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The mystery man behind "Tom the Dancing Bug"

"Ruben Bolling" talks about his day job as a banker, the greatness of Mad Magazine and why some readers think God-Man is an offense to God himself.

By Corrie Pikul

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NothingJanuary 14, 2005 | "If only I could make enough money selling my art so that I didn't have to go to this stupid job every day " It's every young artist's dream that the passion they pour into their work will ignite a magnificent inferno of fame and fortune, right? Maybe Ruben Bolling, creator of the comic strip "Tom the Dancing Bug," is bending the truth a little when he claims that his position as a banker is the reason he's able to churn out week after week of provocative, edgy comics. Or maybe, at 42, Bolling has figured out the key to creative freedom.

"Tom the Dancing Bug" is the umbrella title given to a series of unrelated, eclectic comic strips. Many of the strips are directly inspired by current events, while others simply offer Bolling's wacky perspective on everyday life. One of my favorites is a one-off from 2003 about a "Humane Foie Gras Farm." This hypothetical company makes its ducks fat and delicious "by giving them the lifestyle and privileges we all enjoy as Americans" (i.e., parking them in La-Z-Boy chairs "to watch hours of TV, surrounded by a dizzying array of cheese products, starch products, and cheese-filled starch products!").

Bolling's creative energy is clearly not sapped by his financial work, as his cartoons are overflowing with ideas. Through an endless parade of characters, Bolling takes swipes at the Bush administration, pokes holes in Western religion and mocks American adolescence. The comic strip is as free-ranging as a cow on a Neiman Ranch-covered moon -- and about as absurd.

In contrast to a lot of funny things (like Whoopee Cushions and Drew Carey), "Tom the Dancing Bug" is best consumed in large quantities. An occasional dose of Charley the Australopithecine, a strip about an unpredictable ape that acts like an ill-mannered adolescent, or God-Man, the most omnipotent superhero in the universe, probably won't pack much of a comic wallop. But after poring over consecutive pages of Bolling's work, a true appreciation of "Tom the Dancing Bug" will develop. Bolling is consistently funny and clever, and he almost never produces a strip with a half-baked concept or a lazy ending. Each strip is carefully planned and meticulously executed, and all the elements (style, tone, punch line, even the font) fit together as if Bolling had been drawing that particular strip for years (even though it's more likely to be a brand-new concept).

"Tom the Dancing Bug" appears in the Village Voice and the S.F. Weekly as well as dailies such as the Washington Post, the San Jose Mercury News and Salon.com, and has won quite a following. It even won the Association of Alternative Newspapers Award for best cartoon in both 2002 and 2003.

Bolling, who has no formal art training, feasted on a smorgasbord of comics when he was a kid, and his fascination (sometimes obsession) with different drawing styles is characteristic of his work. However, he didn't aspire to be a full-time cartoonist; instead he studyied economics as an undergraduate and later attended Harvard Law School. It was at Harvard in the mid-'80s that Bolling suddenly found himself in possession of two rare and superhuman gifts: the ability to draw exceptionally well, and the power to make smart people laugh. Bolling came up with the idea for "Tom the Dancing Bug" in law school and has been drawing under that name ever since. "Ruben Bolling" is a pseudonym -- the artist likes to keep his identity secret from the working stiffs back at the office (he doesn't want the boss to know too much about his political and ideological sensibilities).

"Thrilling Tom the Dancing Bug Stories," a compilation of recent comics (the third in this series), was recently released by Andrews McMeel Publishing. Bolling agreed to take a short break between his two jobs to meet with Salon and discuss the balance between art and life.

How did you come up with the name "Tom the Dancing Bug"?

When I was in law school, I saw an ad in the newspaper for a comic strip artist. I answered it with an idea for a comic strip that would be totally free-form, that would change from week to week, and that would have no title. My editor insisted that it have a title, and that was the one condition he put on publishing it. So I tried to think of something really stupid. I remembered that earlier that day, when I was in class, a friend of mine spotted a bug on his pen. My friend started twirling the pen, and the bug was bending his knees to keep from falling off. It looked like he was dancing, so I called him Tom the Dancing Bug. That's the name I gave my editor, out of spite, and it stuck.

Has a dancing bug ever appeared in any of your comic strips?

I once did a strip where there was a dancing bug, but he was never seen. The joke was that he had been stepped on by one of the characters. I didn't put that in any of the books, so that's a little bit of trivia for you.

Next page: "People think that I'm offending God Himself with these strips"

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