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O Caption! My Caption! New Contest Winner David Wood Speaks Out

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Our extraordinarily employable intern John Bucher recently sat down with David Wood, whose caption for Alex Gregory’s drawing of a nude briefcase-carrier—“On second thought, it’s more of a sandals day”—earned him the blue ribbon in Cartoon Caption Contest #111. Wood, who now teaches English at Northern Michigan University, did his doctorate in Renaissance Studies at Purdue. Like last week’s winner (and the interviewer), David has passed time in the forbidding climes of North America’s extreme northwest.

The winner of last week’s Cartoon Caption Contest was from Alaska—the first in 110 to go to that state. What’s your connection to the place?

I lived up in Fairbanks (a.k.a. Ice Planet Hoth) for some years toward the end of the 20th century, hanging around the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where I picked up my master’s. On the face of this earth, I humbly suggest, and with nothing but love for their creative hearts, that there is nothing more comical than those seriously involved in an MFA program. Harry Shearer (of Best in Show fame) needs to tackle such a thing.

At UAF, there were at least a few kinds of comedy I saw demonstrated brilliantly: the deliberate, piss-in-your-pants sort of funny, and the incidental hilarity that derives from witnessing a dire sense of artistic earnestness. I keep in touch with most of these writers, a number of whom are starting to make waves right now. I left to pursue my doctorate. But if you never truly leave Alaska once you’ve lived there, then it is nigh on impossible to get Fairbanks, a kind of über-Alaska, out of your system; and if Alaska is filled with characters marching to the beat of a different drum, as the saying goes, Fairbanks itself attracts the über-characters. I miss them and Fairbanks dearly.

Okay, “dire sense of artistic earnestness” is too tempting. Change whatever names you need to, but give us an example, will you? Of course, if the earnestness cuts too near the bone, a good pants-pisser will do, too.

Well, I’ll leave their work out of it, then. As for a literal pants-pissing, I recall the time a guy, participating in the reading of another student’s play, drunkenly reeled to the floor of a stage while mid-sentence in front of a crowd of 100 or so. The humor lies in the fact that he had been sitting in a chair and then fallen in a slow-motion sprawl, emitting the faintest of howls as he spread out gradually upon the floor. When he finally got back on his feet, he began to insist belligerently that he had been miscast…

As for earnestness, there was the nature-writer guy who, during a cold snap (lasting a month or so) wore bunny boots (rubbery, white moon-boots that are good to minus-60 degrees or so) and five layers of clothes all day around our 75-degree office. By the end of each day he was just drenched in sweat. After witnessing this guy’s getup for a few weeks, another guy finally looked him in the eye and said: “Congratulations, you live in Alaska. And we live here too, right?”

Your current book manuscript—tentatively titled Very Now: Timing the Subject in English Renaissance Literature—traces the relationship between character emotion and narrative form during that period. Timing, subject, character emotion, narrative form—these all sound applicable to cartoons. What’s your book’s central argument? And is this academic focus a good preparation for cartoon caption-writing?

My academic work involves elucidating the function of time in early modern medical theories and charting the ways that early modern artists like Shakespeare, Sidney, and Milton apply these contemporary views of human health and emotion to their explorations of time in their literary works. Since such representations of time have larger implications involving experimentation with literary structures—why is there a sixteen year gap in the narrative of The Winter’s Tale, after all?—I am basically investigating the embedded relationship between the medical and the literary that these writers take as a given. In short, why did Shakespeare think his characters were going mad and killing one another? More often than not, the answers are different than we, given our own medical paradigm, might assume. And this literature reflects that difference.

Why does this help me write cartoon captions? Your guess is as good as mine.

While on the subject of health: If you were stricken with a mysterious illness, what three books from the English Renaissance would rest beside the recovery bed—your touchstones, as it were? And what three books from the twentieth century?

Touchstone?—a wry As You Like It reference, John. As for the Renaissance, I would need Tottel’s Miscellany, Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen, and Shakespeare’s sonnets. As for 20th-century fiction, Graham Swift’s Waterland, Katherine Dunne’s Geek Love, and Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From.

Dismantle your caption for us, the way you might in one of your English classes. What are the most important parts? Why does it work?

At the risk of the old saw that we murder to dissect, I would suggest the following. My caption hints at a past, present, and future for the central character in the cartoon: in other words, the “second thought” in my caption presumes a first. We are to assume he left the house naked a first time, save for his business socks and shoes and, of course, his briefcase. We witness the present and the words he utters to his wife or lady-friend. And we envision a future, in which, still naked and wielding the briefcase, he heads out the door yet again, this time wearing sandals. Situating a character in time in this fashion offers a kind of individuality to him that makes it possible for a reader to identify within him- or herself. Further, we’ve all taken a step out the door and turned back inside due to unforeseen weather or what have you. In this way, the caption is a kind of warped exercise in empathy. But I have to say, I received a hilarious anonymous e-mail from someone the other day who feels that my caption successfully critiques declining public standards of dress for men. So there.

You’re at the university right now—what are you wearing?

As tempting as it might be to say nothing but sandals and a smile, I honestly have to add a rugby shirt and a pair of jeans. Sandals weather doesn’t last too long in Upper Michigan, I’m discovering (much like Fairbanks); you’ve got to make the most of it.


Other Emdashes caption-contest interviews:

  • James Montana, winner #109 (“I hate connecting through Roswell.”)
  • Robert Gray, winner #106 (“Have you considered writing this story in the third monkey rather than the first monkey?”)
  • David Kempler, winner #100 (“Don’t tell Noah about the vasectomy.”)
  • David Wilkner, winner #99 (“I’d like to get your arrow count down.”)
  • Richard Hine, winner #98 (“When you’re finished here, Spencer, we’ll need you on the bridge-to-nowhere project.”)
  • Carl Gable, winner #40 (“Hmm. What rhymes with layoffs?”)
  • T.C. Boyle, winner #29 (“And in this section it appears that you have not only alienated voters but actually infected them, too.”)
  • Adam Szymkowicz (“Shut up, Bob, everyone knows your parrot’s a clip-on”), winner #27, and cartoonist Drew Dernavich interview each other in three parts: One, Clip-On Parrots and Doppelgangers; Two, Adam and Drew, Pt. Two; Three, Clip-On Parrots’ Revenge
  • Evan Butterfield, winner #15 (“Well, it’s a lovely gesture, but I still think we should start seeing other people.”)
  • Jan Richardson, winner #8 (“He’s the cutest little thing, and when you get tired of him you just flush him down the toilet.”)
  • Roy Futterman, winner #1 (“More important, however, is what I learned about myself.”)

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