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June 19, 2007

Patrick McDonnell’s Speech to the 2007 Graduating Class at Center For Cartoon Studies

I am honored and happy to be here with you today on such an historic and special occasion -- the first graduating class of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, an institution that acknowledges the ascension of comics as a legitimate art form.


Like all of you, I have a total passion and love for this medium. Cartoons, comics, graphic stories, visual narratives, sequential art -- we're not sure what to label it. I call it magic.

Little scribbles that come to life to tell stories that make us laugh, make us cry, make us think. Little doodles that touch our lives and become a part of us. Pure magic.

Today we celebrate 18 young pen and ink magicians who have studied the old tricks and are now on their way to mystify us with some new ones.

Now, first of all, feel free to space out and daydream during my talk. You wouldn't be true cartoonists if that didn't happen. I'll try my best not to do that for the next 20 minutes, but there's no guarantee.

When I started to think about this speech, I tried to remember my own graduation. I went to the school of Visual Arts in NYC. It too started out as a cartoon college.

I tried to remember that day's commencement speech. No luck.

Then I tried to remember who the commencement speaker was. Blank. No idea.

But I do remember that my graduation was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue in the Egyptian wing. I do remember looking at all the wonderful hieroglyphics and thinking about how they might be the world's first comic strips. And that telling stories with words and pictures is such a rich part of human history. And that I might be on my way to becoming part of that history. And then I started daydreaming of mummies, pyramids, and cat gods and Cleopatra floating down the Nile. And about how cool it would be if our diplomas would be inscribed on papyrus to honor these Egyptian roots…and, of course, when I came to, the commencement speech was over.

This is something to watch out for. As artists we live such rich inner lives that sometimes we miss out on the moment.

You know how when you are making your art, drawing
your comics -- you are totally there.
You get in the zone.
Your mind and heart are working together.
You are following your instincts and just letting go, letting go.
Time stands still.
Your ego disappears.
You are part of something bigger than yourself.
You are right here, right now, in the present, and all is beautiful.

Well, now...

Practice doing that when you are away from your desk.

Cartoon Life Lesson # 1: While creating great art, don't forget to also create a great life.

I believe cartooning is something you are born to do. I’m a member of the National Cartoonist Society. I was once part of an online chat with a group of 12 other cartoonists, including Will Eisner and Bill Mauldin. We were all asked when did we know when we first wanted to be a cartoonist? We all gave essentially the same answer: five years old, four years old, as far back as I can remember. I'm sure it's true for most of you. You followed that early dream and it brought you here.

Some of my earliest memories are looking at my Mom's paperback collections of Pogo and Jules Feiffer. I was too young to read, but I was mesmerized by the pen and ink lines that were so alive on the page. I also remember my folks having a huge, definitive book on the art of Leonardo Da Vinci which I also enjoyed perusing.

Believe me, Leonardo was absolutely amazing.

But he was no Walt Kelly.

Then I discovered Peanuts. I grew up in the sixties at the height of Peanuts mania, and I've carried that strip in my head and heart my whole life. As a kid, I was vaguely aware of its melancholy overtones, but to me it was -- and is -- pure joy. Schulz's pen line and design (Charlie Brown's perfectly round head, Linus's stringy hair, Snoopy's dance, and each lovingly drawn blade of grass) just oozed with happiness. Schulz called that characteristic warmth.

The honesty and spirituality of Schulz's work touched me deeply. I knew I wanted to create like that, to give back some of the joy and comfort I found in Peanuts. Its magic is the main reason I became a cartoonist.

And the best thing about becoming a cartoonist was meeting and becoming friends with my boyhood idol Charles M. Schulz. He insisted that you call him Sparky. Upon first meeting him, I think I called him Mr. Sparky.

Sparky was everything you would want the guy who drew Peanuts to be: kind, generous, and very funny. A wonderfully complex, deep man.

Cartoon Life Lesson #2: Become a great cartoonist for what it will make of you.

Despite all his fame and wealth, Sparky was, at heart, still a working cartoonist -- like you and me. He inked, lettered, and made his deadlines just like the rest of us.

He loved meeting fellow cartoonists. Whenever we spoke on the phone he ended the conversation -- in his Minnesota accent -- with the cartoonist mantra: "Keep drawing those funny pictures."

Sparky loved to talk about comic strips and all his favorites. Captain Easy, Krazy Kat, Popeye -- he was still a fan.

We have a 100-year-plus history. You stand on the shoulders of some true giants. The classic illustrations of Winsor McCay, the poetry of George Herriman, the surrealism of EC Segar, the humanity of Charles Schulz, the power of Jack Kirby, the honesty of Robert Crumb, the autobiofiction of Lynda Barry, the intellectual angst of Art Spiegelman.

Of course they are all artists -- in every sense of the word. Great artists. When I was in college this was debated, but now I think it's understood.

This is a very exciting time to be a cartoonist. Just last year there was a major cartoon art show at Museum of Contemporary Art in LA and another show at the Library of Congress.

Graphic novels are the hottest thing in publishing today, with every literary magazine reviewing them. Many of the blockbusters now in Hollywood are animation. There are opportunities in self-publishing, magazine illustration, children's books, website and computer game design, movie storyboards…we live in a totally visual society.

Being a part of the first graduating class of the Center for Cartoon Studies, you are at the forefront of a new and exciting era.

After I graduated from SVA I printed up some business cards and started dropping off my illustration portfolio. I went to all the 2nd rate (cheesy) magazines in New York City, thinking they might be more likely to give an amateur a break. I ended up collecting rejection slips. So I figured I may as well get rejected by a classier clientele, and I dropped my work off with the New York Times Sunday Magazine. I was astonished when they actually gave me a trial job -- a spot illustration for the weekly Russell Baker column. I drew all that night and went back early the next morning with 15 finished drawings.

I got the gig.

I can tell you that I didn't necessarily feel I was ready to do a weekly drawing for the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

When I look back on my career I don't think I really ever felt totally ready for any of the opportunities that presented themselves.

Right after college I was asked to co-author a hardcover, 15,000-word book on George Herriman and Krazy Kat. I had never actually written even a term paper.

And I can tell you that no one is ever "officially ready" to do a daily comic strip. That's 365 original drawings and 365 new ideas every year, with no holidays.

Not to mention, getting an invitation to give a commencement speech.

Had I acted on my (well-founded) fears I would not have done any of these things until I felt I was so-called ready.

Cartoon Life Lesson #3: Jump in the pool. You'll never feel you are really ready but don't let that stop you.

Just do it. Give it your best shot and let it go.

Every great artist starts with baby steps. But the point is, you must first get off your butt.

And where will that first step take you? Who knows.

When I started my comic strip Mutts, it was just an idea about my own dog Earl, and a silly cat named Mooch. Seeing the world through the eyes of animals made me more aware and empathetic to their lives. I began to realize how tough it is for all animals on this small planet, and how fragile and sacred all life is. This became a big part of Mutts, and led to my becoming a director on the board of the Humane Society of the United States.

Saying that Mutts changed my life is an understatement.

Your own James Sturm helped start a newspaper in Seattle, contributed to The Onion, and went on to draw powerful, award-winning graphic novels. This led to his being inspired to create and run The Center for Cartoon Studies, which inspired all of you here today, and will continue to inspire many cartoonists in the future.

Charles Schulz drew a comic strip that started in only seven newspapers. It went on to having Snoopy actually going to the moon in Apollo 10. Did you know that it's the only launched space capsule still in space? As we sit here, Snoopy is circling the sun.

Cartoon Life Lesson #4: Be open to all life's possibilities and enjoy your journey around the sun.

Just the act of making art is so beneficial and sustaining. Cartoonists seem to live very long lives. Sparky was still working at age 77, Will Eisner at 87, and Al Hirschfeld at age 99. I think it's because we spend a lot of our lifetime at play. Play is very healthy.

And to the parents and families and friends and partners of this graduating class of 2007, I remind you that they are cartoonists. You don't have to understand them, you just have to love them. Learn to accept the late hours, the ink stains on the carpets, the piles of cartoon books and memorabilia, and that vague look that you sometimes get when you are trying to have a conversation with them.

And please, try not to ask them to draw too many birthday cards.

I'll end by saying the world today needs great artists. There's a Chinese proverb which states "May you live in interesting times." Well they don't get much more interesting than this.

I believe that art can promote the best in mankind. It can raise us to our higher consciousness. It inspires and transcends. It comes from a deeper place, from stillness, from love. It helps bring that mindset into this world. As artists and human beings, we need to manifest this in our work and in our lives. Art is magic, and one of its most magical powers is to heal. I think that's why we are here….

OK you can stop daydreaming now.

So, Andrew, Elizabeth, Colleen, Alexis, Sam, Jon-Mikel, Jacob, Sean, John, Lauren, Robert, Caitlin, aaron, Adam, Ross, Josie, Emily, and Christine…

Keep drawing those funny pictures.

Thank you.

thanks to James Sturm
posted 9:00 am PST | Permalink

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