I have known Anne, aka Bob T Panda from a Facebook writers group for a while now and her humor and support for other creatives are what initially got me interested in her and her work. Discovering her panda and cupcake obsession only endeared her all the more!
[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator? If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?
[AB] I am an author/illustrator. When I first started making cartoons, I would start with the images. Now I usually write a script first and then work out the images. The process does remain sort of fluid.
[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?
[AB] I grew up on the east coast of the US. I was born in eastern Pennsylvania, but by the time I started grade school, we had moved to Pittsburgh. Both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have good art museums and art programs for children, so I got some early art training outside of public school. I moved to Washington State to go to graduate school for painting in the late 70’s.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
[AB] I can remember always wanting to draw from a fairly young age. When I was in second or third grade, my art teacher recommended me for Saturday classes at the Carnegie Art Museum in Pittsburgh. I never thought I was very good compared to the other kids in the program, but I liked it and wanted to keep going. I also had a cousin who was about 12 years older than me, and she really encouraged me to paint.
[JM] Why did you choose a cartoon/graphic novel format as the vehicle for your panda stories?
[AB] When I was young, I used to sneak into my brother’s closet of comics and read for hours or until caught and banished. I was definitely NOT allowed to touch his stuff. As I got older, I was more interested in painting and drawing and my creative work developed in that direction. But I always loved reading comics and was a big fan of Doonesbury and Calvin and Hobbes. In college, I discovered Nicole Hollander, and B. Kliban, who did those wonderful cats.
I’ve always had a very quirky sense of humor. When I moved to Seattle for graduate school, I discovered Lynda Barry and Matt Groening who were both starting to get their work out around that time. So even though I was in the “fine art camp” I always enjoyed comics, but never thought I would ever do them as a serious pursuit. I did play with making comics even as far back as high school. (Until I discovered pandas, they were usually about cats.) It was completely unexpected when I started drawing panda comics.
In 2008 when the economy tanked, my nice steady living I made from fine art went off a cliff and I was really depressed. Coincidentally, in late 2007, I came across an article in The Atlantic Magazine by James Fallows, who spent three years in China writing about politics and culture, and he wrote an article about the panda research and breeding centers. In the article, there were several pictures of panda toddlers, doing adorable things. I could literally hear their little panda voices asking for treats as they held onto their keeper’s legs.
I started drawing pandas just sort of randomly to cheer myself up, and as I drew them, story ideas came into my head. When I first started, they were sort of punny, but you run out of bamboo jokes and right to arm bears jokes very quickly. Current events and popular culture started seeping in and eventually, as I got to know actual pandas, I developed characters based on real life pandas.
This is a very long and roundabout way of getting to the point that pandas are especially suited for humorous works because they are really comical animals in real life.
[JM] How do the image/text relationships work within the graphic novel and what aesthetic principles inform the work?
[AB] I look at my eight years of doing The Panda Chronicles as training for making a graphic novel. When I first started, my comics were, at most, four panels long. Then when I started thinking of longer and more complex story lines, they got longer and longer. Currently, I post two new four panel cartoons a week, but most often they are continuing story lines. The story that has become my graphic novel, The Pandyland Mysteries: The Case of the Picturesque Panda, started out as a 47-page comic, and now it is over 130 pages.
At heart, I will always be interested in painting, and the images are all hand drawn and watercolored. My weekly cartoons are kind of wordy, but in the graphic novel, if I can show the action with image, I try to let that take dominance. I did a wordless picture book a few years ago, Pandamorphosis, which was an interesting process. It didn’t start out that way, but by the time I was well into it, the words were superfluous and I got rid of them.
[JM] Where has your panda research taken you?
[AB] I’ve been to the National Zoo in Washington DC numerous times, and three times to The San Diego Zoo. I’ve also visited the pandas in Edinburgh, Scotland and outside of Brussels in Belgium. I’m making plans to go see the new twin cubs who were born in early September this year, and also making plans to finally go to China to see pandas at the research centers. (I call those panda ranches.)
[JM] Do pandas have other pets aside cats?
[AB] Ha Ha! Mehitabel says she is not a pet. I am her servant.
[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP or a recently published book, and the process of creating them?
[AB] I would love to! Here are some of my pencil sketches for The Case of the Picturesque Panda, as well as one of the finished page spreads. The work is still in progress. I had do final art for about 25 pages in order to send it out on submission, but you don’t want to do the whole book as an editor may want some changes. The whole book exists as pencil sketches (like a picture book dummy only a LOT longer) and a script.
It’s a detective story with a fine art subplot. It’s sort of like The Maltese Falcon, but with pandas. It includes forgeries of famous impressionist painting, with panda models.
I’ve also included a drawing from Pandamorphosis, my wordless picture book. It’s the story of a cat who longs to be loved as much as pandas are, by the little girl she lives with.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[AB] My workspace is fabulous. It’s the best thing I ever could have done for myself. Needless to say, I built it while paintings were selling well, and I’ve managed to keep paying the mortgage.
[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house?
[AB] I have many of my own paintings, but also those by friends, not to mention a few of the “serious” forgeries I’ve done.
Five Fun Ones to Finish? [JM] What’s your favorite park (state/urban..) in the world?
[AB] I would have to say the Delaware Water Gap National Park in northwestern New Jersey. I spent a semester there as an art student, living and studying with other art students from around the country. It was the best experience I had in art school.
[JM] Tell us one strange panda fact.
[AB] At birth, a panda cub is about 1/900th the size of it’s mother.
[JM] What was the first book bought with your own money?
[AB] I really can’t remember, but I did…um…permanently “borrow” my brother’s copy of The Wind in the Willows.
[JM] What word best sums you up?
[AB] Ooo…that’s a hard one. If I can only have one word, I’d say whimsical.
[JM] Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?
[AB] Must. Have. Coffee. Also cuppycakes, although I probably talk about them more than I eat them. I would never turn down a cookie.