- BC Games
Cartooning and living by the sea
Fifty years ago, in March of 1963, Ron Woodall went to New York City. In his bag he had 40 comic strips that he hoped to sell to a syndicate. The cast of characters included Seaweed, Martha, the Captain, the Seagull and the Porpoise. The location was a little cove.
The reason Woodall presented his wares in the Big Apple was that he dreamed of living in a setting like the one he’d created, a setting very much like Snug Cove. The reaction to Woodall’s strip was not negative. He was told to come back with 100 strips, anything less than that wouldn’t be taken under consideration. He even met his hero Charles Schultz, the creator of Peanuts, who gave him positive feedback and encouraged him to continue.
Woodall left New York with a degree of certainty that he would be a cartoonist and that he would live by the water. But when he got back to Montreal, a job offer to work as an art director in an ad agency was on the table. Strapped for cash, Woodall signed up and didn’t cartoon until much later - until he retired to Bowen Island.
Just over five years ago, he picked up a pencil and drew a square, the start of his first Bowen cartoon. Then he dropped by the Undercurrent office and asked whether the community paper would be interested in that sort of thing. The editor said yes, Woodall kept drawing, and he hasn’t missed a week since. On Friday, September 20, cartoon number 265 appears on page 4.
“When I started working on Seaweed, I wanted to create a place like the one where I live now,” Woodall says. He finds it humorous that, upon moving to an island, he’s come across characters that resemble those who populate the cartoon strip he’s drawn long ago. And he has taken to wearing a bucket hat like the one that perches on top of Seaweed’s head.
“[Seaweed] brought a kind of urban attitude to that small island,” Woodall says. “He saw everything through the lens of marketing, branding and progress. He had the mentality of looking at how you could change things - a classic example of a developer.”
“Martha represents the whole ‘touchy-feely’ side. She is the artist psyche of the island with a sincere but amateur approach to the arts,” he explains.
“The old sea captain would be one of the most negative people, the sort you find posting on the Forum. He has lived on the island forever and knows more than anyone else about the life there. And he has his own ideas how the community should be run,” Woodall says, adding that he could easily find five or six people who could fit that bill.
“Seagull didn’t speak but communicated through thought bubbles. He was a philosopher, very well read and aware of contemporary media. He was kind of a hipster,” he said. “Porpoise, on the other hand, was Seagull’s foil. He was the victim and only had two expressions: a positive one that was depicted with a heart over its eyes and a negative one that showed a furrowed brow.”
“It’s also funny that my Seaweed strips had almost nothing to do with my life at the time. I did them because I didn’t like my job and wanted to live somewhere else,” he laughs. “Now, I have too much time on my hands and want a deadline.”
“On Monday, I start thinking about topics. I read the paper and look at the Forum,” Woodall says about his process. “On Tuesday, I sketch a couple of ideas in pencil and on Wednesday, I get out the ink.”
The cartoons arrive at the Undercurrent on Wednesday night, ready for publication.
Woodall remembers the first cartoon he created for the Undercurrent that ran on August 8, 2008. “I was walking through the cove and saw a sign that said ‘Dog Days canceled.’ This is the kind of thing that I find funny and I started noodling around,” he recalls. The sign forms the focus of the finished cartoon. In front of it, Woodall positioned seven cats. The caption reads: Seizing window of opportunity.
Woodall has a list of all the cartoons that ran in the Undercurrent. He also has a list of ideas that, single spaced, runs 154 pages.
“I have no shortage of ideas - I also have five full books of drawings,” he laughs.
Woodall has a long list of things that strike his fancy.
He believes that it is essential to live in this community to be able to cartoon for the Undercurrent. “There are a finite number of things that I find funny here and I have a list of them,” he says.
But as much as he is always on the lookout for the humorous aspects of island life, he is careful to not offend. “I never take sides,” he says. “The issue itself becomes my joke. The caption is also important.”
Woodall explains that he often takes something that is considered normal and brings a touch of absurdity to it. Of the over 250 cartoons he’s submitted, he’s had a couple not accepted for publication and received only a single complaint.
And he has a huge fan base. Often people tell him that, when they buy the Undercurrent, they look at the cartoon first.
He calls the style of his cartoon “observational” or “third person”.
“It’s a cartoon style you don’t see much,” he said. “Unlike most of the New Yorker’s cartoons that have captions where the characters are talking to one another, my cartoons never have people talking.”
The originator of that style of cartoon is B. Kliban and Woodall thinks very highly of him.
Woodall says cartooning is a “very dead art except on Bowen” and he is happy to keep it alive. “I look at it as a hobby, like fishing, golf or building bird houses, it’s my form of volunteering,” he says.
Few publications still carry cartoons and Woodall measures himself against the best. “I always ask myself if the cartoons would be good enough for the New Yorker based on the quality of the humour and I think a lot of them are,” he says, but adds that “some of them are clunkers.” Woodall credits his wife, whom he calls a very good critic, for “not letting the clunkers out.” He also says that a lot of people ask him for edgier cartoons. “They mean meaner and less subtle cartoons and I’m just not comfortable with that in our community,” he added.
Before creating Seaweed, Woodall had done some cartooning for a university newspaper. He attended Concordia as well as McGill but didn’t finish a degree. Lately, he has started to make a scrapbook that he calls: portraits of an unfocused life (www.ronwoodall.com). “I’m collecting articles about my life. I’m dropping names and taking credit for things,” he laughs.
Even though Woodall went on to a very successful career, the dream of living in a little seaside village stayed with him, eventually leading him to Snug Cove, to the delight of Undercurrent readers.