Pandemic prompts Wells artist’s return to cartooning

“First and last responders,” a COVID-19 cartoon by Dirk Van Stralen. (Dirk Van Stralen cartoon)“First and last responders,” a COVID-19 cartoon by Dirk Van Stralen. (Dirk Van Stralen cartoon)
“Good for everyone” COVID-19 cartoon by Dirk Van Stralen. (Dirk Van Stralen cartoon)“Good for everyone” COVID-19 cartoon by Dirk Van Stralen. (Dirk Van Stralen cartoon)
“Love in the time of COVID” cartoon by Dirk Van Stralen. (Dirk Van Stralen cartoon)“Love in the time of COVID” cartoon by Dirk Van Stralen. (Dirk Van Stralen cartoon)

Like many people in the community, Dirk Van Stralen has found himself with an unexpected amount of time on his hands during the COVID-19 pandemic. He has been using that time to return to cartooning, producing daily COVID-related cartoons from his home in Wells.

Van Stralen, who is the director of productions at the Sunset Theatre and director and stage manager of Jake’s Gift, started publishing cartoons over 30 years ago.

His first cartoon was published around 1987 in the Tri-City News in Coquitlam, and in 1990, his first cartoon appeared in the Georgia Straight, beginning a 17-year weekly run in the Vancouver publication.

Van Stralen also did cartoons for hire and did cartoons and web design work for Orbitz drinks.

Van Stralen worked as the marketing manager for Barkerville Historic Town and Park from 2012 to 2015, and during that time, he produced cartoons to accompany writing by Danette Boucher of Wells, who currently interprets Miss Florence Wilson at Barkerville. These cartoons and columns were published in the Prince George Citizen.

Van Stralen, who has a literature degree and comes at cartooning as a writer, says he is pulled to cartooning as a form of expression because there is “a profound power” in cartoons.

“They literally cost you three to 10 seconds to read, but — and this is true for me— the ideas expressed in a cartoon can stick in your mind for decades,” he said. “That’s profoundly powerful. Sometimes they’re just a stupid, stupid pun or whatever, but I think I was attracted to that form of expression because it might take you a long time to create the cartoon, but the investment from the reader is so minimal, and it can be a Trojan horse that kind of infects your brain. The most important thing to me, I think, is that a cartoon and certainly my own favourites have always contained a world of ideas, and it’s so easily accessible with so little commitment from the viewer — that’s what I think is most powerful about them overall.”

Van Stralen came back to cartooning in March because he found himself with a lot of time and a lot of ideas.

“I think No. 1 is I think, for me anyway, this is the first time in probably two decades that I’ve felt the joy of having time, time to actually think because we just pile on our schedule with the Sunset and touring Jake’s Gift, we have a seasonal ebb and flow, and of course, all of that got cancelled, so our spring tour was cancelled, and then everything we were working on for the season for the Sunset was suspended, and I felt clarity for the first time in maybe a couple of decades, in a way, and then thought I have a surfeit of ideas, and I’m just going to just put it out there on a daily basis, if only to run the gauntlet of that — because in 17 years with the Straight, I only ever had to come up with one cartoon a week,” he said. “So, the idea of that challenge presented itself, and I thought I would be obedient to that. I’ve never attempted to create on a daily basis, so I thought there was no excuse not to.”

Van Stralen’s work at the Sunset Theatre came to a halt March 15, and about 10 days after that, he started producing cartoons again.

“I ended up in a moment of pitifuge and restlessness and maybe anger and launched upon that, and the very first cartoon was created thereafter, and it stuck like a splinter in my mind,” he said. “I just started cranking them out, and that was only because of an abundance of ideas that were bouncing around in my head, which is not typical for me, so I thought ‘OK, I’ll just start.’”

Van Stralen says his cartoon ideas can be prompted from reading or watching the news or from things other people say.

“It’s a chain of command; it would be hard to find the colonel,” he laughed. “It’s the torrent of news, and it’s the odd opinion piece or a turn of phrase that somebody uses that sparks something. For me, getting wonky, I think, politically, my goal is to personify what a political policy might be, what its ramifications might be. It might be personifying a virus to highlight the folly of a choice. So that’s kind of the chain of command in terms of how an idea might come about.

“Because of the relentlessness and because of the global spread of this threat, in my entire life, this is the first time I’ve felt like the world is at all united, in a way, and that to me is kind of inspiring as a flag of hope about the way things should be versus the way they are.”

Van Stralen has been sharing his cartoons on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram every day, and they can also be found at vanstralen.design.

The immediacy of social media is a change he is noticing since his earlier cartooning, and he is enjoying the instant feedback.

“The cartoons stopped running in the Straight in 2007, and that was enough for there not to be a social media version of me online that with cranking that up again now, the instant feedback you get from people is supremely encouraging, I have to say,” said Van Stralen.

Coronavirus