Calvin and Hobbes Creator Reveals His Method for Creativity

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This illustration by Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist, Bill Watterson, reveals the top secret method for coming up with ideas for comic strips.  

Putting your butt in the chair and staring blankly into space until inspiration hits you.

Ok. Maybe it’s not that simple but it feels like it sometimes. The true key to consistent creativity is a daily routine you schedule into your life and stick to, no matter what.

Coming up with ideas for what to write or draw is still a challenge. When I’m sitting at my drafting table, mechanical pencil in hand, upset that inspiration isn’t striking yet, here’s what I like to do.

Pull it back. I will probably have one of my Fried Chicken and Sushi characters in mind that I want to create a comic strip about but no idea what to do with them. Even if I’m lucky and have a theme in mind, there’s one element that is of the utmost importance.

The feeling. The feels. Whatever you want to call them, your first question before even coming up with the joke should be-

What are you trying to get your readers to feel?

If you pull this into your creation process, you can move on to ‘the what’ and ‘the gag.’

After all, you know your work will have characters and something exciting or humorous happening, but will anyone feel anything? Will your readers care?

I’m still working on getting better at this myself. There’s so much more I need to learn so that I can improve as a writer and cartoonist.  Hopefully, to one day, get close to the genius of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes.

But I believe that adding emotion to your work is key to quality.

Think about it. Plenty of content out there you can watch and read might be fun but can leave you feeling empty. After consuming any content, ask yourself-

Did you discover anything new about life or the world? Perhaps what you read mirrors your life in some way and helps validate your choices or represents who you are?  Maybe, it just made you feel good about being human.

If it made an impact, even in a small way, then it matters. Are you making people feel happy about their choices or sad? Are you looking to get them riled up about a topic and take action to make a change? Are you trying to take the blinders off and get them to think deeper about an issue in a new way?

A lot of questions, I know. But this is how I work through an idea to determine if it will resonate with an audience.

When I’m really having a hard time coming up with an idea for a funny gag, I take the feeling I want my readers to have about my comics and craft a plan around it. This question always haunts me-

Can I get people to care about my characters?

Here’s an example-

For the FC&S storyline where Tanuki, our magical raccoon character, wears a suit and sneaks into an office in Japan to see how it feels to work as a salaryman, I was looking to create a positive sense of fun with a touch of reality.

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After several strips on this theme, I wanted readers to feel sorry for him in the final strip that ends the arc. That feeling led me to think about how that could happen in this situation.  

Tanuki can get a little cocky at times and even though we love him, reality should set in at some point. He’s a wild animal in an office. Why would people want that wild animal to leave?

Here’s the final comic strip-

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Did you feel sorry for Tanuki? Maybe you think he deserves to be kicked out. Either way, you’re feeling and thinking about the characters in the comic.

Hopefully, your overall feeling for FC&S is still positive and you care about Tanuki. That’s my goal. Fried Chicken and Sushi should make you smile and leave you feeling good. Not just from the laughter, but from what the characters try, and often fail, to do in their lives.   

I’m not on the level of Bill Watterson as a cartoonist. I do believe that he understands the concept of making something people care about and feel. You get that from each and every one of his comic strips. Even if he had to stare blankly at a wall sometimes for ideas.

Before I go, there’s one more question you might have.

What if a reader hates my work that day and “feels” like it was terrible? Well then, they will make sure to read the next strip or article you post to see if you give them the feeling they want. Over time, the reader might decide to stop following your work.

Publishing your art for the world and making people think and feel on a regular basis is hard. You should be prepared for critics, haters, and if you’re lucky, hardcore fans.

Let people decide what they like.

You, my creative friend, make them feel.

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(True Story) Why I Quit FC&S Comics, Then Came Back

It’s been one year since Little Fried Chicken and Sushi returned to regular updates after a year hiatus.  Here are some of my thoughts on why I stopped and started again, and ideas for how you can move forward with new creative projects when you lose passion for your work.

Letting go can lead you to what you need

I’ll never forget, feeling so burned out two years ago from work and life that even drawing comics didn’t make me smile.  In my mind at the time, ending Little Fried Chicken and Sushi comics was the only way to rest and heal.

And why keep it going? No new readers were discovering the strip.  I had a decent amount of support on Patreon -even though it didn’t feel like enough to me.  So, I ended Fried Chicken and Sushi completely. Finally! I would have time to rest and take things slower.

Not true. I started drawing for fun in my sketchbook more, and sharing those sketches on Instagram regularly, eventually feeling the drive to grow as an illustrator.  

But that didn’t make me happy.  Single images are fun, but I always yearn for more of a story -a sequence of events and the visual pacing only possible within panels.  

Even though making comic strips two to three times a week is difficult, I had to face the truth.  Making comics, made me happy. I needed it in my life.

So, I started brainstorming possible concepts and characters to develop a new comic.

I got close with a strip idea entitled “The Honeybuns.”  The strip was named after a rabbit family of four, and the humor primarily revolved around their life living in Silicon Valley.  My goal was to parody the stressful and ridiculously hectic lifestyle of bay area families, but instead of humans, using busy bunnies. Here are some of the sample strips from my submission packet.

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What do you think?  Should I have stuck with this concept? Are you happy I moved on? This is a small sample of my submission.  If you would like to see more let me know in the comments.

Work on a project only you can create

No syndicates were interested.  Not even GoComics, the one that syndicates FC&S online.  I received some helpful feedback but ultimately had a choice to make.  Either keep working on improving “The Honeybuns,” a more mainstream strip idea or start Little Fried Chicken and Sushi up again.

Sometimes, you just have to face the hard truth.  Working on developing a new project would take a tremendous amount of time and energy I didn’t have

I knew the world and characters of Little FC&S best, so it would be easier to just start again.  That way, I could get better with something familiar and have an easier time creating new strip ideas.

The big question for me was -why restart a comic strip that wasn’t that popular in the first place?

One answer was pretty obvious. The election of Donald Trump as president. What felt like a rise in Americans sharing their outright racist opinions in public, online, and through committing hate crimes, helped to light my motivational fire to continue drawing a positive black family in comic strip form.

I noticed there were few humor strips with people of color, let alone with both African-Americans and Japanese main characters combined. Fried Chicken and Sushi could be the voice of a new comics generation.

Or, at least, one voice from the minority perspective. A voice with the opportunity to speak to a broader audience about living overseas and being open to other cultures through the GoComics platform, where only a handful of comics with people of color are syndicated.

The other factor is authenticity.  Only I could write and draw FC&S. Gag ideas come from my experiences as a black man who lived in and visits Japan. My unique worldview in writing would set it apart combined with my individual art style.

If it comes down to it, pick a project with a subject matter you know well or have a passion for and present it in a way that brings joy.     

Work on a new project while producing your current one

Perhaps, creating new project ideas feels easier while you are writing and drawing an already established project because you’re working out your “idea muscle” every day.  Taking a long break might just slow the process down and weaken your creativity.

There are benefits to keeping that creative fire burning!

Does this mean I have a new and better comic strip idea brewing in my head?  Honestly, no, not yet. It’s fun to work on improving my gag writing and character development skills through producing Fried Chicken and Sushi comics consistently every week.

I hope you’re enjoying reading them and I look forward to your feedback.  

Arigato Gozaimasu,

Khalid

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On Breaking Your Own Rules: Black Panther comic strips

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When I first started drawing Little Fried Chicken and Sushi comic strips my main goal was to make them timeless by not adding any current events or obvious pop-culture references.

After watching the Black Panther movie, I changed that goal. Breaking my rules looked scary. I couldn’t stop thinking about if I draw strips based on a popular movie, it will date the strip when I eventually collect them into books.

I had to do it!

Black Panther was spectacular in so many ways film wise and as a part of not only black culture but American culture as a whole. There was no way I wasn’t going to make strips about the film!

Of course, it also made about a bajillion dollars at the box office. Not bad for a movie about powerful African characters. There was definitely an audience for this.

First, I thought about how I felt right after seeing it.

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The feeling of creating the boy characters J, Ryan and Karl as T’Challa, Klaue and Killmonger in the above strip was enormously fulfilling. This was my first time creating strips that directly related to real movie characters. I couldn’t believe how much fun I was having!

It took some research and a great deal of drawing details, but I did my final of three Black Panther strips on the women. Mom as Queen Ramonda and little Kasha as Princess Shuri.

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Tanuki’s magic ended up being a great way to experiment with cosplay on the main characters and try my hand at adding in current events.

My mind is more relaxed with the idea now and it’s already churning away thinking of possible gags to add in more pop-culture references in future strips.

Yes. This means the strip changes into something more timely rather than timeless, but I’m pretty sure it will be enjoyable to make and hopefully fun to read.

All the best,

Khalid