“I felt really lucky and privileged to have a weekly audience. I never took it lightly, but I didn’t let it affect what I drew.” – Van Alex Burns
Local graphic designer/artist/painter/all around talented guy, Van Alex Burns, can be found these days designing posters for Athens-Clarke County Library programs and events, and occasionally at craft shows, displaying work with his similarly-talented wife Denise. He’s comfortable and happy now, but twenty years ago Van’s head-space was in a more subversive place. For 18 years running, his weekly comic strip, Access Atlanta, could be found in Atlanta’s formerly-great alternative weekly newspaper, Creative Loafing.
Sitting with him while he perused original comic strip art, most of which he hadn’t looked at for at least a decade, was a nostalgia trip I’d recommend to anyone. Watching an artist think back on his choices is as close to a journalistic MRI as it gets. “That one’s too wordy….Oh, I remember…”
Most of Van’s strips were political.
“I’ve always followed politics, national and local.”
His content proves that one. They were mainly about political issues facing Atlanta and Georgia in general.
“I started drawing Access Atlanta in the late 1980’s. I was about to launch a weekly strip with the AJC (Atlanta Journal Constitution). I’d gotten the go-ahead from the Managing Editor, and did about 12 strips. They were approved and ready to go, and then there was a management change.”
That’s the path Van took toward the much-preferred destination of Creative Loafing. For those of you too young to remember, Creative Loafing was huge a few decades back. “It had the second biggest weekly circulation in the country, behind only The Village Voice.”
It was subversive. It was in tune with the mindset of the people. It was to Atlanta what Flagpole is to Athens. Therefore, it was a much better suited place for Van’s sarcastic, incisive, sometimes acerbic wit.
“I tried to mainly stick with local issues. They wanted local content. They could’ve bought a weekly syndicated strip for $15, so I tried to stay away from national stories…for the most part.”
Looking over Van’s subject matter choices, that’s largely true, but not always. Sometimes the national stories were just too juicy not to draw. Sometimes they had local tie-ins.
He’s too humble to brag, but I can brag for him. In 1999 Van was given the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s second place award for the best comic strip in the entire nation. – Bowen Craig
AU: Did you ever interact with your audience?
VAB: Some, not much. This was pre-Internet. When I went to Dragon Con I got a good reception, but it’s a comics crowd. I was just pleased that I got to have an audience of several hundred thousand.
AU: How did you pick your topics and keep them timely?
VAB: I would drop off the strip on Monday. You’re not always right about what’ll be THE STORY of the week, but you try. I always worked as close to the deadline as possible, making sure to have the plan formulated by Sunday night. You’re not always going to hit it, but you try.
AU: Would you go back to cartooning today?
VAB: Probably not. The political scene is so target rich today, but the medium is different. There are a lot of cartoonists on the Web, but I don’t see how they make a living at it. I was a painter at one time, and I think I’ll go back to that once I retire from the library.
AU: Who Were your influences?
VAB: My favorite cartoon was Walt Kelly’s ‘Pogo.’ I always aspired to have artwork good as that. His writing was good, too. ‘Pogo’ had a cast of more than 40 recurring characters, all with separate personalities. I also liked the AJC cartoonist Mike Luckovich, Doonesbury, Carl Barks (“Uncle Scrooge”), underground comix artist R. Crumb, and Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth (‘Rat Fink’) who mainly did T-shirts. When I was 10-years old there was nothing better than Mad magazine. That was subversive humor. Everything after Mad was different, questioning authority. In a way it started “outsider culture.” bringing it into the living rooms of 10-or-11-year-old boys around the country. Mad taught them to question the stuff they were being told by their teachers, their parents, their politicians.
AU: If you were advising a young cartoonist what would you say?
VAB: Pick out two seemingly unrelated stories and mash them up. Putting two together is an old cartoonist’s trick.
AU: Who do you think you accurately captured?
AU: Did it evolve over time?
VAB: Later they wanted me to do a one panel horizontal [strip]. That was so they could save space, but I never felt as comfortable with that as with multi-panel strips. But I did one-panels occasionally anyway.
AU: What’s the least favorite cartoon you’ve ever seen?
VAB: For Better or For Worse. All of the characters look the same. No differentiation.
AU: Would you do it again?
VAB: Probably not. I’m not tuned into the culture that much anymore. When I first moved to Athens I did a few cartoons for Flagpole. Overall, I’m satisfied.