I worked for Washington College from July 1, 2013 to July 1, 2016. During my three years in Maryland, I met a lot of amazing people, drank an obscene amount of coffee, and got more work done than should be permitted by law. It's a special time that holds a lot of emotional power for me, but there is one figure that, above all others, remains with me to this day. His name is Gus, and he's a 6.5 foot tall goose.
I had been working at the College for over two years when I was approached by my VP with a special request. As we had put in so much work in the previous years, publications and processes were flowing smoother than they ever had. We had an opportunity to work ahead, something that rarely happens nowadays. He asked me to think about what I would base an advertising campaign on for the college, left to my own devices. At some point I would present my ideas and we would have a chance to enact them.
I wasn't given a specific timeline for this task, just the murky concept of 'later'. With no solid deadline, I did what anyone would have, and let myself get carried off in the tide of other projects that had firm and fast finish times. Life has a way of (over)filling the quiet spaces if you let it, and just like that, I was swept away. The hourly flood of emails was more than enough to keep me occupied well into every night and weekend.
Until a student and a gun went missing.
I wasn't in Maryland when Jacob's name started circulating on the news sites. From my native home in New York, I watched helplessly as the College, my College, searched with increasing desperation for any sign of our missing student. I watched until my eyes ached, and my mind throbbed with worry. I was 500 miles away and couldn't do anything to help.
With the screeching halt of activity at all points within the College, I didn't even have my hustle and bustle to keep me busy. All I could do was watch, and it drove me crazy. So I did the only thing I know how to do: art therapy.
Gus the Goose, the official mascot of Washington College. I hadn't used Gus in any of my marketing material in the first couple years, as no one really seemed interested in the static image of Gus that came from the company that created him. I had my own ideas about how to advertise the College, and like those came before me I simply tucked the Goose off to the side.
Now in the eerie silence of a College in distress and it all came together. As the days stretched into one another with Jacob still missing, I had Gus to keep me company. When the College closed early for Thanksgiving, I took the extra days to try out the goose in various poses. When things finally came to their tragic end, I got through it in my own way; with a sketchbook.
I had fallen in love with this goofy mascot, this point of light in such a dark time. I needed to share that love. I knew what the next campaign was going to be, I knew how I was going to get people to fall in love with Gus.
I had a chance to dress in the Gus costume for a video shoot many months prior. Maybe that was where the bond was first established. It's hard to trace these things, but I can definitely say that putting on the giant goose costume was one of the highlights of my career. I've never felt so free, so natural, so enabled to be a total screwball than I have when I gained half a foot, a couple hundred pounds, and red feathers. The 25 minutes that I was Gus, I WAS Gus, and that stuck with me.
When I was bouncing around in that costume, people responded to me. They had to. I don't care how cool you think you are, you can't help but smile and laugh when there's a giant fat bird waddling around and waving at you. It wasn't that it was Gus, it was Gus + You. There had to be that personal element, that bond of familiarity, that's what made smiles and created memories.
Gus had to move.
Not necessarily animation, though that would be a checkmate level move in and of itself, but if people were seriously going to accept Gus as a representative of who they were and what mattered in their lives, Gus had be the ultimate renaissance goose. Academics, sports, holidays, memes; it didn't matter. This was the saturation approach at it's finest. Give everyone everywhere as many opportunities as possible to find the angle that they could experience a personal connection with this big happy fellow.
But of course, for this to work, we would need a lot of Guses. Like, a lot a lot. More than that. More. Just a few more... ok, that many.
Thankfully, I came pre-equipped for such circumstances.
Some things in my life have changed dramatically since I was young, but among the core fundamentals, the subtle essence of what defines us, is a crazy-over-the-top love for cartoons. I grew up with Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny, my go-to movie on a bad day is My Neighbor Totoro, I have books by Jack Hamm, Preston Blair, and the archivists of Disney. I've read Chuck Jones' biography, twice. I read the books Chuck Jones read as a kid because I want to be more like Chuck Jones. It would have only taken a tiny nudge to knock me into the world of cartooning from that of a graphic designer.
Except that I couldn't stand drawing the same character more than once.
Repetition, to me, is one of the biggest challenges of cartooning. I can draw a dude a couple times in different poses and situations but after 2 or 3 times I am done. This is disastrous from the standpoint of someone who wants to become more skilled. Somehow the ability to focus and apply myself at cartooning was never quite there, always in the background, but never with the proper method to channel it into anything but a deep love of the genre.
All of that changed with Gus.
I didn't even realize it as it was happening. In my head I was just doing my job, but as weeks turned into months, the drawings started piling up. I found myself sketching Gus in my free time, discussing his mannerisms over coffee, critiquing the original design, restructuring him according to the rules laid out by the Grand Masters of the craft (Preston Blair). By the time I was ready to present, I had 60 geese complete. The presentation went staggeringly well, and Gus was to be put in the spotlight where he belonged.
Only I wasn't going to be there to see him through.
It was a strange moment, but just as I found this new world connection to the place I had called home for three years of my life, it was time to go. More bitter than sweet, I returned to Maryland in late June to sign the papers and return the items that would mark my departure from Washington College. It's been 2 months since that day and I still don't know how I feel about it.
But I didn't say goodbye. I don't believe in such things. And when the email came through, asking for more Gus illustrations, I was only too happy to accept.
It was strangely therapeutic to return to my favorite character. Work is always a mix of pain and pleasure, but with Gus there isn't any drama. Just as easy-going as the big guy himself, drawing Gus is about the most natural thing I can do nowadays. When I read the assignment, my mind effortlessly supplied the visuals to go with each scenario. It was like I'd been doing this my whole life, not just the last 6 months.
I think this is how Watterson and Schulz must have felt. Davis, Disney, Uderzo; at some point they hit the magical line where it becomes easier to draw a certain character than not. I always wondered how they could have done it for as many years as they did. I should have known the answer, as always, is love.