ONCE, AS AFTERNOON TURNED to dewy evening, Craig Hankin and Tom Chalkley were playing rock and roll at an outside party. The wet grass they stood on triggered an arc of electricity that vaulted from Hankin's nose to Chalkley's nose. Later, Chalkley immortalized that charged moment with a cartoon scribbled on a napkin. Hankin's wife retrieved the napkin, and still has it.
From the time they met 20 years ago, as students at Albert Einstein High School in Montgomery County, Hankin and Chalkley have been joined, if not by the nose, by a current of creative energy.
Their synergism has produced a string of pop-infused inventions, including "Bruce Springstone Live at Bedrock," a right-on musical parody of three American icons: the Flintstones, baseball and Bruce Springsteen. But Chalkley, 37, and Hankin, 36, dismiss their relationship with glib, adolescent bravado: "He's a fun guy," Chalkley says of his friend.
"He's a fun guy," Hankin says of his friend.
"We find each other vastly amusing. What can I say?" Chalkley says.
Today, Hankin and Chalkley's comic strip strip, "Normal," debuts on Page D7 in The Evening Sun. It is a study in adolescence -- an era the duo can't quite escape -- in serial form.
"Normal" focuses on Woody and Junior, two 12-year-olds teetering between child and teenhood. Hankin likens their wobbly identity to another adolescent symptom: "Like when your voice slips back and forth, your personality slips back and forth."
Woody and Junior are descended from City Kids, a Hankin and Chalkley cartoon which appeared for nearly a year in the City Paper, during the "freewheeling days of early alternative newspapers," as Hankin puts it.
Over the years, Hankin and Chalkley honed their paneled vision of the young male temperament. Hankin recalls an inspiring gang of live wires who loitered near his Charles Village home. Chalkley draws on the antics, street theater and mores of the integrated bunch of skateboard kids who play in his Waverly neighborhood. Both cartoonists are always on the prowl in malls and on playgrounds, eavesdropping for new words, spying new fashions and haircuts.
Even today, as they discuss their creation, Hankin and Chalkley eye a gangly boy, with long-billed hat, baggy pants and loosely laced sneakers, as he saunters by with his dog.
Like their real-life counterparts, Woody and Junior are busting with young male energy, suffer from pangs of self-doubt, yearn to mix it up on the playground and catch the eye of at at least one of the many Jennifer Lees who populate their universe.
Woody is white and Junior is African-American. Soon, the Korean Jennifer Lee will also make an appearance. Based on his windowsill observations, such an integrated cast is not unrealistic, Chalkely says. "In my neighborhood it's a reality," he says.
On the other hand, the two say, the multiracial quality of life in America is not always reflected adequately in pop culture. "One of our basic values [for "Normal"] was that black kids or Korean kids could pick up the newspaper and see someone they could relate to in the comics. That doesn't happen too much," Hankin says.
Though by nature irreverent, Woody, Junior and their supporting cast inhabit a world that is not quite as threatening or cynical as those portrayed by some of Hankin and Chalkley's cartoonist idols, such as R. Crumb, creator of Zap Comix and Bill Griffith, whose "Zippy the Pinhead" also runs in The Evening Sun. "That's no accident," Hankin says. "There are moments when we're deeply cynical . . . But you see so many comics dripping with sarcasm. It becomes poisonous after awhile."
Chalkley draws and writes "Normal." As artistic director, Hankin plots the broad outlines of the cartoon, and advises Chalkley on visuals and gags. This arrangement agrees with them, "We balance each other out well," they say.
Despite their adolescent reveries, Hankin and Chalkley managed to grow up. Hankin, the father of two young sons, teaches drawing and painting at Johns Hopkins University. His book about the former president of the Maryland Institute, "Maryland Landscapes of Eugene Leake" was well received,
Chalkley's deft political cartoons, commentaries and features wake up the City Paper. And Inner Harbor visitors may find him at an easel not far from Geppi's Comic World, drawing arch caricatures. But for both Hankin and Chalkley, "Normal" is close to a dream come true.
When he was hospitalized with Crohn's disease several years ago, Chalkley had already decided to leave his job as an organizer for the Maryland Citizen Action Coalition. While recuperating, he vowed to become a full-time cartoonist. Chalkley showed his early "Normal" sketches to Hankin and said, "I want to make you a partner in this project."
"I didn't hesitate," Hankin says today.
Their dream, of course, is syndication.