fisher

Fisher © 2012 - Published 2012-06-26 »

Philip Street


Cartoonist

Vaudeville, only not as dead

A few things I've learned from 20 years of Fisher

The first published Fisher strip, which appeared June 24, 1992

(This post was intended by me to appear in The Globe and Mail today, but it did not get picked up, so I'm putting it here instead.)

The comic strip is like vaudeville, I often say, only not as dead. That's like a punch line, only not as funny. Still, a comic strip doesn't always have to be funny; it just needs to have a point. A grain of truth trumps mere cleverness every time.

That's one of the things I've learned in the course of writing and drawing Fisher for The Globe and Mail for 20 years. Another is that the deadline is my friend. In fact, you could say that the deadline made Fisher possible. Without that weekly target, it's unlikely that I would have produced more than 6,000 strips by now. I've learned to trust that, since I've met that deadline several hundred times in a row, I can probably do it again this week.

But in the beginning I wasn't thinking about that. I just wanted to write and draw a daily strip, having grown up reading Peanuts and admiring Charles Schulz's ability to invest his simple drawings with real feeling. So, in 1989, I drew up a sample of strips about an underemployed English major — write what you know, they say — and sent copies to all the major newspaper syndicates and to The Globe and Mail. (The Globe was already publishing Graham Harrop's Back Bench as an exclusive, so I knew the paper was a supporter of Canadian cartooning.)

That sample, and the next, were universally rejected, but Warren Clements at The Globe ultimately reconsidered. We met in the spring of 1992, he offered me a spot on the comics page, and that hapless underemployed young man debuted on June 26, 1992. At first Fisher ran four days a week, alternating with Warren's strip, Nestlings. A year and a half later it began running six days a week, and hasn't missed an edition of The Globe since.

At that first meeting Warren talked me out of my working title, Idiot Mittens. (I still like that title. Funeral Sandwiches is another you should feel free to use.) It didn't take long to settle on Fisher instead. I didn't mind. I had a comic strip, exclusive to The Globe and Mail! Published coast to coast! Fortune, or at least fame, was mine!

Actually, what I gained instead was that deadline, and the opportunity to hone my craft in public. Learning what works and doesn't usually involves making mistakes, but making mistakes in public wasn't frightening to me. I had already made plenty drawing caricatures at Ontario Place over several summers.

And the mistakes in Fisher weren't fatal. They were just gags that in retrospect could have been funnier or better drawn, or dead-end situations or characters that never panned out. Writing straight ahead for a comic strip means that going back and rewriting it later is impossible. So if the whole run of the strip has any coherence at all, it must be an organic one, a consistency of outlook and character.

Some strips, like Peanuts, are set in an endless Now, in which characters may change and evolve but without growing older. (Some strips have no discernible evolution at all.) After the first 200 strips or so, I had used up all of my initial ideas and had to discover what Fisher would be about.

When the strip started, I was already married and in my thirties, but Tom Fisher was single, in his mid-twenties, and trying to get his life moving again. (In today's parlance, he was having a quarter-life crisis.) He moved into a shared household in Toronto (like one of several I had lived in) and eventually got a job, fell in love with Alison, got married, bought a house, and had a child. His life began to catch up with mine.

Naturally, some people think the strip is a window into my life. (Others have told me I must have a window into theirs.) Tom is certainly my alter ego, but everything that happens to him has been filtered through my imagination. I've never worked in advertising, nor do I have a Bixby 800 robot. So the strip is not exactly a diary but rather a portrait of the inside of my head, with most of the nasty and boring bits left out.

People usually want to know where my ideas come from. I have thought a lot about it, since I'm at least as curious to know as they are. The best answer I have is this: They come out of the dark. More specifically, they wander out of the woods, passing mere feet away from where my picnic table sits under a lamp. Then I watch them waddle back into the dark, and if I don't write them down they're gone.

Some ideas show themselves in conversation. Often my wife will pause at a point in our dialogue and say, "That's a Fisher strip. Write it down." As a fine collaborator and critic, Vanessa has contributed more to the strip than I can readily admit — as she well knows.

Although repetition (with variation) is a time-honoured and even necessary dodge for a comic strip — think of Charlie Brown and the footbal — every once in a while I find myself entering new territory. Earlier this month I invited a write-in campaign for the first time, asking readers to suggest names for Ruth and Eugene's puppy. I was thrilled to get dozens of replies. The winner is revealed in today's anniversary strip.

So to those who wrote in, and to all those who have read Fisher over the years, I thank you. You — and the deadline — have given me the chance to practise this oddball art.

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