An interview with Guy Gilchrist

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Guy Gilchrist is best known for his work as writer and illustrator of one of the longest running internationally syndicated comic strips Nancy. Guy took over the strip in 1995. At age 24 he was hand selected to create Jim Henson’s Muppets Comic Strip, he was later instrumental in helping create the Muppet Babies series. His work has graced such notable cartoons as Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry Fraggle Rock, and The Pink Panther. His work is also on permanent display at the Smithsonian.

What were you like as a child growing up?

 I loved comics and music and cowboys. I loved playing baseball. I was primarily raised by my single mother, so we didn’t have a lot of worldly possessions, but I had a lot of time to draw and pretend.

 What are your fondest memories from back then?

My fondest memories are being with my grandfather in the woods and at his cottage on the lake in Connecticut.

Do you happen to remember what you love to draw most as a kid?

 I liked copying Woody Woodpecker and Popeye off of the television set but mostly, I would copy the cartoons that were printed in the newspaper.

When did you first take an interest in art?

 There has never been a time when I wasn’t interested in art. My mom told me that when I was still in diapers, I took some chalk or something and while she was in the kitchen, I drew on the wall. When she saw it, she could tell that it was Mighty Mouse holding up a big car full of cats. I got spanked, but I don’t think she erased it.

 Who are some of your biggest influences?

 My biggest influences were Walt Disney, Roy Rogers, Dr. Seuss, Walter Lantz and Hank Williams.

What was it like to be chosen to do Jim Henson’s Muppets Comic Strip?

 Beyond any dreams anyone could ever have.

Did you ever get the chance to meet Jim, himself?

I worked very closely with Jim Henson. He took a great interest in the comic strip and everything about it. Jim was a huge comic strip fan, especially Pogo…he loved the old Pogo comic strip and thought that my artwork was similar. Jim hired me and my brother over 200 very experienced, very professional and wonderful artists and writers. I was so young but Jim had many gifts—one of those gifts (unless you knew him, you wouldn’t know about it) was that he could see inside your creativity and intensity and see what “the best of you” truly was. He knew how good you could be before you could even imagine being half that good. Anybody that worked for Jim became much greater than they ever dreamed of just because we wanted to please him and never let him down.

 Why do you think his work has left such a lasting impression on the modern world?

 His work leaves an impression on the world because it was the best there ever was—it was funny, it was honest, it was true and heartfelt. Oh…and did I say, it was funny? (re-emphasis). Anytime you have a real genius who puts every ounce of his imagination and energy into something, it will always be remembered and it will always make the world a better place.

Was it fun to help create Muppet Babies?

 Of course. I got sent the film clip of the dream sequence from Muppets Take Manhattan where the world would first see them…and being the guy that every day was drawing cartoon versions of Jim’s puppets, he wanted my take on what the new puppets would look like as cartoon characters. I loved working on them, helping to establish a story arc and then creating so many toys and games and all that good stuff. (Laughs) I have a lot of musician friends that tour the country and they get great joy out of going into antique shops and taking pics of my Muppet Babies toys and texting them to me. Get it? Because the toys are now antiques, they are razzing me that I’m REALLY old.

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Jim Davis once said working on Comic Strips has allowed him to never grow up and stay young at heart. Would you agree with that?

 Jim Davis has been so successful, I will agree with anything he says (grinning). By the way, Jim is one of the most giving and generous guys in the business and he’s always been there when we needed him for charities (you know donation of artwork…that kind of thing). I do agree with Jim that we get to play and draw funny things on paper and call it a job. Even though sometimes the deadlines can really press you, I have to say I’ve always felt like I’ve been way, way, way too blessed to be able to do what I do. I never end any interview without saying how grateful I am for anyone who has read any of our stuff, bought any of our stuff or come to our shows or events, because they are the reason I get to do what I do. And I never, for one moment, take it for granted.

 Why do you think comics, whether in strip or book form, have always been so popular?

 Comics are “of the people.” They are written for everybody and through the pictures, even if you can’t read yet, you can usually follow the story. Also, holding that piece of printed, colorful paper in your hand…it seems to always make somebody pick up a pencil and on their napkin, or school paper, or whatever, try to draw the character…whether its NANCY or Superman or Snoopy. I think, from a very early age, the pictures and then the words connect with us on a very personal level.

How does it feel to have your work on display at the Smithsonian?

 Like I’ve been stuffed and mounted, on display myself smelling like mausoleum preservative. (Laughs) It’s funny, of all the places that my work is displayed, I feel a bit like a mummy whose on display and running around. But seriously, it’s one of the greatest honors I’ve ever had because one of the pieces on display was requested by President and Mrs. Reagan and there is NO WAY that a kid that learned to draw cartoons on placemats in a diner with the newspaper funnies while his mom worked as a waitress could have ever seen a day when the road from that diner would ultimately lead to the White House!! But it did and every time I see that quote or that section in my bio, it absolutely blows my mind. A lot of people ask, “How can I be successful? How can I be a millionaire?” and I tell them to try really hard, never quit, and above all, always do what you say you will do. It will blow people’s minds. That’s the secret—make up your mind and do it—THAT’s it!

 What do you love most about living in Tennessee?

 It’s the most creative place for a writer on Earth. My days are filled with writing strips, writing song lyrics, working on movie and television ideas. Nashville is an incredibly wonderful electric ocean of creativity. Also, the natural beauty of this state is never ending. It’s really gorgeous. Our dogs love the lake and the woods…and you can go from downtown Nashville and in 20 minutes, you can be fishing. There is not another major entertainment capitol that can come close to saying that. Plus, I would have never met my wife-to-be, so even that was plenty.

Who do you consider to be some of the best living comic strip illustrators?

 When you talk about illustrators, that’s one thing. But there’s also the writer cartoonists who may not necessarily be the greatest illustrator but they put their ideas together terrifically…so I think you have to break this up into two sections. For instance, best living cartoonists…I would have to put Scott Adams (Dilbert) in there, for sure. Scott’s drawings are very simple and his writing is PERFECT…and it comes together beautifully—HE’S AWESOME. I also really like Brian Bassett (he does a strip called Red & Rover). I also like both of the McCoy brothers (Glen and Gary)…they have a comic that they split up (they have a panel that they call The Flying McCoys). They are really funny.  And Mark Tatulli (Lio and Heart of the City)…

As far as best living illustrators…the greatest is Jack Davis and Mort Drucker of Mad Magazine. Also, I think that the Mick Mastroianni, who is drawing his grandfather’s comic strip, B.C. He draws a GREAT job of drawing just like his grandfather.

I’m also a big fan of Joe Staton. A couple of years ago, Joe, took over Dick Tracy and he’s just done an incredible job of bringing everything back.

LoI,I hate you guys for asking this question because now Mort, John, Tom and all the rest of my friends who I think are awesome will hate me, because space is limited to name my other favorites. You guys stink.

Are there any little-known things about you that your readers might be surprised to learn?

 I think most people know that I write and record songs, but if they didn’t…there….now you are surprised.

I grew up without a real father figure in my life, so I always looked for other role models. Creatively, I looked at Walt Disney as an example of how to live my life. I looked at Roy Rogers to show me the right thing to do. All these years later, I realized that this little kid was absolutely right.

Finally, I try to make my house and my studio as much like Mayberry as ridiculously possible. We let no negative energy in…there is only room for the niceness and good old-fashioned fun that I make sure I get a dose of pretty much every night—at 10 o’clock, everything stops for The Andy Griffith Show.

What do you love most about creating the strips?

 Honestly, what I love most about the strips is being DONE. It’s always a nice 5 minute vacation before the next batch is due and I get to read your responses and go to Mayberry in my mind for a few minutes before I start writing the next batch.

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What is the most challenging thing you face when coming up with a new strip?

 The greatest challenge of doing a strip is all of it—it’s daily…you have NO days off. So regardless of what you have going on in your life, you must get the strips done. That’s also the biggest blessing though, because even if you’re having problems or whatever is happening in your life, as far as me, I have to put all that away for a while and concentrate on doing something that hopefully will make someone smile. I think that the Lord put me in this position to help me get through my own tough times by drawing and writing through it, through the comic strip.

What projects are you working on?

 We have quite a few museum exhibits that are in the planning stages for NANCY. We are working with the city of Nashville on a “Keep Nashville Beautiful” campaign through the schools. I have a neat, new project called Bearly Angels with Bradford exchange and I’m writing songs and working on the story arc and movie treatment for a project for Dreamworks.

How do you hope to be remembered when your time comes?

 I’ve always said that on my gravestone, it should say “I’m sorry, but I think the dailies will be a little late this week.” I guess I’d like to be thought of (if I am ever thought of at all) as somebody that did what they could with what God gave me to make you smile a little bit.

Anything you’d like to say in closing?

 I always enjoy going out and doing speaking engagements because in this world of digital media and digital art, folks maybe don’t even realize that they have all the power that they could ever need just in their brain and with a paper and a pencil. I like to just draw and talk in a really low tech way because we can never forget that our most powerful strength is in or thoughts and that our thoughts become things and these things, then, change the world. As a matter of fact, really, thoughts turn into action are the only things that have EVER changed the world.

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