Cartooning Like You Mean It

Cartooning, Teaching & Living – by Tom Hart

Posts Tagged ‘situations

On Themes, Situations, and Characters in Cartooning.

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At the first day of our Hothouse class at SVA, Matt Madden, Jessica Abel and I offer our different strategies about creating stories and work. Jessica works from a character, plots out a story. Matt works from form. He looks at categories of rhythms and structure that he hasn’t created work in before, and creates characters and situations that relate to those forms. The story develops from there.

I’ve always gone next, discussing how I work from themes, first and foremost. This is changing and I want to explore that a little here.

I’ve first and foremost started with themes, especially when I knew what character I was using: Hutch Owen. From a starting point of a familiar character, themes would appear in the outside world that I would want to explore.

Here’s a quick list of Hutch Owen stories and the themes I had hoped to explore:

Road to Self – how we change or don’t change our ideals over time
Aristotle – what is freedom? creativity? as it relates to this character?
Emerging Markets – how have we colonized other cultures both through commerce and religion?

Mind you, a lot of these stories were also excuses to draw guys with sticks and bats pounding on a man dressed up as a sheep. But first came the idea to explore, the question, then the characters and situations. HOPEFULLY, at that point, those characters and situations developed organically, and became their own interesting narrative entities.


Since those stories, I’ve move into comic strips (for a host of reasons I’ll go into some other time), and this is changing how I start, where I work from.

I recently finished 2 1/2 years of working with Hutch Owen as a daily comic strip character. Working with a stable of 4-8 continuing characters, my method is still to work from theme.

Friendship loyalty, male/female handling of the environment to silly things like Spiderman’s effect on the culture are just a few of the themes I explored in the strip.

In another instance, a colleague eagerly asked me if I had done any work on the Dalai Lama or world peace, which he would like to feature in a show he was curating. I hadn’t, but it was easy to make happen. With my characters, which represent particular kinds of reactions, wrestling around with the character of the Dalai Lama and the idea of world peace made for a fun and robust series of strips.
One of the main values for this as a creator, and one of my many reasons for switching to comic strips was that inventing situations and themes for the characters to explore, greatly expanded the characters themselves. They began revealing themselves to me in constant, ongoing new ways, in ways that couldn’t happen with larger stories which tend to involve less invention and let’s say it: more depth of exploration. The quickness of the comic strip allowed me to alight frequently on the personalities of the characters and explore new facets of their behavior. This is incredibly fun. And the nimbleness needed requires me to live constantly in the present. I digress.

Lately, in my newest strip I find myself playing less with themes, and more with situations. The overarching themes of the strip are traditional ones: sibling rivalry, the love of one’s work, what does it mean to be new to a culture, plus what the heck is America about. Now I design situations to explore those themes: an Arab food stand in a mall, cousin’s traipsing the woods outside their back yard, immigrant grandparents with their Americanized grandkids at dinner, etc.

So it’s all about themes, situations, and invention. The invention comes from the initial thoughts, the hopeful power of the stories or strips comes from allowing invention and connection to flow without agenda.

Here’s a sneak peak of a secret series of strips I’m making with my good pal Margo Dabaie.

Written by hutchowen

June 1, 2008 at 4:18 pm