On the mark with lots of laughs

Meet Mark Parisi, who draws cartoons that appear in newspaper comic pages around the US.

It's 2:30 a.m. but Mark Parisi isn't fazed. He's in a world of talking cats, whoopie cushions, medieval knights, and 'zilla monsters. He's trying to finish up one more cartoon before heading to bed.

He says that working into the wee hours of the morning is pretty typical for him, especially with a deadline coming up. "I've got to get it done."

Mr. Parisi is the creator of "Off the Mark," a daily comic strip that appears in more than 100 newspapers nationwide. Comic-strip cartoons are a newspaper tradition that's more than 100 years old.

"The comic strip was conceived in the 1890s as a way to sell newspapers," says Lucy Caswell of the Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library in Columbus.

She says that although comics were first created for adults, kids also enjoyed reading them.

"And whenever a cartoon is particularly appealing to kids, the cartoonist is doing his job well," she adds.

Deadlines, deadlines

Back in his studio at his Melrose, Mass., home, Parisi is looking for something that makes him laugh so he can make it into a cartoon. Although it's April, he's working on cartoons for May. They have to be completed and sent to newspapers in a couple of weeks.

Parisi must draw about one cartoon a day. He enjoys being able to work at home alongside his wife, Lynn, and spend time with his 12-year-old daughter, Jennifer, after school.

But it's not all play for the man who created "Off the Mark" in 1987. Parisi admits that coming up with humorous topics for cartoons day after day isn't always easy.

That's why "I doodle just about any idea I get, no matter how bad," he says. "Sometimes the idea is all there, other times it needs some work. And sometimes there is no hope."

When that happens, Parisi relies on his three cats. They're funny, and "they're really easy to work into cartoons," he says.

He knew from the time he was a kid that cartooning was his thing. He got the bug after reading a comic strip about a "loveable loser" named Charlie Brown. The strip, "Peanuts," was created by Charles Schulz, and "I immediately wanted to draw it," Parisi says.

Today, an original "Peanuts" cartoon signed by Schulz hangs in his studio.

Parisi's method of making cartoons is unusual. He draws six at a time on the same single sheet of Bristol board (a thick, smooth paper used by artists).

"I started doing this just to be cheap and save paper," he says. Now it works out well because he can fit a week's worth (Monday through Saturday) of black-and-white cartoons on the same page.

Sunday cartoons are drawn on a separate piece of Bristol board because they have color and are about twice the size as his dailies.

Advice for aspiring cartoonists

To become a cartoonist, Parisi studied graphic design in college, and when he graduated, he immediately began sending his cartoons to local newspapers.

He suggests that anyone who wants to be a cartoonist draw a great deal. Then share your cartoons with family and friends and ask them for feedback. Also, "get yourself published, even in a school newspaper."

Although Parisi doesn't recommend staying up past 2:30 a.m. to draw, he does say that the key to being successful in cartooning is never to give up.

He adds: "Persistence is right up there with timing and talent" - and sleep.

What was Mark Parisi thinking?

Want to make a cartoon funny? Cartoonist Mark Parisi says the key is striking a balance between the joke being too obvious and being too hard to understand.

It's all about the timing and the way you set it up, he explains. That's why the cartoon below is one of Mr. Parisi's favorites. The humor is subtle.

His original sketch for this panel was made in a small notebook. That's where most of his cartoons are "thought out."

Instead of using a computer program, "I do all my word balloons and lettering by hand," he says. (Word balloons are bubbles of text where the characters in a comic strip say something.)

For this cartoon, Parisi started with the idea of a boy and a cat playing in the other's "bathroom."

"The original concept was that the boy would be in the sandbox and cat drinking out of the toilet," he says.

But as Parisi continued to sketch, he decided it would be even funnier to add a dog. In the end, the dog's looking at the cat, the cat's looking at the boy, and the boy's looking at the dog - and they're all thinking the same thing. "I like how the whole thing worked," he says. "It has a nice triangular effect."

It's also funny.

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