Dave Coverly

So we’ve reached the 25th Quaz, and I’m in love.

Are these occasional pains in the ass to compile? Yes. Have there been a couple of close calls? Well, one. Overall, however, I’ve loved reaching across paths and professions; beyond cliche and into—I hope—some genuine depth. I like learning what makes interesting people tick and move and grab and soar. This forum has given me a chance to do so. Thanks for reading.

This week’s Quaz is one of my favorites—professionally and personally. Though I’ve never actually met Dave Coverly face to face, we’ve struck up a very nice e-mail friendship. I’m not even sure how it started, but at one point we made a trade of Rickey Henderson-for-Eric Plunk lopsidedness—in exchange for some of my books, Dave agreed to make a Walter Payton/Sweetness/me cartoon. This is what he came up with:

In case you haven’t heard of him, Dave Coverly is one of the top cartoonists in the country. His “Speed Bump” is syndicated in more than 400 newspapers and websites, and in 2009 he was given the prestigious Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year—the highest honor awarded by the National Cartoonists Society. Dave’s first children’s book, Sue McDonald Had a Book, was released in 2009 (It’s terrific—both of my tykes have copies), and his next release, 10 Things You Should Never Do During a Soccer Game, comes out this year. His website is an absolute joy.

Here, Dave delves into the mental process of the cartoonist—and even takes the first-ever Mr. T challenge. He talks Family Circus and Dontrelle Willis and all things pens.

Dave Coverly, Quaz us …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Dave, I’m a fan of careers like yours, in that there’s something fascinating about a person being read by hundreds and hundreds of thousands yet visually identifiable to almost no one. In other words—your work is famous, your identity is all but concealed. Have you ever thought about this? And is it a perk or a drawback of being a successful cartoonist?

DAVE COVERLY: Excellent question to start things off—this is something I’ve thought about quite a bit but never been asked to address before during an interview.

Personally, I love the anonymity, and find it’s one of the biggest perks of my so-called job. And it’s not only anonymity on a face recognition level, it extends as well to my name. Rarely, when I’m introduced to someone new, will my name ring any kind of bell (unless I owe them money), but I often get a reaction if I’m introduced as “the guy who draws Speed Bump.” Not always a positive reaction, of course—it’s pretty humorous how often someone will come right out and say, “Oh, right, I know your cartoon and boy, sometimes I just don’t get them!” Which is fine, really, and I usually simply reply that I don’t always get them, either. (Of course, if the person is elderly, I’ll feign a misunderstanding and tell them I’m actually the guy who draws The Family Circus, and then they love me). But yeah, it’s nice when someone recognizes the cartoon, because there are times when I feel like I’m in a cartoon production line at the factory, cranking out jokes and drawings and tossing them into a black hole. Since it’s a daily cartoon, the work is literally non-stop, and if I want a vacation, I have to get ahead, which is easier said than done.

Anyway, I’m a fairly private person, so toiling away up in a belfry studio at home works out well for me. That said, there is some guy (I assume guy) who semi-stalks me. He calls himself The Black Dragon and he prints out essays from websites (political and/or occult stuff, generally) on an average of one per day. Every day for 15 years now (in fact, it’s been going on so long that, when he began, he was sending me floppy disks)! The postage cost alone is flattering! But it’s mostly creepy since they’re sent to my home address. I haven’t opened his letters in years. They’re postmarked from Cincinnati, if anyone reading this has any clues and wants to help me play Encyclopedia Brown …

J.P.: What’s the process like for you—soup to nuts? How do you get ideas for your work? How long does it take something to go from idea to reality? Do you struggle and beat yourself up (like I do), or is it all pretty smooth and easy?

D.C.: My soup-to-nuts is more like coffee-to-beer.

I should first state the obvious, which is that every single cartoonist has a different way of coming up with ideas. For instance, a pal of mine, Stephan Pastis (“Pearls Before Swine”), thinks of ideas for his strip while blasting music so loud in his headphones that it’s essentially white noise. That can’t be healthy, but it works for him, and hey, I’m not his audiologist.

Me, I have this love/hate relationship with routine, but I find routine counter-intuitively helpful when trying to write cartoons—and this is probably a good spot to point out that cartooning is essentially about writing, far more than it is about drawing. There’s an old saying amongst cartoonist: A good idea can save a bad drawing, but a good drawing can’t save a bad idea … and if you look at how much the comics page in your local newspaper has shrunk (assuming you even know what a newspaper is anymore), there’s very little incentive to labor over a drawing these days.

Routine helps me because the simple act of doing the same thing at the same time every week tells the little hamster in my brain that it’s time to start running in that wheel. My weekly routine is to sit down with my notebook in the old chair that used to be my dad’s reading/TV chair when I was growing up (his chair, no one else’s) and start ruminating. On Monday I come up with a Sunday cartoon idea in the morning, then draw and color it in the afternoon. On Tuesday I come up with three daily ideas and draw them before I go to bed (because drawing them after I go to bed is really inconvenient). Wednesday is my tough day, as I come up with the remaining three daily ideas for the week, and have to have them drawn, scanned and sent to the syndicate by 6 pm. I also have to indicate my color choices for them, although I don’t color them myself on the computer because I’m a bit of a Luddite. Thursday, Friday and Sunday are the days I work on non-Speed Bump gigs. Right now, I’m doing a lot of children’s books with Henry Holt, and I also draw cartoons for Parade, Road & Track and Investor magazines.

On Saturday, I refuse to draw or think. I just sit and stare at the wall, babbling like a baby. This amuses my children.

As for ideas, I don’t think in terms of jokes. I think in terms of subject matter. This is especially important for a single-panel cartoonist like me, because I make my living coming up with one-off jokes, whereas most strip cartoonists make their living by creating humor that comes out of character. I simply think first and foremost what the cartoon will be about, and that’s the jumping-off point. And what the cartoon is about should hopefully come out of the things people have in common, or common knowledge; the more the people can relate to a cartoon, the better it will work. It’s like Mark Twain said: “There is a kernel of truth in every jest.” Then I try to riff on that truth. Really, it’s very much like mental jazz, just making it up as you go along and hoping you find a groove. I also refer to it as Organized Daydreaming, because I really try to let my mind wander without wandering off. Does that make sense? I hope not.

Here’s a good example: One week I decided I’d like to do a cartoon about suburban sprawl, so I jotted that phrase down in my notebook. Nothing percolated, so I moved on and jotted a few other things down. Somewhere in that list I thought maybe I’d come up with an idea that played off the Hansel & Gretel story—you know, finding the witch  & the candy house—and as I scanned my list of subject matter, my brain put those two ideas together, and the resulting cartoon suddenly seemed obvious. Sometimes, I guess, humor just comes out of the mish-mashing of disparate thoughts: (Jeff’s Note: Here is the cartoon …)

Time-wise, from idea to finished inking is about an hour and a half. The time it takes to come up with an idea is impossible to say—sometimes I’ll get three in less than an hour, and sometimes it takes all day to come up with one. On those days, it feels like I’m trying to grab mercury with my fingers. Very frustrating. That said, after grabbing mercury for 17 years, I feel fairly confident I’ll come up with something, so I rarely panic. And it’s a job, you know, so I don’t have a choice. When people start out in this kind of gig, they generally draw cartoons when they’re feeling inspired, but with deadlines there’s no such luxury. It reminds me of a favorite quote from Picasso: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

J.P.: You graduated from Eastern Michigan with a degree in, uh, philosophy. Serious question: How the fuck did you end up making your living this way? And how did Speed Bump enter your head?

D.C.: Dad! Let Jeff ask the questions!

Well, getting a degree in philosophy wasn’t exactly part of some master plan to be a cartoonist, but I loved loved loved the classes, and I must say that the degree helped me conceptualize more than you might think. I actually started college as a journalism major, and the two things strike me as related in the sense that they make you spend more time than is healthy just pondering questions. Self-imposed questions, but questions nonetheless. So when I’m thinking of ideas, I’m often asking myself “What would happen if?” or “Why does this?” or “How come?” or “Is it time for a beer?” questions.

As for “Speed Bump”, I always preferred single panel cartoons, even as a kid. I think it’s just a mindset. So I was always drawing them on the side, putting them in the high school or college papers, and then small weekly newspapers as I got older. It was the only way to build up a portfolio. Eventually I began sending them to syndicates—being syndicated was always my absolute dream job, even though syndicates receive approximately 40,000 submissions a year and offer contracts to maybe four people—and I wallpapered the wall above my little drawing table with the rejection letters. Still have them—they’re part of the talks I give to students about persistence. When Creators Syndicate offered me a contract in 1994, the panels didn’t have a title, so they asked for a list of suggestions and the staff unanimously picked “Speed Bump.” My first choice was “The Wide World of Stretch Pants”, but some editors just have no sense of humor …

J.P.: OK, an odd but serious one. Anyone who reads the funnies has strips they love and strips they hate. For me, I’ve always hated Family Circus. It just never strikes me as funny, or even close to funny. Please explain to me what I’m missing.

D.C.: You might be surprised how often I’ve been asked this question! Oddly enough, Jeff (Jeffy) Keane is now a good pal of mine. The serious answer to this question, really, is that humor is subjective, and there are honestly a lot of people who love the “cuteness” of the panel. I would hazard a guess that the demographic skews above retirement age … but, you know, I don’t think Jeff or Bil would argue that “The Family Circus” is supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny like, say, “Marmaduke”… OK, bad example. Like, say, “The Far Side.” It has its intended audience, and it reaches it well. In fact, one elderly woman wrote a letter to the editor of a major newspaper a few years ago declaring that having the ugly “Speed Bump” placed next to it ruined “The Family Circus” for her. It’s also all a matter of degrees, too. That lady thought my work was too “out there” compared to what she preferred; on the other hand, my work is also too “mainstream” for other readers, especially those who read their favorite comics on the internet, where there are no parameters of taste and where there’s no one editing the work for general public consumption. I really have to self-edit the content of my cartoons, or many of them wouldn’t get run in a family newspaper. I have a drawer full of sketches I can’t use, sadly (e.g., hospital bed scene, newborn in mom’s arms with dad by the side of the bed, and the woman is saying to the man, “He has your penis.” If I ran that, I’d lose all my newspaper clients … might save that joke for the day I decide to retire anyway …).

Funny related tangent: Bil Keane was, for years, the emcee of the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Awards. He was not only hilarious, his humor was ribald and sharp as hell. One of the wittiest guys I’ve ever met. Newcomers to the NCS are always shocked by the disparity between Bil’s work and wit.

J.P.: In 1995 you left your gig at the Herald-Times in Bloomington, Indiana to focus full-time on Speed Bump. This strikes me as an enormous leap of faith. Was it—and what inspired you to do so?

D.C.: Well, the political cartooning gig at the H-T wasn’t a full-time job, it was just a very steady (and fun) freelance gig—so leaving it was less like leaping and more like hang-gliding. I tried for a year to do both types of cartooning, but I began to feel like I wasn’t able to read as much as I would have liked, and my ability to keep up with politics (and to form coherent, defensible opinions) was really difficult. It’s one thing to have opinions that you debate with friends or that you express in the comments section of your favorite news (or other) site—that’s totally legit. But when you get paid to express those opinions, it seems to me a professional effort is required to inform those opinions. And I didn’t have time to put in that effort.

Another factor was pure luck. One year after “Speed Bump” became a syndicated cartoon, Gary Larson retired “The Far Side.” (Quick for-the-record: As much as I enjoyed Larson’s work, my own cartoons were influenced much, much more by New Yorker cartoonists, such as Arnie Levin, Jack Ziegler and George Booth, as well as by “Herman” cartoonist Jim Unger). What this meant for many of us single panel cartoonists was that 1,400 newspapers suddenly had a square spot on the comics page to fill … and so my cartoon went from appearing in 14 papers to 140 in the span of a few weeks. Pure. Luck. I guess you need some of that in this business.

J.P.: You spent many years as an editorial cartoonist. I’ve got some experience as an editorial writer, and I find that very difficult. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to make a precise statement in the form of a cartoon. So how hard is it? And what’s the process like?

D.C.: Your question really sums up why so many editorial cartoons (hell, all cartoons) deal in clichés and stereotypes—it’s tough to get an idea across in a few seconds, so shorthand does often work best, but it can be used to a fault. My process was very similar to the process I use for general panel cartoons, though. Subject matter comes first, and then, based on my opinion, I’d start thinking in terms of comparisons. It’s almost like a writer coming up with similes—how is this thing like that thing? Below is a cartoon of mine about George H.W. Bush that ran in the New York Times, and the thought process went something like this: He’s perceived to be strong on foreign policy but weak on domestic policy … strong on the one hand, weak on the other …

J.P.: What’s your greatest moment in the business? Your lowest?

D.C.: Greatest moment was a tie: Getting the phone call from Creators that they wanted to syndicate my work, and winning the Reuben in 2009.

Lowest: I guess besides the many rejections, which I sort of anticipated receiving anyway, the worst feeling is having your cartoon dropped by a newspaper. It’s not only embarrassing, it can put a dent in your paycheck if it’s a large circulation paper. About 10 years ago my favorite client, the Washington Post, dropped “Speed Bump,” and I was devastated. It felt like a huge step backward. Then over 400 people complained, and it was reinstated (at an even larger size, weirdly enough), so that was my second-greatest moment, I guess.

J.P.: How has the decline of newspapers impacted your profession? And do you think it’s causing fewer potential cartoonists to become actual cartoonists?

D.C.: Absolutely, no doubt. I don’t think the decline has been quite as bad as everyone has been led to believe, and there haven’t been as many papers fold as most people assume, but it’s been bad enough. I think the industry is still in a gray area, with papers competing across the internet as well, and as far as comics go, this hasn’t been helpful since papers don’t pay nearly as much for the rights to run comics on their websites as they do to run them in their print pages. Hell, on the internet, you can find almost all the comics for free now anyway, including mine.

But to answer your second question, I only think it’s causing fewer potential paid cartoonists; the internet has actually caused an explosion of people (mostly younger) creating cartoons. There are some truly great web cartoons out there, too, but they can be hard to find while sorting and sifting through the ether. And I’m sure—no, I know—that only a small percentage of cartoonists doing web-only comics are actually making a living at it. That’s no knock on any of them, it’s just tough to do.

I saw a recent survey showing that interest in cartoons is actually going up as newspapers decline, which is good for all of us. It’s just making money online that’s a pain in the ass.

One good bit of news I heard a few months ago, though, was that, after the New York Times put up a paywall for their online edition, sales of the print edition actually went back up. So, there’s hope.

J.P.: You won the Reuben Award Cartoonist of the Year—the biggest award in your biz. How did you find out? What was your reaction? And what did it mean for you and your reputation?

D.C.: I was totally blown away, and the whole idea of winning the award was, to be honest, surreal. You know how you make goals and dreams for yourself, then go about (hopefully) trying to make them happen? This wasn’t even on my goals and dreams list. And the best part about it is that it’s a peer award, voted on by every member of the National Cartoonists Society. Staggering.

The give the award out at the NCS convention (different city every year), and it’s produced very much like the Oscars (the Reuben is often called the Oscar of cartooning, which is true, except there’s very little financial reward, zero entourages, no TV coverage, and the general public generally doesn’t give a shit who wins it—otherwise, yeah, it’s identical). We have a black tie event, with about a dozen Division awards given out (best editorial cartoon, best comic strip, best animation, best advertising illustration, etc) and three nominees in each category. A luminary from the comics industry is tabbed to announce the nominees from a little envelope and declare the winner, who gives an inebriated thank you and sits back down with his/her plaque. The Reuben is the last award given. For those curious, it was designed by Rube Goldberg, and is absurdly, dangerously heavy.

As for my reputation, it was nice PR for the sales reps at Creators to use when selling my cartoons. And it probably means I’ll have to pick up a few bar tabs at future conventions for a while …

J.P.: I’m throwing down the first Quaz visual challenge—In two minutes or less, draw your best Mr. T …

D.C.: Damn you, Jeff Pearlman. Here you go. So much for my reputation.



• Best pen ever: Detroit Tigers, 1984, Willie Hernandez & Co. (Hopefully, when they doodled after games, they used Rotring Rapidograph technical pens).

• Would you accept a $3 million per year job where all you do is draw Celine Dion portraits for her personal scrapbook?: I would do it for $2 million, and there would be no conditions on how she wanted to be drawn. I have a daughter going to college in a couple years.

• Five kickass things to do in Ypsilanti, Michigan?: Visit Eastern Michigan University’s gorgeously remodeled campus and take in a football game; Go to Depot Town; Grab unique beers at the Corner Brewery; Make penis jokes about the Water Tower; Hit the cider mill at Wiard’s Orchards.

• Would you rather eat 10 pounds of dog shit or spend the rest of your life signing all of your work with, “Ethel Loves Pork on Thursdays”?: I could see myself deciding to sign all my work with “Ethel Loves Pork on Thursdays” without even the threat of eating dog shit. I kinda like that inscription, actually. Not sure what Ethel thinks about it, though.

• Dan Rather, Shakira or Dontrelle Willis? And why?: Well, er, depends on what I’m supposed to be doing with them … but DW seems like a cool, goofy dude, so I’ll go with him. I was really pulling for him to make it work with the Tigers.

• How often do people say, “Draw me!” And what’s your general reply?: They almost never do! What I hear most often, by far, is “I have a cartoon idea for you,” and my reply is that, while it’s probably a very funny joke, I just don’t use other people’s ideas on principle. And in all seriousness, there’s a whole industry out there of gag writers constantly trying to sell us ideas.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If yes, memory of it …: Actually, no. The only time I’ve ever been a little nervous in a plane was when I rode a C-90 from Iraq to Kuwait last year after a USO tour to visit soldiers on their bases. One of the soldiers let me be a “spotter” for “enemy gunfire” (I’m sure he knew there would be none) after we crossed into Kuwaiti airspace. Sitting in a leather harness and looking out a small round window in case a rocket comes your way definitely puts a cramp in your sphincter.

• How’d you meet your wife?: While working at my only “real” job and attending my only “real” business meeting…my boss took me and Chris’ boss took her. Good meeting, but I’m still taking notes.

• Rank in order: Kiss, Hall & Oates, Air Supply, Eminem, Menudo, Blind Melon, Blissful Silence: 7. Menudo, 6. Eminem, 5. Air Supply, 4. Kiss, 3. Hall & Oates, 2. Blind Melon, 1. BS …
Nothing against these groups—I would put Blissful Silence above almost any music, and I love music.
And I have to admit: I headed over to Google to look up Blissful Silence. I expected heavy metal.

• Best way to solve writer’s cramp: Go play with my kids.