Friday, January 19, 2001
'Get Fuzzy' creator has Carlisle roots
Darby Conley is a syndicated cartoonist and creator of the popular strip "Get Fuzzy," which is now read in over 200 newspapers worldwide, including the Boston Globe.
But long before he created the characters of Bucky Katt, Satchel Pooch, and their all-suffering owner, Rob Wilco, Darby Conley was a little boy living in Carlisle. The youngest of three children of an architect father and a mother who works as an educator, Conley was born at Emerson Hospital in Concord, and became a student at the Red Balloon Nursery School. Young Darby spent his days playing with Legos and romping through the woods with his best friend, a miniature border collie named Patch.
"I have snapshot memories of Carlisle," says Conley, 30, who moved to Knoxville, Tennessee with his family shortly after his fifth birthday. "I remember running through the woods, birthday parties, random images of the house."
Even after moving south, Conley's New England ties remained strong. Every summer, the Conley family made the annual trek north to escape Tennessee's oppressive heat and reconnect with their roots. After graduating high school, Conley returned to Massachusetts to attend Amherst College, and has remained in the area since. Although he now resides in Cambridge, Conley returns frequently to Carlisle to visit family and friends.
If you look closely at details in the "Get Fuzzy" strip, you'll occasionally find subtle clues hinting at Conley's roots, as if he is offering surreptitious greetings to his New England readers. In a recent Sunday comic for example, Conley's human character, Rob, relaxes in his apartment reading a copy of Yankee magazine. In future strips, Conley suggests that he may include a very Carlisle-specific hello. (Hint: Take note of Rob's T-shirt designs.)
The characters in the world of "Get Fuzzy" reflect Conley's love of animals and his quirky imagination. "My big thing with animals has always been, 'What are they thinking? What would they say if they could talk?'" Conley says. "The way I see it, if they could talk, dogs still wouldn't understand you, and cats still wouldn't care."
Enter Bucky and Satchel, the talking pets in "Get Fuzzy." Bucky is the sarcastic Siamese cat with a comically transparent mean streak. Satchel the dog is wide-eyed, trusting and naive, the loyal friend who never suspects Bucky's malevolent intentions. Their owner, Rob, is a low-key, likable young man who converses with his pets, often in attempts to keep the peace in his home.
Although Conley himself is a low-key, likable young man who is single and works out of his home like Rob, he maintains that the strip is not autobiographical. The character of Rob is fashioned after two friends (who both happen to be named Robthe character looks like one and acts like the other); while he thinks of Bucky and Satchel as "Everydog" and "Everycat"; composites of dogs and cats he has known. Although he is an avowed animal lover, Conley currently owns no pets.
"Its basically impossible to find a place [in Cambridge] that allows animals," says Conley. "The first thing I'll do when I buy a house is get a cat from a shelter." In the meantime, he "window shops" at local animal shelters, or occasionally sits on a park bench in Boston, watching people walk their dogs. "People know me as the dogless guy," Conley says with a smile. "They let me pet their dogs."
So if Conley's comic strip is not autobiographical, what is the history behind "Get Fuzzy"? One might say it all began in Carlisle, with artistic parents who encouraged Conley to express himself creatively. A fan of comic strips from an early age, Conley was drawing cartoons for his school newspapers by eighth grade, and continued drawing for the Amherst College paper. For two years after graduation, Conley worked by day as an elementary school teacher in Northampton, Massachusetts, while by night, he was working on comic strips and dreaming of syndication. He refers to the first attempts he sent off to the syndicates as "'Far Side' rip-offs; odd little eccentric things", but they were edgy and funny enough to spark interest within the competitive, critical world of the syndicates. They asked to see more.
"I had to create something specifically to submit. It had to be funny and have recurring characters. I had to create a little world," Conley recalls. "I wanted it to be something I'd be comfortable doing for a long time."
And so the little world of "Get Fuzzy" was born. The first paper to carry the strip was the Tacoma Tribune in Washington, just about 15 months ago. Other papers have followed in quick succession, including big city papers like the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. "Get Fuzzy" hit the Boston Globe in [month? year?]. It has also been translated into several languages, and is run in newspapers worldwide.
The success and public reaction of "Get Fuzzy" has been both exciting and humbling, Conley says. He receives dozens of letters and about sixty e-mails every day, in which people express their appreciation for the strip. "It's thrilling, because this is just my humor, what my friends and I find funny. I didn't know what kind of demographic I'd reach."
Yet Conley doesn't rest on his laurels. He knows the odds are high against comic strips making it as far as "Get Fuzzy". "Four out of five [new comic strips] don't survive. It's like throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks," he says.
So Conley works hard, often up to 90 hours a week (although that's down from the 110 hours he used to work, he says). Luckily, his diligence continues to be rewarded. A "Get Fuzzy" book featuring the first several months of the comic strip will be available in the spring, and he is contracted for a second one. Soon, we may be able to buy stuffed animal versions of Bucky and Satchel.
"They've made some prototypes of stuffed animals that didn't look a lot like them, but hopefully they'll come up with something better. A lot of people are asking for them," Conley says.
And as for future dreams and goals? "I'd like to do an animated Christmas special or something. I was originally approached about a year agobut it's a very preliminary thing."
So in the meantime, Conley works long hours, enjoys observing other people's pets (a favorite is the black cat who resides at Great Brook Farm in Carlisle, "The friendliest cat I ever met," he says), speaks wistfully of animals he has known, and those he hopes one day to own.
"Dogs are about friendship. If they look friendly, they are friendly. Cats are trickier. They can be purring, and still bite you. They're very different, but you can love both."
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito