Ray Nelson
Science Fiction Author and Cartoonist

















CARTOONISM: Ray Nelson on his life as a cartoonist

Almost every child is born a cartoonist.

At the age of two you know how to reduce a drawing to a few simple lines. You know how to lay out a page to make a coherent whole. You know how to chose colors to express an emotion rather than give a photographic reproduction of reality. You know how to draw a face that expresses a certain personality. You know how to make a picture tell a story.

Then the attack begins. Your parents, your teachers, your psychotherapists (if you can afford them) begin the lifelong struggle to cure you of being you. Eventually your classmates enlist on the enemy side.

Most of us surrender fairly early in the war. I didn't. The adults wanted me to adopt a lifestyle based on competitive sport. I wanted to adopt a lifestyle based on drawing. I began by not wanting to compete with other children in games. That meant I was hanging around the house with nothing to do.

One day my father was working at home and I kept distracting him by asking questions. Finally he sat me down in a sunny windowseat, gave me a crayon and a ream of typewriter paper, and said, "Keep busy!" I grasped the crayon like a dagger and slowly dragged it across the paper. Then I looked at the mark I had made like God looking at the universe He had created and found it good. I made another mark, then another. They too were good. I flailed my arms with excitement. Those were my own marks. I myself had made them. A kind of trance came over me and I drew and drew and drew until evening came on. I did not realize until I became an adult that what I was drawing was the proverbial mark in the sand.

Since that day I have never let anything stop me from drawing. The first day of kindergarten arrived like the crack of doom. At Physical Education time the "coach" lined up all the boys in my class, about twelve of us, at one end of the playground and pointed to the other end of the playground.

Some of Ray's early work from "Space Warp"

Said he, "Now we're going to run a little footrace here. I'm going to count to three and then say go. When I say go you guys are going to run as fast as you can and see who can get to the gate first. He'll be the winner. The last one to get to the gate will be a rotten egg." I looked over my competitors and figured the odds. One chance to be a winner. Eleven chances to be a loser, including one to be a rotten egg. Some of my classmates looked pretty hunky, easily more muscular than me. The coach counted. "One, two, three, go!" Eleven boys ran like crazy. One boy, me, just stood there.

"Let's try that again," said the coach. He lined us up again and counted down again, but this time he gave me a little shove. Eleven boys ran. One, me, didn't. He looked at me, face brick-red with fury and growled, "I'll tell your teacher." But my teacher couldn't get me to run, the principal couldn't get me to run, my parents couldn't get me to run, my parents' psychotherapist couldn't get me to run, the sergeants at three years of military school couldn't get me to run.

As I write I have recently turned seventy years old. I still haven't run. I had learned what no child is supposed to learn, that if you say yes to the game you can, at best, win out against a ragtag troop of little kids your own age. If you say no you can win out against the entire adult world. They can hurt you, even kill you, but they can't make you run.

In 1938, stimulated by the example of Superman and Donald Duck, I began drawing comic books. My first creation was Petie Panda because pandas were easy to draw and my brother had a stuffed panda I could use as a model. I worked in black pencil on white typewriter paper, showing the result to my classmates. In gradeschool I drew in all about a dozen comic books about fifty pages each, with colored covers. Only one of them has survived to this day.

As a freshman in high school I discovered Fandom, the world of science-fiction fans. Fandom included many amateur authors and artists who published, usually by mimeograph, magazines which they distributed, free of charge, to other amateur authors and artists. Borrowing my dad's mimeograph, I began publishing a "zine" of my own, entitled "Universe", followed by another called "Stupefying Stories", then co-edited with Art Rapp yet another called "Spacewarp". Meanwhile I also contributed cartoons and illustrations to many other amateur publications, eventually being named Number One Fan Cartoonist in "Fanac", the top newszine in fandom.

As a college student at the University of Chicago, I contributed cartoons to the student newspaper and student yearbook, also producing by silk screen many posters for student organizations and businesses. Before graduating I transferred to the Chicago Art Institute, taking the painting and illustration sequence, but was asked to leave because of my habit of challenging my instructors.

Abstract Expressionism was the fad of the day, and I attacked it at every opportunity. (I still think it is a hoax embraced by snobs who like to appear superior by liking something nobody else does.) On my last day at the Institute, I defended another student who was being criticized by an abstractionist instructor and ended by ducking as the disputed painting sailed like a Frisbee overhead and crashed into the wall behind me.

Since my expulsion from the Art Institute I have continued to do cartoons for amateur publications, but have also done artwork for the Artcraft Poster Company in Oakland, California, including a prize-winning design for a poster for the "Toys for Tots" Christmas drive. My work has appeared in trade journals all over the country and in several "alternate" comic books including "Alien Encounters Comics", where my story "Nada" was made into a hit movie for Universal Pictures entitled "They Live".

Currently I am cartoon editor for a trade journal, "The American Window Cleaner" and last year was a finalist for the World Science Fiction Convention's Retro-Hugo trophy for top fan cartoonist. (I had a heart attack when I didn't win.)

So other people have their little footraces. I have my cartoons. Even if nobody else liked them, I would still draw them. Indeed, I have written two books on cartooning which nobody gets to read but me. At best it is a satisfying lifestyle, at worst the cheapest of hobbies. Drawing has the very great virtue that nobody can stop me from doing it. I can always find an advertising handout with a blank back. I can always find a pen, pencil or bit of coal to draw on it with. I don't need an expensive computer, fancy car, posh office or tailored suit. I am a worker with his own means of production. I have a weapon between my ears that I can carry undetected through any metal detector or customs search.

If I don't like the universe God made, there are billions of other universes waiting to appear at that point where my pen meets a blank sheet of paper.

Have a look at some of Ray's Cartoons



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