By Khaleel Herbert
For most sixth graders in Mrs. Rentsch’s (pronounced “wrench”) class at Roosevelt Elementary School in Santa Monica, California, it was just another meticulous assignment. But for Bob Downs, this was an assignment that helped hone his drawing skills.
“She would read out of great works and we would listen and take notes. Maybe write a little summary of what she read us,” Downs explains. “But I always drew the summaries. I would draw a little cartoon about what she had read to us and she liked that. She encouraged it.”
Downs was the only student in the class to draw his summaries. With the influences of Charles Schulz, Looney Tunes and Dr. Seuss, his love for drawing boiled within. He developed his own cartoon style that not only helped him in drawing gag cartoons for his website, Evil Crayon, but also in the graphic design world under his own business Brainstorm with an exclamation point.
Drawing New Roads
To escape the crazy California life, Downs transferred from Santa Monica College to University of Colorado–Boulder to study Broadcast Production Management in 1980.
In 1987, Downs started his own graphic design business with his writing skills and cartoon-esque style called Downs Writing and Design. In 1992, Downs changed the business to Brainstorm Design when he began focusing on logo and stationary design. He’s done cartoony logos for Observ Inc.’s Squishy Frozen Lemonade, Coors Field and Floyd’s Barbershop to name a few.
“I gravitated toward logo design because it’s so important to a business. I realized I was doing a lot of that stuff early in my career for companies that had terrible logos,” Downs says. “And I had to look at their awful brand and design something. I’d convince them, ‘To do this right, you really need a logo. You need to start from scratch.’”
The companies listened and let Downs redesign their logos. In the mid-90s, he scored many awards from American Graphic Design Awards and American Corporate Identity Awards to DESI Award for Excellence in Graphic Design and Colorado Business Magazine’s “Best Business Card.”
Thirty plus years later, Downs still designs logos for various companies under Brainstorm with an exclamation point.
Gags Get the Cold Shoulder
While Downs designed logos, he drew his regular one-panel cartoons or gags, through the ‘90s. He wanted them syndicated in newspapers, so he submitted his portfolio of 10 to 15 different cartoons to them. He even sent his work to The New Yorker, the nirvana of cartooning. But, like all the others, he was rejected. So he decided to stay in graphic design.
It took a nudge from one of Downs’ best friends and owner of CareerGPS, Andrew Lahana, to self-publish his cartoons online.
“He says, ‘Oh, you gotta get those online.’ He really encouraged me and pushed me and pushed me,” Downs recalls. “Sometimes when you do something for someone else it’s easier. So I did those first 20 or 30 the way I do them now so I could figure out size and how to do it. I showed them to him and said, ‘You gotta go forward with it.”
Lahana explains his side of the story.
“He was ready. I just helped carry his crayons up to the edge of the cliff. He knew he had to jump,” Lahana says. “If anything, I kept telling him it wouldn’t be the fall that hurt, but the searing pain of rejection that he would regret. I think he finally made the leap to shut me up.”
In 2010, Evil Crayon was born online. Downs had 60 to 100 gags on the backburner and published them online every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. He says Evil Crayon was one of many names that kept jumping out to him. He thought the idea of an evil crayon sounded funny, which matched the style of his gags. So he stuck with it.
The Thought Behind the Gags
With eight years under Downs’ belt for the Evil Crayon, he estimates that he drew more than 1,000 and he has about 2,000 ideas listed on his phone. Unlike Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” or Jim Davis’ “Garfield,” Downs’ comics don’t run on a plot or the same set of characters. They’re unique works of comedic art focused on wordplay and puns. There’s a reason Evil Crayon’s tagline is “Silly Cartoons for Smart People.”
“These are all single ideas that are based on a visual pun. I’m very attuned to the English language,” Downs says. “I love wordplay. I thought if I could turn something around visually, that would make people think.”
Downs has a book of idioms that he uses for inspiration, but not all of them can be turned into cartoons. So he also utilizes word play and words with double entendres for material.
Some gags include “Strip the Bed,” where a pillow takes her bra off while the mattress watches in arousal; “Fig Newton” where instead of Sir Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree and getting struck by an apple, it’s a fig fruit; and “Dog Paddle,” where two cats in a canoe in the middle of the lake use dogs as paddles.
Lahana also gives Downs ideas for gags if he hears, sees or thinks of something.
“When I give Bob an idea for a cartoon, I always describe the visual to him first without using any of the words in the cartoon title,” Lahana says. “I figure, if he imagines it as a reader will see it, maybe he’ll like it more. The ideas we think will be surefire hits sometimes fall flat and the ones Bob says, ‘We’ll see,’ have become reader favorites.
“An idea that comes to mind was the visual of a prisoner escaping. He’s climbing down the wall,” Lahana adds. “The cartoon was titled, ‘Condescending.’ Bob gave it an ‘Eh, we’ll see.’ Turned out to be one of the most liked and shared cartoons he has done.”
Downs admits some people hate his puns. But others find them hilarious.
“One of my great joys in life is when someone on the website or Facebook says, ‘I don’t get it.’ It’s like, ‘Great. Because you will, and when you get it, it’ll be that much funnier,’” Downs says. “Sometimes my fans will pick up because they know I won’t do it. It’s like when a comedian tells a joke and then they have to explain it. It probably wasn’t funny.”
He says drawing one cartoon takes about five hours depending on what he wants to draw and where he draws it. Sometimes he’ll draw on his iPad with Procreate or on Abode Illustrator on his computer in his Littleton home office. Or he may draw a gag with pen and paper and scan it to his computer. The final cartoon is saved as a JPEG image and goes up on Evil Crayon for all to see and potentially laugh at.
Getting cartoons up every Monday, Wednesday and Friday has become a deadline Downs refuses to miss, even if he has to repost an old cartoon that was previously published.
“If I don’t publish something, I feel like, ‘Uh-oh,’” Downs says. “So it might be a repeat. I used to feel really bad about that, but I’m old. I’m tired. Life happens.”
The Good in Evil Crayon
Evil Crayon cartoons have a dual effect on readers. They not only make people laugh, but also make people think. Lahana says this dual quality keeps him coming back to Evil Crayon.
“You must have some functioning gray matter upstairs to really appreciate his cartoons. Sometimes the light goes on as soon as you see it,” Lahana says. “And other times, it becomes a game to figure out where the heck he is going with a cartoon. Those toons always seem to make me laugh a little bit harder because I feel like I accomplished something when I figure them out.”
Karyn, Downs’ wife of 34 years and volunteer strategic planner for a non-profit organization, has routinely heard how his cartoons have brightened someone’s day and are as addictive as potato chips.
“I was flying on a plane for a business trip and had brought along several of Bob’s cartoons to look over during the flight. Soon I was laughing out loud so often that the man behind me tapped me on the shoulder and asked me what was bringing me such joy,” Karyn says. “He was having a tough day and wanted to share in the fun. So I handed him the stack of cartoons and soon he was laughing out loud too.
“As we parted ways when we got off the plane,” Karyn continues, “he told me the cartoons and our shared laughter had been the brightest spot in his life in many weeks.”
Based on its Facebook analytics, Evil Crayon fans range from 20 to 80 years old in and outside of the U.S.
“I have a surprising number of fans outside the U.S. I think 20 to 30 different countries. I was shocked by that because Evil Crayon is definitely American-English centric,” Downs says. “I got a lot of fans in the UK. They have different meanings than we have.”
With the growing fanbase and comments on Evil Crayon, he has taken gag suggestions and the idea to have his own set of mugs, T-shirts, prints and more through Zazzle because the fans wanted them. But Zazzle takes most of the profit, leaving only a few odd cents in profits for Downs. He also has art for kids featuring long dogs and cats.
“That all started for my kids, Colin and Shelby. They were probably 8 and 6 in 1999 or so when we went to dinner at a Macaroni Grill in town,” Downs says. “They covered their tables with paper tablecloths and handed out crayons to all the kids. I would ask for a set of crayons, much to the surprise of the waiters, and I just started doodling extremely long cats and dogs for my kids.”
Colin and Shelby loved the doodles, and since then, Downs has tried breaking into the art world for kids. But, like selling his cartoons, it hasn’t been sunshine and rainbows breaking into the market.
“I had a deal in place to have plush toys made of these characters and that fell through at the last minute. That kinda broke my soul,” Downs recalls. “So I re-did it and renamed it. Refigured it. But again, this is like getting a screenplay or novel sold. It’s just so hard.
“So competitive and you never know who to trust,” Downs adds. “People give you advice and they’re not necessarily looking out for your best interest.”
The Cartoonist Hitting Singles
Despite the rejection and bumps in the road, Downs continues self-publishing his gags. His work was also displayed in the 2015 Centennial Chalk Art Festival and the 2018 Denver Chalk Art Festival on Larimer Square.
For the Denver Chalk Art Festival, Downs wanted to appeal to children. So he drew what most children like…a giant green dinosaur munching on buildings. The punny title was called “Architectural Digest.”
“The Evil Crayon isn’t really meant for kids because they don’t get the puns,” Downs explains. “So I tried to get something that kids would like. So they see a big green dinosaur. ‘Cool! Look at the big green dinosaur.’ That was really rewarding hearing the littler kids just being attracted to the art.”
Karyn and Shelby also lent a hand in making “Architectural Digest.”
“Most chalk artists create work that is stunning and beautiful. But very few intend to create art that is both funny for adults and intriguing for children,” Karyn says. “My favorite moment was when I was about a block away from Bob’s chalk art location while I was taking a break. I overheard two adult men comparing notes about their favorite chalk drawings of the entire festival. They both heartedly agreed, ‘That green dinosaur over there was the best.’”
This year, Downs is hoping to get his cartoons on greeting cards. No matter what happens, he still wants to keep making cartoons for people to laugh and think.
“I think in the ‘90s I was trying to hit homeruns,” Downs says. “Now I’m more interested in hitting singles rather than swing for the fences and striking out.”
For more about Bob Downs, Evil Crayon cartoons and merchandise, visit: http://evilcrayon.com/ and https://www.zazzle.com/evilcrayon. You can also follow Evil Crayon on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.