Guy Gilchrist: Good Art Is About Being Honest
You only have to talk to artist, author and singer-songwriter Guy Gilchrist for a short while and to learn about the work that he has done on behalf of charities such as St Jude Children’s Hospital and you begin to understand that he is a man of integrity with a big, generous and warm heart. His accomplishments are many. For the past eighteen years he has been the artist and the writer of the Nancy comic strip whose central character Nancy was originated by Ernie Bushmiller in 1933. The comic strip is syndicated in nearly 400 newspapers in 80 countries. He also contributed to the following comic strips, Jim Henson’s Muppets, Your Angels Speak, Screams, Night Lights & Pillow Fights and Today’s Dogg. Guy Gilchrist was the co-creator of The Muppet Babies, authored 48 children’s books and contributed to cartoons such as Tom & Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Looney Tunes and The Pink Panther. He is an accomplished singer and songwriter who has shared the stage with Charlie Daniels, The Marshall Tucker Band, Tommy Cash and Little Jimmy Dickens and he has played at the The Grand Ole Opry.
Recently, Guy Gilchrist took time out from his very busy schedule to talk to Riveting Riffs Magazine.
“I look at the work in Nancy as an ongoing story that never ends, because it just keeps on going, every single day. There is a bit of similarity (between creating a comic strip and a song), as you have to be a good editor. When you are writing a comic strip, sometimes you have to go through a whole bunch of garbage and you will be writing down pages and pages and pages of stuff until you finally hit that one thing that is going to work. You finally hit the ball out of the park. I think that is certainly where it is similar, but writing is writing and you can have the greatest melody in the world, but if the words are terrible and they don’t tug at your heartstrings. If they don’t touch you in some way, the song will go nowhere. It is the same way with the comic strip. If the art is not any good or the storyline doesn’t work for some reason or another, you won’t read it. The highways of art are strewn with incredible bands of musicians that never really went anywhere, because the songs didn’t (do anything) to you, although they could play the heck out of their instruments and it is the same way with cartoons,” says Gilchrist.
As one would expect, over time, Guy Gilchrist has put his own stamp on the comic strip Nancy. “What I draw with Nancy is a hybrid of Ernie’s characters and my own. Jerry Scott who was the writer and artist just before me, he went his own way with Nancy and when I took it over I went my own way with it, which was to revert the art back to something that was similar to something that people knew about Nancy and how they recognized her. I think that was one of the things that United Features was interested in with me. They liked the idea that I am a children’s book writer and they also like the idea that I had also been involved with quite a few famous characters over the years. Nancy works. I don’t think it has a lot to do with me honestly. When I look at the Nancy strip and when I was working towards getting it all of those years ago, one of the things that you do is to try and figure out what makes this thing tick. What made it tick for me is that it was a pretty simple, straight forward strip that you could look in on for a few moments each day and it wasn’t political and it wasn’t trendy and it was just kids being kids. It didn’t have any particular message except possibly the message that I read through it, which is unconditional love in unconventional families. I think that people like the strip, wherever they are in the world, because it is simple and it is something that takes you away from the problems of the world. It is just a simple strip that is asking can we get a smile from you today. My contribution to it is to keep it going, to keep that happening.”
One of Guy Gilchrist’s recent strips that brought a smile to readers’ faces appeared on January 25th, 2013, consisting of two frames in which Nancy and her friend Sluggo are holding hands and they are debating which one of them is holding hands with the other.
Gilchrist says, “For one thing, I really needed to bring the characters back, to bring Nancy and Sluggo back into the storyline, because I have been concentrating a lot with this new storyline with Aunt Fritzi and Phil Fumble who was her beau in the thirties and forties, filling up the strip now and sort of rebooting the whole thing. It was a nice opportunity to be able to say these two characters have been around for a long time. That was pretty much it, saying with kids it is a lot simpler than it is with adults, we like each other, we can have fights, but if I go buy you a box of conversation hearts, everything is good (he chuckles). With kids it is a lot easier, they don’t overthink like adults do.”
As for how he has been able to shape Nancy, Guy Gilchrist says, “One of the really nice things about my publisher, all of the editors and over the years I have only had a couple with Nancy have been great. I have been around for a long time, so I wind up writing pretty much what I want to write. Every once in a while I will get a call, but it is usually something about punctuation or something grammatical. I have been given free reign with the characters almost from the get-go. That is a total reverse of what it was like when I started out as a kid and I worked on The Muppets. With Country Music, Rockabilly, the songwriters (as well as) all of the obscure stuff that I put into the strip, it comes down to a couple of things, the first is that if you are going to write anything all of the time and you are going to have an audience then there is only one way to do it and that is honestly. You are going to have your good days, you are going to have your bad days, you will have people who will follow you and people who will be fanatical about you and you are going to have people who will hate you. Pretty well everybody reads everything on the comics page. You are going to have a following and the main thing is you have to do the best that you can every single day. You have to remember that this is like baseball except there is a little bit of an off season with baseball and there is none with this. You never ever have a break.
Charles Schultz (Peanuts) and Mort
Walker (Hi and Lois /
Beetle Bailey) are two people who
gave me huge amounts of input, Mort especially. He gave me so much help for my
career it is ridiculous. Mort told me to consider your audience and remember.
Look at your stuff
thinking of the audience that is out there and that you are reaching, the ones
that you know about through their correspondence with you and understanding who
they are. Try to stay true to yourself and try to figure out what they think is
funny. Sparky, Charles Schultz said there is only one way for you to do a strip
365 days a year and that is just to write it honestly and oh, try to be funny.
That is really where the Country Music comes in. It is part of me, I
write and I sing and I play. Also, I love children. I am a dad and a
grandfather. I love kids. I have put my friends and people that I admire and
also people that may match a certain mood or a certain era or something like
that into this little world that I have been working on for the past seventeen
plus years I have put that in the strip. I mention people many times, because
they are involved with children, St Jude’s and different charities and they
don’t blow their own horn about it.
When I started doing it I didn’t think that anybody would notice, really. I just did it as something little, as something extra that was in there. They (the characters) are going to wear a tee shirt anyway, so I put somebody’s name on it. I really didn’t think that anybody would notice, because when I first started doing the strip there was a stock pose of Fritzi sitting there reading a newspaper or a book that Ernie had been drawing forever. He would have this panel with Fritzi and everyone saw it. If you read the old Nancy then you know the picture that I mean. What you see is Frtizi sitting there in the chair and there is a tiny little picture on the wall and it is always something nondescript like a tiny little house on a hill. Me being a goofball, I decided that I would have a black velvet Elvis on the wall behind Fritzi and I started doing it right off the bat. I would take it off of the diagonal in composing it, so it wouldn’t be smack dab in your face, but it was pretty large and it was right there. No one ever said anything. Months went by and Fritzi would be sitting there reading a book or something and there would be a different picture of Elvis and I would do every kind of Elvis, the Vegas Elvis and nobody ever said a word.
One day I did a St. Jude’s show with a band called Ricochet and this is in ’96 or ’97 and they had about five top fives that year. They were a bunch of super nice guys and we did the St. Jude’s event together and I really liked them. I had a gag where Fritzi was out in the country and she needed to wear a ball cap and the little R logo for the band. I put this logo on the ball cap and I forgot about it, because I work weeks and weeks and weeks in advance. All of a sudden one day, my email was just loaded up and the syndicate got all of these phone calls. The syndicate being in New York, I don’t even think they knew what the Nashville Network was. I think Ricochet was on Columbia and they got tons. I got phone calls to be on the Ralph Emery show. I was actually shocked and astounded that anyone knew anything that was going on. I know that sounds weird to say, because you have sixty to seventy million readers, but when you are here in your studio and you are writing this stuff it is really kind of a personal conversation and you don’t really think about the fact that this is going to be read by all of these people. You are just trying to do the best that you can and to do this honest little thing and then let it go and have its own life. It was kind of funny and it was kind of shocking that anyone paid attention at all. It has become a thing and part of the strip that much of Nashville and the surrounding area are mentioned or drawn in the strip, sort of Middle Tennessee or Middle America has certainly made its way into the strip.”
The circle of life sometimes takes some interesting twists and turns. “Drawing Nancy was hard. It still is hard. When I was asked if I wanted to try out for the strip I said no. I had already done two comic strips by then, one was called The Rock Channel and it lasted for about a year and it looked like a MTV type of a station and I had done The Muppets for over five years. When you do a strip for 365 days a year there are no breaks. It is a lot. When I got the call about Nancy I started thinking Oh My Gosh about how Ernie used to do the strip with all of these rule lines and very meticulous line work and I was a brush guy. I painted my strips and I was doing a lot with children’s books at the time. I said no I don’t want it. It was the beautiful perfect career move that I always make (he laughs). My literary agent who I had worked with at United Features for many years was the one who called me about it. He said Jerry Scott and United were parting ways and he had brought my name up with them. They were thrilled and they wanted me to try out. I said no I don’t want to do it. I hung up the phone. I had a bunch of Ernie’s stuff around, because I was an Ernie Bushmiller fan. I pulled it out and without telling anybody I sat there and I tried to draw the characters and I couldn’t draw anything. I could draw Aunt Fritzi, because I had always been sort of a pretty girl artist. I could draw her, but I couldn’t draw the kids and I couldn’t rule an ink line to save my soul. For about a week, without saying a word, all I did was trace and draw. I did it around the clock. I wasn’t even doing it to get the job anymore, it was just the fact that I had worked on so many different characters Tom and Jerry and Pink Panther etc. and I had always been able to find a place in their style for me and in this I just couldn’t. It was totally different than anything else. Ernie was a very technical artist and his characters have very few lines in their faces, so if you don’t get it exactly right, it is like Mickey Mouse. If you don’t get it exactly right, something’s wrong and you can’t figure out what it is. There is just something wrong. You have seen bad Mickeys that look like zombies or something and somebody drew it not very well. You have seen bad Nancys where she looks like a zombie or something. The simpler the character, the harder they are to draw. Finally after a week or so I called David (his literary agent) up and I said okay I have six dailies. I had done six samples. The writing in Nancy is different. Everything has its own pace, it is own mitre. It is not political. There are a lot of sight gags, there are a lot of puns and you have to write the strip, so that it can be translated. If you do the pun you have to come up with an alternative gag, because it is in eighty countries. There is a lot of stuff going on with Nancy. Anyway I called Dave and I said I have six strips, do you want them? He said hang on a minute. He called me right back. He said he talked to them and he said nice move champ, they have already got somebody. He said send them to me anyway and I will let them know if another strip comes along or if they are interested in you developing one of your own dah dah dah. I’m having lunch with them anyway. He took them the ones that I did and then he called me and he said, I don’t know who that guy was who had that job, but you are now at the top of his hit parade and he said I tell you what you are the new writer and artist for Nancy. That was it. I never found out who the guy was and I don’t know how far along they were. I do know that as soon as I took it over we were rushed. I started my work, probably in May and we came out Labor Day weekend. Everything that I ever did including those six audition strips wound up getting used right off the bat,” Gilchrist recalls.
Another major influence on Guy Gilchrist’s life came at an early age. “Walter Lantz used to have a show, The Woody Woodpecker Show, which used to come on when you came home from school. It was a one-half hour show and they showed three cartoons. He would come on and he would introduce the cartoons, very much the same way that Walt Disney did on Sunday nights on the Wonderful World of Disney. He would take you into his studio and there were about a million guys who all drew Woody Woodpecker exactly like him and who drew Chilly Willy exactly like him. As a child, one of the things that I truly wanted was to be an artist and I thought to be an artist and to be successful and to make good it was to become one of the millions of guys in Walter Lantz’s army. It was to be able to make people smile and to change the world with laughter. I also saw in Disney the same thing when they would take you through it and to a child it seems like a whole city that all drew the characters for Walt. Walter Lantz was a huge, huge influence on me and one day I saw him on a show called the Art Linkletter Show. It was on about mid-day. I must have been sick from school or something to be able to watch the show. Walter Lantz was on the show and they had an address where you could send in (mail). I took the opportunity to mail off about fifty pounds of my artwork. I addressed it to Walter Lantz and I hoped that he got it and he did. Of course I set up my camp by the mailbox from the second that we mailed it. I was out there for about three months waiting by the mailbox and eventually he wrote me back. There was a letter that came from Hollywood, California from Seward Street and it said, ‘A lot of talent for a ten year old boy and if you practice really hard then someday you will be a famous cartoonist.’ It was signed Walter Lantz. Years later when I was working for Weekly Reader and I was making my living now as a cartoonist, I (contacted him and) said I know you are not going to remember me, but …and I told him the story. He sent me a note back that was absolutely amazing. He said, ‘While I don’t recall your exact letter, but I can tell you that I can count on my fingers the times that I encouraged anyone in the way that I encouraged you. Certainly there is no point in encouraging poor or mediocre talent. If I got a letter and most of the kids tried to copy me and they weren’t very good at it, I would send them a nice little picture or even a drawing of Woody back and I would say best wishes, but I would not mention anything, so I must have really felt that you had something. I didn’t see in the letter that I sent to you a drawing of Woody, so here is your drawing of Woody.’ He drew a picture of Woody Woodpecker for me and he signed a picture and sent that back to me. I have looked at that every single day since 1979 when he sent me that letter.
When I had my school, my cartoonist academy in Connecticut for a few years, one of the things that I even had adults do was we would run off copies of How to Draw Woody Woodpecker and Friends. It was an old Whitman Coloring book that Walter Lantz did in the fifties and that thing was awesome. It taught you all kinds of stuff and it was great. This is for little kids, but it was done by Walter and his whole animation team and this thing was great. For nineteen cents or something when I was a kid in 1962 or ’63 you would get this book and it was like it would open the doors of heaven for you.”
Guy Gilchrist has always taken time for people and those lessons were learned early in life.
“As a kid I had baseball players who were my idols. If you sent your baseball card off to someone and you wrote them a letter and you never heard from them you felt terrible. Certainly, as I have gotten older I have come to understand that the guy might not have even seen the letter, but when you are a kid you don’t know any of that stuff. It is your whole world. These guys are big bright lights to you. For someone to take the time, meant the world to me. There were other people who did the exact same thing, when I was a kid, ball players who came to town. It was a much smaller world then and there wasn’t this celebrity world that we live in now. To see someone who was famous was not an everyday thing and if they ever treated you nicely and you were a kid, it certainly meant the world to you. I don’t know any other way to be. I am sure I have been rotten to somebody. We have our days. The longer you live the more chances that you have to be a jerk to somebody sometime, but I hope I’ve done my best, because to be as nice as I can to as many people as I can. I don’t have any particular reason that I’m here doing what I’m doing. I just tried hard. That’s all. We all try hard. We’re not really sure why God gives us the breaks that we get. When you get a break, you get better, because you have to or you will lose your job. The more breaks that you have the better you get. All of a sudden you look back and you go wow that’s been quite the fifty years (he laughs lightly). Honestly, I have seen some amazing, amazing artists and I have been around long enough now that a lot of the kids that worked for me when I had the bigger studios and stuff, now they’ve won awards, now they’ve got kids and they’ve got careers and it has been very, very cool.”
Guy Gilchrist’s song, “Hoppy The Ranger and Roy,” is autobiographical and is a reflection of some of his childhood heroes. The song almost did not make it onto his album Guy Gilchrist: Nashville Songwriter Sessions, but one night when he sang it at a club he was approached by a man who told him that song was also the story of his life. Eddie Kilgallon (Ricochet / Montgomery Gentry) recorded the song as a duet with Gilchrist. Guy Gilchrist says the song is about those heroes and what people like Roy Rogers meant to him.
“As a kid the two biggest influences on me were Roy Rogers and Johnny Cash. I loved Roy Rogers. My biological father was not in my life and my step-father we didn’t have a good home life, so I looked at what Roy Rogers did, as what I should do. My parents weren’t churchgoers and so before I ever knew what the Ten Commandments were I knew Roy Rogers’ Riders Rules. Then you get to that age when you have kids who are smoking, doing drugs, drinking and stuff. I used to walk by this DJ’s house quite a few times per week. He lived in this little house right next door to a Congregational church and he was the Country DJ at WEXT in West Hartford Connecticut. His name was Dick Shuey. Dick must have talked to me enough to know a little bit about me and my home life. He knew I liked the old Rockers and that I liked ‘50s Rock and Roll and that I listened to Country Music as a kid. I also listened to The Beatles and all of that stuff too. Anytime that he got a new record by Brenda Lee, the Everly Brothers or (Johnny) Cash or Carl Perkins or any of the guys who were original rockers and who were doing Country Rock in the sixties, he would give them to me. One time he gave me one of the prison albums of Cash and I was absolutely and completely transformed by it, because here was this guy who was a huge guy. You would see Johnny Cash on TV and he was a big guy, a tough guy and he was in a room with tougher guys and he was singing funny songs. He was also singing about terrible things and about the Gospel and the road to salvation. It was like the entire Bible on an album. Just like that movie Boys Town, the old movie with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. If you watch this thing and you are of a certain age, it becomes a cautionary tale and you either pay attention or you don’t and I did (pay attention). I feel like, because I got busy doing art and writing and playing music and just got busy trying to create a profession for myself when I was twelve years old, is I think one of the reasons why I have had the life that I have had. I didn’t mess up too badly along the way. (Johnny) Cash meant a lot to me.
I wrote a song called “Angel In Black,” and I wrote it with Jimmy Payne who wrote “Woman, Woman.” He and I finished it up one day after a conversation with Kathy (Cash). Kathy (talked about) being visited by her dad (Johnny Cash) in her sleep after John had passed over to heaven and that is where that song came from. He still has a huge effect on my life,” he says.
Through his music, his art, his words, but mostly through his heart from which all of these things flow, Guy Gilchrist is also having a huge effect upon the lives of others and along the way he keeps us smiling.
Ticketed passengers, who have past the security checkpoints at the Nashville International Airport in Tennessee, will be able to see Guy Gilchrist’s artwork firsthand. The exhibit “Nancy Loves Nashville,” will be on display from February 13, 2013 to February 2014 at Concourse C near the Food and Retail Court. The art celebrates Music City seen through the eyes and ears of Nancy, who of course draws her inspiration from Guy Gilchrist. A portion of the exhibit was made possible by The Country Music Hall of Fame and through Arts at the Airport.
Please visit the Guy Gilchrist website You can also listen to the music of Guy Gilchrist here.
Interviewed by Joe Montague, February 2013
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Interviewed by Joe Montague, February 2013
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Photo courtesy of Guy Gilchrist protected by copyright © All
Photo courtesy of Guy Gilchrist protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved
This interview is protected by copyright © and may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine, All Rights Reserved