Back when I first started reading Aaron Neathery’s Endtown, I was talking with him on Facebook and I asked what webcomics he liked to read. He very quickly replied, “Doc Rat“. At about the same time, I noticed someone in the Endtown comments section going by the name of “Jenner” and using the Doc Rat character as his avatar. Ultimately, I went through the Doc Rat archives, which took a couple weeks because there’s so many strips. That was fun. The artwork is very clean and the character designs are both professional-looking and distinctive; you know you’re not looking at something copied off of another artist. Initially, Doc Rat was a gag strip, with a joke-a-day pattern that goes on for a few years. After a while, the characters get fleshed-out and start “living their own lives.” At that point, the strip becomes more long-format, with a growing conflict between predator and prey species (a situation that Jenner has credited to the influence of Endtown). Doc Rat has grown and evolved since then into a living, breathing collection of characters, some with fairly painful back stories, but with significant high points as well, interspersed with the occasional gags.
Jenner runs a caption contest, and the winning entry receives the original artwork with their caption written in. I’ve won twice. I’m letting other people have their chances, now. But I’m not happy about it.
Basket Case interview – Jenner
17 September 2016
BC: Who are you?
J: I am an Australian cartoonist and writer, best known for the long-running comic strip Doc Rat. I’m fifty-six years old, and I live in Melbourne, Victoria with my wife, Julia. I’m also a full-time doctor in general practice (which in the USA would be known as a family physician).
J: So why the name “Jenner”? For the purposes of my professional cartooning career that has a public face, I prefer to work under a pen-name. This is so I could have a ‘firewall’ of sorts between my two sides – it’s what I call an ethical courtesy to my patients. I take the confidentiality of my job as a doctor seriously, so when I create a funny comic strip about medical situations and predicaments, I prefer not to leave it open to be misunderstood. I would absolutely never use someone’s private story for a Doc Rat joke, and of course most people would understand that, but for the sake of those few who may be in doubt I’ve simply drawn a veil of secrecy, you know, just to be safe.
J: The secret of my real name isn’t watertight. Anyone could track it down on Google in less than a minute. So for the purposes of this interview, away from the usual domain of my patients, there’s no harm in revealing that in real life I’m Craig Hilton.
J: I grew up in Perth, Western Australia. That’s a very outdoors sort of place, great for small boat sailing. And very isolated from the rest of the world, especially back in the Sixties and Seventies. The most isolated capital city in the world. You live with the mindset that everything big that really exists only ever happens somewhere else. And so you make your own things happen, for yourself. You become self-sufficient. All through my childhood, my head was exploding with stories, jokes and wry observations. I think I was drawing madly from a young age, just to get onto paper what I could see in my head. At some stage in primary school, I systematically borrowed every how-to-draw book from the school library and drew every single lesson one by one, page by page. That’s where I learned shapes, perspective, shading, figure construction and all the other basic skills. In high school, I was taking the academic stream to maths and science with a view to entering Medicine in university, but I was also involved in the extra-curricular Special Art course. That briefed me in a wealth of techniques, and it also schooled me in the discipline of draw-draw-draw. Fill sketch block after sketch block.
J: At the University of Western Australia, in medical school, I learned whole new fields of education and more mature ways of thinking. Trade-off, though – there was less time for serious art such as painting and sculpture. Still, there was at least still time to draw cartoons. I compiled an annual magazine of my own jokes and comics called Leechcraft and sold it to my friends for the price of the photocopying. Later, when I discovered science fiction fandom, I learned people around the world were doing the same sort of thing and called them fanzines. I guess that was when I could say I found my tribe. That was in 1983.
J:I won the Australian Science Fiction (“Ditmar”) award for Best Australian Science Fiction or Fantasy Artist in 1987. I learned about the new trend in (then-called) funny animal comics when I saw the earliest issues of Critters and came face-to-face with the works, amongst others, of Steven A. Gallacci and Stan Sakai. It felt like coming home. This led to my hunting down the nascent furry fandom that was based mostly in the USA. A key part was the group called ROWRBRAZZLE, in which fifty or more creators shared their work in a quarterly publication. I learned a lot from the cross-pollination, and my style matured over the decade. I did cartoons about a secret agent bunny rabbit and, of course, lots of rats. That was when I came up with the name Doc Rat – initially it was a nickname for myself, but later I applied it to a GP doctor character in a series of single-panel gags I contributed to medical publications.
J: My medical career took me all around the country, and over the decades my cartooning output was inconsistent. Sometimes nothing, and then for a year I drew a country town newspaper strip about coal mining, called DownUnderGround. I’ve been in Melbourne since 2001. I was greatly honoured to be inducted into the Furry Hall of Fame (Australian Fandom Conventions) in 2010. And I’m now heavily involved in helping run the Australian furry fan convention ConFurgence.
BC: Do you consider yourself a doctor-cartoonist, a doctor-illustrator, a doctor-artist, or something doctor-else?
J: My first profession is doctor. My second profession is cartoonist, illustrator, caricaturist and comic strip creator.
J: In 2006, I decided to go professional as a cartoonist. That meant I set aside a dedicated day a week at a dedicated location and went about it with a professional seriousness. I set myself a work production target and committed myself to reach that target. I looked at the long-term goal of accumulating a body of work and brand recognition. And I solicited magazines, papers, web sites and professional word of mouth. I just put myself out there, at any time I could.
BC: What do you think your biggest breaks were?
J: Big breaks were when people approached me for work, thanks to my reputation as a medical cartoonist. The Medical Journal of Australia needed a cartoonist for a new caption competition series. The British Journal of General Practice contacted me to ask to run a Doc Rat strip once a month. And there was a time that Australian Doctor, a weekly magazine, was advertising for a political cartoonist. I sent in a portfolio and won the job.
BC: What led up to your starting Doc Rat?
J: Doc Rat had appeared as single panel gags non-professionally in various papers for many years. When I decided (in late 2005) that I could make a success with a comic strip on the Internet, it occurred to me that success depended on a big following, and a big following depended on a regular reading habit, and that meant daily without fail. Consequently, I knew I would have to put in a regular and substantial session of work, and set aside a dedicated time every week, and a dedicated place to do it in. Putting out the work out on-line could give me a cheap way of distribution, but how to get money from it would be the next step after that. I found it hard to solve that question (and I wasn’t alone there, and I’m still not), but whatever the solution could be, it kept coming back to a good-quality product with a big fan base. In other words, it wasn’t enough to have a web comic. It would have to be a GREAT web comic, ideally the BEST web comic. Because when a reader decides she only has time these days to follow her favourite three strips, Doc Rat would have to be one of those three. … No pressure.
J: Doc Rat is still my main body of work, right now. I’m happy to take some commissions, and I am trying to work on my caricature line of work. But I can’t take on too much, because my time is short and finite. I mean, I am also a full-time doctor – that takes up a lot of my days. Having said that, I intend to stock the web site’s archives fully. And I have a longer vision of putting out the Doc Rat books as e-books.
J: And alongside these, as well, last year I illustrated and published a collection of the writings of my old mentor, Dr Max Kamien: “Barcoo Rot, Sperm That Untie a Knot and Other Medical Tales from the Back o’ Bourke and Beyond“. It’s available by mail order, but if you do buy it from outside Australia you really should offer him more money for the international postage because otherwise he runs at a loss.
BC: Which of your works are you most proud of?
J: I was very proud in 2009 to see an enormous Doc Rat strip on the side of a building, as part of a public art project.
J: And it’s very satisfying to read the strips as a story in one go. When I go through the phase of a short story arc or even a longer story, even though I have the overall structure planned out, it’s still a fraught process setting it down, strip by strip. Hoping there are no continuity errors or connections that are unclear to a new reader. I’ve just compiled the pages for Volume 17, telling the story of the eight-year-old boy Jarrad and his friends who, in the course of playing at being detectives, have to save the life of the teenage Quarrydog the wolf cub, who’s fallen down a deep hole. If they fail, he dies, and with him goes all hope of world peace. So having given the rescue their best shot, there’s a coda to take them through some reconciliation, growth and closure. People’s lives are hanging by a thread, and even though it’s only diligent mutual support of one conscientious person to the next that holds it all together, that’s still enough to deliver success at the end of the day: it’s a lesson for us all. And what pleased me most was just how well the story held together as a single unit.
J: I love stories where the compelling narrative to resolve a crisis is wrapped up in a larger issue, which itself is wrapped in an even larger one. I love multiple layers. I was very pleased with how Jarrad and the Detectives moved through the themes and layers, sort of wheels-within-wheels. (The book is titled It’s a Mystery, Doc – Doc Rat collection, Volume 17.)
J: I also like coming up with clever titles for the strips, which can be a joke that’s added over and above the joke in the strip itself. For example, nurse Mary was scolding Ben for knocking all the bandages off the shelf. The title: Ben gets a dressing down. And when Ben and Daniella finally kissed (and it lasted for three days), the title: Rodents kiss. (Their positioning is modeled on the famous sculpture by Rodin.)
J: When the strips’ serial numbers approximate a significant year, I tried to do a pertinent title and theme. DR1901 had a tribute to the Federation of Australia. DR1960 (my birth year) had a self-portrait. From that time onward until the present, I was putting in those date references really thick and fast. It was made harder by the fact I didn’t have the freedom to pick and choose subjects. This was right in the middle of a dramatic story: Daniella was walking home from work, heavily pregnant and starting to develop bleeding complications; Ben at home started reading a book of rabbit reconciliation poetry; Quarrydog found Danni in the park and offered to decoy the predators away from her. Every strip title was some yearly reference or song title or two. DR2014, when the strip numbers caught up with the date, was titled “Here and now”. DR2015 was titled “Hereafter”.
J: I’m pleased to get poetry in there, or to write in a poetic meter when it helps set the atmosphere. That’s almost like background music, the way the words are written. It evokes a mood subliminally. It works best when read out aloud.
J: And in Doc Rat, it’s a very important matter of principle to me that it shows General Practice performed to a high standard of craft. I’m proud of my profession. These are not jokes built on a greedy or inept doctor or at the expense of a disempowered patient. They are jokes where we laugh or cry side by side with one another in the process of the competent performance of ethical health care. In the adventure story arcs, the same moral and ethical values prevail.
BC: Where can readers find paper copies of Doc Rat?
J: Order them on-line from my web site. Sometimes there’s been a bit of an issue keeping it current, especially with the function that calculates the mailing costs. Any problems and you can e-mail me. Or of course you may buy them directly if you can catch me at a convention. I have plans to be at Anthrocon in July 2017.
BC: How do you approach that blank sheet of white paper when you decide to start your next strip or panel?
J: Look, that’s really not the problem many people think it is. I mean, imagine going to Michelangelo and saying: “You know that job for the Sistine Chapel ceiling, well I’ve got a great idea you can use. You should put God and Angels and clouds and stuff all over it. Well, I suppose I’ve done most of your work for you now. The really hard part’s coming up with the idea. So I’ll just swing by when you’re done and take my half of the proceeds, you know, for my contribution, all that intellectual capital I’ve given you.”
J: Coming up with an idea for a strip is EASY. You just come up with several and then pick the best one. If it’s a one-off joke, I take the ‘seed’ of a joke and stretch it, bend it, re-word it and re-interpret it – basically I turn it into a well-delivered comedy routine. The pacing, the set-up, the punch-line. And now you ask: Where does the ‘seed’ come from? Well, thoughts come to me any day, at any time – “Hospital sounds like Horse Spittle.” “Bees have hives.” “A giraffe is very tall.” There’s a joke in there. The real work comes when I try to work that into a comic strip. But that’s all it is: work.
J: I play with language. I mess around with words. I perform evil juxtapositions.
J: And when I’m doing a sequence that’s telling a story about some of the existing characters, I go into daydreaming mode. I start with the premise, which is usually some values-based conflict, imagine the key scenes, sketch in the connection lines, and then progressively refine the plot. If it’s complex, I will draw out a timeline, to help ensure continuity. And then I’ll daydream the scenario, over and over again. Once the specifics of the events are fixed, I replay it with attention to the emotions, in what I call “the emotional symphony”. How does a character feel, and why? I’ll ‘stop the film’ and ‘take the characters aside’ one by one, and I’ll ‘interview them’ on what they think is happening right now. That way, I can get inside their heads, and thus I can write their actions to portray their actions in the most credible way.
J: When someone asks: “Where do you get all your ideas?”, it makes me sad for the poor, forlorn, interviewer’s barren existence. It makes me feel like replying “What’s it like not to have an imagination?”
BC: If your strip had a soundtrack, what would it be?
J: Jazz, classical music and some Indy, particularly Australian. Some are very specific – I attached them quite deliberately to the particular moment. The character Daniella is named after the song of the same name by the John Butler Trio. And from there, I also attached Daniella’s personality to Girl U Want, by Devo, on the Tank Girl movie soundtrack album. This took me on to exploring other aspects of Daniella’s personality, following the other songs on the album, and that’s where I discovered she had some very angry phases in her past, and also some very sad ones, very dark. Roads, by Portishead. I would listen to that as I drew an emotional part of the story, and I’d be crying as I drew.
J: Miserere, by The Cat Empire. Push It Up by Cookin’ On Three Burners. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy by Cannonball Adderley. There was a local jazz compilation called Jazz in Melbourne (Volume 2) that was the soundtrack for the “I love Jaz” fishing trip story. The Man I Love, sung by Peggy Lee, was a specific song in the “Daniella’s secret” story. It’s a VERY sad song – it’s not about hope, it’s about despair. And of course that story is wrapped up by a performance by Emma Pask and James Morrison – cameo appearances of course. On the day I was in the process of drawing this, I had the incredibly lucky chance to attend an intimate jazz performance by Morrison and Pask, so I actually got the chance to collar them and ask their permission to use them in the story. So, from the album Emma, we had the play-out song No More Blues. Very happy music, at long last.
J: And finally, I can’t go past some movie soundtrack inspirations. The Bond movie Skyfall had a track called Tennyson. In the movie, M (Judy Dench) is defending herself in front of the interrogation-like court of a governmental inquiry, and even though she has just been quietly informed the assassin is on his way to kill her, she continues to hold her ground and recite the verse. Cinematically it cuts back and forth between the emotionally tense inquiry room and the frank violence of the hit squad approaching and storming the building. The music is restrained and insistent, like a ticking clock. All you can hear is music and poetry and yet it’s impossible to relax.
J: I tried to duplicate that ambiance in a segment of Doc Rat. I aimed to do in graphic novel form what I’d experienced in the cinema. It was a challenge. The music wasn’t there, but perhaps you could imagine it as I did. Ben reading to himself the verse from Daniella’s upcoming, rabbit-culture-styled apology ceremony and finally understanding why she’d been under such stress – the day she didn’t come home was the day he finally ‘got it’ – and there you the reader were watching something horrible Ben couldn’t see: Danni was starting to lose it, lose everything she had. I tried to write verses of poetry that would do it all justice, and I hoped people would be imagining music similar to that in the section of Skyfall. In one small token to that track, I made reference to Tennyson Street in the script. Check it out.
BC: Who are your favorite artists/writers?
J: Novels: John Le Carre writes in beautiful language with not a word wasted, and exceptional human observation; moreover his work is written to be read out loud. Paul Kidd writes adventure stories whose plots have solid bones and simply ooze pure joy. Terry Pratchett is a literary genius who can reveal the most serious human truths while secretly stealing your braces – I can’t get enough of his humour. Shakespeare – I intensively watched Henry V, both Branagh and Hiddleston, to see how I could use the techniques in the Agincourt speech to craft Boss Alpha Blutenstein’s ‘speech of his life’, as he persuaded his pack followers to convert from apex predators to pacifists who may still represent themselves on the top status rung.
J: Comics: Most definitely Aaron Neathery, who creates Endtown, in my opinion a master work of the genre. It’s surreal fantasy in the realm of the human condition. Think Mad Max meets Pogo meets Labyrinth meets The Bed-Sitting Room. I was hooked from the first pages, and I’m hooked still. And there’s Bill Holbrook, who creates Kevin and Kell, a semi-serious animal society daily strip. Gary Clark, with Swamp, a daily gag strip with a strike rate for new and funny jokes that I envy to death. Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido for Blacksad (writer and artist respectively) – for pity’s sake this series is good; it’s movie-length, cinematic-quality, full-page watercolour 1950’s detective fiction, from a part of the world (Spain/France) that wears the anthropomorphic animal genre like a well-fitting suit. Stan Sakai for Usagi Yojimbo, a long-running title that simply has no equal. Murray Ball, Charles Schulz, Tove Jansson, Ursula Vernon…
BC: I bought the first Blacksad hardcover on your recommendation, and I agree, it’s absolutely beautiful stuff (but, not for children).
J: For the record, I know Neathery, Holbrook, Clark and Sakai, and they are all splendid people.
J: And I want to give a prize to all the writers, artists, animators and producers of Zootopia.
BC: What do you look for when you read someone else’s strips? What do you think makes for a good comic?
J: I want them to be very good at what they intend to do. If it’s a daily gag, I expect it to be a funny gag. More than that, I want to know it’s the best gag that could be done by a skilled exponent. I want to know the creator gives a damn… comes up with an idea, looks at it and says: “Very funny, Cartoonist, now throw it away, do it again and make it funnier.”
J: If it’s a story, I want it to add some richness to my life… you know, something I wouldn’t ordinarily have had myself from my own resources. Tell me a story to which I can’t guess the ending. A story that has a theme and an undertone as well as a plot. A story that passes on to me a little of the writer’s wisdom of life in the process of working the narrative’s crisis to its resolution. I want to come away enlightened. In that way, Swamp tells the funniest jokes, Kevin and Kell works the genre and Endtown succeeds with a sublime story on every level – it’s paradigm-challenging and perspective-changing.
J: Visually, I expect the artwork to be just as fresh and appealing. I want it to be drawn well, and I want each panel to offer something different and interesting. (Peanuts is the exception that proves the rule, of course.) I want something more than talking heads. And my maxim is: “Above all else, the story.” If it came to it, I’d prefer well-written and poorly-drawn over poorly-written and well-drawn, every time. So, when it takes so much longer to draw a comic than to write it, then please spend that extra bit of time on improving the writing. Edit, edit, edit. Cut out any words that don’t have to be in there. Comics are a visual medium, so whenever possible “show, don’t tell”. If the writer and artist are separate people, then they should communicate closely, because a solution can be found in the image that can help remove parts of the text.
BC: What do you think of Patreon?
J: Patreon is a brilliant, new solution to the existing problem of how a comic creator can make a reliable income. Creators with a sufficiently popular product can get a regular payment from people who love their work above all others’. The old business models are withering, and some new one has to take over. There is still, though, the age-old caveat: if it were easy, everyone would be doing it! In the Golden Age, hopeful artists and writers would drag their portfolios around to comic publishers and newspapers, and it was possible in that way to get hired, but only the top percent would make the grade. Now, with Patreon, it’s still only the top percent who will make it. Even though the model is different, that part hasn’t changed.
J: Neathery, with merit, has a lot of loyal fans of Endtown, and the regular income from Patreon has been instrumental to his continuing to work as an Internet cartoonist for a living. But even so, his patrons have been promised rewards for their scheduled payments. He spends at least a day every month alone drawing and sending postcards, and writing a very long exclusive email, and there’s the cost of mailing prints and even original strip artwork to the larger supporters. Yes, Neathery does get that money, but he sure works for it – over and above what he does to keep the strip running.
J: Holbrook has a similar, self-run system of supporters and sponsors. He has something like 25,000 site visitors a month, so he can charge a good price for the ads. Of course, with the numbers he’s built up over twenty-plus years, his clients get value in what they pay for.
J: Neathery and Holbrook work full-time. I work very limited hours as a cartoonist and writer. My first priority is to completing five comics a week in the time available to me. Patreon or Kickstarter would be an idea for sometime in the future for me, but not right now. The last thing I’d want to do would be to promise extra benefits I’d fail to deliver. Supporters deserve to be treated with respect.
(All artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Copyright Jenner © 2016.)
(This interview is the copyright © of Curtis H. Hoffmann 2016. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.)
Poll question: Do you eat an apple a day to keep the doctor away, or do you just like apples?