Visual Language

Posted by on January 20th, 2010 at 11:23 AM

Here we have a confrontation between Rose Trellis, the founder of Fastrack, Inc., and her assistant, Wendy Rommel, who is married to Art Welding, another Fastrack employee, who shows up in the last panel. They are all characters in On the Fastrack, a comic strip by Bill Holbrook, who is a cartooning fool, and a brilliant one. He performs the seemingly impossible feat of producing single-handedly three daily comic strips: On the Fastrack, a jaundiced look at life in corporate America, which debuted March 19, 1985; then Safe Havens, which initially focused on children in a day care facility, starting October 3, 1988. The children have aged somewhat over the last twenty years, all graduating from college, and one of them, Samantha Argus, has emerged decisively as the strip’s protagonist. And, finally, Kevin and Kell, in which anthropomorphic characters cavort, which was launched on the Web September 4, 1995, and then graduated to print a couple years ago in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The cartooning fool part is this: Holbrook writes, pencils, inks, and letters all three strips. And every panel in all three is drawn too—not ruled, not photocopied. Drawn with thin lines that wax thick and vice versa; every panel a different picture. No shortcuts. “The only assistance that I have is on the coloring of Kevin & Kell,” he once told me, “which is done by Terrence Marks. Reed Brennan Media colors the Fastrack and Safe Havens dailies, and I color the Fastrack Sundays.” Safe Havens doesn’t appear on Sundays.,

Holbrook’s production routine sounds like a masochist’s dream: “I work on a three-week schedule,” he told Phil Geusz at “During this week, for instance, I’ll be writing three week’s worth of Fastrack material, and drawing the 21 gags I wrote for Kevin & Kell last week. Next week, I’ll write for Safe Havens while drawing the Fastrack batch. And so it goes. On a typical day, I’ll begin by writing four gags by 2 p.m., then I’ll pick up my daughters at their schools. When I return, I’ll begin drawing, usually doing about four strips. At night, after everyone goes to bed, I’ll write two more gags. I end up the week with more gags than I need, and my wife picks the best ones. That leaves weekends free to get caught up on e-mail.”

Holbrook’s brilliance does not reside in his work schedule, which is clearly that of an entirely insane person. His brilliance is revealed in the way he often deploys the unique visual resources of the comics medium to achieve comedy of which only comics are capable. He invents metaphors and symbols like an editorial cartoonist, and these not only lend meaning to the laughs but give the depth of significance to the humor. In our example today, for instance, we see a “meeting” between a ruthless corporate executive, who, by the second panel, has been transformed into a carpenter’s saw the better to suggest just how mercilessly she is cutting down her assistant, and the assistant, whose pugnacious refusal to accept her boss’s evaluation is characterized by portraying her as a superior kind of saw. The significance of the symbolism extends beyond the immediate confrontation because it effectively portrays corporate executives as sharp-toothed bullies who back down when faced with sharper teeth. The visual metaphors supply satiric commentary on corporate America as well as insight into the personalities of the principals here. And that, kimo sabe, is brilliant cartooning.

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