For some people, Sam Henderson is the hilarious, award-winning cartoonist behind the comic series “Magic Whistle.” For others, he’s an Emmy-nominated contributor to the cultural phenomenon known as “SpongeBob Squarepants” and a long-time contributor to “Nickelodeon Magazine.”
While working on the now defunct magazine, Henderson created the strip “Scene But Not Heard,” a wordless strip revolving around two characters, a “man” and a “bear.” Except for the fact that the characters both appeared in the strip, there was no rule other than to amuse readers.
Henderson spoke with CBR News about the origins of “Scene But Not Heard,” Top Shelf’s recently published collection of the fondly remembered strip, which includes an introductory strip by cartoonist Noah Van Sciver, and the next issue of his long-running “Magic Whistle” series.
CBR News: Where did the idea for “Scene But Not Heard” come from?
Sam Henderson: Anne Bernstein, the original [“Nickelodeon Magazine”] comics editor, was a fan and collector of what I guess you’d call independent comics. She was friends with people like Peter Bagge and Kaz, and that’s the type of work she wanted in there. At the same time, I was just starting to make inroads into these same kind of comics. I was writing gags for Topps, doing novelty cards (that never saw the light of day) in the aftermath of Garbage Pail Kids’ success. Mark Newgarden was creative director there, and I was constantly asking him if there was more work. When he left, he gave me the lead for a new magazine Nickelodeon was starting up and suggested I submit there. I dropped off a portfolio of recent unpublished work, and they liked one I did of two guys pulling each others’ eyes and noses off.
The name “Scene But Not Heard” was a suggestion by someone on their staff after a few years when I became a regular. I was the only contributor whose strip didn’t have a name, so that was the one decided on.
I should add, Anne fought from the beginning to let artists keep their copyrights, something unheard of for a magazine whose main purpose was to plug a corporate entity. If not for that, this collection wouldn’t have been possible.
How did you settle on a bear and a person as the stars of the strip?
Like I said, one strip I submitted stood out, and when I was asked to give them more work, I wanted to have recurring characters and since they’d published one in particular, I did more with them.
I guess the character is a bear. I never really determined his species, or even that he was a “he.” In the earlier strips, he had a tail, which I got rid of because it just got in the way. We would call them “man” and “bear” in editorial notes because they didn’t have names, but it could be a cat or dog or something else. The first one I did as a one-shot, with no idea I’d be continuing it over the next sixteen years.
Was the idea always to make a wordless strip?
It’s just something I stumbled into. Any magazine has contributors the readers expect certain gimmicks from. “New Yorker” had Charles Addams, Peter Arno, George Price etc. do a certain subject matter readers came to expect from them. I evolved into Nickelodeon’s silent guy.
Everyone argues whether it’s the words or art that’s more important — I think it’s neither. That’s what makes something a comic. Otherwise, it’s illustrated text or drawings with captions.
When Americans, at least, think of wordless comics, Sergio Aragones is often the first cartoonist who comes to mind. Who were the influences on you in general, and more specifically, on this project?
Sergio Aragones was always an influence, along with the rest of the cartoonists at “MAD.” It’s always been more whimsical cartoons that I’ve been drawn to. I read Marvel from early pre-adolescence to the end of high school, but at the same I was into “MAD,” “National Lampoon,” undergrounds, and I would always get up early or rush home from school to watch the mixture of WB, MGM and other theatrical cartoons from two generations earlier. I watched “Sesame Street” until I was twelve, so I think I got the nose-removal motif from Ernie always doing that to Bert.
Was there ever a point where you went, “Wait — this is for kids. I can’t do this!”
All the time. At the same time I started with “Nickelodeon,” I was also starting out with “Screw,” a New York tabloid for people to find the nearest strip joint or hookers. The cover was always a cartoon. The two had many of the same contributors, as well as being comics’ best secret, since any auteur in comics you can think of that was a working professional before 2000 worked for one or both of them.
When people my age see “Nickelodeon,” the first thing they say after “I didn’t know this person was in there” is, “How did they get this person who has bad words and draws naughty parts in their regular comics to do something for them?” I can’t speak for everyone else when I say I don’t think in terms of clean or dirty when I sit down to do something. I suppose you could say I’m unfiltered, but never deliberately seek to offend. Chris Duffy, and Anne Bernstein before him, are smart enough to know when someone who’s dirty is funny above anything else, and know to use artists that are naturally funny and don’t talk down to kids. Anyone who contributes knows what they’re doing and what the limits are.
It got me a job writing for “SpongeBob Squarepants.” The creators there got “Nickelodeon Magazine” and saw “Scene But Not Heard” and saw from my sense of humor what they wanted to add to the show.
“Nickelodeon” had a number of editors, including Dave Roman, who was the comics editor for many years. What was the role of the editors and how did they help or hinder?
The editors worked on the rest of the magazine in addition to the comics section. The role was to make sure contributors got their work in on time and make suggestions. I would submit a rough, and they would make suggestions or suggest new ways to make the story more coherent in ways I wouldn’t have thought of.
Wordlessness unintentionally became a blessing for me. I knew a lot of other cartoonists socially, and they would always say “Nickelodeon” was particularly strict with wording, an obstacle I never had to deal with. I didn’t have to go through re-writing anything for foreign editions, either. Since almost all the artists lettered their own dialogue, editors had to make sure every aspect of grammar and spelling was something agreed upon before the finishes were done.
Dave was someone I must credit for helping usher me through the digital age. Before computers, I had to give them originals that were often sloppy or had roughs for other strips on the bristol I used to back it. I had to paint the back of an acetate with acrylic paint. One time, the paint wasn’t drying fast enough, so I had to use a hair dryer. Dave showed me what I needed to do in Photoshop so I wouldn’t have to keep buying supplies, could get the job done quicker and have it be cleaner — generally, do things the way people were supposed to do them in the Twenty-First Century.
I’m curious how Noah Van Sciver came to compose the introduction to the book and what you think of it.
It started with an exchange on Facebook, I think. I made some comment about younger cartoonists surpassing me. He was on the thread and mentioned being disappointed, having grown up with “Scene But Not Heard” and hearing me say something condescending. I decided the introduction to my book should be by someone born in the eighties that grew up reading my strip and became a cartoonist themselves. Since he said something, I thought he would be a good choice. It was four years ago, and the whole point was to have somebody that wouldn’t necessarily be known by readers of the book. In that time, he’s accomplished much more, but the introduction still communicates the point and isn’t dated. I only regret that I promised him the book would be sooner, not knowing it would be in limbo all this time.
Where did the idea for “Scene at the Office,” which appears at the end of the book, come from?
That was an article in the magazine. Like most humor magazines, they liked to show the staff and what the office looked like. They did a spotlight on me as one of their regular contributors. It was for a 3D issue, which they did a few times, and instead of doing something requiring 3D glasses, they had someone do three dimensional figures and use them in one of their “day at the office” photo essays.
What’s next for your series “Magic Whistle?”
The next issue should be out in a few months. I’m one of the few people still doing a periodical, one-person anthology as opposed to a graphic novel, something numbered with staples. It works best for what’s mostly black-out gags. I don’t really do full-length stories. “Magic Whistle” has always been a hobby, even though it has lead to higher-profile gigs. It’s what I can’t fit elsewhere, usually things I previously only showed a handful of friends or posted on social networks. It’s really about me and not the characters. There will be guest artists, too, I like to have other people’s takes on my work or show something that hasn’t been seen much in print. It’s good to have “Scene But Not Heard,” because I have a simplistic style attractive to kids and now they can see something at conventions their parents wouldn’t mind them leafing through.