Young and 'Cantankerous'

Local cartoonist tackles big questions about a 'not so perfect world'

John Nelson sat with his bare feet kicked up on his bedroom desk, staring intently at a blank page in his notebook.

That’s how he spends most of his time — waiting for inspiration. It’s a rare occasion indeed that he has all the answers when he sits down to pen his cartoon Cantankerous.

“The goal of the strip is not to be about a certain formula,” said Nelson. “There are lots of issues that are more interesting, like what to do with life. Those are the problems I’m trying to figure out myself.”

In fact, working through his problems on paper with characters and thought bubbles can be somewhat cathartic.

“Even if I haven’t done anything about the problem, I feel better,” he said.

Nelson’s problems are pretty typical of his fellow 25-year-olds. As the introduction to his Cantankerous web site laments: “So things aren’t turning out exactly how you expected them. You thought you’d spend your life finding a cure for cancer or being a rock star and instead you’re scraping the mold off the linoleum. Cantankerous addresses the issues of a not so perfect world.”

The world may not be perfect, but for Nelson the quest for perfection is a useful exercise. He cited author Robert Pirsig’s observation: “You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally.”

“I think this applies to everything — writing a book, composing a symphony,” said Nelson. “So in that sense I consider windsurfing part of my comic strip training.”

Many of Nelson’s strips have a distinctly “local” flavor, depicting the thrills and mishaps of windsurfing and snowboarding. Nelson is employed as a designer at Chinook Sailing Products, and has been windsurfing for around seven years.

Growing up in Albuquerque, N.M. and later Bellevue, Wash., Nelson studied mechanical engineering at Washington State University, graduating in 1999 and going to work at the Sandia National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. After spending a couple summers in Hood River working at Promotion Wetsuits, Nelson decided to give the town a shot year-round, and the doldrums of his first winter in Hood River helped spark Cantankerous.

“I started the cartoon last winter when there was nothing to do,” said Nelson. “I’ve been drawing cartoons since grade school, but this was my first effort at making a strip I could sell.”

While Nelson drew a strip for fun as a 12-year-old, it never occurred to him to write a comic for publication until two years ago.

“I wanted to start thinking about format and make something that looked professional,” said Nelson, whose strip conforms to the standard one-to-four frame structure. “I had lots of doodles and cartoons in my sketchbooks and returned to a lot of those old ideas for this strip.”

Sometimes the initial magic is lost in the process.

“One of the most difficult things is when I have an idea down in a sketchbook that conveys exactly the attitude I want, and then I have to transfer it to the comic strip,” said Nelson. “It feels like I’m tracing my own work and sometimes it just doesn’t turn out as well.”

Adjusting to the standard strip format also took some effort.

“The limitation of space often forces you to use a different perspective, trying to fit all the information into one frame,” said Nelson.

Plot is usually the last thing Nelson is thinking about as he sits at his desk trying to come up with new strips. Usually random doodling will lead to an idea that he finds funny and interesting. Most of these ideas are drawn from his own experience.

“The strip is almost uncomfortably personal,” said Nelson. “Almost ninety percent is pretty much first person stuff.”

He paused. “Maybe it shouldn’t be. But there is a daydreaming element to it as well.”

Daydreams or not, Nelson’s roommate Tom Aviv couldn’t help but notice some striking parallels between himself and one of Nelson’s characters.

“My roommate gives me a hard time about the second character being his personality through my viewpoint,” said Nelson. “But my alter-ego needs someone to talk to, and it ends up being his roommate.”

To help Nelson give Cantankerous a wider audience, Aviv set up a web site for the strip at http://cantankerous.one-of-us.org. The site is updated with a new cartoon each week and holds an archive of most Cantankerous strips.

Though he has been working with visual arts for most of his life, Nelson’s formal training has been limited. While backpacking in Spain two winters ago he took a painting class at a small studio in Sevilla, and was enrolled for a short time in a painting class in college which he had to abandon due to his engineering courseload.

“I’m a real black and white kind of person, but I’ve been doing some work in oils that’s come out pretty,” said Nelson.

He also participates in Life Drawing, a Hood River artists’ co-op that divvies up the cost for subjects to paint. The group meets between 9 a.m. and noon on Saturday mornings at St. Mark’s Church.

Drawing has always come naturally to Nelson, but the rest of the cartooning process is a little harder.

“Humor is something I’ve struggled with,” said Nelson. “I draw cartoons because I like to draw and express ideas in a format other people can see. The hardest thing is to make it funny.”

Among his influences, Nelson credited comic strips Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes, and The Far Side, along with novelist Joseph Heller, Monty Python and other sources of satirical, darker humor.

Now that Nelson has a large cushion of Cantankerous material to draw upon, he’s looking for possible sources of publication. He’s already published a cartoon in the Dog Nose News, a Portland publication about canines. But the difference between a single cartoon and a syndicated strip is the difference between a Chihuahua and a Saint Bernard.

“I’m scared to try to go for national syndication,” said Nelson. “I don’t think the cartoon is refined enough. The business is incredibly competitive. Out of 6,000 new cartoons only one or two will be chosen for syndication.”

Until he finds the ideal outlet for Cantankerous, Nelson is content to enjoy the busy Hood River summer.

“Six or seven months ago I got into the rhythm of drawing every day. Most of the cartoons I have are from that period,” said Nelson. “Production has definitely slacked off since then.”

Even if Nelson is neglecting Cantankerous in favor of windsurfing, isn’t that just another sacrifice that must be made in pursuit of his “comic strip training?”

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Cantankerous will appear this summer in the Hood River News, beginning June 12.

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