Every Picture Tells a Story
By Dick Anderson
In the 40 years since Evergreen opened, the world of cartooning and animation has been turned on its ear. Newspaper comic sections have shrunk dramatically; the market for alternative-minded artists has gone through a boom-and-bust cycle; and animation has morphed into an anything-goes medium with something to offer for all.
Evergreen was there at the dawn of this transformation. Lynda Barry ’79 sprang fully formed onto the alternate weekly scene, becoming a recurring guest on David Letterman and channeling her idiosyncratic voice into her comics, novels, a play and teaching.
Matt Groening ’77 made the leap from the pages of those same weeklies to create “The Simpsons,” the signature show for the upstart Fox network. Five hundred episodes (and counting) and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame later, he rewrote the rules for TV animation, paving the way for the likes of “South Park,” “Family Guy,” and the alt-cartoon universe of shows populating Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.
Craig Bartlett ’81 honed his chops making cartoons from clay, contributing his talents to the iconic “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” and “Rugrats” series before creating his own pair of kids’ shows, “Hey Arnold!” (for the 6- to 10-year-old Nickelodeon-watching crowd) and “Dinosaur Train” (for 2- to 6-year-old PBS viewers).
And Tommy Thompson ’11? He’s the new kid on the block, and he represents the next generation of Evergreen animators. He’s still finding his voice—imagine Tim Burton as an introvert—but he’s poised to build on the talents that made him Most Promising Filmmaker at the Spokane International Film Festival in January.
Lynda Barry certainly believes that comics deserve to be taken seriously—“They are able to transfer images from one mind to the next as wonderfully as any other art form.” She laments “the creep of the scholarly approach to comics…Something mighty is ruined when someone tells you exactly how to experience any kind of art in the same way fresh string beans are ruined by boiling the living hell out them.”
If you were to draw a genealogy of Barry’s bibliography—her breakthrough strip “Ernie Pook’s Comeek” (created in 1978), her novel (and later play) The Good Times Are Killing Me (1988), and the writing and art tutorials What It Is (2008) and Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book (2010)— you can trace it all back to Evergreen, and her mentor, Marilyn Frasca.
“She was mysterious,” Barry writes from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she’s spring artist in residence (her first semester-long residency after years of doing five-day workshops around the country). “She seemed very interested in finding out what interested her students and working from there, but somehow she did this with very little conversation. No chatting or small talk. Her information came directly from the work we were doing and she seemed to establish a relationship with our work and then introduce us to it.”
Frasca, who still teaches the occasional class as an emerita professor, joined the Evergreen faculty in 1973, a year before Barry chose Evergreen with the aid of “a really smart English teacher at my high school.” Barry studied the History of the Renaissance and Middle Ages her first year, and the History of Science her second year. “Then my third and fourth year I worked with Marilyn Frasca in one way or another,” she recalls.
“To this day, it’s one of the most powerful things I was given at Evergreen; the idea that the thing I call my work is from a different part of me than what comes off the top of my head,” Barry adds. “To start developing a relationship with that working part of me, the part of me that ‘speaks’ the image language, and to be doing this at the age of 20 gave me a tremendous advantage.”
At the time, Matt Groening was editor of the Cooper Point Journal, where he pledged to print anything anyone submitted. “That was a challenge I wanted to beat him at,” Barry recalls. “I kept submitting crazier and crazier things—outraged letters to the editor about things that happened to me when I was little that had nothing to do with TESC, or comics that were really strange, comics about little girls who could do things like remove their arms and legs at will. No matter what I submitted, he printed it. I came to really love him for this and for all of the wild things he was doing with the paper.”
Last fall, Drawn & Quarterly published Blabber Blabber Blabber: Volume 1 of Everything, which guaranteed that Ernie Pook’s Comeek and the works that followed will find an audience for generations to follow. “The alternative weekly jobs may be gone, but there are more cartoonists doing more interesting things than ever before,” says Barry, who has called Footville, Wis., home for the last decade. “All sorts of people are making comics now and, more importantly, all sorts of people are reading them. They’ve become much more like music. In the same way you can make a song about anything, about sad things or horrible things or hilarious things, comics can be about anything. They’re another way to transfer this thing that Marilyn called an image.”
Before there was Akbar and Jeff, or Binky and Sheba of Life in Hell, and many years before there was Homer and Marge Simpson, there was The Adventures of Lisa and Matt. Growing up in suburban Portland, Matt Groening had his first exposure to the big screen in 1964 at age 10. That’s when his father Homer, a filmmaker and cartoonist, made a live-action short starring Matt and his sister, Lisa, which was shown in a local theater. Groening was as much at home in front of the camera as he was sitting in front of the television, soaking up “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and relishing the bad-boy inspiration for Bart Simpson decades later, Eddie Haskell of “Leave It To Beaver.”By the time Groening finished high school, he vowed never to take a test again. He found collegiate Nirvana in Evergreen, and a mentor in Mark Levensky, who co-taught a class on images with Frasca. “You do what you do tolerably well,” Levensky told the aspiring cartoonist. “Now you have to ask yourself: Is it worth doing?”
As editor of the CPJ, Groening began the comics page, publishing the cartoons of not only Barry but also Charles Burns ’77 (whose avant-garde work was exposed to a broader audience by RAW publisher Art Spiegelman). Craig Bartlett remembers Groening’s tenure as editor publishing the 1977 Daily Olympian spoof, The Daily Zero, “that really made people mad in Olympia.”
In 1980, his weekly strip Life in Hell, inspired by his move to Los Angeles, was picked up by the Los Angeles Reader, where he had been writing a weekly rock column. Other papers followed, and the strip has been syndicated to more than 250 newspapers worldwide, and spawned 15 book compilations. True to his later creations, Groening designed his characters so they could be identified by their silhouettes alone (a device Bartlett later borrowed when he created “Hey Arnold!” for Nickelodeon). “When I was drawing cartoons at Evergreen, I never dreamed I could make a living at it,” Groening told the Seattle Times. “In fact, I never dreamed I could make a living at it until I was actually doing it.”
Twenty-three seasons and 27 Emmy Awards later, “The Simpsons” is an inextricable part of pop culture. In addition to the Springfield ensemble, Groening continues work on five-time Emmy-winner “Futurama,” his pastiche of science fiction, which ran on Fox from 1999-2003, then got a second life when Comedy Central began airing new episodes in 2010. As demands on his time keep growing, he has mused about ending Life in Hell, but for now, Binky lives.
After more than 500 episodes, Hollywood showed Matt Groening some love on February 14, 2012, when he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.
“When I was young I thought I wanted to be an artist,” says Craig Bartlett, “but I didn’t have a realistic idea of what that was. I thought you’d live in Paris and paint.” As a broke art student living in Portland, Bartlett was a frequent patron of a free film series at the museum. Once a year the museum would screen the International Tournée of Animation, an annual compilation of independent films from around the world. After watching Closed Mondays, the 1975 Academy Award winner for Best Animated Short Film created by Portland-based clay animator Will Vinton, “I got the idea right then that I could be an animator,” he recalls. “They were like paintings, but they moved, and they had soundtracks that were very often experimental and funny. There was a lot of weirdness in there I could relate to.”
After asking around, Bartlett learned that Evergreen had an animation studio and better still, “no rules, no grades.” He transferred in as a senior, and learned the basics of the craft from Roger Kukes, an award-winning animator and visual artist. Each quarter he made an animated short (“they were all terrible, two-minute things”) and he became art director for the CPJ, publishing many of the comic strips he had drawn the previous summer. “I had a dream fourth year at Evergreen,” he says.When he awoke abruptly in the real world, Bartlett got his first big break working for Vinton, joining an eight-person staff working out of a tiny Victorian house that was connected to a studio. (One of his co-workers was Patty Groening, Matt’s oldest sister, who would introduce him to his future wife, their sister Lisa.) Bartlett labored for more than two years on Vinton’s only feature-length Claymation film, The Adventures of Mark Twain (released in 1985). In that time, he says, “I was responsible for about 10 minutes of finished animation.”
In the summer of 1987, Bartlett went to Los Angeles to work on the “Penny” cartoons for the second season of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” which was staffing up following the show’s move from New York City. Later, after returning to the Northwest, he and Lisa (who worked as a talk-show producer in Portland) both had the itch to move to L.A. for good. “I’m so glad Lisa wanted to come and I would have been so mad if it hadn’t worked out,” he says. Now, after 30 years in the business, “I’m always trying to keep engaged as an artist,” says Bartlett, who also writes the music for “Dinosaur Train.” “A lot of my work is I’m a salesman. I’m always having meetings trying to convince somebody to pull the trigger on something.”
Now a proud Evergreen parent— son Matt will graduate this spring with a degree in communication, film and video, while daughter Katie is a sophomore— Bartlett never doubted they would love the Evergreen culture, but he had his doubts about the climate. “But both dig it,” he says. “They like the gray weather.”
What has four arms, two legs, and a penchant for chess and black hoodies? If you answered Elliott, the protagonist in Tommy Thompson’s award-winning short ‘‘High Strung,’’ step to the head of the class. Thompson could have used those extra hands himself in making the 13-minute stop-motion animated short, while shooting digital still after still in his most fully realized film to date.
On March 10, 2011, ‘‘High Strung’’ had its world premiere with an early evening screening in the CAB’s recital hall, followed by a midnight show at Olympia’s Capitol Theater. “It was like an emotional overload,” says Thompson, whose Evergreen mentors include film/video faculty member Ruth Hayes. “Actually showing it to people was really satisfying, but I was also worried. I had so much into it that I wanted to have people connect with it emotionally.”
Thompson was a working filmmaker before he even started ninth grade. At age 13, borrowing his parents’ Hi8 camera, he made a 45-minute skateboarding video, which he sold at the local skate shop. (He earned back about half of his $300 investment, but the video got him a lot of exposure.) While in high school, he did his first animation project using Legos.
The concept for ‘‘High Strung’’came to Thompson around the time he finished his first short, ‘‘Endless Tunnel,’’ which played in a number of festivals around the world, from Seattle to Australia. When it came time to develop his follow-up effort, “I had the idea of having a character in a house and every night the pictures on the walls came to life,” but eventually he settled on a simpler premise. “I always had the idea for a man in a house,” he says. “It derived from trying to make it simple—a single character and a single set.” He added the extra set of limbs to his faceless leading man to make him “more interesting.”
‘‘High Strung’’—which won the Best Animation award at the 2011 Black Earth Film Festival in Galesburg, Ill.—has also garnered nearly 3,000 views on Thompson’s Vimeo channel. Most came within days of the film’s online premiere last May—before he graduated. “You have to build a following,” admits Thompson, who recently moved to Hillsboro, Ore. “I kind of have trouble publicizing myself—it’s always been a little weird for me.”
The world of the cartoonist can be a solitary one—but it’s certainly a portable one. Somewhere, while you’re reading this, Tommy Thompson might be holed up working through ideas for his next short project. Craig Bartlett might be writing a new ditty on the guitar for Tiny, the junior-sized protagonist most likely to break out into song on “Dinosaur Train.” Matt Groening has long expressed a desire to turn Life in Hell into an animated series, when he has the time. And Lynda Barry’s busy with homework, drawing the same assignments that she’s giving her classes and “especially happy to be bringing a little bit of Evergreen to students at the University of Wisconsin.”