Comic Invites Love of Nature
Cheri Newcomb, StrawSleeves Owner interviews Rob Lang, Cartoonist and Owner of Underdone Comics to find out more about his environmental inspirations.
Hello Rob, I am excited to have our audience connect with your work.
How long have you been a cartoonist?
I have been a cartoonist as long as I can remember. I'm not even sure if I ever had any natural talent, but know I'm well practiced, mainly from so many years of doodling in school!
What inspired you toward environmental concerns?
It's a bit of a long story, but here goes: Around 2005, I was running my own business making websites and doing graphic and print design. All the while doodling just like I used to in school. (I graduated from Penn State, as an English major with a writing emphasis, so I figured one day I would eventually become a writer. I always thought that illustration would somehow go with my writing.) While trucking along as a graphic/web designer, I figured I should be doing more with myself, like coming up with my own work and making a living at it. I wrestled with writing versus illustration, so finally settled on becoming a children’s book writer. In the early 2000s, I got a handful of educational books published that are sold directly to schools’ reading programs. Nothing really came of the children’s book writing thing, so as I sat and stared at my computer instead of getting busy with contracted assignments, I began researching how to become a cartoonist.
I don't remember when, but at some point, I realized that writing a comic strip would combine both writing and illustration. I read that people like comic strips with recurring characters, so I decided to focus making a daily comic which included relatable characters. The premise was about a mutated pig and Canada goose who could talk and how they made ends-meet in the real world while living like the unoriginal “Odd Couple.” Then we had our first kid in 2008 and moved from Philadelphia to Seattle in 2010. I had to work more, so I went back to contracting design jobs.
One day when our daughter was about 4 years old, she stumbled upon my comic strip (I had illustrated about 20 comics before she was born). I read them to her and she was cracking up, laughing. (By the way, I do recommend taking a break from artwork for a few years then showing it to a preschooler—it is a huge confidence boost!) Once again, I was bitten by the cartoonist bug! I decided to make 100 comic strips, call it “Underdone” (mainly because the animals in it—especially the pig—were thought of as nothing more than food by the people around him, especially his boss). It took a while to reach 100 comics due to the complexity of the multi-panel format and I was working another job as well.
Meanwhile, I was sure to make at least one “quippy doodle” a day and post it on Instagram. Before long, I grew tired of the “situational comedy” of every day life (albeit it was through the skewed eyes of a pig and a goose) and wanted to make a difference with my cartoons. Therefore, on Jan 1, 2016, I posted my first comic in a new direction. I finally felt like I was expressing my true voice! That voice, of course, being for the natural world.
How did you decide to zero in on straws for some of your work?
Sometime earlier this year I began writing jokes about pollution, specifically plastics in our water. Unlike many other seemingly random comics, I like to focus on a subject and write a couple of jokes about it. The amount of plastic that is bleeding into the natural world is very overwhelming. Straws are an unnecessarily disposable product and I thought of a few ways to make people think twice before using them. The ways that I portray the animals using the discarded straws show a humorous angle. I feel like using the humor really gets people to think, "Maybe they shouldn't be using them in the first place."
What are your hopes of where your work is reaching?
I really want to try to get people to think twice about what they are doing, like instead of grabbing a Ziploc bag, or before their urge to litter. Every action we do has an affect on the world around us! I want people to try to think about making the world better for everybody, not just animals. Most people are not hoarders; they care about whether or not there is trash all over their house. Why wouldn’t they extend that to the world outside their domiciles? By providing a thoughtful comic a few times a week, I am just hoping to get people to think about the choices they make. What is your hope for our environment in general?
As a kid I spent a lot of time outside, there's a big park behind my parents' house in Pennsylvania and to this day, I still go outside for inspiration. I also spent a ton of time watching nature shows. I remember getting bored at the end of each episode when as they would start talking about conservation. The first 3/4 of the show would display animal behavior and all the good stuff. Then at the end was the boring stuff. Now I am trying to make a career out of making that boring stuff hit home, hopefully with a humorous twist to make it more digestible!
Some people say science is the answer, so you don’t worry very much about the environment. However, I think that science is telling us to stop being such slobs. Sure, eventually science may help us fix things (for instance, the ozone layer seems to be getting better, but that is because we stopped using so much CFCs). If we can change our wasteful culture then I will have hope.
In Seattle, we compost our food and yard waste. I’m so used to doing this that when I visit other cities that don’t, I see their trash and smell it and think about how much of that garbage could be made into soil. Instead, it just sits in a landfill for seagulls to get sick on. Barf! As far as changing our culture goes, one amazing thing that I have been able to work directly on (although it’s in a small way) is to provide comics to be sold as t-shirts to coincide with the film “A Plastic Ocean”. This organization discovered my comics and asked me if I would provide graphics and work with them to develop funny t-shirts they could sell. Their film is a real eye-opener. The extent that the invulnerable plastic is making its way through the world is dumbfounding, from the largest whales being chock-full of the stuff, to our hormones being altered because of the emitted phthalates. I think every child should see “A Plastic Ocean”. I have little faith in adults making a difference. People get stuck in their ways and think, “why should I have to do this?” My answer is, you should have to clean up for yourself because there are people who will have to suffer because you didn’t!
What are your favorite animals to illustrate?
I love making whales and sharks (which may be obvious when you look at my content). They're so big and easily relatable. Plus, when it comes to environmental concerns, the food web's apex creatures become affected in fascinatingly tragic ways. Least favorite are hermit crabs. I feel like they are so weird looking and not put together correctly. But they look the way they do because they're adapted to live a certain way.
What are the rewards for you as you make all of these comics?
Occasionally I will make comics that are taken directly from the headlines and after I make the cartoon I send them on to the scientist who did the work for me to come up with the joke. A good example of that is my series on the Laysan Albatross. I saw an article in the LA Times that explained how a scientist figured out that old plastics floating around in the ocean smell a lot like certain forms of algae, which trick seabirds, like the Laysan Albatross, into thinking that the garbage is actually food.
I sent the comics to the scientist who was featured in the article and he enjoyed them very much. This made me feel great, because making a joke about a bird that eats a disposable lighter eventually becoming a fire-breathing monster isn't exactly true to nature.
You've made more than 300 comics since the beginning of 2016—that's a lot to digest at once. I know you can see them all on Instagram and Facebook, but is there anywhere else you could get a taste?
Earlier this year I became a contributor to (the producer of A Plastic Ocean and former Nat Geo Films CEO) Adam Leipzig's Cultural Weekly magazine, which gives me a chance to put up a few comics a week on a certain subject. Before being a contributor, I feel like most of the cartoons I made over the year just fade away. Now, I am finally finding new ways to show them off!
You can visit Rob Lang's website - http://underdonecomics.com/shop/