Comics: Meet the Artist
With Bill Amend
Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor
Friday, Feb. 14, 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 Bill Amend, creator of the cartoon "Foxtrot."
Tobin and Amend were online Friday, Feb. 14 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss "Foxtrot," 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: Happy Valentine's Day, comics fans and welcome to "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is Bill Amend (rhymes with Raymond) who is joining us from his studio in the Midwest. Welcome, Bill, and thanks to your wife for letting us hijack you from her on this Hallmark holiday!
Bill Amend: Hi Suzanne, great to be with you all. I had Valentines chocolates to pass out, but Paige ate them.
Mill Valley, Calif.: Bill --
Huge fan of the strip. Is there a certain state, area, or city where Foxtrot is located?
Bill Amend: I've never established where the Fox family lives and I'm not sure the sort of place I depict really exists. It's sort of that generic cartoon version of suburbia that a lot of strips share where it snows in the winter and is near water when necessary. I grew up in New England and Northern California, and I think bits of that come through, but it's nowhere specific.
Anaheim, Calif.: Hi Mr. Amend, I'm a big fan! I remember reading Foxtrot since I was about 5 years old, when Jason, your youngest character, seemed insurmountably old. Now I'm 19, older than Peter! After all these years of writing for the same characters, who don't age, has coming up with new storylines and gags become increasingly difficult? And do your frequent sabbaticals help deal with this?
Bill Amend: It does seem to get harder with time to find ways to be fresh with the same characters and a reasonably static setting. I've tried to shift things around some over the years to keep from getting into ruts, which helps. I've never taken a sabbatical per se...my syndicate gives its cartoonists four weeks of vacation time each year and uses reruns during the gaps. They keep me sane, and I'm very appreciative my syndicate lets us take them.
Amsterdam, N.Y.: do you have any pets?
Bill Amend: I have a German Shepherd as well as a number of pet peeves. When I was a kid I had a hamster named Quincy...hence the iguana's name.
Alexandria, Va.: I lovelovelove FoxTrot, and I'm so pleased The Post has started to carry it. I always enjoy when Jason geeks out over something topical. Are you that much of a geek yourself that you're aware of how fandom is reacting to something like "The Lord of the Rings" movie?
Bill Amend: I'm glad the Post picked me up as well. 8^) Jason's geeky tendencies tend to be exaggerations of my own. I was a computer/math/Star Wars nerd as a kid and still am to a large extent. I'd be lining up six months early for Lord of the Rings along with Jason if I weren't so busy drawing him doing it.
Moorestown, N.J.: How have you been able to come up with so many ideas for so long?
Bill Amend: There is a moment in just about every week where I stare at my blank piece of paper and think that the well has at last run dry and it's all over for me. And then somehow through a mix of panic and caffeine I get seven decent ideas out and live to see another week. I think what helps me most is through luck and design, I've put together a cast of characters that lets me cover a very wide range of subjects. So I can write computer jokes and golf jokes and academic jokes, etc., and having that sort of range gives me a lot of options when ideas seem scarce.
Calgary, Alberta, Canada: A while back, you did a strip where Jason taught Quincy how to play Warcraft, a computer game. Do you actually play Warcraft or other computer games?
Bill Amend: One good thing about being a Mac user is my computer gaming impulses have limits (there aren't as many choices). I play Warcraft and Starcraft and Myth and those sorts of games online and my son and I play Playstation games a lot together.
San Diego, Calif.: What happened to the Web site www.foxtrot.com? And will it be back? And when?
Bill Amend: The foxtrot.com site was a joint venture with my syndicate that slowly turned into a big, complicated, run-by-committee thing that didn't feel very personal in the same way my strip is. It may come back in a new form, but the old huge site isn't something I want to revisit. My current Web site is at homepage.mac.com/billamend and while really primitive, it's a lot more fun for me, and the news tends to be more timely.
Sevilla, Espaρa: I was wondering how you came up with the name "Foxtrot" for your strip?
Bill Amend: Good question. I wanted to get away from the sort of obvious "family" titles like Family Affair and Family Ties and Family Circus, and when I came up with the name "Fox" for the family, I decided I liked how "FoxTrot" incorporated that and also used a dance as a sort of metaphor for the energy and comings and goings I envisioned in the strip.
Falls Church, Va.: My first introduction to your cartoon was through my high school's math textbook (circa in 1994), which featured Jason and his various math exploits as illustrations to the lessons in the book. To this day, I have never seen such an excellent use outside entertainment to hold one's interest in education, I am curious as to how this came about. Was it your personal interest education? Or something that your syndicate approached you about?
Bill Amend: I've always enjoyed math and science and majored in physics in college, so a lot of the math humor in the strip isn't really done with any calculations (ha ha) in mind, but it's just sort of me writing about stuff I enjoy or think about. It's worth noting that since I was a B student in college, I give myself permission to screw up an equation about 20 percent of the time. My syndicate's been surprisingly supportive of my occasional math references, given that they're all humanities types and never get the jokes. 8^)
Washington, D.C.: Gotta love Fox Trot! (And kudos to the Post for picking it up -- I didn't have the heart to grab the Washington Times when Fox Trot was its only redeeming feature.)
I notice your humor sometimes can be more subtle and, indeed, intelligent than other comics. For example, you had an entire series of strips once where Peter dreamed he was Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey. You also infuse real mathematical concepts into your strips.
I think this is GREAT, because I actually get the references. But do you feel this limits your audience as a result? Not that the comics page needs any more banal, lowest-common-denominator strips anyway.
Bill Amend: Thanks for the flattering question. I try to write the sort of strip that I would enjoy reading. Some of it I know is a little obscure and so I try to present the humor in ways that are understandable even if the subtleties or the details aren't.
Pennsylvania: If you were not a cartoonist, what do you think you would be?
Bill Amend: I've always assumed I'd be a retired former dot-com zillionaire, which is a cheery thought. Seriously, I'd probably be doing something in a similar vein... maybe in film or video games or books or something.
Ellicott City, Md.: Will we be able to see Paige without her ponytail someday?
Bill Amend: Given how similarly I draw the characters' faces, I'm not sure anyone would recognize Paige without her ponytail.
Ellicott City, Md.: Have you ever had a career other than a cartoonist?
Bill Amend: I was syndicated at age 25, so I didn't have a lot of career time before this. I worked for a couple of years in the animation and film industries in San Francisco, which was fun.
Amsterdam, N.Y.: When are you planning on making a new book?
Bill Amend: We usually publish a new book every six months or so, and the next one is due in April. The title is Your Momma Thinks Square Roots are Vegetables. I think Amazon has it, if you want a sneak peek at the cover.
Middleburg, Va.: Bill, Wassssssabi?
You are my main man for cartoons and I was wonderin when you are going to be in our area next (D.C.) to sign some of your books?
Bill Amend: Unfortunately, my weekly deadlines don't allow much time for travel, so my book signings have been few and far between. I was in DC for Christmas...if only we'd hooked up I could have signed one for you!
Kennebunkport, Maine: I really hope you don't take this the wrong way, Bill, because I am a very big fan of "Foxtrot." But why are the characters so ugly? You'd think Paige and Peter, being in high school, would be a little more aesthetically conscious.
Bill Amend: Paige thinks she's a lot cuter than Nancy, so pbbspt. My background isn't in art...I do the best I can.
Dublin, Ireland: Why isn't Foxtrot published in Ireland? I hate ordering from Amazon.co.uk, the shipping costs almost as much as the books...
Bill Amend: My syndicate tries to sell the strip everywhere, but ultimately it's up to individual papers whether or not they carry FoxTrot. The books I think require a British publisher to accept me, as Andrews and McMeel doesn't distribute internationally.
Virginia: Will Paige ever like Quincy?
Bill Amend: I did a week once where Paige helped Quincy when he was choking, but the Paige-hates-Quincy dynamic is one of those staple devices that I'd hate to lose entirely.
Arlington, Va.: Thank you for many recent references to Lord of the Rings -- I especially loved the elven (?) references with Merry and Pippin. Keep it up!
Bill Amend: Thanks. Those are fun for me, too.
Amsterdam, N.Y.: What gives you ideas for Fox Trot, your family, or your Siblings??
Bill Amend: Most of the stuff in the strip is made up, but there are certainly influences from my own experiences both as a kid growing up and now as a husband/father.
Ballston, Va.: I am a long-time fan. My 8-year-old son recently "discovered" your strip and continually reads the books he has bought. When the Post picked you up, he thought it was because of him!
However, as a mom, I love the math jokes. BECAUSE, my son now "wants to be like Jason." He was trying to tell all his friends the Charlie's Angles joke from the recent strip. Then he was drawing angles out on paper. . . Well, kids might think he's weird, but at least he likes math!
Bill Amend: It was because of him...didn't the Post tell you? They must've forgotten.
Being "just like Jason" is a mixed bag...I'd suggest you start now removing all rocketry and drat gun paraphernalia from your house.
Asheville, N.C.: Of all the cartoons you have drawn, do you have a personal favorite?
Bill Amend: I don't think I have a specific favorite one, but I definitely have a group of favorites. They tend to be the ones where I a) nailed a joke and b) did something I know was uniquely my voice. A lot of the nerdy strips fall into this category.
Somewhere, USA: I like chocolate go get some more please
Bill Amend: OK, I'll be right back.
Suzanne Tobin: Well, folks, we're out of time. Thanks so much, Bill, for giving us your undivided attention for a whole hour, which is the best Valentine's Day gift of all.
Bill Amend: It was fun to do this... thanks to the Post and to the participants. I just wish I typed faster. 8^)
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