Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Daily Campus Comics: Kelsey Grammer and Beyond

I have been reading UConn's student-run newspaper, The Daily Campus, for practically as long as I've been in Storrs. I used to pick the paper up every once in a while to alleviate the inevitable boredom of eating brunch on my own after my morning classes, and since then my relationship with the paper has been a textbook example of love-hate. Yes, it's nice to have our primary campus newspaper being run by students for students, but it also allows for editing errors and unusual bursts of immature and poorly-written articles. For every agreeable piece of work published, you get one claiming "Minutes to Midnight" to be the best rock record of 2007 or, even worse, a commentary warning of the evils of Facebook. While I'm glad that I've been keeping up with it for so long, the paper's quality fluctuates at an alarming rate, making for a muddled reading experience.

But nowhere is my love-hate relationship with the DC illustrated better than in the Comics page - the one page that, no matter what, I always have made sure to read every day. Even if I never read a single article on a certain day, I always found time for the comics. It's a natural urge, I guess - I've always loved comics, having read the daily funnies in local newspapers ever since I was a kid. So my attraction to the comics page was purely instinctive, and I've been pulled to it every day by some invisible gravitational force. What really got me interested in the comics was the knowledge that they, like the rest of the paper, are completely student-run. This was fascinating to me - most other college newspapers I'd seen were devoted almost exclusively to syndicated strips like Garfield or Dilbert, with maybe one or two one-panel student strips thrown in for good measure. But the DC, well, every comic is student-created - it's a rule. So naturally I figured, hey, this page must be a haven for untapped artistic talent!

And yet, this... wasn't quite the case. The comics, to put it bluntly, were shit - about 90% of them at least. Most were poorly-drawn, juvenile, and just plain unfunny, relying on either beer/weed jokes or cliched college gags about Ugg boots or X-lot. It was depressing, to say the least - really, we're attending one of the biggest and most densely populated college campuses in New England, and this was the best we could get?

Now imagine this every day for 3 years straight.

As the years wore on, things only got worse for the DC comics page. Halfway through my freshmen year a new comics editor was hired, one that would keep the page languishing in a perpetual state of mediocrity for another two years. Not only were most of the comics lousy, old strips were re-ran constantly, with some strips being re-printed over and over for weeks on end. Once in a while, a glimmer of hope would shine through - the introduction of Lucid TV, for example, single-handedly raised the bar for every other strip in the paper - but for the most part the Daily Campus Comics page remained in dire straits.

Of course, I went out of my way to bitch about the comics page as much as I could - mostly to my friend and co-Wilhelm founder Steve Winchell, who'd been drawing comics for the DC since his freshmen year. By the time fall '07 rolled around, my distaste for the comics page had become so pungent, so bitter, that I took a suggestion from Steve and started ripping on the Comics page in the Wilhelm blog. The posts gained some attention, being read and commented on by a surprising about of comic artists - some of who were upset that I called them out, and some who were upset at not being featured in the articles (weird, considering that there were few I complimented). But it was nice to see UConn students actually reading them, as writing them was a near-therapeutic experience for me, something I'd been meaning to do for years. Since I'd only done one post monthly in the fall, I planned on continuing the segment into the spring '08 semester, updating weekly - or, at least as much as I could.

But things changed - fast. The comics editor graduated, and surprisingly enough, Steve took her place (not TOO surprising, I guess, considering how long Steve had been around the DC). Once Steve took over, he encouraged me - along with a handful of our friends - to contribute new comics. Coincidentally I had a comic I'd been doodling since the beginning of the year, a silly little thing featuring a bunch of circular heads talking to each other; nothing great, but I enjoyed it. So I figured, what the hell? After years of shitting all over the page as much as I could, I reasoned that at this point it was put up, or shut up (I'm not one of those people who believes you can't criticize something unless you make something better, but damnit, I didn't want to look like an unjustified grump). So after some weeks of looking for Bristol paper, buiyng pencils and erasers, and trying my best to draw circles that weren't too gnarly-looking, I drudged up the first two weeks of Kelsey Grammer and never looked back.

The first Kelsey Grammer. Pretty much par the course for the rest of the strip.

Two things you might notice about Grammer: one, it's unusually plot-driven, moreso than most other comics in the Daily Campus. Two, it's not easy to look at. Even when I'm just drawing circle-head-people with no backgrounds and hardly any props or objects, it is plainly obvious that I can't draw worth shit. Grammer's jokes are rarely visual, and usually come through in the dialogue - this results in some overly-wordy strips, which I try my best to avoid. The comic follows Billy Bernard, a cap-wearing twenty-something waif who is forced to flee his hometown after inadvertently killing both his roommate and his uncle. Once he moves from Oldtown to Newsville (lulz) he moves in with Shank Lawless, a mohawk-donning punk who berates Billy at his every opportunity. Basically, Billy is the recipient of constant bad luck, and Shank is an unapologetic dick. It's nothing remarkably original, but I try my hardest to make it at least somewhat interesting to read by throwing as many wrenches into the formula as I can.

This is Gort. Gort has problems.

Since Grammer runs three times a week - Monday Wednesday Friday - I try to keep the weeks themed, sometimes going for week-long story arcs. One of my personal favorites consisted of a week where Shank's so-called friend Gort came to visit, despite the two hating each other. Another was a five-strip run in which Billy and Shank's neighbor, a wide-eyed monster named GODSEID, decided to lay waste to the feeble balance of reality and the Nightmare Zone (although this wasn't detailed in the comic). The whole "GODSEID" thing made the strip much more surreal, and pushed me to hone my art style ever so slightly, resulting in the most purely visual strips I'd ever drawn for Grammer. It was helped along by Steve, who guest-drew a couple comics, resulting in a pretty insane week.

Two "GODSEID" comics, the first one by Steve and the second by myself. While both are kinda creepy, Steve's really takes the cake.

Beyond Kelsey Grammer, I started contributing some so-called "filler" comics, comics that would run in place of inappropriate or missing comics to curb the constant re-running of old strips that made the comics page so lousy in the past. Early on I struggled to find a fill-in concept that I liked; one was a continuation of the GODSEID arc called "Godseid Comix," which followed Godseid as he tried to adapt to everyday life. While I enjoyed drawing them, and it resulted in three strips that were arguably better than most Grammer strips, I couldn't come up with enough ideas for it. Then I tried out The Zimpzonz, a bizarre strip featuring re-drawings of Simpsons promotional art laced with various Simpsons quotes; while I loved Zimpzonz and consider it to be maybe the funniest thing I've drawn this semester, it didn't run due to copyright issues, and I've been too heartbroken to draw another one. The one fill-in I've stuck with, however, has been a little one called Rockin' Rick, featuring the titular Rockin' Rick, a rock 'n roll badass who only cares about one thing in his rock 'n roll life - rock 'n roll. Every strip is essentially the same joke over and over; someone tries to bring Rockin' Rick down, and he retorts with something about rock 'n roll, always ending with a dramatic close-up. It's silly, it's simple, and it's a helluva lot of fun to draw.

Three fill-ins, in order: "Godseid Comix," "Rockin' Rick," and "The Zimpzonz." This is probably as good as my art gets.

Since Steve encouraged me to pursue getting Kelsey Grammer in the DC, he's helped me out with the strip sporadically, often suggesting artistic touches or word-bubble placement. Since Steve's been drawing comics since he was a kid, he has a much better feel for them than I do, and his advice has been extremely helpful in the past few months. Not only that, but Steve's taken it upon himself to draw a few guest Grammer strips here and there - "secret Steve Winchell" strips, as he calls them. According to Steve, since the characters are so simple to draw, it's easy to focus on their facial expressions, which he seems to really enjoy drawing. And since comic-making comes so naturally to Steve, his guest Grammers are arguably funnier than anything I've come up with - and they look a lot better, to boot.

A couple "secret Steve Winchell" Kelsey Grammers, the first depicting Billy Bernard as a father, the second with a maniacal Shank Lawless. I really regret not making Shank as purely homicidal as he is in the second strip.

I enjoy Kelsey Grammer. It might not be the funniest thing in the world, but I think it's worth a chuckle here and there. But because I'm drawing it and publishing it in the DC, I don't feel comfortable ripping on the comics page like I have in the past - which means, for better or for worse, I won't be doing any more Wilhelm comic blogs. It's regrettable, as I really enjoyed those entries, but I enjoy drawing Grammer even more - I'd much rather contribute to the solution than exacerbate the problem, so to speak. Not to mention that a great deal of my friends have contributed quality work since Steve took over - Panda by Brenna Harvey, Dave's Adventures In College by Jake Lucas, The Awkward Turtle by fellow Wilhelm cohort Steve Kress, and Jazz Com Boz by Anthony Wasley, not to mention Steve Winchell's own Phil which I've enjoyed since the fall. Hell, even comics I wasn't in love with last semester have grown on me - Frank's Comic by Frank Donahue, for one, which I regrettably dissed in my Wilhelm posts and now enjoy reading on a daily basis.

So I guess things are looking up for the Daily Campus comics. I'm thinking of continuing Grammer next year, along with Rockin' Rick which'll hopefully run on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It'll be a bit of a workload, to be sure, but I'll always have the satisfaction of knowing that I contributed something to my college newspaper. It's a good feeling.

Also I get five bucks a pop.

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