to understand the purpose of my "Did You Know?" comics. Even a cursory reading of the series shows that it's an absolutely serious listing of interesting facts with no ironic intent. Your suggestion that one of the items is incorrect, even nonsensical, is one I take with great gravity. Let the troops amass!

Brookeville, Md.: Hi Ruben,

My wife wants to know how someone with a law degree and no art training can put out such a brilliant, syndicated strip, while someone (like her husband) with a fine arts degree from a prestigious school (Cooper Union) can still have to be making a living teaching art to public school kids and wallpapering his studio with syndicate rejection slips. She also wants to know if you're impossibly good looking, too?

-- Jonathan the Prancing Lug

Ruben Bolling: I certainly am, and I'm usually free from 2:00 to 3:00 on Wednesdays.

Really, the reason Tom the Dancing Bug is distributed by a major syndicate is not because a syndicate accepted a submission of mine; I'm sure that's a gruelling, capricious process. I self-syndicated the strip, mostly to alternative newsweeklies and then to some dailies until I got about 60 clients. That's when syndicates started to come to me with inquiries and in 1997, when I really didn't have the time anymore to devote to the business side of the strip (we were having our first baby), I signed on with Universal. Even though it may seem like the syndicate editors are the ultimate gate-keepers of newspaper cartooning, there are other paths to getting comics into newspapers (or onto computer screens).

Washington, D.C.: First, thank you for your comics! I think they are brilliant and funny, and your strips often depict and explain political, legal or social issues better than all the fancy pundits on the op-ed pages and the Sunday talk shows. (Your strip some years back imagining a violent crimes brokerage as an extension of the pollution credit trading principle is a favorite.)
Now for my question: You clearly understand legal nuances and follow legal developments. Are you a lawyer who has turned to a better life? Is Nina Totenberg a close friend? Or are you just an avid reader of the Legal Times?

-- A Long-Time Fan (hoping your answer will include a mini-bio)

Ruben Bolling: Thanks very much. I do have a law degree, and my time at law school definitely did leave me with a philosophical interest in legal issues.

My attempts to cultivate a close friendship with Nina Totenberg have been met with icy disinterest.

Catalina Island, Calif.: What was your inspiration to go into cartoons? Your blend of drawing with commentary is great. What brought you to the realization you may be successful doing this?

Ruben Bolling: I'd always loved comics -- Peanuts and Mad and countless comic books as a kid; Doonesbury and Zippy and alternative stuff as I grew older -- and I'd always tried to create them, but it wasn't until I was in law school and saw an ad in the school paper for a cartoonist that everything really clicked.

That being said, I have yet to realize that I may be successful doing this.

Germantown, Md..: "Flowers for Trinitron" is the most inspired short-form satire that I have ever seen. Did you start with a story about the effects of TV, and then realize it paralleled the book, or did you start by trying to "update" the story, and choose TV then?

Ruben Bolling: Thanks. "Flowers for Trinitron" was a Tom the Dancing Bug episode evoking the short story "Flowers for Algernon" to make a point about the effects of TV.

I actually started writing that because I liked the phrase "begone, demon box", which I had used in conversation. I tried to write a comic strip around that phrase, and it suddenly took on a life of its own. After it was done, the title came to me; you know you're working on a good one when little connections like that title occur to you.

Maryland: Is there anything you wouldn't make fun of?

Ruben Bolling: Absolutely. 9-11 was obviously an extremely sensitive subject, and the timing of when and how to comment on various aspects of it were a minefield.

Silver Spring, Md.: Who would play you in the movie? John Cusack? Matthew Broderick? Nathan Lane? A Wayans?

Ruben Bolling: All fine choices (although I'm not sure Matthew Broderick would be willing to undergo the rigorous bodybuilding regimen that the role would require).

But I'd insist on playing myself, not only to prove I'm a triple threat (actor/cartoonist/ice sculptor), but also because I've heard that location catered food is primo!

East Coast of USA: If you read it, what did you think of Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay?" And if you didn't read it, what did you think of the cover?

Ruben Bolling: Read that novel. Loved it. It was amazing the way he wrote a griping story, yet wove into it complex themes of escape and loyalty. And even though I read it I do have an opinion on the cover: the hardaback cover was perfect (a depiction of one of K&C's comic book covers). So what's up with the horrible cover to the paperback, with just a shot of the Empire State Building?

Reston, Va.: Why the fixation on animals wearing glasses?

Ruben Bolling: How did know about that?! Have you been in my apartment?!

Potomac, Md.: Ruben, this question comes from an old friend from New Jersey who grew up down the street from you. Knowing something about you, what made you give up the law and devote your efforts to cartooning? (As a fellow lawyer, don't know that I necessarily could argue with your choice.)

Ruben Bolling: Hmmm... how enigmatic and mysterious. An old friend... that narrows it down to three people. Nope, still no idea.

Giving up the law was one of the easier decisions I've made. I still do have a day job outside the law and cartooning fields though.

Washington, D.C.: For those of us who don't get TTDB at all -- what exactly is it supposed to be about? It sometimes approaches "Zippy" in its incoherence.

Ruben Bolling: What's incoherent about it? It's just a straightforward comic strip about an insect who travels the countryside dancing and doing good deeds for townsfolk. And isn't Zippy simply about an amusing clown telling jokes to his friends?

Washington, D.C.: You live and work in New York. Your first strip after the attacks was, I thought, a heartfelt, simply-eloquent response to the enormity of that day. What are your feelings now, and how do you reflect them in "Tom?"

washingtonpost.com: I think the questioner is referring to your Sept. 29, 2001 Super Fun Pak Comix.

Ruben Bolling: It may not seem like it, because my strip always seems to maintain a certain ironic distance, but I was very emotional when I wrote and drew that comic. I live in NYC, and was downtown when the towers were burning. I had no idea how I'd ever write a Tom the Dancing Bug comic about that, but this idea came to me.

After a year of doing comics on the event and its aftermath I think I subconsciously decided to take a break from it now, and my last few comics have been general humor.

Orange, Virginia: God-Man rules. The "Inherit This Wind, Fiend" strip will forever have a prominent place on my office bulletin board. Any chance of spinning God-Man off into a daily strip? The possibilities to amuse--not to mention offend--would be endless

Ruben Bolling: Thanks. God-Man is a particularly controversial character, which has not endeared him to some of my daily newspaper clients, so I doubt they'd want to see him every day on their comics page.

I've always found it puzzling that the religious people who object to God-Man also wonder why there isn't more religious commentary in mainstream media.

Washington, D.C.: What's the latest news on TTDB making the leap to the small screen? (I mean television, as opposed to the small screen of a personal computer or the wire mesh screen of a porch door.)

Ruben Bolling: I am working with The Cartoon Network on a couple of development deals. It's a tough process; I've written synopses, character treatments, scripts, etcs., but I really hope we can get something into production and onto that small screen you referred to.

Suzanne Tobin: Actually, it's all Ruben's fault for drawing a comic that's not a standard size. In the newspaper business, it's all about space. It's hard to find a place where we can run a comic as large as TTDB. And, personally, I'd rather see it in Weekend than in a lot of other sections, because Weekend is the ONLY section of the paper that EVERYBODY loves. It's one of the most read sections in the entire newspaper. So I don't think it's buried at all. By the way, Ruben, why is the size so different than most standard strips? And did the syndicate try to get you to change your format?

Alexandria, Va.: Ms Tobin: TOM is certainly among the most humorous items in the Post. Why is it buried deep in Weekend, rather than appearing, for example, in Style, Saturday's OP-ED, or the Sunday Magazine? Surely its occasional mildly "PG" nature is not worse than what commonly is found in Style.

Ruben Bolling: Well, I'm always glad to be anywhere in the paper; I'm not picky.

I wish I could say that the size and dimensions of the strip were the result of a grand marketing strategy with focus groups and telephone surveys. But the truth is that when I started the strip in school, I used 8 1/2 x 11 typewriter paper to draw on, and so that became the strip's dimensions.

I'll bet the syndicate would love it if the strip were put into a more standard size (even the dimensions of an editorial cartoon would help), but we've never discussed it.

(This may appear out of order; Suzanne's comment above was meant to appear under this question.)

Washington, D.C.: Your "Education of Louis" and "Lawyer for Children" strips are very funny -- and distressingly accurate in the way they capture children's experiences. Do you draw primarily from your own childhood memories in writing those strips, or, now you are a father, do you glean your material from your child(ren)?

Ruben Bolling: Thanks very much. The Education of Louis series is certainly reminiscent of my childhood. I won't say it's autobiographical, because that would reveal too much about myself, but let's just say that I'm not very good at writing fiction.

Metro Center, DC: As a lawyer in D.C., can I just say that I have two of your "Judge Scalia" strips on the wall of my office, and I look forward to each subsequent one with great relish. Oh, and the Billy Dare series is fun, too. No, this wasn't actually a question, sorry.

Ruben Bolling: I'm always looking for a reason to do a Judge Scalia comic. And I just finished a Billy Dare comic last night that my editor told me today is my best one yet (I disagree).

Sterling, Va.: "Tom the Dancing Bug" is a great satire of our American culture. Ruben, would you say the comic attracts more interest from globally aware/conscious readers than from typical Americans who aren't? I commend The Post for continuing to run this comic when a lot of Americans think mocking our government/institutions/culture is un-American, when in fact it is totally American! Kudos to the Post and Ruben!

Ruben Bolling: Thanks very much, and I totally agree with you; it distresses me when certain groups decide what's American and un-American.

Washington, DC: You know, you're one of the better typists I've seen on these chats. Almost everything is spelled right and you even use semi-colons.

Ruben Bolling: Thanks. I got an A in typing in eight grade.

Washington, D.C.: I miss Charlie, the australopithicene! With the recent discoveries of so many ancient fossilized humanoid skulls, is it fair to say he'll be making a return soon?

Ruben Bolling: I'd love to use Charley again! Every time I see an opportunity for him (like the discoveries you mentioned), I try to think of an episode, but nothing yet. I'm sure I'll think of something soon. (See, I've already undercut the point I made about Harvey Richards; now I'm saying I do sometimes force characters into use. It almost made it through the hour without contradicting myself!)

Washington, D.C.: How do you work? Do you use an ink pen on beaverboard or buckboard or whatever it's called? Or are you digital, using some sorta stylus on a touchscreen computer?

Ruben Bolling: First I pencil the comic on bristol board, then go over that with a rapidograph pen. Then I scan it into my computer where I clean it up, add the blacks and shading and maybe some other (simple effects).

Alexandria, VA: We want more Doug! And more Charlie! And more Sam Roland!

Ruben Bolling: I just did a Sam Roland a couple of weeks ago, after I was sure that he was retired. But how do you kill off a detective who dies in every episode anyway.

Almost the entire Sam Roland run was in my second book, "All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned From My Golf-Playing Cats" (NBM 1997), now long out-of print.

As I said earlier, I'd love to use Charley more. And do we really want more Doug?

Suzanne Tobin: Ruben, thanks so much for taking the time to answer your fan's questions. But, unfortunately, our time is up. If your question didn't get answered, feel free to e-mail Ruben at tomdbug@aol.com. And, as always, I can be reached at tobins@washpost.com. Join us again in two weeks, on Sept. 27, when Bill Griffith of "Zippy the Pinhead" will be our guest on "Comics: Meet the Artist."

Ruben Bolling: Wow, Bill Griffith is a hero of mine. Be nice to him, everyone.

Thanks very much to everyone who wrote in; I'm sorry I didn't get to every question, but I typed as fast as I could. Thanks, Suzanne for all your help!

© Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company