Mechanic Falls cartoonist Ernie Anderson

So, I was just hanging around, minding my own business, when I started to notice a new cartoon populating the Sun Journal pages. In one of them, the proposed Lewiston homeless shelter and the Androscoggin County Sheriff’s Department building were presented as homeless people on a local street. The detail was exquisite. Even the street these walking, talking buildings strode upon seemed familiar.

In another cartoon, two old codgers of the future look on as the $1 sign at the dollar store is covered over with a sign declaring it the $5.10 store. “Good to see the old five and dime back in the neighborhood,” remarks one oldster. Another brilliant sketch, rich with detail, highlighting a topic that had been the subject of local scuttlebutt.

I got to wondering about this hot new artist that had come among us. Turns out, here was a guy who for years had been sitting just a few cubicles down from me in the newsroom designing pages and editing. A friendly and witty sort, is Ernie Anderson, but I had no idea about the playful, iconoclastic talent that existed beyond the round glasses and bushy beard.

Through some stroke of luck, Ernie ended up doing sketches for my weekly column Talk of the Town and you know how this goes: Most weeks, Ernie’s artwork is far more engaging than anything I’ve scribbled in the column itself.

I’m thrilled and honored to be working with Ernie, a Mechanic Falls resident. So with that in mind, I figured I ought to ask him some of my tough, journalist-type questions and see what this dude is all about.

When did you first discover your artistic ability? It all started with onion skin paper. Very thin, almost translucent paper that was paired with carbon paper to make duplicates when typing. When I was 7, 8 years old, my parents had boxes of this stuff lying around; I think they used if for their business (they owned a bookstore). 

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I found that if you took onion skin paper and laid it over Peanuts or Garfield, you could trace the comics, line-for-line. It was exhilarating, seeing my finished work and thinking to myself, “I did that! I’m so talented.” I’d tape up my work on the sides of the bookshelves. It was my first art gallery. 

Obviously, I was just “tracing upon the brushstrokes of others,” to co-opt that old phrase about shoulders and giants. But that’s where every artist starts, I think. 

So when the onion skin paper ran out — and learning rather quickly that copy paper is not usable for tracing — I had to try drawing on my own, my own characters, on regular notebook paper. The characters and stories I came up with were all very generic. Enter Superguy. Cape? Check. Laser vision? Check. Super strength? Check. That emblem on his chest that basically looks like the diamond-shaped “S” that you write all over the inside cover of your high-school chemistry textbook? Check. I chronicled numerous Superguy adventures in my sixth-grade, wide-rule notebooks. 

That was a big year for me. My parents moved to Puerto Rico. I was 12, and I had to go to school there with a bunch of kids who spoke English only as a second language, while I barely spoke Spanish. So I kind of retreated a little. That notebook with its dragons and wizards and Superguy adventures was a respite for me. 

Superguy Fortress of Solitude? Check. 

After that sixth-grade notebook, things changed, and I didn’t draw as much. We came back to Florida, where I was back with my elementary school friends — now all of us in middle school. I went to a private, religious school and was basically with the same 20 or so classmates from kindergarten all the way through to my senior year (except for that missing year in Puerto Rico). 

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When I started seventh grade, I found a whole new reason to retreat. The pressures to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps and become a missionary — or pastor or the like — kind of just overshadowed everything else in my life, and the artistic part of me just retreated a little more. 

I was still drawing, mostly just little faces on whiteboards at school when I was bored, but whiteboard art isn’t meant to be permanent, and whatever I drew was easily erased to make room for lessons in theology. 

It wasn’t until my mid-20s that I rediscovered making art. My best friend, who was an art mentor of sorts, helped me overcome my long reticence around drawing, which was mostly about facing the catatonic dread over what to draw. I call it “the terror of the blank page.” 

One day he gave me a 8-by-10-inch canvas and some acrylic paints and told me to paint a guy in a banana suit on roller skates. And that’s what I did. That exercise helped me begin to relearn how to approach the empty canvas (which isn’t really about the canvas at all but about one’s relationship to the unknown), and I started filling notebooks with drawings again. I’m forever grateful to him for helping me rediscover my artistic voice, even if that voice sounds like someone blowing raspberries.

What’s your favorite subject to draw? Aliens. Robots. Wizards. Fart clouds. Maybe not that last one, but it’s my only chance to get “fart clouds” written in print, and I’m not gonna pass up that opportunity. 

One of my favorite exercises is as follows: When I’m drawing to warm up, I usually just let my pen wander aimlessly on the page, until I see something in the shapes. It’s kind of the equivalent to staring up at the clouds and making dragons and Volkswagens out of the cloud shapes. Once I have an idea of what it is that’s looking back at me from the canvas, I start refining and refining and refining until something cool comes out of it. A recent drawing of a dragon curling around on itself with it’s mouth split like it was all made of smoke kind of came about this way. 

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I have a comic that heavily features aliens and robots (and occasional fart clouds), called “Mars Grill” (www.MarsGrillComics.com). It was modeled on my experiences working in a kitchen, but I set it in outer space, 700 years in the future. All the characters are based on actual people I worked with. The comic gives me a place to put all my aliens and robots and give them all jobs as servers and short-order cooks. Most of them quit or get eaten by the special of the day. 

I tried to get “Mars Grill” syndicated. They said I had a unique perspective, but wasn’t right for syndication. I’m not sure if they meant I wasn’t a right fit for them or I wasn’t right in the head. The website is still up and I still like to add new content every now and then. 

Do you have a favorite cartoonist? Not a favorite per se, but I definitely have my influences and people that I go wild over. I have already mentioned “Peanuts” and “Garfield.” After them came Bill Watterson, Gary Larson, Berke Breathed, Matt Groening and Bill Amend. These are where I fell in love with the art of sequential, one-, two- and four-panel comics, the kind that you traditionally see in the newspaper. 

From these early cartoon influences I developed a sense for what I find funny. “The Far Side”’s sheer absurdity, “Bloom County”’s poignant yet facetious political and social commentary, “Calvin and Hobbes”’ huge child-like imagination, and “Foxtrot”’s embrace of everything nerdy through the medium of the youngest Fox child, Jason — these were how I survived high school. 

Matt Groening is on the list too, but not for “The Simpsons,” for which he is best known. Before Tracy Ullman introduced America to its No. 1 family in the way of bumpers bookending her variety TV show’s commercial breaks, Matt Groening wrote a comic strip called “Life in Hell.” I found a few anthologies at one of these book outlet stores, the big clearance barns in older malls where they buy pallets of overstock books wholesale and then sell the contents at heavily discounted prices. The first “Life in Hell” book I picked up was an anthology about school-related experiences, called “School is Hell.” 

I instantly related. 

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Take the essence of Bart’s id, distill into monochromatic ‘zine form and then swill together with a splash of Harvey Pekar or R. Crumb and add a pinch of angst. That is “Life in Hell.” 

He did a series of comics about being a cartoonist and how being an artist kinda sucked. This was the first time I found a cartoonist speaking in a self-referential voice, even if it was also self-deprecating: It was the cartoonist as subject. This was the first time I had the idea implanted in my adolescent head that one could make a living — albeit a very poor, very dignity-strapped and very hungry living — as a cartoonist. I was probably 13 or 14 at the time. That idea rolled around in the back of my head and finally came spitting out during a job interview in my 40s, when I was asked what my dream job would be and I said I’d be a cartoonist. 

I cannot go on to the next question without mentioning all the crazy, bonkers talent in Mad Magazine and Cracked, also highly influential. 

Sergio Aragonés is just amazing. If you’ve never seen him draw, go find him on YouTube. He puts the pen to paper and in one line creates this cartoon masterpiece without ever lifting the pen —it’s all just one line. He makes it look so easy. 

And Don Martin had this knack for just awesome onomatopoeia (PLORTCH, SHTOINK, BREEDEET BREEDEET) and big, goofy noses and floppy, hinged feet and hands. I draw my characters’ hands like his. 

And I can’t mention Mad influences without including Antonio Prohías (Spy vs. Spy) who is just an absolute MASTER at wordless gags and Rube-Goldberg-esque contraptions. Genius. 

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These guys were founts of prolific cartoon expression that fertilized my imagination in my teens. 

Lately, I’ve been enjoying Jeff Smith’s “Bone” (over and over and over again), Kazu Kibuishi’s “Copper and Amulet,” Carl Barks’ and Don Rosa’s runs of Donald Duck comics, Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” and Stan Sakai’s “Usagi Yojimbo” and “47 Ronin.” There’s also so much local and regional talent, friends I’ve met along the journey, that I can’t go without mentioning: Fulton Beal and Crispin Wood are two that come to mind, who are not only talented artists, but also wonderful and kind and friendly people. Be good to your local cartoonist and go check them out. 

What’s the hardest thing to draw? Nothing is hard to draw, but everything requires time and effort. If you tell yourself “X is hard to draw,” you’ll inadvertently encourage yourself to stop trying. Artistic ability exists on a spectrum. At the start, everything requires lots of effort and time. The more you show up and practice, the more you move along that spectrum toward speed and effortlessness. So just keep showing up and keep telling yourself that you are moving toward effortlessness and you’ll see progress. I would say I am currently closer to the starting line — and thus at a place where I require more time and effort — drawing cars and any machinery in general, caricatures, and hands and poses in perspective. 

I’ve got fart clouds mastered (my wife would say in more ways than one). 

Do you have to be clinically insane to sketch for Talk of the Town? No, I think you only have to be clinically insane to write for it. Then again, as the Cheshire cat is fond of saying, “We’re all mad here.” 

When you’re not creating masterpieces, what are you doing with yourself? I love playing Dungeons and Dragons. Right now I’m running a game online with a bunch of old friends and family that I’m just over the moon to be playing with. The group is just a great mix of seasoned veterans and first-time players, and we have a well-balanced party of adventurers including a rogue, a wizard, a fighter, a paladin, a cleric, a bard and a druid. 

I also enjoy cooking. My mom is a great cook and I learned a lot from her, especially Puerto Rican dishes. I can make a mean mofongo that will have you saying, “Ay, Dios mío.” 

When he’s not buy making fart clouds, Ernie can be found online at www.Facebook.com/EAndersonCartoons and at www.MarsGrillComics.com

Ernie Anderson’s artwork for a recent “Talk of the Town” column in the Sun Journal.

One of Ernie Anderson’s political cartoons.


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