The Man Behind Marmaduke

Americana, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on September 16, 2010
Marta W. Aldrich Brad Anderson draws his loveable canine character in his home office in Montgomery, Texas, where he is in his 56th year of creating the daily syndicated cartoon.

Putting pen to paper, cartoonist Brad Anderson, 86, sketches the playful pooch he’s created for 56 years, starting with the big dog’s pointed ears, elongated nose, sloppy grin and cheerful eyes before tackling his sizeable torso and long, clumsy legs.

“Marmaduke is very expressive and very active, and he’s always doing something funny or ridiculous or crazy,” says Anderson, adding accent lines that suggest a dog in motion. “He’s always jumping over the couch, chasing after a cat. In the car, he wants to take over and drive.”

Working in his home in Montgomery, Texas (pop. 489), Anderson chronicles the amusing antics of the awkward but loveable Great Dane, creating six single-panel comics and one Sunday strip each week to add to his collection of 20,000 Marmaduke-inspired comics, two dozen books, a 1970s animated TV show and a new feature film.

Achieving such exposure and longevity is rare for a comic strip but reflects the quality and consistency of Anderson’s work, says Lisa Klem Wilson, general manager of United Feature Syndicate, which distributes Marmaduke to more than 500 newspapers in 10 countries. “Every day, people can read Marmaduke and expect to get a little chuckle,” Wilson says.

These days, nobody chuckles more than Anderson, who never dreamed he’d still be drawing the canine character that he introduced to the comics pages in 1954. “Every day, I go to work still enjoying the challenge of creating expression and body language,” he says. “It’s never a burden, never a job. It’s just fun.”

Born in 1924 and raised in Portland, N.Y., Anderson nurtured his artistic talent whenever he wasn’t helping his mother garden or his dad in the family’s farm machine business. “My mother said I started drawing before I could talk,” recalls Anderson, whose first words included a repeated request for a “pentil” and whose first vivid memory was using a pencil to draw on the sidewalk at his grandparents’ house.

During high school, he sold his first cartoon to Flying Aces, an aviation magazine. The $3 paycheck was enough to buy a hamburger, a milkshake and a ticket to the movies, where silent films of the day featured visual action and written gag lines—the same approach he’s used for decades in Marmaduke.

After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Anderson married his high school sweetheart, Barbara, and studied art at Syracuse University on the GI Bill, graduating in 1951 and eventually working for a public relations company in Utica, N.Y. All the while, he sold cartoons to Collier’s Weekly, The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines. Commanding payments of $100 and up for his drawings, he became a full-time freelance cartoonist and, while featuring a shaggy dog in a farm magazine series, came upon the idea of a dog as the center of a family comic strip.

“I didn’t want to do another shaggy dog, though, because I had no interest in drawing all that floppy hair,” Anderson recalls. “I wanted a short-haired dog similar to this big boxer that my mother and stepfather had at the time. He was kind of a funny, clownish dog that I used as a model, but I wanted an even bigger dog.”

He initially drew Marmaduke as a large, menacing animal but soon realized that an unfriendly dog wouldn’t win friends. “I took away the scowl and began to give him more body movement and expression, and the whole drawing changed. He became a very happy dog,” he says.

Anderson developed Marmaduke while working five to seven days a week at home in Vista, Calif., and the cartoon’s syndicated audience steadily grew.

“He was extremely disciplined and always treated it like a regular job,” says son Paul, 57, of Flower Mound, Texas. “He’d get up early, dress for work and go to his desk, then come in for lunch and go back to work again.”

Since 1994, Anderson has lived and worked in Texas to be closer to family, which includes his four children, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

When he sits down to work, the cartoonist avoids computers, preferring small paintbrushes and pen and ink to complete his final drawings. “The ink and that brush are how Dad does such beautiful line work,” says Paul, a retired U.S. Air Force officer who now is an apprentice to his father. “It’s very fluid, and there’s lots of motion. That pretty much sets him apart from other cartoonists today.”

Coming up with ideas is the hardest part. “I try to think like a dog,” says Anderson, who until recently always had dogs and other pets in his home.

These days, he gets input from Paul, whose name he added to the daily comic in 2004 and who calls his father and mentor a humble genius.

 “People tell Dad that he’s a celebrity, but he’s always thought of Marmaduke as the star,” Paul says. “Dad is just the guy who brings Marmaduke to others.”