October 31st, 2013

Pumpkins as far as the eye can see… [Updated]

by Rick Kirkman And Jerry Scott

I’m pretty sure that’s how the description went in the gag for this strip. I can’t actually prove it, because in those days, Jerry sent gags to me via fax. Hard to believe we spent the years 4 through 15 with gags being sent as faxes. We’ve since moved into the modern world and use email.

Jerry sends gags to me as little scripts. A brief, not-usually-very-detailed description of the scene, and the dialogue. The panels are numbered. Most of the time, it leaves me some leeway as to the setting, the peripheral action, scene blocking. If it’s really critical for a bit of stage action or direction, he’ll indicate that for the panel. Then it’s just a matter of who says what.

It’s a great system. I’m not too roped into the details of how he sees it, which gives me room to play around with the characters. The nice thing is that he says most of the time, the finished strips look just like he imagined them.

I guess knowing someone for about forty years pays off.

This particular strip, though, was his Halloween “trick” to me. And an early one—we produce the strips several weeks ahead of publication. I wasn’t in the trick-or-treat mood yet.

It’s always fun to get a gag from Jerry that is a one panel affair. That means there’s lots of room to work, unfettered by multiple panels. They tend to be more visually attractive, especially as newspapers have shrunk the size they print comics.

So when I saw the tell-tale nearly blank page of a gag come through, with only two words of dialogue, I have to say I was excited.

Then I saw it.

The stage direction. The stage direction that can mean artistic freedom. Or stage direction that conceals evil hours of tedious drawing.

Yep. The second one. Eight words. Probably a word for every hour of extra work that had to go into that drawing. I’ve never counted the pumpkins—I’d appreciate it if someone would do it for me.

(Click to biggify)

Each pumpkin had to be drawn—not once, but twice because I draw a fairly detailed sketch to send to Jerry—and colored. Oh, let’s not forget the vines, because pumpkin patches aren’t just your everyday farm field. I have a wonderful assistant, who helps by doing most of the coloring of the Sunday strips. I felt so guilty when I sent this strip to her, I might have even offered to pay her more for it—or maybe not. Maybe I’d gotten into the trick-or-treat mood by then.

As it happened, just the year before, my wife and I had taken the kids up to a pumpkin farm in Dewey, Arizona. And the memory of it was seared into my brain and my back. Good thing I have an outlet for this.

Then there was the title panel. We always try to come up with something that fits the gag and is somehow a little gag in itself. I had saved an old, huge atlas from my youth, mainly because of a beautifully engraved drawing on the first page. It showed the mythical figure, Atlas, bearing the world on his shoulders. A drawing instantly came to mind:  Darryl as Atlas bearing a giant pumpkin on his shoulders. Badda-bing!

I don’t know what I was thinking. Here I had just drawn a bazillion (still waiting for the count) pumpkins and I just added more time to this strip by trying to emulate an old engraving, plus I decided to emulate old parchment paper for the background.

I was a glutton for punishment.

Thirteen years later, and the pain of this strip is still present. I’m still complaining.

When I saw the whole thing finished, I couldn’t have been happier. It still remains one of my favorite Baby Blues strips. But the happiness is transient. If I look at it too long, I get an urge to go ice my hand.

Jerry must have felt guilty. It was nearly five years before he pulled something like that again.

The next time it was a watermelon farm.

Do you have any idea how many stripes are on a bazillion watermelons?

Your reward for reading this far is that if you can count all the orange pumpkins in this strip, I’ll send a free BBXX hardback anthology—signed with a drawing— to the first person with the closest to correct answer. I realize this means I’ll have to count the %#@* pumpkins myself to confirm it. Maybe I can get one of my daughters to do it for me. After all, they got pumpkins out of that trip so long ago.

 UPDATE—The contest is officially over. We have a winner! Actually, two winners. So far, though, I have only heard back from one of them.

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