Tuesday, January 12, 2010

20 Questions with Brett Koth

I’ve worked with Brett Koth for fourteen years and, frankly, I’m sick of him.

He’s always writing and drawing funny strips and creating brilliant sight gags. He’s prolific, professional, and has a seemingly endless imagination. On top of that, he’s a helluva nice guy.

Cut it out, Koth.

In all seriousness, Brett Koth is a one amazing cartoonist -- a born funnyman with drawing chops right up there with the best in the business.  Brett’s worked with Jim Davis on GARFIELD for over 20 years and he recently got the green light for his own syndicated strip: DIAMOND LIL. You can check out LIL on the Creators website and at Brett’s new blog. The strip is scheduled to launch March 1, 2010.

1. When you were a kid, did you want to be a cartoonist?  Did you draw?

It’s all I ever wanted to do.  I was five or six when I took the birthday dollar grandma had sent me, and bought the book MORE PEANUTS with it — it cost a dollar — and that was it for me.  I was with my father (he paid the tax — thanks, dad), and I still remember the drug store where I bought it.  I even remember what the bookrack looked like, and where it was in the store.  If it had been any closer to the ice cream counter I might never have become a cartoonist.

I always drew, and was always encouraged to.  I had a drawing table in my bedroom before I was ten, so I guess you could say I was focused.  I drew bulletin boards in school, drew for the school newspaper, the whole nine yards.  I’m still a compulsive doodler to this day. In fact, I tend to prefer my doodles to my finished work.

And, by the way, I still have that book.

2. What was your first paying cartoon job?

Doing caricatures at Southern California amusement parks.  I started out at Movieland Wax Museum (gone now) in Buena Park, and then moved down the street to Knott’s Berry Farm, where I worked for a company called Harvin Artists, which had a booth there, and two more at Universal Studios in Hollywood.  I think there were about ten of us on staff, and our schedules rotated between both parks.  We were also available for private parties, conventions, etc.  I actually put myself through Cal Arts doing this for four summers and weekends/holidays during school, that’s how well it paid.  We did two-minute quick sketch profile (big head/little body) caricatures with stinky bullet point black Design Art Markers on gloss stock, and I could do 150 to 250 of these on a busy day.  It turned out to be good training for the real world, too, as those $2.25 (what we charged for a sketch then) art critics were still among the most brutal I’ve ever encountered.

3. You’ve worked with Jim Davis for over 20 years.  How did that come about?

In early 1986 I was working at Marvel Productions in L.A. on a CBS half-hour BLONDIE special, the only memory of which I retain is meeting Penny Singleton when she toured the studio.  It was one morning during the 10 a.m. union break, out at the “roach coach” in the parking lot that I first heard Jim Davis was looking for a new assistant.  The hitch was, you had to move to Indiana.

Jim had put out the word through Phil Roman, the producer of his television specials in California, that he was seeking someone to assist on the art for his then new second strip, U.S.ACRES, who had animation experience as well, so they could also assist in the storyboarding of future TV projects.  As far as I know, Bob Scott, myself and another name I’ve forgotten forever were the only three people in Los Angeles to apply for this job.  Bob was a fellow “Cal-Artian” working at Marvel too at the time — I believe on the MUPPET BABIES series.

The three of us applied at Phil’s studio; he Xeroxed copies out of our portfolios and Fed-Xed them to Jim, and the next day, Bob and I got phone calls from him inviting us out to Indiana for interviews.  So my wife Mona and I, and Bob and his then fiancée Vicki  all flew out together, wondering which one of us would get the job.  Jim hired us both.

Long story short, Bob and I split the drawing duties on U.S.ACRES for the rest of its run.  Eventually, I fell into the writing side of things for both strips, and Bob ended up returning to animation in California.  He’s worked at Pixar, in Northern California for many years now, and has a great new strip, MOLLY AND THE BEAR, running on Comics Sherpa.  I continued to work with Jim, and still do, from my home in Virginia.

4. Your new comic strip, DIAMOND LIL, distributed by Creators, launches March 1.  Can you tell us about the strip, and how it got syndicated?

LIL took me by surprise.  After years of many carefully thought out submissions, she just seemed to fall out of my head one day.  The writing came so fast that I had a package ready to send out in only two months, and that had never happened before.  I sent it in November of 2008, and got the call from Creators in February. 

Lillian Bilious is a blue-haired 75-year-old widow who has lived in the same house in the same small town all her life (Turkey Knuckle, Indiana).  She enjoys saying exactly what’s on her mind, because let’s face it, who’s going to tell an old lady to shut up?   She’s a mash-up of many older ladies I’ve known in my life.  I had a great aunt Lillian, who was a character, and I’ve always loved that name.  The “Diamond” in the title refers to her age, and the fact that she’s the hardest substance known to man.

Samples of the strip are now up and running daily on the Creators website under “New” comics, and the newspaper launch is set for March 1st. Somebody pinch me.

5. You’ve been involved with several strips, including U.S.ACRES and BUGS BUNNY.  What can you do with animal characters that you can’t do with people?

Interesting question, because in the writing I never thought of them as animals, unless the gag was animal-specific.  I suppose you do have more latitude with animals, since belief is already suspended once they start talking or walking around on their hind legs, but as long as the personalities of the characters are strong enough, it shouldn’t make a difference who’s doing the talking — you write to the character, not the species.  Although it is more fun to blow up a rooster than a farmer.


6. What’s your favorite rejected strip or gag?

That’s a tough one, because there have been so many over the years.  I’d have to say it was probably a horrific pun.  I love puns, but we can’t use wordplay in GARFIELD, as it won’t translate into other languages.

There was another one, too — a television gag where Garfield was watching a talk show, and the guest had a mole on his thigh shaped like Morey Amsterdam.  Proper names of public people are verboten in the strip, too, so that one died a quiet death, although I think the rough did turn up in one of the anniversary books.  I always liked the punch line in that strip — “Some people just shouldn’t wear bicycle shorts.”

7. Where do you stand in the print comics vs. web comics debate?

I’m in agreement with several of your other interviewees — I see them as apples and oranges, so why not have both?  Good work always speaks for itself, and I think the web is a great venue for that.

8. Newspaper comics are considered pretty tame compared to TV and other media.  Do you find this limiting, or is it a welcome challenge?

Oh, yeah, it’s extremely limiting.  And the challenge is to try to stretch those limits without setting off too many alarm bells. My approach is to simply write what I like, and if there are objections, pick my battles.  Sometimes I find it’s simply best to just kill a gag rather than go back and monkey with it, just for the sake of appropriateness (I had a friend in college who used to call this “murdering my babies,” a term I love). 

And sometimes what constitutes “appropriate” in a comic strip can cause forehead dents in a gagwriter’s drafting table. When I was writing the BUGS BUNNY  strip, rules came down from on high (after I had violated said rules) that Porky was not to stutter, and that Sam and Elmer could not carry firearms (although I could blow characters up — that was okay).  Now I ask you, what kind of a threat is Elmer Fudd without a shotgun in his hands?

Of course, this was almost 20 years ago, and I’ve gotten over it now.  Can you tell?

9. Name five of your favorite comic strips or cartoonists.

There are so many, but off the top of my head, Charles Schulz, Johnny Hart, George Herriman, Virgil Partch and George Booth.  There was also an animator I worked under for a short time at Disney named Chris Buck, who, just by watching him work, taught me more about drawing and posing characters in eight months than I learned at Cal Arts in three years.  He was amazing.

10. Who looks worse in a bikini, Cathy or Hagar the Horrible?

Well, my father in-law is a native Norwegian, and even though I’ve never seen him in a bikini (thank God), I’d still have to say Cathy looks worse.  I’d hate for “dad” to go all “Viking” on me.
11. How do you develop ideas?  Which comes first, words or pictures?

The GARFIELD gags are laid out as they’re written, so a little of both, depending on the gag — some are straight  pantomime.  I’m a doodler, so that often works, but sometimes it’s the words that provide the spark.

In general, I usually follow a writer named Gene Fowler’s advice.  He said, “Writing is easy, all you do is stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

12. Do you ever worry about running out of ideas?

You can’t.  That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.


13. What kind of an editor do you prefer, hands-on or laissez-faire?

I prefer a hands-on editor, but one that also trusts me.

14. What are your favorite books, TV shows, songs and films?  (Yes, that counts as one question.)

The TV I watch anymore is baseball, and stuff like the History channel, the National Geographic channel and Ovation. 

Music would be jazz, blues and classic rock. 

Books would include anything by S.J. Perelman.  Also Robert Benchley, James Thurber, E.B. White, Raymond Chandler, Woody Allen, Roger Angell, David Sedaris, and Ian Frazier, to name a few.  There’s also a new author I enjoy a lot named Simon Rich.

Favorite movie, bar none, would have to be a 1967 Jerry Lewis epic called The Big Mouth. There, I’ve said it, and I’m proud.


15. What are the tools of your trade?

I will generally scribble on and with anything within reach.  I’ll confess to being somewhat of a pen freak, though.  For years now I’ve preferred sketching with a disposable fountain pen made by Pilot, called a Varsity.  For years before that, it was Rolling Writers.  Lately, I seem to have developed a strange fascination with mechanical pencils.  I still can’t figure that one out.

Up until a year ago all my strip writing was done in sketchbooks, but then the boss sent me a pen tablet called a Cintiq, made by Wacom.  Currently I do all my work on this.  I can sketch up an idea on it, and email it directly to Jim, who has one, too.  He can then make any changes or notes on the image, and zap it back to me.  The writing itself is done on whatever paper is handy — written in longhand with small sketches where necessary, but as little drawing as possible.  When I have the idea the way I want it, I take it to the Cintiq, so that when I draw it up, it’s for the first time.  This seems to work best for me. 

I work on a Mac, and the program I use is called Sketchbook Pro.  For other jobs that require finished art I remain Old School: blue pencil on 2-ply plate finish Bristol, Winsor & Newton #1 brush, Higgins Black Magic and white out.

16. What’s the best part about being a cartoonist?

Making a living doing the thing I love best.  I consider myself very lucky.

17. Have you met any of your cartoonist idols?  Under what circumstances?

I met Sergio Aragones at a cartoonist’s meeting in L.A.  He was a big hero of mine growing up.  And during my college years I was lucky enough to have met Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett on different occasions.  Also Walter Lantz.  And, of course, I know Jim, but that’s about it.  I don’t get around much, do I?

18. What advice would you give aspiring cartoonists?

Something I read once:  “Great writing can save bad drawing, but great drawing can never save bad writing.”  I can’t remember who said that, but boy, is it ever true.  Also, never try to hand-letter the word “flick” in capitals.

19. How important are awards?

I don’t have any, so I wouldn’t know.  Jim has quite a few of them.  They look like they’d be tough to dust.

20. What’s something that nobody knows about you?

I’m Spider-Man.


Bob Scott said...

Great interview! Brett Koth is an old friend of mine, a genuinely funny guy, an extemely gifted artist and one of the best kept secrets in comic strips.

I'm glad that people will finally get to see his personal work.

I've read the syndication package for "Diamond Lil" and like all of Brett's work, it's hilarious!

Congratulations Brett! You've earned it.

Linda Solomon said...

I recently found Diamond Lil and I adore her! Thank you Mr. Koth, from another old lady!