Rodney Lambright II channels subversion through children's eyes

The Madison-based artist discusses his two comic strips, "The Beatniks" and "Something About A Flower."

  Self-portrait by Rodney Lambright II.

Self-portrait by Rodney Lambright II.

Successful creative work often thrives on unlikely combinations. The much-beloved Calvin And Hobbes combined a child's creative immaturity with philosophical musings and lush watercolor backgrounds. Controversial (to white conservatives and Al Sharpton) yet lauded by critics and fans, The Boondocks is partially an exegesis on social justice and intellectualism, filtered through Japanese Manga-inspired drawing techniques and filtered, again, through children's eyes.

Madison-based comics artist and cartoon creator Rodney Lambright II has latched on to this strategy.  

"I wanted a correlation of the innocence of childhood with the realities of everyday life," Lambright says of Something About A Flower, his strip about a young girl raised by her father and grandparents, which recently was animated for Wisconsin Public Radio and Television's Wisconsin Life series.

This idea also sums up his more mature strip, The Beatniks, which focuses on a rambunctious group of middle schoolers. Lambright readily admits that the influence of both Calvin And Hobbes and The Boondocks shows in the philosophy and character designs of his own work. Thrown into this mix is an obvious love of the irreverent Cartoon Network humor and character style we both grew up on, with an updated sense of hip-hop and the digital world.

Unleashing these abundant influences, Lambright's comics burst with wit and an obvious love for the craft. As long as he sticks to what he believes in, his career in the still amorphous world of web comics should take him far. The two strips he currently runs expertly jump from silly punning word-play to confronting debates like the Black Lives Matter movement and the intersection of sexuality and the internet, all ciphered through children who prove surprisingly articulate in their own understanding of the world. He’s also starting to brainstorm a sci-fi adventure that turns the trope of minorities-as-aliens on its head, and a music-infused animated version of The Beatniks that uses the voices of local rappers.

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I first met Lambright when he lived down the hall from me in UW-Madison's Sellery Hall dorms, and was drawn to his projects for art classes, which mixed abstract symbolism and expertly drawn graphic novel-esque characters. This was in UW's The Studio, a learning community where creative students pay an extra fee to live with other artists and have access to exclusive events and on-site work rooms with craft materials. (For non-pamphlet-style context, while the other floors of Sellery Hall smelled like puke and alcohol, the Studio smelled like weed.) I remember Lambright as a calm, friendly presence, always willing to chat about whatever cartoon I happened to be addicted to at the time.

Post-graduation Lambright is still modestly charismatic, as you might have to be as the creator of a serialized webcomic and a cartoon short at 23. Though his career contradicts the narrative of the aimless creative millennial, he can still talk endlessly of the cartoons our parents insisted made no sense. He expresses a love for Codename: Kids Next Door, a Cartoon Network cartoon in which kids operated a global system of resistance against adult oppression. This show captured children's unique power to construct their own worlds and operate within them, even as these worlds conflict with the traditional and seemingly stagnant world of adults. KND was deemed "silly… too violent for youngest viewers," by Common Sense Media, and indeed, kids beat the shit out of adults almost every episode. Despite these lame criticisms, the show imbued its young viewers with a strange sense of pride in freedoms that would soon be whisked away by puberty.

This balancing of the boundless potentials of childhood with the fast-approaching tragedies and traumas of the adult world also lurks in Lambright's comics. The young characters in The Beatniks deal with taboo topics like their burgeoning interest in sex, and the violence of today's politics, while the young girl in Something About A Flower confronts homelessness and the death of her mother. Lambright chuckled as we agreed that depicting childhood honestly is often considered unsuitable for children.

"Most middle school kids, the free ones, are very inappropriate," Lambright says. "They're getting little blips of things they don't know about, they don't know what there bodies are doing, yet they're still very honest."

One of these blips is depicted in Lambright's The Beatniks strip for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

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Children's access to things they shouldn't have, public sexuality, social justice, and the cynicism of the adult world are all wrapped up in a practical joke that most kids have experienced. I was immediately reminded of a time in my own middle school when some kids printed out dozens of copies of a porn photo they found on the internet and put them on desks. In public schools, many students confront the banal realities of the world without immediate supervision, getting an education from friends or bullies who are as confused as they are. Lambright sees this public-school-education-by-fire as essential to his voice and success.  "Everybody should go to public school," he says, "You're not limited to seeing one way of life."

These social commentaries are often byproducts of Lambright's attempts to make us laugh.  "I just want to write what I think is funny," he says, when I pointed out some of the subversive ideas he seems to be playing with.

"[My comics] could be seen as disrespectful," says Lambright, "But the whole point is to be brutally honest." In the Black History Month series, The Beatniks confront colorism, sexism, colonialism, and question the idea of having only one month to talk about black history. Meanwhile, the kids bully each other, are bullied, and drop mixtapes (literally), taking breaks to look at pictures of ladies on their cellphones.

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In Something About A Flower, the juxtaposition of childhood and a damaged adult world is even more pronounced. The above comic, innocent enough on its surface, pits the family against the nation under the aura of patriotism. In a police-state, everyone breaks the law sometimes, and people need to watch each other's backs. Lambright says of the above comic, "I just depicted what I thought was right. My family would protect me." Patriotic law-breaking is paradoxically hilarious, and the threat posed by police surveillance in black neighborhoods is inverted, at least for the few minutes you look at the comic, into a harmless joke.