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The Weird, Whimsical World of Rich Sparks

The fast-rising cartoonist’s first collection hits shelves this month.

Image: Courtesy of Yoe Books and Penguin Random House

Two men in lab coats get their cigarettes lit by an ancient Greek. “Prometheus gives fire to man,” reads the caption.

A chubby Superman stands at the kitchen counter and uses heat-ray vision to warm up a frozen dinner. The caption: “Superdivorced.”

In bed, a woman, smiling, knits the body of a dark, handsome lover.

Welcome to the pen of Rich Sparks, the Lindenhurst cartoonist who has broken into the New Yorker and other national outlets with his weird, wry take on Midwestern existentialism. As with famed cartoonists John Callahan, Gary Larson, Charles Rodrigues, and any number of audacious artists who appeared in Mad or National Lampoon over the decades, Sparks draws single-panel cartoons skewering adult life. A driving theme is vulnerability: Many of his characters, no matter how unshapely their bodies, are plodding through life often naked or in their underwear.

The result is work that’s “profane and obscene, yet tender,” says New Yorker cartoonist Pat Byrnes. “It comes from part of the brain we don’t have direct access to or don’t want to have direct access to.” One cartoon he particularly admires is one showing a middle-aged couple wrestling violently on the floor.

Image: Courtesy of Rich Sparks

“Oh my God, it speaks to a longing in the heart in such an absurd way. It’s so wrong and so right at the same time,” Byrnes says.

Love and Other Weird Things, a debut collection of Sparks’s work, is released on January 28. It follows a four-year period of frantic productivity for Sparks, who sold his first New Yorker cartoon in 2016. Since then, he has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and other outlets.

For Sparks, cartooning started as a lark. A proofreader for textbook publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt by day, he found himself doodling on the train, under the conference table during meetings, during his lunch break, and at night while watching television.

“I don’t even know what I’m doing. I start drawing and something develops,” Sparks says.

His “public sketchbook” was his personal Facebook page. Over time, his work caught the attention of Craig Yoe, the president of Yoe Books, an imprint of IDW Publishing, one of the top comic book publishers in the U.S. Because IDW is sold and distributed through Penguin Random House, Love and Other Weird Things will be on bookshelves nationwide. Even Sparks is surprised at the speed at which things are taking off.

Photo: Louise Jones

“I really feel like I just got started,” he says.

Sparks grew up in Columbus, Ohio, attended Ohio State University, and moved to Chicago in 1982 to pursue acting in the city’s storefront theater scene. That plan fell apart three years later, when he had the bitter realization that he was, as he puts it, “a terrible actor.”

That same day he tried something else: illustrations. The Chicago Tribune was impressed and freelanced with him to illustrate their lifestyle section. Trade journals and other media outlets followed.

It took three decades for Sparks to try cartooning. The challenge became the form itself: Single-panel cartoons, or “gag panels,” require, well, gags. Sparks, though naturally self-effacing in conversation, didn’t consider himself a joke writer. Instead, he made the single panel work by presenting concepts via visuals and text, leaving the connection between them up to the reader.

“There is a lot to be gloomy about. When I’m drawing, I feel like I’m letting the air out in a way that’s healthy,” he says.

His influence as a child was, and remains, M.K. Brown, the prolific National Lampoon humorist and cartoonist known for satirizing suburbia.

“Her stuff just went into my mind and made it blow up,” Sparks says. “To this day she’s always in the back of my mind. She was everything.”

Once he felt he was proficient, Sparks reached out to two Chicago-area cartoonists and frequent New Yorker contributors: Byrnes and Ken Krimstein. The three artists began gathering over lunch on Mondays to workshop cartoons. Krimstein says that when he first saw Sparks’ drawings, he “was blown away” by the “insane imagination and wonderful technique” at work.

“For somebody who appears to be such a normal human being, he’s processing some dark imagery,” Krimstein says. “But it doesn’t seem mean-spirited, which I like. A lot of that comes out of the charm of his drawing style. He draws beautifully, which I think helps deliver the humor.”

Image: Courtesy of Rich Sparks

Sparks says many of the characters are based on people he knew in his childhood. For example, a portly naked man wearing horn-rimmed glasses — who recurs throughout his work — serves as a stand-in for his father. In the new book, that character is seen dancing, peeing on a tree, mooning his neighbors, and riding a hammerhead shark.

“He’s been dead for 20 years, but he was a great guy, a hilarious guy, and fun-loving. He’d get it,” Sparks says.

Love and Other Weird Things arrives at a particularly productive time for Sparks. Also a guitarist and songwriter, his pop-rock band the Last Afternoons released a second album earlier this month, with a release show at Montrose Saloon slated for February 1. Naturally, Sparks inks all the band’s album covers and poster art.

Though he considers music and cartooning “appendages that are completely organic” to his life, when it comes to the latter, Sparks says his goal is not perfection. Like the characters in his panels, he likes “getting things wrong.”

“I’m a fan of art by people who can’t draw. If I see a lot of slick stuff, it barely registers with me,” he says. “But when I see things that are kind of shaky or unacademic, I think, ‘Oh, that’s good.’”

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