Friday, August 10, 2012

A "Heart-on-His-Sleeve-Southerner" Does Serious Damage to my Cynical Side

Chris Sparks,  (Center), Cartoonist Richard Thompson (R) and me, at a Team Cul de Sac signing at Politics and Prose, a Bethesda bookstore in early July, 2012 

I've written before how my job as a political cartoonist pushed me dangerously close to misanthropy. Concentrating, as a cartoonist does for hours each day on incompetents, opportunists, meatheads, and malefactors left me with an opinion of my fellow man that was shading into the red zone of contempt.

Then I got sick and scared. Suddenly a new class of people came into focus. Among this previously invisible group were highly trained and skilled medical professionals, selfless caregivers, and fellow PD sufferers who cope with grace and courage.  And then there are those who, without preparation, suddenly burst into passionate flame as they are confronted with the consequences of Parkinson's disease for someone they care about.

Chris Sparks is a great example. The former comic book store owner from North Carolina is a lover of cartoons. At a comics convention, he met and befriended the singularly gifted cartoonist Richard Thompson. Not long after they struck up their friendship, Chris was devastated to learn that his pal was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.

Like many people who learn that a friend is suffering, Chris could not sit quietly and watch someone he cares about be stolen away by sickness. Inspired by Michael J. Fox, he decided to raise money for Parkinson's research. Chris came up with an idea that bordered on madcap poetry. While the rest of the world works to overcome Parkinson's Disease with a commendable grim commitment, staging walks, running marathons, attending meetings and seminars, Chris chose art and humor as his tools.

He decided to create a book in honor of Thompson. The content would be drawings donated by cartoonists featuing their interpretations of Thompson's characters from his celebrated strip, "Cul de Sac". Proceeds from the book and the sale of the artwork at auction would go to the Michael J Fox Foundation to fund PD research.

$45,000 dollars for research and two years later, the whole project looks like a seamless, almost inevitable success. But look inside and you'll see that the entire enterprise depended on the passion and indeed the chutzpah of one man. Cartoonists as a class are deeply centered on their work. To survive in the field, they must be. They do not welcome distraction from the pursuit of the craft they love, they tend to be loners, they don't follow instructions well, and they hate deadlines. This was the group that Chris Sparks boldly chose to bring together.

In fact, when he proposed the book idea to Universal Features, the syndicate that distributes Cul de Sac, Chris had only one cartoonist, Stephen Pastis, committed to the project. Sparks assured the powers that be that other big names from the biz would be on board, and because he is a convincing guy, not only the did powers that be buy in, but a great number of star cartoonists did in fact create work for the project.

Fortunately for Chris, he is not alone in his admiration for the work of Richard Thompson. Spill ink at a gathering of cartoonists and you are bound to stain quite a few Thompson fans. His elegant and carefree line is the sort of thing other cartoonists have no choice but to love. Smart, unassuming, and wry, Thompson the man is beloved as his artwork. Among those that came aboard the project were Pat Oliphant, Lynn Johnston,  Garry Trudeau, and "Calvin and Hobbes" creator Bill Watterson. Watterson gave the project a huge profile boost with his contribution, the first work that most have seen by him since he gave up his acclaimed strip over a decade ago.

Chris was riding the tiger by the time the Watterson painting showed up. Putting a book together is difficult enough with just one author. Multiply the contributors, and you multiply the paperwork, complicate the decisions you must make about how the work will be presented, and, most painful, decide who is in and who is out.

Then there was the auction to organize. I got several emails from Chris that left me with the impression that he was barely clinging to sanity. I was worried enough to check with Thompson about how Chris was taking the pressure. Richard wrote back that "I think he's a heart-on-his-sleeve Southerner who reacts with some emotion to every shift in the weather but is basically ebullient. My Mom was one, and I like that kind."

Reassured, I went back to anticipating the appearance of the book. When it finally came out, it was met with well-deserved praise. The handsome design by Chris and Jamie King, his partner at Sparking Design,  combined with excellent introductory pieces from Thompson, Sparks, and Michael Cavna of the Washington Post set up the collected artwork well. The pages burst with joyous drawing, high spirits, and palpable affection and respect for Thompson.

The success of the project is the result of the work of many hands, as Chris would be the first to insist. But the scope and ambition of effort is the mark of one person who rolled up his sleeves instead of shrugging his shoulders when a friend got sick. It's enough to make a would-be cynic re-think his lousy attitude, and that is a healing that is nearly as momentous as the cure for Parkinson's Disease we so fervently desire.

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