Oakland’s Kristen Caven gets the last laugh.
Every day, otherwise sane people sit down at ink-stained drawing tables to dream up cartoons that will inevitably bring them countless riches. And every day, editors shoot down these gags with impersonal form rejection letters. Eventually, the vast majority of would-be cartoonists shuffle off to greener pastures, leaving their precious drawings behind to amuse only dust particles. But then there’s Oakland’s Kristen Caven. A cartoonist for the Mills College student newspaper in the 1980s, she went on to publish her own zines but returned to cartooning about the campus in the early ’90s, inspired by a widely publicized student strike to prevent men from entering the college’s undergrad programs. In putting together a book to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the strike, Caven came across her drawings from that time, a discovery that led her to look back not just at the strike, but at her fabulous cartooning career and how it just happened to coincide with her successful ascent to womanhood. The result is Caven’s recent self-published, on-demand tome, Perfectly Revolting: My “Glamorous” Cartooning Career. As a marginally successful cartoonist myself, I decided to track Caven down to see if we had anything in common besides moldy stacks of faded drawings.
Paul Kilduff: We’re both, forgive me, failed cartoonists. Do you think there should be a club for us and do you want to be president of it?
Kristen Caven: Sure. I’d be glad to head up that club because I think failed cartoonists are some of the most interesting people. They had something years ago about [how] often when people can do cartoons and they can write, they usually end up writing—which is why Matt Groening was such an oddball because he could write but he stayed cartooning.
PK: Yes, I think that it does teach you that skill. But at the time that you’re trying to do it, and you’re not getting anywhere with it, it’s just really hopeless, isn’t it?
KC: Well, yeah. I think it makes you a strong person, having those rejection letters that go, “This is really great and you’re so talented but either I don’t get it or my readers aren’t going to get it or could you make a hundred of them that look the same?” And it is a very few, a very narrow field of people who can actually crank it out with consistency, and God bless them. I read them every day.
PK: I think it’s harder to be a cartoonist than to get into the NFL.
KC: It probably is. In your newspaper, there’s only maybe 30 cartoons, right?
KC: But in your hometown, you’ve got 50 or 100 professional sports players. So that’s probably accurate.
PK: I think there’s 2,000 NFL players and you’re going to tell me there’s 2,000 full-time working cartoonists in the world?
KC: No, I bet there’s more than that. The truth is, you do see cartoons everywhere. It’s one of those things like, “Oh, I can never be a writer” and then you realize that there’s writing and cartooning and art just dripping out of, oozing out of the pavement everywhere you go. You can’t turn around without having something in front of you to read, and often, it’s very funny.
PK: Maybe they’re all in Mexico or the Philippines.
KC: There are all these people I don’t know.
PK: I do know a successful cartoonist. I’m not in touch with him or anything, but I knew him at one time. Keith Knight?
KC: Oh, yeah!
PK: The K Chronicles, yeah.
KC: I read him every day. I love him.
PK: I knew him back in the day. I actually interviewed him for this very same column.
KC: We used to hang out together. There was like a salon.
PK: Right, didn’t I meet you at one of those things?
KC: Yeah, we met. And I remember looking at your stuff and going, “Oh, my God.” There was one cartoon you did that struck me as so funny and other people were going, “Oh, whatever.” And I was like, no, you don’t get it.
PK: What I always got was: “You’re funny, but I don’t get your cartoons.”
PK: Did you ever get that?
KC: Right, right, right.
PK: That’s not very encouraging.
PK: But I still have a little light table and India ink, and for fun I put cartoons on Facebook.
KC: Oh, yeah.
PK: I think where you hit the wall with it is that your cartoons just go into a drawer or a folder and nobody sees them.
KC: Well, that’s what happened with me. I mean, I had to put away the Exacto knives and the India ink when I had a toddler around the house. And so I downsized my imagination into a laptop. But he’s big now. He’s trustworthy with sharp objects. And I’ve got a little more time. So that’s when I went into the basement and there’s this box full of awesome cartoons, and it’s like I discovered this young artist who’s just sitting around, hoping somebody would call her and say, “God, you’re brilliant. You are so funny. Can I publish all your stuff together in a book and will you write a memoir?” And so it’s kind of great because I’m the one who discovered me, and I know this young artist really well. And so I was able to ask her all the right questions and put all of her cartoons into some sensible order and find the story.
PK: I know it came out of your look back at the infamous Mills College strike over whether to allow hairy men onto the campus, back in the early ’90s. How did this go from that to a look at your fabulous cartooning career? What happened?
KC: Well, a lot of cartoonists are self-publishers because we make little zines—the old-fashioned word, of course, for a blog.
PK: You’re really taking me back with the whole zine reference.
PK: I was never motivated enough to even do that, but hats off to you.
KC: What happened was I had graduated from Mills, I had been a cartoonist there and I had to come back during the strike to start drawing again. And so I came up with this collection of 10 or 12 cartoons that I just had to pull together in a booklet so I could share them with other people. Because look, you know, books are very wonderful, portable information machines.
PK: Do you think they’re going to be around in the next six months? Books, I mean.
KC: Are we really talking about the death of books? That was ridiculous. Books are, you know, they’re like nature.
PK: No, I’m kidding.
KC: But anyway, so, we were coming up on the 20th anniversary of the strike. And I thought, “Gosh, now publishing has changed. Now, I don’t have to invest $300 and then try and make back my money. Now I can go on demand and just have a couple of them and then people can buy them online.” So I wanted to republish the book. But the minimum page count I had to have was 24 pages, and my book was only 16 pages long. So I started digging around in those boxes and before I knew it, it was a 100-page book. So I thought I’d just put in some of the cartoons I used to do when I was on campus. Then all these worlds opened up and all this very interesting history and I just started watching myself sort of evolve. I was going to call it Cartooning My Way to Womanhood because it was really a coming-of-age time in my life, right?
PK: Getting back to Mills, what self-respecting dude would want to ever go there anyway? I mean, I never could understand that.
KC: Dudes who like to be with lots and lots of women, I don’t know. You don’t really need that much self-respect when you have all the babes. Oh, and I should also mention, there are men who go to Mills in the graduate program. It’s very awesome.
PK: I do remember at the time, one of the arguments that was made about the reason men should not be allowed was that they would get—just because they’re men and they have some sort of force field around them, or I don’t know what— that they would get all the attention in the class because they’re men and the women would be ignored. Now maybe I’m just a male chauvinist pig, but I never bought that. I didn’t understand that. Do you remember that argument being made?
KC: To me it wasn’t an argument because before I went to Mills I went to a regular coed college, and I really did notice that women speak up much less in the classroom when there’s guys around. This is a social thing we have. We’re polite. We defer to other people and it’s not necessarily that men are evil and bad, although you know, everybody knows deep down.
PK: That they are.
KC: Yeah, but we love you anyway. Okay, here’s the thing. I was in this class with all these brilliant women, an upper-level semiotics class or something, and they all began their statements with, “Well, I sort of think” or “Maybe I’m wrong on this” instead of “This is what I believe,” instead of forthright discussion. There’s a lot of sensitivity that happens and I think that kind of works against women.
PK: And so men are more emphatic and forceful in their opinions and that gets more attention from the professor, is that how it works?
KC: Yeah. I don’t know what it’s like now, but back then, there were studies that showed that men tended to call on male students more.
PK: Okay, so you agree with the premise that that would have taken place at Mills because you saw it in your own college career?
KC: Yeah, I did see that in my own experience.
PK: Do you think that people at Mills still feel that way now? Do you think if they tried to allow men into the undergraduate programs at Mills today, you’d have the same protesting about it?
KC: Well, yeah. I mean, that’s not the only reason. It’s a really unique experience just to be around, you know, in a single-sex institution.
PK: This book may catapult you into something that you never even dreamed of.
KC: Yeah, it would just be the perfect irony because here’s the book about how I failed as a cartoonist. What a success it could be! What it’s like being a failed cartoonist. Actually, that’s my hope, because now I’m a novelist and a poet and a playwright. I’ve got this huge musical I’m trying to produce. By the way, I got into writing for the stage because I realized that cartoonists are all just like little frustrated directors. But it’s so great in this world of cartooning where you can write the characters, draw the actors, create the scenery. It’s like little stage plays.
PK: No, [your cartoons are] funny. I don’t understand why you didn’t make it.
KC: Well, I still could, you know.
For more Kilduff, visit the “Kilduff File Super Fan Page” on Facebook.
Birthplace: Detroit, Mich.
Grew up in: Boulder, CO.
Inspired by: Awesomeness
What I want to be when I grow up: A liberal artist