Van Amerongen's Comics Feature Eccentric Seniors
Last updated 5/25/2023 at 6:37pm | View PDF
"Most cartoonists ignore the graphic possibilities of the comic strip, but Jerry Van Amerongen understands that a picture can be the funniest part of the story."
- Bill Watterson
Creator of 'Calvin and Hobbes'
The first thing one notices when talking to cartoonist Jerry Van Amerongen is how calm and friendly he is, a major contrast from the frenzied and moody characters that he is best known for in his comics, "Ballard Street" and "The Neighborhood."
Many of his characters are eccentric and almost all of them are elderly, something that was quickly noticed by the seniors who first saw his work.
"Real early on, people said, 'You're picking on us,'" Van Amerongen told The Good Life, adding that the criticism soon subsided.
He describes his comics as "taking a slice of life."
"You can look at a cartoon and tell what they did before we took this 'slice of life,' and you know what they are going to do after," he explained.
Van Amerongen's Dutch and Polish family roots have influenced his characters.
"Both sides were all large women with print dresses and men whose midriffs got away from them," he said.
"Craggy features are just my style," he added. "I can't draw pretty or fashionable, but I can control facial features and body postures to a minute degree."
Very little of his work is about his life or people he knows.
"Every once in a while, my wife would say something that was tailormade for a cartoon and I would draw that," he said.
Curmudgeonly and Named 'Scooter'
Van Amerongen loves dogs and as a result, they are often featured as the main characters in his comics.
"I've always had a dog," he said. "I have a dog right now. They are wonderful to draw. I have always been interested in the interaction between a pet owner and a pet."
He said that the dogs he draws tend to be "curmudgeonly" and are very often named "Scooter."
Becoming a Cartoonist
Van Amerongen was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he first developed an interest in cartoons.
"In our house when I was growing up, we had publications like Esquire, Saturday Evening Post, Collier's and Life," he said. "Most of them had gag cartoons in them. I must have been taking it in more than I thought."
When it came time for Van Amerongen to pursue a career, however, "cartoons were off the radar." He earned a two-year associate degree in commercial art and used his education to work for an ad agency in Denver, "knee-deep in corporate America."
"I spent six or seven years kicking around Denver, which is not what you would call 'an ad town,'" he said.
"The thing I could do best was humorous drawing," he said.
After 17 years working in "corporate America," Van Amerongen became a cartoonist. He was 40 at the time.
Van Amerongen found himself working for Hill & Lake Press, a community newspaper in the Minneapolis area, where his career as a cartoonist began.
"Everyone seemed to like what I was doing," he recalled.
The Minneapolis Tribune started a feature called "Neighborhood Scene" in its Saturday morning edition. His cartoons seemed to be a perfect fit.
He was soon signed by King Features Syndicate. He would go on to become part of Universal Press Syndicate, a subsidiary of Andrews McMeel Universal, which would publish books of his cartoons.
Van Amerongen drew "The Neighborhood" for ten years, starting in 1980. His comic "Ballard Street" followed, running from 1991 to 2019. It started as a strip, but became a single panel comic like "The Neighborhood" in 1993 – a format much more suited to his humor.
Van Amerongen received the National Cartoonist Society Newspaper Panel Award for "Ballard Street" in both 2004 and 2006.
Many collections of his work have been published over the years. Most recently, Ballard Street Redux: The Comic Art of Jerry Van Amerongen was published by Tesora Books last summer.
His work is currently distributed by Creators Syndicate, which has an archive of his work at http://www.creators.com/features/ballard-street.
Van Amerongen is 82, but, "I don't feel it."
He is supposedly retired now, but it's hard to tell by his schedule.
"I stay busy with painting and just life in general," he said. "I'm happy where I'm at.
"I've been mostly painting for the past few years – plein air landscape painting," he said, adding that he is beginning to also do some cartoon faces, "but I'm trying to do them in a painterly way."
He recently started contributing his cartoons to Hill & Lake Press again, mainly work focused on issues of importance to local readers.