‘Dunce” comic strip is in a class all its own

10 With Tom
10 questions in 10 minutes

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Jens K at work. (Photo by Agnese Zile)

jensJens K. Styve is the creator of Dunce, a delightful Norwegian comic strip he created in 2016. What attracts you first are the drawings, each strip is a work of art; add the comic writing and quality to that, and you have an award-winning comic strip. (photo by Nicolas Tourrenc).
TOM: Is Dunce you? Why the name Dunce for the title character?

JENS: Whenever I’ve done anything autobiographical, it’s been me drawn with that pointy Dunce-cap. I think it’s all about that voice in your head, the self-evaluating critic. The voice that, each time you do more or less anything, goes “You idiot, why did you do that? Why did you say that? Write that? Draw that? Look, now you’ve made a mess.” I think this voice is pure biology, every human seem to be their own worst critic. You should probably check with a biologist, but I assume it’s how we all made it this far. I guess my inner voice is also a sarcastic, satirical writer that can add some fiction and transform these expressions into comics. When I started doing a daily strip with the pointy-hat character, the title Dunce sort of gave itself.

TOM: What is Dunce’s name? He has a son, what about a wife, I don’t remember ever seeing her.

JENS: The main character’s name is Jens K, maybe with a tiny reference to another resentful literary character (Kafka’s Josef K.). The son is named Gustav, I haven’t really figured out yet if the characters should have other names in English, I guess it’s part of the concept that this is actually in the far north of Norway, far above the polar circle. Gustav obviously has (or at least has had) a mother, many readers ask about her, but that part of the story isn’t told (yet).

TOM: Your drawing style is beautiful, is it digital, do you use pen and ink?

JENS: In 2014, I came back from a 14 year long hiatus from comics. Actually I thought I had quit for good, with my steady job as a graphic designer. I did miss making comics, I guess what I missed most was working offline and analogue, with old fashioned tools like brushes, nibs, good paper and the meditative “flow” of drawing. So I returned. I decided to do a daily strip, just for myself. My days were packed, but I found that if I got up insanely early, I could sketch and ink a complete strip each day before going to work. These were self-published in small zines, and this eventually turned into my Dunce strip. The whole point then, was to do this without using any computers. After a year or so, my strip won several competitions and ended up running in Norwegian magazines and newspapers. After doing maybe 150 strips on paper, I bought an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil, curious (and a bit skeptical) if these gadgets could recreate my analogue and “inky” style. One of the really good brush-makers for Procreate (Georg von Westphalen) came by and offered to make a brush pack based on my style. That did it, I switched to iPad.

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TOM: What does your studio/workspace look like?

JENS: Since I went full time comic artist in October 2017, I’ve been working at home. I have a separate room for work, but when I have the house for myself, I move around. My dog Brego (who is introduced in the strip, and often seems to be stealing the show) keeps me company, when I move to another place to draw, he finds another place to sleep. Kitchen is for writing, I have a good chair by the large window for sketching, and I do the inking in my office. All my nibs and brushes are there, in close vicinity, and although I do most work on the iPad now, I try to keep them active. Ink on the hands, and those random accidents that can’t be undone, is still what gives the best “flow”.

TOM: Dunce is run in newspapers in Norway and that area of the world. What is the schedule like is it run daily? How far ahead do you have to have the strips in?

JENS: It is running daily, and has been doing that more or less non stop since January 2017. That means I have to produce at least five new strips every week. There has been times (up to quite recently) when I’ve been so far behind that I handed in the next day’s strip at 12 every day. That is not at all recommended. I’ve now been able to build up a buffer of around four weeks. Also, I now try to make six or seven strips weekly, so that I can have a vacation one day, or even be able to get sick.

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TOM: I’ve read various quotes comparing your work to others but I don’t see it, I think you are totally unique. But who are your comic/cartoon influences?

JENS: My influences are pretty widespread, and they also change a lot. Some people mention Quentin Blake and Ralph Steadman, I admit those two have been great inspirations. I grew up loving French and Belgian comics like Asterix and Franquin, in the 90s I was hooked on Fantagraphics stuff (Hate, Eightball etc), and strips like Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes have always been with me. Lately I’ve been looking into manga comics, working quite hard to find something to get hooked on. I’ve found a few gems, last one was The Girl From The Other Side, which I think everyone should read. Another artist who’s books I keep close these days is the Italian cartoonist Gipi.

TOM: What was the first thing you would seriously draw? I mean, I would draw Fred Flintstone, I always remember as a young child doing that. Did you draw a character or have a favorite subject at a young age?

JENS: Ah, I remember copying Beetle Bailey in very early years. I was maybe 12 when I decided I wanted to become a comic artist. My theory was that I had to draw every day, so that’s what I did. Much of the daily grind at that time was copying whatever I could find. Some comics were almost impossible to copy, and those were often the ones I liked most. I think I was early aware of the mystical quality in a line/stroke and how some drawing styles had more of a “soul.” Early on, I found it hard to do comics, because I was more into drawing than writing. In my recent comics hiatus I wrote and published two novels, so that was pretty much turned around in time.

TOM: What famous artist, dead or alive, would you want to paint your portrait?

JENS: I think Quentin Blake could do a good one, probably also Richard Thompson. Those would probably be ink drawings. If I was to be painted in oil, it could maybe be by Australian comic artist Ashley Wood. Or Norwegian Edvard Munch, he would have painted me as some sort of devious villain.

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TOM: Who is your favorite super hero?

JENS: Ouch, I don’t mean to be cocky, but I’ve never been enthusiastic about any superhero comic (or superhero movie). Guess my reply just has to be «blank» on this one.

TOM: If you could go back in time and change one thing, what would it be?

JENS: I would have started doing this Dunce-strip in 1995, when all newspaper editors were happy and positive people with an optimistic outlook for the future.

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Jens K at work with Brego nearby. (Photo by Agnese Zile)

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Finding obscure comic strips

10 With Tom
10 questions in 10 minutes

I’ve been reading Allan Holtz’s “Strippers Guide” blog since it started in 2005, I believe. I love it because it’s all about thing I love – comic strips – old, historical comic strips. Alan is a comic strip historian and author of “American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide,” a book I own.

Each day, Allan (shown here) and contributor Alex Jay, talk about old comic strips on the blog with plenty of wonderful images of the strips. Many I never heard of and quite a few bring back memories. I had the opportunity to interview Allan recently for Ten With Tom.

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Allan at right, with his wife Media and cartoonist Jim Ivey at Jim’s 90th birthday party.

TOM: I love old comic strips and newspapers and enjoy the Strippers Guide blog, what made you come up with the idea of the blog?

ALLAN: I was about to begin shopping my book, “American Newspaper Comics – An Encyclopedic Reference Guide,” around to publishers. I’d spent over twenty years researching the book, and my name was somewhat known in the comic strip collecting world, but I felt that it would be helpful if I had wider name recognition. In 2007, when I started the Stripper’s Guide site, blogs were the hot new thing on the web. I figured that if I posted regularly about comic strips, with some eye candy in the form of nicely restored old comics, it might help my cause.

Well, it didn’t really help at all with publishers; I ended up having the book accepted by the University of Michigan Press primarily because another author vouched for me. However, I found that the daily regimen of writing short essays, and scanning and restoring the comics, was just what the doctor ordered to stimulate my desire to continue my research work. I also thrive on the feedback I receive from comic strip fans and historians.

TOM: Why Stripper’s Guide? I know what strippers are in the newspaper business, but what made you use that for the name?

ALLAN: I was trying to come up with a catchy title for the blog, and I figured that anyone with an ounce of curiosity would be intrigued by a site that calls itself Stripper’s Guide. Comic strip fans have occasionally called themselves strippers long before I came along, so I don’t get any points for originality. Over the years I’ve fielded my fair share of comments from site visitors who were hoping to find something very different. But maybe I turned a few of them into comic strip fans!

I wanted to call my book Stripper’s Guide as well, but the folks at University of Michigan Press very sweetly told me that there was no way in hell they would publish a book with that title. I still think we could have sold more copies, though …

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Detective Riley, an obscure comic strip from the 1930s

TOM: I love the obscure comics, what you post as “Obscurity of the Day.” How do you find those? I know of some old comics I’ve been trying to find and I can’t find them.

ALLAN: Decades of research have yielded a practically never-ending supply of comic strips I can discuss for “Obscurity of the Day.” The real trick is getting the samples to show. Since microfilm photocopies and online newspaper archive images are rarely of decent quality, I have to find original newspapers that print these rarities, from which I make high-resolution scans and then do additional restoration work.

There is a lively trade in old newspaper comic strips. I haunt eBay constantly, always looking for oddball and obscure material, whether in the form of clipped comic strips, complete newspapers, or even newspaper bound volumes discarded by libraries. My collection is pretty vast and I’m always looking for more.

As to the subject of finding dimly remembered old comic strips, I get asked about them a lot. I’ve become a regular Sherlock Holmes when it comes to identifying dimly recalled comic strips from the past. Between a vague description (sometimes as little as “it had a funny looking kid in it”), a general idea of when they remember reading it, and the newspaper they saw it in, I can usually come up with the answer.

TOM: Do you draw? Have you ever created a comic strip yourself?

ALLAN: I’m good at quite a few things, but drawing is definitely not one of them. Unlike the old saying, though, I can in fact draw straight lines. It’s those darn curved ones that are completely beyond me. I think that may be a part of my fascination with comic strips — the ability to boil a story down to a few deftly arranged pen lines never loses its magic for me.

I did actually create a comic strip, though. I used to work in the software industry, and my company had a monthly newsletter. Just for kicks I came up with a sort of a Dilbert-y comic strip for it. At first I tried to populate it with stick figures, but it was incomprehensibly bad. So I drew a closed office door, and had all the dialog emanating from the other side. After submitting two of those, the newsletter was cancelled. I fear it was my fault.

TOM: You are the author of “American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide.” I have owned that book for many years. How did that come about to begin with?

ALLAN: When I first got seriously interested in newspaper comics and wanted to read about their history, I was frustrated by the quality and lack of depth in the references available then. It seemed like everybody talked endlessly about a standard litany of high profile classic comics — Flash Gordon, Krazy Kat, Little Nemo and so on — but when they ventured beyond those strips the information was generally spotty, and often just plain wrong.

So I set out to gather all the basic information about every US newspaper comics and panel — their running dates, creators, formats, and so on. I felt that a comprehensive reference was needed as a jumping off point for researchers who want to go into more depth. I had no idea when I started that I was embarking on a project that would take a lifetime!

The book was originally published in 2011 and I’ve continued researching ever since, so I’ve got lots of new information to share. I’m very proud of the original book, but I’m hoping there’s a way to bring out the 2nd edition at a much lower price. I want comics enthusiasts to be able to buy a copy without feeling that they need to live on bread and water for a month to afford it.

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A late 1970s strip, The Captain’s Gig, by Virgil Partch

TOM: What comic strip from today or the past would you like to crawl into and spend the day?

ALLAN: Wow, that’s a great question. My first instinct is to say I’d like to be Jiggs from Bringing Up Father. He’s obscenely rich, lives in rococo splendor, and moves through an Art Deco world drawn by the great George McManus. But then I remember that Jiggs regularly gets beaned by Maggie, his harridan wife. Maybe not so great after all.

I could have a wild day as Little Nemo, Buck Rogers or Captain Easy, but I’m enough of a homebody, used to my creature comforts,to take a pass on that.

No, I guess my choice is Dagwood from Blondie. He has a job where he gets away with murder, naps on the couch, and eats the most stupendous sandwiches without ever gaining an ounce. And who doesn’t have a crush on Blondie, whose personality, figure and lovely face put us imperfect real humans to shame.

TOM: Have you met many famous cartoonists? Which ones impressed you the most?

ALLAN: Cartoonists are the celebrity superstars of my world, and I’m sufficiently in awe of them to be a bit shy. I confess that I’ve been in the same room with some of my ink-slinging heroes and sometimes not gotten up the gumption to introduce myself. Which is pretty stupid, because cartoonists are cooped up in their studios so much that when they do get out in public, they tend to be very friendly and giving of their time.

I’d have to say that the cartoonist who impressed me most was still the very first one I met, at a comic book convention in Orlando. Wayne Boring had been the artist on Superman (both comic books and the newspaper strip) in the 1950s and ’60s. By the time I met him he was retired, and I was a snot-nosed 12-year old who saw the gray-haired fellow as a god.

I got up the nerve to approach him with a copy of one of the last Superman comic books he worked on. Much to my amazement, he was not only friendly but sat with me for about five minutes, paging through the comic book and reminiscing about working on it. He even asked me questions, which seemed impossibly congenial. I’ll never forget it.

TOM: Now that Bloom County is back, which of these classics would you like to see come back, too: The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes or Pogo. Please choose just one.

ALLAN: Well, they are all classics, but if I could only have one back, it would by Gary Larson’s The Far Side. I’ve always had a particular affinity for slightly subversive and off-kilter humor (my current favorite strip is Zippy the Pinhead). Although Larson said he ended the panel because he felt his well was running dry, I’m betting that after the long layoff his creative juices have been revitalized and he could have another great run.

TOM: Do you attend comic cons? Which one do you like or prefer?

ALLAN: Comic conventions are about comic books, not newspaper strips, so I’d be a fish out of water. As a kid, when I was more into comic books, Jim Ivey‘s annual OrlandoCon was the highlight of my year. OrlandoCons were great because Ivey invited all these amazing cartoonists he knew, most of whom were newspaper comic strip artists and editorial cartoonists. Meeting these people opened my eyes that comic books were not the sum total of cartooning by a long shot.

From what I understand, nowadays most comic conventions are more about adaptations of comics for movies and television than they are about actual comic books, so I’d be doubly out of my element.

TOM: When you were a kid, what newspapers did you see/read the comics in? What is your earliest memory of reading comics?

ALLAN: I lived in Montreal as a kid, so I fondly recall the strips that ran in the Montreal Star. I especially remember Jasper, which was a comic strip distributed only in Canada. It was about a bear who lived in Jasper National Park in Alberta Canada. I guess that would qualify as an Obscurity of the Day on Stripper’s Guide now!

What really doomed me to a life of loving comic strips, though, was when my dad was doing some plumbing repair under our house and he came out of the crawlspace with an old newspaper he’d found wrapped around a pipe. It was a copy of the Sunday comics from a Montreal Gazette of the early 1940s. This 10-year-old kid had never seen such large, beautifully colored glorious comics. They were a powerful revelation to me, who was used to comic strips printed muddily and on the scale of a postage stamp in current newspapers. I must have read that old comics section a hundred times, and I guess that sealed my destiny.

TOM: Thank you Allan!

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A 1909 strip by George Herriman.

7 of my favorite Etsy comics-related items

I’ve been finding some very cool comics related items on Etsy these days. As you know, I collect vintage comics and comic-related items and most are these are new, but they are pretty cool. Here are some of my favorites.

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Superman, Batman and Spider-man cuff links! On sale now, too!  On sale for $16.14 each with $4.00 shipping. At FabuStuff Store.

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A full 131-page screenplay of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse 2018 movie, Oscar 2019 Best Animated Feature Film winner, with pre-printed autographs of cast members including Stan Lee. Note, the autographs are pre-printed. $19.95 plus shipping from Singapore. From Autograph101 Shop.

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A Captail Marvel mask from My Cosplay Props.  $150.00 Free shipping.

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A intage 1994 Archie Comics Big Face White Promo T-Shirt. $44.00. Free shipping from cTwetnyTwo shop.

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Retro Inspired Comic Strip Skater Dress from VintageGaleria. $35.00, $4.95 shipping.

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Vintage Set of Walt Kellys Comic Strip Pogo Figures. $49.00 plus $8.20 shipping from PutFamilyFirst.

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Dick Tracy Wall Clock by Fun Around the Clock.  $21.99 plus $6.95 shipping

He failed at promoting his comic strip

Sometimes people are their own worst enemies when it comes to promoting their business, especially cartoonists. The interesting thing is that you don’t have to do much in the way of promotion sometimes.

What I mean is I saw a comic strip I liked. The cartoonist posted it as a comment on another cartoonists post on Facebook, asking if the format was a good one or should he changed the strip to another format. I loved the strip he posted, it was funny and I loved the drawing style, so I promptly went to that cartoonist’s Facebook page since the comic strip didn’t have any URL to follow the strip. At the cartoonist’s Facebook page, which was private, there was no way to follow – mistake number one – always have a “follow” button next to the “Add friend” button.

With the follow button, it allows people to follow your public posts and you can keep all of your private posts private. Whenever he posts his comic strip on his Facebook page, it should be public so that everyone can see it.

Mistake number two – there was nothing in the “About” section, the second place I would go to find a link to the comic strip. Nothing.

I’ll post a link to the strip if I ever find it online, but this guy is making it a chore when it should be so easy to follow him and his work.

I wasn’t looking for compliments

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I saw this Peanuts comic strip over the weekend and I wish I had seen it and copied it a few months back. You see I approached the head of one of the syndicates, the top guy, and I asked him to look at my work. I felt that it was not getting seen because they would reject my stuff so fast, you know, not even having time to look at it.

His response was, “I’ll be glad to look at your work, but I know you’re looking for compliments and that’s not what I’ll do.”

I was sort of dumbstruck and I would have sent this comic strip in response if I had known about it at the time. I was sending him my work for publication, not to get accolades.

Needless to say, he didn’t like my work, he put it down in not so many words and that was that. That’s the day I gave up on syndicates and decided to just go it alone.

I know it’s been a long time coming, but I will be publishing my Tomversation comic strip/panel soon.

Dale Messick and Brenda Starr featured at Society of Illustrators gallery

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The Art of Dale Messick – the Brenda Starr cartoonist, will be on display at the Society of Illustrators in NY from January 3 to March 23, 2019.

I won’t be in NY during this period, but would have loved to see the work up close. As a kid, I would read all of the comics in the NY Daily News, including Brenda Starr. I used to like the way it was drawn as well as the stories.

The Society of Illustrators is a small gallery/museum at 128 East 63rd Street, a great place but easy to miss.

The first time I went, I was meeting my cousin there, it was raining and I knew the general area, but couldn’t find the museum. I stood under a red awning to get out of the rain and was looking around the area, wondering, “Where is this place?” only to turn around and realize the awning I was standing under was the awning to the Society of Illustrators entrance!

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