By Jenny Neyman
Yes, usually, bears and refrigerators don’t mix.
But we’re not talking actual bears here, nor the contents of a refrigerator. Gary Hondel wouldn’t dream of advocating anything so adverse to public safety in the real world. But he does daydream up scenarios in the cartoon world involving Bearly, his grizzly bear character, finding ways to maximize return on minimal effort. Often these include fridge-easy snacks, whether by attempting to trick-or-treat or requesting the nearsighted delivery guy when phoning for pizza — as in, the true call of the wild.
Hondel’s ultimate dream, as he pursues a career as a cartoonist, is to have “Bearly” not only read, but clipped and displayed. Skip the mantles, fancy frames and other places of honor, though. He’s got his sights set on kitchen appliances.
“The best that I can hope for is for people to have a strip or two of mine magnetized to their refrigerator. That’s better than any award, to just see that my cartoon spoke to them somehow, ‘Oh, that’s so me, or so my wife, or my husband.’ That’s the ultimate goal,” said Hondel, of Soldotna.
There are more formal accolades in cartooning — being published, getting syndicated, merchandising and the like. Economically, Hondel would be thrilled with any and all of these things. But those goals aren’t what make Hondel smile as he’s carefully (some would think, tediously) shading a panel, or reaching for a pad and paper whenever and wherever an idea strikes him, or carving out time to sit at his drawing desk. Cartooning, as a career, isn’t something that easily pencils out financially — despite the image some might have that it’s just a form of doodling.
“I remember drawing a bear putting for a miniature putting course when I was probably 12 years old. I got paid $25 dollars for it. I remember my grandfather saying, ‘That’s the easiest money you’ll ever make.’ Still don’t agree with him,” Hondel said.
It’s harder, in many ways, than a more typical career, to which Hondel can attest. He’s worked in radio for years, currently a marketing manager with Peninsula Radio Group, and has a degree in psychology. Unlike the school-to-entry-level-job-to-promotions-up-the-ladder progression, in cartooning there are no clearly defined paths, no doors that easily swing open to the key of a degree, training certification or internship.
To be a cartoonist means first finding the doors, then knocking on them over and untold overs again, and figuring out your own way to open them. It’s being as creative in marketing, networking and business as you are in cartooning.
But it’s this less-traveled path Hondel is determined to take, since his heart has long since beat its way through that particular door.
“I got about 30 credits away from my maser’s degree (in psychology) and decided that it’s not my passion. And I’m not getting any younger so I want to start pursuing what I like to do, because I don’t want to be 80 years old in a nursing home — if I live that long — regretting what I didn’t do,” Hondel said.
For as long as he can remember, Hondel has liked to draw and been fascinated by cartoons. As a kid, the Sunday funnies were a weekly ritual, but not just to cursorily consume.
“I wasn’t just reading them for the entertainment value, I was analyzing the appearance of the characters, or humor. I was analyzing how this cartoonist drew his eyes and how that cartoonist drew noses, or if they had noses at all,” Hondel said.
Being from St. Paul, Minn., hometown of Charles Schulz, of “Peanuts,” Hondel had an early awareness of cartoonists as well as their strips. He noticed the differences between the simple line drawings of, say, “Ziggy,” and the complex rendering of a comic book, and tried out the various styles himself. When he was in the sixth grade he got his first inkling of a cartoonist’s inclination.
“I ended up winning a fire-prevention poster contest. It was ‘Beetle Bailey’ (a cartoon Army private) telling kids not to put oil and gas cans near heated areas — that’s almost word for word. The fire chief came in, went up to my desk and handed me three silver dollars. I was really proud of it. Maybe it did something to encourage me,” he said.
Over the years, he’s drawn, and done graphic design for various outlets — a clothing store newsletter, creating coloring sheets for kids at a day care, illustrations for children’s books — but always as a side gig. He followed a friend to Alaska in 1992, where he found work and his wife, Sarah. They now have two daughters, and other than a four-year stint in Florida, have been on the central Kenai Peninsula since.
He’s attempted cartooning before, periodically submitting strip ideas to syndicates. When he was in his early 20s he created one called “The Heights,” about a landlord in an apartment complex, the lone regular-ish guy in a building full of crazy characters. He wanted to see if he would get any positive feedback and was encouraged that he did — one syndicate responding that they liked his work but had no room to pursue it right then.
That one fell by the wayside as his tastes and skills matured, but his interest in the medium didn’t. He found he enjoyed creating animal characters and giving them human personalities, and played around with that concept in a strip starring Pudgee Woodchuck. But Pudgee proved to have the all-too-human trait of not behaving as he was expected to.
“He took on a life of his own. In the comic he was sarcastic, self-centered, and I just didn’t end up seeing him that way,” Hondel said.
So Pudgee left the panels of the comic strip and found a home in the pages of Hondel’s first children’s book, “Pudgee Woodchuck,” which he self-published in 2007.
It was a fun process to create and illustrate an entire world, and Hondel is plugging away at another kids’ book, this one Thanksgiving-themed about a turkey, “Tom Gobbler.” But he missed the immediacy and variety of the comic strip format.
“Pudgee Woodchuck I wrote in like two hours, but it took me sixth months to draw it,” he said. “I like the comic strip aspect that I can see an idea, put it down, edit it down, narrow it down and finalize it in a fairly short period of time.
And he’s hoping that, in a fairy short period of time, his new strip will gain him stranger-refrigerator-posting status.
Meet Bearly, a happy-go-lucky bear with a bit of a lazy streak.
“He’s always trying to find some way to make life better for himself,” Hondel said.
Then there’s his buddy, Carl the rabbit, who tends to put the wild in life.
“He always leaps before he looks, and he’s very hyper and he never thinks, he’s always getting into trouble. And that’s why Bearly is the voice of reason, he sometimes gives into these ideas that Carl Rabbit has, but he’s always trying to get Carl to take a couple steps back, to think about it, ‘Those aren’t toothpicks, that’s a porcupine’ kind of thing,” Hondel said.
Nugget the moose rounds out the regular cast.
“He just wants to eat leaves and munch and be a moose. He’s just there. He’s got a little comment now and then but he’s not a very talkative character. He’s intended for people to look at and sympathize with, and just say, ‘I feel like the moose right now, I can’t believe what the bear and rabbit are doing,’” Hondel said.
That’s an important point, that the characters be identifiable, even if they’re animals.
“It’s not just a hollow, two-dimensional character telling jokes — that never works. If they’re not like people you have met before or know it just doesn’t work because you don’t believe it. You can’t identify with it,” Hondel said. “I’m a strong believer in identifying with characters. Even though it’s a bear, even though it’s a rabbit, even though it’s a moose, it’s still something that people can identify with, like, ‘I’ve got an uncle that acts just like that moose.’”
Other characters will come and go, keeping a bustling feel to Bearly’s forest.
“My comic strips have always seemed to center around a cast of characters. I model my ideas after sitcoms that I’ve always watched,” he said, such as “Frasier,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “Everybody Loves Raymond.” “I think they do well and are so popular because there are so many different personalities all existing together and interacting and bouncing off one another.”
Storylines and relationships will develop, but not so complex that each strip can’t be understood and enjoyed on its own. And no matter where this goes, Hondel is committed to keeping his standards of quality high. That means hand-drawing and shading his strips, the old-fashioned way.
Even though he eschews computers for the creation of the strip, he intends to make full use of the advantages of the digital age to publish, market and merchandise Bearly.
“You’re crazy not to,” he said.
Chad Carpenter, of “Tundra,” proved there is an interest in-state and beyond for an Alaska-themed comic, and Hondel hopes to find or create room for his neck of the woods, and all its critters, too. To have “Bearly” printed in newspapers across the state and, eventually, country, to have it published online, to compile strips into books and have characters emblazoned on coffee mugs, T-shirts and whatever else.
“It’s great to get the momentum rolling,” he said. “I’m so excited to be doing this.”
But ultimately, to have them stuck to someone’s refrigerator.
“To have that strip, even from one day, speak to someone, so if I went to their house they’d have it on the fridge, that’d would be the best I could hope for,” Hondel said.