The influence of pop culture may be felt far and wide across all media. However, when a cartoonist uses his vast knowledge and love of everything music, TV, film, as not just topics to be covered, but actually as an ever-present character of sorts, you really have something special. Also, when you add the term “BLORK” to define the goings-on in a baby’s diaper, things get even better. Paul Trap, the artist and creator of comic strip Thatababy uses pop culture in a brand new way, and his clever, yet loving work brings smiles to his readers every single day.
Like many forms of art, Thatababy is inspired from life. The idea came from the early days of parenthood Paul and his wife of 30 years experienced. His son is now a grown man volunteering with the Peace Corps in Central America, but he seems to remain amused by the re-imagined tales of his babyhood. The family relocated to Omaha, NE five years ago.
Michigan native, Trap cartooned in high school and college, worked in advertising and in newsrooms, and soon after becoming a stay-at-home dad, he created marketing materials and infographics, but the itch to cartoon eventually became a full-time vocation. Trap also contributes work to USA Today and Baseball America.
The pop cultural references in Thatababy are something special. From rock ‘n roll, to Star Wars and Alien, to celebrities, and reliance upon technology Trap just gets it. Sometimes his references are inside baseball, but usually they are pretty obvious for those who know what they are looking at. For those who don’t know who Gene Wilder, the Ramones, or Robert Kinoshita were, his art may encourage readers to take another look at their work.
In addition to exalting the living legends, old school cartoons and iconic movies that shaped America, Trap does some fabulous tributes to celebrities who passed away, and 2016 was a big and sad year for that. Unfortunately, 2017 seems to be off to a brisk start on the death count of the famous and beloved.
But there is something else that makes this comic strip so cool and relevant. It also depicts a very loving, fun family who each have their eccentricities, as well as rich fantasy lives. They accept each other for what they are, and instead of getting angry, they go with the flow. While the parents, usually the dad, may be oblivious to some of Thatababy’s antics, and they can do or say some unwise things, they are not shown as being stupid, petty or rude to each other. This comic strip is a kind one. That, plus the usually hilarious, and always entertaining stories, makes a daily read of this strip to be a purely positive experience.
Thatababy was launched in October 2010 and now appears in more than 100 newspapers as well as daily on gocomics.com.
Cartoonist Paul Trap took the time to speak with TheCelebrityCafe.com about his work, a fanboy moment with Stan Lee, his love of music and pop culture, as well as offering some advice to would-be comic strip creators and more.
Self Portrait by Paul Trap
TheCelebrityCafe.com: Please tell me about your early life and education?
Paul Trap: A native of Grand Haven, Michigan, north of Chicago on the big lake. I cartooned throughout high school (Go Buccaneers!) and as a student at Michigan State University (Go Spartans!), where I created a single-panel cartoon for the school paper called ‘Spartoons’ — forgive the painful pun.
TCC: Tell me about your previous jobs?
PT: Armed with a degree in Advertising, I took my first real world job at a TV station in Rapid City, South Dakota, writing copy and producing commercials for minimum wage. And loved it.
I married soon thereafter, and began work in newspapers — first in the advertising department, onto promotions, then into the newsroom. Those were great days — putting out a newspaper is a team effort, which I likened to building a homecoming float night after night.
After our son was born I became a stay-at-home dad freelancing full time, creating marketing material for corporate clients and infographics for newspaper syndicates.
TCC: How did Thatababy come to be?
PT: I grew up devouring the comic pages in newspapers, and loved when each day began with a new Far Side or Calvin and Hobbes. While cartooning the dream of joining the ranks of syndicated cartoonists was always throbbing in the back of my mind, and I began percolating ideas for my own strip.
My first attempt was about a talking newt, with an Elvis impersonator (or was he?) as a supporting character. It received some positive feedback with encouragement to refine the strip — our son was born the following week, our lives became a foggy blur of sleep deprivation, and the dream of being a syndicated cartoonist was tabled as I regained my footing.
Years later I decided to follow the old adage to go-with-what-you-know, and Thatababy was the result — a tale of a baby in full control of his environment, and loving it. As a new dad I was blindsided by the relentless responsibility, and the resulting chaos seemed like a good premise.
I recall telling co-workers ‘we’re going to incorporate our new baby into our lives, instead of letting it dictate ours’ (followed by the eye-rolling of my audience) — that, as I learned in English Literature, is called foreshadowing.
TCC: What is your connection to Amazon? Please tell me about the contest?
PT: I submitted two weeks of Thatababy samples to newspaper syndicates — at around the same time I was alerted to Amazon’s ‘Comic Strip Superstar’ contest, and sent in my packet of strips. It was an exciting few weeks, as the field was continually narrowed like a basketball tournament — I made the final round, didn’t win, but was offered a development deal by Universal Uclick. Whoop!
TCC: What is the one or two sentence description of Thatababy for those who don’t know about it?
PT: Thatababy chronicles a parental rodeo with the baby-who-would-not sleep, raised by three caregivers – mom, dad and pop culture.
TCC: Who are the characters?
PT: Thatababy is not-so-loosely based after our son, my wife and myself.
TCC: Why no names for the leads? Do the kitty or fish have names?
PT: I’ve left out the names to make the characters a bit more universal (readers have dubbed the parents Thatadad and Thatamom). The feline has not been called by name, but is modeled after my college dorm-cat Bandit, and the Goldfish was dubbed ‘Jaws’ in an earlier strip. He was introduced in the classic Jaws-movie-poster pose gobbling up fish food.
TCC: What do you want to say about your family?
PT: A cartoonist once gave a presentation with the ‘Top Ten Things You Need To Be a Successful Cartoonist’. #1 was having a spouse with steady work and health benefits. So I like to go out of my way to salute my wife – her job in the National Park Service has given me the opportunity to be a stay-at-home dad and pursue cartooning, and has also provided some terrific adventures.
The National Park Service turned 100 this year, and we had a week of Thatababy strips celebrating the centennial.
TCC: What is your readership? How many papers? Online?
PT: Thatababy runs in around 100 newspapers, and appears daily at GoComics.com/Thatababy.
TCC: What is the two sentence description of Thatababy for those who don’t know about it?
TCC: How do you get inspiration for the strip?
PT: Reliving those first years of parenthood pandemonium provides plenty of material.
TCC: How does your son feel about it now?
PT: I assume he’s fine with his portrayal as an infant anarchist.
TCC: How true to life is it?
PT: I like to say it’s semi-autobiographical. As far as I know the extra-terrestrial from Alien was not our son’s imaginary friend (as it is in the strip), but the architecture is there — writing on walls, the baby setting the agenda, blowouts, etc.
TCC: Pop culture is incredibly important to you, how did you decide to add it into the strip?
PT: A challenge I didn’t expect of parenthood is regulating media. Not only was I worried about what was age-appropriate, but kids are sponges, and have yet to develop the ability to discern between good-and-bad entertainment. There’s a lot of time-killing junk out there, and I fretted it would be interpreted as quality input. And that of course leads to every parent’s dilemma — do I show the children every Star Wars movie, or just the Original Trilogy?
Conversely, a joy of parenting is introducing your kids to what you think is cool and has value. I’m proud to say our family shares a common admiration for the Ramones.
TCC: What are some of your favorite items to pull from in pop culture, music, art and geek culture?
PT: Star Wars, certainly. It’s astounding a movie that hypnotized me as a kid still has legs today. Music — anything that’s been heard over radio waves — and artwork as celebration. Anyone can take a blank piece of paper and create something never seen before.
TCC: You mentioned how much you and your wife like live music. Any favorites?
PT: We’re fortunate that there is a lot of great live music comes through Omaha — we’ve seen some terrific shows in the arena, symphony hall, bars, garages and basements. Some recent favorites — Twin Peaks, A Giant Dog, bluesman John Primer, Darlene Love, Shannon and the Clams, Screaming Females, Diarrhea Planet, Car Seat Headrest . . .
TCC: What are your favorite current movies or TV shows?
PT: I’m happy the new season of Adventure Time has hit the airwaves. I did enjoy the latest Star Wars movie, but could have done without the cartoon Princess Leia at the end.
TCC: What are some of your favorite strips from other people?
PT: I think most cartoonists will put Peanuts as Head #1 on the cartooning Mt. Rushmore, followed by Calvin & Hobbes. I’ll put the Far Side next and spot #4 is always in motion, like a rotating guest star.
TCC: What are some of your favorite strips from Thatababy?
PT: Thatadad once screamed into the night ‘WHY ISN’T CHEAP TRICK IN THE HALL OF FAME?’, and the band featured it on their website the next day. There are plenty of favorites.
TCC: What is the turnaround time from concept, to sending to your editor to appearing?
PT: Thatababy strips are created from a secret formula of caffeine and panic — daily cartoons appear online and in print as early as 11 days from submission. Color Sunday strips run about six weeks out. It’s odd to be thinking of Christmas gags in mid-November, although it seems like the Season is upon us before the trick-or-treating starts.
TCC: When you eulogize someone, those strips seem to be timelier, how do you make those changes?
PT: Completed strips can get bumped to make room for a tribute. We lost a lot of celebrated figures in 2016 — there were a few more to whom I wanted to pay tribute, but it sadly seemed to be becoming a tribute of the week.
TCC: How do you decide on the songs the baby screams during his nighttime serenades?
PT: That began as finding songs about being up at night used to keep the parents awake (‘I want to Rock and Roll All Nite’, an example) — it’s expanded from there. I try to use songs that have recognizable lyrics — I like the idea of a reader providing the soundtrack in their head.
TCC: Tell me about your collections?
PT: We have three Thatababy e-books available on Amazon.
Thatababy Rocks Out is music-flavored, showcasing Thatababy’s love of rock and or roll.
Thatababy Geeks Out is full of pop-culture references, with media an ever-present part of the household.
Thatababy Gets Arty features our protagonist drawing on every blank surface — the world being his palette.
TCC: What are some strips you admire?
PT: I’m hypnotized by Zippy the Pinhead. Thatababy is rendered in simple strokes — Zippy is illustrative, and the pen-and-ink work is incredibly rich and immersive. I’m a fan of the open road, and always dig it when Zippy engages Muffler Men and roadside icons in conversation.
TCC: Do you frequent Comic Cons?
PT: I’ve attended twice as a Fanboy — it’s wonderful pop culture overload. This year I was able to meet Berkely Breathed of Bloom County fame, Stan Lee (I’ll use the term ‘met’ loosely, although we did have a moment), and held a copy of Action Comics #1 (first appearance of Superman) in my sweaty hands.
[You can read about his first hand accounts here, here and here.]
TCC: You also contribute to BaseballAmerica.com, Is there anything you to add about that?
PT: I feel fortunate to have a tiny soapbox to combine my two favorite pastimes, cartooning and baseball.
TCC: Which is your baseball team?
PT: I grew up a huge Cubs fan. Now that the bandwagon is full and they’ve climbed the mountaintop, I’ve thrown my allegiance back to my home state Tigers.
TCC: What do you think is the future of comic strips?
PT: I think the future is bright — there are more ways than ever to put eyeballs on comic strips.
I have a presentation to school kids where I show one of my early cartoons from my junior-high years — it’s a limited edition, one-of-one, as there was not a consumer-friendly way to reproduce original art.
TCC: You also sometimes use the strip to connect with fans by answering questions or taking requests for Thatababy to scream at night. How does that work?
PT: We take requests for questions and musical serenades at email@example.com. Participation encouraged.
TCC: How do fans connect with you?
PT: Thatababy has his own Facebook page, and we can be reached at Thatababy@Thatababy.com. Cartooning can often feel like working in a vacuum, so feedback is always welcomed.
TCC: What advice would you give to would be comic strip creators/artists?
I’m fortunate that Thatababy runs daily in our local newspaper, giving me the opportunity to speak to art classes, homeschoolers and young cartoonists. My takeaway is always-be-drawing — I like to show examples of my early schoolwork with cartoons used to deliver ideas and information both front-and-center and in the margins. Also, emphatically, stay curious and READ! A lot. A cartoonist needs material and background, and absorbing news, history, culture et al. creates a well of inspiration.
Thatababy can be found here. Paul Trap can be reached at Thatababy@Thatababy.com, and through Thatababy’s Facebook Page.
Author’s Note: The cartoon below is when I knew that I had fallen in love with Thatababy.
Click next to find few other Author favorites.
Michelle Tompkins is an award-winning media, PR and crisis communications professional with more than ten years experience with coverage in virtually every traditional and new media outlet. She is currently a communications and media strategist and writer, as well as the author of College Prowler: Guidebook for Columbia University. She served as the Media Relations Manager for the Girl Scouts of the USA where she managed all media and talking points, created social media strategy, trained executives and donors and served as the organization’s primary spokesperson, participating in daily interviews with local, regional, and national media outlets. She managed the media for the Let Me Know internet safety and Cyberbullying prevention campaign with Microsoft, as well as Girl Scouts’ centennial Year of the Girl To Get Her There celebration in 2012, which yielded more than 800 million earned media impressions. In addition to her extensive media experience, Michelle worked as a talent agent in Los Angeles, California, as well contracting as a digital content developer and her writing has appeared in newspapers and online. She is passionate about television, theater, classic movies, all things food and in-home entertaining. While she has lived and worked in NYC for more than a decade, she is from suburban Sacramento and gets back there often to watch the San Francisco Giants on TV with her family.