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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 01/ 6/2009

The Interview: 'Brewster Rockit' Cartoonist Tim Rickard

By Michael Cavna

BREWSTER ROCKIT: This week, iBot and Oldbot wage a war we have more than a little interest in. (TMS)Enlarge Comic

It is hard not to be charmed by "Brewster Rockit" creator TIM RICKARD, who is chatting by phone from North Carolina. He is laid-back and witty, delivering anecdotes with a warm Southern drawl. He is unassuming, never stooping to trumpet his MENSA-tested mind. And he wields the self-deprecating, occasionally dark humor of someone whose day job -- as a graphic artist -- depends on the health of the groaning newspaper industry.

Rickard's newspaper work, in fact -- as both a veteran working in print journalism and a syndicated cartoonist exploring multimedia -- gives him a special perspective when spoofing old media's standing in an increasingly new-media world. All this week, his sci-fi strip "Brewster Rockit" plays the old media's woes for satirical laughs, as Rickard mines his close-to-home take on the industry.

So what is Rickard's own unfiltered take on old media? "It only gets worse," says the Kentucky native, adding that his proximity to the situation is probably why he's waited to satirize the state of things.

Rickard's strip -- about the lunkheaded title character and the entire crew aboard the craft R.U. Sirius -- has increasingly delved into topical matters since it launched in 2004, so this week's series rings as natural and none-too-forced. Comic Riffs caught up with Rickard this week to discuss not only media but sci-fi films, cartooning influences and the inspired character that is Pam.

MICHAEL CAVNA: More than four years in, "Brewster Rockit" not only is very fresh, but it also seems to be getting increasingly sharper, keener and still funnier. Is this how you're experiencing the strip's development as its creator, or do we overstate the case?

TIM RICKARD: I sure hope you don't overstate the case.
I started Brewster as just a goofy-humor type comic strip that parodied sci-fi films. But after a while, I felt it was starting to get into a rut. To broaden the strip a bit, I started using current news or cultural events as material. From global warming, to the economy, to illegal aliens to newspapers, etc. Not only did this provide me with fresh material, I also felt it made the strip seem less lightweight.

MC: Your references to so many sci-fi films (including, recently, "The Day the Earth Stood Still") reveals an apparent true-blue fandom of so many of these classic movies. Were you weaned on sci-fi cinema as a lad, or has your interest grown as a result of the strip?

TR: I've always been a fan of sci-fi. In fact, that's why I chose a sci-fi theme for a comic strip despite hearing that sci-fi strips were impossible to sell to syndicates or newspapers.
I thought if I was going to fail, I might as well fail doing something I liked.

MC: Brewster is infamously as dumb as a brick, yet you yourself are a member of MENSA. Is a mental existence such as Brewster's your worst fear, or do you simply realize that we all take some secret joy in those less-intelligent than ourselves? And who would win a Dumb-Off "Battle of the IQs": Brewster or Cliff Clewless?

TR: I let my membership lapse last year for the first time in years, but I have just rejoined. No one wants to be an "ex-member" of Mensa. Makes it sound like I was kicked out for no longer qualifying.

Anyway, one thing I've learned as a member of Mensa is that we are ALL stupid in some areas, and geniuses in others. Brewster taps into that "inner-idiot" we all have. We've all been in over our heads before. Plus, we like to see underdogs prevail. Being stupid makes Brewster an automatic underdog. And finally, stupid people have always made us laugh, from the Three Stooges to Homer Simpson.

And Cliff would win a battle of the I.Q.s. Cliff's thing is, he's not really stupid, he's just grossly unqualified for his job as engineer. And he's incredibly lazy.

MC: Since such strips as "Mother Goose" and "Shoe" changed syndicates, do you know feel like the "veteran" at Tribune Media Services? And speaking of Tribune, we're curious: In person, what is [Tribune owner] Sam Zell like -- really?

TR: I can thankfully say that I know nothing about Sam Zell, so that should keep me out of trouble for now.

Tribune still syndicates so many older "classic" strips that I still feel like the new guy.

MC: Speaking of the newspaper industry and its titans: I think this week's series in "Brewster" -- centering on new and old modes of delivery, as debated by iBot and Oldbot -- are, to use a term we're sure you're quite comfortable with, some type of comic "genius." Is this an area of newspapering you'd wanted to comment on for some time, and was there an event, anecdote or headline that spurred you to create this storyline?

TR: Besides doing "Brewster," I also work full-time as a graphic artist for the News & Record newspaper in Greensboro, N.C. With rounds of layoffs, cutbacks and buyouts, I'm keenly aware of the plight of newspapers. I was thinking of what storyline I wanted to do next, and the current state of newspapers came to mind. I think I hadn't though of it before because it was probably too close to home.

At first, I thought there was no way of translating that theme into a sci-fi environment, but then Oldbot came to mind. Oldbot is an old-technology robot based on robots from '50s-'60s era sci-fi like the robot from the "Lost in Space" TV show, or Robby the robot from the 1950s movie "Forbidden Planet." He was always one of my favorite characters, but underused. He seemed like the perfect representative for "old media" like newspapers. All that was left was creating a robot to represent "new media," so I came up with internet-bot or "iBot" which was had an iPod-look about him. After that, the series wrote itself.

MC: While we're on the subject of print vs. online journalism, please share your thoughts on the state of the newspaper industry, and how it affects cartooning. Do your strip's sales either in print or online give you hope, or cause you to lie awake a little longer each night, wondering how your strip will be delivered in five years, and where? In short: What's your state of the state?

TR: Depressing. I get a unique view of the industry from both sides. It's not good, it's only getting worse, and comic strips will probably never generate the same income from the Internet as they do from papers.

MC: In creating this week's worth of strips, did you find yourself (a) laughing devilishly; (b) wincing painfully; (c) both simultaneously; or (d) unable to any longer attach any emotion at all to such a fickle little business?

TR: My unique position [made] the series both painful and cathartic.

MC: How and when did you first get interested in cartooning, and were any particular artistic idols/heroes crucial to the process?

TR: I've always wanted to be a cartoonist. My heroes are too many to mention. My top two favorite strips would probably be "Far Side" and "Calvin and Hobbes."

MC: Any hints or clues as to what "Brewster" readers might expect next from the R.U. Sirius crew? And Pam remains one of single favorite characters on the funnypages -- will Brewster, Dirk and the gang eternally cause her to blow a gasket?

TR: Pam is an interesting character. More so than any other I've created for "Brewster," she's developed her own personality independent from me. I haven't directed her development, I've followed it. Her affection for Brewster despite the fact he drives her crazy, her short fuse and explosive temper, and lately her surprising shallow materialistic streak. I can't wait to see she offers next.

As far as the rest of the crew and the strip, I'm never happy or satisfied with what I'm doing. I always feel I need to push it further, change things up. I've thought about doing strips that were more story-centric and less focused on a gag-a-day, or changing the drawing style a bit. Who knows.

MC: Using time-travel as a tool if you must, when will we see a "Brewster Rockit" movie, animated program or related multimedia product?

TR: Tribune is in contact with "interested parties" for a Brewster deal of some sort. Don't really know any details beyond that. Keeping my fingers crossed.

By Michael Cavna  | January 6, 2009; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists  
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Next: The Morning Line: Today's Topic? YOU Name It.


Another cartoonist weighing in on the newspaper crisis: Wiley's take on the "wisdom" of newspaper layoffs in today's Non Sequitur.

Posted by: jimbo1949 | January 6, 2009 10:13 AM | Report abuse

I find "Brewster" to be the most consistently entertaining newspaper strip in recent years. Thank you, Tim, for making me laugh so hard that my spleen hurts.

Posted by: ChuckInk | January 6, 2009 4:17 PM | Report abuse

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