Sunday, May 15, 2005

Talking With Isaiah, The Common Ills cartoonist

"There's no policy I'm aware of," Common Ills community member Isaiah explains. "I don't have any desire to do a violent comic so that didn't come up. But there really wasn't any guidelines put on me. I did wonder if it was okay to spoof John Bolton's alleged swinging ways but C.I. said go for it."

For those readers who may have missed it (stranger things have happened), Isaiah is now the illustrator for The Common Ills. With his first comic, he addressed how Condi Rice gets a pass as the media focuses on what she's wearing. (In that comic, she was grinning for the camera as she held the torn remains of Latin America.) In the two weeks since he began contributing, he's done an illustration of Jane Fonda as well as more in his series The World Today Just Nuts.
Besides the Bolton comic, there's also been a Love Is . . . spoof: Bully Is . . . plotting destruction together.

"The Common Ills is just such a great site and I'm always visiting it and noticing what C.I. are some member has contributed," Isaiah explains. "Then, like Ruth, I started thinking about it and wondering what I could contribute. For about a couple of weeks before the first thing went up, I was sketching things and thinking about what sort of thing I wanted to do. I hadn't drawn or doodled, depending on your view, in years. But I felt like I could add a visual element for the community that wasn't there."

How far are they planned ahead?

"If I have an idea during the week, as soon as I can grab time, I'll sketch it and try to get it to C.I. ahead of Sunday now. With John Bolton, I was listening to The Majority Report that night and thinking, 'This is a cartoon.' I e-mailed C.I. and asked if it was okay because at the time only Larry Flynt was making the charges that Bolton's sexual background including some 'swinging times.' I wanted to be sure there wasn't a problem with the topic or with the charges coming from Flynt. C.I. noted that Flynt was on Democracy Now! and that my spot is editorial because that's what the comics are so do whatever I want. After I read that, I thought, 'The vote's going down tomorrow from the panel, I don't want to wait until Sunday to weigh in on this.' So I sketched it out quickly and sent it to C.I. asking if it was okay. The response I got back was that every line was visible so it would go up tomorrow morning. Which was pretty cool because I meant is the cartoon itself okay? I had Bolton with one arm wrapped around the United Nations building and with the other hand, he's got a finger playing with the building while he's talking about a three way with the European Union and stuff."

One thing that's changed is that Isaiah submits them in jpeg now.

"I didn't even think about that. I use my scanner for photos and things like that to send to friends and just use the automatic setting. One reason the first comic was so much work to go up was that it wasn't in JPEG format. So C.I. had to convert it and enhance it to make the first one work."

The plan is for each Sunday to feature an illustration, "like how you have the Sunday comics in your newspapers." Other than that there will be an illustration when something pops up.

"But that doesn't mean suggest something," Isaiah clarifies. "I was really glad C.I. noted this was my space and that I'd think up what to do because I'm not talented enough to do something on demand. I'd almost said that to C.I., that I didn't want any of that kind of suggestion feedback but then thought that might come off rude since it's a community based site. Then I read what C.I. posted and was glad that went up. If someone has a great idea, they should sketch it out and get it posted on their own. I'm not someone who can draw something, even as badly as I draw, under request. It has to strike me as strange or weird that something's happening and then from there I toss it around to see if it's a comic."

A number of rejected illustrations have made it into the gina & krista round-robin. Why were those rejected?

"I didn't want them posted. I was tossing those out to C.I. to show what I had in mind. The first thing I sent it was the pencil drawing of Laura Bush making those comments about Desperate Housewives. C.I. was willing to post that and the next few but I kept saying no because I didn't think I'd really accomplished what I wanted to. I was happy to share them in the private newsletter but I wasn't wanting them up at a site."

Besides being interviewed by Gina and Krista for their round-robin, Isaiah also spoke with Rebecca for a post at Sex and Politics and Screeds and Attitude.

"That was a lot of fun and Rebecca and Gina & Krista were trying to give heads up to what was coming. C.I. doesn't do heads up unless you ask for them because a lot of members will change their mind or try to do something and it won't turn out. I know I wad up more than makes it to the site. So I understood that but I was serious about doing this and I'd gone out and looked at what art supplies I wanted to do it with. Had to turn around and leave to think about it some more. I knew I wanted colors because the whole point of being visual is to take it beyond black type on a white background. At first I thought about markers but didn't have the control with them that I wanted. I wasn't going to attempt to do paintings. So I thought about map colors and the like before finding a set of pencils that I really liked. I don't think the Bolton comic would have come off as well as it did without some color."

As he told Rebecca:

so isaiah told me that first off, he's working in ergo soft staedtler water color pencils for his editorial cartoon. it will be called 'the world today: just nuts.'

He also spoke of influences.

"I did take a few art classes but you're not going to notice that because that's not really what I was interested in. I can remember that, growing up, there were these things called ColorForms or something. They were like magnets and you'd put them on this board. There was this really cool one that a neighbor had of a haunted house with Scooby Doo and my sister had some Raggedy Ann thing which wasn't so cool. I really wanted this Batman & Robin one. But for whatever reason, probably money, it was always 'next time.' One day, my great grandfather was over at my grandparents and he had a nurse because he was in a wheel chair. He wasn't feeling well and we were supposed to be very quiet. So I was sitting at the kitchen table waiting my turn for one of the coloring books and getting tired of waiting. His nurse took pity on me and gave me some blank paper. I just started drawing my own coloring book pages to color in. I had Batman, Robin, Batgirl and things like that. I was about to turn four. And for three, they were pretty good. Sadly, they're about the same level now. So pretend they were drawn by a three year old and you'll be really impressed. In art classes, I always enjoyed doing etchings best. I did one of my dog Brandy that impresses me to this day. It's too good for what I should be capable of. But I'm limited and I know that. Anyone looking at something I did at The Common Ills should know I suffer no delusions of artistry."

Isaiah told Rebecca that comic books and Mad Magazine were big influences.

"Right. I liked Mad a lot. They were black and white drawings. I really liked it when they'd spoof a movie or TV show because I could look at the drawings and know what the people really looked like. So I was able to learn a lot from Mad after I started drawing, I mean right after. I had an uncle who looked at those first coloring book drawings and went out and bought me a Mad Magazine and a Mad Magazine book. He always wanted me to draw him a Spy vs. Spy thing. I finally did a drawing of it, and he put it up on his wall even though it wasn't that good, but I really don't like requests. The other thing, and this might be interesting, is that by the time I got to first grade, most of the my 'style' was set and I got in trouble for always drawing women with big breasts. One day we had to draw our family and my mother did have big breasts but I'd also drawn Wonder Woman on another piece of paper and the combination led to my teacher having a talk with my mother when she picked me up. That may be from Mad or from comic books. Or it may be something Freudian. But the teacher felt the drawings were 'indecent.'"

What happened?

"With the teacher? My mother didn't care. She told the teacher to look at how everyone was drawing these circles for faces and doing two dots for eyes and then to look at mine. She would say for years after that she wasn't sure who was focused on breasts, me or the teacher, because there was so much else in each drawing to notice."

So what does Isaiah think of the illustrations?

"I think they're half-assed on my part and just there to contribute to the community. I don't mistake them for art or think they're on the level of some cartoonist."

They are what they are?

"Kat's motto!" Isaiah laughs. "Yep, that pretty much sums it up. They are what they are. Take from them what you can. I don't mistake myself for an artist or an illustrator. I don't have this compulsion to draw. Before starting this up, the only time I'd draw was for my nephews when they'd ask for a Bart Simpson or something. Kids like my drawings, that's about the level I'm on."

When we ran the drawing of Jane Fonda last week, we got a great deal of positive response.

"That's nice, but it's probably got more to do with the subject than with my limited abilities. But it's just there to give something back to the community. I've got no desire to write up an essay or a few paragraphs. But, given the time, I can do a doodle or two a week. Ruth's doing these examinations of NPR's Morning Edition and Kat does those incredible reviews where she just captures the mood of a CD. I'm not someone who's going to read an article in a paper or online and e-mail The Common Ills to highlight it. I'm either too lazy or assuming that if I've seen it, everyone's seen it. So this is my way of tossing in a contribution. If people like it, that's cool but I'm not going to lose any sleep over it if they don't. I'm not pouring my heart and soul into this."

Speaking of Ruth, we were supposed to interview Isaiah last week but he begged off asking us to focus instead on Ruth.

"I just felt it was her moment and she should get the spotlight. BuzzFlash linked to her and from what she'd written in her posted e-mail as well as in her entries, I knew that would be really important to her, as it should be, so I didn't see the point in you guys doing something on me. It was her moment and she should have the attention. It wasn't some big gesture on my part. It was nice of you guys to think that it was, but, to me, it was just common sense and common decency to say, 'I think you should focus on Ruth.'"

We think Isaiah's too modest. About everything. About how nice it was for him to direct us over to Ruth last week. About his contributions to The Common Ills community. Check out his illustrations and we think you'll be impressed too.
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