Amending the Funnies with “Foxtrot”
Issue   |   Mon, 11/12/2012 - 20:53

Many of us recall a steady diet of comics as part of our childhood, be it “Calvin and Hobbes,” Marvel heroes, “Asterix” or “Tintin.” Whether or not we had a habit of stealing the funny pages, many of us may not be aware that the artist behind one of America’s most widespread and beloved newspaper strips, “FoxTrot,” is Amherst’s own William “Bill” Amend III, class of 1984.

First Drafts

Born in 1962 in nearby Northampton, Amend moved around frequently, spending his elementary school years on the East Coast and living in California for junior high and high school. His father was a doctor and his mother a travel agent, and he grew up with two younger brothers and a younger sister. He describes his upbringing as “plain-vanilla suburban” and said he treated his siblings via the “older brother playbook.” He was, and still is, silly and creative.

“‘Funny’ is in the eye of the beholder. My sunday school teachers rarely thought I was funny,” Amend said.

A Star Wars and Hobbit fan with an obsession for Dungeons and Dragons, his “weird creative efforts” were fully supported by his parents.

“I’m not sure I’d be quite so patient with younger me,” Amend said.

As for any early signs of a budding cartoonist, apart from MAD magazine and some awareness of Doonesbury, he lacked a childhood penchant for cartoons. It was a strip that came out during Amend’s years at Amherst — “Bloom County” — that would inspire him to make a cartoon series of his own.

Edits at Amherst

With fond memories of his father’s reunions, Amend decided to apply to Amherst despite angling for a career in filmmaking.

“A traditional liberal arts education was sort of an iffy idea for me, but in the end the charms of Amherst won out,” Amend said.

He recalls his years at Amherst very fondly, claiming that he had the “best room group in the school” his senior year, the 10 of whom still get together for ski trips.

Amend had a slew of favorite classes at Amherst, but one of his absolute favorites was Mechanics, taught by retired physicist Robert “Bob” Romer.

“He had a motorized merry-go-round sort of thing in the classroom that we got to ride to observe the coriolis effect as balls were rolled around. I think it even had barf bags attached,” Amend said.

Amend was a hardworking student, as Professor “Jagu” Jagannathan remembers. In the early years of his Amherst career, Jagannathan would join the young Amend and his fellow physics majors late at night in Merrill, working with them into the wee hours of the morning.

“They had chairs on castors, and in the middle of the night…they would bring out the chairs and race one another along the corridors,” Jagannathan said.

Romer is also quite convinced of Amend’s shenanigans.

“All those times when I thought he was writing down my great insights into electromagnetic theory, he was practicing, drawing caricatures of me that he would later use in FoxTrot,” Romer said.

Romer is the direct inspiration for the stern physics teacher who often appears in FoxTrot strips.

“[Bill] quotes verbatim from large chunks of physics lab handouts that I wrote,” Romer said.

While his cartoon image is that of the cynical, no-nonsense, bushy-browed academic, Romer gets a kick out of the fact that Paige Fox, tween middle-child of the Fox family, asks in one strip whether “hunky Bobby Romer” saw her barf after a spin on the swirl-a-whirl (recall the “motorized merry-go-round”). When Amend returned to be awarded an honorary degree in 1999, Romer was assigned as his sponsor for the weekend and invited Amend to join him in dropping his stock of Super Balls from the fifth floor of Merrill.

Apart from physics, Amend was a talented math student, receiving the Walker Prize his sophomore year. In addition to academics, Amend was seriously involved with The Student.

“I joined the staff early in my freshman year and was really excited to discover they were desperate enough for a cartoonist to give me the job. Finding my ‘place’ at Amherst that quickly was a great feeling,” Amend said. “Drawing cartoons late at night under deadline twice a week was really exhilarating work and, as it turned out, great practice for what I’d end up doing for a living.”

Though he credits the publication for giving him the chance to publish his earliest strip, “The First Amendment,” he decided to quit his junior year and to begin a second newspaper called Sidelines, which focused on features, humor and entertainment news and carried on his cartoons.

“We somehow got enough funding to survive a couple years, but I think it died shortly after I graduated. It was a great little entrepreneurial exercise and we had tons of fun doing it, but I think we made some enemies with our old Student colleagues, which I regret now,” Amend said.

The Cartoon Career

Amend completed a senior thesis with the late Professor Dudley Towne, focusing on three-dimensional imaging on a 2D screen and titled “Camera Simulation by Computer.” Amend figured that he’d probably do something with computers if cartooning didn’t work out. Over his senior year, he sent a few strips to a syndicate, receiving some rejections and some positive responses.

“[I got] enough of a positive response that I figured I’d put together a comic strip and give it a try once I graduated. I fully expected to be rejected…but as luck would have it the rejection letters left just enough room for hope that I decided to try with a second strip. That was ‘FoxTrot,’” Amend said.

In hindsight, he wishes that he’d been aware of Pixar, since they were starting up around then.

“[It] would’ve been a great fit for someone with my interests and background,” Amend said.

Instead, his first job out of college involved a small animation studio in San Francisco, where he helped create drawings for commercials and music videos.

“I’d always wanted to work in animation, so I was a little surprised by how boring the work felt. That’s when I realized I liked coming up with my own ideas way more than I liked illustrating other peoples’ ideas,” Amend said.

According to Amend, the comics of his immediate post-college years “seemed to be stuck in some sort of 1950s time warp,” written from old and dated perspectives.

“I thought a family strip written with a more modern and youthful sensibility was something I would enjoy seeing as a reader, so I figured I’d give it a try. I think I started on the first submission sometime in 1985. It took about two years for a syndicate to finally make me an offer,” Amend said.

“FoxTrot” began with no particular character inspiration. Amend began by playing around with established archetypes, until he realized that each of the Fox family members were “little avatars for various aspects of my personality.” With Jason Fox often cited as the sole example, this might come as a surprise — Romer claims to see none of Peter Fox, the lazy, self-absorbed, 16-year-old jock, anywhere in Amend’s personality. Amend will not admit that Peter’s cap stands for Amherst, as is popularly understood.

“I can say with absolute certainty that it does NOT stand for Williams,” Amend said.

John Glynn, Amend’s friend and boss at Universal Press Syndicate, has tried in vain to get Amend to insert a UMass cap in honor of his own alma mater. Intriguingly, a recent “FoxTrot” strip shows Roger Fox, patriarch of the Fox family, “corporate cog,” and “clueless to his own cluelessness,” wearing a distinct purple sweater bearing a large, yellow ‘W.’

When it came to finding a name for his comic, Amend struggled.

“I went through about a billion ideas for what to call the strip and “FoxTrot” seemed to suck the least. In the end, I think what I liked about it is it’s a type of dance. I thought a dance was a good metaphor for a lot of what goes on in a family,” Amend said.

Amend now has a wife, daughter and son, all of whom he credits as influences for his strip.

“I think really, really hard [to come up with ideas for his comics]. Seriously, there’s no magic formula that I know of,” Amend said.

In tribute to his liberal arts education, Amend recommends on his website to aspiring cartoonists that they “obtain the best possible education…in as broad a range of subjects as possible. Too many young cartoonists forget that what makes a comic strip work is much more than the ability to draw funny pictures. What sustains a strip, what makes it worth reading day after day, is the mind behind it.”

Recent Amendments

These days, Amend lives in Kansas City, right across from the childhood home of Norton Starr, his former math professor at Amherst. Starr recently discovered a “FoxTrot” strip reproduced in “Special Functions,” an encyclopedia of mathematics by George A. Andrews, with a unique infinite sum that was noted by several other professors.

“He told me that whenever he has something with science in it…he’s very nervous the next day because he knows, at least at Amherst, that all of us are watching him like a hawk,” Romer said.

“FoxTrot” contains numerous references to math, science, computing and various fantasy material, all of which is faithfully updated as the years go by.

Within the next five to 10 years, Amend hopes to extend beyond “FoxTrot” and write something that might not include cartoons. He claims to have no hobbies — except for one.

“Mostly when I’m not working or doing family stuff I play video games to an unhealthy degree. Fortunately I can write about them in the strip … at least, that’s how I rationalize it,” Amend said.

This past July, Amend took his daughter to visit colleges around Massachusetts, including Amherst.

“My kids are old enough now that they’re too cool to be reading dad’s lame cartoons, but I occasionally catch them in a charitable mood and they’ll give something I’ve drawn a thumbs up, which is nice. It was pretty weird when they were younger and I’d find myself occasionally yelling at them to put the ‘FoxTrot’ books away because it was past their bedtime,” Amend said.

In 2006, Amend decided he’d had enough of the grind of the daily strip and switched to Sundays-only in order to devote more time to his family and personal sanity.

“He could have very easily hired someone to do the art or the writing, or both…or he could have allowed us to run reruns. I don’t think either of those ideas ever crossed his mind. He knew all the openings he relinquished would go to another cartoonist and the royalties he gave up would change several cartoonists’ lives,” Glynn said.

Professor Jagannathan restates the general consensus on Amend: “a very unassuming, very decent, smart and wonderful guy.”