Comics: Meet the Artist
With Tom Armstrong
Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor
Friday, Jan. 31, 2003; 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 Armstrong, creator of the cartoon "Marvin."
Tobin and Armstrong were online Friday, Jan. 31 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss "Marvin," 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: Hi, comics fans, and welcome to another edition "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is Tom Armstrong, creator of "Marvin," which appears in The Post's Sunday comics section. Tom is joining us from his studio on the West Coast of Florida. Welcome, Tom, and thanks for joining us Live Online.
Tom Armstrong: Glad to be here.
Lyme, Conn.: How did you come up with the name Marvin?
Tom Armstrong: The character is based on my son, who was 4 at the time, and we expecting another child, and I didn't have enough money coming in from my current strip, John Darling, and then I read an article about a baby boom going on with baby boomers. It talked about a big blip coming in the baby population. An editor at a syndicate had told me to try to look at demographics and find a niche that was going to affect a significant part of the population. So I read a cover story in Time Magazine, with Jaclyn Smith very much pregnant on the cover saying that the working women were going to opt for motherhood and put their careers on hold, so I figured I'd let my new baby pay for itself.
I wanted to change the name from Jonathan, who was my son, to protect the guilty. I just sort of pulled out Marvin, because I thought it was short and catchy.
Harrisburg, Pa.: How do you consistently come up with fresh and funny ideas? Do you work on "Marvin" on a daily basis, or do you produce several "Marvin" comics in batches and then take a break?
Tom Armstrong: The key to doing a comic strip 7 days a week is that you have to have consistency. I have found that Monday is my writing day, not the best way to start a week, but it works for me. Tuesday is sort of make-up work, I also work on my outside licensing projects on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Wednesday afternoon and all day Thursday are my six dailies, and Fridays are devoted to the Sunday strip.
Most evenings are spent either in the studio or either inking in front of the television.
It's a little about the movie, "Groundhog Day," every Monday you wake up and it's deja vu all over again. I basically have six characters and the baby never grows and so for the last 20 years, I've had to come up with something fresh on the same basic plotline. There are days when I think there's not another diaper joke in me!
Westchester, Ill.: Hi Tom,
I wrote many comic situations but I cannot draw. Who can I submit these situations to? Also, do you accept material like that?
Tom Armstrong: No, I don't take submissions like that. I do occasionally use contributions from friends when their kids say something that's just too good to pass up. Along that line, about two months ago a Sunday strip appeared on the subject of AFLAC, the insurance company. The joke was contributed by a toddler's father, who is a friend of mine from church. He told me how he had been reading the typical children's book, "What does the doggie say?" etc. He went through the list and he got to the duck. And he asked his son what he says. And the little boy, just barely talking, says "AFLAC!"
I've got more reaction from that--from the AFLAC people, of course--but also from people just coming up to me on the street and saying how funny they thought it was. It turns out that the best gags really are based on real life.
The toddler in question has 3 older sisters, including a 6-year-old, and it turns out she had been coaching her little brother too say that.
Lyme, Conn.: What kind of adult do you think Marvin would become?
Tom Armstrong: Oh, that's a good one! I think he's going to be a little dictator. One of my earliest lines from Marvin was "I try to be nice to my parents because good servants are so hard to find." I guess he would the GenX or GenY profile pretty well, in that he looks at the universe through his own navel. He'd definitely would have an eating problem, he might be one of the people suing fast food franchises for making him overweight. I think he's very bright, and of course he thinks way beyond his years, so he probably would be a managerial professional who gets other people to do all his work for him. He would be a delegater, for sure.
Washington, D.C.: I am very interested in cartooning -- and I am in the process of developing my own. I have had my first cartoon published. If I want to develop my drawing skills, is there any way you can recommend I do this? I have not seen particular courses on cartooning at Art Colleges and institutes. What courses can I take? Do I take drawing classes, particularly those involved in drawing the human figure? Is there a course of study that most cartoonists take in terms of developing their drawing skill? Thank you.
Tom Armstrong: What I tell artist who come to see me, is the best thing to do is get published somewhere, which you've already done. You learn what reproduces well and what doesn't. It doesn't have to be a big newspaper, there are publications that are begging for cartoons, like church newsletters, charity publications, even local advertising for Mom and Pop businesses, who need some art for their ads. Don't look at it as a way to make money, just look at it as part of the process to find your style.
There a few colleges that do teach cartooning, I couldn't tell you which ones offhand, but I think a commercial art degree would be a good way to go. The Ringling School of Art in Florida has an animation program, which is one end of the cartooning field, and that could be helpful.
There are a number of other colleges who have animation courses.
I was trained as a Fine Art oil painter, which, unless you're planning to teach, there aren't a whole lot of employment opportunities with that degree.
Washington, D.C.: I love the relationship between Marvin and Bitsy. What inspired Bitsy and the idea of having the dog serve as the family nanny?
Tom Armstrong: When we were newly married, we had a cocker spaniel, Lady Guinevere, and so it was "our baby." And then Jonathan came along, and the dog was very jealous. After a year of frustration, she had to become an outdoor dog, because she was just too rough with Jonathan. That was the original concept with Bitsy. He was an outdoor dog, who was brought inside in the first winter of the strip. He definitely resented Marvin, and he still does. There's sort of a love-hate relationship between them, although Marvin doesn't understand it. Bitsy still thinks he's superior to the baby, sort of like a British butler looking down on his master.
Bitsy does look out for Marvin sometimes, when he gets into a risky situation, but he's just as often the reason for Marvin being in the risky situation to begin with.
Is Little Stewie of "Family Guy" Marvin's evil twin?
Tom Armstrong: Sorry, I've not seen the show, but maybe I should take a look.
Washington, D.C.: Who are some of your cartoonist heroes?
Tom Armstrong: Long list...No. 1 was Charles Schulz of "Peanuts." He's the reason I'm in the business, really. I've always wanted to be a cartoonist, as far back as I can remember. My dad used to talk about it being the ideal profession, you had a little bit of fame, but also you still had your privacy. He had ambitions, and then a little thing called the Great Depression came along, and he chose to eat rather than be a starving artist. But he always doodled around the house, and he always gave me encouragement. We talked about comics the way other fathers and sons talk about football. He was not into sports, so we discussed what Lil' Abner or Snoopy had done that day.
Al Capp of Lil' Abner, Mort Walker with Beetle Bailey, and I was huge fan of Mort Drucker, who did the Mad Magazine movie satires. And there are lots of others, because I'm a fan of comics, as well as doing them, so there's no way I can name them all. One of the kicks of getting in the business was getting a chance to meet some of my idols and tell them how much their work meant to me.
Bethesda, Md.: Do you think it is possible for a comic to outlive it's usefulness?
Tom Armstrong: If you're trying to tell me that my comic has outlived its usefulness, I would gladly retire, but my creditors would not go along with the plan.
I do hope that I keep Marvin fresh. I've got a whole new storyline going with Marvin's mother becoming a published romance novelist.
My wife and I are empty nesters, and last Thanksgiving, we broke down and bought a schnauzer puppy. So it's like being new parents all over again. So people who get the daily Marvin strips will see a new storyline where Marvin's maternal grandparents decide to get a new puppy, and they call it their "late in life" child.
And there are other new storylines to come. I still can't decide whether to make Ginny's novel a bestseller or not. It could change the whole relationship with her husband. But Marvin will be going on the book tour with his mom. I've done two book tours myself, and I'll be drawing from those experiences in developing the storyline.
I do get criticism also, if I stray too far from the norm, because people like the characters in the same roles they are used to seeing them in.
Arlington, Va.: Any up-and-coming cartoonists we should keep an eye out for? Any Internet comics you follow?
Tom Armstrong: No, I really don't keep up with it anymore. I'm so busy with my other licensing properties, that and doing a daily strip, I work 60 to 70 hours a week.
I do something called "Face Offs: Expressions to Fit Your Mood," which are sort of abstract faces...colored boxes with eyeballs and mouths in them. In the U.S., they're on balloons, decorative cakes and postcards. But they're much bigger overseas, all through Europe and the Middle East. My other licensing property, "Sex Symbols," sounds very provocative, but it goes back 5,000 years ago to Egyptian astrology, where Venus represents women and Mars represents men. I took the symbols, which most people are probably familiar with, the circle with the plus symbol beneath it for the woman, and the circle with the arrow sticking out of the top of it for the man, and turned them into cartoons with faces and mouths, much like "Face Offs," to represent men and women. They're very big in mainland China right now, we now have 20 "Sex Symbol" stores. They look like a Gap store, and everything in it has the symbols on it, in different poses, etc. It looks like it has some real potential. The teenagers have really latched on to it. I just came back from there in September, and it was a real kick to do media interviews, with translators and all that.
Orono, Maine: "Baby Blues" recently added another baby -- presumably because babies present more comic opportunities than older kids do.
Do you ever feel the pressure to add new characters?
Tom Armstrong: Again, I've thought about adding another baby, but Marvin is 11 and a half months old, and chronologically I don't think it would fit to add another baby in there. He does have a cousin, Meagan, who is the same age, and who represents the feminist point of view. He goes part-time to day care, where he has his best friend Jordan and other pals.
I just finished a Sunday where a newborn comes to visit, and Marvin gives the baby some sage advice, acting as a mentor on how to handle the parents, etc.
The unique thing that differentiates "Marvin" from "Baby Blues" and other strips is that I write Marvin from the baby's perspective, while most of the others do it from the adults perspective. Those strips take the perspective of "Don't kids do funny things?" whereas Marvin take the perspective of "Don't adults do and say funny things?"
Washington, D.C.: Have you published any collections of your comics, or do you plan to?
Tom Armstrong: There are six collections of Marvin comics that are quite old, that probably covered 1982 through 1988.
A lady just sent me an e-mail asking me to autograph a Marvin book for her 19-month-old, who she named Marvin after my character. She has an older son who is named Calvin after "Calvin and Hobbes," and her husband is named Dennis because his mother's favorite comic was Dennis the Menace.
The collections are out of print but she said she found a copy through Amazon.
The first two collections were published by Workman Publishing and the next four were from Pocket Books.
If anyone wants to come and offer me a contract, I'd certainly be happy to do some more collections.
Just thought you'd like to know: a Yahoo search on "Tom Armstrong" nets 5700 results.
What would Marvin say about that?
Tom Armstrong: Really? I hope some of them are favorable?
Livermore, Calif.: Hi -- I notice Marvin's look has changed a lot over the years. Who is currently doing the drawing?
Tom Armstrong: It's all me. There was a period of about five years where I had an assistant, where his style influenced the look of the strip, and made it look a little more rounded. I always did the pencils and then he would do the inking. But it comes from my Fine Art background. When you're trained as a fine artist, you're always experimenting, let's try this or that. And I guess because of that, I do it with the strip. So I'll decide to try this kind of line work, or tweak the look a little bit, and if I don't like it, I'll change back.
For instance, we had a friend who had a new baby, and he had a really cute neck, and so I shortened Marvin's hair in the back and gave him a neck. He'd never had one before.
I know that confuses the readers, because most cartoonists when they lock into a look for their characters, they don't change it at all. I guess I have a short attention span. I'm trying something totally different with the Sunday logo panel now where I'm playing with different type fonts and looks, because my background was in advertising. I just finished one where it's a '50s style Mom and Dad sitting at the dining room table that says "Baby Knows Best," a takeoff on the '50s sitcom "Father Knows Best."
Woodbridge, Va.: Has "Marvin" really been around for 20 years? I remember reading it as a child (I'm 28) and very few strips I enjoyed in my youth do I still read now. But Marvin is definitely one of my favorites. Keep up the great work!
Tom Armstrong: What a nice person! That's sometimes hits me, because I have people come up with babies of their own, and say they read it as kids. It's certainly a nice compliment when I realize I'm on my second generation of Marvin readers.
Suzanne Tobin: Thanks so much, Tom, for sharing your virtual reality world with our readers. I hope they'll all come back in two weeks when we have Bill Amend of "FoxTrot" as our guest.
Tom Armstrong: This has been fun. If anyone wants to contact me they can do it through the e-mail at www.kingfeatures.com.
Thanks so much to everyone for their great questions. Let's have another 20 years together.
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