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‘I learned how to draw’: Spokane native Jody Zellman’s comic strip ‘Earth to Planet’ joins S-R lineup

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 5, 2020

Jody Zellman, 31, competed with nine other artists during autumn to score a weekly gig as the new cartoonist in The Spokesman-Review. (Shuhei Kinoshita / For The Spokesman-Review)
Jody Zellman, 31, competed with nine other artists during autumn to score a weekly gig as the new cartoonist in The Spokesman-Review. (Shuhei Kinoshita / For The Spokesman-Review)
By Ed Condran The Spokesman-Review

Perhaps author Malcolm Gladwell is spot on with his assertion that 10,000 hours are required to master a skill. Mike Judge wouldn’t argue with Gladwell.

If the iconic animator had his way, Judge never would have let MTV air his crudely drawn but hilarious series “Beavis and Butthead.”

“I thought the early work I did for ‘Beavis and Butthead’ was awful, but MTV thought it was funny enough to air, and they took a chance and ran it even though it wasn’t quite ready,” Judge said during a South by Southwest film panel in 1997. “I needed to work on my drawing more, and fortunately I had the opportunity.”

Jody Zellman can relate since he learned like Judge that his artistry wasn’t quite where it needed to be as he entered adulthood. As a Columbia University undergrad studying anthropology and modern Jewish studies, the South Hill native scored a plum of an internship a decade ago in the humor and cartoon department of the sophisticated and insightful New Yorker.

Former New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff asked for some of Zellman’s work and floated the possibility of publishing a panel or two.

However, Mankoff was brutally honest upon receiving Zellman’s panels and offered constructive criticism. “I brought my stuff, and he tore it apart,” Zellman recalled. “He said, ‘This was terrible, and that needs improvement.’ He said my drawing and humor needed work.”

The Ferris High School alum signed on for classes at New York’s Visual Arts after graduating from Columbia and honed his skills.

“I learned how to draw,” Zellman said. “Comedy is innate, and it has to be practiced. I worked on my mechanics. The School of Visual Arts led me on the path.”

Zellman worked hard enough to earn notice for his amusing “Far Side”-influenced strip “Earth to Planet,” which is typically irreverent, unpredictable and witty. Zellman’s creation often features a wallflower of a green chameleon named Iggy.

Random thoughts are an effective verbal weapon for Zellman, who impresses with panels like “Jimmy’s Two Cent Store.” “No one regrets a colonic,” and “I’m still not convinced by the moon landing” are a pair of the inspired lines.

Zellman competed with nine other artists during autumn to score a weekly gig as the new cartoonist in The Spokesman-Review. “Earth to Planet,” which turns 3 this the summer, won the reader’s choice competition and will run every Wednesday starting today.

“I’m ecstatic,” Zellman said. “My parents are thrilled, as well. They still live on South Hill. They’ll see it in print every week. All of this is huge for me.”

Zellman, who lives in Brooklyn and toils as the director of strategy and operations at ZogSports and ZogCulture, an event-planning and intramural sports league in New York, has gone full circle.

In Jody Zellman’s childhood room/manifestation of his brain in 1996. (Jody Zellman / Courtesy)
In Jody Zellman’s childhood room/manifestation of his brain in 1996. (Jody Zellman / Courtesy)

As a child, Zellman read the comics in The Spokesman-Review. “When I was 7 years old, I would go right to the comic section of the paper. It’s a great place to start for someone who is not really literate yet. The comic strips in The Spokesman-Review had a huge impact on me as a kid, and now I get to be in the very section that influenced me.

“I have to give (Spokesman-Review editor) Rob Curley a lot of credit for taking a chance on me. I have a full-time job. I do this on the side. I’m not proven. The readers of The Spokesman-Review are going to see my scripts develop. They’ll see my writing improve. They’ll see what works and what doesn’t work.”

Zellman, who beat out nationally syndicated peers, looks back and laughs at his days at Jefferson Elementary. Some teachers were concerned about his artistic obsession.

“In elementary school, I was a prolific doodler to the extent that it warranted a few failed interventions,” Zellman cracked. “I still have those early works hermetically sealed in a storage unit. I recall feeling some pride at my sixth-grade graduation when my teacher announced that she had never had a student who doodled with such disregard for the actual assignment.”

However, Zellman is having the last laugh since his work as a comedic artist is getting traction in his hometown. Perhaps “Earth to Planet” can expand across the country.

“That would be great,” Zellman said. “In some ways, it all started in Spokane. That’s where I started doodling, and that’s where the strip is essentially starting. I’m just thankful to have the chance to do this.”

The opportunity would have never happened if it weren’t for Zellman’s mother, Mary Noble.

“My mom was at the (cartoonist) Wiley Miller event (the Northwest Passages Book Club hosted by The Spokesman-Review in August), and she heard Rob Curley talk about some changes to the comic section. My mom, who is my hype man, asked him if he was interested in a local cartoonist. He said, ‘Sure, why not?’

“My mom and my dad (Hershel Zellman) are thrilled. Not many people know about me getting into the paper. I’m not a big promoter, but I guess that’s what this article is all about.”

Zellman’s internship supervisor isn’t surprised his former charge has sold his strip to a daily newspaper. “It’s great for Jody,” Mankoff said via email. “He showed talent when he interned for me, and I’m sure it will flourish in your paper and elsewhere.”

Zellman isn’t concerned about syndicating his work. He just wants to improve at his craft. He recently enjoyed classes with the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, which is an improvisational theater and training center in New York.

“Sketch comedy and improv aren’t for me, but the lessons happened to be exceptional,” Zellman said. “I learned a lot. It’s all about cutting the fat. Working with UCB helped me. It made me a better writer. I want my work to be as good as it can be each week in the paper.”

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