BC: What personal information do you think is important for readers to know about you?
BH: I grew up in the Space Age atmosphere of Huntsville, Ala. in the 1960s. On graduating from Auburn University I was hired by The Atlanta Constitution as an editorial staff artist. After several attempts at syndication, my office strip On the Fastrack was picked up by King Features and debuted in 150 papers on March 19, 1984. Eleven days before that I’d met Teri Peitso on a blind date. We were married on Pearl Harbor Day, 1985, and now have two daughters. That also gave birth to a second strip about kids called Safe Havens.
BH: In September 1995 I began a new strip called Kevin & Kell which is now the internet’s longest running daily webcomic. I was named Cartoonist of the Year at the 1998 Pogofest, an annual gathering in Waycross honoring the great Walt Kelly and Pogo. Kevin & Kell was given the Ursa Major Award in 2003 for Best Anthropomorphic Comic Strip, and in 2016 it was one of three nominees for the National Cartoonists Society’s Silver Reuben award for Best Online Comic (Short Form).
BH: I also collaborated on the comic book A Duel in the Somme, written by Ben Bova and Rob Balder.
BC: Do you consider yourself an artist, cartoonist, or something else? How did you get started as that?
BH: The term cartoonist best sums up my skill set, so it’s what I’ve always called myself.
BH: As for getting my start, there were a number of crucial moments. In one sense you might say my start was drawing constantly as a two-year-old, but the biggest leap was in July 1983 when King Features responded positively to my submission of On the Fastrack. They flew me to New York to meet the staff, and I signed the contract in December of that year. Fastrack debuted in papers on March 19, 1984.
BC: Which of your works are you happiest with or most proud of?
BH: I’m proud of all of my works, but I’m always trying to improve them. I keep introducing new elements so they stay fresh.
BC: Where can we find your collections?
BH: Readers can find all of my books at the Bill Holbrook Store.
BC: How do you get started when you sit down in front of that blank sheet of paper?
BH: I write every weekday, and the process begins by focusing on the characters of which strip I’m writing for that week. From that point I let my mind wander, imagining scenarios that force the characters to respond. Usually they surprise me.
BC: Your strips have been running on “cartoon” time, so one year strip time isn’t one year of real time. Yet, your characters age and go through various life changes. How do you decide to have a strip leap forward a few years to get to the next stage (Rudy graduating high school, Coney exiting diapers and entering school, the Safe Havens kids growing up, etc.)?
BH: The strips all take place on different time lines. Safe Havens is completely chronological, currently depicting life in April 2017, and the characters age accordingly. In Kevin & Kell the characters age, but slowly; since the strip’s debut in 1995, five years have elapsed. Fastrack takes place in “comic strip time” in which the characters are frozen at specific ages, yet always interacting with current events. This leads to some anomalies, like that in Fastrack Dethany will always be a lowly personal assistant, but in Safe Havens we’ve seen that she has risen to become the project manager for humanity’s first mission to Mars.
BC: What was the inspiration for Dethany, and why move the focus of On the Fastrack from a group of functional computer geeks to a death-obsessed goth? Has her reader popularity changed over time? Has she generated any reader push-back? Has anything about her surprised you within, or outside the strip? [Followed by: How popular have the strip-related twitter accounts been? What was the rationale behind setting them up? Have there been any advantages or drawbacks to having the accounts, or having the presence of the strips in so many web outlets?]
BH: Dethany’s arrival in Fastrack was entirely by accident. When I created her I figured I’d get a few gags out of her unusual nature before she moved on, but I was astounded at how easily the material flowed when she interacted with the other characters. That was confirmed when the strips featuring her began appearing, and readers would send me messages simply saying how much they loved her. None of this was part of a master plan, but I went with it.
BH: This naturally leads to the question about social media. It was online interaction with the readers that reinforced my initial feeling that I was on the right track with Dethany.
BC: Are there any real differences between doing a webcomic versus a syndicated newspaper strip? Which format do you prefer? Kevin and Kell seems to offer you the greatest leeway in terms of addressing social issues (trans-species/transgender, mixed marriage, non-traditional family structures, etc.) – Does political commentary belong in a family “comic”?
BH: Webcomics don’t have to follow the same format restrictions that newspaper comics do, but I still work within them for Kevin & Kell since I’m most comfortable inhabiting those structures.
BH: That said, I created Kevin & Kell expressly as an outlet for social commentary that newspaper editors might find uncomfortable. I knew that my stances would generate some hostility in certain quarters, but that was part of the terrain I chose to take. The good news is that the positive comments have outweighed the negative ones by 100 to 1.
BC: I know that this interview is going to be printed too late for this question to be relevant, but are there any plans for any of the characters in the strips to do something for Earth Day (Apr. 22)?
BH: I don’t have anything planned in the strips for Earth Day, but I do plan to personally take part in the March for Science in Atlanta that day.
BC: [Later] How did that go?
BH: The march went very well. I haven’t seen the official numbers, but the crowd was in the thousands. It took about an hour to cover the 2-mile route around Candler Park, which is in a residential neighborhood close to downtown Atlanta. Here’s a picture of me and my sign. 🙂
BC: With Samantha’s current involvement in preparing for the Mars mission in Safe Havens, have you gotten much in the way of a reaction from NASA or any other space program world-wide? Are there any Safe Havens strip clippings on the fridge on the ISS? What’s your reaction to the Trump administration’s plans to cut funding to NASA or any other program?
BH: I grew up in the space program, as my father worked for the company that tested the boosters of the Apollo and Space Shuttle rockets. Obviously I have a personal emotional investment in NASA’s funding. I haven’t gotten any feedback on the Mars mission in Safe Havens, though, but that may change when they launch in January.
BC: Are there any plans for future story lines for any of the strips you’d like to tell your readers about?
BH: I have plans for future stories in Kevin & Kell and Safe Havens, but they’re all surprises. (For the latter all I can say is, yes, they’ll be going to Mars.) For Fastrack, I let trends in technology and cyberspace determine the direction. (It was that intentional openness to improvisation that allowed Dethany to take center stage.)
BC: After going over your bio again, I went back and reread the Duel in the Somme. What was it like working on that? Any high points or challenges? I also follow Erfworld, so, how was it working with Rob Balder? Did you use any reference materials for the planes or battle fields?
BH: I drew Duel in the Somme during the first half of 2010, and I really enjoyed stretching my illustration muscles. The requirement was that the planes would be historically accurate down to every detail, which meant a *lot* of research on Google. I worked directly with Rob Balder, which was a fun collaboration. He’s a true Renaissance man.
BC: Kevin has been kind of a mirror for the progression of computer technology ever since KaK started. Are there any trends you predicted successfully? Any trends that you regret had died out? Any tech trends you’d like to predict now?
BH: I wish I had crystal ball to see tech developments ahead of time, but the industry continues to surprise me.
BC: If your strips had soundtracks, what would they be?
BH: It’s hard to say what kind of soundtrack would accompany my strips, since they all involve a wide emotional range. It would depend on the situation, and be fairly eclectic. That said, there’ve been three songs for which I wrote the lyrics:
Dethany- Exhume Yourself
Bambi- Free Range Love
Kevin and Kell- Underneath the Fur
BH: The voice on the songs “Exhume Yourself” and “Free Range Love” is my sister, Susan Holbrook Ridarick. She’s a professional singer. “Underneath the Fur” was created by Tom Smith.
BC: Do you follow any other comic strips right now?
BH: I’m a fan of any comic that’s created with personal honesty and possesses a unique perspective.
BC: Any appearances scheduled for conventions?
BH: I have three appearances coming up this year:
June 30-July 2 Anthrocon, Pittsburgh PA
Aug. 10-12 Otakon, Washington DC
Sept 1-4 Dragoncon, Atlanta GA
BC: If Elon Musk, Richard Branson, or anyone similar ever succeeds in establishing a commercial tourist business for space travel, would you buy a ticket (for yourself or for someone else?)
BH: While I’d love to go, I’m afraid my skill set wouldn’t be much use on an interplanetary voyage, even as a tourist. 🙂 I’ll just leave that to the professionals who know what they’re doing. Like Samantha.
(All artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Fastrack and Safe Havens (c) 2017, King Features Syndicate, World rights reserved. Kevin & Kell (c) 2017, Bill Holbrook, World rights reserved)
(This interview is the copyright (c) of Curtis H. Hoffmann 2017. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.)