CURTAIN FALLS ON ERNIE/PIRANHA CLUB COMIC STRIP
Bud Grace’s Wicked Cultural Satire Ends 30-year Run
Bud Grace has ended his syndicated comic strip The Piranha Club after thirty years. How it lasted that long is a puzzler. Like all good comic strips, it was character-driven. The characters determined the action. But the characters in Grace’s strip are scoundrels and frauds. They represent the entire lexicon for “venal”: they are not only capable but eager to betray honor, duty, or scruples for a price. And yet, we loved them. We loved them enough to keep the strip going for three decades. And that says as much about us than it does about Grace. And his characters.
The strip is unlike any other American comic strip, but it is the very epitome of what our culture is. And that is undoubtedly why we kept reading it for thirty years: we saw ourselves—our worst selves—in it. And we laughed about it.
The strip began on February 1, 1988 as Ernie. It changed its name to The Piranha Club on September 6, 1998. Said Grace: “We tried a promotion, and we thought that by changing the name we might pick up some papers. That didn't work, so then I thought I’d change my name to Bill Watterson. The Piranha Club is still called Ernie in the rest of the world.
“Ernie is the most widely syndicated comic feature in Scandinavia,” Grace continued. “My paternal grandmother was Swedish. Maybe that's the reason it's so popular over there. I also had an Ernie comic book in Scandinavia in which I did special stories every month. I did a Sunday Ernie, too, and unlike my daily strip, it's not nearly as offensive.”
To save a few strokes at the keyboard, Ernie is what I’ll call the strip herein. Ernie ended on Saturday, February 3, 2018. Thirty years almost to the day. And throughout its run, Ernie was a flamboyantly outrageous enterprise, an unabashed assault on ordinary, everyday decorum and civilized sensibilities.
Not since the vintage years of Moon Mullins have we had a strip in which the cast is so relentlessly grasping, and self-serving. And funny. Hilariously so.
According to Grace, the title character, Ernie Floyd, is "the neighborhood butt trying to hold his own. He's a kind gentle soul with lots of boyish enthusiasm, a probing mind and incorrigible naivete— a Mr. Nice Guy who can't say ‘No.’"
He is a borderline grasper. His whole being is not devoted to squeezing money out of others, but he seldom passes up the opportunity either. In 1992, f’instance, convinced there’s a fortune to be made in fish bait, he sets himself up to operate a worm ranch, raising worms for fishermen.
Ernie's a bachelor, a college grad, and assistant manager of a Mr. Squid franchise, a fast food franchise. Ernie has no chin. He has a nose as big as his head, a pointy hair-do, and a moustache. In the vicinity of his head, he looks a little like a water faucet. (With the moustache, a dripping water faucet.)
But if Ernie is somewhat bland as a personality, it's part of the Grand Plan. Ernie is the perpetual foil for his Uncle, Sid Fernwilter. The strip needs Ernie as a tabla rosa upon which the scheming Uncle Sid can scrawl his latest plot.
Sid is the actual protagonist of the strip. He makes it go. Sid is (Grace claims, generously) "an entrepreneur." But we soon realize that he’s more than that. Or maybe less.
He's a con man. A moocher supreme. A super-slick bamboozler. Slick, but, to us, transparent. A greedy opportunist wholly without scruple. In short, a thief.
He's also the perennial treasurer of what Grace describes as "a benevolent and protective organization known as the Piranha Club." "Piranha" indeed. The club is actually a gang of skinflints, shysters, and an "aluminum siding salesman." All crooks, in other words— shallow water sharks (like piranhas). And Sid is first among equals.
To complete the metaphor, Sid has a pet piranha which he keeps in a fishbowl at the Piranha Club headquarters, which is in Bayonne, New Jersey, where they all live.
The motto of the namesake Bayonne in France is "Nunquam Polluta"— "Never Polluted." But that hasn’t carried over to New Jersey.
Said Grace: “I made a joke about Bayonne's toxic waste dump once, and the mayor wrote back a nasty letter saying that they were in the process of building a golf course on top of it.”
He picked Bayonne as the site for the strip because “it just sounded funny to me. I did a magazine joke once where the scientist determined that the so-called shroud of Bayonne was actually a dirty bowling towel.”
ADMITTEDLY, NOT ALL of Grace's characters are in need of redemption. Doris Husselmeyer, for instance— Ernie's frumpy girlfriend— is pleasant enough albeit painfully plain in body, face, and wit but a virtuous wallflower. She is exactly the sort of girlfriend a fellow like Ernie would have. Despite his romantic yearnings, she is the best he can do.
Doris has a brother, Spencer, age 9, who is disgusting. He’s a hellion with a one-track mind—annoy grown-ups. And he hates Ernie.
“Spencer is a pain in the ass,” Grace said. “I’ve had to tone him down, especially on Sundays. He stole a candy bar in one. All the mothers complained in Boston, and they yanked me right out of the paper. You can’t do that.”
Effie Munyon, Ernie's landlady, is not notably avaricious. Sid has discovered that he can mooch dinner off Effie every day. Which he does with some trepidation. Effie’s taste in dinner fare is so inventive as to be thoroughly revolting. Once she serves Mercedes Chicken. Mercedes Chicken? Why is it called that? That's what ran over it. She also offers Possum a la Buick and Squirrel Fiat. But she's not overtly evil.
She eventually sets herself up as a psychic. Whenever she can remember what that is.
Sid’s best friend (assuming such a relationship is possible with Sid) is probably Doctor Enos Pork, a wholly unscrupulous, arrogant and completely ignorant quack, whose wife and mother-in-law (Mother Packer) regularly meet him at the door and beat him up as a form of greeting.
Said Grace: “I named Mother Packer after Alferd Packer who was a famous cannibal in 19th-century Colorado. I don't know exactly where she came from. Dr. Pork was the first character I ever created when I started drawing. He's such a terrible doctor that he doesn't realize that the cigarettes he’s always smoking are killing him. He was inspired by the underground comics that were around when I first started.”
Ernie and Sid and Doctor Pork all arrived in Grace’s brain at about the same time. “When I first started drawing the characters— actually, Ernie came first and then Sid popped up. But the first character was Doctor Pork. Well, Ernie and Doctor Pork were about the same time. And then there was Effie, the landlady. She was a little coarser than she is now. I sort of changed her.”
When I interviewed Grace in 1997, I said that I’d read that Ernie at first was an elderly hippie.
“Well, pushing middle age with long hair and bald on top,” Grace said. “The syndicate guys said, ‘No, that’s passe.’ But they’re not always right.”
Finally— to complete the roll call of the regular cast— there's pimple-faced 18-year-old Arnold Arnoldski, the strip's perpetual victim.
He's so unappealing that he can't get a date. In the early 1990s, Arnold finds work as a sideshow freak and starts dating the bearded lady. (She wears a fake beard to hide her ugliness.) But the romance is doomed: she's already married, it turns out, to Quacko, a man who looks like a duck. Or (they speculate) he might be a duck who looks like a man.
Impaled on the horns of this dilemma— is Quacko a duck or a man?— the strip wanders off in search of a solution. Along the way, they run into Barnacle Bill, a parrot wearing a squid costume who once worked with Quacko in vaudeville. ("Remember the turkey in Saint Lou?" Bill asks Quacko. Arnold, thinking Bill is referring to piece of stage business that failed, asks, "You mean the act flopped?" Bill says, "No— I mean the 14-pound broad-breasted butterball— whadda knock-out!")
Still attempting to find out Quacko's species, Arnold enlists Ernie and Uncle Sid. Sid says there's a sure way to find out. And in the last panel of the strip, we see them all in a Chinese restaurant, whose proprietor, holding a butcher knife behind his back, leers at Quacko and says, "Would this honorable gentleman care to inspect our humble kitchen?"
This strip, Grace tells me in a revealing aside, was never published. "My editor thought it might be offensive to Asians" Grace explains. "I've never been in a Chinese restaurant yet that didn't serve duck."
Grace includes in this collection several other of his strips that his editor refused to distribute because of their colossal tastelessness. In case it isn't readily apparent, it is worth noting at this point that Grace revels in tastelessness. Ernie is a groaning board of tastelessness. "Gross" is too tame a term for the sorts of crimes against taste and decorum that are regularly perpetrated in the panels of the strip.
THE STRIP'S FANATIC DISREGARD FOR TASTE is, in fact, its most endearing quality. It is the well-spring of its comedy. That and Grace's otherwise totally outlandish sense of humor. Consider, for instance, the criminally insane Wurlitzer Brothers who hijack Ernie's car (a 1957 DeSoto) that Sid has used in connection with a gardening project of his. Viewing the contents of the car's trunk, the Brothers think they've stolen a shipment of marijuana, but their mother assures them (at the top of her lungs) that it's horse manure. She's right.
That kind of tasteless, inventive off-the-wall humor.
"Anyone— especially any professional cartoonist who reads the strip— will know that I get thrown out of papers," Grace told me. "And they don't do it for my inability to write funny gags. The thing that surprised me the most when I got into the newspaper strip business was that being funny was way down the line of important qualities."
Still, Grace admits, “The syndicate guys know what they’re doing.”
In the late 1980s, Grace recounted, "I did some political stuff and lost fifteen papers in a month. The plot had cows falling out of the sky; President Bush didn't know what to do so we bombed Libya. In the strip. I don't do that kind of stuff anymore. People take everything so seriously.
"Unfortunately," he said, "my work has suffered as a result. My problem is that I offend so many people that I have to tone it down and that hurts my work. If they just let me go and do whatever I want, I’d have a great time, and I could do really good material. But they really can’t — they want it right down the middle, and I don’t do cute good.
“I've had to moderate my satire and direct it at only licensed targets,” he continued. “Namely WASPS. Occasionally I do poke a little fun at somebody else, and I always hear about it. But that's the nature of the business, and we all have to live with it."
I asked him about what sorts of reader reaction he received.
"The most recent outrage is interesting," he said. "Last December , I did a story about militias. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin raised hell because (according to him) I was advocating the murder of ATF agents. I was malicious. According to him. He got really bent out of shape. And I was on his side!
“In one place,” Grace explained, “I had a militia guy say, ‘You’re never going to bring down a stinkin’ ATF man shootin’ like that.’ And Rubin got outraged. And they weren’t even shooting. And it wasn’t the ATF: it was not the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. It was the Armenian Track and Field team. But Rubin didn’t care about that.
“And then the militias wrote me nasty letters about my unfair treatment of them,” Grace continued. “I can't please anybody. Hell, I'm the only one of the bunch that doesn't kill babies.”
By the way, the falling cow sequence was based upon an actual event. It seems that a Japanese trawler crew claimed that the reason their boat sank was that a cow had fallen out of the clear blue sky and struck the trawler amidships, shattering its hull and sinking the vessel within minutes. The ship’s crew was jailed.
And they remained in prison for several weeks until the Russian air force reluctantly informed Japanese authorities that the crew of one of its cargo planes had apparently stolen a cow wandering at the edge of a Siberian airfield, forced the cow into the plane’s hold, and hastily taken off for home. Unprepared for live cargo, the Russian crew was ill-equipped to manage a now-rampaging cow in its hold. To save the aircraft and themselves, they shoved the animal out of the cargo hold as they crossed the Sea of Japan at an altitude of 30,000 feet. It landed on the hapless fishing boat.
The incident inspired Grace (and Uncle Sid) to advocate buying falling cow insurance.
Then there was the sequence about navel bras. The idea was that if one’s belly button is an “outie” (protruding), one should have to wear a navel brassiere to cover it up. I asked Grace if this wasn’t inspired by a desire to strike back at the forces of censorship. But he said it wasn’t: “It was just funny,” he said.
Not so funny, perhaps, was the infamous timing of his gag about Mother Teresa’s going bunging jumping. It appeared on the day of her death. Surprisingly, there was only one letter of outrage, Grace said.
“But somebody’s outraged all the time anyway, so it doesn’t matter.”
I asked if he had to submit his material in roughs to syndicate editors before doing the final strips.
“I wouldn’t put up with that,” he said.
“So when you send in a batch and they say, ‘This is awful; we can’t use it ...’?”
“Occasionally, we have to backtrack and take things out,” he said. "Fortunately, I have an outlet for my more perverse humor—the Scandinavian Ernie comic book for which I draw special stories. They’re not so hung up on political correctness over there. I vent my spleen on those things. Naughty stuff.
“And it’s fun for me,” he continued. “And I think it’s very funny stuff for the most part. But of course it’s my own sense of humor, so naturally I think it’s funny. I think any cartoonist who’s in it to make people laugh and who doesn’t think he’s the funniest cartoonist going can’t be very good. After all, we’re all drawing from our own individual senses of humor so we should be right on target. I make myself laugh out loud all the time,” he finished with a laugh.
I said: “So almost no matter what you do, there’s an outlet for Ernie.”
“Yes, I can sell anything I can draw,” Grace said. “If I just have time to do it. Drawing it is very time consuming. These special stories for Scandinavia are inked by a fella who inks my Sunday pages, too. He does a really good job. His name is Johnny Norton. [Norvin? Later, the strip was being inked by Jay Scruggs.] I can tell what he does and what I do. He does some things I don’t do. But most people can’t tell. He’s a little slicker. It’s a shame to loose that rough quality: it adds a lot to the humor, I think.
“I found out a long time ago that the style of the drawing has to match the humor to get the full effect,” he went on. “They have to complement each other. You can’t do a sort of serious strip with big noses, for instance. And if you want to make it really silly, big noses are fine.”
Grace’s warped sense of humor sometimes goes beyond the borders of the strip. He was active in the National Cartoonists Society for some years (he was, improbably, secretary treasurer!), and when NCS took a cruise one spring, he perpetrated a prank.
On his way to his room after an evening of goodly fellowship aboard the ship, he noticed a portrait of the King of Norway hanging in one of the passageways he was navigating. He decided the portrait needed a moustache, and he promptly supplied one. Unhappily, he used a Sharpie that didn’t wipe off easily. When fellow NCSers tried to help, using nail polish remover, they removed the moustache but also some of the paint. The captain of the ship was not amused.
Grace is also a student of Uncle Sid’s. He once included a trip to Las Vegas as part of a story in the strip so he could deduct his gambling losses from his taxes.
THE FRONT MATTER of a small 1990 booklet reprinting the first year of the strip—Trust Me! (128 5x8-inch landscape pages)— asserts that all of the improbable members of the strip’s improbable cast are merely extensions of Grace’s improbable and slightly warped mind. “How else would you describe the mind of a man who gave up a career in atomic physics to chart unexplored comic territory?” Warped, of course.
Grace, who has a doctorate in physics from Florida State University in Tallahassee, was born in Chester, Pennsylvania in 1944 or thereabouts, and moved to Florida with his family when he was 5 years old. He spent the two years after his graduation from FSU as a visiting assistant professor of physics at the University of Georgia and then returned to Florida State, where he taught, conducted research and published articles on a variety of topics, including low-energy neutron scattering.
In 1979, Grace, with no previous experience, no training, decided to draw cartoons.
Remembering his schooling, Grace said: “One of the things that still makes me angry is something that happened when I was a kid in junior high school in Florida. You had a choice of shop, followed by mechanical drawing, or art. There were two men who ran the shop and mechanical drawing classes, and a woman conducted the art class. They has to fill their classes and it was understood that the only boys that took art were the sissies. The teachers didn’t try to discourage this idea so I didn’t have any art training at all. To this day, it really burns me up.
“When I was in high school,” he went on, “I failed an aptitude test and was told it didn’t mean anything. I think that was because my interests are spread out over a very wide area. I never know whether I’d rather go to an art museum or to a quarter-mile dirt track. I love serious things and I love silly things. Back in my school days, I should have been doing cartoons, but I ended up doing physics because I could. I said to myself, ‘Well, I’ll be able to make a good living at this.’ Later on I found out that if you want to be happy, you have to do what you’ve got to do.”
He continued: “My interests are very divergent and back in Tallahassee, for instance, I had the weirdest group of friends you could ever imagine. One friend keeps seven school buses out in the woods, and he stacks them full of old Wall Street Journals. He isn’t a school bus driver, but he says his school buses make sense because a storage shed at Sears would cost him a lot, and he can buy an old used school bus for less than that for storage purposes. So I know some really strange people, and that fact, combined with the very wide range of my interests, accounts for a lot of laughs you’ve had from Ernie.
“I started drawing when I was 35,” Grace said.
He always wanted to do a comic strip. His first try at that medium was called Nuclear Funnies, which he produced for the campus newspaper for about six months. Seeking greater exposure, he abandoned the strip and for the next six years or so concocted gag cartoons and freelanced them to magazines, including, surprisingly, Punch.
“I sold a lot of cartoons,” he said, “but it’s still hard to make a living. It’s even harder today. I don’t know how they do it. One problem is that there just aren’t too many magazines that use cartoons. Fortunately, I had a couple of magazines that bought from me. I was doing Punch magazine, a British weekly, and they would buy three at a time. I had the Guccione publications and National Lampoon and some science magazines.
“It took me about six years to get good at it,” he continued. “It also took me six years to learn how to write jokes. It's not something that just happens, at least not in my case. I started drawing in an underground style, originally. While I can't draw nearly as well as Robert Crumb, I'm not surprised if someone sees the influence. I was also influenced by underground cartoonist Kim Deitch.
“When I first started drawing, I intended to end up doing a comic strip. Doing magazine cartoons was a good way to learn how to draw and write jokes. But it's difficult to make a good living doing freelance cartoons. When my son was born in 1986, I said to myself, ‘Hell, I’ve got to get a steady paycheck here.’ So I whipped upon some stuff, came up to New York, and dropped it off at King Features.”
And King Features bought it.
I asked if he’d tried to sell other strips.
“Nah. Just Ernie.”.
“Wow! All in one shot.”
“They went out on a limb a little bit because they realized it was scandalous,” he said.
It also had something to do with the comics editor’s wife.
“I didn’t see comics editor Bill Yates at the time,” Grace went on, “—but I heard from him several weeks later. It seems that he’d taken the strips home and had handed them to his wife before he turned in early because of having to catch a six o’clock train into New York the next morning. According to Bill, his wife, Skippy, woke him up about two a.m., saying she was really enthusiastic about Ernie. This had never happened before and following that startling middle-of-the-night reaction, Bill invited me to come up to New York for a visit.
“He recognized that my strip needed quite a big of work and I did, too. I was told that I was too wordy. If I had the room, I’d have twice as many words in my strips, and I could do some better writing. I understand this problem though. There’s no space, and you have to find ways to cut the words down. And just recently I was told that the lettering was too small, so I had to increase the size and that further takes away from the available space. But it’s a challenge to work on problems such as this.”
TO CONJURE UP IDEAS, Grace goes walking through the hilly Virginia countryside near his studio. He doesn’t write or draw. Just walks. And thinks.
“In the morning, I go for a walk for about two hours and try to think up gags,” he said. “I have probably more characters than any other comic strip. Most of my gags are based on the characters. I place them in situations and if they're good characters, they react in a way that's funny. But it's hard work. It takes a lot of concentration. Contrary to what many people might think, I don't get ideas from things that I observe or situations that I might find myself in. Half the time I live in another world, and that's where the gags come from.
“I think every artist suffers from writer's block,” Grace continued. “Somerset Maugham said only a mediocre writer is always at his best. When I can't think of good ideas, I draw bad ideas.
I get the gags,” he went on, “—I come back here to my studio and beat them into
shape, make them fit the boxes. And that’s sometimes tricky. I might pencil
six strips— four if it’s on the same day as I’m writing— or thinking. Maybe
two Sunday cartoons. Writing, drawing, inking— I do about four a day. If I work
hard, I can do ten. It takes about forty-five minutes to an hour for each.
I'll put the ink on at some other time. I also have an assistant who helps me
with some of the inking. I put in relatively long hours.
“What do you do then?” I asked.
“I just start drawing.”
“Here’s the guy’s nose, here’s his mouth— and like that?”
“Right,” he said.
For inking, Grace uses an old Brause nib, German made. “You can’t find them in this country,” he said. “For lettering, I use a Speedball point. Osimoids when they first came out.”
At the time I interviewed Grace, cartoonists were just beginning to use computers, and Grace was one of the first. He used a computer to edit his strips. He scanned the artwork into his computer and then made corrections or modifications on the computer image. In effect, he drew on the computer, using a “drawing board” called a wacom tablet and a special “mouse”— a pen or stylus— to mark with. The software was Adobe Photoshop 3.4.
Sitting next to Grace at the computer, I tried drawing on the wacom tablet. I did a caricature of Grace. You can select the kind of line the stylus will produce from samples on the screen— thick, thin, even a line that is flexible and can be made to wax thick or wane thin with pressure on the stylus.
“You need a really fast computer or the line doesn’t follow your pen,” Grace said. “I’m surprised cartoonists haven’t started doing this yet. I can’t figure out why they don’t.”
I agreed: “I can’t either— now that I’ve seen it and tried it.”
It was easy enough to do my first try, and I could see that with a little practice, I could get proficient at it. A couple years later, I almost bought a wacom. And then I realized that I don’t do that much drawing anymore. I write. Don’t draw much. Didn’t need a wacom.
Grace also uses the computer to ship his weekly batches to his syndicate by e-mail. And he colors Sunday strips by computer. I watched as he demonstrated. With a few clicks to pick colors from a palate and then to show where those colors should go, the computer filled in all the “white” bounded by lines; that’s how it knows what to color.
During a pause in our Q&A, I asked: “Do you anticipate that you’ll be doing the strip for the rest of your working life?”
“Oh, yeah— I love doing it,” he exclaimed. “Love it. It’s just that I’ve been working so hard the last couple years— so many projects. My idea of a vacation is to get away and do nothing but draw the strip.”
Cartoonists doing daily newspaper comic strips send their work in to their syndicates 4-5 weeks ahead of publication dates. Grace tries to stay 20 weeks ahead—“in case of emergency appendectomies and such,” he said.
Grace has a summer house near St. Michaels, Maryland, and a boat that is always broken. Both take time. “But,” he said, “mostly I hang out in bars. I got home last night at 12:45 a.m.”
In addition to producing the strip, Grace supervises the overseas operation and handles all his own correspondence. “Operating a small business takes time,” he said.
WHEN I VISITED GRACE in September 1997, I met his two Norwegian henchmen at his home and studio at the northern edge of Virginia. Ernie was about to encounter a fresh gamut of comic catastrophes inside Scandinavian computers. “Broke in Bayonne” is the title of a CD ROM they were developing to market in Scandinavia, where Ernie is one of the most popular comic strips. Designing the new digital disasters were Peter Sparring (who translates Ernie and operates under the company name Bullhead) and Dag Kolstad (whose company, Norsk Strek, means “Norwegian Streak” or “pencil line”) who have been teamed up on CD ROM projects for several years. Kolstad with Sparring and others published the Norwegian Mad for some years, beginning in 1981. Eventually, they produced an original version of the same kind of magazine and, according to Grace, “put Mad out of business” in Norway.
“CD ROM is just another way of publishing,” Kolstad said, “— electronic publishing. In a few years, everybody will have access to a computer and that universe. The Ernie CD ROM is the beginning of what is coming in the next ten years.”
“As I see it,” Grace said, “this is entertainment through computers, and today, computer entertainment is where television was in 1950. And I think it’s going to grow in the same fashion as television did. Technology is advancing so rapidly.”
In Scandinavia and European countries, comics have a cultural respectability that they have yet to attain as overtly in this country. Newspaper comic strips in Scandinavia, many imported from the U.S., are healthy. Papers may carry only a half-dozen strips, but most cities have two newspapers, and the competition is good for the medium.
“Ernie is the biggest syndicated feature in Sweden,” Sparring said. “Bigger than Peanuts or Garfield.”
Grace laughed: “That’s because of Peter’s translating.”
“But,” I said, “you don’t know what he’s doing to the jokes. You just take that on faith.”
Grace responded with a story: “A Swede one time wrote to me and wanted to buy an original comic strip, and I said, ‘Okay— tell you what, I’ll send you a copy of it first.’ And I sent a copy. And he wrote back and said, ‘No— the Swedish version was much funnier!’ So Peter’s doing something right. Peter was a publisher of several comic books and magazines, a different company, several years ago, and that’s how he started translating Ernie: he translated it for a comic book.”
Although comic strips are doing well in Scandinavia, the comic book business is shrinking. Disney titles are enormously popular, but superhero books, once a big item on the newsstands, have virtually disappeared.
“The comic book market is probably half of what it was ten years ago,” Sparring said. “Kids watch television and play computer games.”
“BROKE IN BAYONNE” is a PC game. Based on the newspaper strip, will presumably attract young computer gamers as well as adult newspaper readers.
Kolstad was very concerned that the CD ROM retain the essential flavor and feeling of the comic strip so that those who play the game will have an experience akin to what they have when reading the strip.
I asked Grace how his syndicate felt about the Ernie material he circulates in Scandinavia.
“No objection,” he said. “They get half of everything I get. I’m making enough money for us. But the problem over there is the split is three ways— the Scandinavian marketers get a share, too.”
King Features owns the strip, but Grace said he could have secured the copyright. “The problem is that you have to police it yourself,” he said, “and I don’t have the time for that.”
While the Ernie CD ROM was actually produced by the Scandinavians, Grace was involved at every step of the development.
“A lot of the things that happen in the CD ROM, a lot of the jokes, are based on things that have occurred in the comic strip,” Grace explained. “The characters are all from the comic strip. The locales are all from the comic strip. Then there’s a certain touch that has to be there. You know, when a cartoonist retires and someone else takes over, the job is never the same. And so the same thing applies here.
“There are a lot of new jokes in it,” he went on. “And there’s a lot of new artwork but it’s all the same characters— in different situations. And I didn’t create the CD ROM; I just had a little part in it. I did master drawings, maybe four of each character. And then a Norwegian guy named Arilv Nidthum fills in, using the master drawings.”
Grace approves everything. As new aspects of the game are developed, Grace sees them in English; before color is added, he sees the artwork— all on the computer screen.
“Broke In Bayonne” is a kind of treasure hunt. The object of the game is to become a member of the Piranha Club. And to become a member, you need a certain amount of money and letters of recommendation from some of the Ernie characters. You’re given an initial allowance of cash— the only “gift” in the game. Subsequently, many of the characters set about trying to cheat you out of your stake— just as they do with any stranger in the strip itself.
The CD ROM initially presents you with a panoramic drawing of Bayonne with the various sites of the strip’s action clearly identified— the Piranha Club building, Madam Effie’s fortune telling place, the opera house, Doctor Pork’s house, and so on.
You click on one of these sites, and you go there. And there, you encounter various characters or situations from which you are supposed to extract money for Club membership by playing a game of some sort. The games are interactive: you are an active participant.
At the opera house, for instance, Arnold is singing. He sings badly. The object of the game is to pelt Arnold with tomatoes so he’ll stop singing. Well, not quite. If you hit him ten times, he just changes to another song. But when you hit him, you collect money, which, when you collect enough, helps get you into the Piranha Club.
It’s a shooting gallery game. You are a member of the audience and you get to throw tomatoes at Arnold. (Uncle Sid sells the tomatoes so if you’re not good at throwing them at a target, you can lose lots of cash.) And Arnold is not a stationary target: he moves. You can apply glue to his feet so he can’t move. But that takes skill, too.
And throughout the game, every time Arnold is hit (and sometimes if he’s missed), speech balloons or caption blocks pop up on the screen, displaying some wacky element of Grace humor.
You might make money in the opera house, but if you go visit Doctor Pork, you probably lose your money because he’s treating you for some fictitious ailment. And if you visit Reverend Bob—another member in good standing of the Piranha Club— you’ll lose money because he takes up a collection and puts all the money into his pocket.
The game at Doctor Pork’s house is called “Mortal Pork”; it’s based upon the popular computer game called “Mortal Combat.” Doctor Pork is attacked by his wife and brutalized in the fashion of the strip version. You can’t hit back because the attacker is female. So you have to last until she’s exhausted, and then you can go.
Each one of these sites on the panoramic image of Bayonne on the screen represents a similar gaming episode in the treasure hunt, and each episode revolves around the distinctive personality quirk of one of the strip’s characters.
While there’s some animation in each game, movement is limited because the technology isn’t ready yet for full animation. “We’re limited,” Kolstad said. “If we want several actions at the same time, we can have only eight animations at once.”
But most computers are slow, and since the game is designed for a mass market, it must be designed for slow computers. This capacity will get better as the technology improves.
Grace and his cohorts anticipate success in marketing the game.
“The reason,” Kolstad explained, “is that Ernie fans are really addicted— really fans.”
Ernie is so huge in Scandinavia that when Grace visits the country, he goes on promotional tours like a rock star.
Kolstad hopes computer games like “Broke in Bayonne” will be developed by other cartoonists.
Said he: “I think that we can make a new way for enjoying comics— not on paper, and you don’t read from beginning to end, but with the same feeling as I had when I read comic books. I think the electronic or interactive format suits comics very well. And I want cartoonists to do something with this electronic publishing instead of computer people. The computer people can’t tell a story. They don’t know timing; they don’t know punchlines— things like that.
“And so I want people in the comics industry to take the first steps and not people from the computer industry— or the movie industry— because if that happens, the result will be something else, not comics.”
“It’d be a movie,” I supposed.
“Yes, a movie,” Kolstad said. “Like animation. It’s not —you have the mouse and you click, and get some problem and decide which way to go but in a comic way not in a movie way. And what the difference is, I don’t know,” he finished with a laugh.
And that’s the best way to finish.
BUD GRACE loved what he was doing, and yet, he retired. He retired I think because, in his mid-70s, he had other things to do and not enough time or energy to do them all. That’s how I interpreted his response when I asked him why he was giving it up.
He said King Features did a “big purge” last year, getting rid of a lot of “old timers—very competent people like Frank Caruso and Claudia Smith. They also got rid of [comics editor] Brendan Burford.”
Grace had told the syndicate that he intended to retire when his current contract was up next year. Maybe, in the spirit of the purge, the syndicate urged him to check out sooner—i.e., this year.
Ernie’s circulation had been dropping.
“That’s natural after 30 years,” Grace said. “And with the nature of my humor, I believe that was inevitable. I offended lots and lots of people. Unlike other cartoonists, I was never good at drawing the line at religion, politics or bad taste. The Toronto Star dropped me because of a parody on Osama Bin Laden that the muslim community found offensive. I’m sure some other paper dropped me because one of my characters was a bearded lady.
“I suppose I could have done boring, unfunny stuff like some other cartoonists do and had a terrific circulation,” Grace continued. “But I didn’t give up my day job and start drawing to make money. I did it because I wanted to create something that was very good and very funny. I remember when I was in high school Mr. Masiello asked me what I thought was the most important thing in one's life. I told him that I wanted to leave something behind that was good and worthwhile. I think I did that.”
In the last analysis, Grace is glad he retired.
“We moved to Florida and that was very disruptive,” he said. “I don’t think I could have kept up the strip at the same level as I did for so many years. Bill Rechin once told me that it took him 15 minutes to draw a strip. Mort Walker had writers and inkers and an office manager, I believe. I took a lot of time writing, and it took about an hour and a half to draw a daily. And as any cartoonist knows, there’s much more to creating a comic strip than just writing and drawing.
“Bill Griffith once told me he could barely finish one strip a day. I worked six full days a week. With all that and taking care of two houses, it was time to retire. I can honestly say that I don’t know what my total circulation was. Early on I worried about it. It was a distraction. I decided that it was better to ignore it. I haven’t looked at my circulation figures for 28 years. It was something over a hundred.”
In the mid-1990s, one newspaper reported that Ernie was in “over 200 papers in a dozen countries.” Scuttlebutt in the industry holds that a syndicated comic strip must attain a circulation of at least 100 newspapers in order to be viable.
Just into retirement, Grace already misses friends. “I lived in two worlds, my real life and my cartoon life. I really loved them all.”
In 1989, Grace received the Adamson Award presented by the Swedish Academy of Comic Art as Best International Comic Strip Cartoonist, and in 1993, he won the NCS division award for Best Newspaper Strip.
And if, by some chance, you have missed Ernie during its 30-year run, you can find excerpts of it at Grace’s blog, budgrace.com, or in the only American reprint publication, 1996s’ Ernie: Out of Control (paperback, 128 black-and-white 9x9" pages), which can be found, still, online (try AddALL.com).
Grace appears in the book in a memorable week's worth of the strip, wherein he conducts a Pledge Drive to raise money in support of the strip because it lost its corporate sponsor, Ed's Septic Tank Service. (They felt the strip was hurting their image.) In one of the strips in this sequence, Grace tries to convince us that the phones have been ringing off the wall with pledges despite the evidence to the contrary: behind him, the folks manning the phones are fast asleep and snoring.
So who can you believe? No one in Ernie, that's for sure.
And here, by way of taking a bow, are a few more samples of Grace’s delightfully wicked hilarities, including excerpts from the notorious moose-milking sequence.
Sources. My 1997 interview with Bud Grace appeared in Cartoonist PROfiles 122 (June 1999), and that’s the basis for the foregoing disquisition. I have supplemented that with biographical information in a Grace article in Cartoonist PROfiles 80 (December 1988) and with quotations from the Washington Post’s “Comics: Meet the Artist” radio program for May 31, 2002.