Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Brief History of Doodle Fights

Some years back, a member of the security staff at the bookstore found a doodle of mine at the information desk. A new pope had recently been elected and I found myself to be weirdly fascinated, not by the story, or by the fellow's new hat, but by his less than friendly mug. Deep dark little eyes he has, and a thin smile that suggests he may have just eaten a canary. I drew that man's face obsessively for a week or more; while on the phone, between customers at the desk, on any little scrap of paper. I was always careful though to toss these scraps of caricature away before I got myself into trouble with the faithful, or management. Just to be safe one day, while drawing the pope's wattle, I quickly transformed him into a turkey. The security guard found this most amusing, titled it "Turkey Pope," and taped it up on the private side of the information desk, next to another doodle by another's hand. In a moment of inspiration some days later, this same coworker then wrote out a third scrap of paper, with just "VS" on it, and taped this between the two drawings. Thus, as I remember it, were "Doodle Fights" born. Doodles came and went. The only rule being that some third party other than the persons posting a doodle, decided the contest. Eventually, a scorecard was kept, with the fights numbered and the winners in each "fight" highlighted. Doodles found on the sales floor had special value. Over the intervening years, there have been hundreds of Doodle Fights. I'm proud to count my own efforts as among the more popular -- though no one could defeat, for the longest time, dear K.'s purple dinosaur. I tried. K. is a graphic artist. Her dinosaur was quite beautiful and deserved it's laurels as the greatest Doodle Champion to date. Like most of the doodles posted, I've no idea what became of it. Shame, that. It deserved better.

Quite a few of my doodles were never intended to be entered in the Doodle Fights; these being all too recognizably likenesses of coworkers or regular customers who might take offense at my exaggerations. I do tend to leave little pictures regularly in my wake, and sometimes forget how unflattering my subjects may find them. I do try to be careful with such potentially insulting little sketches, usually offering a likeness to the subject, if familiar, first, and offering to destroy anything that is not found to be either flattering or amusing. The unfamiliar face, if interesting, may still be doodled, and even made to repeat outrageous things overheard, but this seems fairly harmless, so long as nothing offensive was intended. Still, caricature can be a dangerous hobby.

When I'd managed a bookstore, years before, I'd done large caricatures in pencil or ink of various authors and cycled these through poster-frames behind the cash registers. These proved to be quite popular with our regular customers, the few we had, and even with some visiting authors who happened by, though my drawings were not universally appreciated. (Amy Tan, squinting up at her likeness on the wall, asked, "Are my eyes that small?" and the late, and unlamented TV chef, Jeff Smith simply said, "Take that down.") Some of my pictures got me in trouble with The Powers That Be. A caricature of the then Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court rated a letter from an irate passerby to my boss suggesting the drawing was evidence of either A) a communist conspiracy and or B) "a deranged and encephalitic imagination." Never forgot that last. Had to look that word up. For the most part though, people seemed more amused by my pictures than not, and a few customers, and at least two authors, asked if they might buy a copy. I gave away the originals whenever I was asked, as they were too big to have copied, and of no real monetary value whatsoever. Once I even did a commission, of sorts. A local sports writer who frequented the bookstore asked me to draw a young baseball player named Barry Bonds, for gag presentation at a testimonial dinner. I found I couldn't quite draw a baseball bat -- an object almost entirely foreign to my experience -- and as a controversy was then raging daily over the Mapplethorpe exhibition at The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., I instead drew Mr. Bonds holding a bunch of lilies, after one of the photographer's less explicit images, then being widely reproduced. Never did hear if Barry Bonds liked his picture.

A picture I drew, even earlier, never intending it for the general public, of Shirley Temple Black sitting in Richard Nixon's lap, was removed without comment from an employee-break-room and destroyed. Admittedly, this was about a week before America's Darling was scheduled for a book-signing at the store.

A number of kind admirers of my little pictures have suggested that I ought to keep a proper sketchbook, not draw as I usually do on bits of scratch-paper. Some have suggested I ought to make a little book of my sketches and grotesques. I've always been flattered by such attention, but I do these things first to amuse myself, and then to, hopefully, amuse a few others. I've never considered what I do with a pencil, most days, specially artful or deathless. Like my little bits of doggerel posted here, I'm happy if what I do produces a smile, and I feel quite triumphantly rewarded by any actual laughter I can elicit with just a doodle or a clerihew. They are equally minor amusements, I'd say.

Adding here some of my rare survivors from Doodle Fights and the mess of my desk, now that I have the means, seems a natural extension of my personal diversion. It's my sincere hope no one will think the worse of me for offering what are after all only rather harmless visual jokes. As I said, so I hope, anyway.