LEWISTON — There wasn’t much entertainment for cartoonist Bill Barnes as a child in Lagos, West Africa. With no radio or television in the gated compound he called home, Barnes relied on his own creativity to pass the time — and it stuck.
Barnes talked about his long road to becoming a professional cartoonist Thursday afternoon at the Lewiston Public Library. It was one of many stops in his family RV tour of America.
Known for his work on the comic strips “Unshelved” and “Not Invented Here,” Barnes said the passion began as a child and grew until bumps in the road as an adolescent got in the way.
What were those bumps, you ask? Barnes blamed girls and computers but conceded that although he started to notice girls, they would take another five years to notice him.
“I fell in love with computers and I never quite fell out of it,” Barnes said.
Barnes went on to become a software developer, a husband and a father of two, but still the desire to become a cartoonist nagged, and that nagging wasn’t lost on his wife.
“The whining was reaching epic proportions,” Barnes said until his wife told him, “‘Stop whining about this thing you wanted to do or do something about it and stop whining about it.'”
Ten years had passed since Barnes had last drawn and his uncertainty turned into doubt. He said it was easier thinking to himself that he might still be able to do it than actually doing it and taking a chance on failure.
Barnes said his wife developed an incentive program for him. For one week of work, he could reward himself with a new brush. Work every day for a month and he’d get that new desk chair he wanted.
He finally negotiated a new car for working every day for a year and just like that, Barnes was on his way to the career he always wanted.
His first professional comic strip with friend Gene Ambaum was called “Overdue” (later to be renamed “Unshelved”) and took place in a library. The comic was launched on a website that was only intended for friends and family to view and critique.
That was until it was introduced to a librarian who passed it along to a blogger. Suddenly, Barnes said their little comic went from about 40 viewers to 3,000, practically overnight.
Barnes said he was suddenly inundated by messages from librarians wanting to know what happened to the characters next.
“We weren’t ready; we really weren’t ready,” Barnes said as he and Ambaum had no idea where the story was going.
Years later, Barnes said he and Ambaum still have to be each other’s harshest critic, asking each other what makes a certain joke or line funny. If it has to be explained, the joke fell flat.
“I will say that I think there’s hardly anything more vulnerable than taking something you’ve written or drawn and putting it in front of someone,” Barnes said.