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Behind the buttons

SARANAC LAKE – What’s Garry Trudeau’s favorite Winter Carnival button? Go ahead, guess.

The Doonesbury cartoonist has 37 to choose from, having created one for the Saranac Lake festival every year since 1981 except this one, for which he made two.

Give up? It’s “Under the Sea” in 2013, for which he drew Doonesbury character Zonker swimming amid a swirl of fish.

That’s one of many questions Trudeau, who grew up in Saranac Lake, answered by email this week.

He also described how, in recent years, he and two other artists create the Winter Carnival poster first and then extract part of that for the button. Trudeau started making these posters in 2012, and sales of them, signed and unsigned, give another revenue stream to help pay for carnival.

Here, uncut, is the interview:

Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Who works with you designing the Winter Carnival buttons?

Garry Trudeau: Todd Pound, my inking assistant, who lives in San Francisco, and George Corsillo, who does color and design from New Haven.

ADE: Take me through the process of designing a button.

GT: I do a few rough sketches, bounce them off George, and once we agree on the basic idea, I do a tight pencil drawing, which I scan and send to Todd. Todd “inks” my drawing with some program I don’t understand and sends it to George, who colors it on Photoshop and drops in type treatment. Once he’s finished, we go back and forth with revisions, then he supervises production, checking press runs on both buttons and posters. George and I have an easy rapport, because my professional training was actually in graphics and we speak the same language.

For the last several years, the poster has been our focus. I no longer think of the job as button art. We design the poster and then carve out a circular portion that will work on the button. This year, as a sneaky plan to get people to buy more buttons, we lifted both characters. Apparently, our scheme worked!

ADE: What years’ themes have been the hardest to illustrate? Which ones were the easiest?

GT: Some of the themes translate easily (sometimes too easily, because they lend themselves to cliches). Themes like Hollywood, Mardi Gras, Wild West and the ’50s are pretty straightforward, whereas the more abstract ones – “Cabin Fever,” “United in the Adirondacks,” “Hooray for Holidays” – are a little harder to get your head around.

ADE: Do you have any favorite button designs, or ones with stories behind them?

GT: I like “Under the Sea.” I found this wonderful photo of a swirl of blue fish, and we built the concept out from that. I was trying to avoid the more predictable Neptune imagery, and I liked the cleanness of Swims with Fishes.

ADE: Do you care which buttons sell better than others?

GT: Not really. I have no idea how they’ve done relatively.

ADE: What’s your advice to people about picking carnival themes in the future?

GT: I wouldn’t have any. The committee doing the picking has a much better feel for what’s worked best in the past.

ADE: What’s one example of how you’ve learned what doesn’t work on a button?

GT: I’ve learned not to use the more obscure characters. Too many people were unfamiliar with Ron Headrest and Roland Hedley. One other big lesson: It’s critical to be present at the press run. The Joanie button looked dark and smudged, and some people thought she was my homeless character Alice, not a perfect fit for the Carnival.

ADE: Zonker is a frequent go-to character for your buttons. Why is that?

GT: Zonker is the Snoopy of Doonesbury. He lives in his head, so lends himself easily to fantasy. You can accept that he imagines himself in a variety of guises, whereas a more reality-based character – Mike, say – would look like he’s dressed up in a costume.

ADE: You have a master’s degree in art. Do you ever wish you could make a Winter Carnival button that doesn’t involve Doonesbury?

GT: Not really, and I don’t think it’d be in the best interests of the Carnival. Doonesbury is the value added. Even if the poster and button were elegant, I’m not sure it would have the same collectability.

ADE: When have you been to Winter Carnival, and what were your biggest takeaways from it?

GT: I always went to the Carnival when I lived in Saranac Lake, but have attended only sporadically since. Growing up, I was proud of the tradition, especially since my great-grandfather (supposedly) had a hand in founding it. The absolute highlight for me was when my dad did the can-can in the Rotary Show at the Pontiac (Theater). It was the only time I ever saw my father get crazy.

ADE: Have you been to a Winter Carnival with your wife and children?

GT: Yes, when the kids were little. They especially enjoyed crawling around the palace.

ADE: How has it changed over the years?

GT: It just seems more elaborate, more things to do. When I was a kid, it seemed to me like it was all about the parade and palace.

ADE: Do you donate art to anything else?

GT: Yes, but not on the same annual basis. A few years into it, I asked my father whether I had stumbled into a lifetime commitment. He said yes. So here we are!

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