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One by one, John McPherson '83 displayed some of his favorite panels from the newspaper comic he has drawn for more than 20 years, Close to Home, delivering each punch line with a comedian's practiced timing.
"I need to have you just trust and relax for me," says the chiropractor, perched on the top rung of a step ladder, his patient lying nervously below.
"We need you to scoot as far to left as you can, Mrs. Sanders," the doctor says to the snake on the operating table with a human-size lump in its belly.
"Those are 20 percent off," the pet store clerk says to the customer flailing under an attack by leaping ferrets. With each line, giggles bubbled through the classroom in Academic West on the Bucknell University campus.
"It's great when I give presentations that I get to hear laughter — that indicates what the best caption is," McPherson said.
The comic artist returned to his alma mater Sept. 23 to share his journey from Bucknell to the comics pages of more than 700 newspapers and publications around the world. His address was sponsored by the Department of Art & Art History, the University Lectureship Committee, the Alumni Association and the Career Development Center. Punctuating his speech with samples of his work, McPherson shared memories and anecdotes about the cartoonists who inspired him, overcoming writer's block and censorship of his work, and the perturbed responses Close to Home has prompted.
That ferret line, for instance, earned McPherson more than 300 emails from angry ferret owners.
"Ferrets are warm, loving creatures who would never harm a soul," one read. "You have done a great disservice to ferrets and ferret owners everywhere, and I am truly disgusted with you."
The genesis of Close to Home, McPherson said, began during his time at Bucknell, where he indulged his creativity with a degree in English while satisfying his practical side by studying mechanical engineering. He drew his first comic during a break from school, after one of his friends remarked that the comics that Sunday were terrible, and that he could do better.
"It really came out of a desire to express my sense of humor," McPherson said. "I tried to make it as a freelance writer at the same time I was trying to make it as a cartoonist. I just found it easier to break into cartooning and illustration than I did as a writer, because there were simply fewer people out there trying to do it."
After college, McPherson tried to take the practical road by pursuing a career in engineering while also studying and practicing to improve his artistic craft. After landing a full-time engineering job in Albany, N.Y., in 1985, McPherson said he squeezed drawing into his work schedule whenever he could, and "would race home in the evenings and draw cartoons."
Around the same time, he began submitting his cartoons to magazines, and received 160 straight rejection letters before getting published in Campus Life, a Christian magazine that paid him $50 for two cartoons. From there, he broke into The Saturday Evening Post, Yankee magazine and other national publications. By 1990, he was working as an illustrator or cartoonist for 40 to 50 magazines on a regular basis, and was offered a contract to publish two books collecting his work. He could quit his day job.
"By the time I left my engineering job I was making more as a cartoonist than I was as an engineer," he said. "So I would say to art students, don't listen to all the stories about starving artists. You can make a good living as an artist or illustrator out in the field."
In 1992, McPherson signed a syndication contract with Universal Press that would debut Close to Home in 50 newspapers around the country. Today, the single panel comic appears in more than 700 papers as far off as Tokyo and Hanoi, with new panels appearing seven days a week, 48 weeks out of the year.
McPherson went on to explain his creative process — which sometimes boils down to letting his imagination run wild, drawing a funny image and teasing a funny caption out of it — and offered advice to aspiring artists.
"I think creative people need to be out of the moment," said McPherson. "That's when I daydream, and that's when thoughts come to me that are inspirational. So I tell people, instead of being in the moment all of the time, daydream."