Comics: Meet the Artist
With Bud Grace
Cartoonist, "Piranha Club"
Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor
Friday, May 31, 2002; 1 p.m. EDT
Welcome to the Washington Post Style section comics discussion, hosted by Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin. This week, Tobin hosts "Piranha Club" cartoonist Bud Grace. Grace's comic strip, originally titled "Ernie," chronicles the misadventures of the hapless Ernie Floyd, assistant manager of a Mr. Squid fast-food franchise, and his larcenous Uncle Sid.
Tobin and Grace were online Friday, May 31 at 1 p.m. EDT to discuss "Piranha Club" and the art of cartooning.
Grace, who has a doctorate in physics from Florida State University, was born in Chester, Pa., and moved to Florida with his family when he was 5 years old. He spent the two years after his graduation as a visiting assistant professor of physics at the University of Georgia and then returned to Florida State, where he taught, conducted research and published articles on a variety of topics, including low-energy neutron scattering.
In 1979, Grace, with no previous experience, decided to draw. He worked as a free-lance cartoonist and sold his work to major magazines before approaching King Features with his ideas for "Piranha Club" ("Ernie"). Grace, along with King Features Syndicate, celebrated the successful launch of his comic strip in 1987. He currently lives in Virginia with his wife, Lorraine, and his son, Allen.
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: Hello, comics fans and welcome to "Comics: Meet the Artist" with Bud Grace, creator of "The Piranha Club." Bud is joining us from his studio in Oakton, Va., where he claims to be busy bringing down the property values. Welcome, Bud, and thanks so much for taking our readers' questions for free!
Bud Grace: Thank you, Suzanne, and it's nice to know there are so many deranged people out there who want to ask me questions!
Bethesda, Md: My old man grew up in Bayonne, which he always referred to as "a little Polish town in New Jersey". Did you know that the motto of Bayonne, France is "Nunquam Polluta"? "Never Polluted"!!
Bud Grace: I made a joke about Bayonne's toxic waste dump once, and the mayor wrote back a nasty letter saying that they were in the process of building a golf course on top of it.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Glad to see a Pennsylvania native has found success. We believe there is a natural inclination for Pennsylvanians to find the funny side of life. (Some blame the water.) After all, we have seen other Pennsylvanians.
Of course, your strip is set is our neighbor New Jersey. How did you get the idea for your strip and the characters? Are they based on conglomerations of people you have observed? (And, if so, how many of these were Pennsylvanians?)
Bud Grace: In terms of picking Bayonne as a city, it just sounded funny to me. I did a magazine joke once where the scientist determined that the so-called shroud of Bayonne was actually a dirty bowling towel.
As for the characters, all my family members are crazy. I'm the most sane one! I think it's because my mother and father were cousins.
In terms of civic organizations, I think it was a subconscious influence. When I was a little child, I watched the Amos n Andy TV show. A few years ago, I started thinking about that and realized that the Mystics Knights of the Sea from that show was remarkably like the Piranha Club and that Kingfish was remarkably similar to Uncle Sid. I think that that did influence me quite a bit, although I didn't realize it when I started the strip.
Pennsylvania: How do you maintain a pace of finding things to entertain us on a daily basis? Do you ever suffer from writer's block, and, if so, are there ways you ever overcome it? If you never do suffer from writer's block, are there particular inspirations you find that allow you to be so consistently witty?
Bud Grace: I think every artist suffers from writer's block. Somerset Maugham said only a mediocre writer is always at his best. When I can't think of good ideas, I draw bad ideas.
Tysons Corner, Va.: I LOVE your comic strip. It is witty and creative, and I never miss it.
Curious, though. What (or who) was the inspiration for the tough mother-in-law who beats up everyone, and for the ever-present cigarette dangling out of the doctor's mouth?
Bud Grace: First, Mother Packer is Dr. Pork's mother-in-law. I named her after Alferd Packer who was a famous cannibal in 19th-century Colorado. I don't know exactly where she came from. Dr. Pork was the first character I ever created when I first starting drawing. He's such a terrible doctor that he doesn't realize that cigarettes are killing him.
Woodbridge, Va.: Hi Bud,
Where do you get your ideas from?
Bud Grace: I recognize the source of that brilliant question. It's from Chuck Smith of the Style Invitational. Where do YOU get your ideas from, Chuck?
Arlington, Va.: Bud,
We love Piranha Club at our house. What do you think about comic page surveys? The Post just did one.
Bud Grace: I don't do well in surveys because the people that like my humor are not the type of people who respond to surveys. My humor is mostly directed to men and teenage boys.
Suzanne Tobin: Bud, this time, you may be surprised. I haven't seen the results of the survey yet, but I can tell you that we had more than 20,000 replies, and many of them were online. So I think we've just punched a hole in the normal demographic of "over 60 & retired" that used to dominate our comics surveys. God bless the Internet!
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Grace:
I'm a big fan. Yours is one of the few strips that makes me laugh out loud. Your Ernie/Piranha Club strip is also published and popular in Sweden. Your characters are not Scandanavian. Why are they popular there?
Why don't you publish a Sunday version of Piranha Club.
Grubowski in D.C.
Bud Grace: "The Piranha Club" is still called "Ernie" in the rest of the world. The reason is because we tried a promotion here in the States, and we thought that by changing name we might pick up some papers. That didn't work, so now I'm going to change my name to Bill Watterson.
"Ernie" is the most widely syndicated comic feature in Scandinavia. My paternal grandmother was Swedish. Maybe that's the reason it's so popular over there.
I also have an "Ernie" comic book in Scandinavia in which I do special stories every month.
I do a Sunday version, and unlike my daily strip, it's not nearly as offensive.
The Post just doesn't carry it.
Luray, Va.: Hey, Bud.
Knowing that you started as a freelancer, I'm wondering how you would compare the difference of keeping up with a strip versus your freelance cartoons? Also do you still have any one-frame gag art published? If so, where?
Bud Grace: Both jobs are hard, but you make more money doing a strip. I still do single panel cartoons for magazines, but not as a freelancer, only under contract. Right now, I do some for a Scandinavian computer magazine. I might try to sell some of them over here in the U.S., because they're pretty good, if I say so myself.
Risliden, Sweden: Hello mr Grace, I met you last year when you signed books at the Gotheburg comics fair. How does it feel to be so much more famous and popular in Scandinavia than in the US? And how did it feel to go to the Gothenburg comics fair so soon after the 9-11 attack? Also, why don't you have an e-mail address on your Web site anymore? Andreas
Bud Grace: I was on one of the first flights out of Dulles Airport after Sept. 11. I missed most of the fair, but I was very upset, especially during my talk. And somebody asked me about the attack on the World Trade Center, and I lost my composure. It was a terrible, terrible tragedy. I know that it affected the people in Sweden as much as it affected us Americans.
On a lighter note, being more famous and popular in Scandinavia beats being unpopular in both places.
As for the Web site, it just got to be too much work. I guess I should reinstate an e-mail address. I think I will, but it will be difficult to answer all the mail.
Bethesda, Md.: Re: Alferd Packer. Maybe an urban legend, but it's said that a new cafeteria in the department of Agriculture was named the 'Alferd Packer Memorial Dining Facility' until the higher-ups caught on.
Bud Grace: I knew it was called the Alferd Packer cafeteria, but I didn't know that they'd changed the name.
Baltimore, Md.: Love your work. Do I detect an R. Crumb
influence in your graphic style
Bud Grace: I started drawing in an underground style, originally. While I can't draw nearly as well as Robert Crumb, I'm not surprised you can see the influence. I was also influenced by underground cartoonist Kim Deitch.
Orlando, Fla.: In what newspapers in Florida can I read your Comic Strip? Is it in the "Today" Paper in Brevard County where all the rocket scientists are? Or do I have to go to the newsstand and buy a Washington Post?
Bud Grace: It is in the "Florida Today" paper.
I don't know what other papers in Florida carry my strip. I don't keep up with what we call "the list" in the trade. The only way to get it into your local paper is to hound the editors mercilessly.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Why did you pursue physics in school if you had an ability to draw? Or did this talent just show up one day in your adulthood fully formed? If not, do you think these talents -- art and a scientific bent -- are linked in some meaningful way, that is, causal not correlatory? I hope you followed my drift on that last one. Thanks much.
Bud Grace: I started drawing when I was 35. It took me about six years to get good at it. It also took me six years to learn how to write jokes. It's not something that just happens, at least not in my case.
I did physics in school because I was good at it.
As for the talents being correlated, I've always had a wide and diverse set of interests. I love serious things and I love silly things.
Gaithersburg, Md.: I have it on good authority you have fine taste in music. What are you listening to lately?
p.s. Urk urk urk
Bud Grace: For example, on my CD player I have Bessie Smith, Pito Schipa (opera) and Buddy Holly right now.
Washington, DC: Mr. Grace, Uncle Sid is a riot! Did you have someone in mind when you were establishing that character?
Bud Grace: I had a friend years ago who was very similar to Uncle Sid. As a matter of fact, I named the lawyer character, Slick Willie O'Haberman, after this friend. When I first introduced that character his name was Haberman, but the B'nai B'rith anti-defamation folks got mad at me. I had no idea that name was Jewish. My friend's name was Haber. So I changed the name to O'Haberman, and had him going around saying "faith and begorrah."
Baltimore, Md.: I know you were successful as a magazine "gag" cartoonist, with stuff in the New Yorker and other top (and some not so top) publications. Aside from the money factor (I understand that even cartoonists have to eat), were there any other reasons for giving that up to become a syndicated "daily grind" comic strip artist?
Bud Grace: When I first started drawing, I intended to end up doing a comic strip. Doing magazine cartoons was a good way to learn how to draw and write jokes. But it's difficult to make a good living doing freelance cartoons. When my son was born in 1986, I had to get a steady income and that's when I began the strip.
And, as far as circulation goes, there's no comparison between the two. You can reach so many more readers in newspapers.
And as far as the money, one large newspaper may pay $200 a week to the syndicate for the strip. The split between the syndicate and the cartoonist is usually 50-50.
A good magazine will pay $300 for a cartoon. The New Yorker is the high end, and they pay $1,200 for a contracted cartoonist. That all goes straight to the cartoonist.
But, if your work appears in 20 big newspapers, you make quite a bit more going through the syndicate.
What are your work routines like? Do you draw at a given time of day, most every day? When do your ideas tend to come?
Bud Grace: In the morning, I go for a walk for about two hours and try to think up gags. Then I'll come back to my studio in my house and draw with a pencil six daily cartoons, or maybe two Sunday cartoons. I'll put the ink on at some other time. I also have an assistant named Jay Scruggs, who helps me with some of the inking. I put in relatively long hours.
Arlington, Va.: Where do you get your ideas from for so many different comic strips?
Bud Grace: First, I have probably more characters than any other comic strip. Most of my gags are based on the characters. I place them in situations and if they're good characters, they react in a way that's funny. But it's hard work. It takes a lot of concentration. Contrary to what many people might think, I don't get ideas from things that I observe or situations that I might find myself in. Half the time I live in another world, and that's where the gags come from.
Reston, Va.: Bud,
You must not like dogs that much based on your dog tricks in the strip.
Bud Grace: I love dogs. I have a Jack Russell and my wife has a #%^@&* Old English sheepdog.
Somewhere, USA: What do you for fun? What are your personal areas of interest?
Bud Grace: I have a summer house near St. Michaels, Md. and a boat that is always broken, but mostly I hang out in bars. I got home last night at 12:45 a.m.
Maryland: Is Arnold mentally challenged?
Bud Grace: Arnold is a lot like me when I was a teenager.
Washington, D.C.: I love your strip. The soupcon of cynicism works just like a good shot of expresso first thing in the morning. I also liked your travelogue about your trip to Las Vegas. Any more vacation features in the works?
Bud Grace: Because I included my trip to Las Vegas as a story in my comic strip, I was able to deduct my gambling losses from my taxes. Uncle Sid's learned all his tricks from me, remember?
Bud Grace: As for Arnold, when I first created the strip Ernie was supposed to have Arnold's personality. But the syndicate said that wouldn't make a good character. So I changed Ernie into the white bread character that he is and created Arnold to take over the role as the sap.
Rockville, Md.: Has Sid ever held an honest job?
Bud Grace: No. I don't, why should he?
Oakton, Va.: Are Uncle Sid and all your characters Democrats?
Bud Grace: In 1990, I made some jokes about the Bush administration and I lost 15 newspapers. So we'll just forget about this question.
Lenexa, Kan.: I'd like to ask Bud how he feels about the National Cartoonist's Society's annual rejection of him as a candidate for Cartoonist of the Year.
Bud Grace: The Cartoonists Society just held its convention this past weekend in Cancun. I had to cancel my trip the day before...just my luck. I don't know who won the award this year. By the way, guess who the treasurer of the National Cartoonists Society is? Hee, hee, hee!
Bud Grace: Thanks to everyone who sent in questions. I've got to get back to work because I've got a big night tonight at one of my local watering holes.
Suzanne Tobin: Thanks, Bud. It's been, er, how can I say, interesting, chatting with you. I don't think I'll ever consider moving to Oakton, though. But that's not to say anything bad about Oakton. I just hope it has good mental health facilities nearby. I hope all our readers won't hold this chat against us and will join us again in two weeks for another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Seriously, I think I've laughed more doing this chat than I have in a while. Of course, I've spent the last three weeks at home recuperating from foot surgery, so, you figure it out!
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