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GUEST POST | Will McIntosh on Comic Strips Made Me Write Hitchers

Will McIntosh on 
Comic Strips Made Me Write Hitchers

It would be reasonable to assume that my new novel Hitchers began with the idea of hundreds of thousands of people becoming possessed, more or less simultaneously, all in the same city, and then I came up with a storyline about a frustrated cartoonist as the scaffolding to support the idea. That’s not how it evolved, though. It started with the frustrated cartoonist, who hijacks his late grandfather’s long-running, esteemed comic strip, and then changes it dramatically, and makes it wildly successful. I got the idea while reading David Michaelis’ biography of Charles Schulz. I learned that Schulz expressly forbade his heirs from allowing another artist to continue the strip after his death. That got me thinking about the hijacked strip idea. When I told a friend about the idea, he pointed out that having someone continue a comic strip against the wishes of his late grandfather wasn’t much of a story, while reminding me that I was a SF/Fantasy writer. So I added half a million dead people.

There’s a lot of talk about comic strips in Hitchers. There are even some actual comic strips slipped among the pages. It will probably surprise no one to learn that I’m a big fan of comic strips, and fascinated by their creators.

I’m fascinated by Bill Watterson, the artist/creator behind Calvin and Hobbes, because he absolutely refused to allow Calvin and Hobbes to appear on merchandise. He believed it would cheapen the art. Watterson is notoriously reclusive, rarely answering fan mail or making public appearances, and he ended up walking away, ending his strip while it was still hugely popular. I was tempted to cast my protagonist Finn Darby in the mold of an intentional recluse, but ultimately decided against it. Finn is happy to merchandise his wildly popular add-on character, Wolfie, and he becomes reclusive only because he’s afraid his grandfather might take over his body in the middle of a television interview and embarrass the hell out of him.

Reading an article about Watterson’s final strip, which is a poignant, understated masterpiece, I became fascinated with the idea of cartoonists’ final strips, and this plays out prominently in Hitchers, as Finn becomes fascinated by them as well. He’s disappointed--nay, disgusted--by his grandfather’s final strip, which is just one more lame, corny joke strip. Finn feels as if his grandfather doesn’t deserve the final say on the strip, even though he created it. Ultimately, Finn will write his own final strip, and it will be much more modern, and far, far darker, than Grandpa’s final effort.

I wrote a half-dozen strips to be inserted into the narrative of Hitchers, and they were wonderfully executed by Scott Brundage. I’d never tried writing comic strips before, and found it both a challenge and a hell of a lot of fun. It’s like writing Haiku; you only have three panels, you can’t have too many words in each panel, and each should tell a complete story. Finn discovers that it’s not easy to come up with a new strip every day, 365 days a year. Some cartoonists report that it’s a brutal pace. In how many creative professions must you consistently come up with a new piece of work on an average of one per day? And most strips are intended to be funny--I can’t imagine trying to write something funny every day.

Click to embiggen
In Hitchers, Finn makes a living selling original comic art until he “procures” the rights to his late grandfather’s strip. Again, I drew this detail from personal experience--my father and I have been collecting original comic art together for the past twenty years. Finn recalls an exchange with his grandfather, when good old Grandpa was still alive. Finn offered to sell off the huge stacks of original Toy Shop strips his grandfather accumulated over the years, estimating that he can get fifty dollars apiece for dailies, and seventy five for Sunday strips (Sunday strips are larger, so more valuable). Grandpa refused when he learned that Peanuts dailies sell for ten thousand each. That’s an accurate figure, believe it or not. In fact, it’s on the low side, especially if we’re talking about a Snoopy and the Red Baron strip.

The image of Grandpa’s huge piles of originals came from a phone conversation I had with the grandson of Al Smith, who carried on one of the earliest comic strips, Mutt and Jeff, after creator Bud Fischer passed away. Al Smith’s grandson was selling off his late grandfather’s strips, and described having thousands and thousands stacked on shelves, pretty much every single day from 1918 into the 1970s. I couldn’t resist giving Grandpa a comparable stash, from the 1950s through 2010.

It’s interesting, how much cartoonists vary on how they handle their original art. Early on, Schulz gave away Peanuts strips to fans, but when he discovered people were selling them, he stopped. From what I understand, the Schulz family now buys back some of the strips that come to auction. They must have an awesome collection. I bought two Bloom County dailies directly from Berke Breathed. He decided to sell off four years of strips ($400 each), but is holding on to the rest. Try to find a Calvin and Hobbes original – I dare ya.

A 2003 Clarion graduate, Will McIntosh recently won the Hugo Award for best short story. By day, he's a psychology professor at Georgia Southern University. His first novel, Soft Apocalypse, was published in April, 2011, by Night Shade Books and his second Hitchers was recently published. His next book will be based off his Hugo award-winning short story "Bridesicle."

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