J. Robert Lennon
J. Robert Lennon is a writer, but has worked as a teacher, deli clerk, sport fisherman, drill press operator, cartographer, assistant vice president of demographic research, pornographer, paleontologist, "action" painter, composer of inspirational hymns for the Ford Motor Company, golf pro, tennis pro, ball boy, masseuse, toady, tough, trucker, U.S. ambassador to Denmark, key grip, guinea pig, snack chef, food photographer, dean of students, meat inspector, journeyman pharmacist, slumlord, drummer, artificial inseminator, personal assistant to Ms. Winfrey, farmer, front half of donkey, tobacco lord, community affairs liaison, and witch.Ê His work has appeared in many journals, including North Dakota Sweethearts, Sisyphus 24, Bread World, Zzzap!: the Magazine of the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers Action Figures Collectors' Guild, Green Mother, Paunch Fetish, Parrot Fancy, Hutt Family Annual Newsletter, Beach House Quarterly, Journal of Soil Quality Assessment and Watershed Preservation, High Intensity Rock and Roll, Short Hair, Skate Now, Vintage Garment Restoration Annual, Big Bride, Estate Living, Conscientious Extralegal Dissident Activity, New Ideas for the Country Home, and Partisan Review for Kids!. He lives in Ithaca, New York with his wife and son and their many ferrets.
On "The Funnies":
A great while ago I thought to write a novel about popular culture: it was going to follow the best rock and roll band in the world through all their petty failures, foremost among them their inability to be taken seriously by anyone. If that novel had a theme, it would have been that art can rise up out of crap, given enough time to gestate.
But I dropped the idea. Dignifying rock musicians seemed too much a moral crusade (some of my favorite music is by rock bands) and occupied ground I had already covered before, in several aborted pieces of juvenilia. Still, the theme stuck with me. Later I got the idea to write something about the real family behind a family-oriented comic strip, and when a friend told me that the four children in a certain popular strip were actually five in real life, the pieces of The Funnies began to fall into place.
Cartoons are miracles of code and symbol. There are visual abbreviations for everything, including emotion (emenata, plews), physical action (hites, briffits, agitrons), light and temperature (solrads and lapsebeams), tactile sensation (vites and dites), and of course epithet (jarns, quimps, nittles and grawlixes).(1)Like all good art, good cartoons hinge on the subtlest of details; the slightest jiggle of a pen can transform Queen Elizabeth into Jack the Ripper.
Good cartoons trust us to read between the lines. Their characters must bear the stupidest of gags without disappointing us, and have to stretch the limits of who they are without ever becoming somebody else. Strips must embrace limitation and repetition, like a villanelle or a Philip Glass opera, and squeeze emotion out of them.Ê They should reflect, mock, and contribute to our culture, all at the same time. And since they're the first thing we read when we get out of bed, they had better be snappy about it.
And so Tim Mix, The Funnies's main character, is not, as he at first believes, selling his soul when he quits his stalled installation art career to take over his late father's comic strip; he is learning how to be an artist, which is not dissimilar to learning to live with what you've got, and making it into something worth having. I had more fun with this book than anything else I've ever written. While all the characters, including Tim, are made up, its voice is my own, or about as close to it as I'll ever be willing to come. The opportunity to indulge myself in over-the-top comic set pieces, a villain with a shaved head, crematorial entrepreneurs, New Jersey, labor unrest, lightbulb jokes and a secret self-storage warehouse was more than I could resist, and it's a lapse in restraint I haven't regretted for a minute. I only hope that readers will say the same.
While I was writing The Funnies, I saw a "Blondie" comic strip in which Dagwood cracks wise to a barber, who retaliates by chopping his Hermes-like hairdo beyond recognition.Ê In the next day's strip, Dagwood's coiffure is completely restored as he shops for a new car. Perhaps I am the only person in America to have noticed this, but for me, it represents what's truly
thrilling about art, and about fiction: when you're in its clutches, everything seems possible, and is.
(1) terms from Backstage at the Strips, a wonderful book by the multifarious cartoon genius Mort Walker.
Illustration by Ruben Bolling