Picture this: a cartoon stick-figure named IronHide Tom marooned on a deserted island. But what the little guy doesn't realize is that the "island" belongs to the semi-submerged head of a giant sea creature. Preposterous? Fine. The cartoon graces the cover of last year's The Preposterous Voyages of IronHide Tom (AdHouse Books).
Or picture this: a cartoon couple dining over candles and wine, but the toast the man makes isn't to his "Sweetie" across the table but to his pet notion: evil. The stuff of romance? Yes. The scene appears in "Intimate Stories of Sweetie 'n Me," in the pages of Project: Romantic: An Anthology Dedicated to Love and Love Stuff (also from 2006 and also from AdHouse Books).
Picture this too: another stick-figure, one named Onion Jack, going from crime-fighting superhero all the way to the grave but not before switching careers late in life and becoming the world's greatest chef! Amazing? You're right. The story is called "The Amazing Life of Onion Jack," a 10-page cartoon that opens The Best American Comics 2006 (Houghton Mifflin), edited and with an introduction by acclaimed comic-book writer Harvey Pekar. And in case you're not up on your comics, the man behind IronHide Tom, "Sweetie 'n Me," and Onion Jack is cartoonist Joel Priddy, who teaches at the Memphis College of Art. 2006 was for Priddy a very good year.
2002 wasn't bad either. That's the year AdHouse published Priddy's first cartoon book, Pulpatoon Pilgrimage . Priddy, who says he received a good number of "really polite rejection letters" from potential publishers, calls Pulpatoon Pilgrimage "a weird, personal little story that isn't funny." But the book went on to win an Ignatz Award for outstanding cartoon debut. It was also nominated for an Eisner Award, cartooning's "Oscar," for best graphic novel.
All of which pleases Priddy, but please, don't refer to him as "The Stick-Figure Guy" -- plenty of fans already do -- because it isn't his only style or his only means of expression. But it's a style that Priddy discovered at the Memphis College of Art and one that he wants you and readers and reviewers to know isn't as easy as it looks.
"Every once in a while at the college, I'll do a 24-hour cartoonathon," Priddy says. "In one day we try to compose a 24-page comic strip. I started doing these stick figures as a way to get a lot of story down quickly. One of those stories got printed, people responded, and my publisher asked for another one. So a lot of people have seen my stick-figure work, but I've read reviewers who say, 'This is so great. Joel shows that you can make comics without being able to draw!'
"You know, I make a living teaching people how to draw, and it takes a lot of artistic training to pull off those little figures. It's definitely not something I would've been brave enough to do without proving to myself first that I could do other things."
Among the "other things," consider Priddy's successful career as a free-lance illustrator for magazines and the regular gig he once had illustrating a financial column for The New York Times . But that was before he received an offer to move to Memphis. He was teaching art in Richmond, Virginia, but it was an offer, Priddy says, he couldn't refuse.
"I got an e-mail headed 'Elvis From Memphis' -- from artist and teacher Elvis Kee of the Memphis College of Art. I saw that name, and I figured it was a cosmic sign: You don't say no to Elvis when he calls you to Memphis."
It was a wise move, a productive move. Priddy says the college has supported him every step of the way, and he's popular with students. But what Priddy gives to teaching he also gets from teaching.
"It's like earning another degree," he says of his time in the studio with students. "There are things you sort of understand -- you know what works, what doesn't in your own art. But when you teach, you have to articulate that. You develop a specific understanding of your work. I can be struggling with something and realize I'm not doing the very thing I tell my students to do. It's been revelatory."
It's been eye-opening too for Priddy to watch cartooning go from a "bastard-child medium" of muscle-bound heroes and animé ripoffs to its graduation into graphic novels. And you can watch as Priddy continues to incorporate myth and art history into his work. You can chart the progress of his storytelling skills. And you can applaud Priddy's parents, who encouraged their son when he was growing up in the "redneck wilds" outside Charlottesville, Virginia.
"I don't remember a time in my life when I wasn't drawing, wasn't thinking I was going to be an artist. My family supported me even when I showed an 'unhealthy' interest in comic books, well-known then as junk literature."
Well, it's junk no more if you consider the cartoonists working today whom Priddy admires -- artists such as Ben Katchor and Chris Ware in the U.S. and "David B." in France. And what of the cartooning scene in Memphis?
"There are cartoonists here . . . a small group that gathers occasionally," according to Priddy. "I hope to get more involved. It's nice to not only talk the same language with others but have some friendly rivalry. I miss that. But as for a cartoon scene in Memphis: There's not much of one. Maybe what I need to do next is create my own."
Six hundred thousand visitors per year can't be wrong, so Graceland has gone interactive in Graceland: An Interactive Pop-Up Tour (Quirk Books) by Chuck Murphy, with a foreword by Priscilla Presley. Featuring eight full-color pop-up spreads, the book sells for $40, but for fans, price is not the issue. Hands-on "tours" of Elvis' record collection, the Presley family photo album, the contents of Elvis' refrigerator, plus the TV Room, the Trophy Room, and the Meditation Garden make the trip in book form well worthwhile. . . . Which perhaps makes Memphian Frank Jones' A Penny Saved. . . is Impossible (Xlibris) all the more worth looking into. Jones, past president of Cook Industries, founder of Summit Asset Management, and current director of Cumberland Trust & Investment Company, has written a primer for the starter investor, based on a collection of columns the author wrote for The Commercial Appeal from 1993 to 2003. First lesson: the value of saving. But if saving isn't a goal and you've chosen to drive a Hummer, see the latest edition of The Pinch , a literary journal produced through the University of Memphis Graduate Creative Writing Program. In it you'll find a mix of fiction, poetry, visual art, and creative nonfiction, none perhaps more creative than the piece by Cedar Lorca Nordbye, professor of art at the U of M, who has a bone to pick with the Hummer and with Hummer drivers. Nordbye's project was at least a fair-trade agreement: The artist sketched the Hummers he found around town, and in exchange for the drawings, he asked owners for a 15-minute recorded conversation on the ethics and politics of driving such a vehicle. Go to The Pinch . Judge for yourself. Then hit the gridiron, Southeast Conference style, in Kick Butt (Sewanee Mountain Press), a novel by Don Huber, who's a songwriter and a teacher in the department of classical languages at the University of the South. An unlikely combination in one author? Yes, but maybe the right combination for Huber's satirical look at the highs, the lows, and the absurdities at play, on and off the field, in the world that is Southern college football.