‘It’s OK to Flounder’: Cartoonist Paul Karasik Advises CCS Grads

  • Luke Howard, who is a member of the faculty at the Center for Cartoon Studies, leads the school's dozen graduates from their commencement to the reception in White River Junction, Vt., on May 13, 2017. It is the school's 11th graduation ceremony. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Geoff Hansen

  • Jarad Greene (facing camera), of Lutz, Fla., and Moss Bastille, of South Sutton, N.H., hug during a reception at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., on May 13, 2017. They both earned Master of Fine Arts degrees as part of the school's 11th commencement. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Geoff Hansen

  • Commencement speaker Paul Karasik asks everyone in attendance -- including those on the dais (from left) Center for Cartoon Studies Director James Sturm, Board of Trustees Chair Warren Bingham and President Michelle Ollie -- to promise in the next 48 hours to take time to learn something new during the school's 11th graduation ceremony in White River Junction, Vt., on May 13, 2017. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

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    Cartoonist Paul Karasik shows his work and offers advice as the commencement speaker at the Center for Cartoon Studies' 11th ceremony in White River Junction, Vt., on May 13, 2017. "Remind me, what's the difference between a simile and a metaphor" is the caption for Karasik's projected cartoon published Dec. 19, 2016, in the "New Yorker" magazine. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/13/2017 11:28:28 PM
Modified: 5/13/2017 11:28:29 PM

White River Junction — Paul Karasik, a summer teacher at the Center for Cartoon Studies and a regular contributor to The New Yorker, offered the school’s graduating class a series of life lessons in drawings during his keynote speech at Saturday’s 2017 commencement.

Karasik, an Eisner Award winner who has collaborated with such cartooning greats as Art Spiegelman, creator of Maus, marveled that he should be asked to address a group of budding artists with any kind of authority, given where he started out.

“If my 20-year-old self could see me here today as ‘Experienced Cartoonist’ Paul Karasik, he would surely think he’d been transported into the bizarro-world alternative reality,” he told the midmorning crowd at commencement, which took place in the Northern Stage’s Barrette Center theater.

From that starting point, Karasik showed the graduates a path to their dreams using the story of his own life, with his cartoons as the milestones.

Growing up, Karasik said, he was not an accomplished drawer. But he did love cartoons — the strips in The Washington Post, to which his family subscribed; the panels in the evening papers that his father would bring home from work; and the thousands of comic books that still linger as “wall insulation” in his garage.

He never thought he would become a cartoonist. In college, he majored in graphic design. Then, when he took his first job in the field, an internship, he realized both that he hated the work and that, without much experience, he couldn’t teach it.

“What did I do?” he said. “I floundered.”

That was a natural segue to a cartoon in which two businessmen are shown running on a giant hamster wheel that stands, inexplicably, on a public sidewalk. One man says to the other: “Remind me, what’s the difference between a metaphor and a simile?”

The message, Karasik said, playing on the caption, is that “It’s OK to flounder.”

“The flounder is a fish,” he said. “The next time your beloved relative accuses you of wasting time floundering, think of it as fishing.

“When you are floundering in your 20s, you are fishing. You are having varied experiences and from those experiences you are developing tastes and opinions. You will need taste and opinion — especially if you plan to be a cartoonist, where the success of your work will depend on your point of view.”

Next up, a family eating at a table. A child says, “Mom, Dad, sis — I’m not like you. I’m not a palindrome.”

“It’s OK to be different” was the lesson, Karasik said.

That tied into another cartoon, a Renaissance nobleman chiding an early book printer: “Nice, but as long as there are readers there will be scrolls.”

“It’s OK to take risks,” Karasik said, advising young cartoonists not to imitate what’s popular, but rather to strike out on one’s own and offer something new.

Put work aside for a night, Karasik told the soon-to-be graduates later. Let it simmer, like a good stew. Allow yourself to mull the ideas and catch your own mistakes.

Also, he added, “You really should learn how to make a stew. ... You’ll have marvelous dinner parties, and it’s just a good thing to have in the back of the pocket.”

Karasik learned another virtue when, after he abandoned his first nascent career, he met Spiegelman and two other celebrated artists, Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman, who were his teachers at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

He did his best to impress them, and found himself first going out for coffee with Spiegelman, then coming home to meet the elder man’s wife, and later collaborating with him as an editor.

Karasik’s linked his social networking to another cartoon, where a prospective employer speaks to an interviewee as a third man, a flunkie on his knees, shines the boss’ shoes.

“You should be aware that we already have a very strong in-house candidate,” the caption says.

“It’s OK to kiss some ass,” Karasik said — or rather, to show respect for everyone, whether it be a person with more authority than oneself or considerably less.

Almost at the end, Karasik showed the crowd a picture of Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. The furry creature, lying on a therapist’s couch, asks, “So I like cookies. So what? Does that make me a monster?”

“It’s OK to be a little crazy,” Karasik said.

The last image was captionless. A man dives far into the sea, his surroundings — fish, bubbles, the sandy bottom — all black and white as he reaches for the only colorful object in the frame: a martini olive.

The moral: “It’s OK to go deep.”

“Studying something you love in depth will indescribably enrich your life,” Karasik said. “It will also get you through times when you have few nearby friends, family or lovers.”

He told the audience that in-depth study can be a cure for the “toxins of the digital age,” a way to re-wire the brain to move beyond the distractions of the internet, and he extracted promises from the graduates that, after partying that night, they would devote a little time on Sunday to concentrated inquiry.

Then he gave one last piece of advice: “Look at one thing, look at it for much longer than you’ve looked before, and you’ll be on the right track.”

Karasik received an honorary degree along with the 11 students and one cartooning fellow celebrated in Saturday’s ceremony.

A renowned cartoon educator, Karasik has had books translated in more than 20 languages, including his graphic novel adaptation of Paul Auster’s City of Glass.

His next book, a study of the language of comics co-written with Mark Newgarden, is titled How To Read Nancy and comes out this fall.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.

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