December 15, 2010
Q&A with Jon Buller class of 1961; Connecticut resident has had a rare mix of life experiences (part 2)
Was there anyone in Levittown who sparked your interest in what became your career?
Our fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Langan, noticed that John Fitzsimmons and I both liked to draw cartoons. Another teacher might have told us to put away our cartoons until after school, but Mr. Langan would give us special assignments that would allow us to combine our interest in cartooning with the subjects we were studying. So, for instance, I got to draw a several-page comic strip about the conquest of Mexico. I can still remember certain panels from that cartoon, like the one in which Cortez sets fire to his fleet — he is holding a match to one of his ships, with an evil grin on his face — so that his men will not give any thought to retreat.
You and some of the other 1961 grads seem to have a nice bond. The gathering of friends at the 50th reunion, to me, was memorable. Anything to comment on here?
It’s always tricky to try to explain why some people hit it off and some don’t. But in my case it may have had something to do with problems at home. By the time I was old enough to be aware of such things, both of my parents had decided, for slightly different reasons, that their marriage had been a big mistake. But for various reasons, the chief one probably being me, they did not manage to separate until after I had graduated from Division. So the atmosphere at 176 Blacksmith when I lived there was usually grim, and that was on the good days. Hanging out with my friends offered a relief from all that. In some ways, they became my family.
When you graduated in 1961, what was the next step in your life?
I had a summer job working for the Doubleday Book Clubs direct mail center in Garden City. Then in the fall I was off to my freshman year at Columbia. I felt very lucky to be able to go to school there. In spite of all my attempts in high school to maintain my image as something of a wise guy, so as not to be thought of as some sort of “brain,” I really enjoyed learning new things, and I looked forward to the intellectual challenges of college. And to be able to go to school in New York was the cherry on top.
While still at Division I would often play hooky for the day and take the train into New York. I would go to bookshops in Greenwich Village, take in Ingmar Bergman movies that didn’t play at the Meadowbrook Theater, and wander around Central Park, soaking in the incredible diversity, in terms of people, and architecture, and general goings-on, of the city.
Do you consider yourself an artist, a cartoonist, or something else?
When I have to fill in the line that says “occupation” I usually put “children’s book illustrator.” But I suppose those other labels could be used too.
Tell us about your career, how it evolved to where it is today.
I got a good education at Columbia, but I also picked up a serious dose of the hippie virus. After graduation I traveled a lot and worked at undemanding jobs, so I could concentrate on Being Here Now. In 1972 I was living in Lyme, Connecticut, where my wife, Susan, grew up, and working as a letter carrier. I had a friend who started a weekly newspaper, and he asked me if I would like to be on the staff. He couldn’t pay anything, but I could have any job I wanted. I said that I had always thought it would be fun to be a cartoonist, and I started doing a weekly cartoon called Bob Blob, about a talking amoeba.
A few years later I got to know a children’s book illustrator, Lucy McQueen, who lived down the street from us. She said that she thought kids might like my work, and said that if I would like to give kids’ books a shot she would tell me what I needed to know to get started. I put together a portfolio of sample pieces and went to New York to show it to the editors and art directors that were on the list that Lucy had given me.
I didn’t get any work immediately, but I got enough encouragement to keep me going for the next few years. I sold my first book, “Fanny and May,” in 1983. I was then 40-years old, and working as a bartender. That first book was a solo effort, but a little while later I started working in collaboration with my wife, Susan Schade. She does more of the writing, and I do more of the drawing, but we both do a little of each. We are now working on our 54th book. We have had no massive bestsellers, but so far I have not had to return to bartending.
Are you doing or have you done much teaching?
I have given dozens of cartoon workshops for kids at schools and libraries, etc. These have all been extra-curricular activities. I have never been a regular employee of a school system or college.
What is the address of your website?