Cartoonist on the Run

Dave Coverly is the creator of the Speed Bump cartoon series, syndicated in hundreds of newspapers across the country, and is the author of several children’s books published by Henry Holt/Macmillan, most recently Night of the Living Shadows. He lives with his family in Michigan, where he sometimes leaves the confines of his attic studio for a jog. 

Dave, thanks for talking with us. How would you depict yourself as a runner?

My wife likes to point out that when I draw my cartoon characters running in a goofy fashion, they look just like me: gangly. Here is a good example!


Gangly or not, it looks like those runners are all on their way to 10K personal records! 

Do you consider yourself a serious runner?

The best word to describe myself as a runner is utilitarian. I really do try to “enjoy” it, but I don’t do it for pleasure—I do it to maintain a certain level of fitness for my one true sporting love, tennis. Long ago but not-so-far away, I played at the D1 level for Eastern Michigan University, and now am on a couple different USTA teams comprised of ex-college players (or, as I call it, the Nagging Injury League). Many of my teammates are involved in tennis on a daily basis, whereas I am but a lowly cartoonist, slouched over a drawing table for hours every day, so I need to run to keep something resembling muscle on my chicken legs . . .

Because tennis is your true sporting love, maybe this enables you to be more clear-eyed about the absurdities of the running world. Do you find that your cartoons poke fun at joggers more than at tennis players?

I do! But I wouldn’t give myself any credit for being clear-eyed about it. I’d attribute it to the fact that so many more people run than play tennis, and my job as a single-panel cartoonist is to find those areas where we have things in common. Tennis jokes tend to be very specific, while running jokes can be much broader. For example, it’s easier to draw a snail in a .001k than a snail playing tennis, because, you know, NO HANDS.

A  snail .001K, that’s pretty hilarious. And it instantly conjures up all sorts of images. Let’s take a quick break to see if readers can guess the visuals you came up with for these Speed Bump running cartoons:

Do you find yourself brainstorming cartoon ideas out on a run?

Hahahahaha . . . *gasp wheeze* . . . uh, no, I find myself pondering what must have happened to me as a child that I would voluntarily punish myself with this sort of pain as an adult. Running actually is a nice break from the work voices in head. When you make a living constantly thinking of jokes, being alone can sometimes feel like being with that one friend who’s never serious—a little bit goes a long way. Brainstorming for cartoon ideas is left to the more leisurely activities, like showering or sky gazing or sitting in a catatonic state for hours on end in my boxers.
It can be a struggle for any of us to find the motivation to get off the couch. How do you force yourself out the door when you’re not feeling it? 

It’s hard, isn’t it? I envy those of you who pop out of bed at 6 a.m. and go running. I really do. Mornings, ugh! My lungs always feel like cement first thing in the morning. My daily schedule has enough flexibility (barring deadlines) that I can wait until my “running muse” whispers in my ear. Most often I run just before dinner, because I’m tired of being in my studio, but still have some energy.

Do you vary your routes?

In the summer my routine is a 5k three times/week. I will admit to being too tightly tied to a route, though—I always go the same way because it gives me visual markers to fight through the pain (“Just get up Peppermill Hill and you can coast on Pauline” . . . It’s like having an internal spotter yelling at me to give a bit more). Also, I like to run the same route so I can compare my times. My preference isn’t really to push myself to longer distances, it’s to push myself to faster times at the same distance. Favorite bit is the sprint at the end; least favorite bit is walking it off in public with my face heaving like a fish out of water.

What tennis star from the past or present would you most like to go on a long run with and why?

This is such a great question, and an easy one for me: Bjorn Borg.

bjornHe was my hero growing up, and my wall was covered with posters of him (although I recall making room for a Farah Fawcett poster, too . . .) Bought his line of racquets, clothes, tried and failed to emulate his backhand and cool demeanor. A run with him would be fascinating because he battled so many demons as a player and human, and left the game far too soon. Since this is theoretical and I can pretend like he’d actually share anything that personal with me, I’d love to hear why he left the game, and why he came back to it, in his own words. Also, I think I would look so cool jogging next to Bjorn Borg, and I rarely look cool.

On a related note, in case anyone’s interested, there’s a brilliant hour-long documentary on HBO called “Fire & Ice” that details the Borg-v-McEnroe rivalry. There’s great footage of their matches, and the players are interviewed together about that time. It’s a really insightful look into the private world of a high-level athletes competing in a solo sport, which I think really translates to the internal struggles and motivations of serious runners as well.

And what cartoon character would you want to run with?

Billy from Family Circus—he’d leave a dotted line behind him, so we’d never get lost.