The 'Riffs Interview: Post syndicate launches Donna Lewis's 'REPLY ALL' today
For many years, Baltimore native DONNA A. LEWIS was more enamored with writing than drawing. Whether it was legal briefs or her stand-up routine, the words were all. But that was before her first accidental doodle.
"In 2007, I was trying to hone my writing skills by doing some stand-up," says Lewis, a 48-year-old University of Maryland Law grad who works at the Department of Homeland Security. "At that time, I was writing a ton of material for the stage. ... One day, while killing time, I added one of my favorite stand-up punch lines to a doodle of a girl who looked like a very abstract version of me. I really liked the concept of the picture and words together."
Lewis scanned it in the doodle, e-mailed the "pdf" version to family and friends -- and received enough compliments that she was hooked.
"I began sending out doodles of characters matched with punch lines every day," Lewis says. "I drew my best friends and family members and angels. Then I gave them funny insights or funny lines. By 2009, I was putting together two-, three-and four-panel strips."
At about that same time, Lewis was introduced to the Washington Post Writers Group's comics editor, Amy Lago, who liked the budding cartoonist's work. Lago eventually signed Lewis, and the creative result is the daily strip "Reply All," which debuts today in the Style section of The Washington Post. (In the print edition, the strip replaces the Writers Group's "Watch Your Head.")
"Reply All" is a "distillation, into comic strip form, of one's id and superego competing for control," Lago says. Such as when, the syndicate says, "you dash off a snarky response to a co-worker's e-mail and accidentally hit 'Reply All.' "
Lewis, who was in private practice before switching to the federal government in 2006, caught the attention of The Post's "America's Next Great Cartoonist" contest jurors last year, finishing in the top-15. Now her comic doppelganger, Lizzie -- the single working woman who is the star of "Reply All" -- gets center spotlight.
As "Reply All" debuts, Comic Riffs caught up with Lewis to talk about how her life informs her characters, where she finds comic inspiration -- and which city is funnier: Baltimore or Washington?
(Reader feedback to "Reply All" is welcome in the Comments below; or via The Post's comics hotline at 202-334-4775, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; or write to: Comics Feedback, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.)
MICHAEL CAVNA: So Donna, as far as lawyers turned cartoonists go, Stephan Pastis ("Pearls Before Swine") once told us he used to doodle Rat in the margins of his law school papers. Would we find any telltale origins of "Reply All" in your law school margins?
DONNA LEWIS: I was pretty obsessive and focused in law school. I was working full-time and attending law school full-time. I was very paranoid about missing some wisdom uttered by a professor that might be on the final course exam. I sat like a total nerd in the front row of every class and left each class with a cramped hand and pages upon pages of notes about legal cases. If I had ever attempted a doodle during a law school class, I'm quite sure I would have been called on by the professor right at the moment I wasn't paying attention and then made an example of in front of the class.
MC: Before we get fully into cartooning, can you tell us why you first chose law?
DL: I attended law school when Susan Dey became a lawyer on "L.A. Law." That was poetic and the ultimate karma. I went to law school wanting to emulate Laurie Partridge, the Litigator.
MC: And how did you arrive at gaining security clearance at the Department of Homeland Security?
DL: I spent most of my legal career in private practice and transitioned to the federal government in 2006 for a variety of reasons, mostly personal. I needed to change my lifestyle and I wanted to do work that was more relevant to the events of 9/11.
"REPLY ALL" / Washington Post Writers Group (click for larger image)
MC: So now we know what TV lawyer inspired you -- what cartoonists inspired you?
DL: I grew up addicted to "The Far Side" and "Doonesbury." I would spend hours reading compilations of strips. But the truth is that I was far more enamored with writing than with pictures and really hoped to be a writer. It never occurred to me that writing and pictures could work together so effectively. I'm now a huge fan of graphic novels and comic books used for learning and education.
MC: How long a process was it from the first moment of "Reply All" inspiration to the word of the Writers Group syndication?
DL: In 2007, I began sending out doodles of characters matched with punch lines every day. I drew my best friends and family members and angels. Then I gave them funny insights or funny lines. By 2009, I was putting together two-, three- and four-panel strips. It was a fun way to practice writing concisely. An added perk was that sending out strips was a very cool way to interact with people without the pressure of socializing. I realize that sounds strange, but I think any introvert would appreciate the sentiment. From 2007 to 2009, I drew lots of characters and played with many themes.
In the spring of 2009, a new acquaintance introduced me to Amy Lago. Amy liked the characters and provided some advice about how I might proceed in developing a more sophisticated strip. ... I vaguely remember asking her multiple times if she realized who she was and what it felt like for someone like me to be sitting across from her. I'm shocked that she continued to talk to me without calling in security. I guess the rest is history. Hopefully it's not the history of the shortest-running comic strip on earth.
MC: You also have your webcomic "Crazed Angels." I know Mark Tatulli ended his angel-themed strip, "Bent Halos," to focus on subsequent strips "Heart of the City" and "Lio." If "Reply All" begins to thrive in syndication, will you continue your angel-themed strip?
DL: At this point, I have no idea what the future holds. If "Reply All" does well in syndication, I'll do everything I can to encourage and enjoy its success. On the other hand, angels are a subject I love and I'm pretty sure I'll return to an angels-themed project someday. The nice thing about being creative is that you can pursue lots of projects and, if you love them, they are fun and enjoyable regardless of whether they bear any recognizable fruit.
MC: It's a tough time for print syndication sales for comics. What are your hopes and goals for "Reply All" as a newspaper strip?
DL: I am so proud of my dedication to working on "Reply All" and I am ridiculously happy to be working with Amy. I would love to produce "Reply All" strips for years and years, developing the characters while exploring their life choices, life options and relationships. If that happens, I will be extremely lucky. If it doesn't, I'm sure I'll fall in love with a post-"Reply All" project.
I realize that the newspaper industry is in a precarious place, but it's not something I think about too much. I feel like I've had the incredible opportunity to have lived the first half of my life during a time of historical and rapid technological change. The onslaught of personal technology and its influence has occurred during my lifetime and I've been both very aware of it and directly affected by it.I went to law school before anyone had personal computers or cellphones.
I wrote law school briefs by hand on notecards and then transferred that writing to a typewriter. I spent the next 10 years litigating while technology was first being introduced to law offices and courtrooms. I remember typing complaints for court on a typewriter. I can't believe that's how we did it years ago, but that was quite normal to us back then. I remember going to court before there were cellphones. During the judges' breaks from the bench, lawyers would rush to the row of pay phones to call their offices and return phone calls. I've experienced significant change in every industry I've worked in and it's always been painful and awkward and unsettling. But it's also exciting to live through the transformation of an industry.
I'm looking forward to seeing what happens to newspapers. I can't help but think that we just can't imagine what newspapers will look like in the future. I never could have imagined being addicted to PC, Mac, NetBook, iPad, BlackBerry, etc -- but I love them all. Whatever happens to the newspaper industry, I'll adapt both as a consumer and as a business-oriented creative spirit.
MC: The syndication business tends to label and sell comics by genre and "type," and last fall's retirement of Cathy Guisewite's "Cathy" has left a marketable window for a new strong-voiced strip about a single working woman. Do you see that as an opportunity, and were you at all a fan of "Cathy"?
DL: Cathy, Cathy, Cathy.....Marcia, Marcia, Marcia......I love and respect Cathy the way I love and respect any of the female-oriented works that bring a female perspective and feminine/feminist voice to the daily discourse.For me, Cathy was frustrating because it didn't look like my life or my relationship with my mother. The themes were familiar and the issues struck a chord, but I was dying to hear my own point of view. I related more to the girls who were successful but thought they were failures... or the girls who were thin but thought they were fat. I wanted to hear from women who were fabulous enough that they could afford to question their fabulousness. As much as I respected Cathy, that wasn't a character I related to. The first cartoon character I related to was Velma on Scooby-Doo. I loved Daria on MTV. I liked any highly intelligent, nerdy-cool black sheep kind of girl. I liked the girls who thought Valentine's Day was stupid even if they got flowers.
MC: Speaking of "Cathy," how did you arrive at the creative decision to have your characters go nose-less?
DL: Nose-less was never really a conscious decision. When I first began drawing characters, I wanted them to represent personalities, not look like real people. One of the reasons I never focused on authentic-looking characters is because I really can't draw. The pressure would have been too great for me to try making characters look like real people. Also -- and I know some artists will just choke if they read this -- I actually liked my drawing style. I thought it was fun. I never thought it showed great talent or promise, but I really did enjoy looking at my own characters. Go figure.
Each character began with hair and clothes. To me, most girls can be initially summed up by their hair and clothes. I realize that sounds horrible, but it's just the ridiculously superficial way I see girls... at least in the beginning. Lips come next. To me, eyes are last unless the girl's eyes jump out before the hair and lips. It never occurred to me to draw a nose because noses change the look of the face so much and I really just wanted the hair and lips to rule. I'm sure a psychiatrist would be able to derive some deep psychological meaning in my refusal to draw noses.
MC: Speaking of your artistic approach: What technological tools do you use to render the strip?
DL: I now use a Wacom Tablet and Photoshop. I usually draw a basic outline of the characters and locations involved in the particular strip on paper with pen in a three- or four-panel sequence. Then, when I get home, I draw the concept on the Wacom Tablet. I learned how to use Photoshop after I realized that there was interest in my strip by actual professionals in the business. Prior to that, I wasn't using any method that any artist in his or her right mind would use. I was clueless about methods of creating strips, to say the least. Only one person in D.C. knows how I was originally drawing the strips and I told him that he would not enjoy life if he ever shared that information with anyone.
MC: What's the age of lead character Lizzie?
DL: I am 48 years old in real life. Lizzie is someone I'd hang out with if I lived in a cartoon. Lizzie is somewhere in her 40s but not new to her 40s. She's been hanging out in her 40's long enough to have opinions about the 40s generally. Lizzie grew up on "Mary Tyler Moore" and "That Girl" and "Carol Burnett." Lizzie grew up at a time when mothers and daughters didn't wear the same clothes or want to be friends with each other's friends. Lizzie is old enough to be exhausted but young enough -- in her mind -- to think that she can still do whatever she wants to do with her life.
MC: So which character is the most like you?
DL: Lizzie is most like me... although she is not a lawyer and her home has far more square footage. When I began development of "Reply All," my friends urged me not to make Lizzie a lawyer. I tried not to take it personally, but I think they were trying to tell me something. I would love to do a lawyer strip at some point. Unfortunately, only lawyers would find it amusing. Lizzie wears a lot of clothes that I really like. And Lizzie decorates her home and office much better than I do.
MC: You mention the response of friends. Have you tried these strips out on co-workers and family?
DL: The strips have been popular with both family and colleagues. I'm not sure if that's because the strips are actually funny or because the act of sharing strips seems like a friendly and intimate attempt to socialize on my part. I have a suspicion that family and friends believe I'm secretly communicating with them through the strip since I'm not always that communicative in real life. If they want to think that comic strips are love, I won't argue.
MC: How do your relatives feel about seeing themselves perhaps reflected, however so obliquely, in comic-strip form?
DL: My family is disproportionately happy about the strip's success. They're all waiting to be interviewed by Oprah. They think that they'll finally be discovered and recognized for being personable, inspiring and somewhat amusing. They're all completely deluded. They refuse to acknowledge that I'm just using them for the material they provide and that I'm making fun of them. They continue to believe that I'm celebrating them by mocking them.
MC: Lastly -- given your ties to both -- which city is funnier: Baltimore or Washington (if you dare)?
DL: Now that is a horrible question. Baltimore and D.C. are so completely different. I would say that Baltimoreans laugh more easily, with greater abandon and with far less self-consciousness. Folks in D.C. will laugh as they're looking at their watch to see how much time they're wasting by laughing. D.C.'s a little more uptight than Baltimore. Just a tad.
| February 28, 2011; 10:30 AM ET
Categories: Interviews With Cartoonists, The Comic Strip | Tags: Amy Lago, Donna A. Lewis, Reply All, Washington Post Writers Group
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