Sunday, July 12, 2009

WOOFS! from Marmaduke

While on hiatus in Western NY I scored an unexpected bonus: totally by luck came across an article in a local paper that "Marmaduke" creator Brad Anderson was going to make an appearance at the Brocton-Portland Community Festival. Needless to say any plans I might have had were scuttled in light of this opportunity to see one of the Grand Masters of cartooning in person.
The presentation was at the Portland Historical Museum (co-ordinated in part by the Ahira Hall Memorial Library), and it was standing room only by the time Mr. Anderson gave his talk. I arrived twenty minutes early and got one of the last seats in the house: front row on the left corner - which, as it turned out, was about four feet away from where he would do his demos.

85 years old, gracious, humble and charming in person, Anderson reminisced about his life and experiences in creating the panel and Sunday strip he's drawn for fifty-five years. There are a lot of references to his upbringing (born in Jamestown but raised in Brocton) in "Marmaduke," and judging from the camaraderie with the elder folks in attendance for this event, he hasn't lost his strong sense of connection with history and place. Many of the houses and neighbors populating the strip are in fact based on actual people from around his home, and some of the stories he told us made us feel like we were sitting around a fire. Personally I had the feeling I was in the presence of something really special; watching him up close & personal while he drew each of the characters (Phil & Dottie Winslow + the kids Barbara & Billy) from his feature was truly inspirational. Though I've had the good fortune to cross paths with many other cartoonists, this really was a rare treat, especially in his home-town where he was treated like a local hero. Even if the feature is too retro or even old-school for hip, contemporary audiences, his work deserves the respect due from being a true Big Dog in the field.Anderson's line-work is in the same camp as Hank Ketcham's "Dennis the Menace," but I find his drawing style to be much more loose and expressive (Windsor-Newton #1 series 7 brush), and some very nice visual shorthand with minimal backgrounds and props.

One of the key elements for me personally was the comparative rarity of his niche; single-panel cartoons aren't all that common in the industry, and "Marmaduke" isn't quite what I'd categorize as a "gag" panel in the style of say the "Far Side." Anderson even elaborated on this subtle but crucial distinction, as he noted how his work tends to be much more image-oriented (he cited the influence of Laurel & Hardy slapstick comedy) as opposed to word-based jokes. Also Marmaduke isn't endowed with the powers of speech or thought as contrasted with a lot of other animal cartoons Certainly one of the more interesting things to see was how his personal drawing style has evolved over the years: the earliest renderings of the dog were of an angry animal - nowadays the sheer expressive range of Marmaduke's face alone can carry the panel. He also noted how with the steady erosion of real-estate in the newspapers with relation to the size of printed cartoons, many features don't indulge in full-figures anymore, opting instead for the "talking head" approach.

I also got the chance to ask a handful of geeky questions (brush size, brand of nib, halftones and color etc.) about the trade and craft, even though his hour-long talk covered a lot of ground and was at the same time casual, intimate and informative. Hearing him recount the first time he had his work bought for publication (at $3 each for three pen & inks he didn't quite get the chance to buy a car he wanted, but settled for buying milkshakes and burgers for his girlfriend instead); how a friend would get his cartoons delivered weekly to Buffalo where they could get on a train to the syndicate in NYC; the actual process by which he goes about creating the cartoon; from idea-getting (if he starts to "get fuzzy" he'll just start to randomly doodle Marmaduke doing things) to the nuts & blots of roughing out sketches first on regular copy paper, xeroxing reductions/enlargements to scale, inking over them onto Bristol with a light-table and then filling in a color guide if it's a Sunday strip. Occasionally employing the services of a select handful of writers and also the assistance of the computer-savvy son and business-wise wife, Anderson has pretty much been a one-man show all these years: he quipped about this - "I live in two different worlds" - when discussing the deep involvement with the relationships in his strip. My other favorite anecdote: "I forget about all my troubles when at the drawing board" certainly resonated with me.
A few years ago Ballantine Books published a hardcover edition "Top Dog - Marmaduke at 50" anthologizing his feature, and I was able to pick up a copy right before Anderson's talk for him to not only autograph but lavishly illustrate with an original drawing. What an unexpected event to stumble upon in the last place I'd ever think to meet one of the greats!


  1. It sounds like you had a lucky day. You should have tried to convice him to swing by Fairbanks.

  2. Turns out he actually was: toured AK a few years back - one of many famous folks who want an actual vacation & thus travel incognito I guess.
    But I think more and more people are catching word that the Interior has an avid audience for visiting talents and we'd always be up for talks and presentations - like Dave Petersen last year and Scott McCloud before that.
    But we probably won't see any musher-style flat-topped doghouses appearing in Marmaduke anytime soon...