Friday, October 2, 2009

Jorge Cham: "Piled Higher and Deeper"

"Procrastination is not equal to laziness. Laziness is when
you don't want to do anything. In Procrastination, you just don't want
to do it... now." - Jorge Cham

The UAF Graduate Office brought up cartoonist Jorge Cham, creator of "Piled Higher and Deeper," to Fairbanks. He gave two show & tells in our community; one at the Schaible Auditorium on the UAF campus and a second talk hosted by the Fairbanks Arts Association at the Bear Gallery. When I was asked to introduce him at the main presentation I thought at first it was because I’ve been doing cartoons for 20 years here in Fairbanks. But after thinking about it, it actually made much more sense given his presentation's theme "The Power of Procrastination" and seeing as how it took me 8 years to earn my BFA from UAF, plus in light of recently finding out I now have to apply for readmission to finish my MFA degree. Maybe I'll score a new thesis committee member outta this...

The Schaible gig was very well attended, and like a good movie or book, I found it hard to take objective notes, getting instead totally caught up in Cham's delivery. It was as good as seeing a standup comedian, and he had everyone constantly laughing. As I've written about here before, the study of standup comedians can be a valuable analysis for the aspiring cartoonist; not so much the basic possibility that at some point you'll have to give similar public presentations, but also insight on timing, pacing and delivery that can be put to good use with the cartoon. One particularly nice touch was Cham's prefacing the presentation with topical, customized jokes about Alaska and UAF. Narrating his tight, well-paced PowerPoint with stills from the strip and subtle animated sequences, Cham related his graduate school experiences in a dry, self-effacing style, that while autobiographical at heart, still connected with the audience. Given the global reach of the cartoon since it went on-line, the exponentially increasing audience crosses over into every conceivable discipline, major and field of research. He cited a personal favorite in the reader feedback summed up in "you make me feel less alone."

His portrayal of the academic world is, like all good comedy, is at once funny and yet with a serious insight: a somewhat grim aspect to graduate school with the constant stress, overwhelming anxiety and even suicidal depression. The underlying message to his talk was to put a positive spin on the theme of procrastination (using well-known historical and contemporary examples of giants in their respective fields) and while acknowledging the psychology and science. He re-contextualized procrastination as a legitimate asset; an integral part of the creative process rather than an impediment. It's actually a commonly used part in much of the best comedy routines I've listen to; after the audience has been long put at ease with laughing, frequently a somber theme touching upon a real issue will perhaps assume more of a subtle impact when leavened into lighthearted fare. But always tempered by Cham's engaging and easygoing presence - a good laugh was around every corner and behind each serious, interesting and contemplative point raised.

The second gig, at noon on the next day hosted by the Fairbanks Arts Association, was an even greater treat: turned out that it was to be the lowest number of attendees he'd ever talked with and the first time he'd ever done a demo geared more towards the art side. With that intimate setting it was very casual and informal as Cham was peppered by a wide range of provocative questions and comments, plus in-depth play-by-play of the actual process he uses in producing a strip. Bonus in we also got a preview of the annul 64th Parallel exhibit being set up in the background.

Cham hadn't had any previous formal drawing experience aside from a summer art class as a teenager and incessant doodling, so when the strip began to grow in popularity he took a life drawing course to better render figures, and there is an obvious evolution of skill when skimming the on-line archives of his work. When asked if he had ever drawn the strip "by hand" he said yes, for the first month: his primary tool at home is using a Cintiq tablet with Photoshop. Using multiple layers for preliminary sketches, inks, shading, customized hand-written font, and set swatches for consistency in character colors, Cham blazed over his keyboard with the ease of a master familiar with his tools.

Cham started "PhD Comics" as a hobby after answering a want ad in the Stanford University campus paper while pursuing his doctoral studies. He finished grad school in 2003, and since '05 he has had the great fortune to "quit the day job," and now averages around fifty guest presentations a year on the college lecture circuit. That supplements the other half of his income generated from self-publishing four books and merchandise sales. He also freelances such as a special feature project with the quarterly magazine Scientific American Mind. We talked about the relative strengths and weaknesses of niche marketing to a target audience, finding a common-interest groups being predicated on the possibilities of the internet's reach.
After his family, the priority in his routine is to produce the piece (3x's a week - Tues/Th/Sat), and while it may take just over an hour to physically do, it's the idea that takes up more time. To this end Cham is constantly noting down observations and garnering insights and ideas from other people and places he encounters, he referred to the omnipresent sketchbook as his RAM or "secondary brain."

One of the shifts in content over the years has been noting the lessening of cynicism and irony between Gen X and Y, along with experimenting more with the format of the strip, such as longer works. The characters have been driving the stories more now also, and Cham frequently "puts himself in the reader's shoes" so as to prompt ideas on "what would they like to see happen next." There has to be an emotional connection with the reader, but Cham always ties it back with his own personal experiences, even when writing about other people's. We also talked about the projection and channeling of topics and opinions through surrogate characters in the feature. All in all it was an inspiring and educational conversation that touched on a wide range of concerns particular to the creation of his work as a cartoonist, as opposed to the flip side of his public presentation, and we were very lucky to have such a chance to pick his brain on the trade.

After the show & tell I drove Cham over to the Comic Shop for a quick chat with the owner and to show off our community's oasis of awesomeness, and then he was off to another whirlwind series of power-tourist treats lined up before his departure. It was a fantastic opportunity to meet, listen to and talk with and learn from a great cartoonist, plus folks on campus were really excited to have him visit UAF - here's to hoping he comes back again!
Special thanks are due to Jorge Cham, the UAF Graduate School folks, the Arthur J. Schaible Memorial Cultural Enrichment Fund for making his visit to Fairbanks possible, and Sophie's Station. Also Shelly for the serendipitous conversation at the copier!


  1. I am bummed that I missed his art talk. Even though his other talk was entertaining, I was hoping to hear a bit more about his comics and creative progress.

    Two corrections though: The latest version of Photoshop is CS4 and he stayed at the President's suite.

  2. Duly noted, thanks - nearsighted enough to miss details even sitting in the front row.

  3. It was great to meet him in the Bear Gallery.
    Not to nitpick, but I think he was using Photoshop CS3...

    I'll post my pictures from his demo soon too...