15. The Cartoon Shootout

by H. W. Moss

“We play by American rules,” I told my opponent as we shook hands over a game of pool in Murio’s Trophy Room. It was ten p.m. January 14, 2003. I’m rarely so precise on time and date, but I feel this is important.

“You’ll have to explain ’em t’me,” Mark responded. His accent gave him away as British. He won the last game against his girlfriend, so they must have been playing English rules.

Right. I began to explain. There is no table foul except the white ball which you never want to pot because then it’s my shot and then I shoot from behind the line, in the kitchen, not ball in hand. And the eight ball. Don’t drop that. It’s an automatic loss unless it’s your last ball and then you have to nominate the pocket it’s going in before you shoot. It must go clean which means you cannot call it off another ball. Your break. How do you play the break?

I don’t think the set of bar rules confused him, but Mark looked skeptical with this last question.

I explained that if he sank a ball on the break he had the choice to either keep what dropped, which meant if a stripe fell he would be stripes, or the table was still open in which case he could shoot any ball. However, if it was open, he had to make his next shot. If he missed, it was still an open table, it would be my choice and I could shoot anything including stripes, one of which would have already fallen.

Turned out, Mark was from London. He had been in America four days, on his way to Los Angeles with his girlfriend Zoe (with an umlaut over the “e”), and another couple, Anne and Franko.

Mark was a good sport and not a bad shot. He listened attentively to my description of how to play.

“I’ll keep it.”

But he made nothing on the break. My shot. I sank a stripe, then two more, missed my fourth shot. His turn. He sank two. My go. I made one, then missed. His go. He made two. I made three in quick succession and was on the eight.

Between rounds, I chatted with Zoe (umlaut over the “e”) and learned she was a writer.

“But I simply cannot finish a story,” she said with chagrin. “I write long pieces, but just cannot seem to end them.”

“What does Mark do?” I asked.

“He’s an artist.”

“Really? What kind of art?”

“Oh, caricatures.”

Lightening didn’t strike, but it might as well have. A bulb going on in my brain, perhaps? Signal switched at the railhead?

The thought came quick: Ant was the artist in residence at Murio’s. His caricatures of patrons covered the ceiling and he was the cartoonist for my comic book, “Haight Street Stories” which is three of my short stories illustrated.

How about a competition between Mark and The Ant? Zoe (with an umlaut over the “e”) thought it was a great idea. The pool game was over; I asked Mark if he had looked up at the ceiling. He said he had.

“We have a caricaturist,” I explained. “He’s here tonight. Would you consider drawing against him in a contest?” I produced a copy of “Haight Street Stories,” which Mark apprised.

He said “Nice cover.”

I repeated the suggestion of a cartoon contest.

“Do I get to keep this?”

“Absolutely. And we will both gladly autograph it for you.”

But I still had to ask The Ant.

“Five dollars.” Right. “And a beer.” I didn’t quibble.

The Ant sat opposite Mark and handed him a piece of drawing paper from his pad. Ant graciously held out two drawing utensils for Mark to choose from: a black felt tip pen and one of those black grease pencils with that damn white unwinding string near the tip.

Mark chose the string thing. They sat on barstools, nodded and waited for the countdown with pen and grease pencil pointed at one another.

“How much time do I get?” Mark inquired before we started.

I said ten, maybe fifteen minutes.

The sketching began. Neither contender seemed fazed by the circumstances, the environment or the situation in which they found themselves. Each began with large bold round strokes that scratched the dark outline of the other, first forehead, then eyebrows followed by facial features. Each looked into a window on the other’s soul and cast that image on a big piece of brown recycled paper in black.

Ant completed his outline and began filling it in with color he chose from a set of Crayons.

Mark had drawn no immediately recognizable form, but it was clear he had a result in mind.

Ant added rouge to a cheek as Mark supplied fringe to a high forehead, put glasses around the eyes, lettered in part of Ant’s t-shirt with its ironic anti-war message: War Is Entertainment.

Anne who was traveling with Mark massaged Mark’s shoulders as Ant picked up a colored stylus.

He shaded blue, rubbed and smudged with a fingertip.

The artists repeatedly glanced at one another with calculated, studied, practiced looks. Mark stayed with the grease pencil, no color, caught the arc of each of Ant’s antenna, added stubby arms but no body to speak of while The Ant used color to accent Mark’s hair and appended a whole if tiny body to the over sized head. Here were two totally different styles in action.

They rapidly approached the finish. Ant put his pad down but remained seated while Mark completed his rendering.

There was no clear winner since both were accomplished at the craft. Each succeeded in capturing their opponent in spontaneous response to the moment. On the sidelines, Victor and James pummeled my shoulders. They seemed to think this was great entertainment.

And now it was my turn. This had been a competition. There had to be a winner. It was obvious, however, the only way to choose one was subjective and no matter how a decision was arrived at, it would be wrong.

You may believe I found a solution and thought this up during the moments of fevered inking, but I did not. I tried to come up with something smart right after they began, something which would somehow indicate this was an evenly matched competition. But I couldn’t. Yet it was clear something had to be said as the caricatures were hoisted aloft and the audience surrounding them applauded.

Amazingly, a fitting judgment arrived in my mind and came unbidden and of its own volition from my lips: “I call it a draw!”


The Ant drawn by Mark in Murio’s Trophy Room on Haight Street January 14, 2003