Local strip gets national exposure

Most people do not equate a character like Charlie Brown with a potent catch phrase like Jesse Jackson’s “Keep hope alive!”

But Dave Ponce and Dan Wright do, and they hope to stir America’s environmental conscience with their co-created comic strip, Rustle the Leaf.

A weekly serial comic featuring four animated elements of nature with complementary personalities named Rusty, Rooty, Dandy and Paige, the “character-driven” theme is what gives the strip an edge that appeals to an increasingly shortened public attention span on environmental issues, Ponce said.

Rustle’s endearing simplicity and appeal led to a benchmark in its renown in September, when it started appearing on the Indiana chapter Web site of the Sierra Club, the country’s oldest influential grass-roots environmental organization.

“What we really want to do is shift the environmental movement from a political to a moral discussion to illustrate that the things we are doing to the environment are really a human problem,” Ponce said. “This comic is optimistic in that it exists with the hope that it will ultimately encourage environmentalists, who are the key to whether things are really going to change.”

Ponce said a primary goal was to make the environmental movement, including the Sierra Club, aware of Rustle the Leaf.

“The Sierra Club, due to its establishment, tends to do things its own way,” Ponce said. “For a group that influential to align itself with a third party was really tremendous for us. I think we’ve had a lot of success with Rustle the Leaf in terms of convincing the environmental movers and shakers that the strip will change people’s minds about what can be done.

“As Rustle begins to appear and permeate the people who are regulars of that organization, there will be long-term exposure to the comic,” he said.

The weekly design of Rustle the Leaf begins long before Rustle reaches the production office in Fishers, Ind. On Mondays, Ponce and Wright begin browsing environmental newswires, brainstorming ideas to propel the comic to the drawing board.

“We’ll sit in a Panera Bread, sketch and write, shoving ideas back and forth,” Wright said. “When we both laugh really hard at an idea we figure we’ve got something. At some point, we stop brainstorming and move into editorial mode. Since Rustle is a character-driven comic, we can usually turn the topic over to the characters, and the humor comes out through their psychologies.”

Wright, a syndicated cartoonist for King Features for four years, now illustrates all of the comics with India Ink and a No. 2 brush, saying that there’s great satisfaction in doing it all by hand.

The four main characters are all a product of Ponce’s imagination, he said, explaining that Rustle is like many anecdotes and comic strips because it is about life disguised as a cartoon.

“There are archetypes of these characters everywhere,” Ponce said. “Charlie Brown resonated with people, despite his inability to ever do anything right, because he was the perennially hopeful character. People identified with him in the same way that they identify with any symbol of hope or optimism.”

‘Rustle the Leaf’ resonates

After the launch of Rustle the Leaf on Nov. 1, 2004, Ponce called the local office of the Sierra Club and soon heard from Information Technology Committee Chair Ed Paynter, who had been looking for an environmentally-focused comic to feature in the chapter newsletter, the Indiana Sierran, for years.

“I contacted Dave, he shared a few of the strips, and I decided to add Rustle to the chapter Web site,” Paynter said. “At the time, I was Webmaster and worked with Dave to make the strips available to all our chapter sites via a discussion list for club Webmasters.”

“There was such a groundswell of individual Sierra Club group sites picking us up that it turned the organization’s head,” Wright said.

“There were three reasons I felt the strip was useful,” Paynter said. “First, there just aren’t that many; in fact, Rustle is the only purely environmental strip I can think of. Second, they [Ponce and Wright] aren’t afraid to take on real issues — it isn’t fluff. Third, the price was right. Most chapters wouldn’t have any funds to pay for a comic strip no matter how good it was.”

Paynter said that Rustle the Leaf presents a simple idea within the perceived complexity of environmental issues.

“So often, discussing the environment with those who are not aware of issues comes off as lecturing or moralizing,” he said.

“Seeing a leaf and a root saying the same thing sort of sneaks up on folks. If someone reads a Rustle strip and smiles, the concept on which it was based has infiltrated their head, and hopefully their thinking.”

“Environmental awareness asks people to change their habits, their way of life, which today means going against a pop consumer culture that has developed in this country since the 1920s,” Ponce said, explaining that environmental issues often get pushed to the back burner due to misconceptions.

“Nobody has yet managed to find a way to quickly explain global warming,” he said. “When the term was first coined, people actually thought of it as a positive thing — people living in cold climates fell in love with the idea that the winter months would be warmer.

“When it became ‘climate change,’ the same thing happened. Recently it’s been called ‘global climate disruption.’ In truth, we as humans have very short attention spans and are easily distracted. Rustle the Leaf has all the necessary, detailed information in a few pictures.”

‘Rustle’ creates unity

Ponce said that Rustle identifies problems central to the environmental movement, including the fragmentation of environmental organizations.

“Just within the movement itself, there are so many separate organizations devoted to their own concentrations on current threats to public health and the planet.

“I think the common thread of environmentalists is that they are all willing to sacrifice something now for the sake of the future,” he said. “Through this cartoon, I want to ask people, ‘How can we tell the truth about the separateness of the whole movement, and how can we recognize what we have in common to advocate change?’”

Paynter said the Sierra Club is currently closing in on 50 club entities that are using Rustle the Leaf on their Web pages, and that an agreement to allow every chapter and group newsletter, about 465 total, has been made.

“The Sierra Club functions through many different programs, media, staff and about three-quarters of a million members,” he said. “If Rustle moves even a tiny percent of our members to take action, it will add to the effectiveness of all the other methods we use.

“Realistically, unless we do a survey, we have no way of knowing if and when Rustle causes any particular action,” Paynter said. “But most times, we have no way to prove that anything we do to promote a clean and healthy environment has a particular effect. In my opinion, that’s why we should try every method we can to get the message across.”

Wright said that he is very pleased with Rustle’s success and he hopes to see it in print more, though he is not sure if the comic will have its life in print or as an online version.

“I told Dave when we first started, ‘I think it’s going to be about a year before the strip gets really funny.’ But so far, everyone who has picked up on it has really liked the tenor,” he said.

Ponce said he thinks the brevity and honesty of Rustle the Leaf will help it grow and continue its success.

“I think history has shown that stuff that is based on the truth lasts,” he said. “Honesty is the best policy, and it certainly applies to confronting environmental problems.”

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