Reno’s Paul Horn speaks teens’ language

By Celeste James, Gannetteer

June, 1993


He thinks he’s the coolest guy on the planet.

Others think he’s just a jerk.

Teen-agers past and present know the type.

Paul Horn does, and each week he illustrates it and other teen-age personalities in a spunky comic strip called “Cool Jerk” for the Reno (Nev.) Gazette-Journal.

Horn, 24, is assistant graphics director at the Gazette-Journal. He started his strip while an art student at the University of Nevada at Reno, six years ago. Then called “Like, For Shore!,” the strip ran in the campus newspaper and humorously depicted young adult life in a beach town – a unique lifestyle, Horn says.

Almost a year after Horn joined the Gazette-Journal in 1990, the newspaper launched its weekly teen page, Off LIMITS. Created to attract young readers to the newspaper, the page deals with important issues that teens and young adults face, and features news on current events, music, health and other topics. Young Gazette-Journal staffers and students from the university compile the page. In search of a cartoonist, editors asked Horn to develop a comic strip to run on the page each Saturday. Horn recast his college strip to target a younger age group and changed its name. “Cool Jerk,” which is published in black and white, involves youngsters who are in their final year of high school. Focusing on young love, college plans, racism, politics and plain old teen-age fun, Horn combines creative sketches with humor and sarcasm.

The characters are composites of people Horn knows – including himself, he says. “Armpit,” who likely got his name because of his crass persona, is the strip’s namesake. He’s “a hedonist” who’s “rather unsure of his direction” in life, Horn explains. Armpit and his girlfriend, “Puppy,” who’s Armpit’s direct opposite – smart and likable – are the two central characters.

The story lines don’t always portray “a situation where you’re going to get a cramp from laughing,” Horn says. Often, in a lighthearted way, they make a serious statement.

One strip shows Armpit discussing college – which he has no plans to attend – with a career counselor. In another, Puppy and a black male friend face bigotry at a night club.

“Cool Jerk” is “not a heavy political commentary, but it speaks for generation,” says Ward Bushee, executive editor. “It’s original and fun.”

Tom Bray, assistant managing editor of The Desert Sun at Palm Springs, which also runs the strip in its teen section, says “Cool Jerk” is right on target.

“It’s very focused on the young readership,” he says. “You can tell by how many older readers hate it,” he jokes, adding that they tend not to understand it.

While Horn doesn’t generally develop his strips from personal experience, they express his views, he says. When he does give them a personal touch, the strips tend to be less serious – some hinging on the outrageous. A gross-out contest was a story idea that came from his college pals. The players challenged one another to eat the grossest concoction without throwing up. (FYI, the finalists fare: a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal with warm beer vs. a sandwich of old coffee grounds and mustard on wet bread.)

Horn, an avid comic book reader, says he was particularly interested in the art in strips he read as a kid. One of his favorite illustrators is “Excalibur’s” Alan Davis. Davis’ art style was clean and fluid, Horn says, and he “had an excellent sense of anatomy.”

But despite Horn’s preference for the visual, he believes the “writing is always far more important than the art in cartoons.” He considers “The Far Side” creator Gary Larson to be “the funniest person on the planet.”

Writing “Cool Jerk” means developing a punchy introduction and conclusion that flows and doesn’t alienate readers who don’t regularly follow the strip, Horn says. His junior-high and high school-buddy – and partner in comic book reading – helps him with some of the writing. Jim Burns lives in Tallahassee, Fla., and often serves as Horn’s long-distance consultant on story ideas and punch lines. When they work as a team, Horn says, the strips “are a lot more powerful.”

Horn carries a sketch book around with him so at any time he can jot down ideas or good jokes that crop up. When he doesn’t have the book, the back of a business card from his wallet serves the purpose.

While Horn’s graphics responsibilities extend to other sections of the newspaper, once a week he zeros in on composing “Cool Jerk.” Once his story line is planned, he designs a strip in three to four hours using a Macintosh computer to create the panels and the type, and sketching the rest free-hand.

Still fairly young himself, Horn has a good sense of what’s hot and what’s not among teens, he says. He understands their aspirations, their concerns and their pleasures. To make sure he stays in tune with his teen audience, Horn says he “has forced” himself to watch shows about the younger generation such as Beverly Hills, 90210.

Within five years Horn hopes his strip will be syndicated and featured in a host of newspapers on a daily basis. It’s currently available to other Gannett newspapers through the Gannett Graphics Network. The Desert Sun at Palm Springs and the Niagara Gazette at Niagara Falls, N.Y., run it. Some others including the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune, plan to.

Palm Springs’ Bray offers this advice to editors who are considering picking up “Cool Jerk”: Don’t attempt to understand it. Take it home and let your 14-year old be the judge.

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