ANNE BELOV, Feb. 15, 2013
“Character Matters or The Play(ing)’s the Thing”
Writing and drawing a cartoon with continuing story lines and recurring characters is a little like writing a play. Well, a very short play, but nevertheless …
I’ve been a painter since I was young, went to art school and did the whole nine yards; art school, grad school, crappy, menial job, until the day when I threw off the day job yoke of oppression to paint full time. Through years of making art, I discovered the value of “cross training” or working in different mediums. I find that things that apply to one medium can also be used in another, often in a way that gives you more than the expected results.
When my movement into more narrative subjects in painting led me to think about sequential storytelling, I naturally started thinking about picture books, but also cartooning. Now, I have drawn cartoons all my life, but it is only in the past five years that I have found my subject, my obsession some might say, in pandas. I’ll save my story of my ‘pandapiphany’ for some other time. Let’s just say that five years ago, I reawakened a childhood love of the silly black and white bears and they started speaking to me and, of course, I had to listen.
Before you call in the men in white coats brandishing a strait jacket, let’s go back to my idea of ‘cross training.’ One of the joys of reading a really good book is getting to know well-developed characters. Any great writer develops back-stories for their characters to determine actions and explain the ‘whys,’ not just the ‘whats,’ of a characters’ behavior. Even though these details may never appear in full in the book or play, they are crucial to the story.
Now, if you are a “one off” gag cartoonist, this issue is probably not going to come up. But if you have a recurring cast of characters, they need a back-story. At its heart, a comic is as much a written work as a visual one.
My cartoon, “The Panda Chronicles: Your Brain on Pandas,” (YBOP ) has several main, named characters. Bob T. Panda, Mehitabel the cat (named after my actual cat, who was named after the character from the classic Don Marquis story, Archie and Mehitabel), Babette de Panda, and the young panda collective known as The Panda Kindergarten make up the regular cast. I didn’t start out to write a back-story for each character, but they slowly began to emerge, at which point I started taking note of who they seemed to be, and then made sure that they were all staying in character.
Babette de Panda, while she has become a cartoon character in YBOP, is not my invention. Since the beginning of my panda obsession, I have acquired quite a number of pandas: stuffed, notepads, bags, you name it. My good friend Victory Schouten bought a small stuffed panda while on a trip, with the intention of gifting it to me. Unfortunately, by the time she got home, Victory had named the panda, (Babette de Panda), they had bonded, and Babette quickly acquired a back-story. (For the record, Babette is French, a bit of a fashion plate, not to mention a terrible flirt, but with a good heart. She is the founding philanthropist of the Hospital for indigent Pandas in Greenbank, Wash.) All of Babette’s further appearances in YBOP are informed by this back-story.
Bob, Mehitabel, and the panda kindergarten all have their stories too. If you are thinking of or are already doing a comic with recurring characters, you owe it to them to sit down with them and get to know them. Have a couple of beers with them and find out their story; ask them about their hopes and dreams. They might surprise you, and your comic series will be all the richer for this.
Anne Belov paints, writes, makes prints, and is the founder of The Institute for Contemporary Panda Satire. You can find her paintings at the Rob Schouten Gallery, her cartoons on The Panda Chronicles, and her new book here. She will be teaching beginning egg tempera at the Whidbey Island Fine Art Studio in April. for more information: contact WIFAS She also writes regularly for Whidbey Life Magazine, an online journal of art and culture on Whidbey island.