When “Rhymes with Orange” debuted in 1995, it was an odd comic strip, featuring no recurring characters or ongoing storylines, but the design, the look, and the humor set it apart from most other comics on the page. More than a decade later, “Rhymes with Orange” continues to thrive -- in large part because of the sensibility that cartoonist Hilary Price brings to it, including a wry sense of humor that resembled the great New Yorker cartoonists like Sam Gross and Roz Chast more than, say, Gary Larson, another great cartoonist who crafted his own idiosyncratic worldview on the newspaper page.
At its best, Price’s humor manages to be relatable and foreign all at once, a perspective on the world that most people would never conceive of. Last year saw the release of “Pithy Seedy Pulpy Juicy,” the latest collection of “Rhymes with Orange” strips, and the debut of “Santacide,” Price’s play about the murder of Santa Claus. Price was kind enough to take the time to talk with CBR News about all she has going on.
CBR: When did you become interested in comics strips?
Hilary Price: I remember going to the library when I was a kid and I liked to take out the comic strip books. I used to take out “B.C.” all the time as a little, little kid. I remember the whole ritual, where they were in the library. It was something that I was always drawn to but I didn’t then say, this is for me, this is what I’m going to do. It was kind of just a piece of my life as opposed to the focus of my life.
What was it that made you create a strip without characters or continuing stories?
I can’t say that I don’t like characters, but in terms of what grabs me on the comics page, it’s that combination of words and pictures and jokes.
When you first proposed “Rhymes with Orange” around fifteen years ago, was it more or less the same as what we’ve been reading?
It’s funny. I happened to be looking at the years 1995 and 1996 because I’m trying to find an old strip for an old friend and the drawing is tough to look at. I think I’ve become a little bit better at the drawing. But the format is basically the same. Every so often I would find myself doing a little series and I look back at those and hate them, but I don’t do that much anymore.
But yeah, it’s the same, except of course now more sophisticated and witty than ever before.
It was Jay Kennedy at King Features who bought the strip. Did he have advice or suggestions?
I have so much to thank Jay Kennedy for. I don’t think I’d be doing this if it weren’t for him. I had sent some strips in panel format to King Features and at that time they had a thing called The New Breed. You would send submissions and they would print them in a panel format.
His first suggestion was don’t do a panel, do it in strip format, because if you just look at the odds there are ten strips per page and two panels per page. Number two was, I had just organically done a title panel. He said continue to do that don’t drop that because that is going to become something that a reader will recognize your strip merely by noticing there’s a title panel. So he had some stylistic vision in that regard.
And then, I think what he was looking for when he was looking at strips was, is this a different voice. I think he thought that for someone right out of college living in five people - not living in five people, that’s John Malkovich - living with five people in an apartment and sleeping on a futon, this is going to offer a different perspective. I think Jay subscribed to the unwritten rule that you can have good writing and bad art, but you can’t have bad writing and good art. So he didn’t say, go to art school, he just said, focus on the writing.
How often do you ask, how am possibly going to come up with seven more ideas this week?
Every Tuesday. I’m not joking. And it’s a good question. The degree is less now but I have a weekly crisis of confidence. There are two ways I get out of it. First is taking the yogic position of ass-in-the-chair. There’s something to sitting down and going, here I am at my desk okay body you’re in this sitting position, it’s time to tell your brain to start working. The discipline of sitting down is one of the hardest but I think it’s a really effective one.
The second thing is I put myself through the statistics of “I did it last week, I did it the week before, I did it the week before that and the week before that,” so statistically there’s a really good chance.
Also, it’s kind of a really magical thing to think, “Shit, it’s not going to happen” and then have it happen. And the other thing, I forget who said it, the best way to increase your productivity is to lower your standards. And there are days when I know that I wish that I could sit on this longer. It’s not exactly how I want it. But too bad. I’ll have another shot at a different cartoon the next day.
What’s your typical day like?
I still struggle some with routine. I have a routine, not necessarily for the strip, but other things in my life. I meet every Tuesday morning with this friend of mine and he and I will sit at the campus center and do writing projects. I have things that get me out of bed. I schedule morning things to make sure I’m off the mattress. That sounds kind of lewd.
I would say that I tend to buckle down around two o’clock in the afternoon. That seems to be when my mind settles and I’ve done all the administration stuff. I also work well later at night. That’s when my mind quiets down. Unfortunately the world doesn’t function on a 2-11 schedule.
I know I’m answering your question the long way, let me try a little shorter. The deadline is on Friday. Or you can metaphorically slip it under the door Monday morning. I need to be four weeks in advance for the daily and five for the Sunday, so my longest days are Wednesday, Thursday and Friday because that’s when I can no longer deny that the deadline is coming. And, psychologically, I gear up and buckle down and do it.
Do you have an office?
I have a studio in a building that used to be a toothbrush factory. There are lots of old mill buildings where I am that have been converted to space for artists and artisans and small businesspeople. I work at the studio and then when I need a break from the studio, I work at home. It’s kind of like, what’s messier? Whatever’s messier, I’ll work at the other place.
You include a lot of pet humor in “Rhymes with Orange.” You’re both a dog and cat person?
My dog is gigantic. 90 pounds. He’s part Bernese Mountain dog and part smooth coated collie, so he’s really long and he’s got really long legs and a really long nose.
He appears in many strips?
Yes. He or the spirit of him. And then I’ve got two cats. I came to cats later in life. But I’m never going back.
How do you work? Do you write a script first, or do you draw first?
For me the words always come first. I never start by doodling. I’m much more of a words person. I get the idea and then the whole plan is to get less words, to make it as succinct as possible and to try to show in the drawing. That’s changed a lot. When I look at the old, old strips, there’s a lot of writing. Paragraphs almost. I do that less now.
At what point do you figure out what an in-progress strip looks like?
Well that’s what I’m working out with the drawings. It’s the design. Where is the reader’s eye going to start and where is it going to finish? And also, I’ve got this idea for a joke. Should it be people talking? Should it be a dog talking? Should there be a first person or third person narrator? That’s where those decisions get made, in the drawing.
Do you draw it all by hand?
Oh yeah. I like that. I draw it double the size it appears in the paper. Usually. I’m not a precise person and I’m not extremely patient either. So I’ll put whiteout on then I won’t wait for the whiteout to dry. I’ll smudge it and try to fix it with the ink. It’s not that all my originals are a mess but I make mistakes and use whiteout.
You don’t use Photoshop?
No. I try to get it the way I like it in the original. And then I erase the pencil underneath and then there’s bound to be when I get it into Photoshop that’s when I just clean up the specs. I didn’t take out enough eraser or I smudged the whiteout. That kind of thing.
What about the coloring?
I color the Sundays but I don’t color the dailies. That happens down in Florida at the syndicate. While I don’t want to add more hours to my day to color them, it’s been challenging to have people color it in a way that I would want it colored. They’ve been responsive but I’ve been working to change the palate from soft and pastely, which isn’t my cup of tea, to something richer and more noticeable. The ink line isn’t that thick and so I don’t want the coloring to reflect the ink line, I want the coloring used to help bring the strip to somebody’s eye.
Do you get censored much or do you self-censor?
I think that I have a pretty good sense of what’s going to fly and what’s not. Like the word “crap.” While it’s a substitute for shit, it’s not quite up to snuff for the newspaper. I don’t do this because I’ve learned, but the word “suck” is a no-no. You can do stuff about God the Jerry Garcia guy but nothing about Jesus. Things like that. [The comics page is] a more conservative place than the rest of the newspaper where sex and drugs and violence abound.
Do you enjoy people-watching?
I am so not one of those people. I really am not. I’m a very social person and really enjoy the company of others. And extroverted. So I would prefer to have myself within the situation than to have myself apart from the situation looking at it.
Would you agree most cartoonists don’t have that personality type?
Yeah. I think that I have an accurate mark on myself for how much alone time I need because I get it from the job. I think for me the gathering of cartoon ideas can be, is not always but can be, a social process. And then the actual transformation of the idea into a cartoon is a solitary process. So I get alone time and have since I graduated from college. I’m not sure if I was in a different job that required constant social time how much at what point my head would explode and I’d need to walk away and spend a few hours by myself. But the solitary time is really built into the job.
You won the cartoonists’ Reuben award for best newspaper panel strip. Was that a big deal for you?
It was wonderful. I really enjoy my fellow cartoonists. I love going to the yearly shindig and I’ve found the people to be incredible. Cartoonists as a rule are kind, funny, warm people. And so the award, something that is given by your peers, that was a really great thing.
You’ve also written and produced “Santacide,” a play about the murder of Santa Claus. How did that come to be?
I was doing a strip, I guess it was in November since I have to be thinking five weeks ahead. It goes on so long and sometimes I get really crabby about it because it’s this big hegemony of green and red. I was thinking about somebody writing a play where Santa gets stabbed in the back. I called up a friend who I didn’t know that well, but I thought she was really cool. I said, hey I have this project in mind do you want to work on this together? And doing the play was this great thing because it was a creative outlet that wasn’t a job. It was a creative outlet from my creative outlet. What I do now, the cartoon has tons of creative satisfaction but it’s also my job.
There are some days you’d rather just not draw?
Exactly. But the play was just fun and social. We had it performed last year but we’re ripping it back down to the studs and redoing it. One thing I learn again and again doing the cartoon is that there mere process of doing it makes it better. I was working on one cartoon a few weeks ago and just by sitting down and hammering it out, more stuff came to it and it became a better cartoon. The process brought on improvement. It’s not something that can spring fully formed from the pencil. And that was true writing the play. By writing play we learned how to write a play.
What are your plans going forward?
I want to keep working on this play. I want to be a bit more diligent about getting more greeting cards out. Working on the business end of the business. That’s my short term goal. The area that needs more improvement. Greeting cards are a different pace than a cartoon strip. It’s got its own skill set. I use that as one example. I want to branch out and do more cartoons in the magazine market. That means changing the schedule, drawing more strips, being more productive. Those are my goals, but I’m also looking forward to apple picking this fall.