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Charlotte cartooning club not all free-form

By Reid Creager

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On this first Saturday morning of the month, a small gathering of the Cartooning Club of Charlotte is quietly taking notes, brainstorming, laughing at Amelie’s French Bakery in NoDa. Next month’s meeting may be somewhere else, but you’ll often find the group at the intersection of creativity and structure.

Tom Davidson says that destination isn’t in conflict. According to the club’s organizer, the process of conceiving ideas – a hallmark of the group – can thrive within an original framework.

“There are sketch groups that sit around and doodle,” says the 45-year-old east Charlotte resident. “We work toward goals and discuss concrete, actual steps in our cartooning creation process. It’s not just hanging out.”

At this meeting, he’s leading members through a “Weird Normal” project, which he describes as “comics stories that turn normal, everyday life into the weird, the fantastic or somehow interesting to the point that it makes you re-examine your life or how you look at things as well.”

He credits the inspiration of the late graphic novelist and comic book writer Harvey Pekar, “who really kind of started it all with his slice-of-life stories.”

Davidson created a story idea generator designed to stoke the creative process. It asks members to write down their answers to nine questions on subjects ranging from personal quirks to pet peeves, with a two-minute time limit on each. The purpose is to generate instinctive yet revealing responses that get members thinking about different themes and challenges.

Before long, the discussion involves all kinds of conflict – inner, outer, main – as well as setups, story and character development, resolution and other terms one might normally associate with a conventional novel. It’s obvious that everyone’s all in.

“We want to create an originally cool story of our own that is personal, that has great characters, that is fun to do and to read, to share with someone else,” Davidson says.

Getting published can be a goal but not an obsession: “This isn’t work.”

Karla Holland is economical with her comments, but the ones she makes often inspire the most laughter. She talks about writing a time travel cartoon in which she gets to go back and meet somebody she doesn’t like.

“We want to do this,” says Holland, a south Charlotte resident who works as an event hostess at Time Warner Cable Arena.

“If you do it for yourself, there’s no pressure. It’s something we want to get very creative about. And when we get creative, we get very into it.”

Davidson says the project should yield a comic strip or book for members this year.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “I love weird normal stories because in reality, to some degree we all are ... even the most boring person, someone who is absolutely boring to the nth degree, that in and of itself is weird and great story material.”

The ability to flex his creative muscles appeals to member James Keirstead of east Charlotte.

“I realized how little opportunity I’ve had with my job for any sort of creative expression,” said Keirstead, a senior information systems engineer at Perigon. “This is a wonderful opportunity for me to do that. I do play bass in a church band, but that’s more about playing stuff that other people have done.”

That creative yearning in a collaborative environment was the impetus for Davidson to form the group – now with 24 members – in September 2011.

“I’ve always wanted to be part of a cartooning group in Charlotte that discussed comics that actually worked on things and shared them,” says Davidson, a clothing art director at Belk who also belongs to the Mecklenburg Beekeepers Association, among other pursuits. “There’s something kind of freeing about it.

“Sometimes we’ve just gone out on the streets and had drawing exercises. Other times we’ve just gotten together and stuff. It’s kind of a sharing thing, but it’s also a working together toward a goal.”

The group’s meetup board updates members on the latest meetings and projects, and allows them to post drawings and share their work. The club usually meets once a month at Amelie’s or Sunflour Bakery Company in the Elizabeth neighborhood.

“I get so much out of the Cartooning Club of Charlotte,” Davidson says. “It’s as much for my benefit as everyone else’s .... and it’s always wonderful to know there are other cartoonists out there wanting to get together and share while creating, discussing and working on specific cartooning goals.”

Reid Creager is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Reid? Email him at rcreags@voyager.net.
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