Dan Reynolds talks through the animals. Cow, Chicken, Pig and Lamb mark the most frequently appearing characters in his Reynolds Unwrapped comic panels. Consider them his Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus and Peppermint Patty. Likewise, he has an awful lot of fun with Mr. Potato Head, the characters from The Wizard of Oz, bowling and classic works of art.
From his home in Brewerton, Reynolds, 50, tickles the funny bone of readers of his book compilations, Boy’s Life, Reader’s Digest and givers and recipients of certain greeting cards. Until July 10, Syracusans can peruse about 200 examples of his gag cartoons at an Everson Museum of Art exhibit, Reynolds Unwrapped: The Cartoon Art of Dan Reynolds, on display in the intimate Robineau Gallery.
While he’s nationally known and has his share of followers in Central New York, many of those followers don’t realize he lives among them. “I’m in a weird situation,” he says. “I do my work here locally but I don’t do my work for the local area. Up until recently I didn’t make much of an effort at letting people know that I’m here or what I do.”
The impetus for this change was Reynolds’ battle with, and ultimate victory over, cancer. “Since I had cancer, I started to make more of a concentrated effort; I decided it would be fun to share more of what I do on a local level,” he says. “So I’ve made myself more available, like the last couple of years working with the American Cancer Society locally, helping them out, participating in fundraising walks.”
As part of his go-local campaign he also approached the Everson Museum, which is always looking to attract a wider audience. “It never hurts to have a laugh,” says Everson director Steven Kern, when asked why a cartoonist’s work is hanging in the art museum, “and art has proven in the last couple of decades to be uniquely positioned to elevate people’s lives in difficult times. The cartoon is at the middle of so much of the art of Europe and the United States, cartoons are among those things that bridge popular culture and high art and at the same time deepen the accessibility of institutions like this one.”
The Everson exhibit should further erode Reynolds’ relative anonymity. It’s the latest step in a career path that can best be described as fortuitous. After graduating from SUNY Oswego in December 1981 with a degree in psychology, Reynolds felt so aimless that he enlisted in the Navy. “After I graduated I didn’t have a plan, so I thought I’d give myself a few more years to figure it out,” he says. “So I went into the Navy for four years.” Reynolds was deployed on the USS Nimitz from 1982 to 1986, stationed off the coast of Libya and based in Naples, Italy. “That was during the early Moammar Gadhafi years, we were the American presence.”
After leaving with a rank of petty officer second class, Reynolds was no closer to what he wanted to do with his life. “A job at the Oswego County Youth Bureau came up in Oswego—I’m originally from there—and it was working with youth, facilitating parenting programs, planning recreational activities, in charge of the Youth Court. Three years later, me, a person who had never drawn anything in my life, picked up a piece of paper and a pencil and just started drawing cartoons out of the blue. I drew my first cartoon, which I still have, brought it into work and everybody got a big laugh about it.”
That was 1989, and he kept perfecting his drawing skills to the point where he landed a gig with Recycled Greeting Cards. Whoa; that was easy. “I know that seems crazy, but that’s how it went,” he says. Remarkably, Reynolds didn’t spend his childhood sitting in his darkened room, pencil in hand, trying to be the next Stan Lee. “I wasn’t always drawing as a little kid,” he shrugs. “I just wasn’t like that.
“The few years previous to leaving the Youth Bureau job I was doing two full-time jobs and it got to the point where financially it didn’t make any sense for me to continue to kill myself when I was making enough money as a cartoonist. So I left my job and moved on to doing my cartooning full time.”
So on March 4, 2008—“I remember that because ‘March 4th’ is a military command”— he left his day job to pursue cartooning as a full-time career. “It’s sort of where life took me more than having any grand plan of my own,” he says. He couldn’t have drawn it better.
The Color of Funny
Reynolds is a visual joke-teller, a rightbrained, left-handed phenom who has no clue where his ideas come from. “I feel like Colonel Sanders when people ask what my secret recipe is,” he says. “I said to my wife, ‘I wish I had a good answer for that.’ But the truth is, I don’t know. Whatever it is I do, I try to please my own sense of what’s funny. Where the ideas actually come from is kind of a mystery. I think there is a combination of things: life experience, what’s happening in my daily life, how my brain is wired.”
Living in a relatively rural area certainly helps, with such odd juxtapositions as a toilet thrown into a ditch and enough bovines to keep a creative mind busy. “I was driving with my son and saw a toilet thrown into a ditch, and my son and I looked at it and laughed: Who would do that? I said to him, ‘I don’t know, but somebody really needs to get their head out of the gutter.’ Those things just jump into my head.”
One panel hanging at the Everson shows a mostly black cow with a white mark on its side next to a mostly white cow with an exact black mark. “You complete me,” the panel says. Or consider the two sheep, sitting in their living room, Mrs. Sheep knitting with yarn being pulled from Mr. Sheep, reading in a nearby chair.
Many of Reynolds’ panels are groan-inducing puns. “Ewe Tube” shows a wolf sitting in a field, checking out sheep in his desktop computer. Then there’s the rhinoceros leaving the “Humanplasty” clinic, or “Beelzeblog,” Satan penning his web blog. Some jokes are more adult than others, such as Max, the protagonist from the Maurice Sendak classic, running in terror from images hinted at in the title “Where the Wild Thongs Are.” Or take the panel titled “Sports Medicine,” with a doctor about to conduct an intimate exam while wearing a giant, “We’re No. 1” finger glove.
Look closely, too, for homages to local institutions, such as Syracuse University athletics or the Oswego Department of Public Works. “My cartoon is non-character based, meaning I just do whatever comes into my head. I don’t have a Calvin, or a Hobbes,” he says, referring to the excellent strip formerly penned by Bill Watterson. In other interviews, Reynolds has called Watterson “the greatest cartoonist who’s ever lived, in my opinion.”
Still, if you draw a cartoon long enough, Reynolds explains, recurring characters are bound to pop up. “I don’t give them a name, but the Cow, Pig and Chicken—the editor at Reader’s Digest at the time, seemed to really enjoy those cartoons with those particular characters. Probably over a year’s worth of cartoons were featuring those characters. They asked me to continue to send work in that has those characters. I’ve also done a lot of Moses cartoons, a lot of Mr. Potato Head cartoons— Reader’s Digest seems to like those.”
In addition to Watterson, Reynolds especially appreciates the work of Far Side cartoonist Gary Larsen (whose work is similar to Reynolds Unwrapped), Sam Gross from The New Yorker and Charles Addams, of Addams Family fame. “Gary Larsen was one of the initial people that I liked,” Reynolds says. “He worked from 1980 to 1995, so I drew through some of the times that he was drawing. I’ve been drawing a lot longer than he did, but he made a bazillion dollars.”
A good number of the panels at the Everson also echo classic paintings: “Mona Lisa,” Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” with a hilarious twist only a cow could supply, and Grant Wood’s classic take on dour Midwesterners, only Reynolds’ is titled “American Goth.” You can only imagine.
“You look at his subject matter, it goes from the sublime to the irreverent,” Kern says, “the way he works ‘The Scream,’ ‘Mona Lisa’ into a couple different cartoons. These paintings are so much a part of our lives today that we understand ‘The Scream’ even if we don’t understand the artist who painted it. We know the ‘Mona Lisa’ but how much do we know about da Vinci?” It’s Reynolds’ ability to take an everyday occurrence and make it funny that appeals to
editors at Reader’s Digest. Andy Simmons is the humor editor for that publication, the second-most popular magazine in the country. When asked what it is about Reynolds’ work that appeals to the periodical’s 30 million readers, he’s concise.
“First and foremost, he’s just damned funny,” Simmons says, “he is consistently funny. I have worked over 10 years with a ton of cartoonists and there are a few who are consistently laughout-loud funny. And he can be edgy without being malicious, which is a very rare trait. He fits us to a T. He opens your mind as any good humorist will do to the little things you look at every day without thinking twice about it. He gives you a second, skewed look at it.”
Reynolds landed the job with Reader’s Digest the same way he became Recycled Greeting Cards’ top designer: He aimed high. “I had probably drawn 75 cartoons, I’m guessing, and I got to the point where I thought, ‘This is a lot of fun but what am I going to do with it?’” he says nonchalantly. “Maybe I can find a greeting card company. So I picked my 10 best and two of those became greeting cards” Dissimilar to many other cartoonists, who sell their work for a flat rate, Reynolds negotiated a royalty contract. “I get a percentage of everything they sell. For someone just starting, that’s rare, but if you’re going to make a career out of it, that’s the way to go.”
Similarly, Reynolds decided to submit his work, called Over the Edge for its first 10 years, to Reader’s Digest. “The
way I went about it is not the way you would normally,” he admits.
“Usually you start off with smaller greeting card companies and work
your way up. I didn’t do that. I thought, I’m gonna go right to the top. That’s what I did with the magazine too. I tend to gravitate toward things I like, and I like Reader’s Digest.”
By displaying Reynolds’ work, the Everson is furthering its mission of celebrating local artists. At the same time, Kern says, the museum mirrors Syracuse’s academic strengths.
“If we look at our community, we see that Syracuse University has one of the oldest degree-granting programs in art, especially strong in illustration and bookmaking. So this exhibition ties in deeply with our academic concerns.”
The New Times’ award-winning cartoonist Joe Glisson has taught illustration in that art department. A few years back he held a summer cartooning camp for local children, and invited Reynolds to speak. “I just think Dan is brilliant,” Glisson says. “There is no cartoonist out there who is as consistently funny as Dan Reynolds.”
Cancer can either take, or change, your life. In September 2008, six months after Dan Reynolds transitioned to cartooning as his full-time career, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, the same type that plagued Lance Armstrong. “Mine had metastasized into my abdomen, so I had to go in for an operation to remove it,” he recounts. “But before that I had to go through three months of chemotherapy, which was hell on earth. This type of cancer proceeds so quickly I had to have more chemo in less time than most people.”
The treatment, at Hematology Oncology Associates of CNY, would last seven hours a day, Mondays through Fridays, with the following two weeks to recuperate. So a week of chemo, a week spent in bed recovering from the chemo and then a week of feeling somewhat normal again. “As sick as I was, when I wasn’t totally out of it, I was able to sit up enough and put a pen in my hand and draw,” he says. “I like to say I used humor to fight the tumor.” Reynolds’ cancer is in remission.
During chemotherapy, Reynolds met other cancer patients, to whom he would give his greeting cards, which led to his fundraising idea. The first year after his cancer diagnosis, fans and followers of Reynolds could subscribe to receive a cartoon a day in their e-mail for $10, which he donated to the American Cancer Society. He is reopening the offer to new subscribers only: If you’d like to receive 365 Reynolds cartoons for a year, send a check or money order for $10 to: Dan Reynolds, P.O. Box 444, Brewerton 13029. All proceeds will benefit the Cancer Society.
Reynolds lives with his wife Patty Reynolds and their four boys, ranging in age from 21 to 8. Dan and Patty both grew up in Oswego County—he in Oswego and she in Cleveland. Working from home brings familial advantages that a 9-to-5 job can’t begin to touch. “When you are self-employed, when your eyes are open during the day, that’s when you’re working. It’s an all-day kind of thing. But, I can bring it wherever I go. I’m often at my children’s sporting events, and I will bring my pad and work while I’m watching. You never know when inspiration is going hit.”
As a cartoonist, Reynolds also never knows if he’ll wake up one day and be fresh out of ideas. “That’s the fear,” he says. “I try to do two or three new pieces a day. I haven’t run out of ideas yet, so hopefully the well will keep providing me with new ideas as I go.”
He also hopes to find new outlets for his creativity. Nirvana for many cartoonists is The New Yorker; Reynolds is no exception. “The cartoon editor, the brains behind The New Yorker cartoons, I know him. I have no clue as to how a final decision is made in terms of what goes in there. Periodically I’ll send stuff. Cartoonists who get in there probably have sent to them for 10 years before being accepted. They are aware of me because of my work in Reader’s Digest. I’d love to have my work in there.”
Reynolds Unwrapped: The Cartoon Art of Dan Reynolds continues at the Everson Museum of Art, 401 Harrison St., through July 10. Reynolds will give a gallery talk and demonstration on Saturday, March 26, at noon at the museum. And on Saturday, April 9, noon to 3 p.m., he will give a demonstration during Family Day: The Magic of Clay!
For more information, contact the Everson at 474-6064 or www.everson.org. Reynolds’ website is www.reynoldsunwrapped.com.