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In a field in which being good is usually not enough, Jeff Shesol is good and lucky. At 27, Shesol draws a syndicated comic strip, Thatch, that appears in such newspapers as the Boston Globe, the New York Daily News, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Houston Chronicle—almost everywhere, in fact, except Washington, where the strip is drawn and where its action nominally takes place.
A friend of the cartoonist has taken it upon herself to circulate a petition on this matter addressed to the Washington Post, but even without local exposure, Shesol’s accomplishment is rather remarkable, considering that the tenure of a Blondie or a Beetle Bailey is more unshakable than that of a crotchety professor.
“The bottom line governing the comics page is that change is not our friend,” Shesol says. “It’s a zero-sum game—you add one, you have to remove one, and any time you remove one, you upset somebody.”
Shesol’s luck stemmed from his extraordinary timing. As a member of Brown University’s class of 1991, Shesol drew Thatch for the Brown Daily Herald, the student paper, five days a week over three years. In 1990, to tweak the sometimes overzealous leftism of his peers, Shesol decided to occasionally insert a caped character known as “Politically Correct Person.”
This, it should be noted, was before political correctness became a ubiquitous conservative bogeyman; indeed, Shesol today acknowledges his share of the blame for opening that particular Pandora’s box. Here’s how it happened:
In October 1990, a fellow student who was a stringer for the New York Times’ now-defunct Campus Life page wrote the first national exploration of the PC phenomenon. The stringer knew of Shesol’s work, and forwarded a couple of strips to his editor for possible use as artwork. The Times ran one; then all hell broke loose.
Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, regional papers—everyone began doing stories about the PC threat, “and I became the poster boy because there was no other good art to go with the articles,” Shesol says. That earned him wider syndication (maxing out, through Gannett-USA Today’s college service, at about 200 college papers) as well as a book deal with Vintage Books, a division of Random House. “I was caught up in the media spin,” Shesol recalls.
Then things got weirder. Shesol agreed to be interviewed by one campus-oriented publication, but when he saw how right-wing its views were he quickly nixed his cooperation; a conservative friend acknowledged that even he was uncomfortable with the paper’s rantings. And William F. Buckley’s National Review called to see if he’d like to become the magazine’s regular cartoonist. In turning the magazine down, an amazed Shesol had to explain that he was a liberal.
“My critique was from the moderate-to-liberal camp—that good causes were being subverted by people on my own side,” Shesol says (adding, jokingly, that it wasn’t as if there were any conservatives at Brown to make fun of). “I had to go to great pains with the Associated Press and Good Morning America to explain that I wasn’t part of a right-wing backlash against liberalism. It was a difficult point to get across. People didn’t appreciate the nuances.”
To Shesol’s credit, he moved beyond PC more successfully than most of the conservative ideologues who loved his cartoon creation. Shesol has kept Thatch alive, but he has updated its content to approximate the lives that he and his friends are currently living. Unlike many strip creators, Shesol plans to let his characters age with him and his friends.
After graduating from Brown in 1991, Shesol spent two years at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. While there he penned a strip for the Independent, a “quality” daily based in London. When the Independent lost one of its hot comics in a bidding war, its editors flailed around for a replacement, and they eventually tracked down Shesol, whose P.C. Person was already known in English comic circles.
Shesol and the editors agreed to try a strip with a Yank-at-Oxford theme, but the paper quickly sacked him. “I’d only been in Britain for six months,” Shesol recalls. “I had no profound observations, and I couldn’t fake it as a Brit. I knew from moment one that it was doomed to go down in flames.”
After finishing up at Oxford, Shesol settled into the first of several Capitol Hill apartments. For two years he’d been able to defer a Creators Syndicate deal to distribute Thatch, and in the fall of 1994 he cranked up his pen, newly tipped with his favorite nibs (early Soviet products he’d scored at a shop in London ), and breathed some new life into the strip’s two main characters, also creating a handful of newcomers.
“Thatch” is B.L. Thatcher, who works as special deputy assistant fax czar in the Clinton White House. (In turn, Thatch’s boss is 14-year-old Jasper Peaberry, a “whiz kid among whiz kids” who’s got the hots for Chelsea.) Thatch is something of an alter ego for Shesol; had he not become a cartoonist, Shesol says he probably would have tried to get a job as an aide in the Clinton administration or with a moderate-to-liberal member of Congress. (The cartoonist once interned with Democratic Rep. Pat Schroeder of Colorado, his home state.)
Thatch’s comic-strip roommate, both in the college version and in Washington, is Tripp Biscuit, who “swings with the ideological breezes” but who worked for a while as a limo driver and “uber-aide” to Biff Blankton, a Republican from an unnamed state who’s so revolutionary that he refuses to venture inside the Beltway. For much of the past year, Blankton has been running for president in the heartland, first as a Republican and then, after losing in the primaries to Bob Dole, as an independent. Now that the campaign is over, Tripp is sliding toward a career as an Internet-based conspiracy theorist.
Shesol says he tries to keep the politics fresh, which is a challenge because he has to work with a three-week lead time. Hoping to gather material, Shesol snagged tickets to the Democratic convention in Chicago, but he wound up using little of what he picked up there because it quickly became moldy.
“It’s very frustrating not to be able to react to events,” he says. “But it’s a challenge. You have to tweak the issues. I try to draw both of the extremes into combat in the strip and see what happens. It’s less interesting if you’re so consistent. I don’t strive for objectivity, but I’m not a polemicist either.”
To be sure, Shesol emphasizes, politics isn’t everything in the strip. “What interests me about politics is not high politics but the way in which issues percolate downward and affect people our age,” he says.
Thatch is a self-consciously Generation X vehicle in that cliche’s broadest, and vaguest, sense. The women of the strip include do-gooder Victoria Thayer and sassy, surly vocalist Saffron Spite. Then there’s lit major and waiter Douglas Wagner (that’s vog-ner, like the composer) and ur-slacker Spiro, a drummer with no last name.
The ’90s orientation has been a slick marketing move for Shesol. Newspapers eager to lure the younger demo to their pages have been salivating over Thatch; that interest accounts for much of the strip’s success to date. By the time Thatch arrived, the youth comics pool was almost dry. Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, and Bloom County were all either retired or winding down their distinguished runs. All had been staples of the Gen X childhood, and their disappearance left a vacuum.
Shesol’s handiwork inspires both devotees and detractors. Some of the negativism sprayed Shesol’s way probably stems from professional jealousy over his rapid rise, but some established critics point more specifically to the sense that Thatch is “derivative” of both Doonesbury and Bloom County. It did not help that a Boston Globe headline—just as Shesol was about to graduate from Brown—asked, “Is Thatch the next Doonesbury?”
Shesol hardly denies his influences; it’s hard to avoid the fact that the four-panel Thatch mirrors not only the crisp artistic style of its predecessors but also their generational approach and politicocultural focus. Indeed, Shesol considers Garry Trudeau and Berke Breathed to be heroes (along with Dr. Seuss and the creators of Mad magazine), and he treasures the two signed prints, now on his studio wall, that Breathed made for him.
Shesol also acknowledges that finding a more distinctive style—along with fleshing out his characters more fully—is a goal he seeks as the strip matures. “Obviously, no one wants to be considered derivative,” he says. “I can’t even begin to claim that I’ve advanced the medium in any substantial way, as Trudeau did 25 years ago. There aren’t many people who can make that claim. I’m pretty content to be within that tradition; it’s difficult to craft an enduring, idiosyncratic style. But it will probably develop organically over the life of the strip.”
More pointedly, some baby boomer critics dismiss the idea that a Generation X-oriented strip has much to say at all. “Thatch is to Doonesbury as The Single Guy is to Seinfeld,” said one prominent cartoonist who requested anonymity. “Doonesbury was coming out of a time when there was real societal upheaval, but the Generation X thing is based on advertising executives trying to figure out how to sell stuff
to young people.”
Shesol agrees that the generational hand he’s been dealt isn’t unduly promising. “All of us feel that way,” he says. “The issues are not as dramatic or clear now. I have no Watergate to write about. I’m not going to win any Pulitzer prizes doing strips about Indonesian businessmen.
“But,” he continues, “in my own defense, I have a different perspective than Trudeau or Breathed, if I may be so bold as to place myself in that lineage. Trudeau and Breathed and I are separated by 10 years each. A different tone creeps into each strip. It’s not a strip that either one of them would write, or vice versa.”
Defining the strip’s generational je ne sais quoi, however, ties Shesol in knots. He often speaks of the strip’s “sensibility,” but he has trouble pinning it down. “It’s hard for me to define it,” he says. “I feel there’s a certain twist, an ironic sensibility. It’s what makes people of our generation lean toward Letterman rather than Leno. I’m also not afraid to drop a pop-culture reference. It’s always easy to laugh at the Partridge Family, but these are common points of reference. Of course, I always take a risk that some people may not get it, but those who do get it feel a closer connection.”
Moreover, he adds, “there’s a rootlessness to the characters that you don’t see in Doonesbury—a sense that nothing lasts particularly long, whether it’s careers or love. There’s no sense of commitment.”
Not all the commentary about Thatch is critical. On the upside, Shesol’s art work is generally thought to be cleaner, crisper, and more professional than it was when he was in college. Much of his political satire is on target, and according to Shesol most of his e-mail (generally three to four items a day) is encouraging.
Shesol’s work even garners praise from such prominent baby boomer colleagues as Kevin “KAL” Kallaugher, a Baltimore Sun political cartoonist and regular contributor to the Economist. Kallaugher, who has met Shesol a couple of times, applauds his “very mature sense of timing and complex sense of layered delivery. Thousands of other strips are also derivative, but this is good quality stuff, very funny. He addresses the complexities of twentysomethings in a way that other strips don’t.”
Kallaugher also points out that Thatch is doubly remarkable considering that Shesol has “a whole other life.” Since arriving in Washington, Shesol has been writing a book—due to be released next year by W.W. Norton—about the turbulent relationship between Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy.
It began as his thesis at Brown, but over the past three years, Shesol estimates that he has spent 40 hours a week at his computer, polishing the book—even as he has spent another 40 hours a week creating Thatch at his neighboring drawing table. (“I haven’t had a Saturday off in a couple of years,” he says.)
He and his publisher are pitching the volume as the first account to focus exclusively on the two men’s stormy feud, as well as one that is able to take advantage of newly released archival material. Shesol the cartoonist has taken a lot of heat for his generational emphasis, but Shesol the historian makes a persuasive case that generational distance will be an invaluable aid.
“The stories were all told by partisans on one side or the other,” he says. “I feel sympathetic toward both men. I like to think I bring a fresh perspective, seeing these events today for the first time. In that way, I think I’m free of the biases most of the previous chroniclers had, even the most fair among them.”
One of Shesol’s prized possessions, now framed in his studio, mixes both of his passions. It’s a Mad cover from 1968, in which Alfred E. Neuman holds balloons depicting several prominent politicians of the day, including LBJ, Hubert H. Humphrey, George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan. One balloon features Neuman—Shesol explains that it originally featured RFK, but had to be redrawn on short notice after the then-presidential candidate was shot dead in Los Angeles.
Shesol, of course, hadn’t even been born yet.