The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Latest News

March 30, 2014

Popular cartoonist brings his talents to area

BECKLEY — If you’re a fan of Snuffy Smith and his Appalachian antics, you’re not alone. The comic’s cartoonist says everyone’s favorite hillbillies can be found in about 400 to 500 newspapers in 11 countries around the world.

“Snuffy Smith is really popular in Norway for some reason,” cartoonist John Rose said with a laugh. “I think it’s the characters. The characters are such that readers can really relate to them.

“I think that’s the secret of a good comic strip is the relationship with readers and characters. I think a good set of characters were established even before I came on board. I think that’s what really makes people enjoy the strip.”

Rose was at the Raleigh County Public Library Saturday afternoon to give one of his “Chalk Talks” where he shared stories and met fans.

“As a cartoonist, you’re sort of back in your studio working by yourself a lot,” Rose said. “It’s neat for me to get out and do these ‘Chalk Talks’ and meet these fans of the strip. Ideas come from these talks too. Some fans had mentioned bringing back Barney Google at one of these chalk talks.

“It’s mainly for me to get out and meet folks that enjoy the strip and get away from my small studio.”

The full title of the comic is “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith,” but Google and his stories were slowly replaced with the stories of the Smiths over the years.

Rose isn’t the first person to tell about the characters of Hootin’ Holler.

“Cartoonists have an annual convention in May,” Rose said. “This particular year it was in North Carolina. I was talking to a fellow cartoonist and he told me he was working as an assistant on the ‘Blondie’ comic strip. I didn’t know cartoonists used assistants. On the drive home from North Carolina I told my wife, ‘Maybe I could try that.’

“The year was 1998 and I came home and the first comic strip I thought of right away was the Snuffy Smith comic strip. I had grown up reading it. It was my grandfather’s favorite strip and I felt like I could draw the characters. I did a Sunday comic strip along with some character drawings.”

Rose says he sent out his samples and hoped for the best.

“I sent some things to Fred Lasswell, who was the cartoonist of the feature for about 60 years,” he said. “As a cartoonist you send out a lot of things whether it’s by mail or e-mail. A lot of times you get rejected or you don’t hear back at all. It’s just the nature of the business. I didn’t really know if I’d hear back from Fred.

“About two weeks after I mailed it out, I was at home eating lunch and the phone rang. I answered it and on the other end of the line the guy says, ‘John, this is Fred Lasswell. I got the sample of things you sent me and I really like the way you draw big noses.’ That’s exactly what he said.”

Lasswell ended up hiring Rose to be his inking assistant.

“He lived in Florida and I lived in Virginia,” Rose said. “The syndicate was in New York City. Fred was an older man, up in his 80s, but he was really into technology so we could do everything by phone, fax or e-mail.

“He would sketch out and write the comic before he would fax it to me. I would ink and do all the final artwork. I would scan it back into the computer and e-mail to him for approval to be sent to the syndicate in New York City. It was neat how technology let me work with him without having to relocate.”

Rose said he and Lasswell worked together for about three and a half years before Lasswell’s death in 2001. Rose went on to audition to become the cartoonist for “Snuffy Smith” and got the job.

“The comic strip was created 95 years ago in June,” Rose said. “It started off as ‘Barney Google.’ It was about him and his wife. Eighty years ago this year was when Barney went into the mountains and met Snuffy Smith and his family.

“Fred Lasswell was (the original artist) Billy DeBeck’s assistant. Fred took over the strip in the ’40s and he phased out Barney Google and phased in more of the Snuffy Smith family.

“I talked to my editor and proposed that we bring back Barney Google for a week. I brought him back in 2012. I’ve brought him back every year since then for at least two weeklong stints. It’s always two of the most popular weeks of the year to have him back.”

Rose says his ideas for the daily strips come from all sorts of places.

“I listen to TV news, read several newspapers, and listen to radio news,” he said. “It’s just kind of like doodling and playing off things in your mind. There’s no real system to it. I always keep a little notepad with me. You’ve got notes by the bed. Post-It notes here and Post-It notes there.

“A lot of ideas just come from listening, like being in a restaurant and listening to the people in the booth behind you. You never know if it might end up in a strip.

“There are some days that you run out of ideas but there are other days where you come up with more ideas than you need,” Rose added. “You just have to keep a notebook to keep your ideas around. As far as the drawing, I’ve always loved to draw so I never really tire of drawing the characters.”

Getting into the mood to write is easy, Rose says. It’s getting out that’s the problem.

“A lot people say, ‘Is it hard to write in that dialect?’” he said. “It’s really not hard to write that way. The hard thing is in the evening.

“If you have to respond to an e-mail or a letter, you don’t want to reply back with ‘Thankee for the e-mail, young-un.’ You want to sound a little more poised than that,” Rose said with a laugh.

Fans at the event said they didn’t want to miss a rare chance like this.

“I just thought it would be interesting to see a syndicated cartoonist in a small town like Beckley,” Lotus Bailes of Beckley said. “I love the comic. Snuffy is my favorite, of course. I just think he’s cute.”

Another fan said the comic has always been close to her heart.

“Snuffy Smith has always been one of my favorite cartoons in the paper, and it was also my dad’s favorite cartoon,” Mari Foster of Daniels said. “I think all West Virginians can relate to Snuffy Smith and his family culture and their hillbilly, Appalachian characters. They’re always fun. It’s a heart-warming comic.

“Snuffy is my favorite character because he’s always laid-back and doesn’t stress over things. He just seems like a good, goes-with-the-flow kind of guy.”

— E-mail: cneff@register-herald.com

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