Q & A: Cartoonist finds funny ideas in stresses of everyday life

John McPherson longed to make people laugh. But working as a mechanical engineer, designing plans fo
PHOTOGRAPHER:

John McPherson longed to make people laugh. But working as a mechanical engineer, designing plans for historic restoration at the Watervliet Arsenal, didn’t give him much of a chance to roll out the jokes.

So at night in his Saratoga home, he would draw cartoons. And to his delight, The Chronicle newspaper in Glens Falls bought a few in 1990, at $5 a shot, twice a month.

“I was pretty excited,” said McPherson, sitting in the lounge of his studio in Saratoga Creative Block on Broadway. “It was fun to see my cartoons in print.”

That gave him such a kick that he tried to sell to other publications. After a year of steady rejection, he finally landed a regular spot in Campus Life magazine, in Illinois, selling panels for $50 each. After that, he said, “doors opened.” Syndication and his daily cartoon “Close to Home” followed.

The cartoon, which was unveiled in November of 1992, is now printed in 650 newspapers including The Washington Post, the Daily News and the Miami Herald. Poking fun at everyday life, it can also be seen in the Saratogian and the Post Star and in an annual Page-a-Day calendar.

The 49-year-old father of two boys, Griffin and Peter, now spends his days dreaming up quips that he can capture in a single box.

Q: What inspired you to become a cartoonist?

A: I had a dream and desire to work for myself. But when I started cartooning, I never thought it was a means to getting out of the office. Frankly, my real dream, in my 20s, was to be a humor writer like Dave Barry. That kind of job is what I really aspired to.

As I wrote articles and submitted them, I found out, “Geez, it’s only $40 for something I spend all this time on.” I had the “Writers Market” and the “Artist Market” books and I said: “Look how much they are getting for cartoons.” I had funny ideas and I could visualize them, so I taught myself to draw. Anyone can learn to draw. It takes practice. It’s like anyone can learn to play pingpong and anyone can learn to draw.

Q: How do you come up with your ideas? Was it easier when you first started?

A: In a way, it was easier in the beginning because I had a huge backlog of ideas from before I was syndicated. And then, you know, it was different. I had to do one cartoon a day, all the time. Then, in the middle zone, that was difficult. Now it has gotten easier because, hey, I’ve done this for 18 years — I’ll come up with something.

And I’ve learned more ways to be creative. I’m very visual and imagine scenes in my head. I’ll pick a topic and home in, get very specific. I’ll think schools and then lunch trays and lunch ladies; a lunch lady smashing a tray over a kid’s head and why is she doing that?

Q: You have a lot of school themes?

A: I started doing a lot of teenager themes. But what makes for the best cartoon are stressful situations. And then you find a way to express humor in those situations. Humor comes from stress. I try to think about what’s stressful about being a teenager. There are a lot of things — asking a girl to the prom, final exams, getting caught cheating, nasty teachers, unruly kids.

Q: Do you get ideas from your own kids?

A: Oh yeah. My oldest son gave me an idea when he was 8 years old. It was about how parents can keep their children’s elbows off the table. He came up with a table with sharp pointy things around it. I used it. They’ve grown up with cartoons, so they have a mind tuned into it.

Q: Do you watch people for ideas?

A: It’s not people, it’s the world. Going to a bookstore and looking at the titles of books can spark ideas. Anything. Going up an escalator or an elevator. What can go on in an elevator? Just being out in life. Going to the doctor’s office, going to the grocery store. I’m not going there specifically for ideas, but suddenly my brain will turn on to creativity. Other times, my creativity shuts down. There are things you can do to try to turn it on, but if that doesn’t work, I do something else more mechanical, like pay bills.

Q: How difficult is it to get your idea in one panel?

A: My friends who are stripped cartoonist say to me, “I don’t know how you do it.” For me, I don’t know how they do it. It’s a very different kind of humor. Mine is more immediate. As a kid, I was drawn to that. Just give me the joke. There is an immediacy in a single-panel cartoon that strikes people. What’s lacking is the ability to develop the personality of the characters. We have “Ziggy” and “Dennis the Menace” that are single-panel. There [are not] many because it is hard, in that space, to develop personality. So I envy strip cartoonists. They have a chance to develop story lines.

I get a lot of comparisons to “The Far Side.” Every single-panel cartoonist gets compared to “The Far Side.” What I do differently is, I almost never will have talking animals or bugs. Gary Larson was in a different plane of reality or nonreality. I try to keep my stuff to everyday life. Occasionally, I will stray from that. I’ve done a few in heaven or on a Viking warship. But mostly it’s in the office or school, an everyday tie.

Q: Where did you come up with the name “Close to Home?”

A: Two reasons. I planned to deal with issues around the home and I wanted the cartoon to hit people close to home.

Q: Are you concerned with the newspaper industry’s struggles?

A: Yes, this is a time of great concern. We’ve seen a couple of big ones go down. I was in the Seattle Post [Intelligencer], so I lost that paper and lost other papers. It’s a little scary right now being a newspaper cartoonist. It’s tough. All of us involved are trying to figure out how we are going to be more viable. The irony is there is higher readerships right now. That is one of the frustrations. But as we all know, the ads drive it.

Q: Why do you work in a studio in Saratoga and not at home?

A: Because being at home would drive me crazy. To be by yourself all day long would get kind of stale. I would be restless thinking “I’ve got to go to the mall.” I’d make any excuse to get out. Or I’d get up to get a glass of water and I will say “Uh oh, those cat litter boxes need to be dealt with.” At home, I’m pulled in many directions. So 10 years ago, I got together with other writers and artists in here. It’s just nice to have a place to go to and focus on working. Then when I go back home, I am shifting gears. But when you work for yourself, you never really turn off the work valve.

Categories: Life & Arts

Leave a Reply