I first learned about Rich Powell’s work when GoComics announced that they were going to start running a new strip – Dixie Drive. I loved the clean, solid artwork, and the off-the-wall, yet down-to-earth panels and punchlines. I grew up in Minnesota, in one of the big cities, so I wasn’t from the farms, but I was still close enough to them that I could appreciate the small-town Dixie jokes. Eventually, GoComics announced the name change to Wide Open, and Rich dropped from 5 panels a week to 1, which is understandable. Reality. But, the change was for the better, I think, because some of Rich’s best work comes from when he really runs with an idea and has the time pour himself into the art. Examples are the Zombie Bass (below) and The experiment by Sir Edward Fisker. And then, when I asked him for a commission, he goes and gives me a virus. Go figure.
RP: How the hell should I know? I guess I’m a guy trying to figure out how to earn a buck at this illustration thing for years and years. I’m a father, number one. My daughter, Bailey is a talented artist attending University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts since her Junior year in High School. She’s now a college senior majoring in Costume Design. I split with her mom a year ago after 24 years, so I really am focusing on Bailey’s well-being lately. It’s been a crazy year.
I began my career, after leaving the Marine Corps and attending college, as a conceptual artist for the computer game company Sierra On-Line in the early 90s. After 10 years, and many rounds of layoffs, they shut their doors and I began freelancing full-time. It’s been an uphill struggle, believe me. In 2005 we left our home in the Sierra Nevada mountains and moved here, to Ashboro, North Carolina. I got my first gig with Mad Magazine here and eventually began working for Highlights for Children as well. I guess these are my two “legitimate gigs” and, typically how I tell people what it is I do for a living. I began drawing a cartoon for the local paper, titled Dixie Drive (after a thoroughfare in our town) as a way to get to know the locals and begin to understand my new southern home. Eventually I pitched it to Universal and they began running it. I switched the name to Wide Open! so the “Dixie” title wouldn’t scare off potential viewers living….wherever! After a year or two of doing a five day a week thing, I dropped back down to one day a week when I realized the pay was the same either way. If my local paper stops running it (and paying me!) I’m not sure it would be worth my while at all. I do love drawing it and coming up with gags that I hope are a little different than your typical cartoon fare but it gets tougher every week as I try to focus on things that will put money in the bank. Reality
I consider myself an illustrator. A humorous illustrator most of the time but not always! My first freelance gig was designing a line of blues shirts for a company out of New Orleans, pre-Katrina. I’ve been freelancing off and on since 1992. My “biggest break” was the first phone call from MAD. It made me realize that I was somewhat legit. Broke, but legit!
I began Dixie Drive after badgering the local paper for a year or so. The local material was just so rich with its own brand of humor, I had a load of ideas I wanted to get down on paper. I guess I always wanted a shot at doing a daily. The legitimacy thing again. I began going to a little coffee shop downtown every morning and hanging with a bunch of old guys. I first met them when I dropped in one morning to meet someone and hung around for a bit after I heard what they were talking about. They were really smart, funny guys. We’re all the best of friends now. The cartoon proved to be very popular locally and it’s still fun to drop local stuff in there now and again. In the beginning, I’d often hide people’s names in the cartoon, like Hirschfeld’s Nina!
I always have other pokers in the fire. I have to. A few years ago I did a line of wildlife shirts in conjunction with a company in New York. It looked really promising and I was so excited about it. Unfortunately, the people I was in business with turned out to be less than truthful about most of what they said and I had to (painfully) pull out. I retained the copyright of the images and I hoped to shop it elsewhere, but I basically threw away any chance of earning some real money with the designs for years. It was rough. Later that year, the designs won the award for Best Product Design at the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Awards! Bittersweet. Believe it or not, I’m very close to relaunching the entire line! Send me some good luck!!
I have to say that these designs, the wildlife ones, are my favorite. You can see some of them on my website. Soon, prints will be available.
I had a book I’d put together one year, a collection of Dixie Drive cartoons. It sold out locally but I haven’t had the funds to do a reprint since. I’ve found that most cartoonists are married to someone with a fairly good job! I’m beginning to sell prints of my work from the storefront on my website.
As far as a blank sheet of paper goes, sometimes I have the idea all figured out in my head before I begin, but sometimes… I just start drawing! That’s often more fun because I don’t know where it’s going for a while!
Jack Davis was the master. All of the old MAD guys: Jaffee, Elder, Wood, Drucker, Coker. Kliban certainly changed my perspective. Crumb. Dan Collins is certainly one of the funniest gag guys I know. He’s a beast! I don’t have dirt, but I have a Sergio Aragones story: I was invited to Savannah a few years back for an event revolving around MAD. I was in heaven, riding around in a tiny bus sitting next to Al Jaffee and surrounded by Paul Coker, Jack Davis, Sergio… it was surreal. I was speaking to Sergio when I noticed his pencil sticking out of his vest. It was a Twist-Erase, the same brand I use. I said to him “You use a Twist-Erase?? I use the same pencil as the great Aragones??” Now, Sergio is a great joker, a wiseass of the highest degree and he pulls his pencil out and asks me “0.7?” And I say “No, 0.5.” He rolls his eyes and says “Oh, well.”
I never know when a MAD gig is coming, it’s been pretty regular lately but I missed out on the last issue. They typically call me and pair me up with a writer. Here’s a post about the process. I love working with Sam Viviano and Ryan Flanders, both really nice guys. Occasionally, I’ll send in my own idea, but I’ve only had one of those published – “The Tough Guys”- which had very little dialogue and lots and lots of blood!
Now, Highlights has me every issue. I illustrate a joke. I also do the occasional hidden picture. I illustrated an entire joke book for them a couple years ago.
I browse through the comics haphazardly, looking for a good laugh. I don’t have any I read religiously. If it’s in my newspaper, I read it. I do The Jumble. I hate to miss it! Jeff and I are pals and I’m currently working on a guest Jumble of my own. I’m thrilled!
I love seeing other cartoonist’s techniques. Dave Coverly has a beautiful style. I’m not consistent like that, I switch it up a lot. I should probably try Aderol!
For me, a good comic is Funny. It doesn’t have to be drawn well, it just has to actually make me laugh. I LOVE good artwork but, in the end, it’s the gag.
I’ve been looking into Patreon. I just don’t know what to offer folks for their subscription. I certainly want to plug my sites (Rich Powell Illustration and Wide Open!) Very soon, I’ll be selling shirts and prints from my store! I don’t know enough about Patreon to know how it’s changing things. I’m just learning.
(All artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Copyright Rich Powell (c) 2016.)
(This interview is the copyright (c) of Curtis H. Hoffmann 2016. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.)
BC: Good luck, Rich! You deserve it.