While this isn’t exactly a lost interview, it kind of feels like one. Tom answered my questions quite a while ago, but for one reason or another (none of them good enough!), I didn’t get it formatted and published until now … but I think it’s still worth the wait! Tom Cherry is a creative powerhouse that has been making wonderful comics and actively working in theatre, radio, and television for years. The last few months have seen him be particularly active as a cartoonist– with lots of new “Oh! Those Savages” strips this summer– so, on the verge of “Draw Crabby Day” (more on that below), this seems like the perfect time to turn the “20 questions” spotlight on Tom Cherry…
1. Revisiting the TFI episodes (thanks, YouTube!) I was struck by how leisurely they were paced in comparison to the strips. (On the other hand, maybe I’m just reading the comics too fast!) Is your approach to writing for the comic different than writing for the show? How?
Yes, writing for the strip is vastly different than writing a script for television. Of course, as much as I like to believe my strip’s humor is character driven, it follows the classic gag strip format with a set-up that ends with a punch line. With three or four panels, there’s not enough space to explore the same story structure I can play around with in a longer format. With my comic strip, it’s designed (for the most part!) to be simple, funny, and to the point. With a script for television or radio, I have more time to tell a complete story with greater character interaction.
2. One difference between the strip and the show I found particularly striking was how the show allowed a lot of the characters to interact simultaneously (like in the “Clown Day Afternoon” episode), which is something that seems harder to do in 3-4 panels. As much as I love the directness of the strips, have you ever attempted to write a sprawling full-length “Those Funky Idiots” comic?
I have a lot of ideas for some longer stories, but I have yet to take the plunge. I have three or four stories thumbnailed for comic books, but I need to take the next step with them. At the moment, the longest TFI story in print is in Double Dip #1 and even that story is Arlo-centric. Hopefully, future tales will deal more with my cast of characters and the world they inhabit.
3. In addition to your cartooning, you’re also active in local theatre. How much has performing on stage helped you with your timing and writing?
That’s a great question, Dale, but I really don’t have a good answer. I’m sure all my work on stage has played a role in making me a better writer and cartoonist, but I can’t really cite any examples that showcase it. And I know this may sound slightly egotistical, but I’ve always thought I had pretty good timing and I think my theatre work just reinforces that idea. Now I’m just waiting for someone to throw a tomato at me…
4. You’ve written a full-length musical comedy (“Swann Song: A Southern Gospel Revue”) and are now writing “Tom Cherry’s Old Time Radio Show” (appearing live every month a Indiana’s Farmland Community Center). Do you find it’s easier to write for actors who can bring their own skill set to a character, or for comic strip characters that you have more control over but are responsible for everything?
It’s much more easier to write for actors! As a procrastinator and a fairly lazy man, writing scripts for radio or television is less time-consuming than putting together a complete comic book.
5. I appreciate your writing as much as your polished cartooning, and seeing how punchy your endings were compared to mine (in our Watusi #22-23 project) really drove this home. I think you have a great talent for writing without a lot of extra verbiage– you’re able to zero in on the punch line, whether it’s funny or poetic. Have you had any training as a writer?
Formal training? No. I’ve been writing stories since I was in elementary school. Everything I’ve learned is from studying and reading other writers. And stealing from them as much as I can!
6. Your drawings always look so clean and effortless, but after seeing your step-by-step video on YouTube, I know how much work you put into them. Did you have any art education that you have found especially beneficial to your work in comics, or have you developed your style and working method through trial and error?
I think I’ve been drawing most of my life. At least, it feels that way. I did graduate from Ball State University with a BFA in drawing and I’m sure my many years in college (I won’t go into it, but I was an undergraduate for so long they nearly gave me tenure) helped me grow as an artist and as a cartoonist. Still the key to anything is practice, practice, and more practice. A printmaking instructor I had in college once told me you have to draw everyday to maintain your talent. I didn’t believe her at the time, but I certainly do now.
7. How did you first discover comics as a creator?
I started to make my own comic books when I was eight or nine. They were usually drawn on notebook paper. They usually featured my funny animal and superhero characters. I can’t remember how many I made, but there was a small pile of them. Sadly, I threw them all away sometime in middle school. Still one of my biggest regrets.
8. Aagh! I did that, too! So foolish… What continues to draw you to the medium?
I just love comics and comic books. I love reading and collecting them. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pamphlet, graphic novel, or a digest made at a local Kinkos, I just love the medium and its endless possibilities. I just wish I was a better comics creator. Maybe one day I will be. Somebody has to be the Grandma Moses of cartooning, right?
9. What are some of your influences as a cartoonist and writer, whether in comics, prose, poetry, or drama?
There’s so many, but here’s a sampling: Charles Schulz, Walt Kelly, Bob Bolling, Dan DeCarlo, Harry Lucey, Jim Henson, Chuck Jones, Hanna-Barbera, SCTV, Matt Groening, The Simpsons, Richard Scarry, Berke Breathed, Bill Watterson, Jim Aparo, Dick Dillin, Brian Bolland, Bill Griffith, Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Mike Judge, John Porcellino, Pam Bliss, Home Movies, and the list goes on and on.
I would also like to list you as an influence, Dale. You have proven time after time you can create fun and creative comics in the small press on a regular basis. Your example is my goal!
10. You’re too kind! But you’ve had a different kind of longevity with your work: your “Those Funky Idiots” strip appeared regularly in Muncie’s Jar and All Access weekly from 1999 to 2009. What were some of the pluses and minuses of working in a regular, widely read venue for that long?
Well, there’s definitely a whole lot more pluses than minuses! Having a strip appearing regularly in a newspaper gave my work exposure to a few thousand readers and it taught me to maintain a weekly schedule (although I was guilty of missing a few deadlines every now and then). Plus I got paid for my work and that’s always nice! Even when the cash stopped due to budgetary reasons, I still gladly did the strip until All Access became an on-line magazine. I guess the big minus is no longer having that type of forum for my toons. It was a fun ride while it lasted and I’ll be eternally grateful to my editor Michelle Kinsey for giving me a chance to be a working cartoonist for a few years.
11. You once wrote on your blog that in an ideal world where you were able to make as many comic books as you wanted, Call to Battle would be one of your continuing series. What other titles would we find on the “Cherry Flavored Comics” roster?
Besides Call to Battle (which would be my The Brave and The Bold starring John Oak Dalton’s Giraffe Man), I would also have a Those Funky Idiots title as well as an anthology title featuring my humorous characters like Grandma Bev and another anthology featuring my superhero characters. I would also do a series of one shots based on different genres. So if I had a whim to make a romance book or a pirate book, it would come out as a one shot. Plus all Cherry Flavored Comics come with a backup story and a letter column! Wrap around covers are optional.
12. They sound great! I especially appreciate that you want backup stories and letter pages! I’ve enjoyed your “Draw [fill in the obscure secondary character here] Day”, even if it’s sometimes a challenge for me to come up with something for them. What inspired this project?
I guess it came from a desire to draw other people’s characters. I rarely draw well-known or famous characters. I usually just draw my own stuff so the drawadays (As I call them!) give me a chance to try my hand on some characters I like or love. Plus other talented folks sometime play along and that’s what really makes those days so special.
13. How did you first discover comics as a reader?
I can’t pinpoint my first discovery. Comics and cartoons have always been part of my life it seems. According to family lore, I guess my first exposure to comic books was when I used to rip up copies of my uncle Tom’s collection when I was a wee toddler. I remember reading Mad magazine at an early age and I loved “Peanuts” so much I remember my Granny cutting out the strips for me to collect in empty Velveeta boxes. The madness continued from there.
14. What are some of your all-time favorite comics (runs, teams, or issues)?
There’s too many to mention, but off the top of my head: Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and The Doom Patrol, Paul Levitz’s run on Legion of Super-Heroes, Peter David’s run on The Incredible Hulk, John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad, Roger Stern and John Romita Jr.’s run on The Amazing Spider-Man, Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s The New Teen Titans, Scott McCloud’s Zot!, Jill Thompson’s Scary Godmother, Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’s Justice League books, Paul Chadwick’s Concrete, James Robinson’s Starman, Linda Medley’s Castle Waiting, and Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca’s Street Angel.
15. What current comics are you enjoying? Why?
It doesn’t seem like I have much on my weekly pull list at Bob‘s Comic Castle (Shameless plug for my pal Bob), but the number of titles seem to be growing a bit. I’m a big fan of Sergio Aragones Funnies and SpongeBob Comics are always fun. I don’t get The Simpsons on a regular basis, but I’ve been grabbing their recent run of one shots. Hmm. Maybe Bongo Comics is my favorite comic book company at the moment. What else? I’m also digging Matt Fraction and Mike Allred’s FF and Kurt Busiek’s Astro City as well as Hellboy in Hell, The Goon, The Unwritten, and The Walking Dead. I will also gladly buy anything by Roger Langridge, Evan Dorkin, and Jill Thompson.
16. What webcomics are you following?
I hate to admit it, but not that many at the moment. Of course, I always check out “Watusi”. Other than your fine strip, I’m a regular visitor to “Ryan’s Dad”, a fun strip by a Muncie cartoonist by the name of Tony Reynolds. I also checked on James Kolchalka’s dairy strips at “American Elf” from time to time. I used to follow a quirky strip about a pig and a little girl called “Her!”, but its creator Chris Bishop stopped updating years ago. I know there’s some great stuff out there (Like “Dinosaur Comics” and “Achewood”), but I don’t seek it out. I don’t know why. My problem, my loss.
17. Do you think of your various casts (TFI, Grandma Bev, Oh Those Savages, Watch This Space) as coexisting, or do you keep them separate in your mind? I could see a punk-off between Vinnie and Brendon, for instance…
It depends. I can never imagine Grandma Bev ever running into Arlo Wazzo, but “Those Funky Idiots”, “Oh! Those Savages”, and “Lemonade’s Last Stand” seem to exist in the same world. I hope each strip has its own flavor and identity, but anything is possible in comics. I’m sure a good idea for a crossover could link everything together. As for a punk-off between Vinnie and Brendon, poor Brendon wouldn’t stand a chance. Vinnie Tuscany is the ultimate punk!
18. If you could assemble your dream creative team– alive or dead– to work on your dream comic, who would it be? What title?
Yowza! There’s too many possibilities! In a perfect world, Bob Rozakis and Stephen DeStefano would still be making ‘Mazing Man comic books and I would still be buying them!
19. I would, too! If you had free reign to work on your dream project– any character, any collaborator– what would it be?
To be honest, my dream project is to draw and make comic strips and comic books all the time. I just wish I maintained a strong working schedule that allows me to work on my stuff everyday instead on an irregularly scheduled whim. When it comes to producing my own toons, I have a poor work ethic and I really don’t have a great body of work I can look back on with pride. I like to think my best work is in front of me, but creating that work is the hard part.
That all being said, one of these days I would like to make a 80 page anthology book featuring my many neglected characters like DC Comics made back in the day. It would be a challenge, but hopefully a fun one!
20. Is there anything I didn’t cover in these questions that has you really excited about making comics?
As long as I can remember, comics strips, comic books, and cartoons have always made me happy. I knew from an early age I was a cartoonist and, despite not being as productive as I wish I could be, I still consider myself a cartoonist. There’s a lot of ideas and concepts I want to explore through comics and hopefully I’ll get a chance to make them all.
Finally, turnabout is fair play– is there any nagging question you have about my comics?
I’m curious how you make your weekly Watusi strips. Would you mind going over your process, Dale?
That could be a long post in its own right, Tom! Basically, I start with making notes in my sketchbook– which over the years has become more of a writer’s journal; they tend to get filled with notes for dialog and pacing more than sketches! I usually write pretty far ahead, in longer sequences than just a single strip. Then I roughly letter the strip to get a sense of how much room my lettering will take on the page. This has the added benefit that by the time I finally letter the page, I’m on my third or fourth rewrite of the dialog, which makes it better, if not necessarily more concise– I’m still a much wordier writer than I should be. I pencil on copy paper with a .07 mechanical pencil, then ink the final art on Strathmore drawing paper with a fountain pen and a light table. When I’m not rushed, I enjoy working character placement and body language out well in pencil, then inking as quickly and freely as I can. That’s a trick I learned from an old Mike Mignola interview, and when it works, it works really well, and usually leaves a drawing I’m really happy with. I scan it, clean up the drawings as needed, tidy the lettering with my custom font designed by Mike Sullivan, and post it at www.watusithetalkingdog.com!
Thanks so much for you time and generosity– not to mention patience– with this interview, Tom!