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Week 1: Origin Story

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Category: Read this Comic

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BACK IN 2003, I was working my way through my Associate of Arts degree at a community college in Maryland.  In addition to my coursework, I worked for the campus newspaper writing small articles and spectacularly unpopular opinion columns.  Eventually, the editor gave me the opportunity to draw a weekly comic strip, which was a very big deal for me!  Although I had been drawing cartoons my whole life, I had never put together a strip with recurring characters and storylines.  I set to sketching, trying to find characters that could be drawn simply and quickly, which would allow me to focus on gag writing (which I felt would be stronger at that point).  After several hours of furtive sketching and pen-chewing, my muse delivered two penguins who live in a bathtub that routinely engaged in witty wordplay and creative visual hijinks.   But what to call it?  The utterly inspired (insipid?) title “2 Penguins in a Tub” was applied, an homage to the set-up from the old “No Soap Radio” comedy trope.[1]

After getting a handle on the basic concept, I went out and bought “The Idiot’s Guide to Cartooning,” which suggested that I buy quill pens and India ink to draw my comics.  So, being a complete idiot, I did just that – and having never used a fountain pen before, the results were somewhat predictable:

Needless to say, the text in the title block is pretty rough, given that I was just learning how to navigate a fountain pen.  Regardless, this comic establishes some pretty important things in the Penguin Comics Universe (PCU):

  1. The names – Cameron and Colin – were taken from my brother-in-law and best friend respectively, at the time of the strip’s creation. While I still have the brother-in-law, the best friend disappeared from my life about a decade ago… which still stings even now…
  2. The dedicated title block image was a nod to the “Calvin & Hobbes” Sunday newspaper strips, which were a favorite of mine growing up. I remember Bill Watterson talking about how he had to put a standalone gag in the first panel of his Sunday strips because sometimes certain papers would cut them altogether due to space constraints.  So, I always included a single-panel gag alongside the strip…and oftentimes I ended up liking the single-panel gag more than the strip itself.
  3. From the beginning, I clearly wasn’t interested in drawing backgrounds. Who has the time and patience for that?
  4. Cameron and Colin aren’t fans of other comic strip characters – because they all exist in the shared PCU, obviously. This would become a recurring gag throughout the series, but I think suggesting that Marmaduke was guilty of excessive pooping was a solid first burn.
  5. Although I continued to draw the strip by hand, I started using non-photo blue pencils and technical pens to put the strips together. However, that first quill pen and its various nibs are still in my art room, nestled comfortably in an old wooden cheese box from Cracker Barrel….

What also became clear was that I needed to be able to edit the strips digitally after scanning them in, which I did using Photoshop (albeit with a very limited understand of how to use the program).  I eventually digitally “cleaned up” this first strip, which yielded a (slightly) improved version:

I think that being able to digitally shave down their coneheads helped the overall aesthetic of the strip, as well as being able to fix the shape/size of their eyes.  My process for drawing comics remains essentially the same today: roughing out the strip in a separate sketchbook, preliminary sketching in blue pencil, inking by hand, digital scanning/clean up to finish.

While launching the strip was very time and labor-intensive, it still remains one of my proudest creative accomplishments to this day.  Each week, I will share the next strip from the run, along with some brief editorial commentary about the strip itself.

Until next week…..

[1] I was first exposed to this in high school, and I never quite got over how clever (and cruel) I thought it was. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_soap_radio