A Long Way to Go For a Joke: Behind the Scenes of "You Are Here"

Twenty-five weeks ago a one panel cartoon series premiered on this website under the banner of JCU Sunday Funnies.  The cartoon, You Are Here, was launched to make use of some concepts that were at least 20 years old along with a variety of new ones that have come up along the way.  But for the tireless efforts of Texas-based cartoonist Bobby Blakey, however, this series would never have gone further than my Ever-Ticking Brain.  Instead a cartoon idea sent to Bobby on a lark resulted not only in a means to bring some dusty ideas out of obscurity, but to inspire an ongoing series with more concepts in some stage of development than have been published to date.  In other words, you can look forward to more You Are Here comics for many more months to come.

As outlined in the first JCU Sunday Funnies post, this cartoon was initially conceived as a potential weekly strip for the Oak Cliff Tribune.  In the interest of having a “creative buffer”, the strip would not be proposed until at least three months worth of cartoons had been completed.  While I did manage to conjure up about 20 ideas in advance and even commit a few to paper, the project never gelled, largely due to not being particularly thrilled with my own art.  The original concept sketches and finished drawings were remanded to my “life’s papers” files but never forgotten.  So when the cartoon idea based on The Flintstones was so masterfully created by Bobby I decided to approach him about producing a series.  That this occurred has certainly been borne out over the last several months as week after week You Are Here remains a reliable feature of this website.  On the occasion of reaching 25 weeks of humor and art joining forces I thought it might be fun to show some of the process that has gone into brining you the focus of JCU Sunday Funnies since its inception.

Out of the Past and Present
With an available backlog of concepts to follow the first new idea in two decades it seemed like a good idea to move forward with You Are Here as a weekly feature on the JCU site.  In order to leave the door open for other such cartooning pursuits down the line I chose to publish under the JCU Sunday Funnies imprint.  This turned out to be a shrewd maneuver as there will in fact be a new cartoon in the mix next Sunday.  At the time I was trying to be forward thinking but also wondered if I could perpetuate this new comic for more than six months.  None the less I decided to have faith that I could have a new concept cross my thoughts often enough to maintain the feature and bolster the backlog of ideas I had come to call “The 20  Year Club”. 

I need not have worried, however.  After an exhaustive search of my files I was able to dig up my original sketches for many of the comics that have been seen thus far or are coming in the near future and send them to Bobby along with notes on what I had in mind.  Within days his first new endeavors began to arrive in my email inbox.  The first two cartoons I received would become You Are Here #2 and You Are Here #7, both based on older concepts and sketches.  While these and other cartoons were rolling in two at a time I was coming up with new ideas and sending them to Bobby as well.  As a result, half of the first ten cartoons to be produced at full were based on brand new ideas that had come to me since the one that started it all.  As of this writing new ideas finalized into cartoons have been running roughly neck and neck by volume with the volume of the new exceeding that of the old by only two or three cartoons.

Varied Visions
From the outset the process involved in bringing my concepts to life for this series has remained largely unchanged.  Initially I sent Bobby scans of the original art from years past for as many of the cartoons as I could find in my files along with one or two concept sketches for new ideas.  With all of that in place I had the freedom to dig around in hopes of finding more of the art.  In the mean time Bobby had set to work on churning out enough of these comics that by early April I felt it was safe to begin weekly publication.  It was during this time that I began to realize something I would not define at full for some time, that as a cartoonist I am a much better illustrator.  Teaming up with Bobby on You Are Here brought this fact out again and again.  A prime example of this was the “honey bear” cartoon in which a bear dons a beekeeper’s protective gear to have a better shot at the honey he craves.  My 20 year old drawing had a cartoony bear but rather realistic bees watching over the hive.  When I received Bobby’s finished work I was taken aback by the anthropomorphic bees in the cartoon at first.  I quickly realized that this was as it should be, this was a cartoon after all! 

The bees and bear cartoon was not the only one over the months of the collaboration thus far in which Bobby took me by surprise in altering the images from my rough sketches.  The Turtle Homeowners Association was definitely one that falls into this category.  In my sketch the turtles were, well, turtles.  They walked on all fours and were only cartoon-like in their smiles and the vacuous stares of the representatives of the Association who were plaguing the old turtle.  Oddly enough I had talked with Bobby at a convention a few days before he completed that cartoon and he described envisioning one of the turtles holding a clipboard.  Despite this, I was still initially surprised by his take on the concept.  Mind you, it was a pleasant surprise.  Again I was confronted with the realization that as a cartoon the characters far much better in a cartoon form rather than a semi-realistic form. 

If you have ever met Bobby or heard him speak of his work on Hey Kids, Comics! (check out that show here) then you know he will always undersell his art.  More often than not when he sends two to four finished cartoons my way he will point out that he can change anything that is wrong or just start over from scratch.  In fact there have been so very few running changes to his work that I question his questioning of his skill!  In the case of the honey bear I had him change the color of the hatband to make it read more like a beekeeper’s helmet than a park ranger’s hat.  “Brush With Death” was reworked to make the placement of the man’s head seem more in line with his reflection and I had to insist that the nipples on Kermit and Miss Piggy’s baby be removed.  A Muppet with nipples just read too creepy for the already creepy image.  In fact the only cartoon in the series to date that had to go back and forth between us was the navy man.  That was an unusual one in that it was the only one with color in the rough sketch (added with a highlighter) and the only one where getting the color right on the final image was at issue.  Initially the hue utilized played was too light for those who got to see it in advance to read as navy.  A quick darkening of the shade brought the character’s tone more to what was expected by most without being too dark to see the features. 

This hue just did not convey navy blue.
The character to the right of the panel was the only other running change.  I felt perhaps his reaction was a bit too extreme.  Bobby graciously redrew him with just a smile and I shopped both versions to those who had helped work out the color pallet.  Unanimously, it turned out, the opinion was that the shocked expression sold the joke far better than the relaxed version.   In many ways that cartoon was a valuable lesson to just let the master do his magic.  That is why I elected to work with Bobby in the first place.  As an artist his sense of the range of expression is ideal for a comic of this kind.  In fact that ability came to bear most fully in the Vulcan Surprise Party.  The level of dispassionate indifference conveyed in the faces of the birthday boy and those throwing his party sells the joke far more than the equally emotionless dialogue!

Keeping Fit
One of  the biggest challenges on both sides of the collaboration has been fitting everything into the panel.  Early on the format was somewhat new to me and my ambitions in the cartoons concepts often exceeded the space available.  The Clown Compact cartoon brought that to my attention.  The initial concept included three classes of automobile, Compact, Sub-Compact, and Clown Compact.  Space constraints within the square panel forced Bobby to edit the concept and let the dialogue sell the joke as much as the image.  Again his sensibility was right on target and the cartoon worked in spite of being down one car model. 

The ham-fisted attempt to convey the idea behind the Clown Car cartoon.

Here and there certain elements of my original concepts have had to be trimmed or eliminated outright.  Bobby has been very good about consulting me before making drastic changes, so to say I have been most pleased with the series to date is something of an understatement.  In the case of the elephant and the game show the space constraints were rather unique to the cartoon.  Every element originally envisioned was there, save one.  In the original concept the game show host’s dialogue was to be under the cartoon and the name of the show, which was not part of the original 20 years ago, was to be in lights above the contestants.  Space dictated that a change in plans must be made and Bobby took the liberty of putting the dialogue in a word bubble and captioning the cartoon with the name of the show and calling it, “Everyone’s Favorite Game Show”, a change that helped drive home the joke far more effectively.

As he churns out more and more cartoons for this series, Bobby has adjusted his style in such a way to accommodate some of the busier designs I send his way.  Perhaps the greatest example of this was the very demanding Richard Scary cartoon.  Every element of the original concept sketch but one, the lower half of the composition, appears in the final work.  Due to space constraints he was forced to jettison the flat tires on the Apple Car as well as lowly worm’s trademark hat laying on the pavement.  Not vitally important elements to be sure, and in the end his blocking of an incredibly busy arrangement of characters and ancillary aspects, not the least of which is the Crime Scene tape, makes that cartoon one of his most outstanding creations to date and a personal favorite.

Artistic License
Something else Bobby does quite well is to add his own very Bobby Blakey flourishes to the cartoons.  When the Monkey’s Pa cartoon arrived I did not realize at first that he was utilizing his movie reviewing gorilla, Doug, as the monkey in question.  This was not at all surprising when I considered that Bobby has a tendency to sneak his original characters into the artwork of others whenever he is a participating inker in “Finish It! Finish It!” at All-Con.  When I sent him the Earth Warning Label concept sketch I deliberately designed an original alien for the cartoon so as not to seem to expect that he use one of his characters from Last Stop.  Despite my efforts he managed to replace my creature with Klunk from his ongoing web comic.  Nothing like a shameless self-promoting plug, I say!

There have been other additions to the original composition as presented along the way as well.  TheUgnaughts cartoon originally featured only the dismantled Tin Man in a crate and a pair of the diminutive porcine workers from Bespin.  Bobby recalled that this denizen of Oz would be incomplete without his axe and also presented a rather gruesome take on the character’s greatest desire with a disembodied heart laying on the conveyor belt!  At first I felt that may play a bit too extreme, but then thought better of it and let the cartoon publish as presented.  I had learned to stop second-guessing my artist. 

The personalization of the “answering the fax machine” cartoon was another way in which Bobby brings more to the table than just his art.  The heading, “Message from JediCole”, on the fax page emerging from the character’s mouth just added an extra element to the joke.  Similarly the tie, clipboard, and glasses for the turtles in the aforementioned turtle cartoon made the two pristine turtles seem only the more officious.  Then there was a visual element that Bobby added to the Brush With Death that was nothing short of brilliant!  In my original sketch for this concept from 20 years back and in its replacement (the original eludes me to this day) I simply had the Grim Reaper and the pajama-clad character busily cleaning their teeth.  Bobby shrewdly realized that, absent saliva, Death’s toothpaste would not foam up like that of his living counterpart.  That he made that distinction clear so simply in his drawing really added something special to the overall joke. 

Two by Two
One thing that I have learned as I have been working with Bobby on this cartoon was that he draws and submits the new comics two at a time.  While they tend to arrive to me in twos and fours I had never made the connection as I am usually too thrilled to see what he has done with my concepts.  While I have received as many as six in one submission, Bobby generally has three to four times that many concept sketches and descriptions on hand from which to choose his next endeavor.  A full year’s worth of cartoons have been published, completed, or roughed out at this point and every time I feel that this will protect me from inevitable creative doldrums, two or three more concepts rattle out and are sent to my self-deprecating artist friend. 

My original concept art for the woolly mammoth cartoon.

Somehow I have yet to burn Bobby out on this series despite sending so many ideas that he would have to devote a month to catching up were we not so far ahead of the publication schedule on a fairly constant basis.  In fact the scheduling of any given cartoon is rather fluid as I will line up the completed work in an order that I like only to have two or four more finished pieces arrive in my in box that have me rearranging the whole schedule to move new favorites to the top of the queue!  As I was writing this very article I got word that two more cartoons were in the works and would be in my hands very soon.  This means that I will now have eight cartoons completed and will likely rearrange the present schedule yet again depending on which of the more than 25 concepts he has at his disposal he has chosen to tackle.

A sneak preview of one of the new cartoons mentioned above.

It Has a Name
As this glimpse into what it takes to bring you the weekly gags of You Are Here concludes I wanted to share a little inside information from the production, specifically the definition of a common aspect of Bobby’s art for this series.  I am speaking of an expression that has become so prevalent that a term had to be coined to describe it…the Blakey Gawk! 

The Blakey Gawk is one of my favorite aspects of You Are Here as it turns any given character in the scene into an instant straight man.  While I realize that such an expression of shock or dismay is likely one of the more universal tools at the disposal of cartoonists, the way in which it can sell my jokes makes it nothing short of remarkable.   From exasperated game show contestants to surprised aliens to even Muppets, the Blakey Gawk has helped convey all a variety of reactions to the absurd notions presented in these cartoons.  And from this moment forward you too will refer to this expression as the Blakey Gawk.  It will certainly occur often in the future unless this article has made the intrepid artist self-conscious about that aspect of his work.  Even still, there is at least one example of the gawk in an as yet unpublished cartoon.  Below is a sneak peek at that cartoon that does not give away the joke, just its Blakey Gawk! 

Now you have some insight into what it takes to bring you JCU Sunday Funnies each week.  I sincerely hope that everyone who reads this article has enjoyed at least one if not more of the cartoons in the series to date.  I have found that different cartoons speak to different people, illustrating the diversity of appeal to the ideas that rattle out of my head at an alarming rate.  I certainly look forward to continuing this series with the help of Bobby’s dead-on artistic interpretations.  I will also be expanding the Sunday Funnies  lineup starting next week with an occasional second feature.  

From the outset of You Are Here I have had a variety of ideas suggested to me by Mrs. JediCole and others that have not been introduced into the series.  The reason for this is simply because I wanted to maintain a kind of creative ownership of the cartoon, to be its sole writer.  This has resulted in some really funny concepts going the way of my 20 year old ones, falling into unknown obscurity.  Since Bobby helped rescue my old ideas from such a fate I have determined to launch a new recurring series that will showcase the art and/or writing of other creators.  Look for the first cartoon of the new series to accompany You Are Here #26 next Sunday!