LOOKING ON THE BRIGHT SIDE
By ANDREW MCGINN
Thirty-seven years ago, newspaper readers — there were more of them then — weren’t so obsessed with whether a paper’s editorial board leaned to the left or to the right in their politics.
That’s in part because newspapers kept their readers pacified each day by running “The Far Side.”
One day in 1984, cartoonist Gary Larson drew three doctors standing at a patient’s bedside, pointing and laughing at the poor, wide-eyed sap laying there.
The caption: “Testing whether laughter is the best medicine.”
Scranton native Dennis Stevens has spent the better part of a year testing that same hypothesis.
Amid the worst pandemic in more than a century — one that has killed more than 460,000 Americans — Stevens decided to try his hand at cartooning.
Laughter probably isn’t quite as efficacious as Moderna’s vaccine, but the retired advertising exec has found that making funny little drawings at a time of chaos has been a veritable life saver.
“It gave me purpose,” Stevens, 77, explained recently by phone from his home in Connecticut.
Caught between the pandemic and politics, Stevens knew he needed to do something, anything, to preserve his sanity.
“I need to take my mind off all this horrible stuff,” he remembers thinking at one point last year.
Truth be told, Stevens actually ended up going out of his mind.
Or so the title of his first book says.
A 1960 graduate of Scranton High, Stevens recently published his first collection of cartoons, “Out of My Mind, Volume One.” Additional volumes of “Out of My Mind” are set to follow.
“All 10 of them will be called ‘Out of My Mind,’” he deadpanned.
In all seriousness, Stevens has plans, for now, to publish just three.
And from there?
“Depends how long I live,” he said.
Productivity isn’t the issue. For the past year, Stevens has devoted himself to doing a cartoon daily.
“I joke with my friends, ‘I bet you didn’t know I was a cartoonist,’” he said. “I didn’t know it either.”
In a way, though, Stevens has always harbored that exact dream.
Stevens cherishes memories of stopping by Deardorf’s drug store as a kid in Scranton for comic books, always seeming to prefer “Donald Duck” and “Beetle Bailey” funny books to superheroes. (Stevens speaks highly, years later, of running into Mort Walker, the now-late creator of “Beetle Bailey,” at a cartoon exhibit in Connecticut. They were practically neighbors.)
And then there was the time, 20 odd years ago, that Stevens sent a cartoon to The New Yorker, hoping to get it published.
“I never heard a word,” he said.
Stevens was busy enough with his career on Madison Avenue in New York to take much offense.
Before his retirement in 2014, Stevens spent decades as an art director at some of the nation’s top ad agencies, including Needham, Harper and Steers in Chicago (the agency that gave us “The night belongs to Michelob” in the ’80s) and Doyle Dane Bernbach in New York (they, the creators in the early ’70s of “Mikey” for Life cereal).
In Chicago, Stevens spent a lot of time doing work for McDonald’s, preparing and presenting scores of storyboards for commercials — some we saw, others that went nowhere — featuring Big Macs and McMuffins.
That’s all to say that the transition in retirement to cartooning didn’t just spring out of nowhere.
“I’ve drawn millions of pictures in my career,” said Stevens, who also happens to be an accomplished painter.
Stevens’ single-panel cartoons, which he describes as “very contained,” evoke some of the great gag cartoonists throughout time, including Chon Day and Charles Saxon, whose work graced the likes of The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, Playboy and Look.
There’s an unmistakable macabre charm that Charles Addams would have relished in a wordless cartoon by Stevens depicting a driver who blindly follows a road sign over the side of a mountain. All you see are his tire tracks. (It just so happened that the sign indicating a curve ahead had a screw come loose.)
Drawing, however, is only one half of cartooning. Writing is what actually separates a bad cartoon from one that will be cut out and given a place of honor on someone’s refrigerator.
“The hardest thing is the writing,” Stevens conceded.
Take “The Far Side” for example, Stevens said. Gary Larson, the cartoonist who presided over the best-loved single-panel gag cartoon in history, had a memorable drawing style, no doubt.
But it was his writing that made “The Far Side” so legendary.
“That guy is such a genius writer,” Stevens said.
Humor and art have been a permanent part of life for Stevens. Growing up in Scranton, there was plenty of the former, and not nearly enough of the latter.
“Art was cotton balls and paper plates,” Stevens remembered.
By high school, they were begging for art classes in Scranton, so the school decided to offer mechanical drawing. A half-dozen of them dutifully drew gears.
Stevens was nevertheless accepted to study commercial art and advertising at Drake University. His first job was in Des Moines at Look magazine, the one-time rival to Life magazine.
People, he said, have made plenty of references through the years about his God-given talent.
“I’ve worked really hard at this God-given talent,” is his reply.
Humor, on the other hand, has always come naturally. Stevens’ sister in Jefferson, Joyce Frazier, is that lady who likes to sport bee antennae atop her head.
“She’s a character,” Stevens said of his sister, recalling the importance of humor in their family.
But when COVID-19 hit the East Coast last spring, it was no laughing matter. His proximity to New York City brought the pandemic home to Norwalk, Conn., in a real and frightening way.
“We were literally afraid to open our front door,” Stevens said.
To cope, Stevens looked to cartooning — a perfect example, if there ever was one, of looking on the bright side of life.
He’s drawn a lot of inspiration from regular walks in his neighborhood. For years, a limb hanging over a walkway on a nearby oak tree seemed as big as the tree itself. Then, one day, somebody came and cut it off.
That became a cartoon in which two trees are nonchalantly conversing with each other. One just had its left arm severed.
“Well, yeah, but luckily for me,” the one says, “I’m right-handed.”
“That’s how some of these cartoons are born,” Stevens said.
A sign in his neighborhood imploring drivers to “Please Slow Down” also got him thinking.
“What if a snail was looking at that sign?” Stevens said. “I’m fascinated by how our brains work.”
Out of his mind
Books of cartoons by Scranton native Dennis Stevens are available for sale on his website: dennisstevens.org
Stevens can also be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.