Derf: Waiting for the Punch Line

Editor’s Note: This is the 25th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

Derf (aka John Backderf) started cartooning in the sixth grade and hasn’t stopped since, despite his lack of any artistic training.  He got his professional start at the now defunct alternative paper, The Cleveland Edition, in 1990.

Today Derf lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio, with his family. His weekly comic, The City, appears in more than 50 alternative papers including the Chicago Reader; Dallas Observer; Denver, Colorado’s Westword; St. Louis, Missouri’s Riverfront Times; and Cleveland, Ohio’s Scene.  While not an overtly political cartoonist, in The City, Derf bridges the gap between the deadly serious and the entirely useless.

What sort of artistic background do you have?

It’s almost nonexistent. I’m pretty much self-taught.

Do you do the strip by hand?

Yeah, although I’m probably one of the few cartoonists that still does. I enjoy the process of drawing.  It’s not that I don’t do computer work, but the computer has made me sloppy because you can correct anything in Photoshop.  My latest cartoon was done on four different pieces of paper and then combined in Photoshop.  It’s terrible because you get a crappy original.  On a good week I just draw it by hand.  I do very rough pencils, then ink.

How long does it take to do it all by hand?

Per cartoon it takes me about four or five hours to draw — that’s not too bad.  Writing is harder than drawing. Drawing is pretty easy.

How many cartoons do you do at a time? 

There are usually three or four in various stages of completion, waiting for punch lines.  They can sit there for six or seven months before inspiration hits, but it’s usually one at a time.  I have other side projects as well, I’m working on three different graphic novels now, and I’ve already put out two, which were nominated for Eisner awards.

How is doing a graphic novel different from doing a weekly strip, aside from being longer?

With newspapers, in general, space is a problem because they keep shrinking the comics.  With graphic novels, you can draw them as big as you want. It’s a chance to really draw your ass off.  And with the narratives, you can go on and on. It’s just an entirely different process as far as pacing, visuals and writing. 

How important is it that the strips are timely?

I do like to mix it up, so some of them have a longer shelf life than others.  That’s what I don’t like about political cartoons: Five days from now, they’re as moldy as green bread.  Humor strips seem to last longer; they have the advantage there.  I’m somewhere in the middle. Looking back, some of the strips are timely, but some are just gone.

How would you describe your style? 

I don’t think I could, but if you need a term, how about "neo-expressionist, post-punk kitsch"? [Laughs.]

What are your influences for writing and/or drawing?

It’s a weird stew of influences that come from all different directions. It’s hard to pick any single one. I like to think that whatever I’ve gotten from other people, it’s been filtered through my own perverse prism and disgorged as something that’s uniquely mine.

Did you read a lot of comics as a kid?

I read ridiculous amounts of comics, hideous amounts of comics. Everything from Mad Magazine to Zap Comix to superhero comics, I just read whatever I could get my hands on. 

What do you think of daily comic strips?

I don’t know because I don’t read them. I don’t read many comics believe it or not, I just stopped reading them a long time ago.  I felt like they were getting in the way of my own creative process.  I haven’t read a daily comic in probably 20 years.  They weren’t good when I stopped, so it was easy to do. 

What can you do with a comic that you can’t with writing alone? Is it easier to draw something than to have to explain it?

Well, it’s the same thing really. You’re just using different tools.  You can be more cinematic with drawing, although not necessarily in a strip.  Comic strips are interesting because the space you have is so limited.  It comes down to the fact that a comic strip is something that stands out on the gray page; it’s an attention grabber; but you still need something to say at the end of the day.  If you don’t have something to say, you’re just drawing pretty pictures. At least make a damn joke.

Derf's The City
The opening panel of one of Derf’s award-winning strips

Would you say that you are a political cartoonist?

I always try to get away from doing politics if I can help it.  I mostly like to write about society and all of its bizarreness.  My great goal, and maybe my signature, is to take some great issue and combine it with something ridiculously trivial, like bringing together Al Qaeda and Mariah Carey’s breakdown, and somehow making it work. 

But at the end you need a punch line, so I think that I’m really a humorist more than anything.  At times it may be political humor, but it’s still humor.  I’m not doing a political cartoon where I try to make a point. I’m not deluded enough to think I can save the world.  I’m really just trying to be funny, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  God knows we can use a few laughs. 

What’s the appeal of comics for you? Is it to make people laugh?

It’s fun, but it’s just something that I’ve always done. It comes naturally I guess.

What kind of response do you get to your comics?

I get some hate mail, but that comes with the territory; a few propositions.  Some people just can’t handle any voice of opposition, no matter how trivial. The noise-machine on the right just likes to shout everybody down.  But I get criticism from PC types on the left, since I am most definitely not PC.  I just write back: "Hey, it’s a comic strip." It’s supposed to be a laugh.  If you don’t like it, don’t read it.  I don’t get as much hate mail as the purely political cartoonists. 

Where do you get your ideas?  Do you watch TV?

I actually just dumped my cable; I got so sick of it.  My ideas come from all over, mostly through cultural osmosis, things you read, things you run into while you’re walking around.  I do a lot of true stories. Those are things I’ve usually stumbled across. When you live in a big city, there’s a lot of stuff going on around you; all you have to do is look for it.

 I don’t have any process for doing the strip; it would be easier if I did. Usually, I just wait for inspiration to pop into my head.  I run a few miles every day, I find that that’s a good way to get ideas for the cartoon. It’s just me and the incredible pain from my dilapidated body, and it seems to focus my mind to come up with stuff.

What do you think your function is as an "alternative" cartoonist?

I came to the alternative press because I was kind of out of options.  I tried every place else, and I failed or just ran into walls. The mainstream media had no interest.  The alternative press was the place that said, "Yeah, we’ll run this crap," so it was a natural fit.  I was down to my last chance when I started.  I think there are more chances now to do wackier stuff, especially on the Internet and that kind of thing.  But when I started with alt-weeklies, that was pretty much it.

Do you ever have problems with editors? 

The great thing about weekly papers is that they’re so wide open that it’s pretty cool.  As long as you do what they like, something funny or provocative, they’re happy to have you.  There are always exceptions of course, but generally I’ve done okay.

Do you think that you operate in a closed field?

There don’t seem to be many new people around because alt-weeklies don’t run enough comics.  It’s funny because back in the ’80s, when nobody was reading alt-weeklies, it was the comics that put them on the map, like Life in Hell and Lynda Barry.  I hate to see weeklies repeat the same mistakes that the daily papers have made: fewer and fewer comics, and running them smaller and smaller.

I can understand the business limitations, but you can’t go wrong with running more comics.  There are good comics out there. Weeklies should be running more than two or three strips.  They don’t take up much room, and what’s one less sex ad?

Derek Schleelein is a freelance writer who lives in Ithaca, N.Y. He was a 2005 fellow at the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has written articles for the Detroit Metro Times, the Chicago Reader and the Ithaca Times.

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