Monday, January 10, 2011

An Afternoon with Dave Coverly

Cartoonist Dave Coverly at Sweetwaters

Every other Friday, Speed Bump creator Dave Coverly meets with journalism professor and historical author Jim Tobin at Sweetwaters on the corner of Ashley and Washington. It's a short walk from Coverly's home in the Old West Side (he has the sticker and a battle with the zoning commission to pave his driveway to prove it), and, Coverly admits, he likes leaving his attic studio once in a while.

So what do a cartoonist and a professor talk about over coffee?

"Children's books," Coverly said. "It was something I'd always wanted to do."

Coverly was walking his dog Macy a few years ago when he ran into Tobin in their neighborhood. Tobin floated the idea of working on a children's book together; after a great deal of collaboration--"It's such a long process, kind of a case of 'be careful what you wish for,'" Coverly joked--and a few lucky connections, they released Sue MacDonald Had a Book in 2009 and will submit a second, The Very Inappropriate Word, to their publisher early this year.

"It would be like if you really loved Pearl Jam and got to be on an album with, what's that guy's name, Eddie Vedder?" said Coverly, an avid reader of Tobin's books for years before they met. "I felt like a fanboy."

I got to play the fangirl myself when I sat down with Coverly at Sweetwaters, one of his favorite spots in the city. He pointed out the regulars ("See that guy in the far corner, way in the back? That's John Bacon. He wrote that book with Bo Schembechler. He's there all the time.") and sipped his coffee ("Midnight Blend, the darkest roast possible").

"Michigan people"

Coverly moved to Ann Arbor from Bloomington, Indiana, in 1996. "We realized we really are Michigan people," said Coverly, who is mentioned in the third paragraph of the Wikipedia entry for his hometown, Plainwell, and who met his wife Chris at the only business meeting he ever attended in Kalamazoo. His work was also exhibited at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts last winter. "Ann Arbor was the natural choice. The city has a lot of spirit."

As an undergraduate student at Eastern Michigan University, where he majored in philosophy and creative writing, Coverly worked at Ulrich's Bookstore, on top of drawing "Freen," a strip for the Eastern Echo, and playing on the tennis team. Since he has returned to Ann Arbor as a non-student and family man, he has had the chance to take in more of the city: bike rides downtown with his daughters; Pizza House with his team after USTA tennis matches; Grizzly Peak and, before it left Ann Arbor, Leopold Bros. for beer. Every year for Christmas, Coverly appeals to Nicola Rooney, owner of Nicola's Books, to recommend gifts for his mother and wife. This year, she recommended Stone's Fall by Iain Pears.

The city and the state also show up in his comic strip. While Coverly never draws exclusively for a local audience, he likes to slip in covert shout-outs to his Michigan devotees. (He also includes his daughters' names in the strip every year on their birthdays. "It can be tricky," Coverly said. "Try using 'Alayna' and 'Simone' in normal conversation without anyone noticing.") Check out this strip about football players over-celebrating in games.

Notice anything familiar about the player's name? The Free Press did.

Other times, the references are subtler. Coverly does the bulk of his thinking and creating in his attic studio, which is wallpapered with framed, original artwork from other prominent cartoonists. ("We trade, and I feel a little bad about cheating them, but it's great inspiration," Coverly said.) Sometimes he looks out the window; sometimes, he draws in the tub, just another turn-of-the-last-century amenity of his home. "The previous owners left it in the attic," he said. "I don't know how they brought it up there, but it's really comfortable. I draw in it sometimes, and my wife takes a bath in it almost every night."

Though he formulates his ideas in solitude, the spark often comes from interactions with the outside world generally, and the Ann Arbor area in particular. For instance, from a drive he took between Ann Arbor and Saline, he developed the idea for this strip about urban sprawl:

"The inspiration may come from something that happened walking downtown, but the appeal of the strip has to be more universal," Coverly said. "You need to be able to tell enough story so that anyone can find it funny."

Therein lies the rub, I guess.

Beyond his strip, Coverly has made his mark on Java Stout, a heavy, caffeinated beer from Michigan darling Bell's Brewery. Coverly met Larry Bell, the owner of Bell's Brewery, through Kenny Zelnis, his high school journalism teacher who first showed him New Yorker magazines, which set him on the path to comic strip glory. Coverly is an enthusiastic drinker of Bell's beer, brewed in Kalamazoo, a half-hour drive from Coverly's hometown. When Bell asked Coverly to do the label, it was a no-brainer: "The job was a perfect storm of my three favorite things: beer, coffee and cartoons."

Locally brewed beer stamped with a locally drawn cartoon. Does it get any more Michigan than that?

A sprawling career

Coverly has been doodling since third grade, but he started earnestly pursuing cartooning as a student at EMU. He earned a master's degree in creative writing from the University of Indiana, but his heart was always in comic strips. "I liked having written something," Coverly said, "but I really enjoy the process of drawing comics. I look forward to my job every day."

During graduate school, he drew a panel for the Indiana Daily Student, and he was an editorial cartoonist for the Battle Creek Enquirer and, later, the Herald-Tribune in Bloomington. Although his work had won national awards, Coverly said he was drawing for $5 per strip at times, until Speed Bump was picked up by Creators Syndicate in 1994. "I hate that expression, 'Follow your dream,'" Coverly said. "It's not like that at all. You have a goal, and then you take steps toward making your goal a reality." Speed Bump now runs in over 400 newspapers and websites, and Coverly's work appears in magazines like Parade and The New Yorker. In 2009, Coverly won the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year.

"It's about this tall," Coverly held his hand about foot and a half above the table, "and it's much heavier than I expected. I keep it in my studio."

It's like the Nobel Prize of cartooning.

These days, Coverly's interests extend far beyond the funny pages. In October of last year, he and a veritable who's who of the cartooning world traveled with the USO to draw for soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait. Coverly's first USO trip was to Germany in April 2009, and there is another planned for this year. On the Iraq trip, all the cartoonists earned call signs; due to Coverly's unflappable nature during a visa mix-up when they were arriving in Kuwait, his was "Zen." Because he liked it too much, it was changed to "Gandhi." Ed Steckley, a caricaturist from New York ("The caricaturists were the rock stars; everyone wanted a picture of themselves," said Coverly), chronicles their trip here.

Coverly also lends his art to people and causes he supports. As a vegetarian, for instance, he donates to PETA his cartoons that feature anthropomorphized animals. As a fan of Max Eider--a founding member of The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy, Coverly's "favorite band of all time"--Coverly has contributed artwork to the musician 's last three CD's and drew the cover for his latest album, Disaffection.

When he's not drawing for soldiers or hopping the Pond to visit British musicians Eider and Pat Fish, Coverly can be found walking his dog Macy, a Sheltie mix with a cute black face, in the Old West Side.

"I just love walking around there," Coverly said. "The houses are so interesting to look at, and the people--well, it's not everywhere that you can start a children's book while you're out walking the dog."

The Old West Side is Damn Arbor's neighborhood too (we live in the dodgy end). In any case, we'll take that as a compliment.

All art by Dave Coverly, reproduced with permission.


  1. Good interview. Except that we don't all live on the OWS. Jerk.

  2. I never knew cartoonists did so many different things.

  3. Jim Tobin is my childhood friend's dad and lives on my parent's street. NBD.