Smash Pages Q&A: Jon Adams + Ellis Rosen on ‘Send Help!’

The two cartoonists talk about their latest project — a collection of comics, games, puzzles and more about being stranded on a desert island.

Jon Adams and Ellis Rosen are cartoonists and illustrators who separately have contributed to The New Yorker, MAD, McSweeney’s and many other outlets. Together they’ve teamed up to edit the new book Send Help!: A Collection of Marooned Cartoons.

More than just a collection of comics, it includes a forward by Emma Allen, an afterward by Bob Mankoff, along with biographies of people famously stranded on desert islands, games and puzzles, along with cartoons by artists familiar to comics readers including legends like Rob Chast and Mort Gerberg, and many others like Ivan Brunetti, Liza Donnelly, Liana Finck, Emily Flake, Matt Furie, S Gross, Pia Guerra and Ian Boothby, Miriam Latin, Peter Kuper, Terry LaBan, Hartley Lin, Michael Marlin, Hilary Price and Shannon Wheeler.

Adams and Rosen answered a few question about their hilarious and bizarre book, which is out now, and that after more than a year of pandemic lockdown feels very timely and very timeless. 

To start, how did you come to comics? 

Jon Adams:  I grew up drawing comics, and while in high school I started working for a local independent publisher. That lasted a couple of years before they went under, and then I started on my own again, eventually finding a publisher for my Truth Serum comics through Slave Labor Graphics. From there, I moved on to work for comics publishers like Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, Marvel, and DC. Eventually I found my way to doing New Yorker cartoons, which are a whole other thing, and strangely gratifying. 

Ellis Rosen:  I grew up reading Sergio Aregones’ Groo The Wanderer and Gary Larson’s Far Side, which formed my sense of humor and interest in drawing. I doodled my way through high school, went to art school and graduated without any idea what to do. A friend of mine, Sam Marlow, was pitching cartoons to the New Yorker, and encouraged me to try as well. I knew pretty quickly that this was the medium for me. 

What is it about desert island cartoons? What’s the appeal for you, either as a reader or a cartoonist?

Jon Adams:  Desert island cartoons have been a minor obsession of mine, starting when I was doing a weekly single-panel cartoon for the San Francisco Chronicle several years ago, and continuing into my time as a New Yorker cartoonist. For me, I think the appeal as a cartoonist is the challenge of finding something new to do with this decades-old trope. It’s such an incredibly simple premise, but by introducing a single element it can change into something brand new. 

Ellis Rosen:  The desert Island cartoon is the #1 trope for gag cartooning. When I started cartooning one of my fist goals was to sell a desert island cartoon. It’s something appealing about being part of that tradition and taking a swing at that scenario. To echo Jon, there’s an irresistible challenge to coming up with a fresh take on it. 

How does one start to assemble a book like this? What’s the process? 

Jon Adams:  The first step is to write to one’s cartoonist friends and ask them if they have any unsold desert island cartoons laying around, which of course they do. Then you go through those, and realize that some of them may have remained unsold for a reason, and then you come to terms with the fact that it’s going to take a lot more effort than you originally expected to put together a book like this. 

Ellis Rosen:  With a project like this, going through all these cartoons from different artists, it is easy to freak out and doubt yourself. This will make the project much harder. That’s why I recommend breaking it up into smaller panic attacks. 

When you started was there certain work or certain people that you knew had to be included?

Ellis Rosen:  I’ll admit it, there were definitely some friends I knew had to be in it. Not only because they are my friends, but also because they are great cartoonists and also I owe most of them money. 

Jon Adams:  There were a few people we reached out to that were very aspirational, who we didn’t have personal relationships with. Some of those people ended up contributing, some politely bowed out, and some we never heard from, I’m guessing because they would prefer not to risk having a personal relationship with us. 

As you two were working together on this, were there any points of disagreement, either about what was included or how to work together?

Jon Adams:  I think our senses of humor are mostly aligned enough that we were on the same page for most of the submissions we received. There were a handful where we didn’t agree, and those usually came down to who loved or who hated one more than the other. If Ellis loved something enough to fight for it, and I was indifferent, I’d usually concede. 

Ellis Rosen:  I think our tastes complemented each other well. We each made compromises at times, and I think that makes the book stronger. Strong enough that it hurt when Jon hit me with it during one of our fights. 

Jon Adams:  In my defense, the book is very heavy and slippery and just very hard to keep a grip on, and Ellis’ head is huge and always in the way. 

Why did you decide to have more than just cartoons? And once you hit on that, how did you decide what to include? 

Ellis Rosen:  Jon and I agreed in the beginning to have some extra content, other ways to make jokes and entertain the reader after they read the toons. All the subsequent sections were more fun ways to explore the trope. 

Jon Adams:  We also wanted the book to be more substantive than just cartoons, which is why we have a history of the desert island cartoon, as well as some stories of real-life castaways. An activity section was a different way to bring in some more humor to the book and make it more engaging. 

I kept thinking that the activities and other elements were meant to make readers laugh and I’m curious about the challenge of that. Because you’ve both done more than make single panel comics, but it does require a different way of thinking to make those. 

Ellis Rosen:  Yes, most of the games and activities were actually just jokes disguised as games and activities. Apologies if you tried to play the word search for real. I have made single panel gags that are disguised as games in the past. The format guides the joke, ultimately subverting the actual intent of the game. I wouldn’t call these jokes subtle, but they do initially fool the reader. When you look at a gag cartoon, you know it’s going to be a joke. That’s not true at first with the foux games, but part of the humor comes from that surprise. 

Jon Adams:  I’ve done a lot of activity sections for McSweeney’s, Buzzfeed, and The San Francisco Chronicle, and it’s something I’ve always enjoyed. I think creating it was one of the less challenging aspects of the book. We each had our own ideas and would let one another run with them pretty freely. 

Emma Allen makes the point in her introduction that there’s something timeless about these comics, but also always something very timely and specific about when they were made. What does making this collection say about our present moment – and about you at this moment? 

Ellis Rosen:  When quarantine started, I have no doubt that absolutely everyone who draws cartoons sat down to draw a Desert Island cartoon. They are, after all, primarily about isolation. Politically speaking too, when we think of being in our “bubbles,” we could just as easily call them islands. While we never allude to a specific event, all of the cartoons in the book explore the emotions we collectively feel in our current moment. 

So besides this book, what other comics would you take to a desert island? 

Jon Adams:  If there’s no limit, I’d bring all my longboxes. But in terms of what I could reasonably carry I’d bring some of the comics I’ve been able to come back to time and again. Alan Moore and Gene Ha’s Top Ten, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, and David Mazzuchelli’s Asterios Polyp come to mind. 

Ellis Rosen:  I’m not sure about comics, but I guess I would bring books that help me survive. Like Issac Asimov’s Foundation, which I assume would teach me how to set up the base for a sturdy shelter, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which one can only presume is about building a house out of the leaves and branches you find on a palm tree. Finally, Stephen King’s Firestarter, which obviously would teach me how to start a fire. 

I have to ask, if one gets stranded on a desert island with this book, do the pages taste good? Do they have any nutritional value?

Jon Adams:  There’s no disclaimer in this book warning the reader to not eat it, and that’s by design. 

Ellis Rosen:  We sent a copy to Michelin, fingers crossed! 

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