Dave Coverly mines life and culture for comic ideas for ‘Speed Bump’ strip

Though he's been compared to Gary Larson of "The Far Side," Dave Coverly is just offering his own ta
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On Monday, mice were talking in Dave Coverly’s corner of the world.

“ ‘Location, location, location,’ I said,” chastised one mouse, as she and her wide-eyed husband peered out their front door and found a huge cat food dish parked nearby. “But noooo . . .”

A conversational convict dog is in the limelight today. “Yeah, we both got seven years, but I’m a dog,” the mutt said to his bespectacled cellie. “I’m out in one.”

Both drawn-out dramas are part of “Speed Bump,” the single panel cartoon Coverly has been drawing and writing for Los Angeles-based Creators Syndicate since 1994. The feature has been published in The Daily Gazette since 2003, and appears Monday through Saturday in a corner spot of the newspaper’s secondary comics page. “Speed Bump” also appears in The Sunday Gazette.

Fans of the strip may think Coverly has been inspired in recent months. His comics, strange takes on daily life, pop culture and ever-popular talking animals, have been candidates for refrigerator doors.

Coverly, 44, who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., with his wife, Chris, and daughters Alayna, 14, and Simone, 9, appreciates any interest in his work.

“Sometimes, you feel like you’re drawing these things and throwing them into a black hole,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s every week, you churn them out and every week you start all over again. Any kind of feedback — even negative feedback — is great. Just so you know somebody’s reading it.”

Dog’s life

In recent weeks, comics fans could smile at Coverly’s take on early dog sledding. The dogs are all standing in back of the sled, ready to push. “Say, I just had a thought,” says one of the bundled riders; he has figured out the sled will move faster with canine engines in front of the rig.

Another gag puts a bubble-headed, saucer-eyed alien in a doctor’s office, dressed in a hospital gown. “I’m afraid you heard wrong,” says the general practitioner. “We don’t have universal health care yet.” Yet another cartoon shows an annoyed man showing a telephone bill to his dog, who holds a cellphone to one ear.

“Look at all these wasted minutes!” says the flustered pet owner. “I thought I taught you how to rollover!”

Consistency is important in Coverly’s business, because there’s always competition. Dave Strickler of San Simeon, Calif., author of the book “Syndicated Comic Strips and Artists, 1924-1995,” said 319 comic strips and panels are currently in syndication.

“Some few may be hopefuls that have not yet been bought by newspapers,” he said. “Some other few may be sold to local newspapers directly, without being syndicated.

“If you have even a down month, you could lose a bunch of people,” he said. “They read it and they don’t find anything funny for a few weeks. I know that’s happened to me with columnists, cartoons or whatever. There’s always something else people can find.”

Coverly plans ahead. He comes up with a bunch of ideas first, and then sits down with pencils, pens and drawing paper.

“Sometimes, I get three ideas in an hour,” Coverly said. “Sometimes, it takes me all day to get one, or zero. You definitely hit dry patches.”

The devil is in the details. “The hardest thing is not the joke, because that’s kind of easy,” Coverly said. “The hardest thing is coming up with stuff. Everything seems like it’s been done.”

Coverly peruses pop culture, listens to music, reviews catchphrases and idioms and lets the thoughts and ideas percolate. Things that don’t belong together are often perfect partners for “Speed Bump” placement.

Take yawning. A cartoonist may not mine any gags out of this somnolent reflex; but if he throws in a supermarket, a table full of open clams and two store clerks — one holding a palm over an open mouth — he has something.

“I can’t stop yawning either,” says the other clerk.

George Washington working the counter of a dollar store is a scene from Coverly’s personal “Twilight Zone.” So is the bit with the old lady approaching the “Student Loans” desk: “I’d like a cute one who’s at least 21 and enjoys gardening,” she tells the clerk.

“It’s more like taking a couple ideas and mashing them together,” Coverly said. “The clam one’s a good example. You have people yawning and it’s contagious; you try to think of a different concept for it. How else can you picture yawning?”

Evoking Larson

Coverly’s work may remind some readers of Gary Larson and his late, lamented panel “The Far Side,” which was retired from the funnies in 1995.

Dave’s been over this ground before. Comparisons between the two off-the-wall cartoons no longer bother him.

“I think when I first started, it bothered me for two reasons,” Coverly said. “I felt Larson was fantastic; I can’t say he was my inspiration because he wasn’t. I’ve always been a huge fan of New Yorker cartoons. I like cartoons that are about something — they’re funny, but you can look at them a second time. I don’t mean that in any kind of elitist way, I just really enjoy that kind of humor.”

Larson started something with the general public with his talking snakes and cows and imbecilic little kids. But Coverly said the man wasn’t the first to think outside the box, or panel. The cartoonist Bernard Kliban (B. Kliban) offered offbeat views in both Playboy and The New Yorker magazines, beginning in the early 1960s.

“Larson totally came out of that school,” Coverly said. “There were a lot of people before Larson who were doing that, they just weren’t in the mainstream comics. Ninety percent of people don’t even know there were panel cartoons like ‘The Far Side’ before ‘The Far Side.’ I think Larson was a genius not only at taking edgy humor, but making it mainstream enough to be popular.”

“Speed Bump” is not a copy of “The Far Side.” Coverly can thank advice he once received from friend and brother cartoonist Jim Borgman, co-author of “Zits,” for the differences.

“He told me at some point, you just have to put everything away and discover your own voice and discover what kind of cartoons do you draw without any outside influence,” Coverly said.

Lately, Coverly has been doing more that just fooling around with mice, dogs and George Washington. He recently signed a four-book deal with New York publisher Henry Holt and Co., and is writing for younger readers. His first children’s work, “Sue MacDonald Had a Book,” borrows from both the famous farmer song and the alphabet.

“She’s reading a book and the vowels jump out and run away,” said Coverly of the piece, which does include some subtle “Speed Bump” weirdness. “She has to chase the vowels down. Instead of ‘e-i-e-i-o’ it’s ‘a-e-i-o-u.’”

Spending time on kid projects, Coverly added, helps recharge his batteries for the daily cartoon. “At the beginning of the week, I’m ready to do it again,” he said.

Newspaper woes

Like others who depend on newspapers for a living, Coverly is worried about current troubles in the print business. Declining advertising revenue and reader defections to the Internet have meant staff reductions at many newspapers.

The problem received the “Speed Bump” chuckle treatment earlier this year: A homeowner wonders if newspapers are dying, and doesn’t like the looks of the new paperboy, who’s riding a bicycle and carrying a bagful of papers. The delivery boy is a black-hooded, bone-handed grim reaper.

Yuks aside, Coverly doesn’t want to lose any of his 250 newspaper customers in North America.

“I really love doing it; I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said. “If I don’t pick up another paper or lose another paper and stay like this, I’d be happy to do this indefinitely. I think if I was a plumber or doctor, I’d come home and do some of these things anyway.”

Categories: Life & Arts

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