Some days, ideas for Kevin Fagan's syndicated cartoon strip "Drabble" flow like spilled ink.
Other times, it seems the ink well has run dry.
"I went to my dentist last Monday, and I was talking to him about it," says Fagan. "He said, 'What are you working on this week?' I said, 'I have no idea. I just have no idea at all.' "
Fagan was still waiting for inspiration to strike later in the day when he left for a doctor's appointment. Taking a seat in the waiting room, he waited. And waited. As the minutes turned into more than an hour, he picked up the spiral note pad he uses to jot down ideas.
"I just started writing down ideas about what it's like to be sitting in a waiting room waiting for doctors," he says. "By the time I left, I had my week's worth of cartoons."
No one told Fagan it would be easy being funny. Not on a daily basis, turning out a cartoon strip that appears in more than 200 newspapers--including The Times--365 days a year.
But after 16 years, the Mission Viejo cartoonist still gets a charge when comic inspiration strikes and he breathes three-dimensional life into his two-dimensional drawings of the Drabble family: Father and mother Ralph and June (better known as "Honeybunch"), brothers Norman and Patrick and baby sister Penny.
"When I get a really good story line," Fagan says, "it's almost euphoric, and I can't wait to run out to the drawing board and start putting it down."
When "Drabble" debuted in the spring of 1979, the then 22-year-old Fagan was billed as the youngest syndicated cartoonist in America.
At the time, the former Saddleback College student newspaper cartoonist identified most with his main character Norman: a shy, insecure and occasionally bumbling college student who lives at home. Fagan calls Norman a "dork," not unlike himself at that age: "The girl that Norman hangs out with, Wendy, is kind of based on a couple of girls I knew in college who would never give me the time of day."
Fagan, now 39, has been married for eight years, has three young children and lives in a two-story tract house in one of the newer sections of Mission Viejo.
And as middle age creeps up on him like a pair of baggy boxer shorts, Fagan now finds himself identifying less with Norman and more with Norman's dad, Ralph: a paunchy mall security guard who is given to loud floral sport shirts and silent Oliver Hardy glares--after Norman does something particularly stupid, a frustrated Ralph looks out at the reader as if to say, "Can you believe what I have to put up with?"
The doughnut-loving mall cop, in fact, has become Fagan's favorite character.
"Ralph's kind of taken over the strip, kind of like the way Snoopy took over 'Peanuts,' " he says. "Now it's pretty much about Ralph and Ralph's life. Not that Norman's gone, but Ralph has emerged as the funniest character."
Unlike Norman, who knows that he's a goofball, Fagan says that Ralph doesn't know that he's a goofball--and that makes him all the funnier.
Over the years, four collections of Fagan's cartoon strips have been published in paperback, and "Drabble" has carried on a flirtatious relationship with Hollywood: Director Ron Howard toyed with executive-producing a live-action TV version of the strip in the early '80s, and animator Bill Melendez, who produced and directed the "Peanuts" TV cartoon specials, has test-animated "Drabble" and, Fagan says, is now shopping the project around to the networks.
"Drabble" also recently joined other United Media syndicate strips on the Internet, and Fagan has signed a deal for a series of "Drabble" greeting cards.
The adventures--and misadventures--of the Drabbles come together in Fagan's studio: a remodeled section of his oversized garage.
The walls are covered with framed cartoon originals, gifts from fellow funny-page artists Fagan has met and traded autographed strips with. There's Jim Davis' "Garfield," Bil Keane's "The Family Circus," Lynn Johnston's "For Better or For Worse," Mort Walker's "Beetle Bailey" and nearly two dozen more.
There's also a strip autographed by "Sparky," as "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz is called by his friends.
Fagan first met Schulz in 1985 and has visited the cartoon superstar's studio in Santa Rosa. Schulz owns an ice-skating rink there, and the Fagans have made it a family ritual to attend the ice show Schulz produces every year. One year, after Fagan's wife, Cristi, admired the carousel horses used in the production, Schulz had one sent to the couple. It's now displayed in their living room.
Schulz, who says he enjoys spending time with the Fagans, is a big fan of "Drabble."
"I think it is consistently one of the funniest strips around," says Schulz. "One of the reasons for its success beyond it being consistently funny is that although it's a family strip, it is original in its approach. . . . The humor is never nasty. They are all good people, and I think this is very important these days."
Fagan first wrote to Schulz when Fagan was a history major at Cal State Sacramento in the late '70s and seeking advice on how to get his cartoon syndicated. The 1974 Mission Viejo High School graduate had contributed cartoons for the student newspaper at Saddleback College and continued drawing cartoons for the university paper.
Schulz doesn't remember receiving Fagan's letter, but Fagan long ago memorized Schulz's response, a handwritten message on Snoopy stationery: "I hesitate to comment on art which is sent to me because it's not me that you have to impress. It's an editor somewhere."
These days, Fagan receives his own fan mail--not only from fledgling cartoonists seeking advice but also from mall security guards who view Ralph Drabble as one of their own. Fagan has even been made an honorary mall cop in Houston. Which means, he jokes, "if I ever go to Houston, I can make arrests."
Fagan says that coming up with humorous ideas, a process that finds him jotting down ideas even on paper towels throughout the day, is the hardest part of being a cartoonist. To develop his ideas, he generally leaves the house.
During the school year, he takes his 7-year-old son Sean to school and then stops by McDonald's or the library for about an hour. There, he sits, with his note pad at the ready, and "lets my mind wander." Other times, he drives to nearby Rancho Santa Margarita, churning ideas around during the 10-minute drive over and during his walk around the lake.
Returning home to his drawing board, he spends about two hours drawing and lettering the daily strip and nearly all day doing the longer Sunday strips.
With Sean, 6-year-old Kelsey and 4-year-old Brian at home, Fagan says, summers are especially chaotic at the Fagan residence.
Not that he complains when the kids come into his studio to talk or ask a question.
"He just puts his pen down and listens," says Cristi Fagan, a former dairy company sales rep, who met Kevin on the exercise bicycles at a gym in Lake Forest in 1984. Unlike some of the "jerks" who hang out at gyms trying to pick up women, she says, "he looked safe." He asked her out the second time he saw her.
Cristi acknowledges that being married to a cartoonist sets her apart from other wives.
"Everyone else's husband goes off to work, but it's almost like I have four kids because I have everyone home all the time," she says.
"If [we're] doing something really fun, he oftentimes puts his work down and comes along, which is great for the kids--and me."
Probably the biggest difference with being married to a cartoonist, she says, is that "things are pretty funny around here. He can turn anything around and make it light. He just looks at life differently. Things aren't as catastrophic for him."
But it's not their father the kids think is the funniest one in the family, Cristi says.
It's their Uncle Tim, Kevin's extroverted older brother. "Uncle Tim could be a stand-up comic," she says. "I say, 'But Daddy's funny.' They just look at me."'
Among the four Fagan brothers, Tim, at 48, is the closest in age to Kevin, and while growing up they spent a lot of time together.
"I had to give up a promising baseball career to baby-sit Kevin," jokes Tim Fagan, a general manager for an electronics company in Ontario. "I guess I might have had something to do with Kevin's unique spin on life. Kevin is my best friend, and he's basically everything I'm not: He's level-headed, compassionate, sensitive and conservative with money. But the one thing we do have in common is the sense of humor, and it is uncanny how we can both look at the same difficult situation and see the same humor in it."
Tim, who lives in Trabuco Canyon, says he'll sometimes drop by his brother's house and they'll role-play: Tim will play Ralph and Kevin will play Norman, and out of that, he says, "ideas will evolve."
Cristi also has inspired her share of ideas for the strip. As she puts it: "Whenever I say something dumb, he really appreciates it."
Over the years, various elements of the Fagans' family life have surfaced in the strip. The births of their three children led to June Drabble giving birth to Penny.
He had to do something with all his pregnancy jokes, Fagan explains.
Davy Crockett coonskin caps that his kids bought at Disneyland and left lying around the house led to a week's worth of strips in which Ralph sits on Patrick's coonskin cap and thinks he's killed the cat.
In fact, Oogie the cat--the most recent addition to the strip--is modeled after the Fagans' calico cat Sassy.
"She's the size of a rat, and every time I walk by, she's out to get me, like she's going to bring me down," says Fagan, who has had Oogie jump on Ralph's head and claw him in the strip. "There was just something about the situation that just struck me so funny: This cat actually thinks it's going to do some harm."
"Drabble" reflects its low-keyed creator, who by all accounts fits the definition of modesty.
"He's probably the quietest guy in a group, but when you put him on stage he opens up and the creativity comes out," says Curt Visca, principal of Bathgate Elementary School in Mission Viejo. Fagan's son goes to school at Bathgate and Fagan has given several talks to pupil, teacher and parent groups there.
Visca, himself a cartoonist and the host of "It's Curtoon Time," a daily cartoon show on Cox Cable's Channel 3, recalls giving Fagan 15 minutes to talk about cartooning and creativity at a teachers meeting. Fagan wound up talking for half an hour with a self-deprecating sense of humor delivered with the low-keyed aplomb of a stand-up comic.
When it comes to critiquing his drawing ability, Fagan remains modest to the extreme.
Seated at a table in the family room, thumbing through a collection of early strips, Fagan thinks back to Drabble's debut in March of 1979.
"Yuck," he says. "I don't know how anybody liked it back then. I can't bear to look at my stuff from five years ago, much less 16. The drawing was really bad. The humor was pretty good--I got off a few good jokes every now and then--but I don't know if I was very consistent back then."
Despite his success, Fagan retains a Norman-like sense of insecurity. On Mondays, he says, "I always open the paper real slowly to see if I'm still there and make sure I haven't been replaced by something."
It is, he acknowledges, a challenge for any cartoonist to maintain his portion of real estate on the comic strip pages.
"There's always new strips coming out, and for an editor to add a new strip, he's got to replace somebody, and that's the scary part of it," Fagan says. "That threat is always hanging over your head, and that's why you can never let down," he says.
"Any time I start feeling complacent that's when I think, 'Man, I've got to come up with a real good story line, something really imaginative.' I don't want to do the same thing over and over."
Earlier this year, he took time away from his work to manage his son's Little League team. While it sometimes left him hard-pressed to meet his deadlines, there was a positive side to being away from the drawing board: Little League provided a wealth of ideas that he plans to use in the strip when baseball season resumes next year.
Will Norman be the manager?
"I haven't decided," he says. "I don't know if it will be Norman or Ralph, both of whom would bring a different slant to it."
Maybe Norman and Ralph could be competing managers?
If Fagan were a cartoon character, this is where a light bulb would appear above his head.
"Hey, now there you go!" he says. "That's a good idea."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Background: Age 39. Born in Los Angeles; lives in Mission Viejo. Married with three children, ages 3 to 7.
Passions: "I guess I'm just a full-time dad. I'm either drawing cartoons or doing something with my kids."
On the demands of drawing a daily cartoon strip: "I feel burned out all the time . . . but then something happens to recharge you. It's like being a shortstop for the Yankees or the Dodgers and saying, 'I don't want to do this anymore.' There are so many people that would trade places with you. I think all the time about how lucky I am to be doing this."
On the late cartoonist Virgil (VIP) Partch of Laguna Beach: "He was a wonderful guy. I wish I had gotten together with him more. I was shy about bothering him. But looking back on it, he wouldn't have minded at all. He was just such a nice man, and he was genuinely interested in me."
On budding cartoonists who ask for advice: "I don't advise them on their artwork or anything like that. But if they're young and in school, I say study hard. If a cartoonist doesn't know anything about anything, he or she's not going to have anything to write about. So the more subjects you're familiar with, the more ideas you'll have. And I tell them draw for your school paper and just get the experience of doing it, working on your deadlines."