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Cartoonist Chris Monroe on writing, inspiration and Duluth

Monroe used to be best known for her “Violet Days” strip; now there are children’s books and an art exhibit.

Chris MonroeChris Monroe

Oh, Duluth. Wow. All those shock-and-awe flood photo galleries only get to the surface of what happened there last week — and in some cases, several feet below the surface. But to truly understand what it was like to watch this high and dry town go under water, we’ll have to wait for the artists to weigh in. And there are plenty of creative minds at work in this port city — painters and musicians and even a cartoonist, one of our favorites, Chris Monroe.

Monroe used to be best known for her “Violet Days” strip, which appears in the Duluth News Tribune and Star Tribune. It’s the one with the bug-eyed, big-headed waifs and the electrocuted-looking squirrels working through the greater truths about life in Minnesota, childhood, and how weird everyday is when looked at from a certain vantage point.

These days, Monroe is gaining a smaller audience — 2 or 3 feet high, to be exact — for her books. She has written and illustrated several extremely clever children’s books, most famously the trio of “Monkey With a Toolbelt” titles about Chico Bon Bon, a serious little monkey who can fix or figure out just about anything, thanks to his toolbelt and quiet, hardworking bachelor-farmer persona. That’s what it will take to get Duluth fixed. That and some cash, so visit this summer and spend a little. And while you are there, stop in at the Duluth Art Institute and see Monroe’s work jump off the page.

MinnPost: First, I’m so sorry about what happened to your town this week. It’s pretty shocking. How have you been affected by the floods?

Chris Monroe: Thank you for that. It is really crazy. Luckily we just had a little water in the basement and no real damage to our house. I did drive home Tuesday night in it and wow! It was really bad. I crossed a raging river on Third Street that was as deep as my hood. The same creek that wiped out part of the Co-op. Made it home but am amazed every day by the extent of street destruction. It’s going to be expensive to fix.

Monkey with a tool belt coverMP: How does living in Duluth influence your creativity?

CM: Just the natural beauty of the place, and the pace of life here being a bit more laid back than the cities. It leaves room for inspiration. Also, cheap studio space can still be found, although that has gotten a lot harder. The typical gentrification issues that plague all cheap studio spaces are occurring here. My last two studios have been bought and fixed up by developers. Of course they both sit empty. One for five years. I can always fall back on working at home, but it’s not very spacious. I did two books out of my house, which wasn’t optimal.

MP: You co-wrote the lovely “Big Little Brother” with Kevin Kling. What was it like working with him?

CM: Kevin is simply the coolest person in the world. I have loved working with him and in awe of his strength, humor, sweetness and soulfulness! He and I did not work together directly during the illustration part, but through the art director, Dan Leary, we had quite a bit of communication. Kevin was just so enthusiastic and respectful, and his attitude was, “Let her do what she does.” Doing book signings and speaking events with him have been some of the best times I have ever had. He is so damn funny. We are talking about doing a new book together, and have a few more events booked together in the fall. I can’t wait.

MP: “Violet Days” has been running a long time. Where do you find continued inspiration every week?

CM: Sometimes that is a bit tricky. I write a lot of notes and am constantly on the prowl for inspiration. I figured out I have been doing the comic for 16 years and 4 months — that is 848 comics. Some weeks are better than others. It can be arduous or it can flow easily. I try to just trust my voice and try to be honest. Humor is sometimes hard to achieve on a short deadline. Sometimes I am not super happy with the final outcome, but I keep going for some reason.

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MP: Tell me a little about your writing/illustrating process. How does a book where both the words and the pictures matter equally come together?

CM: I think after years of doing the comic, I have developed a kind of shorthand in my brain to see the pictures telling part of the story. Typically I do a lot of writing, then a lot of editing. Then the art, although I have things in mind as I write. I work in stages. I do rough storyboards, then flesh out the sketches.

MP: What artists are currently inspiring you?

CM: I love Marcel Dzama! I love Gary Baseman. I also love a lot of children’s book illustrators. Maurice Sendak still amazes me with the beauty of his style and his characterizations. Richard Scarry, Hillary Knight, Garth Williams, and Dr. Seuss are still big favorites of mine. I really love Roz Chast. She’s hilarious and her art is so funny. I also have been a lifelong fan of Tasha Tudor, and her traveling exhibit will be shown in the adjoining gallery at the Depot while my show is up. It has been mind-blowing to see my work and name next to hers. Something I could never have predicted as a young kid who loved her stuff.

MP: What will we see at your show at the Duluth Art Institute?

CM: New oil pastel drawings, not really illustrations, but rather just “art” without a specific narrative. I think a lot of it has an implied narrative. A bit larger scale than my illustration work, which will also be represented in part of the gallery. Two themes sort of emerged as I was working on the new stuff, which I had to really attack hard when they offered me a show. I basically had nothing! I turned out 26 new pieces. The themes seem to be “Summertime” and “Nancy Drew.” I had this flash of inspiration about these Nancy Drew images, which are sort of a bridge between my comics and my “fine” art. Half of them are very cartoon-style pieces with voice balloons. The summertime imagery sort of surprised me.  This show is not as dark as some I’ve done, although its not all sweetness and light either. I am really happy with the new work. I was scared at a certain point that I wouldn’t have enough work … but I pulled it off.

MP: There’s actually a billboard for the show on 1-35. Have you seen it yet?

CM: I only saw an iPhone picture that my friend pulled over and snapped. I thought it looked really cool, but honestly, I was disappointed when I saw they didn’t put my name up on it. Only the name of the summer events at the Duluth Art Institute. Oh, well. It’s still really cool.


Exhibit, Chris Monroe: New Work, George Morrison Gallery, Duluth Art Institute, July 12 to Sept. 30.