No Slowing Down: Ann Arbor cartoonist Dave Coverly celebrates the 25th anniversary of "Speed Bump"
The easy part of compiling a book that celebrates a comic strip’s silver anniversary is, well, you’ve got lots of options.
“I’ll get reviews and comments that say, ‘Not a clunker in the bunch!’—but, you know, I had 10,000 to choose from,” said Ann Arbor-based cartoon artist Dave Coverly, whose book Speed Bump: A 25th Anniversary Collection debuted in September. “If anyone wants to visit my house, you could see a big plastic tub of cartoons that are terrible.”
Perhaps that’s inevitable when your job’s required you to hatch and execute seven new ideas every week throughout two and a half decades. “You can’t wait for the muse to strike when you’re on deadline,” Coverly noted.
But having the National Cartoonists Society award your work with Best in Newspaper Panels (’95, ’03, ’14) in addition to its highest honor, the Reuben Award (’09), might suggest that you’re getting it right far more often than not.
And for Coverly, one of the most appealing things about a single-panel cartoon is its unfettered flexibility.
“I do a lot of cartoons that use aliens and animals, but they’re always really about people and the things we all have in common,” said Coverly. “My daughter, who’s a painter, had a professor who told her, ‘Don’t ask yourself what you’re going to paint. Ask yourself why you’re going to paint it.’ And I love that quote because I’m someone who—I don’t like jokes for the sake of jokes. … I’d rather try for something that’s driven by an idea. Something that’s more subtle.”
After growing up in Plainwell, outside of Kalamazoo, Coverly created a strip called Freen for EMU’s student newspaper while earning a degree in writing and philosophy (’87). He then worked for 18 months as an artist for a PR film in Kalamazoo (where he met his wife) and finished up an MA in creative writing at Indiana University (’94) while drawing political cartoons for Bloomington’s The Herald-Times and successfully submitting comics to The New York Times and Newsweek.
But when Speed Bump got picked up for syndication in 1994, Coverly didn’t yet have a name for the strip.
“When Creators [Syndicate] offered me a contract, the temporary working title was Nuts and Dolts, but I didn’t like that because it felt too mean-spirited,” said Coverly. “It’s existentially unfair to your characters to draw them only to mock them. [Creators] asked me to submit a list of suggestions, one of which was Speed Bump, and as that was the unanimous choice of the entire staff, it stuck.”
What had been Coverly’s favorite title? The Wide World of Stretch Pants.
“Fortunately, that was too long to use,” Coverly joked.
Speed Bump originally appeared in about a dozen or so papers, but then The Far Side ended its 15-year run at the start of 1995, leaving a single-panel-sized hole to be filled on the comics page.
Within weeks, Speed Bump went from appearing in 14 newspapers to 140 of them, and in 1996, Coverly and his wife moved to Ann Arbor—where they’ve lived (and raised two now-grown daughters) ever since.
What’s pandemic life been like for Coverly?
“Logistically, my life hasn’t changed one bit,” said Coverly. “I’ve been preparing for this my whole life. Really, the only way it’s affected me is book publishing.”
Namely, a new, illustrated, middle-grade novel project is currently in limbo and book-signing events have been replaced by inscription requests when ordering Coverly’s books online from Nicola’s Books. The April release of Coverly’s other recent book, Cats Are People, Too: A Collection of Cat Cartoons to Curl Up With, was an inevitably quiet, low-key affair.
Given that, you may wonder: how does a cartoonist respond, in terms of his/her work, to a pandemic?
“There are two trains of thought on that,” said Coverly. “One is, people are so sick of the pandemic, and it’s so ubiquitous, that some want to offer up a distraction so that everyone can get away and escape from it for a moment now and then. But then others of us want to deal with what we’re seeing and thinking about. To me, it’s silly to act like it’s not happening. … I can’t imagine doing something like, ‘I can’t find my keys again!’ right now.”
And although the comic strip landscape has changed profoundly during Speed Bump’s 25 years in print, Coverly has successfully rolled with the changes by holding fast to the ritual of his creative process.
“The first thing I thought about [Speed Bump’s 25th anniversary], is, ‘Oh my God, I’m old!’” said Coverly. “Honestly, it seemed like an impossible dream to do this even for 20 years. I used to think that would be great. But once I got going, I got some momentum, and … I’m still trying to improve every week. I feel like I’m still chipping away at getting better.”
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.