Interview: Brian McFadden, Cartoonist

This interview originally appeared in The Bamboo Online in late 2011.

Brian McFadden is a self-taught cartoonist who has, for a decade, used his talents to comment on America’s increasingly tumultuous social, political, and economic landscape. Political cartoonists have long held a storied tradition in American dialogue, from Thomas Nast to Dr. Seuss to Gary Trudeau. And while it seemed for a time that declining print sales might extinguish the form, the internet has led to an explosion of new, independent voices that are revitalizing the medium.

McFadden is one such talent. Beginning with a humble geocities account back in 2001, his work has been featured in a variety of electronic and print alt-weeklies, anthologies, and webzines. His signature work, “Big Fat Whale”, remains a weekly fixture on his website.

Earlier this year, McFadden was catapulted into the mainstream with a weekly gig in the New York Times’ “Sunday Review” section. Entitled simply, “The Strip”, the comic stays true to his distinct style of irreverent wit, cutting insight, and sardonic humor.

Your website indicates that you were originally trained as a Mechanical Engineer at Johns Hopkins University. When did you decide to try your hand as a cartoonist, and what sparked your interest in the craft?

Cartooning is something I’ve been interested in since I was defacing my parents’ walls with Crayon doodles. But the likelihood of making a living from it is infinitesimal, so I decided to pursue something “serious” that utilized what I thought were my more lucrative math and science skills, but I never gave up cartooning as a hobby.

Who are some of your influences among cartoonists/artists?

When I was around 8 or 9, I fell in love with the Simpsons’ shorts on “The Tracey Ullman Show.” A few years later, learned about Groening’s “Life in Hell” comic strip and devoured those collections. It wasn’t until college that I started reading alt-weeklies regularly and became a huge fan of Tom Tomorrow, Ruben Bolling, Derf, and Tim Kreider, whose strips all appeared in the Baltimore City Paper at the time. And thanks to the internet, I was able to find a whole community of alt-weekly cartoonists who weren’t in the local paper, like Ted Rall, Keith Knight Jr., Max Cannon, etc. I could go on and on.

But even before I discovered these strips, my comedic sensibilities were already heavily influenced by television comedy, particularly the absurd humor of Conan O’Brien, and the social commentary of “Mr. Show with Bob and David”.
Would you describe yourself as a ‘political cartoonist’, or do you find this label too limiting? Do you have any interest in working in a narrative format?

I’d say that label applies, but not to everything I do. If I have an opinion about something, and I can think of a funny way to get my point across, I’ll do a cartoon about it, but I feel no obligation to draw a cartoon about every political topic. I also enjoy drawing silly cartoons that have nothing to do with anything topical and just exist to advance a good joke.

I’m interested in narrative humor, but not especially in cartoons. But doing something like a novel or writing for television definitely interests me.
The tone of “Big Fat Whale” is often acerbic and quite bleak. How pessimistic are you about the direction the country is headed in?

I’m very pessimistic for the short term. Until the current system is replaced with a functional government, nothing substantial is going to happen as our country slowly crumbles from neglect. As the past few years have shown, the GOP is willing to destroy the nation if it helps their chances in the next election, and the Democrats are unwilling to stand up to them for a whole host of reasons. As for the long term, once we hit bottom, things will have to improve, right?
Your website mentions that you no longer draw your comics with ink, but instead use an electronic tablet. Why did you make the switch, and what equipment do you use?

Penciling, inking, scanning, and cleaning it all up in Photoshop was a labor-intensive process that made churning out one nine-panel strip take upwards of two days. An ex-girlfriend got me a Wacom Intuous as a birthday present a few years ago, and I dabbled with it, but didn’t make the full switch until my old scanner broke and forced me in order to meet a deadline sometime in late 2009.
From the initial concept to the final product, roughly how many hours does it takes to create a weekly strip?

It’s hard to nail down how long it takes to come up with an idea; sometimes it’s quick, other times it’s absolute torture, but on average, it takes about 12 hours of actual work (writing and drawing, procrastination excluded) to do a Big Fat Whale cartoon. The NYT strip takes longer since I have to do some research and there’s an editorial process, not to mention slightly higher standards than the back pages of an alt-weekly.
How did you get involved with the New York Times, and has there been any sort of creative culture shock moving from alt-weeklies to the global “Paper of Record”? How much editorial control do they exert?

They were redesigning the “Week in Review” section into the new “Sunday Review” and wanted to replace the round-up of editorial cartoons with an original commissioned cartoon. Somehow my work came to mind and they asked if I was available to do it over the summer. So far there’s no culture shock, but it’s only been a couple of months. Thankfully, they don’t run my picture next to the comic, so I’m not recognizable like the columnists.

There’s very little editorial control. I pick whatever topic interests me that week, write up a script, and send it in early in the week, and spend the next few days drawing it. Usually only copy-editing and fact-checking changes are brought up. I imagine it’s pretty similar to how the more traditional op-ed columns are run.
How long is the NY Times gig slated to run? Do you have any other projects coming up that you’d like to mention, cartoon or otherwise? 

I have no idea. It was originally slated to go for two or three months before another cartoonist was rotated in, but they asked me to stay on longer. How much longer is anyone’s guess.

I’ve been so busy keeping up with two deadlines, I haven’t had much time to work on anything else. Hopefully I’ll be able to put out another cartoon collection in 2012, but at this point, it’s just a Post-It note on my bulletin board that says, “Make a book.”

 

Brian McFadden’s work can be found on his homepage: www.bigfatwhale.com

His weekly comic, “The Strip”, can be found on the New York Times website at www.nytimes.com.

He can be followed on twitter @BigFatWhale