A Dog, A Rabbit and A Stinkbug Walk Into A Strip: Mel Henze’s Gentle Creatures

It’s ritual. Almost involuntary, like whatever it is my spleen does when I’m not looking. Wake up, turn on news, make espresso, read funnies. I’m still Old School enough to prefer my funnies in the dry, gritty, analog, format of newspaper. Of course, I am no Luddite either and, as is the most convenient today, and cleaner for manicured hands, I take my funnies online via GoComics.com.

The ease and access is beautiful: funnies on my phone, funnies on my tablet, funnies on my laptop. It’s never been easier to chase friends and family around the room urging, “OMG! You have to read this one!”, almost always answered with a patient smile, a single eyebrow-lift and an obligatory, “That’s funny.” Is it? Then laugh.

Gentle Creatures artwork: Mel Henze, copyright GoComics
Gentle Creatures artwork: Mel Henze, copyright GoComics

The traditional comic strip, a linear set of panels delivering a quick, wry joke, une blague, as the French call it and which I find a much funnier word than “joke”, seems to be holding its own nicely in our contempo, digital world. Stretching as far back as the Bayeux Tapestry, I would argue, the linear storytelling model feeds man’s need for a brief, pithy respite of humour (not that the Norman Invasion was all that funny), whether on his way to a clan war in the Scottish highlands, a revolution in Yorktown or a pitch meeting on the Loews Santa Monica patio bar.

First published in a Sunday supplement to William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal in 1897, The Katzenjammer Kids, created by Rudolph Dirks and drawn today by Hy Eisman, remains America’s longest-running comic strip, still appearing in over fifty newspapers and magazines across the globe, distributed by King Features.

Like any commercial art, cartooning is a tough and tight-knit crew. Becoming an internationally syndicated cartoonist is harder than figuring out WTF happened on the final season of LOST. However, if you have tenacity, an innate sense of humour, drawing skills and a cocktail napkin, you might have a shot at the Big Time. Mel Henze had all that and now look at him. Of course, “all that” minus the drawing skills. Even he admits, “As far as the drawing goes, it’s a struggle at times. I need lessons and/or books.”

Gentle Creatures "actual submission". "Artwork": Mel Henze, image copyright, GoComics.
Gentle Creatures “actual submission”. “Artwork”: Mel Henze, image copyright, GoComics.

Mel Henze, a jovial, approachable chap who could sumo wrestle Ron Howard for the title of Mr. Nice Guy, lives the beauteous life on a quiet, wooded beach somewhere in British Columbia. He seems impervious to criticism, indeed values it, and, like any good artist, flays himself mercilessly before others can do the job. He is open to comments and questions and happy to chat with his readers; it is merited to this failing that he fell into my trap and was kind enough to allow me a brief interview about his newest strip, Gentle Creatures. Rumoured to be actually written by a chain-smoking, ex-circus clown, my due diligence has not turned up any hard evidence to this fact and it appears Henze is indeed the real creator and artist. Here’s the story he’s selling. (Caveat emptor.)

  • Gentle Creatures is the story of a fat-headed bunny named Radish Cheeseweed, his good natured but dim witted dog Jingles and their pal Cecil, an opinionated stink bug. While it may be true that the bunny-dog-stink bug combination is an age-old classic, Gentle Creatures breathes new life into the union in a way that has been seen only a few dozen times before.

A truism since we crawled out of the primordial stew and up onto Canadian beaches, the bunny-dog-stinkbug combo is timeless. In the case of GC, Radish Cheeseweed, his dog Jingles and the snarky Cecil work well together, Radish’s general beef with the universe being the swizzle stick that stirs the Singapore Sling.

Animals-as-people is also an age-old classic. Be it Snoopy, Garfield, The Far Side dinosaurs in cat-lady glasses or Get Fuzzy‘s Bucky and Satchel, anthropomorphized animals make the best friends, and comic characters. I asked Mel why we love them so.

  • I remember being drawn to Richard Scarry books as a kid. I’d spend what seemed like hours looking at how all the different animals were drawn and all the funny things they were doing. For me, it’s just something I’ve always identified with. It also makes sense from a cartooning perspective. Cranky bunny, lovable innocent dog… one is easily distinguishable from the other, even at a glance.  And they’re often easier to draw… another bonus.

If you follow the philosophical teachings of animators, Seth MacFarlane and Walt Disney have both said that the eyes, especially where animal characters are concerned, are vital to a character’s connection with the audience. Jingles’ eyes are beckoning and innocent; one wants to protect him, mostly from Radish. Academically, Mel knows this, yet is horrified to realize he has failed here, miserably.

  • Cecil has no eyes. Well, no pupils really. Wait, now that you mention it, none of the regular characters have pupils. I think [MacFarlane and Disney] might be on to something…

Not to worry, fair reader. Cecil the stinkbug might have no eyes and Jingles no pupils, but there exist other features cartoon creatures can possess, which draw them happily into our hearts and souls.

  • In terms of other features, Radish has angry eyebrows and a fat head, both of which contribute to his immediate and recognisable dislikability.

Gentle Creatures is not Henze’s first cat rodeo, although the initial, now infamous, cocktail napkin submission to GoComics, and subsequent, rough draft-feedback, suggests otherwise.

Gentle Creatures, rough draft with "editor suggestions". Artwork: Mel Henze, copyright GoComics
Gentle Creatures rough draft w/ feedback. Artwork: Mel Henze, copyright GoComics

Hubert and Abby is, in fact, Henze’s first comic strip. Before that, he was drawing single-panel cartoons and was very fortunate, via one his very first panels, to be picked up, and syndicated in the U.S. and internationally, by legendary distributor King Features (Betty & Veronica, Mother Goose & Grimm, Mutts), a unit of Hearst Corporation. Once in the club, Henze was encouraged by editors to “create a comic strip as an alternative to the somewhat flooded panel market.” Henze listened and, “a few iterations later, Hubert and Abby was born”. The lure of the panel still calls like a fat mermaid-siren in the night though, and to quell this lust, Henze occasionally designs greeting cards for Oatmeal Studios.

Henry David Thoreau suggested one write what one knows. One wonders then, like many an artist, is Henze embodied in any of his creations? Is the cranky Radish Cheeseweed an alter ego of sorts? Does Henze/Cheeseweed find daily irritation with what the inimitable writer Hunter S. Thompson called “the inchworms” of the world; or do Canadians love everybody? Might Henze be Jingles, the contented and kindly pup; or is Henze the personification of Cecil, the obdurate stinkbug? It seems Thoreau’s influence made its way into a previous, Hubert and Abby strip. (Makes sense. Most artists living in tents on secluded beaches or in lean-tos in the woods tend to appreciate Thoreau to a fault.)

  • Turtle quoted Thoreau in Hubert and Abby as having said “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion”. Hubert tested the theory with the nearest reasonable facsimile…a can of pumpkin pie filling. Like Turtle, I’m more of a pumpkin-guy myself, though I’d have to say there’s a bit of me in each of my characters. Minus the crankiness of course. 

So, back to the cocktail napkin: readers want to know … is that real? Did a famous, multi-strip, syndicated cartoonist from Canada really submit an idea in this manner? Do we blame Canada? The story goes that the muck-stained napkin was submitted to GoComics editors and the following, visceral response ensued.

There was something about it that I liked,” claimed Editor Joe. “I’m not sure if it was the kind and peaceful nature of the characters themselves, or the gentle way the interacted. I know it wasn’t the art … I mean, really.”

Was it the cranky rabbit, or did Hubert and Abby help get Henze’s lucky rabbit foot in the door? Moreover, what is the ring on said-napkin? Is it espresso, drip coffee (if so, what brew?), bean soup or maybe even a chocolate martini? Well, kids, in this GoodToBeAGeek exclusive, Mel tells all.

  • The napkin sketch wasn’t part of the original submission, unfortunately, but the idea of a submission drawn in five seconds on a (used) napkin struck me as funny. It’s also a jab at my own inability to put a decent proposal together, though it may have come across differently. I created it specifically for the GoComics launch and the stain is “simulated” coffee, thanks to photo-editing software.  I also experimented with bacon grease and tape, both of which didn’t make the final cut.

Interesting. Now that we all feel like fools, having Huzzah!ed the little guy and Fie!ed the “mean and unfair syndicate monsters” the world over who wish only to use artists’ hard-fought work for nothing more than fish-wrap, we can step back and read Gentle Creatures for what it really is: a truly funny, giggle-invoking, daily dash of happy.

How does a mere Canadian, any artist for that matter, make it amongst the ranks of Charles Schulz and Bill Watterson? Can-do, I say! I asked Henze and, naturally, he had an answer.

  • Gentle Creatures, like Hubert and Abby, started on the GoComics Sherpa site, which for me, is a great place to develop a strip.  It gave me the opportunity to work to a deadline while getting valuable feedback from other cartoonists and readers.  The GoComics editors also keep an eye on strips on the Sherpa side … sometimes you’ll hear from the pros on the GoComics side.  The very talented Ed Power, My Cage and Santa vs. Dracula [both GoComics-strips illustrated by Melissa DeJesus], was an early supporter and provided a much appreciated boost early on and continues to get the word out about Gentle Creatures.

As the convention season in SoCal starts its early rumblings, this SoCal geek girl wondered if Henze and his creatures would feature at either WonderCon or the god of all cons, San Diego Comic-Con? SDCC badges and press passes are harder to garner than a birthday party invitation from Hillary Clinton to Ted Nugent. Yet, if GoComics sponsored a Henze appearance, stinkbugs and cranky rabbits from all over the Southland would file in to get a glimpse. Henze himself is open to it all.

  • With any luck, these will be something I can attend in the future. By all accounts, they’re pretty amazing events, and a great place to meet and connect with people, and possibly introduce them to a cranky bunny, a lovable dog, and an opinionated stink bug.    

Besides stinkbugs and small mammals, Comic-Con is also crawling with cartoonists and animators of all strains and species. Henze has a bit of golden advice for the funny-page wannabes, as well as an open email box for anyone whom wishes to pick his brain.

  • If you have an idea, submit it on a napkin.  It’s funny. I really enjoy hearing from people who want to talk about their strip or mine, or cartooning in general, and welcome comments (good or bad!) to the email on my GoComics page. Happy Cartooning!

As Radish Cheeseweed’s recent hospital stay proved, no one is indispensable. Kermit the Frog and Tom Cruise, I have on good authority, are on permanent standby, just in case Cheeseweed meets an untimely end; and keeping it all in The Muppets family, Pepe the King Prawn could serve well as a Cecil stand-in. Jingles, for this reader’s worth, is absolutely indispensable. Jingles has quickly moved up my ranks to join prestigious company with Fox Trot‘s Jason and Quincy, Get Fuzzy‘s Satchel and Peanuts‘ Sally Brown. Jingles makes a sweet first-impression. Moreover, it is rumoured Jingles fancies a parasol on sunny days, much like Yours Truly. Who doesn’t love a wee dog with a pink parasol? Will Henze play God with his characters? Probably.

Gentle Creatures artwork: Mel Henze, copyright GoComics
Gentle Creatures artwork: Mel Henze, copyright GoComics
  • I hope Jingles is indispensable. As much as cartoonists describe their characters as their children, I’ve found after a few years, they’re like adult children living in your basement. You hope that someday they can stand on their own and eke out a living. Henze added, I love Pepe the King Prawn! Maybe a future cameo?!
An honourable homage! Artwork: Mel Henze, image courtesy of J.S.Devore
An honourable homage! Artwork: Mel Henze, image courtesy of J.S.Devore

Henze’s strip makes me scroll to the bottom of my personalized GoComicsPro page each morning. I am excited to learn what hay is being made in the dew-dappled meadow amidst the burbling, gurgling creek which runs through the smallish hills. (Note, GC is not at the bottom of my page as a ranking judgment; but simply because it is one of the newest I’ve added.) Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts top my list, of course. Gentle Creatures sits nicely snuggled in between Sarah’s Scribbles and Wizard of Id.

Gentle Creatures is exactly what a comic strip should be. Comic strips should make you guffaw, laugh out loud embarrassingly in public, leaving those around you at Starbucks to wonder if you’re actually reading something funny, or if they should have 9-1-1 at the ready. The funnies should make you excited to open the new strip every day. They should make you get up from your seat and force everyone else in the house to read it, too, whilst you stand there, dorky smile plastered on your face, waiting in giddy anticipation and watching their face for signs of the coming laugh, the same creeping smile and chortle the strip elicited from you. Often, this is not the case and we must retreat to our davenports (That’s what they call it in Canada, right?), tails between our legs and resume reading our beloved and misunderstood, under-appreciated comics with quieter chuckles and titters. (That’s a funny word, too. Right, Jingles?) Gentle Creatures accomplishes this, indeed.

Gentle Creatures artwork: Mel Henze, copyright GoComics
Gentle Creatures artwork: Mel Henze, copyright GoComics

Find Gentle Creatures at GoComics.com, a division of Universal Uclick, an Andrews-McMeel Universal company. Email Mel Henze at gentlecreaturescomic@gmail.com! To boot, a very special thank you to @Gene Willis @GoComics for the introduction and, especially, to Mel Henze for his time, his humour, his art and, most of all, my panel!

See you in the Sunday funnies, kids!

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