Ryan Stolp: Mountain Life Cartoonist

Ryan Stolp, the creative force behind “Lift Lines” is our latest wonderful guest. His "Lift Lines" cartoon appears in the Jackson Hole Daily and on the news app, Hole Scroll. Stolp, who is the chief creative officer at Orijin Media (an independent subsidiary of Teton Media Works, the parent company of the Jackson Hole News & Guide), has lived many creative lives. He has worked as a product design consultant, designed and fabricated outdoor gear from backpacks to “Alpine Hammocks,” and he currently sells adventure-themed artwork printed on aluminum.

Thank you for joining us, Ryan!

Emy DiGrappa (00:00):

Hello, my name is Emy DiGrappa. Each week we bring you stories, asking our guests the question, "Why?" We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation. This is, "What's Your Why?"

                 Today, we are talking to editorial cartoonist Ryan Stolp. He is the creative force behind the Lift Lines cartoons that appear in the Jackson Hole Daily. Ryan will be one of the cartoonist who will be part of the Wyoming Humanities Cartoon Caption Contest. Welcome, Ryan.

Ryan Stolp (00:55):

Thanks for having me.

Emy DiGrappa (00:56):

So really it's about getting to know you, and getting to know your background, and how you ended up in Jackson Hole.

Ryan Stolp (01:05):

All right. So a backstory on my cartooning journey, always loved drawing. And I had an uncle actually, who's in the medical field, but was also a passionate cartoonist. And he cartooned about medical stories and had a little book. And as a kid, I always thought that was pretty neat. So continued drawing with friends, and was kind of the guy that people tapped for t-shirt designs in middle school and high school. And then when I went to college, there was a ton of campus groups, and they needed shirts and cartoons as well. They were quick and easy, they translate well to a t-shirt designs or flyers. And I ended up getting involved with a campus publication, a bi-monthly magazine, the Tufts Observer. And I was the police blotter editor, and I was like, "Well, why don't we illustrate these hilarious stories of college antics, parties, people getting drunk, people getting in trouble, because that's the only reason people read the police blotter."

                 And so it went from a quarter page to the full back page. And a lot of the reason why I think people wanted to read our little publication. And from there, I ended up getting a strip, which I ran for three years. As far as the transition to political cartooning, I was with my roommate at the time, and this was 2007 to 2011, a lot of change in the world, right after the crash, a lot of more awareness around LGBT rights, and women's advocacy and rights. And he was like, "Well, Ryan, you have this great comic strip. You do a funny comic about just campus life. You should use it as a platform to have a message." And I should've known that, but that was maybe the first time I started packaging a little more of a perspective, or a lens, for my readers to unpack more complicated issues.

                 And since then, continued to draw, illustrate on the side, and ended up in Jackson through a series of events. I was dog sledding at the time, and doing illustrations for them when I wasn't running dogs. And had a friend that had an opportunity to do something in Jackson, I started a media agency here, and through that had access to publish in the paper. And I was like, "Well, I just want to get a couple jokes off my chest." Because coming from the East Coast in North Carolina, and Vermont, Boston, to Jackson, a lot of things jumped out at me as hilarious, and just very odd and weird. And so I was like, "Okay, I'll just do three jokes. Then I'll be done. I'll get it out of my system, and I can move on with my life." And it became endless. Since then, that was three years ago, and more than 600 comics ago. It's an endless well here. It's really a cartoonists... Makes writer's block go away.

Emy DiGrappa (04:02):

Well, that's really good to hear. And what are some of the funny things that stand out to you, moving from the East Coast to Jackson?

Ryan Stolp (04:10):

I think the two first comics, these are the ones I was like, "Oh, this is funny." It's a small town, Jackson has a couple of stoplights and stop signs, and just busier cities, right side has the right of way. And I felt like nobody understood that. And they were just applying the alternate rule from a ski lift line, and it was like, "Just alternate, however it works." And so I did a comic where I placed a stop sign with the alternate ski thing. Or the fact that you have to meet people twice because they have goggles, and ski jackets, and masks on. And so it's like, "Why don't we do the..." I think it was the police blotter headshots, which everyone was checking at the time. Like, "They should just do them with the goggles on so people would know who we're talking about." It kind of spun off from there. So not always a political bent, but definitely kind of a locals in the know angle.

Emy DiGrappa (05:01):

So do you ever rub anybody the wrong way with your comics? Do you get a lot of comments about different issues that you tackle?

Ryan Stolp (05:09):

I have gotten more critical in maybe taking a side lately, but I never try to have it come from a point of anger or ridicule. I try to have there always be a subtle element to it. I'd say a couple of times I get angry letters from people that advertise in the paper as well, and they see it as, "Well, hang on, I'm advertising. Why are you running a comic that seems to be contradictory?" The angriest I ever got was from... It was just misinterpreted. It was a little too deep, maybe. It was when Elon Musk was shorting stocks, and I made a parallel to stocks and the ski pass as like, "Well, I'll buy them back because they'll go up in value." And people misinterpreted it. And it was under the lens of, there were some events that I didn't know about, and people were extra sensitive, and in the end it worked out.

                 But I'd say since Lift Lines has moved on to Instagram, and I've built a bit of a following there, I have run into a lot more of the internet troll culture, or people that maybe miss the nuance of the joke being locally oriented, or a ski culture oriented humor or satire. And it's interesting, because I'll always try to provide context in the comment, or in a discussion on the thread, but the internet has also led a forum where people pile on, and it's sometimes disheartening to see the conversations that happen. And there's just a lack of openness to a different interpretation, or meeting someone where they are, which I get it. We all have opinions. I'm not trying to make a futon, average, muddy brown, in the middle commentary, but I think it's more than just black and white, or right or wrong, which is sometimes where comments lead.

Emy DiGrappa (06:58):

What do you think is really important about political cartooning in our democracy? What makes it so different than just an editorial or an article? I mean, people will cut out a cartoon and put it on their refrigerator, for example.

Ryan Stolp (07:14):

Yeah. So I love the visual language medium, and I had a cool opportunity to work at a design firm in Boston. Like they invented the Swiffer, and the Reebok Pumps, really innovative design stuff. And they made a big point to include fast illustrators, basically cartoonist, people that can make a quick infographic or a quick paneled cartoon that tells a quick story, because they saw it as essential to capturing a really complex idea in an instant. I can write an executive summary about a problem, but you have to read it and it takes time. And you have to remember the elements and how they relate together through verbal explanation to arrive at your understanding. I think a comic, or visual language in general, whether it's paneled, or a single thing, or an infographic, lets you see the big 30,000 foot view, or then highlight the important elements in a way that, for the design firm and for political cartooning, let you get at the nuanced, thread the needle solution, or perspective, or critique, pretty quickly and effortlessly.

                 And it transcends language. It transcends continents and geography. It transcends medium. As computers have gotten faster, it's easier to share images. Look at memes, memes are visual language and you can capture so much in a meme, and everyone can interact with it and get it instantly. People aren't posting paragraphs of text and memeing paragraphs, they're memeing images and pictures that have a visual relationship. So I think political cartoons, to bring it back, politics is nuanced. And it's important to put your message within that very clear, and balanced, and delicate context. And I think comics and cartoons do that very well. And I think it's why political cartoons have been around for hundreds of years. It hasn't gone away. It hasn't changed with the medium. It's a cool tool to have in your toolkit to have a discussion or make a statement.

Emy DiGrappa (09:14):

Who were some of your favorites that have inspired you, who are cartoonists?

Ryan Stolp (09:18):

Stylistically, I love Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes. I kind of liked the difference between the realism of his parents and the setting, and the unrealistic depiction of the kids. It kind of is a layer of fantasy world, or the kind of lens in which a kid views the world. Artistically too, he has a lot of elements of comic books in how he inks and colors, and what he includes, and how he frames that are pretty neat. His longer Sunday ones too, with the sequential panels that were 10 or whatever, he really played with timing and would set you up with a punchline, or a pacing, or a switch that was totally controlled by the panels and their shaping, and how close they were, or how long they were, or how open or closed they were that I think was pretty masterful. As far as like humor, I loved, it's a couple of comics, Rhymes with Orange, or Far Side, or Tundra. They were all single panel mostly, but totally absurd, and weird, a little dad jokey, a little out there, a little nerdy, definitely a whole variety. It depends on the mood, depends on context.

Emy DiGrappa (10:27):

So I think one of the other things I'm curious about, because I think in some ways political cartoon is meant to solicit a response.

Ryan Stolp (10:39):

Totally. Lift Lines, even a comment about ski bro culture, or fancy restaurants on the West Bank of Jackson are meant to elicit a response. I don't think you should put anything out in the world that's not meant to elicit a response. Otherwise, that's just clutter. That's like a thoughtless social media marketing thought.

Emy DiGrappa (10:59):

Okay. Okay. Well, the reason I said that is because what you were saying earlier about you don't want really want to piss people off. That's not your intention anyway, but you still want to get a response. You still want to trigger a response to something you draw, or make a statement about.

Ryan Stolp (11:22):

I'd like to clarify that, I guess.

Emy DiGrappa (11:24):

Okay.

Ryan Stolp (11:24):

I see the world as very gray in almost everything. I don't think there's usually a perfect or right answer. And I would qualify, there's a difference between wanting to get a response and wanting to put someone down, or be definitive, or not appreciate the nuance of a context, or a perspective, or an interpretation. And so I think that's the difference between calling someone stupid, and calling someone some other ridicule that maybe speaks a little bit more to their perspective on something. I have to think of a good example off the top of my head, but I think a political cartoon shouldn't be name-calling, shouldn't be saying this is the only way, I think the power of it, and the beauty of it, and the nuance of it, is it being dynamic and a little more aware.

                 You don't just want a song to just be loud, or sometimes just be the same tempo, it needs to change and be a little more delicate. And that's kind of where I come from. I'm also run in a family paper, and I respect it. It is presented to a wide audience, and I think that that's a platform that I've chosen to lean into, because that wide audience has many different views, and the comic will present my perspective the most effectively, if it's not absolute in its perspective or in its statement, if it's kind of welcoming and open, in a way, to the complexity of something.

Emy DiGrappa (13:00):

And I appreciate what you're saying, but I also think that political cartoonists usually are, you know, they have their own political view that they're also putting out there to the world, and we're in a time where we have this huge political divide where people aren't talking to each other, and they're not building that bridge from one side to the other.

Ryan Stolp (13:29):

100%.

Emy DiGrappa (13:29):

And in your cartoons, do you ever talk about some of those issues, or draw about some of those issues?

Ryan Stolp (13:40):

I absolutely do. And maybe it's because I don't think of myself as just a political cartoonist, I'd say Lift Lines does some silly escapist humor, a ton of dad jokes and puns, I love puns, but certainly takes political stances. I think I've been really big on wearing a mask, and a lot of my comics this year through COVID have been about social distancing, mask wearing, flattening the curve. I've probably taken a pretty clear stance on that to my audience. And they certainly create discord, and anger, or lack of understanding in my comments online.

                 But I guess ultimately the cartoon is, in a digital world, the cartoon is more than just a cartoon. The cartoon is the statement that it makes, and it's the conversation that it drives in the comments. And maybe that's a broader definition of how I'm seeing it, but every single one of the people that's commented angrily about my pro-mask stance online, I've pretty much tried to engage with, or understand where they're coming from, or present my side of the argument, not as a, "This has to happen, always." Which the comic kind of takes that stance, but it's a foot in the door to at least approach that with someone that might not be in your circle, or in your regular people that you communicate with.

Emy DiGrappa (15:06):

I like that Ryan, because in a sense, you have this great opportunity to talk to people from all kinds of political backgrounds, and spectrums, and whatever they are. And like you said, it's a foot in the door to have a conversation.

Ryan Stolp (15:21):

Totally. I mean, I had a really interesting exchange last week, actually. So it was the first day that my comic ran that Biden was president, right? And so the comic is a picture of Biden, holding some skis, skis have a Biden/Harris sticker. And he's like, "Oh, these skis are going to make all the difference. They're going to be way better than my junky orange ones." And there's this guy, and Biden's kind of on this precipice, and it's all rocky, and skied out, and trees are down, and it's just icy and gross where he's going to ski. And this other commenter in the comics says, "Well, I think it'll take more than new skis, because it looks pretty rocky and skied out." And this guy came out swinging on Instagram, putting people down, being pretty angry about the election results, and where the country was headed, and threw like 10 pretty long back-and-forth comments on that comic, covering a whole range of political theories, economic realities, different sets of perspectives and facts on policy.

                 I tried to kind of express to him, "Hey man, the comic really wasn't about Biden being president, it's about that Biden doesn't change the fact that the terrain that he has to ski down isn't great." Essentially the message of the comic was that there's more to solving the problems that we all feel as a society than just the president. And while Biden was the character in it, the true punchline, underlying message, was that the terrain is broken. Our democracy, our culture, our communities are feeling a big strain, and have a lot of obstacles in them. And we were able to talk about that and to come to an agreement, ended up on like tax policy, and the role of a safety net in a capitalist economy.

                 And we were able to kind of agree on like, "Yeah, I think that there's some things that we need to do to be fair, and there's some things that we need to agree on. And there's some things where helping our fellow person allows the holes to fill in, and the sticks and rocks to be smoothed over so that we can have a smoother ride down the hill." So to speak. So for me, Instagram has been a pretty different medium for cartoons and comics than any other medium that I've had really as a platform, because there's so much more depth to it than just the comic. Even the ability to do little animations or something of a cartoon can add another layer to it. And it's been really neat to not just put things out in the ether, as in a traditional publication, you make it, put it in the mail or email it, and it gets printed and it's a one-way conversation.

Emy DiGrappa (18:08):

Yeah, you're right. That's very, very true. I haven't thought about that. Tell me how people can learn more about you, or follow you on your different platforms.

Ryan Stolp (18:19):

Yeah. I think the best place for jokes and funny stuff is Instagram. My handle is liftlines_comics, one word, the icon is a double black diamond. We're working on a website, but all those things will be right in the Lift Lines profile. And if you don't have Instagram, or you're not into having the app, you can still view it online on a browser, just instagram.com. And I post three times a day, it also publishes in Jackson Hole Daily here in Jackson and our surrounding communities. And yeah, I think you'll see it's a different take on a political cartoon, because it's kind of political cartoons in the context of a pretty unique community, and a community that's really oriented in the mountain lifestyle, mountain activities, has a lot of wealth inequality. So it's kind of a subset of political cartooning as a whole maybe.

Emy DiGrappa (19:19):

Right. Right. Exactly. I think so, because-

Ryan Stolp (19:22):

My mom doesn't get the jokes, and if my mom doesn't get the jokes then I think that's a testament to me really nailing the context. She does not live in Jackson, and hasn't spent a ton of time here, and so maybe that means I'm doing something right. Or at least keeping true to the inside joke of it all.

Emy DiGrappa (19:40):

Right. Well, if that's your goal, you know, you're going to have to-

Ryan Stolp (19:44):

It's where I'll start.

Emy DiGrappa (19:45):

That's where you'll start. Okay.

Ryan Stolp (19:47):

That's where I'll start. I'll break out here and there.

Emy DiGrappa (19:49):

Okay. Good idea. Well, it's been great talking to you, Ryan.

Ryan Stolp (19:54):

Thank you so much for having me Emy, really. I love it when cartoons are getting the limelight, I think they're so much fun, I think they're something that stick with people from childhood to late adulthood.

Emy DiGrappa (20:06):

Absolutely. Oh for sure. I love when you open up the editorial section, or just reading the cartoons. I mean, I remember Sundays, with the big cartoon sections that they used to have, and that was like the first thing that we did, was read the cartoons, right?

Ryan Stolp (20:23):

Totally. I read them every day, and actually I would recommend to everyone, find some cartoonists that you like on Instagram. And if you follow enough of them, every time you open your phone, you'll get to basically read through the funnies. I get Calvin and Hobbes five times a day.

Emy DiGrappa (20:23):

You do?

Ryan Stolp (20:37):

And it's a good escape from the world. I do. And they bring up old memories and they even post the date, like, you know, 1993. They've got a good run of monster snowman comics going right now. I would recommend everyone follow a couple of cartoons in whatever medium you choose. Facebook, Reddit, online, email digest. It's an important thing in the world that we live in right now.

Emy DiGrappa (21:01):

No, yeah, seriously. You have to laugh and enjoy life, even though a lot of other things are really crappy.

Ryan Stolp (21:10):

100%.

Emy DiGrappa (21:11):

Okay. You have a great evening.

Ryan Stolp (21:13):

Thank you. You too, Emy.

Emy DiGrappa (21:28):

Thank you for joining us for this episode of "What's Your Why?" Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with support from the Wyoming Community Foundation, and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwy.org, subscribe, and never miss a show.