Below is an archive of cartoons published during my college years.
The first batch of “Looking Up” was conceived while visiting my brother in 2004. This was a gloomy time. I had finally committed myself to majoring in Government with an emphasis in International Relations. Religion and English both vied for my attention, but my acceptance into a study abroad program at the London School of Economics sealed the deal. While I seemed ready to embark on a pathway to respectability, the itch to scribble persisted. So I published the following (rather innocuous) strips in The Dartmouth that spring.
A few weeks after arriving at the International Students House, I pitched two hasty ideas for a thesis topic to my professor, Ned Lebow. One related to the impact of apocalyptic belief on American politics. The other concerned the relationship between American national identity and superheroes. Ned winced at the former and smiled at the latter.
Then something happened. Words don’t really do it justice. I visited the Tate Modern Museum on a lark and happened upon an exhibit featuring striking Soviet propaganda. Later that day, I returned to the British Library to find a Superman comic book, alone and relatively unwrinkled, perched like a bird on a wooden study desk. Excitement built. My heart raced. Neurons fired. A door opened. I felt inspired.
I was steeped in comic books and political theory for weeks. Patterns began emerging regarding the intimate relationship between art, politics, and society. I didn’t stop writing, and ultimately submitted a 90-page paper to Ned. My plan was to build on this work and write a thesis. But the London terrorist attacks and the Indian Ocean tsunami changed all of that. I felt this sudden urge to draw, to create.
I didn’t have a plan. I just drew panels and added words much, much later (like just-before-submitting-for-print-later).
These cartoons appeared in The Dartmouth when I returned to campus the spring of 2005. Instead of accolades and flowers, the response was generally mixed. One avid Bill Watterson fan pointed out an instance of plagiarism (unintended, I swear!). Around the same time, I overheard one athlete remark “This Greg Pence guy should just die” while reading the strip alongside his friends in the cafeteria. I stopped, introduced myself, and asked what the problem was. A bit startled, the athlete responded, “The drawings are nice, but I don’t get it.” A close friend received similar feedback when she queried her own circle. Not all feedback was negative. I received a few notes, compliments, and smiles to keep my head (mostly) above water.
But, honestly, I didn’t care. I was happy. So fricking happy. This was my baby, warts and all.
What is “Looking Up” about? It’s a reverse-Pinnochio story about a boy who transforms into toon after 9/11.
A few professors, including Ned, received some of the signals these cartoons were transmitting. Looking back, it was obvious that some pretty heady stuff – both exhilarating and disturbing – was beginning to percolate. I was unfamiliar with Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung at that time. A lapsed Catholic, I had never read the Bible. I was just happy to be reunited with superhero comic books after mistakenly choosing to become a Very Serious Teenager ten years earlier.
My personality also underwent a revolution. A coat of cynicism was lifted and I started to care. A beneficiary of other people’s generosity, I wanted to give back.
As spring term came to a close, Andrew Cline, an opinions editor at The New Hampshire Union Leader, e-mailed me about submitting some editorial cartoons. The newspaper’s long-time cartoonist was retiring and they needed some doodles related to local affairs. I accepted the offer. A few weeks later, I was interning at the Tucker Foundation for the summer, helping with the college’s community service projects during the day and drawing op-eds late into the evening. All credit due to Mr. Cline for investing time and energy tightening up my work while imparting valuable lessons about the power of words and text. Below are a few of these cartoons.
My senior year, I was publishing work in The Dartmouth Review, The New Hampshire Union Leader, and The Dartmouth Free Press. I didn’t really identify with a particular party and was woefully ignorant of inside gossip. But I cared about issues – especially the war in Iraq – in a much deeper way than I had before.
Dartmouth College provided an opportunity to take another crack at “Looking Up.” Instead of writing a thesis, I published a graphic novella.
Thanks to funds awarded by the college, I self-published 500 copies and distributed them to the campus community free of charge. Up to this point in my life, I had not experienced joy – I mean, genuine, transcendent, by-the-grace-of-God joy – and I’m indebted to the professors, administrators, and students at Dartmouth who had my back on this project.
My life changed after that.
© Gregory Pence, SOUNDSTAGE COMICS