MC: How much of yourself do you put in your characters? Are you, for example, as interested in science fiction, comics and other aspects of popular culture as Lamont (Brown, the strip’s lead character)? I notice he regularly wears the “Enterprise” command insignia on his shirt, which tells us he’s a “Star Trek” fan, and that his “eulogy” for Richard Biggs, Andreas Katsulas and Johnny Sekka tells us he’s a fan of “Babylon 5.” Are you a fan of either or both series?
BELL: I spare readers the true extent of my sci-fi fanboyism. I’m a huge “B5” and “Star Trek” fan. I’ve seen every episode of each series and believe these epic and fantastic stories are every bit as important a reflection of our times as Antigone and Hamlet were of theirs.
MC: Who have your influences been, both among cartoonists and in other fields? How have those individuals influenced you, either directly or indirectly? Have you always wanted to be a cartoonist?
BELL: Paul Conrad and Bill Watterson. Conrad was the LA Times editorial cartoonist when I was a child. He avoided gag cartoons in favor of strong editorial imagery and metaphor. I use metaphor a great deal in Candorville. Watterson avoided standard setups and punchlines, and taught me that you don’t have to tell a joke to create something meaningful, you just have to tell something that’s true. I try to tell the truth about my perspective of the world and trust that even readers who disagree will appreciate an honest opinion. And they usually do. I’ve been more influenced by Norman Lear, whose 1970s sitcoms were harsh, unapologetic and focused on incredibly flawed human beings.
I wanted to be a talking head on TV. I wanted to be Pat Buchanan because he looked rich, happy and important. I asked my high school journalism teacher how to do that. “You’ve got to start as a reporter, then become a columnist, and then get yourself invited on TV as a commentator.” So I set out to become a journalist. I became editor in chief of my high school paper. At UC Berkeley I joined The Daily Californian and wrote several articles. Nobody I knew ever read them until I forced them to. But everyone I knew was reading my cartoons that also ran in the Daily Cal. I realized that’s what made me special and focused on that. That’s when I decided to be a cartoonist. I started faxing my editorial cartoons to the LA Times. In 1995 they were the first paper to buy one.
MC: In what ways has “Candorville” surprised you? Has someone among the cast become an unexpected breakout character?
BELL: Two unexpected breakout characters: C-Dog seems to be everyone’s favorite, probably because he tries to be the most amoral character, but in many ways he’s got the most heart and he’s the most loyal. And the character everyone loves to hate: Roxanne, Lemont’s evil fiancée, who just might be an ancient vampire using him in a secret plan to conquer the world.
MC: I won’t ask you to pigeonhole what sort of strip “Candorville” is, but is there anything that it’s not? In short, do people read into it things that aren’t there?
BELL: It’s a stream of consciousness strip. When I’m thinking about politics, so is Candorville. When I’m thinking about the bad service I got at the restaurant, so’s Candorville.
MC: Who is your target audience, and is there any particular demographic you’re surprised to find reading the strip?
BELL: I try hard not to think of that. I make myself my target audience. At my first book signing, though, I was surprised when four people said nearly identical things to me when they reached the front of the line. One, a conservative preacher in his late sixties (they were all from a similar demographic) said to me “I bet you didn’t think someone like me would be a big fan, but I am.”
MC: Returning to the issue of newspaper comics in general, as you probably know, the comics originally developed early in the 20th century (and in some cases, late in the 19th) as a means of selling newspapers. The more popular a strip, the more people who read the paper(s) it appeared in. What argument would you give for why comic strips are still relevant to our culture, even though newspapers are in decline?
BELL: Comics are allways going to be relevant to every culture. They’re pictographs. The human mind gravitates toward those. It’s how written language began, as hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics were nothing but cartoons hammered into stone. Whether they appear in newspapers, or on an iPad, or on the side of a pyramid, cartoons are always going to be relevant because the love of pictographs is hard-wired into the human brain. Any platform or media that forgets that is making a huge mistake.
MC: Anything about “Candorville” in general and/or your career in particular that you want to add?
BELL: Not right now, other than to emphasize that the new “Candorville” book, “Katrina’s Ghost,” can only be purchased at Candorville.com. It collects nearly three years of comics. But I’ve posted a video on my website at Candorville.com where I talk in-depth about my career.
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