From Pandapiphaney to Princess Pinky: How I Found my Inner Panda
I never intended to become a cartoonist.
But as early as my high school days, I was drawing cartoons, because I couldn’t sit in a classroom or a meeting and not be doodling.
So, how did I start making comics in a serious way, and why did pandas take over my mind? Let’s go far, far back in my history.
Now…let’s fast forward from the 1950’s to 2007…
So, there I was in late 2007, minding my own business when several things happened almost simultaneously. First, an article by James Fallows appeared in the Atlantic Magazine, in December of 2007. He had been on an extended magazine assignment in China, and he wrote an article about the Wolong Panda Research center. He began his article with this sentence: “Everyone knows how cute pandas are, but very few people know how cute they are in quantity.” It had pictures of panda cubs, and a couple of them appeared to be attempting to pick their keeper’s pockets.
About at the same time, Mr. Badger was remodeling a small house for a woman named Kitty Ingalls, who, on learning of my growing interest in pandas, gave him several pictures of the 2006 panda kindergarten. I think that was the moment when I went from “interested in pandas” to the slippery slope of “Pandaholism.” These pictures gave voice to the pandas of the panda kindergarten and after that there was no hope of return.
As luck and coincidence would have it, 2008 marked the summer Olympics in China, and naturally Pandas wanted to participate. This gave me a whole host of ideas for cartoons. This was also the first mention of “Bob”, the only named panda at this point.
As all this was happening, other events occurred. One day I was walking through the library and happened to see a book displayed on one of the shelves. It was The Lady and the Panda by Vicky Constantine Croke. She tells the story of the first panda brought alive out of China, by Ruth Harkness.
If there was any molecule in my brain that was not obsessed by pandas before this point, that ship had sailed for good after reading this book.
You might notice that the drawing quality of these earliest cartoons are very rough compared to what I have doing more recently. The earliest ideas for the cartoons you see here have been redrawn at least three times since the original drawing. Originally I drew on what ever scrap of paper I found laying about the studio, then I recreated them in a bound book, and finally on individual sheets of smooth bristol paper, a paper best suited for pen and ink.
I have gone through several different kinds of drawing media, starting with fine point markers, moving on to technical drawing pens, and several years ago, I went backwards on the evolutionary scale of drawing materials and now use dip pens and india ink. I first write a “script” for what is usually a 4 panel story. I then do a rough pencil drawing to scale in a sketch pad, to make sure I have enough room for a ll the characters and dialog. Then I do a more finished pencil drawing on bristol board, and ink over that. Then I scan the finished work into the computer, do whatever minor clean up is needed and put the header on. Then it is ready to post on my blog.
But before there were pandas, there were cats.
As you can see from these cartoons I have posted, and some of those following, the drawing style is still very rough, and not “pandatomically” correct. My ideas were somewhat random, mostly taken from ideas I had or news stories I heard on the radio and put through the “pandy filter” until they came out, you know, panda-ish.
By early 2009, I was starting to accumulate quite a few cartoons, and I wanted to see if anyone besides myself and a few friends thought my cartoons were funny. I decided to start a blog. I had not had a computer for very long yet, and did not have internet access at my house or a scanner. A friend helped me set up a blog and I learned how to put my cartoons on a flash drive so I could post at the library.
Not long after I started my blog, I got a comment from Henry Nicholls, who was writing a book about panda history and science, and he wanted to know how I got interested in panda satire. We started corresponding and eventually he included one of my cartoons in his book. (In the section on panda satire, of course.) If you haven’t already read his book The Way of the Panda, I highly recommend it. To this day I get ideas from this book (and indeed, from Henry via Facebook) about news stories and panda facts that are grist for the panda satire mill.
I had avoided joining Facebook before starting my blog, as I was a bit nervous about putting myself out there on line, but once I started seeking a wider audience, I know I couldn’t avoid it any longer. Little did I realize that there was a vast network of other pandaholics, just waiting to say welcome, and Huzzah! There were panda cams and panda photographers and I didn’t have to be embarrassed or apologetic for my obsession with pandas. Before I knew it, I was deeply involved with groups of panda fans all over the country, and all over the world. There were even ….panda conventions. Being a shy, retiring sort of bear, I opened my account under the name Bob T Panda.
Now, up until about 2010, when I joined Facebook and started watching specific pandas in earnest, the only pandas that had names were Bob T. Panda and Babette de Panda. But all that changed when Mr. Wu was born in 2012. He was the first panda I had watched since birth, and before I knew it, he had found his way into The Panda Chronicles.
Before I knew it, I was making up stories starring Mr. Wu – and of course the panda kindergarten played an important role as bad influences.
The story about Mr. Wu running away from home with the panda kindergarten to join the circus was a turning point. It was the longest story I had done to date. It was also the first time I had put any of the pandas in jeopardy, and many of my fans spoke out. The thing about writing is that you have to go where the story leads you, even if it sometimes leads to scary places. I did my best to let people know that all would work out in the end (I was pretty sure it would) and keep writing the story as I needed to write it. Wu also had starring roles in It’s a Wunderful Life, The Wizard of Wu, and the Inspector Panda saga, The Case of the Picturesque Panda. (more about that later)
Mr. Wu had an entire year as the only baby panda in the US, but that all came crashing down in July of 2013, with the birth of the Altanta Twins, now known in the Panda Chronicles as the Meihem twins, Bert and Ernie.
And then, about a month later, Princess Pinky made her entrance into the world, and the pandasphere would never be the same. It had been so long since the birth of Mei Xiang’s first cub, Tai Shan, that I was quite sure Pinky would be over indulged and…um…spoiled rotten. The pandas of Washington DC have an extremely loyal following, and many of their fans visit weekly, if not daily.
Since Princess Pinky’s entrance onto the world stage, her quest for world domination has only increased. Her relationship with the Meihems and the other pandas has been…complicated. Of course, she had a rude awakening when her little brother was born.
The Next Phase
I mentioned earlier about the Inspector Panda story, The Case of the Picturesque Panda. I began to think that this story Idea had potential to be a real graphic novel, and not just a collection of cartoons. Because of the way I work, rarely doing more than 3 or 4 cartoons at a time. when I started doing longer stories, they were not always …um…consistent. Last spring, I learned about a program by the Nevada chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and illustrators. It is a mentorship program for writers and illustrators who are at a point in their career development where they can benefit from some intensive professional guidance on a specific project.
I decided to submit the Inspector Panda story, with a goal of turning it in to a graphic novel for middle grade readers. After sending my application, I swung wildly between thinking I was a shoe-in (what could be better than a panda detective?) and thinking they would laugh me out of the state. To my surprise, I was accepted. I have been working with a literary agent with an interest in graphic novels, for the last 6 months. We spent most of those 6 months revising the script, which contains not only the dialog, but descriptions of settings, character appearance, emotional reactions, and actions. In January, I finally got to start working on the rough drawings, which I just completed at the beginning of March. We have our final meeting in two weeks where I will get some guidance (I hope) on submitting it to agents and publishers.
Update; April 2017: My mentor from the Nevada program is now my agent! Huzzah! The Pandyland Mysteries: The Case of the Picturesque Panda, has been buffed and polished, with 25 pages of final art, as well as a full pencil mock up, and is now out on submission. While we wait for some savvy editor to realize what great potential this story has, I am at work on the second book in the series, with the same cast of characters. Stay tuned!
The Pandyland Chronicles: The Case of the Picturesque Panda: When a mysterious panda enters the office of Inspector Panda, with a tale of late 19th century Parisian pandas, he must rely on his clever assistant Wu to help sort truth from fiction. Especially when it comes to the wily Babette de Panda. Was her great great great great great great grandmama truly the most sought after painters’ model of the Paris Impressionists? Or does Babette have a more sinister reason for wanting to find this painting? Think of The Maltese Falcon, except with pandas.
Here are several of the rough pencil page spreads, including one with the finished painting of “Madame P”:
The illustrations will be in color and I have recently started on some of the finished drawings, in order to start querying it with literary agents.
I’ve spent most of my time here talking about the “what” and the “how” of my journey into panda satire. I’d like to finish with the “why.” Shortly after my pandapihaney, the US economy went into a tail spin, and it wreaked havoc with art sales which have been my sole support for over 25 years. It was a dark time for me and made me question my talent, my life choices, my future.
But there is something about pandas that creates light and hope: whether it is their soulful gaze, their comic nature, or their dramatic appearance, they reached out to me and took possession of my most inner being. I have heard similar stories from pandanistas from around the world. Stories of dark times, stories of redemption. There must be some inner panda light that we respond to, if only we are paying attention. You could call it grace in the face of extinction.
I call it my inner panda.
Be the Bear.