|Photographs by John Rae
The world according to Ruben Bolling
Conventional American life, beware. There are no compromises when Ken Fisher (AKA Ruben Bolling), the man behind the comic strip Tom the Dancing Bug, satirized fast food, politics, and being an "average" guy.
For the past 15 years, Kenneth Fisher, A84, has been leading a double life. Neighbors know him as the man married to a bankruptcy lawyer, the father of three children, and an executive banker in New York City.
But few know that one night a week he becomes “Ruben Bolling” and hunkers down in a closet-cum-studio to create Tom the Dancing Bug, a satirical alternative comic strip. There is no bug, or any character named Tom; the strip is a freewheeling, sharp-eyed commentary on modern life, current events, and conventional wisdom, skewering topics and issues as diverse as nuclear power, professional sports, lifestyles supported by La-Z-Boy chairs and snack foods, and “the history and future of layoffs.”
Syndicated in more than 50 publications nationwide, such as Salon.com, the Village Voice, and the Washington Post, Tom the Dancing Bug has a loyal fan base, and one that’s steadily growing. Fisher’s cartoons have appeared in The New Yorker, ESPN magazine, and Mad magazine, and he has twice been awarded “Best Cartoon” by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, which praised his work for being “consistently funny, pointed without being dogmatic. . . .” In 2003, Rolling Stone singled out Tom the Dancing Bug as the “Hot Comic Strip” of the Year.
Now the “alternative” comic is coming into the mainstream; Fisher recently signed a movie deal with New Line Cinema. Moving from comic strip to feature film will be one of Fisher’s best-known characters, Harvey Richards, Esq., a “Lawyer for Children.” That venture could catapult Ruben Bolling from cult hero to wider fame. But the possibility of celebrity doesn’t seem to turn the head of this 43-year-old New Jersey native who has built his career by intelligently combining humor with strong, sometimes biting, points of view.
People can confuse this with a “negative, subversive worldview,” says Fisher. “But when I make fun of Americans, I’m definitely making fun of myself, too. I like baseball, Disney World, sitcoms, mall food, action movies—I just also like to bitterly satirize them.”
His goal for the strip, he says, “has always been that it has to be entertaining or interesting. I never want it to become a shrill, standing-on-a-soapbox-screaming type of thing. Sometimes I get passionate about an issue and try to make a point as the primary goal of the comic, but it always ends up wordy, preachy, and boring—and ultimately less convincing.”
It’s an artistic philosophy that’s been protected over the years by putting on a tie five days a week and going to work at a downtown Manhattan bank. “The fact that I have a day job means that I don’t have to worry about whether the comic strip is going to offend a client,” he says. “If cartooning was how I fed my children, I’d be a lot more concerned. I can do the comic strip exactly how I want to do it, with no compromises, and anybody that wants to come along for the ride, that’s great.”
Fisher’s childhood passion for comic books inspired his desire to become a cartoonist. He loved every strip he could get his hands on, from Spider-Man to Peanuts, and later Zippy the Pinhead to Doonesbury. “When I was a kid, I always dreamt about being a cartoonist or a major league shortstop. They both seemed equally presumptuous to me, which is why it was very tough for me to even begin to try to be one.”
If there is one semi-autobiographical character in Tom the Dancing Bug, it is probably Louis Maltby, a guilt-ridden, introverted 12-year-old he uses to make social commentary by depicting how school and society treat him. Fisher developed his wry sense of humor as a middle child (his father was a lawyer and his mother a homemaker). He remembers competing with two brothers for his parents’ laughter. “I had to fight the hardest,” he says. “My older brother was always the funny one.”
At school, “I was happiest sitting in the back of the classroom cracking up my friends,” he says. By the time he got to Tufts, he was bolder. “I would send letters in to the editor of the Tufts Daily, claiming to represent ‘The Committee for Better Cereal.’ In one letter, I wrote asking what happened to the prizes from the cereal boxes in the cafeteria. I made this big deal about it, alleging that the cafeteria employees were profiting from the prizes, and recommended that they should be divvied up and shared by all. I would always sign off the letters cryptically, ‘If our demands are not met, more Soviet leaders will die.’”
He was majoring in economics when he submitted his first comic to the Tufts Daily. He came up with a pseudonym, “Ruben Bolling,” by combining the names of two old-time baseball players, Ruben Amaro and Frank Bolling.
“My reasoning for coming up with a pen name in college was to maintain some level of anonymity,” he says. “I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea that if the comic was accepted, people would know who I was and I wouldn’t know who they were. Also, the whole idea of having a secret identity seemed very romantic to me. This probably comes from my reading Spider-Man comic books. I think seeing my real name on the comic could have inhibited me, and the fact that it was a pen name and possibly even a different persona freed me up.”
The masked identity didn’t make the Daily’s rejection go down any easier.
“I’m sure the rejection was deserved because my strip was very derivative of Doonesbury, but it devastated me,” recalls Fisher. “I thought the editor was telling me, ‘You’ll never be a cartoonist,’ as though that person was the gatekeeper of the entire cartooning community.”
A second chance came unexpectedly when Fisher was at Harvard Law School. He spotted an ad in the law school newspaper seeking a cartoonist and thought he’d give it another shot. The editor accepted the strip on the spot. “I would not be a cartoonist today if that ad hadn’t appeared,” says Fisher. “As crazy as it sounds, I was done asking to be a cartoonist. Now they were asking me.”
Fisher tried submitting the strip without a name because he wanted it to be “totally free-format, and not tied down to anything.” He thought the editor was being “hopelessly unhip and linear” when he insisted on a title. Fisher decided to come up with the “stupidest name” he could think of.
He recalled how earlier that day, in class, a friend had picked up a small bug on his pencil. When he rotated the pencil back and forth, the bug bent its legs to keep from falling off; by all appearances it seemed to be dancing. “I told the editor to call it Tom the Dancing Bug,” says Fisher. “Even though I came up with the name under duress, it felt absolutely perfect.”
Fisher admits he never thought the strip would generate much interest, much less lead to a professional preoccupation. But Ruben Bolling’s peculiar slant on life apparently appealed to classmates and professors alike. So popular was the strip that before Fisher graduated he had photocopied all his comics, stapled them into a “book,” and convinced the Harvard Coop to sell them. “They couldn’t keep them on the shelves,” he says, “and I repeatedly had to go back and Xerox more.”
It was then that he realized maybe he could take his comic strip talent seriously. “I’ve always liked making my friends laugh, and trying to see things differently in order to come up with a joke,” he says. “The problem was that I was unable to translate that looser, absurdist sense of humor into cartooning. I was trying hard to fit into what I thought a cartoonist should be, which was in the Peanuts/Doonesbury mold, with wry, conversational, character-driven humor. It wasn’t until law school that I found a way to use my natural sense of humor in comics, and when I did, it was an instant revelation.”
Fisher professionally launched Tom the Dancing Bug in 1990 when it was picked up by the now-defunct New York Perspectives. He began “self-syndicating”—selling his strip directly to newspapers—before finally bequeathing the responsibility in 1997 to the Universal Press Syndicate.
The weekly deadline is by now a part of his creative ritual; so is depending on the mysteries of his subconscious as he stares at a blank piece of paper. He doesn’t know what he is going to write until he sits down the night before the strip is due. “I just live my life and read the paper over the week and think about things, and then eventually the pen starts moving,” he says. “I should take more notes, because things occur to me and I’m sure that I’ll remember them and then I don’t. Each time, I am really starting from scratch. I’ve had a week to live and now I’ve got to come up with some-thing about that week.”
Fisher’s comic sensibility has been influenced as much by his passion for sketch comedy à la Saturday Night Live and Monty Python’s Flying Circus as by Mad magazine. His comic consists of a series of unrelated visual skits featuring a host of recurring characters: a Sam Spade send-up named Sam Roland, the Detective Who Dies; Billy Dare, Boy Adventurer; an Australopithecine, Charley; Judge Scalia, an exaggerated version of the Supreme Court justice; Bob, the extremely average male; and Louis Maltby, a neurotic pre-adolescent with a guilt complex. He has also spoofed the James Frey memoir scandal, further exaggerating his already outlandish claims of bad-boy behavior by adding some truly gross flourishes. And Fisher parodies Hollywood’s newfound love of Brokeback Mountain, imagining gay versions of genre movies like The Bridegroom of Frankenstein, and Forbidden Invader, a sci-fi romance between an alien and a male earthling.
Tom the Dancing Bug didn’t have a political bent to it until after September 11, Fisher says. “I was apolitical in college. I probably couldn’t have named the secretary of state back then. But now I feel as though I’m very connected to politics, and the strip has become very political and very pointed. I want to make sure that I say what I want to say.”
Fisher also credits one of his Tufts professors, Robert Wolf, who encouraged him to take a more philosophical approach to economics by “looking at all human behavior through the prism of economic incentives.” That advice, he says, “has impacted my thinking to this day, and it has definitely made its way into the comic strip, both explicitly and subtly. I just did a political comic about how the Bush administration uses economic cost-benefit analysis to determine what environmental regulations are appropriate, and my critique of that comes directly from my work in microeconomics at Tufts.”
Recently, Fisher found a kindred spirit in the writer Jonathan Lethem, who has written extensively about his own passion for the medium both in his essay collection, The Disappointment Artist, and in his fiction, The Fortress of Solitude and Men and Cartoons, describing how he and his Brooklyn friends would pore over their comic books and critique them.
“I told Lethem I was really jealous reading his essays because he had that group of kids he could discuss this stuff with. I felt as though I was totally alone,” says Fisher, with a laugh. “There was no one I could talk to about how Jack Kirby’s style changed when he moved from Marvel to DC in 1970. There was no one in the suburbs who was remotely as interested as I was. I would have loved to have been a part of Lethem’s group of kids, fervently debating about comics with one other. He sees exactly the stuff that I see.”
Cartooning is a solitary world, even for a man with two identities, but Fisher says he no longer has to revel in his passion alone. He feels a genuine camaraderie with his colleagues Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins) and Ted Rall, as well as a couple of legends he has come to know, like Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead, and Garry Trudeau, of Doonesbury fame. “It’s been great getting to know my peers. We have sort of grown up together in the field. But becoming friendly with my heroes from being a fan of cartooning has been really wonderful.
“For every success that someone gets, there is a lot of smiling and patting on the back. I used to feel a little twinge of ‘That should have been me.’ Of course you’re very happy for your friend, and yet at the same time you feel like you’ve been knocked down a peg. I don’t feel that nearly as much as I used to. I’m quite comfortable in my place.”
Kera Bolonik, who has written for Glamour, New York Bookforum, The Nation, and Salon.com, lives in New York City.