Cartoon: Message in a Bottle

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This one was so much fun to draw. Drawing water is always a challenge. This time I tried to ape one of the ways Walt Kelly used to draw water in “Pogo,” and although of course I didn’t fully succeed, I’m still pleased with how the water looks. And I’m pleased with how the figures look. And I’m pleased with Frank Young’s colors.

(Of course, it’s easy for me to be pleased with a cartoon’s art when it’s new. The real question is, will I still like it in a year?)

Some of you may remember seeing a stickfigure version of this cartoon, which I posted in the Discord (join us!) seven months ago. A couple of people didn’t think the cartoon made sense, while a couple of other people liked it and said they were cracked up by the “Hold on, there’s another bottle” line. I love that line, so I (eventually) decided to draw this anyway. They can’t all be beloved by everyone!

It’s unsurprising, I think, that this cartoon was first written during the Trump presidency. At the time, a lot of people (understandably) thought of Trump as the chief evil in the country. This cartoon is saying “wait, no, there are levels and levels; Trump is a symptom, but the real problems go much deeper.”

Or at least, that’s what I think it says. You may see something else in it, and that’s fine.

Many years ago, I noticed that my cartoons tended to include Black characters 1) mainly in cartoons about racism, and 2) always as the person expressing the “correct” side of whatever issue the cartoon is about. It’s like I was typecasting Black characters, and I began consciously trying to improve.

To some extent I can’t do anything about that – in cartoons where a character is representing the Republican party or patriarchy or white supremacism, it would be ridiculous and confusing to have that character be Black.

But in a cartoon like this – not about racism, and where nether character represents the GOP – I can have both characters be (in this case) Black women, and it works.

Also in the Discord, Marn (hi Marn!) posted a 1956 Peanuts strip that my strip reminded her of. As you can imagine, that comparison pleased me a lot.

I was having trouble with the first figure in panel one, so I searched for a reference photo to help me out, and found one, from a photographer who creates many reference photos. They also generously gave me permission to reproduce their photo in a process image. I always enjoy seeing process images, so I imagine some of you enjoy them, as well.


* * *

Apropos nothing (except the mention of Peanuts), on Twitter I did a “I’ll post one comic I love for every like this tweet gets” meme thing. The tweet ended up getting 171 likes, but I decided it would be okay for me to quit after listing just 100 comics I love. So here’s the list, if you’re curious. It touches on a lot of different genres.


This cartoon has four panels. All of the panels show two women talking in some sort of park or meadow (green and hilly with some trees in the background), with a gentle river or large stream in the foreground. The first woman has long curly-with-spirals hair, and is wearing a hairband. She’s wearing black pants, torn on one knee, and a hoodie. The second woman has short hair and glasses, and is wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a “!” logo on it and purple pants.


HAIRBAND is crouching down and reaching for a bottle floating in the stream. The bottle, if you look closely, has a rolled-up piece of paper in it. GLASSES looks a little surprised but also amused.

HAIRBAND: Look, a message in a bottle!

GLASSES: What’s it say?


Hairband has removed the paper from the bottle and is reading from it; the bottle is held in her other hand. Glasses is holding up a forefinger as she makes a point.

HAIRBAND: It says “Help! We’re trapped in a country where an absurdly awful minority party is attacking elections and democracy!”

GLASSES: So if the problem is a bad political party, all they have to do-


A close-up of Hairband shows her continuing to read from the paper, with a concerned expression. Glasses speaks from off panel.

HAIRBAND: It goes on… “That party stays viable because bad constitutional design and partisan judges have made it possible for them to remain viable while most voters oppose them.”

GLASSES: I see! In that case, they can-

HAIRBAND: “And even that is a symptom of how entrenched interests of race and wealth have controlled the country from the start.”


Scowling a bit with concentration, Glasses speaks, looking less certain now than in the previous panels. Hairband is kneeling down and reaching for a second bottle that has floated along the river.

GLASSES: So the root of all the problems are entrenched interests? So can they-

HAIRBAND: Hold on, there’s another bottle.

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7 Responses to Cartoon: Message in a Bottle

  1. 1
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    This is reminding me of finding out that improving the horrendous justice system is a much harder problem than I thought because so many people like it the way it is.

  2. 2
    Mandolin says:

    Regarding the stock photo, why did you end up swinging in the knee? (It looks good, I just don’t know why you did.)

  3. 3
    Jacqueline Onassis Squid says:

    Looks like my begging to keep the punchline worked!

    It still cracks me up.

  4. 4
    Ampersand says:

    Nancy – Too true. That’s a depressing thought.

    Jacqueline – Yes, it really helped! If you hadn’t commented I might not have drawn this.

    Mandolin – Thanks! As I recall, I was having trouble with the foreshortening of the knee and thigh – it looked wrong to me. So I moved the leg to a position where the foreshortening was easier for me to handle. And then I decided to make the pants flat black – which means I probably could have gotten away with keeping the knee in the original position. Still, I’m pleased with how this figure came out.

  5. 5
    Ampersand says:

    What I can’t remember is why I decided to have her with her hand on her knee, rather than her forearm across her thigh as in the reference pic. But I think it was a good choice? Ideally, I like to get a little distance from the reference picture, to feel like I’m doing cartooning instead of just copying the photo. (Although in the end, whatever works is always good.)

  6. 6
    Mookie says:

    Amp, the change you describe seems natural to me because it tracks with the other deviations. Reference photo model is perched on both sets of toes and is anchored to the ground with a fist. Your figure’s right foot appears to be flat and she’s reaching for a bottle rather than using the outstretched left hand for balance and stability. Right hand planted firmly on thigh of anchored right leg feels right to me and the effect is dynamic, not posed.

    Eta on second glance, reference photo’s right foot might be flat, not on toes. Still, the fisted hand versus reaching is still a plausible reason.

  7. 7
    Ampersand says:

    That’s a good point, Mookie.

    My approach to finding the right pose is usually more instinct and messing’ around to see what looks “right,” rather than actually working things out in terms of their anatomical logic. But if my instincts are good, hopefully it’ll amount to much the same thing. :-)