I chat with the cartoonist behind the hit comic strip One Big Happy.
For the third interview on 11 Points, I talked with Rick Detorie, the cartoonist behind the comic strip One Big Happy and books including Catholics, An Unauthorized, Unapproved, Illustrated Guide and How to Survive an Italian Family.
1 | How did you get the idea for One Big Happy?
Wait, wait. That’s your lead question? “How did you get the idea for (Insert strip title here)?” is one of three questions that cartoonists (and I speak for all newspaper comic strip cartoonists) despise. The other two are: “How did you get started as a cartoonist,” and “Where do you get your ideas?”
2 | How did you get started as a cartoonist? And holy smokes, where do you get your ideas from?
Oh, Sam. A better question would be, “When did you know you were a cartoonist?”
3 | OK, I see how you roll. When did you know you were a cartoonist?
What kind of a dumbass question is that? Where do you come up with this crap?
No, seriously, my start came when I was four years old… I won a “Draw a TV Set and Win a Prize” contest sponsored by Junket Gelatin. Only problem: My mother entered my drawing in the contest, a simple black line drawing of a TV set that she drew. That’s right, she drew it, and I won third prize, a transistor radio. To this day my Mom refuses to discuss it and doesn’t want me to tell anyone about it. I think she’s afraid that a Junket Gelatin black helicopter is going to corner her in the Target parking lot and haul her away in cuffs.
Once I decided to take art into my own hands, I was always drawing; it was a part of playtime. It didn’t need to be raining outside for me to be sitting inside with a stack of old mimeograph pages, (Mmmm, getting high on the aromatic mixture of purple mimeograph ink and black Marvy Marker), drawing on the blank side of each page, you know, typical little kid stuff: a house, a tree, Mom and Dad alongside the house, a plane overhead dropping bombs on the house, the tree, and Mom and Dad.
At about age 7, I pulled the Sunday comics from the Baltimore News American, and started to copy some of the characters from the funnies: Snuffy Smith, Little Iodine, Dondi. (Unfortunately, The Sun had the better comics, like Peanuts, BC, and Pogo). Soon I was drawing variations of those characters and other characters from comic books and creating my own comic strips.
Then the real turning point came when I was 14, and discovered that during the simple act of drawing, regardless of the subject matter, I was becoming sexually aroused. Maybe it was the hormones. It didn’t care. All I know is that I really, really, wanted to continue doing this forever.
4 | What exactly were you drawing that lead to such sexual arousal?
The margins of my school notebooks were crammed with drawings, mainly women with very large breasts. They gave me a full page in my high school newspaper, and I did a serial strip, similar to Apartment 3-G or Mary Worth – except it was a sleazy parody, and all the girls looked like Little Annie Fannie. You might expect such a salacious strip to encounter some opposition in a Jesuit prep school, but all the students were male, and so the only complaints came from a few of the mothers.
5 | Once you passed the stage of realizing your drawing skills could produce pencil-based female nudity, how’d you turn this into an actual career?
After a BFA degree from an art college, a move to L.A., a stint as an advertising art director, during which I took a class at UCLA Extension on how to sell your cartoons, I started selling cartoons to magazines: Saturday Evening Post (my first sale), National Lampoon, Saturday Review, Omni, Penthouse, Oui, etc. I quit the ad agency, freelanced for Alvin & The Chipmunks, and developed humor books, trade paperbacks, with Simon & Schuster, then Putnam.
In 1987 I developed a comic strip, One Big Happy, loosely based on my last book, How to Survive an Italian Family, sent the proposal to all the U.S. newspaper syndicates, and Creators Syndicate decided to go with it. It was launched in September, 1988, in 22 newspapers.
6 | Clearly, you have a fairly edgy sense of humor. Is it tough to draw a comic strip that has to be totally G-rated?
Definitely. When I started, I thought: The families of Family Circus, For Better or for Worse, Dennis the Menace were a little too generic for my taste. My family strip, based about a family like my own (Baltimore, blue-collar roots, living next door to my dad’s parents) was going to be more realistic and a bit edgier. I wouldn’t include ALL of the cursing, arguing, drinking and arson… but still, edgy.
I ran into a snag the first month, when OBH was canceled from the Milwaukee Journal. I called the features editor myself (something that, I found out later, one should never do) to find out what the problem was. She was less than friendly, and told me she dropped it, not because any readers had complained about the strip, but because she herself found it to be “vicious, mean-spirited, and gross.” She later sent examples of what she meant, cutouts of the strip marked with red ink: “Vicious!” “Gross!” “Mean!”
I thought about what she’d said and made some changes to the strip. Now, for example, instead of saying “I hate you,” the kids yell, “I hate your guts!” Stuff like that. It’s now Vicious Lite.
7 | My favorite e-mails I get from 11 Points are the ones where people are infuriated with something I wrote. Even with your “Vicious lite” style, do you ever get any raging reader complaints?
Oh, yeah. I found out you can’t use the word “butt” in a comic strip, or the word “slut” even if it’s uttered by a character on a TV soap opera.
But the real trouble arose when, in the background of one of the strips, there was a rack of tabloids at a supermarket checkout, and I used actual headlines from News of the World. One of them read: “13-year-old Sells Mom to Arabs.” Well, an Arabs’ rights group was not too pleased and demanded a written apology. I complied.
8 | Any specific example of the angriest letter or e-mail you’ve ever received?
When the strip had only been running for about a year, I received a nine-page handwritten letter – we’re talking teeny tiny printing – from a man in the Midwest, who went on and on about his problems with the strip, something about Ruthie sending secret messages to him. I couldn’t make much sense of it, though I could figure out from the letter that he was likewise having problems with the strips For Better and For Worse and Cathy. I thought that was kind of cool, because they were big, successful comic strips, and here I was just starting out with a modest list of newspaper clients.
Anyway, a couple of months later there came another letter from him that made even less sense, then a third in which he stated very clearly that because we hadn’t made the changes he recommended, he’d been unable to sleep for 27 straight days, which caused him to kill and maim members of his own family.
Then we turned the matter over to the authorities. I never did find out what happened. I was curious, though, if he’d killed them and then maimed them, or vice-versa, or if he killed some and maimed others, and if the maimed survivors could then sue me for having provoked the attack.
9 | Rank these portrayals of Baltimore in entertainment from most to least accurate: One Big Happy, The Wire, Hairspray, any crazy stuff by John Waters, Step Up 2 The Streets, Roc
Well, I wouldn’t include One Big Happy, because it’s not actually set in Baltimore. It has the same climate as Baltimore, and I occasionally use Baltimore street names, but it could be any city or suburb in North America, including Canada.
Not long after OBH had been launched, my editor at Creators Syndicate called and told me that a Canadian paper wanted a replacement for my Thanksgiving Day strip. You see, Canada had already celebrated its Thanksgiving in October. I thought, wait. You mean I’m supposed to do additional substitution strips for the Canadian newspapers on every U.S. holiday? No. Oh, no, no. Being a lazy sort, I decided thereafter to not indicate the specific holiday, but maybe have the characters engage in an activity that might occur on that day. For example, on Thanksgiving they might be depicted at the dinner table. On July 4th, the gag might involve a firecracker. Memorial Day, they usually head to the movies.
It seems to be working. The U.S. readers accept that it’s a U.S. strip, and I’ve actually received letters from Canadian readers who are surprised to learn that the strip is not set in Canada. Eh?
As for the rest of your list, I’d have to rank John Waters’ movie Hairspray #1, because I’m from Hampden in North Baltimore and the fashions, the music, and the attitude of that movie are so Hampden. Then I’d list Barry Levinson’s films: Diner, Tin Men, and Liberty Heights. I’d also include The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons.
The Wire, Roc, and Step Up 2 The Streets are not in the realm of my experience. (Although Homicide did once film an episode in my grandparents’ club basement.)
10 | Do you ever go to conventions, and are there comic strip groupies?
I usually attend the San Diego Comic-Con, which is a comic book convention. As for comic strip groupies, there are some. They all happen to be 70 or older, but some of them are very, very hot.
11 | Has your family ever gotten mad at you turning their stories into jokes in One Big Happy or one of your books?
Hell, no. They feed me ideas. A recent one had my cousin’s son, Lance, in preschool. The teacher was introducing her class to the alphabet, and drew the letter “A” on the board. “Does anyone know what this letter is?” She asked.
“Yeah,” yelled Lance. “That’s the ace!”
You can check out One Big Happy here. (Or buy a newspaper. You’re gonna miss them when they’re gone, people, so support them now before it’s too late.)