Mmm, tastes like chicken. If you’re missing Gary Larson and his Far Side cartoons, fill the void with Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens, where you’ll find chicken-flavored insight and weirdness every day. I talked to Doug recently about creativity, geekiness, and why Jim Henson is to blame for Generation X.
MAJ: What does “geek” mean to you, and do you consider yourself a geek?
DS: I guess I’ve always thought of a geek as a person who has a passion for something that most people consider unimportant. A sort of healthy obsession. And if the obsession becomes unhealthy, that’s when you’re veering into nerd territory. I have to admit that I’m a geek on several fronts -- I’m a B-movie buff and I love anything to do with 80s pop culture. And I’m also a music geek -- collecting 70s R&B on vinyl. And you can tell from some of the cartoons that I’m also a bit of Shakespeare geek.
MAJ: Ah, a multidisciplinary geek! I think this is true of most people who self-define as “geek,” that they’ve got lots of wide-ranging intellectual interests and try their best to indulge as many of them as possible. I wonder if geekiness isn’t, at least for creative geeks, something akin to being a renaissance man (or woman) -- that really isn’t possible today in the way it was for, say, Da Vinci (major geek!), with every realm of intellectual endeavor being so specialized that it takes half a lifetime just to catch up to the cutting edge, but I think the drive is still there for a lot of people, to learn as much as possible about a lot of things. I, at least, have bookshelves full of books about the history of science and comparative mythology and classic literature and more. Are your bookshelves like that, too?
DS: Definitely. On the bookshelf next to me here are Joseph Campbell, James Gleick, Carl Jung, Margaret Atwood. In Praise of Slow by Carl Honoré. Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Suess. Books about science, religion, psychology, tarot reading, and on and on. Too many interests and not enough shelf space!
I think you’re right -- we have all these interests and try to spend time exploring all of them. But society doesn’t really encourage people to go exploring. The accepted route is to get on a specialized track and stay on the track until you get a big high-paying job or a PhD.
The PhD is like a socially acceptable form of geekiness, where you get to put a lot of time and effort into studying something you’re passionate about -- something nice and obscure like the mating habits of single-celled organisms or the etymology of swear words. But it’s still rough on generalists. I know several people who abandoned PhD programs because their area of focus became so specialized that it killed their passion for the subject matter. But I’ve met homeschooled kids who were encouraged to explore in any direction and they inevitably became multitalented “renaissance” people with wide-ranging interests.
MAJ: Ah, Joseph Campbell. Yup, he’s on my bookshelf, too, Our libraries sound really similar, actually. One of the reasons I decided to become a writer was that it could theoretically allow me to indulge any of my varied interests -- it meant I didn’t have to choose just one thing and stick with it, which would have gotten real boring real fast.
It’s interesting that you mention issues of money and career. I’ve discussed this with several geeks friends, that probably if we’d decided that making money was the most important thing we needed to do, we’d have figured out a way to do that, and done whatever it took. But we haven’t because, nice as money is, we’re took interested in too many things to focus on just one for the sole purpose of getting rich, or even focusing on something we weren’t particularly interested in merely because we could make a lot of money doing it. I bring this up because I imagine there’s not a lot of money in cartoons produced on Post-it notes. How did you get started with Savage Chickens?
DS: Ya and I think that if you are a geek and you choose one of those so-called sensible money/career paths, then the inner geekiness will eventually struggle to the surface. It cannot be contained!
I find the whole paycheck dilemma very interesting. I think that on some level we all want risk and stability at the same time. When life is dull, we crave adventure; when life is chaotic, we crave stability. We all veer between chaos and order and try to find the balance that works for us. I find that I get pretty stir-crazy if I spend too much time in Stabilityland. And that’s where I was about a year ago -- in a big old nasty rut -- when I first started drawing chickens on Post-it notes. The day that I first put a chicken on a Post-it, I’d had a really bad day at the office and I needed some sort of forum to vent my anger and frustration. So I drew two chickens talking to each other.
But I’ve been drawing chickens as long as I can remember. It’s something that I’ve always done when I was supposed to be doing something else. I drew them in notebooks when I was supposed to be listening to somebody. I drew them in sketchbooks when I was supposed to be doing creative writing. In high school, I drew them on the chalkboards during calculus. They’ve always been there in the background, like they were just waiting around for their time to come.
MAJ: I think you’re right about geekiness being uncontainable -- we’d have to turn off our brains to shut it up, and I, at least, don’t know how to do that.
You mentioned an office. Are you still a wage slave? Do you envision a time when chicken cartoonery can make you a nice living?
DS: Ya by day I’m still a cog in the corporate machine. But I’m finding a better balance these days, working less and spending more time on cartoons and other interests.
As for making a living off of the chickens, I would have snickered and said no about six months ago. But since then, I’ve been surprised by how quickly they’ve taken off. The audience is getting bigger all the time. Who knows? I’d love to make a living as a full-time cartoonist.
MAJ: Did you have a geeky childhood? Was there a point when you were a kid that you realized you weren’t quite like all the other kids?
DS: I guess I did have a pretty geeky childhood. I used to collect bottlecaps when I was 4. And caterpillars when I was 5 -- those fuzzy black and brown ones. And I’ve always been a bookworm, which is considered geeky when you’re a kid. I loved Dr. Suess and Richard Scarry.
Seeing The Muppet Movie at the drive-in was a defining geek moment for me. After that, I wanted to be Fozzie Bear. I wanted the hat and the Studebaker and everything. I said “Wocka wocka” a lot and told bad jokes. Come to think of it, I really haven’t changed much.
I loved books and I loved comedy, so I became a bit more of an observer than most kids. I think a lot of writing and humour comes from being on the outside, observing the craziness of life going on around you -- and trying to make sense of it all.
MAJ: Ah, the Muppets! I think the Muppets were an enormous influence on Generation X. Do I detect a hint of Gonzo’s chicken girlfriend in your toons?
DS: Ya I think we owe a lot to Jim Henson. Sesame Street and The Muppet Show planted little seeds of wackiness in all of us. Lately I’ve been flipping through a collection of Henson’s early drawings called Jim Henson’s Designs and Doodles and it’s amazing. Very inspiring stuff.
Camilla’s the best -- definitely the brains behind Gonzo the Great -- but if I had to pick a Muppet inspiration for Savage Chickens, it’d be Statler and Waldorf. The chickens sometimes remind me of those old coots, especially when they’re being particularly critical.
MAJ: Heh. I think Statler and Waldorf may be almost entirely to blame for our generation’s snarky sense of humor.
I love the combination in your work of the very low-tech with the very high-tech: you’re drawing cartoons about farm animals on Post-its, and you’re sharing them with the world on the Internet. That seems to be the tenor of the times -- everything has gone techie and geeky, you know, but a lot of it is people just using the Net to trade recipes and needlepoint patterns, stuff like that. (I’m especially intrigued by the fad among young Xer women these days for knitting.) It seems to me that, for all the hue and cry over how technology is supposedly dehumanizing people, what it’s really doing is giving us a slew of new ways to interact with one another and indulge a lot of the same old hobbies and interests our grandparents enjoyed. People all over the world can now enjoy chicken humor. How can that be a bad thing?
DS: Ya! Everybody needs more chickens! I really like that my cartoons are a low-tech, high-tech combo. Receiving a Post-it note through an RSS feed seems so weird that I think it adds to the humour.
I think you’re right about the Internet. Those folks in the technology-is-evil camp are forgetting that the Net is just a communications tool. Sure it’s a revolutionary tool -- like the printing press -- but still just a tool that we can use however we like. If anything, the Internet is humanizing us. It makes it easier to find a supportive community of people with similar interests. And it challenges us to be truly unique because it’s such a global thing that the only way to stand out as an individual is to draw on your own experiences and creative talents.
The knitting fever is a great example of the creativity out there on the Net (have you seen Patricia Waller’s work yet? [note: I blogged about her recently -- maj]) And craftster.org and Make magazine also come to mind. Almost everybody I know has an interesting creative sideline. By day, they’re paid to sit at computers and perform menial tasks -- but by night, they’re knitters, authors, dancers, opera singers, genealogists, composers, physicists, and on and on. The Net is a great way to release that repressed creativity.
MAJ: Yes! My friends are all like that, too: creative and talented people stuck in mundane jobs to make a living. I’d love to think that the burgeoning of creativity that the Net has encouraged -- by giving artists and writers and other creative people an audience when they might not have had one before -- will somehow move us toward a culture in which such creativity is valued and rewarded. Am I crazy? Or do you sense that we might be on the edge of a paradigm shift, too?
DS: Ya it really does feel like we’re on the verge of something big. Wired ran an article earlier this year about the resurgence of creativity -- I think it was called “Revenge of the Right Brain” or something like that. We definitely seem to be headed that way, despite the fact that most of the creativity seems to be happening outside of working hours. Hopefully the business world will catch on and start spending less time counting their money and more time on real creative innovation. I’ve often wondered what would happen if every CEO walked into the office one day and said, “Hey gang, you’ve got a year to do anything you want during work hours and we’ll still pay you.” I think we’d see another Renaissance.