The right bit of bitumen

Comedian and comic strip artist Jason Chatfield explains his alien existence in New York City

This year I packed up my little pencils, switched my myki for a MetroCard and moved an obscene distance from Melbourne to New York City. New York is a grand old city. A big, amazing bunch of buildings crammed full of rats, insects and humans of every single culture on Earth. And for the most part, it works.

After visiting every year since 2009, I now reside here on an “Alien of Extraordinary Ability” Green Card. On paper it makes me sound like one of the Guardians of the Galaxy, which is great, but it also means I get to crash here for as long as I want (or as long as they can tolerate me).

My wife and I live in a microscopic fifth floor walk-up in Alphabet City. The apartment, constructed in the Late Cretaceous Period, is a co-op on 3rd Street populated entirely by proper artists, and me. The cartoonist.

The old sculptor living in the apartment below chain-smokes weed all day, every day. It’s a strong, pungent medicinal marijuana that seeps up through the bathroom drains. I’m greeted each morning by a hefty hot box of bong waft. You know how they say you get your best ideas in the shower? Now I get my scariest ones there.

Chatfield (2) (653x800)I rattle uptown on the subway to work at my shared studio space on Madison and 33rd. My fellow desk- sharers range from app-devs, architects and a blind graphic designer named Steve. (Don’t ask how that works, I just don’t know.)

Like any freelancer, the workday is varied and frenetic. I write for a small clump of publications of vastly varying repute. I draw editorial cartoons for Aussie papers. I frantically scribble commissioned cartoons and produce a new comic strip for every day of the year. And all before my ninth coffee.

I remain abreast of Australian news via podcasts and news sites, utterly fascinated with US and Aussie politics, and hopelessly addicted to the most repugnant aspects of both. One thing’s for sure – I’m never short of material.

When the sun goes down my wife goes to Queens to play an old grand piano for tips at a mafia-owned Italian restaurant and I go to work as a stand-up comedian. We meet up after our gigs and trade horror stories.

 

I can do five different gigs in the one night here,starting at 6pm and finishing at 1am. In Australia I could get about four gigs a week – that’s if I was really organised. I’ve written and performed more material in the last seven months than the entire seven years I’ve been doing stand-up. There’s just something in the water. (Other than microscopic shrimp called copepods. Yes, that is a thing.)

So why am I here?

You might know my work from the Australian comic strip Ginger Meggs, which these days is syndicated to 34 countries through Universal Press Syndicate. They work hard distributing the strip and translating our little Aussie mate into different languages.

When I took over that strip at the end of 2007, the newspaper industry was standing in the wet sand as the tide rapidly receded, with the impending tsunami eventually obliterating mastheads across the globe.

The Funny Pages seemed to be standing front and centre, in many cases disappearing completely. The lucky survivors were reduced to a feeble afterthought in the wake of the disaster. In my first year I lost over 40 papers. Talk about a baptism of fire.

But I wasn’t the worst hit – some guys have since had to fold their strip completely. My job is now to keep young Meggs alive and thriving, despite taking such a whack in the guts. (Don’t worry, he’s a good scrapper.)

I was informed in 2013 that I’d be getting my own editor and use of Universal’s marketing department. Exciting huh? Oh, there’s just one small hitch. When my editor gets to his desk at 9am, it’s midnight in Melbourne. Bless.

I did try to work antipodean hours for a year or so but, eventually, sleep-deprived and exasperated, I applied for a visa to live and work from the States to avoid waking up to an inbox full of US voicemails and emails.

Since 1921, Ginger Meggs has survived many a depression. However, gaining the attention of the iGeneration remains his biggest challenge. He now has an app, a blog, e-books, daily published strips on UClick, followings on Twitter and Facebook – and that’s all on top of the print side of things.

Being a comic strip cartoonist is a lot more work than it used to be, and it keeps changing rapidly every year. For that reason alone, there’s no better place to find out what’s coming next in this industry than right here in the heart of it. That is why I’m here.

One of my cartooning heroes was the late Paul Rigby – a legendary Aussie cartoonist [and five-time Walkley winner]. I was lucky enough to meet him in Perth way back when I still had only one chin. He’d retired to WA after an illustrious career working for Murdoch in London and New York.

His advice was, “If you want to keep your ear to the ground, you’d damned well better make sure it’s the right bit of bitumen.” He ended by saying if I wanted to find myself most challenged as an artist, I should work from one of the big cities.

“It’ll either break you, or it’ll make you. But don’t ever expect it to happen on your terms,” he laughed.

Despite the internet being conducive to free-flowing information being shared between colleagues around the world, the big conversations inevitably start as smaller ones in closed offices, at lunch tables and in bars in London or Manhattan.

So here I sit at my desk, partly scribbling to the tune of an impossible deadline, partly still trying to figure out how Steve does graphic design.

What’s ahead? Who knows. I’ve been asked to host the 2015 Reuben Awards in Washington DC in 2015, which is essentially the Walkleys with more beer.
I should probably buy a tux.


 

Jason Chatfield is an Australian comedian and cartoonist. He is the New York correspondent for ABC News Breakfast.