ReviMo Day 2 with Joe Berger

Monday, January 12, 2015

I adore Joe's art in the Hubble Bubble Series. The colors! Perfect for such a fun story. And his book My Special One and Only is near and dear to me. My daughter has a beanie pony that goes EVERYWHERE with us and has for years. Okay, enough gushing, take it away Joe!


My name is Joe Berger, and I’m a writer and illustrator of children’s picture books. For the last 12 years or so, I have also contributed a weekly single-panel cartoon to the Guardian newspaper, as one half of cartooning duo Berger & Wyse (Pascal Wyse and I co-write, I draw).

It might seem at first like these two strands of my work are only superficially related. But actually, the distillation and revision of an idea into a single drawing, perhaps with a few words, which creates a response in the viewer (hopefully a chuckle), is really a distillation of the art of picture book making. It’s a haiku-like form, perhaps, and one I find endlessly fascinating. And like all these creative endeavours, it’s a process of revision. Writing is re-writing. Even if the end point is pretty much back where you started.

And before I go any further, a caveat: there's nothing more insufferable than a comedian explaining why she/he is funny, and I'm afraid what follows may out of necessity veer into that territory. Console yourself that if our cartoons leave you cold you're probably smarter than us, maybe funnier too.

The background


For six years, beginning in 2001, Pascal Wyse and I produced a four-panel strip for the Film and Music pages of the Guardian, called the Pitchers, about a couple of hapless Hollywood screenwriters. Whilst we had no insider knowledge of tinseltown, the strip was really about the creative process, and the agony and ecstasy of working in a creative partnership.


Click images to enlarge                                                                                                       



In 2007, the Pitchers ended and we were commissioned to produce a single panel cartoon for the food pages of the Weekend magazine. The Pitchers comic strip was the first writing I had done, and it gave me the confidence to attempt my first children’s books. But after 330-odd strips, a single-panel cartoon made a refreshing change. Often with the strip we’d come up with a gag, and then have to write the three panels leading up to the gag, which sometimes felt labored. 


Our remit with the new single-panel was simply that it had to be food-related: anything from talking carrots to dinner-party mores; neurotic biscuits to psychotic chefs, gastronomic astronauts and beyond.




Seven years and another 334 cartoons later, we moved off the food pages and into a new slot where our single-panel cartoon could be about, well, anything.
This was at once a relief and a daunting challenge; without the subject-matter to confine us, we just had to be funny. Funnier than before, perhaps, because we no longer had the context of the food pages to make the joke ‘relevant’. Now the cartoon's only reason for being there at all was to raise a smile, so it had bloody well better do that.
 






The process

In the twelve or thirteen years we’ve been doing this, the process has remained largely the same. We meet or Skype for a few hours on a monday morning, and hopefully settle on an idea. I then draw a pencil rough, and we consider if we’ve got all the elements right - the angle, the characters, the wording. I might do more roughs, or, if we’re happy, I’ll go to a final drawing (occasionally we abandon the idea altogether and go back to square one at this stage, but let’s not talk about that - it’s too painful).

The final, coloured drawing will then be considered, and maybe the words or a facial expression tweaked - once we’re both happy, I’ll file it before the end of the day.
Very occasionally we’ll hit a brick wall, and spend six hours or more coming up with nothing. This usually requires stepping away, making a call to the paper requesting an extension til tuesday, and having a fraught, sleepless night imagining that there are no new jokes left in the world, before starting the process afresh. This was easier in the Pitchers days, since our staple subject was Chet and Foley, our protagonists, being unable to come up with ideas.


Revising the idea

Creating cartoons breaks down into two main areas: inspiration and execution - the idea and the drawing. And although these two parts are often inextricably interwoven, revision plays a key role in both of them.

The starting point for each cartoon is very often an idea I've jotted in a notebook - I keep one with me at all times. Whenever Pascal and I are stuck for inspiration, I can trawl through the stack of notebooks on my desk and inevitably find some forgotten shard of an idea that raises a smile. This is particularly valuable to the process, when you consider how cartoons are read.

A reader will leaf through the magazine, and perhaps this small colourful panel near the bottom of the page will catch their eye. They’ll glance at it, and if the speech bubble isn’t too long, they might give it a go. If it doesn’t make them laugh, or even make sense, within about 7 seconds, they’ll shrug and turn the page. Otherwise they’ll smile, maybe chuckle, and still turn the page.

So it’s really only when you’re looking through pages of old ideas that you experience them the way the reader will experience the finished thing, from a cold start.
It’s equally important to consider, when you’ve found an idea you like, how best to work it in to a finished cartoon. We both felt sure there was something in this notebook sketch, but the analogy of sharks to diners didn’t feel quite strong enough. And for me at least, the unpleasantness of the real-life situation made the joke feel slightly crass.


We abandoned the idea, but returned to it a few months later, and by turning it on its head we ended up with this.


Revising at the drawing stage


One of the key things to consider when it comes to finessing a cartoon, is how much ‘space’ you’ve created between the set-up and the joke. Cartoons are often most satisfying to read if, as the reader, you have to do a little decoding, join the dots. Here’s a few examples from our back catalogue:




On the other hand, if you leave too much space, the reader may give up altogether - here’s an example where we may have a left a little too much space . . . it may take you longer than 7 seconds to decode the joke, in which case you're probably going to feel you've worked too hard for the reward!
    


I could blather on for pages - talking about cartoons is almost as fun as drawing them - though I suspect, more so for me than the reader. So I'll end my guest spot here, with a final example of how revision can alter the original inspiration.
A few years ago, during our monday morning conference, Pascal mentioned an idea he’d had for a food cartoon about mice contemplating the moon. I quickly jotted down the following sketch in my notebook, as he described it.
 


We both liked the 'story', but didn't feel like there was quite enough of a joke there. Through a long, convoluted process of discussion (which I can’t now remember) we ended up filing the following cartoon.


I'm particularly fond of this example of the distance travelled between inspiration and execution, because although it took Pascal and me only a few hours to revise, the journey the mice take is rather longer. Having heard that the moon may be made of cheese, they have had to evolve to the point where they have (presumably) rid the earth of humans, taken over, invented space travel and sent a huge colony to their new utopia, only to be disappointed.

Happy revising - and a huge thank you to Meg for the invitation to talk about myself a little - something I’m disconcertingly happy to do. Please feel free to peruse the archive of Berger & Wyse cartoons at:

www.bergerandwyse.com

Our cartoons are also syndicated on GoComics:

www.gocomics.com/berger-and-wyse/

and my solo work can be found at:
www.joeberger.co.uk


Thank you Joe! Can't wait to see more of your books!










Joe Berger is the author and illustrator of Bridget Fidget and Bridget Fidget and The Most Perfect Pet. He is the illustrator of many other books, including  the Hubble Bubble series of picture books and young readers by Tracey Corderoy, Princess in Training by Tammi Sauer, Hattie the Bad by Jane Devlin, Dot by Randi Zuckerberg, and three new Chitty Chitty Bang Bang stories by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Joe has just finished illustrating Girl & Gorilla, by Rick Walton, to be published in the US in 2016.

94 comments :

Cecilia Clark said...

Thank you Joe. I certainly had many a smile from the cartoons you have shared and can see how the process is the same as picture books manuscripts. Tight, lean and plenty of oomph which is not always an easy thing to create. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and insights. I am off to peruse your archives.

flintsuter said...

Thanks so much Joe for the look inside your process! My favorite was the sharks/women and children first gag!

Linda Andersen said...

What a delight to share your world of writing and illustrating with its challenges and rewards.

Doris Stone said...

Thank you, Joe for sharing your process. It was amazing to see how a couple of tweaks changed your work so dramatically. Also, what a treat, to wake up and enjoy a laugh- actually, several laughs.

Debra Shumaker said...

That last comic is hilarious! Thanks for your take on the revision process. This was priceless!

Rachel Stones said...

Fascinating! I enjoyed your cartoons and hearing about your process.

Sue Poduska said...

Wonderful look inside your perspective on revision. Thank you! Let's just say this is the icing on my cake of revision for the day.

Ellen L. Ramsey said...

Starting off the morning with many good laughs makes for a splendid beginning--I particularly love the support group for foods used as a metaphor for mental illness and the mice's unfortunate discovery that the moon is not made of green cheese. Thanks, Joe!

pathaap said...

What a great, informative post, Joe! And your cartoons are hilarious!

Kathy Halsey said...

Idea and execution- that really stuck a cord with me. Seeing your process is very helpful. Love the cartoons and YES, I did chuckle.

Kimberly Cowger said...

Interesting way of looking at things, especially for those of us that aren't illustrators too.

Joy Delgado said...

Thanks for the insight to your process. Really like your cartoons, gave me a good laugh.

Jen Swanson said...

Great info! Thanks for sharing your process

saputnam said...

Great post, Joe! Thank you for sharing your process, it was very informative. I especially liked when you said that “ the art of picture book making.is a haiku-like form,” It
reminded me of what Mem Fox said about writing picture books, “ Writing a picture book is like writing 'War & Peace' in Haiku.”

saputnam said...

Great post, Joe! Thank you for sharing your process, it was very informative. I especially liked when you said that the art of picture book making. is a haiku-like form. It reminded me of what Mem Fox said about writing picture books… “ Writing a picture book is like writing'War & Peace' in Haiku.”

Cathy Ballou Mealey said...

Your post brought to mind a wonderful book "The Cartoonist's Muse: A Guide to Generating and Developing Creative Ideas" by Mischa Richter and Harald Bakken. I used to know Harald when I worked at Wheelock College and always delighted in his tales of stumbling into the inspiration for their collaborative efforts.

My favorite line from this post - "having a fraught, sleepless night imagining that there are no new jokes left in the world" - yes!

Nat Keller said...

Thanks for sharing about your process Joe!! ( And not only that, I loved the cartoons- definitely my kind of humour!:D ( And I'm also a fan of IT Crowd, so I particularly liked the "Have you turned it off and on again" cartoon). It was interesting to see the developments of your ideas that occurred with the revisions.

Kelly Vavala said...

Thank you.... not only for the "chuckle" this morning but for your wit and wisdom describing your revision process! Sounds like you have a lot of fun doing what you do best! Thanks for sharing your time with us!

Sue Heavenrich said...

I just LOVE starting my day with the funnies. Thank you Joe for your wit and wisdom.

Julie Rowan-Zoch said...

Loved the image of the sensitive woodland creatures of the imagination appearing in my head! Ha! Great work, great post, and thanks for luring my wee creatures out of hiding!

Rene` Diane Aube said...

Thanks, Joe! Love the thought of turning my ideas on their heads...hmmm...percolating :)

rosemary said...

Love your cartoons! Have you been drinking? Is my favourite. Thanks!

Joanne Sher said...

Oh Joe - those are FASCINATING! And, of course, hysterical. Great tips too - I can definitely use this! Thanks so very much!

Debra Daugherty said...

Thanks, Joe, for sharing your work. I never realized how much thought has to go into drawing comics. I laughed at the "women and children first" bit.

AJ Irving said...

Great post! I enjoyed learning about your process and reading your fabulous cartoons. Thank you, Joe!

Linda Schueler said...

Cool! A single drawing is a haiku-like form. Thanks for your post.

Sydney O'Neill said...

The cartoons seemed to get funnier as you got more freedom to do them your way. Interesting. Thank you for sharing your process with us!

Valerie Larson-Howard said...

There is nothing like starting the day with a big laugh. I loved it, and I loved seeing the insight into your creative process. Now, I'm off to revise!

Bethany Roberts said...

Thanks for the smiles!! I especially enjoyed reading about your collaboration process- love the teamwork idea!

mona said...

What a fun and funny post. You are very talented with both artsy and wordsy stuff!!! Thank you, Joe.

Anita Banks said...

Funny, thanks for the funnies on this dark, rainy, and dreary Monday

Heather Pierce Stigall said...

Thanks for sharing a bit about your revision process. I did get a chuckle out of your cartoons, so thanks also for starting my day with a laugh!

Carrie Charley Brown said...

OMG, I love The Very Hungry Caterpillar comic!

Tanya Konerman said...

Oh, I love your wacky sense of humor. I try to put that into my PB's as well. Thanks for the post!

Charlotte Dixon said...

Joe, thank you for sharing your revision process. The fine examples of bringing old ideas back and giving them life was pure icing on the cake.

Gabi Snyder said...

Your cartoons made me laugh on this sleepy, rainy Monday morning, so thank you! I appreciated your discussion and examples of the distance between the initial inspiration and the final revision. It's a good reminder that you may end up with something similar to your original idea -- or you may end up with something bearing very little similarity to that first thought.

Robyn Campbell said...

Love your sense of humor and your cartoons. They made me giggle. Giggling is good for the soul. I try to do that at least 50 times a day. Thank you for sharing your process.

Sue Frye said...

Loved the cartoons, especially the ease in which you added the humor!

Katie Gast said...

Love the cartoons. And thanks for a look into your revision process.

Maria Marshall said...

Loved the cartoons and your examples of your revision process. Great way to start the day! Thank you.

MegMillerWrites said...

Great post! I can't believe you do this process weekly Joe! I need to get to cranking on my writing/illustrating!! :D

Kristen Schroeder said...

I love this advice: So it’s really only when you’re looking through pages of old ideas that you experience them the way the reader will experience the finished thing, from a cold start.
Those cartoons are so clever and funny. I'm tempted to go through the archives but that would be a dangerous diversion. Time to get back to revising!

Ramona said...

I love this post - the cartoons are just so clever! I will show my 10 year old son who draws cartoons everyday and will love these too. Thank you Joe.

Laura Zimmermann said...

A great post! Thank you.

Renata Wurster said...

So true that going through old ideas can sometimes be like seeing them for the first time. That's why I keep all my PB brainstorming lists - you never know when you'll get some extra inspiration!

Nicole Popel said...

I love starting the day with smiles and silliness. Way to go, Joe!

Sandy P said...

So funny! I never thought of revising cartoons like you'd revise a story, but I can see that you have to be just as conscious of holding reader interest and incorporating all the right elements... Thanks for sharing your process, and some of its results with us!

Debbie said...

Funny!

animalauthor said...

What a succinct and fascinating way to show the revision process!

BJ Lee said...

These dudes are hysterical!

Lori Mozdzierz said...

Wit is a true gift! Hysterical comics :D

Carol Munro said...

OK, so since no one else has mentioned it, must I assume I'm the only one who didn't get the too-spacey cake decorating joke? Hmmm... It did drive home the importance of getting everything right. Fine tuning and timing. Loved the stroll through your process, Joe. And loved all the cartoons (except the one I spent waaay more than 7 seconds trying to get -- hahaha).

Maria Oka said...

This was wonderful! There is something amazing about how to capture someone so quickly. I'll definitely be making applications to my picture book writing. Thank you!

Shirley Johnson said...

Enjoyed reading about your creating and revision process. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

Rena Traxel Boudreau said...

Some funny stuff here!

Juliana Lee said...

Funny! Thanks for the laugh!

jan annino said...

Hey Joe, I see why you are so popular in books for children & cartooning for adults. I looked up My Special One & Only which sounds like a great story for little cat-lovers like our family is. Your talent is purr-fect.
Having studied poem-making & reading with Prof. Morag Styles, I hope to come across the book you created cover & interior art for, edited by Michael Rosen.


Meg this is a purr-fect post - revision appreciations!

Vivian Kirkfield said...

As I scrolled through the cartoons, I smiled, I chuckled and I laughed out loud! Thank you, Joe, for one of the most entertaining (and informative) posts I've ever read,;) I loved the 'finessing' of the ship sinking/women and children first...what you ended up portraying was not offensive...it was hilariously funny...great talent...thank you for sharing it with us.

Beth A said...

Great post! Really helps us consider major revisions and coming at an idea from a whole new direction!

Tracy Molitors said...

Thank you, Joe -- very interesting and useful information! Your cartoons are great. I can't imagine the pressure of going from concept to finished product so quickly, let alone with such humor!

Elizabeth Brown said...

Wonderful post! Thank you.

Tina Cho said...

Very interesting, Joe! I've never read a post about how comics come to be. I like how you revise, taking that first thought and twisting it into something magnificent. Thanks for sharing!

Joanne Roberts said...

I really enjoyed your thoughts on, well, the thought process. I understand completely the joy you get analyzing WHY a cartoon is funny (or in my case, why a book works.) I have quite a few books on my "to read" list based on your cover art alone. Thanks for inspiring us to persevere in our revisions!

Janie Reinart said...

Joe you made me laugh out loud! Thank you for the post. Going to look up your books.

Cheryl Secomb said...

This was really interesting! Thank you so much for sharing with us.

Pamela Courtney said...

Oh this was FUNNY! I am so happy you shared your process. So informative. And I'm excited about sharing your books with my students. Thank you for your amazing offering.

Yvonne Mes said...

What a privilege to get an insight into your working and revision process, Joe.

Laurie B. said...

Very fun to learn about the process while reading your hilarious cartoons! Thanks a bunch for teaching me something new from a cartoonist's perspective.

Joe Berger said...

Thank you so much for all the fabulous comments - hugely glad to have raised so many smiles!

Joe Berger said...

Thank you Cathy, that book sounds very interesting - I will look it up!

Laurie J. Edwards said...

Fun to see how the cartoons evolved.

Joe Berger said...

I'm sure you're not, Carol! You may find the answer in Sue Poduska's comment further down (not wanting to give it away entirely)...

Joe Berger said...

Thank you once more for this fab opportunity Meg - reading all these ReViMo posts is a terrific way to start the year!

Dani Duck said...

Thank you so much for sharing. I'll be coming back to this soon, I know. I love comics and would love to do some myself. Thanks!

Sylvia Liu said...

This is brilliant. I've tried my hand at cartoons, so I know how hard it is to produce them, even on an occasional basis. I'm in awe of your ability to be creative and funny under the daily deadline pressure.

Janet Smart said...

Thanks for sharing. Short or long - everything we write needs revising!

Carrie Finison said...

We really enjoyed the Bridget Fidget books at our house, and I loved Joe's comments on the revision process. Thanks for sharing!

Kirsten Peavy Bock said...

Love your cartoons! Thanks for sharing your process with us.

Dawn Young said...

Love Bridget Fidget! Thanks for sharing.

pennyklostermann said...

Loved this part: "I'm particularly fond of this example of the distance travelled between inspiration and execution, because although it took Pascal and me only a few hours to revise, the journey the mice take is rather longer. Having heard that the moon may be made of cheese, they have had to evolve to the point where they have (presumably) rid the earth of humans, taken over, invented space travel and sent a huge colony to their new utopia, only to be disappointed." It's amazing how your revision took my mind on this journey!
Your post is great fun!

teresa m.i. schaefer said...

With a slight REVISION: "...sleepless nights imagining that there are no new jokes left in the world... becomes "...sleeplesss night imagining that there are no new [PICTURE BOOK IDEAS] left in the world..." -- Ever have these moments? Great post.

Sharalyn A. Edgeberg said...

Very interesting. Certainly, ideas to ponder. I liked the revision of the sharks, and how that made it tasteful!

Christine Irvin said...

Great ideas. Thanks for sharing!

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Brilliant! I enjoyed that jaunt thoroughly, thank you. :)

Nina said...

Thanks Joe. This has made me wish I could be a writer and illustrator. Great ideas.

Angela Turner said...

I really enjoyed this. Thanks Joe.

Rebecca Colby said...

What fun! Thoroughly enjoyed your post!

Carol Munro said...

Ahhhh... Got it. Goes to show how a reader's mindset affects the reading experience. We're renovating a bathroom (tools, tools, and more tools), so I got focused on "bit" as in the decorator's tip in the icing bag. I think I do this when I go to revise mss, focusing on the wrong things until one day I look and have that aha moment, seeing a new thing/direction/solution.

Angie Karcher said...

I loved seeing Joe's process! Illustrators write stories with drawings instead of words and the outcome is SO powerful! Love this!

Suzy said...

The art work in Hubble Bubble Granny Trouble are so lovely. Thank you for sharing your process and what works for you. ~Suzy Leopold

Lauri Meyers said...

Well it was a very fun post to read, though I just kept going back to the Very Hungry Caterpillar in my mind and giggling.

Lauren Kerstein said...

What a fun, helpful read! I loved the following thoughts: "Writing is re-writing." "Inspiration and execution..." Thank you!

Manju Howard said...

Not sure where my comment flew off to. But I really enjoyed the Devil & God cartoon.

Annie Bailey said...

Great post! Thanks Joe!