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It’s a sunny Tuesday morning after Memorial Day weekend, and internationally syndicated cartoonist Frank Cho is suffering through the downside of a bender. After several days of celebrating the college graduation of his closest friends, the Korean-born illustrator of the best-looking cartoon babe since Jessica Rabbit is paying the price of the high life.
But this isn’t some sad case of age chasing youth from bar to bar, struggling to make it to 2 a.m. Cho is more than able to maintain the partying pace with his brethren: Having graduated from the University of Maryland a few years ago, this budding celeb is only 25 years old, a Wonderbra-loving wunderkind whose off-the-wall comic strip, Liberty Meadows, appears in several dozen daily newspapers, including the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, and others in such far-off places as Britain and Pakistan.
In 1995, Cho signed a 15-year contract with the L.A.-based Creators Syndicate, which also deals Wizard of Id, Momma, B.C., and, on the editorial front, Tony Kornheiser. Cho’s whirlwind ascension to a cartoonist’s dream gig has been a constant battle with conservative editors, fuming feminists, andperhaps the most persuasive detractorshis unsatisfied parents. He’s thrilled and scared shitless all at once; his emotions are as confused and tangled as those of, well, any 25-year-old in his position.
Before venturing into the land of half-naked girls, vomiting pigs, and “ass freak” lima beans, however, Cho explored the wilds of Prince George’s County.
In 1990, Cho graduated from Beltsville’s High Point High School knowing full well what he wanted to do with his future. He bought some time by enrolling in various science classes at Prince George’s Community Collegefor whose paper he created Everything but the Kitchen Sink, basically “just a bunch of animals running around”but his parents were growing impatient.
“With the typical Asian family, you have to go into either engineering or the medical field,” Cho explains. “So I decided to go into nursing at the University of Maryland [at Baltimore]. It was my parents’ idea. They kind of forced me.”
“You know, it’s only two years, and I’m surrounded by chicks, which automatically doubles my chance of getting a date,” Cho laughs. “But it was driving me nuts. My parents were saying, ‘Artist is not an honorable profession and you will starve’….In fact, last time I saw my mom she asked, ‘Have you ever thought about going back to school and getting a computer degree?’”
But even with his parents’ constant nagging, Cho would trek to their Beltsville home every weekend to keep an eye on his artistic peers. “I would read the Diamondback [the University of Maryland’s student newspaper], and their comics section stunk….The school has more than 40,000 students. You figure there should be at least five decent cartoonists. But it was all crap,” Cho says. “So I decided to try for the Diamondback.”
Cho, originally worried that his enrollment at a U. of M. satellite campus would hurt his chances of success, was an instant hit.
“I wanted the strip to have some sort of premise, so I decided [on a] bunch of crazy, mutated lab animals who got shipped to the wrong place [surprise: a college campus]. And then they get quickly adopted by a fraternity. So that was the setup…and the strip just took off.”
And thus began the brief (three semesters), but ultimately influential University2 era. Featured characters, many from Everything but the Kitchen Sink, included a beer-guzzling pig named Dean, a “hostile gerbil” (and connoisseur of “Your Mama” jokes) named Ralph, and a shy-with-women duck named Frank (hint: Cho’s Korean given name is Duk).
“I was also trying to create…a big, bean-shaped character to show a lot of facial expressions. It looked like Humpty Dumpty, and Leslie the Laughing Lima Bean just stuck in my mind,” Cho says, describing his most inventive ‘toon. “I guess I was watching too much SupermanLois Lane, Lana Lane, Lex Luthor.” (In one memorable strip, Ralph reads Leslie a bedtime story from Ass Freaks magazine. Subtle, huh?)
And then there was Brandy (approximate measurements: 34D-24-34but what do I know?). Besides fraternity ogre Tony, Dean’s best friend in Tri Kuppa Brew, Brandy was the only “human” to appear regularly. Perfect body, perfect face, and always worried about “getting fat.” And boy, was she popular.
In Cho’s words, “Brandy is stacked…a composite of all the women I’ve found attractive throughout my short life. If you look at her closely, you can see Lynda Carter, Courteney Cox, Bettie Page, and also this girl from high school, but I’m not going to give her name. These were the women I’ve lusted after since I was a wee little boy. I made a conscious decision to make all the human characters pretty realistic.” (Call me a cynic, but something tells me you’re not going to find too many women who think Brandy is “realistic.”)
(By the way, as far as supermodels are concerned, and he’s got plenty of pictures of them around his drawing desk, Cho says Cindy
Crawford is his hands-downlet’s hope not
too far downfavorite: “If she had bigger breasts, ooh…”)
Cho had created every college guy’s fantasy girl, even if he did take a few hits for this vision of lustiness: “There were always one or two hate letters….It was usually from some extreme, militant people, usually women. But for every one complaint, I’d get about 50 compliments, people saying I was doing a great job.”
With all his brash posturing as a bad-boy college cartoonist, Cho was nevertheless bothered by the negative reactions. He didn’t expect women to get upset over Brandy’s wanton, deep-breather ways or, for that matter, Dean’s disrespect for females and Leslie’s penchant for firm fannies.
“No matter what I did, [women] would complain that I was a sexist. They would complain only because Brandy was too beautiful. I just got pissed off and said, ‘If you think that’s offensive’…then I’d turn it up a notch.”
How about a couple of notches? Like the “University2 1st Annual Swimsuit Spectacular,” a weeklong event featuring Brandy in beach gear even Sports Illustrated would balk at. One of the few times Cho was shot down by his pals at the Diamondback was when he drew “Scratch & Sniff Brandy,” a centerfold strip without jokes, without animals, but with a whole lot
In his final semester, Cho again became a hot topic, making the 11 o’clock news over a campus controversy surrounding a strip about Brandy’s mother’s concern that her daughter was dating a Jewish boy (when, in fact, she was only dating a duck).
Although Cho would have the last laugh by including both pieces in a University2 compilation, the censoring would be a fraction of the relentless hand-slapping he’d endure as a professional cartoonist.
At the end of 1994, Cho beat out thousands of college cartoonists by winning the Scripps-Howard National Journalism Award for best comic strip. The award just about ensures future syndication, but several groups felt the strip was “too aggressive.” Then came the reps from Creators Syndicate, who threw themselves at the artist: The then-23-year-old Cho inked a megacontract and was backed by an impressive sales campaign.
But with the good comes the bad: Creators quickly and painfully began pulling things apart. Now titled Liberty Meadows, the strip featured many of the University2 characters, albeit in disappointingly toned-down versions: Frank became human, Leslie a bullfrog, Ralph a circus bear, Tony a maintenance man, Dean a recovering alcoholic, and Brandy…a B cup. The locale was also switched from a major college campus to the safer setting of an animal sanctuary.
“The syndication does a very nice job of neutering me,” Cho says. “When I was doing the strip for Maryland, they would run it as-is 99 percent of the time….When I drew the first couple of weeks of Liberty Meadows, Creators sent back most of the ones with Brandy in them, with little Post-it notes…pointing at her breasts and butt, saying ‘reduce breast, reduce buttocks.’ They didn’t say ‘butt’ or ‘ass,’ they said ‘buttocks’! I tried to tell them, ‘Have you seen Blondie?’ I mean, Blondie is stacked!’”
It was a losing battle. And the change that truly diminished Cho’s dynamic humor was a ridiculous, debilitating blow: “The syndication balked at the idea that Brandy would have a sexual relationship with a duck,” Cho huffs, the first real trace of anger creeping into his voice. “Syndications are afraid to take chances.”
And yes, Cho, at his most frustrated, has given serious thought to the “alternative” comics scene, but adds, “Hey, I’m a capitalistic whore! I make no qualms about that.”
So much for cornering him on the sellout angle.
You want to get Cho really angry? Make him read a recent Family Circus or Peanuts strip. “Today’s mainstream comic pages are not funny,” Cho says. “When Berke Breathed was doing Bloom County, those were classic. But I don’t really care for Outland. I like early Doonesbury, before he went too freakin’ political. Bill Watterson’s [Calvin and Hobbes] layouts, his control of his brush was just incredible.”
This is as close as Cho gets to gushing over today’s cartoonists. In Cho’s eyes, most of the current comics are “garbage…just not funny.” Charles Schultz, for instance, is “an icon, but should have retired 10 years ago.”
Much of this rant, however, is really just Cho crapping his drawers about his own cartoon mortality. Losing his edge is a constant concern.
“I understand why [Gary] Larson and Watterson retired in their prime,” he says quietly, “because it’s…very, very hard. The drawing isn’t too bad; I love to draw. But the writing….You have to come up with a joke a day, every single week…for the next 15 years. Last night I had an anxiety attack, because I couldn’t come up with any gag ideas for [the upcoming week].
“I don’t want to stay around forever like Schultz or some of those other guys. I’m going to be 39 when the contract runs out. You get burned out. I can’t take a vacation unless I get all these damned scripts done. The more I think about the strip,” Cho says, “the more I get stressed out.” CP
Copies of the University2 compilation can be purchased by sending an SASE and a check for $15 to Frank Cho, Insight Studios, 7844 St. Thomas Dr., Baltimore, MD 21236.