Local man's comic strip makes Times debut

During an interview at Gettysburg’s Lincoln Diner, cartoonist John Kovaleski sits beside a cutout of Angus, star of his “Daddy Daze” comic strip, which debuts Monday in the Gettysburg Times.

A comic strip debuting in Monday’s Gettysburg Times is new, but the cartoonist is no stranger to Adams County.

“Daddy Daze” is the second strip by John Kovaleski to appear in this newspaper.

Between 2003 and 2007, the Gettysburg resident also created “Bo Nanas,” about a talkative monkey trying to make sense of the bizarre human world.

By contrast, the star of “Daddy Daze” is almost mute. Baby Angus is pretty much limited to the syllable “ba,” an all-purpose utterance his dad interprets for the reader.

The strip celebrates the bond between a very inquisitive baby and his doting father, who Kovaleski said is subject to the fears and challenges familiar to all parents, but is not a stereotypical “bumbling dad.”

Naturally, the strip draws on Kovaleski’s own experience as a father. He said the natural creativity and inquisitiveness of his real 8-year-old son is a continuing inspiration for Angus, who has abilities “beyond his years.”

Angus can do what Kovaleski termed “little surreal things,” like make a perfect fake ID card with crayons, a bit of mischief that gets him grounded until the age stated on his bogus card. Kovaleski said such antics exaggerate the universal parental experience of turning away for a second and turning back to find the child has done some seemingly impossible thing, like climb up on a counter.

In addition to the dad-son link, other family relationships are also vital to the strip. As well as “Da” for his dad, Angus’s hyper-limited vocabulary includes “Ga” for his grandparents and “Ma” for this mother. She has a demanding job, while dad works from home and cares for Angus.

“My boyhood dream was to have a comic strip,” said Kovaleski, 56. As a kid, he devoured newspaper comics and was especially inspired by “Peanuts.” Charles Schulz’s classic “changed what a comic strip could be” by evolving past mere “character types” to actual complex characters, Kovaleski said. The animated Looney Tunes cartoons were another big influence, he said.

Kovaleski’s education and career match his boyhood dream.

After his undergraduate work at the Rochester Institute of Technology, near where he grew up in New York state, Kovaleski earned a master of fine arts degree at Goddard College in Vermont. He worked for 20 years as a graphic designer, practicing his craft at a newspaper, a design agency, and in-house at Xerox.

He has won the respect of other cartoonists, past and present.

Kovaleski corresponded early on with Johnny Hart, who created “B.C.” Kovaleski said he mailed samples of his early work to Hart, who replied with feedback and original drawings. Kovaleski said he also interacted with Lynn Johnston, who created “For Better or For Worse,” but his “mentor” was Ford Button, known for his gag cartoons in educational publications. Kovaleski spoke at Button’s funeral and helped prepare his drawings and papers for the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University.

Kovaleski has served on the board of the National Cartoonists Society and has ghost-written for well-known strips. His work has appeared in Mad magazine and many other publications. He has illustrated sequences for motion pictures. He created animated greeting cards for Amazon.com.

Though it has only been published since June 17 this year, Father’s Day, “Daddy Daze” is already as widely distributed as “Bo Nanas” at its peak, in a couple of dozen newspapers. “Bo Nanas” was also collected in two books, “Monkey Meets World” and “ApPEELing.”

Kovaleski also connects with audiences online. Fans can dive into kovaleski.com or find the handle Daddy Daze comic on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. His channel on the latter includes things such as glimpses of the artist at work. Such self-promotion is necessary for a 21st-century cartoonist, he said.

Like esteemed cartoonists past and present, Kovaleski has his own style. He prefers what he called an “ultra-simplistic” approach, without any unneeded lines that could distract from what the characters are doing.

“It’s really boiled down to its complete essence,” he said, to the point that Angus “doesn’t’ have any arms until he needs them.”

Many cartoonists work digitally, but Kovaleski prefers to create on paper, primarily with markers. He said he doesn’t relish the idea of staring at a screen all day and prefers the physical feel of creating the strip in actual rather than virtual space. He went even further with “Bo Nanas,” drawing that strip with a brush.

The pace of a daily strip can be demanding, Kovaleski said. In past years, cartoonists drew weekday strips in black and white and colored only an expanded Sunday strip. By contrast, he said, today’s market demands color every day, since work is posted on the web and about 20 percent of papers print daily comics in color.

A daily deadline instills a “fear factor,” he said, and “working ahead helps me not to panic.”

“I pile them up and then pick from the pile,” Kovaleski said. He sorts comics into categories such as “warm” and tries to provide a mix of emotional tones each week.

Cartooning represents only a fraction of Kovaleski’s artistic output.

He also paints and creates sculptures. For example, a large piece for which he created drawings on pages of discarded academic journals hung in the libraries of four institutions of higher learning, including Gettysburg College.

A need for studio space for painting got him involved in the early days of Waldo’s, a cooperative art and performance space in Gettysburg, where he hosted a monthly “figure drawing happy hour.”

He has also taught an array of courses through the Adams County Arts Council and at Gettysburg College. He has co-led service-learning trips that took students from the college to Nicaragua.

Kovaleski, who moved to Gettysburg in 2004, also served on the board of Gettysburg’s Elm Street community development organization, including working as a Halloween parade volunteer.

“Daddy Daze” is replacing “Thatababy” in the Times. In a survey, most readers chose the latter as the comic to drop to make space for the new offering.

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