Interview with Philip Street, Creator of "Fisher"

March 9, 2007

     Joining The Cartoonists this week, I'm thrilled to introduce a man of many artistic and witty talents. The medley of roles played by Philip Street include animator, illustrator and cartoonist. His comic strip, Fisher, is a daily feature in one of Canada's largest newspapers, delivering morning smiles to the Globe and Mail comics fans for almost 15 years.

     Philip Street has an adept hand with the pen, creating a comic with smooth lines, uncluttered backgrounds and a fine visual appeal. The goal of his work is not only to make his readers laugh; he goes beyond the superficial giggles. He wants to make a point, to make it interesting.

    The star of Fisher is Tom Fisher, an "over-educated and under-motivated" fellow, now a husband and father. His struggles with work and his encounters with family and friends make for a really satisfying comic that has earned Philip Street a strong following. Reminiscent of Lynn Johnston's For Better or For Worse, Brian Bassett's Adam @ Home and a hint of Born Loser by Chip Sansom, Fisher is a comic that readers can easily identify with - it's one of those "you've been looking in my window!" type of comics that hits the familiar note on a regular basis.

    Welcome to The Cartoonists, Philip! Let's dive right in to the interview:

    Could you tell us a bit about yourself, Philip?

     I was born in 1959 and grew up in Blyth, Ontario, which is about an hour's drive north of London. I'm the second-youngest of five; I have two brothers and two sisters. My parents were always supportive. My mother studied interior design and had painted a bit in her younger days. There was always music and an eye for the arts in our home.

     As a youngster, did you set your sights on being a cartoonist or did you have plans in another direction? Did you attend an art program or follow other educational pursuits?

     Typically for my generation I grew up absorbing Schulz's "Peanuts" strip, the Bugs Bunny show on TV, and MAD magazine. I suppose I'm still trying to live up to those standards. Nevertheless, my first artistic ambition was to be a writer. But a Grade 8 teacher of mine, Terry Bullen, was a skilled cartoonist and encouraged my drawing. (Around that time I also saw Harvey Kurtzman's work in reprints of early MAD comics, and that took the top of my head off.) I began to doodle constantly and soon made some progress.

     In high school I drew cartoons for the school paper and began to think of myself as a cartoonist. My interests at school were definitely skewing towards what was referred to as The Humanities, and at the University of Toronto (St. Michael's College) I studied English, with a few courses in Philosopy etc. I drew cartoons for various campus papers and learned some graphic design along the way. These skills, rather than English, were to prove useful in finding work... eventually, because my academic career dragged on somewhat. I looked for illustration work and found some, always at the low end of the pay scale.

      Up to this point I had no real art training, so I took a couple of night courses at what was then OCA (now OCAD). At one class I saw a posted notice calling for caricaturists to work for the summer at Ontario Place. I was accepted and wound up working there for many years. (After wielding a bullet-point marker for even one summer my ink-and-brush technique had improved beyond recognition.)

     Later still, around the time that "Fisher" started in The Globe and Mail, I started studying animation in the summer programme at Sheridan College in Oakville. That was a great experience, and marked a big step forward for me. Work and repetition have allowed my work to improve over the years, and I hope it will continue to improve. I have more standards to meet now: the way-out designs of the late Jim Flora and the animation of Bobe Cannon and others at UPA in the 1950s are more recent inspirations. But, for comic strips, "Peanuts" is still the gold standard for me.

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Fisher comic strip courtesy of Philip Street

     What sort of work did you do before you became an animator/ illustrator/cartoonist?
Do you still do other work?

     Aside from a couple of odd jobs (and odd summer jobs) I've always worked in the realm of drawing or design, including a two-year stint as the layout artist for a biweekly newspaper. That was a full-time job, but before and after that I was freelance — I consider "Fisher" to be a freelance gig, as I'm not a Globe employee — including seven years in the part-time role of designing and often providing illustrations for the bimonthly Compass: A Jesuit Journal. Then in 1998, with my student film from Sheridan finally finished, I found animation work at the CBC in Toronto. At that time there was still a demand for animated segments for Sesame Park, and the animators in the Graphic Design department wrote, directed and animated their own pieces. Sesame Park folded several years ago and since then I've done a wide range of broadcast design, some of it cartoony and some not.

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    An animation scene from "The Weight of the World" created by Phillip Street. Produced by the National Film Board and CBC's "The Nature of Things".

    Courtesy of Philip Street

    “Fisher” is a great strip filled with warmth and humour that almost anyone can identify with, Philip. When and where did Fisher first appear in print?

     "Fisher" started in The Globe and Mail in June of 1992. "Fisher" is exclusive to the Globe in Canada. (Come to think of it, "Fisher" is exclusive to the Globe IN THE WORLD... except for my website, where it appears a week later.)

     What lead to the creation of “Fisher”?  Is it your first comic strip or have you created others?

     A character who could be a prototype of Tom Fisher appeared in a comic strip called "Madman" that I did at the University of Toronto in 1981-82. It really did take me a few years in the 1980s to get my act together. In the mid-80s I lived in a shared household that became the model for the house that Tom Fisher moves into very early in the strip: his housemates are Ruth, Eugene and Alison (who, by the way, bear no resemblance to my real housemates). But the first sample of strips I did just featured him living with his parents, after having been at university. That sample got some interest but no sale.

    Warren Clements at The Globe and Mail had been kind enough to respond with a letter, and a year or so later I sent him a further sample. He passed on that too, so I decided to give up that idea (which was not yet called "Fisher") and try a humour-continuity strip, a sort of MAD-style adventure spoof called "Rip Trousers". Warren didn't buy "Rip Trousers" but at that point he did offer to publish the other strip. So I retooled my brain and went to work on "Fisher".

     For a year and a half "Fisher" was 4 days a week, sharing the space with Warren's own strip, "The Nestlings". But since late in 1993 "Fisher" has run six days a week in the Globe. ("Rip Trousers" eventually ran for about 9 months in The Kingston Whig-Standard and The Telegraph-Journal of Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1993 and 1994. So in 1993, my output of strips went from four a week to ten, then, for a while, to twelve. My drawing improved noticeably during that period.)

     Do the “Fisher” characters have a direct relation to your own life?

     As my previous answer suggests, Tom Fisher is a kind of alter ego for me. Magnifying his faults for comedic effect is somehow satisfying for me. My sensibility is reflected in Tom — his opinions are often my opinions. The details and incidents are sometimes drawn from life and sometimes not. I think it's clear when the strip is being fanciful. And I've never worked in advertising. But the big story arc of struggling out of confusion into the growing responsibilities of a relationship, marriage, mortgage and a child is my story too. Maybe it's the story of a lot of people.

     Do you find your characters are changing over time? Has your sense of humour changed?

     The characters have changed over time. I hope they've become more definite and individual in the minds of the readers. My sense of humour has changed in that I have less use for mere cleverness in my writing. There has to be an edge of truth in it for me to really find something funny or interesting. (Sometimes interesting is enough. A strip that's pointed enough doesn't need to be funny.)

     While you are obviously skilled at both, which is a priority for you – the writing or the art?

     I remember reading an interview with Charles Schulz in which he said that if he were really good at writing he'd write books, and that if he were really a fine artist he would paint. (Instead he just created the best strip since World War Two.)

     The writing and the art fuse to become something else. The writing comes first and carries the idea (a visual idea may have no writing at all) and has priority in that sense. Sometimes ideas are hard to come by. But for me the best strips have a good idea well expressed in pictures.

    Do you have specific goals to reach or is entertainment, the urge to make readers laugh and smile, sufficient?

     I sometimes put my opinions in the mouth of a character (usually Tom). But I think the best strips are the ones that frame questions rather than answers. Another way to answer your question is that I work to satisfy myself first and hope that others will enjoy it. But at the time I have only my own instincts and standards to go by (except for valuable input from my wife... see next answer).

    How do you create your delightful comic strip?

     I draw the strip initially with an erasable blue pencil. (The light blue line doesn't show up on a photocopy or when the strip is scanned as black and white art.) I use a disposable pigment pen for the lettering. Then I do the major inking with a brush (a #2 Winsor-Newton Series 7 sable brush, since you ask) and use a nib for fine lines and panel borders. I like to make the physical artwork as complete as possible but I often add tone patterns in Photoshop after I've scanned the strips into my computer. (Since early 2001 I've submitted the strips by e-mail; before that I sent photocopies to the Globe.)

I do the strip at home, usually at night. My wife, Vanessa Grant, helps greatly as an inspiration, sounding-board, and often a writing partner. Vanessa is a corporate lawyer. Our son Jamie, who is almost two, provides material also. (See the "Fisher" archive at philipstreet.com for evidence.)

    Have you created a strict routine for your work? Does cartooning bring you joy or frustration?

My strict routine is to get the strips in by the end of the week even if it kills me. Cartooning often brings me joy (when I've finally written the week's worth) and sometimes frustration (at my own limitations as an artist).

    Are you aiming for international syndication for “Fisher”? Have you submitted “Fisher” or other strips to the big American syndicates? Any plans for a book of strips?

     I have tried to interest syndicates in the U.S. and elsewhere in "Fisher" but never with any success. A book project may be in the works — stay tuned.

    Philip, you have achieved success in cartooning. Does the business of cartooning and illustration take up more time than the actual creation of your work?

     Not at this point, because there is no ancillary business to "Fisher". I create and submit the strip; I get paid; and I employ a webmaster to update the "Fisher" archive at philipstreet.com (another plug!)

     Any pastimes or hobbies?

     My hobby is sleeping. I love to do it when I can. Reading, listening to music (and old radio shows), and watching movies are other ways I relax.

    Do you have words of wisdom to share with aspiring cartoonists? What is your opinion of the state of cartooning in today’s publishing world?

     I have to say that the work that inspires me is often of the past: the great strips of the '20s and '30s ("Krazy Kat", "Popeye", "Polly and her Pals"), the very graphic animation and illustration of the 1950s, and the great post -war strips ("Peanuts", "Pogo", "Dennis the Menace"). Maybe that's because I'm still playing catch-up to those guys. So my advice would be: look beyond the familiar and seek out the best work from the past and present. Set your standards high.

     Unfortunately this is not a great time for comic strips. They don't command the readership or the newsprint real-estate that they used to, and the disappearance of daily papers in many cities has made it harder for new strips to compete. Ironically — or not — it's a great time to be a connoisseur of comics, with reprints of the great strips being published in books or on the internet.

    Any other comments that you would like to add?

     I'm grateful to the Globe and its readers for giving me the opportunity to practise this craft. I've learned a lot by meeting that weekly deadline. And I've been able to fulfill a childhood ambition.

    Thanks so much for giving The Cartoonists an insight into your inspiring and creative life, Philip.
Cheers for a long and prosperous career with Fisher !

    Sources:
    Trying to find just the right illustrator or animator for your project?
    Visit www.philipstreet.com He just might be the right man for the job.

    The "Fisher" comic strip, updated daily:
    http://www.philipstreet.com/fisher/index.html

© Susanna McLeod 2007
TheCartoonists.ca