EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric Hodecker's cartoons appear weekly in Key West The Newspaper on the Community Page. He and his wife, Carol, live part-time in Key West.
Like most cartoonists, Eric Hodecker, creator of "Off the Beaten Path," doesn't do many interviews. "That's what I like about cartooning. You can express yourself and still not be recognized in public. I've learned to be a private person," he says.
Lucky for him, his wife Carol is not shy, and Eric gives her the credit for the nearly 1 million readers of his cartoons in more than 45 newspapers nationwide.
"I have a small marketing company," says Carol. Her short haircut gives her an impish tomboy look, but you can also imagine her in a serious power suit.
"Small, but one of the most successful in the Northeast," clarifies Eric. Just Imagine, Inc., is the business Carol pursues while Eric does his cartooning in their other home a 52-acre retreat outside Concord, New Hampshire.
Their Key West story is typical. Came for a visit, fell in love with the place (they were already in love with each other), bought a house, got married (by the Franciscan Monk who lives next door) and now live a charmed life balancing New Hampshire seclusion with Key West inspiration.
In the front room of their Varela Street conch house, the Hodeckers tell me about their wonderful neighbors and how they hope to eventually spend six months a year in Key West. Eric's mom, Barbara, is visiting and she occasionally throws in a comment from her perch at the kitchen table.
"I probably started cartooning as a kid to mask my insecurity," says Eric. He's tall with a sleepy-eyed, laid-back demeanor.
"It was a cover-up for being a bad speller," says Mom, who has kept Eric's early notes and drawings, including the first word he ever wrote and spelled correctly "shit."
"I think it was always easier for me to be the comedian than to face confrontation," says Eric. Now that humor is his work, Eric's found he "can't always be funny. . . but I have to do something," especially under deadline, when Carol says he can get pretty grumpy.
"Doing a single panel is more difficult than doing a strip," he explains. "The characters can carry a strip, but with a single frame you've got one shot, and it either works or it doesn't." Humor happens, says Eric, when you have a typical slice of life situation, something that may normally make us angry, and somehow you make light of it. "I like making people stop and think, `I need to relax. This is really funny .'"
How do you make it funny? Replacing people with animals helps. And that's just what Eric does. "People see animals as pure," says Carol. "When you make them act human, it's usually pretty funny."
Despite his use of animal humor, Eric's jokes are usually pretty mild mannered. He says the most controversy one of his cartoons ever inspired was one of a couple of bored penguins who exclaimed, "This sucks."
"The Christian Science Monitor won't print animals smoking. I had to do a special version for them once," he said.
When Carol started marketing for Eric four years ago she was advised by someone retiring from the cartoon syndicate business to not go that route. So she didn't. Every paper that carries "Off the Beaten Path" was contacted by Carol. "Most of the newspaper editors that we work with are very good, honest people," says Carol. "We really support the work that Dennis Cooper does with Key West The Newspaper, and of course we love his dog Chardonay. We met them both years ago at the old Clancey's and have been fast friends since."
The Hodeckers say there's a book on the drawing board (to be titled "Please Don't Eat the Waiters") and a sit com in the near future, though Eric won't talk about that project.
Barbara tells us about seeing one of Eric's cartoons posted at the Fort Taylor entrance booth: A drawing of a cat with a sign that reads, "Will do nothing for food."
"It's the truth in that one that makes it so funny," says Carol.