Smash Pages Q&A: Hilary Price and Rina Piccolo

Hilary Price launched the comic strip Rhymes with Orange in 1995 and it’s remained an award-winning staple of the comics page since then, winning multiple awards from the National Cartoonists Society. Rina Piccolo got her start in gag cartoons but in recent years has been making the daily strip Tina’s Groove, and she was one of the contributors of Six Chix. Last year Rina wrapped up both those gigs, and the two are now collaborating full time on Rhymes with Orange. I spoke with both of them to ask how this collaboration came about and how they adjusted to a new work routine.

Rina will be doing an “Ask Me Anything” (AMAfeed.com) on the topic of comics on Friday, January 12, starting at 11 am EST.

How did the two of you originally meet?

HILARY: We met at an NCS event in 2000-something, where King Features was rolling out Six Chix. But I was already familiar with Rina’s work, having walked into a bookstore in the 90s and seen Rina’s Big Book of Sex Cartoons on the humor shelf. With a title like that, it was hard to miss. Also, here was a young woman like me doing single panel cartoons. That was a rare find, and I took note.

RINA:  Wow, it was so long ago that I can’t remember which Ruebens it was – and in what city. That’s my 51 year-old-brain for you. The truth is, I knew Hilary’s work long before we met in person. I was a fan! So when we did finally get to chat in person, I remember Hilary saying something about how much she liked my cartoons – and I felt, like, wow – she thinks I’m good! (I’m so glad she still thinks that, ha ha.)

Hilary, you launched Rhymes with Orange 22 years ago. Which seems like an insanely long period of time. How has it felt?

HILARY: Rhymes With Orange has been my expressive outlet from my mid-twenties through my mid-forties. There’s a lot of change in that time – from sleeping on a futon to having a box spring and mattress, from negotiating roommates to negotiating a mortgage, from weddings to divorces. I remember a relative noting that when the strip first started, it was a window into the life of a twenty-something, but as I aged, the topics hit a broader audience. For example, more people are in the settled down phase than in the just starting out phase, so gags about long term relationships hit a wider mark than the hook-up at parties gags.

But you asked how it has felt. It has felt worthwhile. The best advice I was smart enough to ignore was to the directive to “do strips about women’s issues,” as if they exist apart from the mainstream. Instead, my goal has been to have the everywoman figure be as relatable as the everyman figure. Similarly, I’ve been interested in doing relationship strips where the experience transcends the “men are this way/women are this way”  stereotypes, and speaks instead of the struggle of two people with competing theories of how to load a dishwasher. This is the edge to being a lesbian – I know from personal experience that it’s not what is between someone’s legs that makes dishwasher-loading a struggle.

I’m now in the phase that a lot of my age cohort is in – I’ve been doing something for twenty years, I felt like I was good at it, but I wanted to disrupt that relentless weekly deadline. It was wearing on me.

You’ve had people like Rina come and fill in for a week or two over the years, but otherwise have been doing the strip solo the entire time?

HILARY: The notion that creativity is a light shining from the sky that hits one person and infuses them with brilliant ideas is a crushing paradigm for me. I believe in collaboration, and it has been part of my practice from the get-go. That means that I get ideas not just myself, but from friends, fans, and gag-writers. My practice now is that if someone contributes to the seminal nugget of the gag, even if it is then transformed beyond recognition, I thank them in the strip. There are times when I struggled with this, and did not always do it, but I realized what was holding me back was shame. Why did I feel shame about collaboration, which was how I enjoyed my work the most? My decision was to be public about it, for my own sake. Fans say they appreciate it, which is icing on the cake. It is not lost on me that this parallels, and is informed by, my personal coming out process.

From your experiences, how common is it to work solo versus having a team of people?

RINA:  I’ve always worked solo. It never crosses my mind to hire writers because for me, that’s the most fun part of cartooning, and so why would I give that job to someone else? On the flip side, I can totally see why cartoonists with long-running strips hire writers, and drawers – it’s the deadlines and the constant grind that can be really challenging at times – I mean, I have no idea what it’s like to do a strip for over 20 years, so maybe it’s just that I’ve never felt the need to hire outside help because I’ve never had a super long-running gag strip. (Tina’s Groove was about to hit 16 years.)

Hilary, when you approached Rina, what exactly did you propose?

HILARY: I got down on one knee and said, “Rina… my contract is coming up for renewal – will you job share with me?”

She said “let me think about it.”

I took that as a “no.”

When I circled back a few months later and said something like, “I guess you won’t, so I’ll think about some other way,” Rina said, “Well, hold on, now. What could this look like?”

Stu Rees was our pre-marriage counselor, and we went to him to say, “How can we make this fair to us both?”  And we hammered out the details before we approached King.

RINA: At first Hilary considered we chop the week in half – like Six Chix but only with 2 “Chix”. I couldn’t say yes to this because financially, I needed to keep Tina’s Groove going – that was my main gig. And doing 1.5 strips was a bit daunting. I mean, I’d be spending half the week on Tina, and the other half on Rhymes With Orange, which would leave me zero time and energy for other comics and projects. Also, I really don’t think I can write for two strips non-stop. That would not be fun – too stressful! So I said no to her very first proposal, but then she had another idea – one that allowed me to consider quitting Tina’s Groove to do Rhymes With Orange. Basically, instead of only half the week, it would be for all six dailies, with Hilary doing the Sundays.

Rina, what made you say yes to this proposal?

RINA: To be super brief: I LOVE doing single panels! I was a single panel cartoonist long before doing Tina’s Groove. And it’s my preference. But I have to say, I wouldn’t have said yes to just any feature, or any cartoonist. I was always a fan of Hilary’s work, and Rhymes With Orange was always consistently good. I’ve always looked up to it as one of the best gag features in syndication – for me, it’s in the top 5. So here she was offering me the opportunity to not only work exclusively on single panel gags, but also to do it for one of my favorite features. And by the way, the reason Tina’s Groove was a character strip is because at the time that I was speaking to Jay Kennedy at King Features Syndicate – back around 1998 – Jay could not bring out any more single panels, and he said to me, “If you want a syndicated comic, then do a strip.” I knew how difficult it was to get syndicated, and so I developed a character, and gave her a world – which I very much loved. But I liked gag work just a teeny bit more, so I decided to take the leap and go for it.

How do the two of you work together? What’s this process and collaboration like?

HILARY: Rina and I collaborate on the gags Monday through Saturday, and she renders them in my style. I do the Sundays.

RINA:  First, can I say that except for a couple of projects lately in my career, I’ve never had to work collaboratively with anyone – in fact, I’ve always preferred working solo, until now. Collaborating with Hilary is both a fun challenge – like two friends riffing on stuff – and also, for me, a sort of creative safety net. I never thought of it that way, and it’s working so well. I mean, when two cartoonists double up their efforts, it makes the daunting side of non-stop creating a little less stressful. My biggest fear is not having ideas. I have lived with that fear for like, what, 29 years? Writer’s block still scares the hell out of me, especially since you’ve got to produce produce produce non-stop – that’s the syndication treadmill, right? So now, I’m in a team of two – I know that if I need help in homing in on an idea, or if I’m just too close to see the humor in something – well, I don’t feel so alone. I’ve got Hilary right there, she’s in it with me, and together we can solve those creative problems. It’s such a great thing! Sorry for the long answer.

The actual weekly process works like this: I write a bunch of ideas for dailies and loosely sketch them out. Hilary then goes over them and often takes on the weak ones and suggests ways to make them stronger. We’ll have a back-and-forth about some of the ideas – again, we’ll riff on them, and often, Hilary will make some of them tighter. Together we choose the ones that will get a green light. Then every week I choose six from my pool of green-lighted ones to ink for that week. And then the process begins again. Hilary exclusively writes and draws the Sunday. Also, Rhymes With Orange has a distinct voice, and many times I tend to stray from it – Hilary will often re-write some of my ideas to be more in line with the Rhymes  with Orange style.

What is it about the gag cartoon that you love so much? 

RINA: Good question! I can only speculate, but I think it’s the fact that I can go anywhere. Writing ideas is like daydreaming and doing a puzzle. You get to play around with all sorts of subjects, word associations, free associating ideas, and images. I love puzzles, and I love to daydream so that’s part of it. I got to daydream a lot for Tina’s Groove but then I’d come up with ideas that could not fit in the strip, and it was so frustrating. I mean, what if I thought of something funny between two cats, or two dogs? Nope, couldn’t use it. But with single panels, as long as it’s got cartoon logic, it’s usable. There are way less boundaries, and you don’t have to worry that it won’t fit into the character-driven world of a comic strip.

To add something to that – when I was growing up, my brother used to buy National Lampoon Magazine, and that’s where I was introduced to the cartoons of Sam Gross, Gahan Wilson, and all those classic New Yorker Magazine cartoonists. I used to laugh out loud at that stuff, and I remember thinking, geez, how the heck do they make these things up? When I’d try making one up myself, it seemed nearly impossible to me – or at least very very difficult! I guess I just loved those little cartoon worlds so much, and I was so impressed that anyone could make them, that I just started spending a lot of time trying to do them myself. Also, with single panels, you don’t get the feeling like you’re drawing the same thing over and over and over and over again, ha ha! You get to draw all sorts of things – and in different scenarios, all in different worlds – that’s what I really love.

Hilary, how has it felt working in a new way like this?

HILARY: In a word, dreamy.

Are you ready for 22 more years?

HILARY: I am still in the process of digging out from the last 22 years, so I will get back to you on that!

Rina, since the other comics wound down you’ve also been doing some longer comics pieces. Do you want to say a little about The Vanishing Dot and what’s interested you in working in long form comics? 

RINA:  Thanks for asking about that. Yes, I have been working on other comics – more like short stories, and graphic essays, which is what The Vanishing Dot is. The idea is based on some really awesome science that I meshed with something from my childhood – those old TV sets that look like furniture. Anyway, without giving too much of the story away, it’s a personal essay that features some pretty cool science fact. It’s not a “comic” because it’s not sequential panels. I’d say the format is more “graphic” in that the prose is mixed with drawings. The longer form comics – they’re often referred to as “short form comics” – is the other thing I used to do early in my career. I never really stopped. I do them when my schedule allows it. I really love writing – even prose turns me on – and my story comics are an extension of that. Anyway, writing short stories for comics uses a different cartooning muscle, so I’m not taking any writing energy away from Rhymes with Orange. Just a huge switching of gears. Lately I’ve been putting a lot of time into my story comics – I plan to publish them in late 2018, or early 2019. It’s either going to be self-published, or I might pitch it to a publisher. Hint, hint, all you comics publishers! Anyway, the stories are centered around the theme of apartments. Or at least most of the stories are centered on apartments and apartment living. Some are based on real stuff from real life, and some are fiction. Some mesh fiction and truth. So, yes, keeping busy – thanks for asking!

Is there anything else coming up?

HILARY: I just did a comic book collection of my dog strips, called CanineComics. In the past couple of years I’ve done two previous comic books called Catacomics and Hanukkomics.

RINA: Other than the stuff I mentioned with the my short story comics, I’m not sure at this point. Maybe I’ll daydream about one day publishing a Rhymes With Orange collection, or maybe a calendar — “The Best of Hilary and Rina!” Well, I can dream can’t I?

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