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Three Word Answer: ‘Tom the Dancing Bug’s’ Ruben Bolling (Part I)

On today’s “Three-Word Answer” we’re talking with social/political/pop-culture/jack-of-all-genres Ruben Bolling. Ruben is the cartoonist behind the weekly comic “Tom the Dancing Bug” that can be seen on such august sites as BoingBoing, Daily Kos, The Washington Post and GoComics.

If you’ll remember the format of this Q&A, we ask 20 questions and the answers MUST MUST MUST not be longer than three words or the interview terminates.

We’re here today with Ruben Bolling, the award-winning cartoonist and author. Among other honors, Ruben has been a Pulitzer finalist and has won the RFK Journalism Award, The Herblock Award and the National Cartoonists Society Reuben Silver Award. He holds a J.D. from Harvard and enjoys a mug of chilled root beer in his down time. Welcome, Ruben, anything you’d like to add to this intro?

Yes, There Is.

You have two new books about to hit the streets any day now. Tell us more and how to order, please?

Tom the Dancing Bug: Into the Trumpverse collects four years of Tom the Dancing Bug comics, from 2016-2019. The plan is that this is Volume 7 of The Complete Tom the Dancing Bug, with previous volumes published over time.  This volume happens to have a particular focus on the unlikely story of a lowlife real estate grifter who became president and destroyed a nation. So that’s fun stuff.

The Super-Fun-Pak Comix Reader is every Super-Fun-Pak Comix installment of Tom the Dancing Bug I’ve ever done, through 2019. If you have to ask what Super-Fun-Pak Comix are, this might not be the book for you. I’m not sure who Super-Fun-Pak Comix are for, but The New Yorker has called them “great and long-running.”

Both books are published by Clover Press and ordering information is at bit.ly/TOMBOOKS

Interesting. That leads me to my next question. What’s your favorite fabric? 

Elite Vicuña Wool

Wasn’t “Elite Vicuna Wool” one of the early characters you did in Super Fun Pak Comix (SFPC)? LOL. No. Just kidding. But you have created hundreds and hundreds of characters in SFPC — some that only stay with us for a single issue and then never reappear. Do you have a list of all the characters you’ve created somewhere? Do you have a favorite to write for from SFPC? How often has a SFPC comic character spun-off into his own full installment of TTDB? And how often have you demoted characters from starring role to ensemble player? Remember three words only for each question. 

Is it three words for each question within Question 4, or three words for the whole multi-part Question 4? Well, either way, I’ll do my very best:

I have no list, written or mental, of the characters I’ve created in the Super-Fun-Pak Comix installments, and readers will sometimes mention one and I have to remind myself who it is.  The whole point of those is to make each comic as stupid, ridiculous, and disposable as I can. I’ve done about 1,000 separate Super-Fun-Pak Comix, and most contain one or more one-off characters that thankfully never appeared again.

But some SFPC characters tend to stick around, and I believe only two have spun off to get their own full Tom the Dancing Bug comics: “Dinkle the Unlovable Loser,” and “Percival Dunwoody, Idiot Time Traveler from 1909.”  But maybe a reader will correct me.

I think my favorite SFPC character to write for is “Jonathan Bucket-No-Hear, The Man Who, Whenever Someone Says the Word ‘Bucket,’ Hears Instead ‘Large Bag of Donkey Droppings.”

And the biggest demotion Tom the Dancing Bug characters ever received is the Max & Doug team, a baby and nondescript animal that probably appeared in over 25% of the early Tom the Dancing Bug comics, and now only appear once every year or so in Super-Fun-Pak Comix installments. And usually just to complain about their demotion.

You’ve been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, right? Describe your emotions when you found out? Because it’s a bittersweet thing right? They announce the winner and the finalists at the same time. I would think they’d get more mileage by announcing finalists in advance and then the winner like the ESPYs do. 

I was honestly only honored when I was named a Pulitzer Finalist.  I draw comics about characters like Jonathan Bucket-No-Hear…, so I’d guess I’m probably a long shot for a Pulitzer, and I was only delighted to find out I was a Finalist.  It wasn’t until hours later, when someone said to me, “You must have come so close to winning!” that I wised up and had a twinge of regret.  But notice I capitalize Finalist to indicate that it is an official Pulitzer status conferred upon me, and not just a descriptor for losing.

Do you feel compelled to write about Trump? 

As a matter of fact, I do.  I’ve just about never felt this before in my career; I’ve always drawn whatever I wanted to in any given week, political or social or goofy or silly, and felt no compulsion to comment on the Issues Of The Day.  But the Trump news cycle always seems so horrifying and urgent that the news not only obsesses my thoughts more than in any other era, but it feels somehow wrong or callous to ignore it in my comic strip.  I try to resist that impulse, because of course no one actually needs my take on what Trump does every week, but a look at my work over the last four years shows that I usually fail.

I’ll celebrate the day I’m released from this (and not only for the sake of my comic strip).

How come we don’t see ‘Harvey Richards: Lawyer for Children” anymore? 

I did draw a new Harvey Richards maybe a couple of years ago.  But certain characters come to a point when I think I’ve done all I can with them within the confines of Tom the Dancing Bug — when I can’t think of a fresh take on them, and continuing to use them would be repetitive. And when that happens, I keep on using them many, many more times. Then I finally stop.

But Harvey Richards was one of my most popular characters, and his movie/TV rights were sold to a big studio, which now keeps them in a big box in a big warehouse like the one at the end of the Indiana Jones.

Do you have obscure influences that might delight and impress our wonderful readers?

I think anyone could guess my inspirations and influences: Mad Magazine, National Lampoon, Monty Python, Kids in the Hall, Mr. Show, Doonesbury, Zippy, Proust, Gandi, Noonuccal, Poincaré, Christine de Pizan, and Peanuts.

The blurbs on the back of your new books are legendary. Mark Hamill? Ridiculous. Patton Oswalt? OMG.  James Joyce? Sophistical! Can you give us a list of who contributed and how that all came down?

It’s the usual thing, not much to add.  Mark Hamill, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Peter Sagal, Gary Gulman, Neil Gaiman, Matt Groening, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and Seth Meyers were all over for a bar-b-que and they were begging me to let them have quotes on the back of the book, because it would help their careers so much, so I finally just said, “All right already, if you’ll just shut up about it so we can get on with the Slip N’ Slide Dance Off.”

(Part II! Coming Soon)

Community Comments

#1 JP Trostle
July/22/2020
@ 9:05 am

This interview is an outrage! Does NO ONE follow the rules anymore?! This — THIS! —is why society is breaking down! Why if cartoonists can blatantly violate the arbitrary instructions of an anonymous interviewer on a random website, how can we POSSIBLY expect the authorities to respect the rule of law!

#2 Brian Fies
July/22/2020
@ 9:09 am

I love “Three Word Answers.” The best thing about them is that nobody follows the rules. Keep them coming, and thanks!

#3 Brian Fies
July/22/2020
@ 9:14 am

I see my friend JP Trostle commented while I was typing. I’m disappointed and outraged that he’s such a rule-following drudge instead of the rule-bending iconoclast I took him for. Can this friendship survive such diametrically opposed weltanschauungs? Frankly, it’s hard to imagine.

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