The emergence of Rich Sparks is at least one argument for Facebook's existence

Andy Downing
"Barking Man" by Rich Sparks

Not long after Rich Sparks moved to Chicago in 1982, he started a job at Carnival Foods, a grocery store in the city’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Working in the produce department, Sparks was tasked with updating a sign advising customers to “Ring Bell for Service,” and in short order he’d transformed it into a sort of weekly single-panel cartoon that started to generate a following among the store’s customers.

“It was like my own little thing, my own little comic panel, and, now that I think about it, it’s not unlike what I’m doing now,” said the Columbus-born Sparks, who released his first collection, Love and Other Weird Things, today (Tuesday, Jan. 28).

The single-panel cartoons populating the collection are weird and whimsical, the simple line drawings often given added depth, humor and absurdity through the addition of a few choice words. In one drawing, a woman dressed in Western wear sits in the driver's seat, her head turned toward the rear as she backs up the car. Beneath the image are the words “Reverse Cowgirl.” Another, “Bonsai Fail,” depicts the thick trunk of a full-growth tree extending skyward from a small pot set on an end table.

Some images are wonderfully random (in “Multicorn,” a unicorn takes on a Pinhead-like appearance), while others are imbued with a darker humor that Sparks traced through his bloodlines. In “Beating a Dead Horse,” for one, a child celebrates winning a game of chess over a clearly deceased equine. It’s a morbid tendency that led fellow cartoonist Ken Krimstein to remark in a recent Chicago Magazine profile that “for somebody who appears to be such a normal human being, [Sparks is] processing some dark imagery.”

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“Growing up, there was this take on life, not bleak, but an acceptance of your circumstances,” said Sparks, who once or twice a summer would accompany his family on trips to the Kentucky farm on which his mom was raised. “It was like a three-hour drive, though it felt like it took forever. But once you got down there, you were just running around in the hills, getting ticks, getting dirty. It’s back in the hills [of Grayson in Eastern Kentucky], off of a dirt road, and you’re sitting around listening to these stories that are full of goblins and ghosts and people riding mules around in the darkness, and it keeps you … close to the fact that life is finite. And I think what happens is that can translate as darkness, but what it really means is that as much fun as you have, you also accept that non-fun happens, too.”

Sparks described his childhood in Whitehall in generally idyllic terms, recalling it as a seemingly endless string of baseball-filled summer days. The cartoonist said laughter was a constant at home, tracing his own sense of humor to his mother, who worked for Western Electric, and his late father, who worked as a dispatcher at a loading dock. “I was back in Columbus last weekend, and we always do the same thing,” he said. “We get around the kitchen table and it’s a nonstop laugh riot.”

Though Sparks’ father has been dead for nearly two decades, his influence is felt even beyond the comic’s similarly absurdist humor. The elder turns up throughout Love and Other Weird Things. He pees on a tree in one panel. In another, he moons the neighbors. The cartoonist said the decision to repeatedly draw his father wasn’t purposeful. “But, now that you bring it up,” he said, “I wonder if I’m trying to conjure him a little bit.”

While Sparks grew up drawing — “I can’t recall picking up a pencil for the first time; it just seemed like I always had one,” he said — it’s only in more recent years that he started to take cartooning more seriously. Indeed, for a time in the 1990s, Sparks rarely drew, instead focusing his artistic energy on making music (his most recent band, the Late Afternoons, released its second album earlier this month). And when he came back to the form, he focused on commercial illustration, freelancing for The Chicago Tribune and taking jobs for the odd trade journal.

“But all those years I was illustrating, I never liked what I did,” Sparks said. “And maybe that’s why I could never make a go out of it.”

After being forced onto Facebook by his wife — “She said I would enjoy it, and I said, ‘Oh, that’s not for me,’” he said — Sparks started posting his cartoons on the social media site at regular intervals, embracing the absurdity he absorbed from family members and early influences like National Lampoon cartoonist M.K. Brown.

“With Facebook, I started off just using it as a little forum,” said Sparks, who sold his first cartoon to the New Yorker in 2016. “I was drawing all of the time, and I would kind of hate it, at first, but gradually I found myself hating it less, until eventually I started consistently doing something that I didn’t hate.”