Several weeks ago, I arrived back in the States from a USO tour aboard the USS Enterprise. A half dozen of us cartoonists went out to the Persian Gulf to draw for sailors and other troops in the area.
But that’s a different story. This story begins the day after I arrived home, and is about why yesterday’s strip doesn’t look quite normal.
The morning after returning, I woke up feeling off, and more than just ten-hour-jet-lag off. I coughed. And coughed. Other than that, I didn’t feel that bad. I went about my routine, trying to get back on a normal sleep schedule and catching up on email and work. I even sent a few drawings around to the other cartoonists wh0 had gone on the trip.
Next day. Coughing and more coughing. We’ve had coughing after trips to Iraq and Afghanistan—not unusual—because of the incredible amounts of dust you inhale, especially in Iraq where the dust is as fine as talcum powder. But we hadn’t been anyplace like that on this trip. As the week progressed, so did the coughing. I could still draw between coughs. I told myself that whatever it was would be gone in a week. The next week, it became difficult to draw and breathe between coughing attacks. I managed to get out more strips, but I was falling far behind.
By week three, whatever had invaded my body took total control. The coughs were body-wracking, internal organ-displacing, concussion-causing, gagging, barking eruptions that sometimes went on for close to an hour at a time. I thought I’d cracked a rib at one point. Drawing was not possible. Breathing was barely possible. Sleep? What was that? No medication over, under or behind the counter was effective.
At times, I wished I were dead just so the coughing would stop and I could sleep.
Still, deadlines had to be met, and I was just sneaking by them.
The next Sunday strip was one that had come from an idea I’d shared with Jerry about attending a toddler’s birthday party. Afterward, I had felt like I was scarred by the trauma of it—suffering from TPSD (you’ll understand when you read the gag). So when I saw the gag Jerry had written, I was bummed. Bummed because I was feeling so awful I didn’t think I could do it justice considering the state I was in. When I wasn’t coughing, my hands shook from the medications I was taking.
I began sketching. My process on Sunday strips is that I sketch out the strip on tracing paper first, send a copy for Jerry to look at, and then make any adjustments that might be needed. After that, I photocopy the sketch and trace it on bristol board with colored pencil for a nice dense black line and refine the drawing.
In this case, I couldn’t draw a more refined drawing no matter how hard I tried. My hand just couldn’t do it. Whatever I drew was going to look awfully rough. Plus, I’d taken so long to get the sketch finished, we were perilously close to deadline.
I made an executive decision: I wasn’t going to draw the finished art for the strip. Instead, I beefed up some of the lighter lines in the pencil sketch and tried the best I could to reletter the dialogue. For the first time in twenty-two years, I just scannned the tracing paper sketch for the final strip.
The finished drawing is far from my best work. Because of the rough, uneven quality of the drawing, the strip has kind of a frenetic, agitated, nervous look to it.
Not unlike how I felt after the party. It was actually perfect in its imperfection. In retrospect, it couldn’t have been timed any better.
Life had not only handed me a bushel of lemons, but a pitcher of lemonade to go with it.
(P.S. I’m happy to report that the coughing is almost gone.)