An excellent exit: Island cartoonist crafts funny frames worth the trip

As Tom Cochrane once said (and many, many others have repeated), “Life is a highway,” full of twists, turns, ups, downs and, of course, exits of all sorts.

And when you’re traveling with crafty cartoonist G.R. Ubby, few are sketchier than “Exit 17.”

Ubby, pen name of Bainbridge Island’s own Amy Momb-Deen, recently released two books collecting her silly, stylish “Exit 17” cartoons, single-frame scenarios that display her fondness for pets and puns in equal measure.

Despite the name and its reality-based origin, her work is less about a location than a state of mind.

“I often took Exit 17 off of I-90 in the 1990s when my parents lived up on the Issaquah Plateau,” Ubby said. “In the 1980s, I had taken a cartooning class from Nils Osmar. Initially I drew comic strips but found they didn’t quite fit me. Then in a bookstore I stumbled upon [Bernard] Kliban’s single-panel gag cartoons, which dovetailed greatly with the way my mind consistently twists words and images.

“With that in mind, I started drawing gag cartoons and chose the name ‘Exit 17’ because partaking of my twisted cartoons required that the viewers exit their usual train of thought and allow their minds to follow my pens and embark on quirky, tangential journeys.”

Both of the “Exit 17” books — “The First Rollout” and “Renegade Dogs: Excerpts from the First Rollout” — are available now through Amazon and BookBaby.com.

Ubby, who has also worked in glass art, sculpture, and even made kaleidoscopes, as well as having had her work chosen for display at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, chatted with the Review recently about her art and process.

In a world of harsh headlines, being silly is a serious matter.

BIR: Do you have a clear idea of what a cartoon will be about and look like when you start working on it or are you often surprised?

GU: Good question. The answer is … it varies. Ideas pop into my head all the time; so much so that I have a stash of over 2,250 possible cartoon ideas jotted down and waiting to possibly be brought to life. Sometimes revitalizing those ideas is an absolute breeze, with ideas freely flowing from my pen and coming to life instantaneously on the bristol board. And that just blows my mind when that happens! Other times, I struggle to create the cartoon as my inner critic takes over. To overcome that I simply play around with various ideas waiting for that aha moment. It can come in bits and pieces. I might like one part of a drawing, but not another. So I take the good snippets and then use a … light pad to aid in combining those pieces into a penciled rough draft to bring those parts together. I also have a mirror attached to the door behind my drafting table, allowing me to stand up, look in the mirror and test different postures and expression before I actually draw them.

BIR: What is it about this format that appeals to you more than some of the others you have worked in, or multi-panel comics?

GU: While I love sculpting, glass art, bronze casting, kaleidoscope making, carpentry and more, and will continue partaking of those mediums on a small scale, I find cartooning rewarding because I can work solo in a small space without wasting too many materials to create the end product. And regarding creating single-panel comics [versus] multi-panel comics, I love the freedom that comes with single-panel comics. Single-panel cartoons allow me to create more varied images than multi-panel comic strips would. Also, I am not tethered by having only a small pool of characters that have to show up in every rendition of my comics. I can create a “character” as needed and then never have to use that character [or] image again. I can draw cartoons that are incredibly detailed with extra bits of humor embedded in the outer frame of the comic. And then the next cartoon might have a completely different appearance. Instead of being super detailed, it can have just a few simple lines conveying the idea. Finally, another element that I like to change with every cartoon I draw is how I depict the lettering for the “Exit 17” title. Sometimes the letter E has teeth. Sometimes it is composed of a dog wagging its tail or a snail. It all depends on the cartoon’s content. Each cartoon theme allows me to add in unique details.

BIR: What were some of the unforeseen challenges for you in publishing your work yourself? Are you pleased with the reception thus far?

GU: Unforeseen challenges … Initially, I considered using Amazon’s interface to try setting up my books and readying them for print on demand. While some people might find their system easy to use, I ran into some snags that made me search farther until I found BookBaby.

BookBaby helped me every step of the way, communicating via email or phone whenever I needed assistance. They even gave me a recommendation as to the least costly book size that would fit my cartoons. With that information, I was able to download templates and configure the books using Adobe software … I learned how I needed to adjust scanned images to match their requirements. There were requirements such as 300 DPI images, saving black and white images in gray scale and more. Once my books were compiled, I ordered the minimum number of books required to begin the publication process and then BookBaby took over the process of making the books available through Amazon … They also set things up for sale through other online entities such as Target, Walmart and more.

Regarding the reception thus far, I would love to have reached a broader audience, for sure. Like many cartoonists that I know, the drawing is the simple part. Marketing, that’s a whole other story and something I definitely have no experience in. But though my books are not in wide distribution, the response I’ve received from those who have purchased books has been heartwarming.

BIR: What’s your secret to ensuring an immediate and effective “read” of a cartoon? Do you try different variations of an idea and select which works best?

GU: Yes! I absolutely try different variations for each cartoon. I play around with an assortment of visual approaches and wordings until everything feels right. Granted, what I see as an effective “read” of a cartoon might not match another person’s perception, as the eye sees what it brings to the seeing.

BIR: Do you have an ideal reader in mind while you’re working on a cartoon, a specific type of person you think a piece will resonate with most?

GU: What came to mind when I read this question is how in my twenties I stumbled upon Kliban’s cartoon books while exploring a small, mom and pop book store in Seattle. Kliban’s way of bending concepts jived perfectly with my mind and my tendency to twist words and visuals. In some sense, his cartoons freed me even more to take my own path. So the ideal reader for me would be someone who similarly enjoys taking divergent trips in life. Trips as in journeys, not as in falling.

Another ideal reader might be the dog owner. In my teens and early 20s my mother was into breeding dogs such as Miniature Pinschers, Lhasa Apsos, and Shih Tsus. I also had both a pet Basset Hound and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. The interactive experiences I had with all of those canine friends led me to create a lot of quirky dog-related comics.

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