The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 20, 2005

Features

"Get Fuzzy" comes to Carlisle

The "Get Fuzzy" Fan Club was out in force on Thursday evening, May 12, when Darby Conley, comic-strip writer and Carlisle native, appeared at the Mosquito's Annual Meeting. "Get Fuzzy," with its characters Rob Wilco, Satchel Pooch and Bucky Katt, is syndicated in over 500 papers (including the Boston Globe) and in more than ten languages. Conley spoke off the cuff, freely answering questions from several of the over 80 attendees, many of the "middle school male" demographic. He described his rise from obscurity, the development of his characters, and the pros and cons of comic-strip writing.

Early days in Carlisle

Conley moved from Carlisle to Tennessee when he was only five, but has stayed in touch through friends and relatives. He recalls playing in the Carlisle woods with his best friend David Wilson and with his Border collie Patch. "She made me love animals. Anyone could get along with her." Though Patch may have been an early inspiration for Satchel, Conley had no cat.

His mom and dad were both artists, and he remembers he always enjoyed drawing. A long-time friend of the family, Karin Lemmermann, later said both Darby and his brother showed drawing talent that was "absolutely amazing, and at a very early age." Conley says the "Far Side" comics were "the reason I wanted to be a cartoonist." He cartooned for the Amherst College newspaper while a college student. Fellow cartoonist Bill Amend ("Foxtrot") was also at Amherst.

The advent of Bucky and Satchel

After college, Conley made some submissions to syndicates, the entities that distribute comics to papers throughout the country. He soon realized he could not continue with "Far Side ripoffs" featuring "scientists and talking cows" and that he would need to develop some characters and story lines. Since he would have to live with his creations for ten to twenty years, he asked himself, "Who would I feel comfortable drawing?" Thus were Rob, Satchel, and Bucky Katt born.

Conley says his characters are not based on anybody in real life. "Bucky is the voice in my head I'm trying to calm down." He recently gained three cats and hoped they would provide ideas, but that didn't work out: "If I ever want to do six weeks of something sleeping, I'm all over that." Satchel is the innocent. "Without Satchel it would be a really depressing strip." Other characters pop in and out, for example, Fungo the Ferret was invented because: "I liked the idea of a little thing you don't mess with." The strip's name, "Get Fuzzy," was the motto of his brother's rock band called the "Fuzzy Sprouts."

A weird reality

Conley believes the success of the strip is in the interactions of the characters. "I never hear people talking like most cartoon characters in real life," he says. He's careful to retain the contractions, slang, and verbal oddities of true conversation. Conley is also faithful to "a weird reality" that has developed around his characters. "I stay away from breaking that fourth wall," where characters fly or visit other planets. Readers expect certain behavior and treat the characters as though they are real, so Conley goes along with that. As an example, at the end of the evening, a boy getting his book signed exclaimed, "Bucky Katt is cool!" and Conley responded, "He sure thinks so."

Conley responds to a question from the audience. (Photo by Rik Pierce)

The setting of the strip is vague although there are many clues that Rob and his pets live in the Boston area. Rob is an avid Red Sox fan who has been known to wear a shirt from Carlisle's Daisy's Market, now Ferns. "I like Ferns, but I miss Daisy's," says Conley. He especially likes the Ferns' logo which reminds him of the logo of the rugby All Blacks.

Cartooning is hard work

"I used to make fun of cartooning," says Conley. "Now I see it's a pretty hard job." Hard enough that syndicates sign promising artists to six-month development deals "to see if you can do it every day." Many fail the test, not because their stuff isn't good, but because they cave under the pressure of producing daily submissions. It may be two to three years before a strip starts appearing in papers. While thousands of artists aspire to write comics, each syndicate signs only one or two new artists a year.

Conley describes his typical work schedule, noting, "I haven't slept on Thursday nights in four years." Early in the week he works on the color weekend strip, reserving Wednesday through Friday to produce six daily strips. "I've been up since six this morning, and I won't go to bed till midnight tomorrow."

Challenges include time, writer's block

"I would have made my life a whole lot easier" with a sketch style more like Scott Adams's "Dilbert," says Conley, who uses shading to give his strip dimension. An antique quill pen is his instrument, and all his work is by hand. In response to a question, Conley admits a series entitled, "Rejected Character Files" was undertaken when he hurt his back to "cut down my drawing time by two-thirds."

Asked if he occasionally gets writer's block, Conley laughs, "Occasionally?" He jokes that his bizarre humor lets him get away with some odd strips, "That's just the way I write jokes." But there is a method to his madness, and it involves a voice recorder for keeping ideas and eight to nine hundred jokes recorded on pieces of paper. Once he decides on a topic, Conley will go through his jokes and hope to find some adaptable to his story.

Solitary but flexible

Although it is sometimes difficult because of distance, Conley has developed friendships with other comic strip writers, including Scott Adams and Stephan Pastis who writes "Pearls Before Swine." They share tips, often through e-mail. Multiple artists may plan a common April Fools Day joke, such as running the same story, or switching characters. There is also sensitivity to avoiding trespassing on another's space. Conley especially avoids looking like "a rehash of Garfield" due to the similarity of characters: "a loser guy with a dog and cat."

"I enjoy it," says Conley of the solitary life of a cartoonist. His girlfriend is a medical resident who "works 100 hours while I work 70 or 80." He especially likes that the job can move anywhere, "You can go wherever you want as long as there's a power source and a telephone line." The syndicate pay is reasonable, but non-negotiable, at 50% of the income from papers "after mystery deductions." Contracts run 15 years or more.

Letters both pro and con

Conley admits, "I'm pretty immature humor-wise" and one of his favorite jokes is to draw Rob bending over and exposing his upper backside, a scene commonly edited by newspapers. "There are people whose job is to wipe out butt cracks." His strip also spoofs companies and products, including This Old House, which Conley calls "a dangerous show" because it encourages staple gun use. Although most readers are tolerant, Conley recalls special trouble with a strip about the smell of Pittsburgh, "They're touchy about that in Pittsburgh." On the other hand, people from Tacoma were insulted that their town and its "aroma from Tacoma" was overlooked.

Conley says the newspapers "don't give comics as much respect as they deserve," noting they are the first or second most-read pages of the paper. Readers are loyal and involved, sending Conley over 100 letters per day. Some send story ideas, many of which "you wouldn't believe how funny they are in terms of how bad they are." The Carlisle audience displayed a similar level of interest, asking about particular characters, strips and details such as the sudden disappearance of Satchel's watch ("I forgot," says Conley), as well as suggesting new ideas for the strip.

A peek at the future?

So what's the future of "Get Fuzzy?" Will Rob get married? "Isn't he a loser?" laughs Conley affectionately. He says Rob's situation "reflects my not liking relationship stuff." But anything is possible: "When that happens, you'll know 'He's out of jokes.' "

And while "I don't think a TV series would be right," Conley is interested in the possibility of a "Get Fuzzy" movie. A screenplay has been written but discussions "fell apart." But Conley hopes and expects a live action feature with animals developed through computer graphic imaging is in his future.

With a deadline looming, Conley could stay only a short while to chat and sign autographs for a long line of (mostly) young fans. Clearly pleased at the response, Conley promised to return for another Carlisle event. Maybe Old Home Day? We'll send an invitation, and hope that next time he can stay a while.


2005 The Carlisle Mosquito