A cat in hand: Cartooning with Jon Buller

Cartoonist Jon Buller, above and left, inks in a pencil drawing  for his and his wife's next book, a graphic novel, at his home in Lyme.
Cartoonist Jon Buller, above and left, inks in a pencil drawing for his and his wife's next book, a graphic novel, at his home in Lyme.

It's a realization lots of kids probably have when they get to stay home from school because they're sick.

"In the afternoon I started feeling a little bit better, and I started drawing to pass the time," says Jon Buller, recalling his first-grade self, home with a sore throat. "And it occurred to me that staying home drawing was more fun than going to school."

But not all kids get to grow up and keep drawing as a career. Now a cartoonist, Buller has published several dozen books with his wife Susan Schade. It took awhile, though, to find that balance between the world of children and adults.

"Later on, I thought of jobs as a kind of school, but I thought you had to grow up and you couldn't stay home and pretend you were sick all the time," he says. "So I got jobs."

After college, Buller worked as a production assistant for a TV news show, and, once he moved to Lyme, where his wife's family was from, tried his hand at being a cab driver and a mailman. He had a stint bartending at Anthony's Steam Carriage in New London's train station, where he liked to talk to customers as he mixed drinks and sliced limes.

Then Buller's friend started a weekly newspaper called the Old Lyme Gazette and asked if he'd like to work on it.

"I said, 'Could I be the cartoonist?' And he said, 'Sure, you can do anything.' And so I thought of a cartoon character named Bob Blob. He was an amoeba... I felt like I was fulfilling a childhood ambition."

He made only about $15 a week, but a neighbor who was a children's book illustrator looked at his work and suggested he consider cartooning for books, similar to Dr. Seuss' style. So he made a portfolio and went to New York City.

"I went up in these big office buildings and people would look through my portfolio and as I looked over their shoulder I started to realize my work wasn't as good as I thought, I'd been kidding myself, essentially," Buller says. "These people could hire professionals who had tons more ability than I. ... But I thought, I'll go and I'll finish my last appointment anyway, so as not to be a chicken."

He dropped off his portfolio, and when he came back to pick it up, the art director's assistant wanted to meet him.

"You're the funny man who wrote that story!" she said.

He didn't get a job immediately, but said he had enough confidence to keep trying to write a book, and eventually sold one to Random House.

• • •

Bent over a drafting table in a small office off his living room, Buller goes over a pencil drawing in ink, making his work permanent. As he outlines, he tells the story of the character he's drawing, Poussette.

"Poussette is a cat that has been bred to have certain human genes. ... She's been created to perform in movies by an unscrupulous movie producer who's been making kind of questionable animal experiments, and he makes Poussette and these other animals act in his movies," Buller explains.

"But Poussette doesn't like that, and she escapes with a friend of hers who's a dog, and they try to find a life for themselves outside of movies."

The graphic novel for kids brings up moral issues about whether such experiments are a good thing, but ultimately it's about finding a home, a place where you fit in and where you feel you belong, he says. They sold the rights to a French publisher, but also sold the world rights so it can be published in English-speaking countries. He'll eventually scan his drawings into his computer, where he adds color to them.

Schade has taken over most of the writing, Buller says, and the two have developed a partnership.

"She almost writes things that she knows I'll like to draw and I sort of am tuned in to the kind of things she likes to write... I don't think either of us would be able to do it without the other."

Buller often uses other books to inspire a character like Poussette, drawing several dozen cats until he finds the one with "a little spark."

"You have to draw it several times before you absorb it. It's sort of like writing your signature?- it evolves over time until finally you have your signature the way you sign it and no one else can sign it," he says. "After awhile the cat is just almost in your hand."

Their most successful book was "No Tooth, No Quarter," which sold about 700,000 copies, Buller says. He also gives cartooning lessons at local schools and libraries and through a tutorial on their website. On the wall in Buller's work space are drawings by his friend Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead, who lives in East Haddam.

Buller and Schade never had children of their own, but they regularly baby-sit their grand-nieces and read a lot of kids' books.

"So when we go to that kids' book land, whatever it is, it seems like a familiar place," he says.

10 second bio

WHO: John Buller

WHAT: Cartoonist/children's book creator with wife Susan Schade

WHERE: Lyme

MORE INFO: www.bullersooz.com

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