My Creative Process for Cartooning

By Jacob Yaple

Anybody can draw cartoons. It’s nothing special.

And that’s true. Anybody can draw cartoons. But consistently drawing funny cartoons that strangers will laugh at, that’s difficult.

I’ve found that having a creative process helps. And not just with cartooning. When I’m writing short stories or poems or board game rules, I use pretty much the same process. This process came into being over the course of many years, since I first began drawing as a young child. In those days I never finished any of my drawings or cartoons. I was always rushing off in the grip of some new interest. But slowly, I began to come back to my unfinished cartoons and try to complete them. The things that I came back to over and over again showed which mediums I cared about and wanted to take the time to perfect. The mark of a true cartoonist is not his or her drawing ability but the willingness to spend time drawing and cartooning.

Many cartoons inspired me as a child. Gary Larson’s sketchy Far Side cartoons taught me that an off-the-wall sense of humor was more important than drawing skills. Cartoons such as Peanuts, Garfield, and Calvin and Hobbes taught me how to set up a joke and deliver a punchline in a multi-panel comic strip format. Calvin and Hobbes by itself taught me the importance of imagination and maintaining a childlike way of looking at the world.

Now let’s move on to the creative process. Most creative processes are similar: they usually begin with an idea. Ideas are all around us. To catch an idea, I must set idea traps. Idea traps are pens and scraps of paper that I carry with me or put on my bedside table. When I have an idea, I write it down or make a quick sketch that captures the essence of the idea. I always make a note of my ideas right away because my memory is terrible.

So sometimes I wait for ideas to come to me, and I capture them in idea traps. But what if I want to make an idea from scratch? Like flint and steel, there are two things that always create sparks for me: two dissimilar ideas, the more different the better. Funerals and weddings. Flies and menus. Dominoes and ice floes. The combination will either make the reader laugh or spark some new thought in the reader’s mind. Making new connections in the brain helps an organism think faster and live longer, and it releases pleasure chemicals that make a person chuckle or feel good.

I’m a writer first and foremost, so the writing of the cartoon comes first. I kick the joke and the dialogue around in my head for a while, then write it down and cross it out and rewrite it a couple dozen times before it meets with my approval. Drawing the cartoon is the opposite of that careful deliberation: I draw it all at once, with almost no preliminary sketching. I draw it in ink with a black Bic pen, since I have no patience for tracing over a penciled-in outline. If there’s a lot of dialogue, first I write it in the top half of each panel to make sure it will fit. Then I draw the characters’ faces, and, if enough room remains and we need to see them for some reason, the characters’ bodies.

I came up with the idea for the “fly ordering food in a restaurant” cartoon one particularly frustrating Monday. “I feel like shit today!” I yelled. Then my creative mind, trying to cheer me up, turned it around into what a fly says when he’s ordering dinner. I kicked the idea around for a long time, reluctant to put pen to paper because I was unsure how to draw flies. Of course, as any pile of manure will tell you, it’s easy to draw flies: they’re mostly compound eyes and veiny wings, anyway. I made some practice sketches of the flies while preparing to draw the cartoon.

I was unsure whether to use “shit” or “crap” in the cartoon. “Shit” felt closer to the original sentiment, but I had to consider the sensibilities of my readers. I didn’t want little kids repeating the cartoon’s dialogue and getting in trouble with their parents. When it came time to write the line in the actual cartoon, I made a mistake and had to cover it up by putting the word “crap” in bold lettering.

The wings I drew seem too big for the flies’ bodies, and I made one of the waitress’ legs too thick and tried to cover it up by drawing her wing over it. I wanted to color in part of the black-and-white drawing, and I think filling in the waitress’ apron and the customer’s stool is a nice balance in the two halves of the picture.

When making the finished cartoon, I have an “all-or-nothing” attitude. I don’t use White-Out except in the case of really horrible mistakes, so once it’s drawn and I’ve fixed any mistakes as best I can, I’m satisfied with the result.