Syndicated cartoonist, Hilary Price of Rhymes with Orange fame visited the Center for Cartoon Studies last Thursday to kick off the new year of visiting artist lectures. Her talk entitled: “Gag Cartooning, Harnessing your Anxiety for Fun and Profit,” led students through her career and daily process for creating her award winning comic.
After a haphazard entry into the world of gag cartooning, Hilary was offered a syndication contract from King Features Syndicate. She was the youngest person to be offered a syndicated comic strip contract and her voice as a woman was a clear contrast to the majority male cartoonists on the newspaper page. Hilary didn’t go into the business side of the syndicated comic world until the Q/A portion at the end of her talk. She was more interested in discussing the particulars of the gag comic genre.
Hilary describes humor as a “nightlight into dark corners” and “to make light of dark things.” To accomplish this in her comic, she relies on the flipped status of characters in the cartoon world: for example a mouse bossing around a lion is funny, the opposite is terrifying. She refers to this as “the frying pan test” where a woman chasing a man with a frying pan is funny/acceptable, the opposite is frightening. She also understands gag comics as economical stories where a funny idea is reduced to a clear moment. The design of the comic is carefully considered to allow the funniest element to be the last thing that is read, or seen. Hilary pointed out that the universal themes of comic strips include love, work and play. Over the years she has found ways to address topics such as her sexuality and cultural background by appealing to the three universal arelationship comic about a former partner using fuzzy monsters).
The creative process was a major point in her talk. As a daily gag cartoonist, the battle against anxiety and “being funny” is a constant struggle. She has learned over the years that creativity isn’t something that just comes and goes on a whim, but must be visited and practiced by the artist. One creativity myth she had to overcome was the author Willa Cather’s idea that a writer’s inspiration comes from everything that happened before they turned 15. Hilary Price declared to the ghost of the great American writer, “Screw you, Willa Cather.” For Hilary, she said with a wink and a smile, her life became far more interesting once she was old enough to start drinking. She also finds ways to harness the anxiety of meeting a daily deadline into gags, since we all have moments of stress and frustration, her philosophy of humor offers a light into those dark places.
One creative exercise Hilary Price uses is the “Justification Game.” She begins by writing 10 people/things/professions on the left side of a piece of paper, then she folds the paper in half and writes 10 props/locations on the right side. Afterward she tries to find one on the left and one on the right that fit together in a funny way, referencing the frying pan test if applicable. She used this game with the CCS audience to create a gag comic on the spot. After she had the class come up with 10 things and 10 professions/locations the class “voted by yelling” on which was the funniest combo: A squirrel trying to make a deposit at a bank. While she designed the gag image of a squirrel with a face full of nuts on the counter of a human bank, she walked the class through how to depict an environment economically. Also, the central kicker of the comic is what the human bank teller would be saying to the squirrel, it was eventually agreed upon to say something to the effect of “Would you like me to break that for you?” while a nut lay between them on the counter. She then said she wanted to see what other cartoonists in the audience came up with and that she would probably use this idea for her syndicated strip.
During the Q/A portion of the talk, Hilary was asked about her time on the board of the National Cartoonists Society (NCS). She said that the NCS, traditionally only open to comic strip artists, has been reaching out to graphic novelists and web cartoonists. It’s a great place to network with other cartoonists, and to meet one’s heroes and heroines. She invited everyone in the audience to apply for membership once they had worked three years as a professional cartoonist.
On a personal note, Hilary’s visit to CCS helped me to overcome some worries I had about my own ambitions to become a syndicated cartoonist. While the newspaper market may be weakening, it is still a viable cartooning outlet. The fresh, smart comics that Hilary creates have made me smile for years and I hope one day to join the ranks of syndicated cartoonists and submit my application to the National Cartoonist Society.