Artist Rodd Perry '90 and his writing partner launch a new comic strip that's making people chuckle, guffaw, and squirm.
by Claudia Montague Wheatley '80
Weighing in at one panel and rarely exceeding 25 words, Brevity is indeed the soul of wit. It also is a new cartoon, drawn by School of Communications alumnus Rodd Perry '90 and written by Guy Endore-Kaiser, a coworker at the Ant Farm motion picture advertising company in Los Angeles. Launched in January, Brevity has already made its way into the comics pages of major-market newspapers, from the New York Daily News to the Los Angeles Times, where the newcomers scored a major coup by deposing Garfield. The fat lasagna thief's departure raised a mixed chorus of hosannas and outrage from readers (and temporarily alienated Perry's seven-year-old son, Townes). It also established Brevity's creators as a force to be reckoned with in the surprisingly brutal, Marmaduke-eat-Snoopy world of the funny papers. "I think people picked up on it as sort of symbolic," says Perry. "There's been a move to freshen up the comics page."
You may not have seen Brevity yet, but if you go to the movies, you've certainly seen work by Perry and Endore-Kaiser. As producers at the Ant Farm, the two have a résumé of trailers and TV commercials that includes the Lord of the Rings series, Kill Bill, and The Sixth Sense. "Occasionally, like with Lord of the Rings, we get to work with the directors, and that's the most fun we could have," says Perry.
Those who remember Perry from his college years probably recall that he was a tall, lanky expatriate Australian from West Chester, Pennsylvania; a communications management major with a dry sense of humor who spent a lot of time at WICB-FM (he served as news director in his sophomore year and station manager in his junior and senior years). They probably remember his romance with Maura Howe '87, who was also active at the radio station, and that after the two graduated, they married. They might even know that he worked for Orion Pictures for a year and Disney Home Video for five years before signing on at the Ant Farm. But they probably would not suspect that he could draw.
"I didn't know either, really," says Perry. "I always drew. I got those little art kits with books on how to draw the human figure and nature scenes, and I took one drawing class at Ithaca College that was fun -- they would bring the nude models in, which was probably the reason I took the class in the first place. But in the end the teacher said, 'Draw something on your own,' and I drew this cowboy thing that was based on some doodle I had done, and I remember her saying, 'It looks more like a cartoon than a drawing,' and I didn't understand the difference. I guess that should have been a sign.
"Drawing was one of those things I never imagined doing seriously," he adds. "I still don't do it seriously. I have this great career, and this thing kind of fell into my lap. It's been bewildering that it actually took off."
Like most overnight success stories, Brevity was years in the making. Endore-Kaiser had been doodling cartoons and submitting them to www.comicssherpa.com, a website run by the Universal syndicate as a testing ground for the next generation of Garry Trudeaus and Bill Wattersons. Unfortunately, drawing was not Endore-Kaiser's strong suit, and the comicssherpa critics were unkind. "People were telling him how horrible they were and begging him to stop," says Perry. "To show off I drew up a comic of my own, and he submitted it to the website."
Perry's effort got a better reception, and the two men began collaborating regularly. After a year they had developed a following among comicssherpa viewers, with good scores and feedback, but Universal was resolutely silent. "They would occasionally encourage some of the artists with e-mails and criticism from the editors, but they never once got in touch with us," Perry says.
Undaunted, the two men put together a formal submission and started shopping it around. They got the usual number of rejection letters, but they also got a call from Jake Morrissey at United Media. Morrissey, who was Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson's editor, "saw, past the primitive art skills, that the jokes were funny and fresh and different," says Perry. "He made a deal with us, which was exciting and bizarre; most people go through a development period, and he wanted to take it straight to papers."
"What I love about Brevity is the way its humor constantly surprises the reader," Morrissey wrote in the press release announcing the cartoon's debut. "The mix of Guy's sly sense of humor and Rodd's ingenuously understated art makes this feature unlike anything else in the comics pages today."
Photo: Mellinda Annette
Perry's drawings, executed at night after his children are in bed or early in the morning before they wake up, are actually quite accomplished, with a healthy regard for perspective and composition that the perpetrators of Cathy and Dilbert could learn from. He is also adept at conveying emotion in unexpected quarters. There is something tenderly maternal about the aforementioned spoon, and unexpected pathos in a downcast snake as he learns that being an Elvis impersonator is all in the hips, and, well . . .
"It takes a few hours per comic, both drawing it and formatting it in the computer, and then about three hours to draw and color a Sunday comic," says Perry. "I try to do one week's worth every week, but we're about five months ahead so I can take a day or two off here and there as needed." Juggling this new career with a full-time job and parenting is a challenge, but "I'm not worried yet about burning out because I'm still caught up in the rush of doing it," Perry says. "It's fun to draw, and I really feel like I get better by doing it every day."
As the father of Townes, five-year-old Gus, and eight-month-old Ted, Perry draws much of his artistic inspiration from the pages of children's books: "I loved Shel Silverstein when I was a kid and still read those to my kids; he has these very subversive drawings with his poetry. [I'm inspired by] Quentin Blake, who does Roald Dahl books. I'm also looking at a lot of R. Crumb because I'm envious of his style."
He's not ready to make cartooning his life's work. "That's the funny thing -- we love our day jobs. It might be great someday to do something where you make a living without having to go to an office, but right now it's just a fantasy; I won't set myself up for disappointment if it doesn't happen."
Perry wouldn't turn down a shot at the cartoonist's version of the big time, in the shape of spork family action figures or an animated TV series à la The Simpsons. But he is also almost diffident about Brevity's success.
"It's hard to talk about the appeal of the strip without sounding like a pompous ass," he says. "I think we lucked out and got in at a time when newspapers were looking for something different. They probably feel they have to make an effort to reach younger, sarcastic adults, like Guy and me, who get their news and entertainment from the Web.
"Guy writes stuff that seems to connect with a wide age range while still feeling contemporary and slightly edgy," Perry adds. "I like to think that most of the jokes make average people feel smart for getting them and smart people feel dumb for laughing at them."
That's not quite true. Brevity is actually quite intellectual at times. But that doesn't take away one bit from its charm, or from its power to make people -- of all ages and attitudes -- laugh.