Digital strips

By JOE BERNARDI  |  July 10, 2007

“I decided to be a cartoonist when I was nine years old because I thought it sounded like an easy job,” says Gambrell. Elaborating on the origins of her career, she adds “Cat and Girl began in June of 1999 as a weekly cartoon that was distributed by me walking around and taping it to doors and storefronts in Western Massachusetts. I used a computer in its creation primarily because the student computer center charged for photocopies, but printouts were free. My friend Chris was a big fan of [early absurd, profane webcomic] Space Moose and wanted me to put the cartoons online, so as soon as I had an archive of about four cartoons, online they went.”

Gambrell is one of a very small handful of webcomic artists who sustain themselves through their comic and merchandise alone, without the assistance of advertisements or much outside publication. Something Gambrell achieves at that many other cartoonists in her medium have, to various extents, failed to catch onto, is the business of creating T-shirts and merchandise that do not require knowledge of the comic in order to be found funny. Shirts currently available bear such text as “Future Corpses of America” and (in Chinese) “Chinese is not my Native Language.” Gambrell recognizes her audience’s demand for merchandise that isn’t explicitly related to C&G, asking,  “how many t-shirts with Cat and Girl on them could one person possibly want?”  She adds, “I like making T-shirts and stickers and I try to make good T-shirts and stickers and for me this means understanding them as a medium distinct from the cartoons."

An item of particular interest in the Cat and Girl store is a small statue of a king, bearing the inscription “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”  Bearing a reference to a popular sonnet (well, as popular as sonnets can get) by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the trophy’s market is limited at best. Gambrell’s assessment of the trophy’s origin makes it seem like the most obvious thing she could have possibly brought into existence. She explains: “I had spent some quality free time skulking around trophy websites looking at all the figures they offered and trying to come up with an excuse for getting trophies made. A few days later I half-remembered Ozymandias and then thought of a figure I had seen on the website, a little gold man in a suit and cape with a crown on his head, and I knew that I had to make an Ozymandias trophy exist.”

The inclusion of such obscure subject matter is a large part of Cat and Girl’s charm. German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys and writer David Foster Wallace are among the frequently mentioned in the comic, with the former even making a few appearances in zombie form. Gambrell points out that the very medium of the webcomic has changed the way pop culture references work. “The internet's creation of an atmosphere of easily available information has changed the way I write the cartoon,” she says. “I can't, off the top of my head, name six generic Dr Pepper clones or the Kubler-Ross stages of grief OR the introduction to Days of Our Lives, but I can look these things up on the internet.” That is to say: if someone doesn’t understand why a small trophy bearing the Ozymandias caption (ostensibly one of the more complex references someone can make) is so funny, the answer can be at their fingertips within seconds. Says Gambrell:  “At the same time Wikipedia started giving people an easy way to look up references they didn't entirely get, Wikipedia was giving me an easy way to research topics I didn't know very much about.”

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