April 8, 2002

Inside the Brain Of Mr. Dandro

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It sits nonchalantly somewhere in the back pages, a benign-looking entity that unexpectedly shocks and disturbs Sun readers every morning. It’s a comic strip called Mr. Gnu (pronounced gah-NOO), a no-holds-barred loony tune of twisted logic and sexual overtones, arriving five times a week at your doorstep to smash the walls of political correctness and comfort.

Mr. Gnu has become something of a monument at the Sun, and something of a curiosity. From what sick mind do the random adventures of a horned wildebeest and his naked neighbor, of Captain Condom and nipple propellers, come? Who is the “Travis Dandro” whose name appears next to the strip every day?

A Cornell student? A grad with too much time on his hands? A serial murderer on death row?

The truth is as surprising as the sight of a wood sprite’s bum in a recent series of strips: Travis Edward Dandro, 27, lives in Bangor, Maine, married with a two-year-old son. An art teacher and humanitarian, he enjoys the outdoors and watches “Masterpiece Theatre”.

But Travis Dandro is not normal. Although in his town he might be the friendly neighbor next door, something lurks underneath that manifests itself only in his weird art and in the New England twang with which he speaks to college newspaper interviewers.

“A lot of people don’t know, they’d be very surprised if they saw [Mr. Gnu] because they wouldn’t believe I can do that,” Dandro insists. “They think I’m a nice guy, I’m just a quiet guy that doesn’t cause any trouble.”

Understandably, a slight chill might accompany the thought of Mr. Gnu’s creator teaching young children. Does he corrupt tomorrow’s leaders with images of pimped dogs and talking syrup containers? Or, even stranger, is he a man who loves to teach kids and relish in watching their gradual development over the years?

Actually, he’s neither.

“I’m an art teacher, I just started that this year, it’s kindergarten through fifth grade and I can’t wait to be done with it,” Dandro deadpans. “I hate it. I have no control. These kids just eat me alive every week.”

So does the principal know about Dandro’s “other” job?

“I was hoping they’d find out [about Mr. Gnu] and fire me, I really hate going there,” he says. But not all is hell in elementary school: “It’s kinda cool, we did comics … I had a couple [student] strips that weren’t too bad … we had fun doing that. I love the little kids, like the first-graders, they’re really cute … my fourth-grade class and my fifth-grade class, they’re little monsters … they acted like I did when I was that age, like terrible.”

Somehow, Dandro also finds time for a third job on weekends, working with people with developmental disorders at their homes. A cynic might say that he could be trying to undo all the wrongs wrought by Mr. Gnu, but one gets the feeling that he truly values helping people — when they aren’t between the first and fourth grades.

Another Gnu-like twist is that Dandro actually does most of the work on his strip at the homes he is visiting for his job.

“I work with a girl and a guy in their ’20s, they have very mild [mental retardation], and I work in their homes and when they’re sleeping I get a lot of work done,” he explains.

Mr. Gnu, symbol of all that is strange and unnecessary, was born in 1989 when Dandro was only a freshman in high school.

“I was drawing a comic strip [called Eggy] about a boy that was kind of like a Calvin & Hobbes ripoff, and the Calvin character, the boy character in my strip, he drew a comic strip of Mr. Gnu, so it was like a cartoon within a cartoon, and eventually I just got rid of the boy strip and kept Mr. Gnu,” he explains. “It was drawn from like an 8-year-old’s viewpoint, like really dumb.”

In 1996, Dandro started printing Mr. Gnu in the University of Maine’s newspaper. The next year, he began sending them out to college papers across the country including Cornell. Currently, the only other school printing the strip is the University of California-Berkeley, which just started running Mr. Gnu in January. The downside of being in college papers, it seems, is those pesky editorial boards that change every year.

“Some years I’d be in like 25 papers, and some years I’d be in like four,” he remembers.

And, to stay in print, he has to send samples every year to as many schools as he can.

“This year I sent little samples to only 20 schools. The most I’ve sent to is like 500, and that was the first year I did it.” But now Mr. Gnu only sees the crack of light of an open newspaper at two campuses. “I’m gonna try this semester coming up, I’m gonna have a website, I’m gonna e-mail editors, and I’m gonna try harder to get into more papers, maybe calling editors on the phone.”

And, there’s the little problem of Mr. Gnu’s subject matter.

“I came pretty close to getting it syndicated when I was in college, I really struggled, and the stuff I started drawing that I liked to draw, they wouldn’t ever think of publishing,” he chuckles. “The only place I could find was college papers, and that seemed to be like the right audience, and I just stuck with that…. I think a lot of times my samples were too … my favorite strips are the ones that kinda disturb people the most, so I think I turn off a lot of editors, they’re too scared to pick [the strip] up.”

Those favorites include “the porn owl one. He steals and collects porno magazines for his nest.” Dandro also likes his recent “A Swinger’s Guide to North American Field Birds” strip in which pictures of wild birds were displayed on top of people in several sexual positions.

Even at Berkeley, that haven of liberalism and free expression, Dandro had problems getting published.

“I got into that paper, but then they wanted some more comics, so I sent them … and they e-mailed me back and said they weren’t gonna run them because they were too offensive,” he remembers. “I have to pick through all the comics I’ve ever done and find ones that aren’t too offensive to send to them…. It’s hard for me even with college papers to find some that’ll run them. I’m surprised that Cornell runs a lot of stuff that I send them.”

And even when Mr. Gnu does get into print, the reaction isn’t always pleasant: “Either people like it or they hate it.”

“I’d pick up the [University of Maine] paper and a lot of times there’d be letters to the editor, and half of them were bad — well, more than half,” he laughs. Dandro seems to find particular relish in one letter “signed by like 12 people trying to get me canned.”

Soon, Mr. Gnu will dispossess an even larger audience with one or two collections to be published next semester. The first will have years’ worth Mr. Gnu strips, with the second containing full-color Sunday-size strips that Dandro made in 1999 and 2000. Also, the website will come online next semester. Upcoming strip storylines (“I don’t work too far ahead, I procrastinate”) include a testicle-enlarging super helmet that will cause plump boy Barry to have lots of courage.

All this comes after a period where there was no Mr. Gnu and Dandro almost “burned out.” Frequent readers of the Sun probably noticed that the strip just restarted this fall after a yearlong hiatus.

“I stopped in February of 2000 and back then I was doing big Sunday size [for] my comics … it was kinda hard to write those because I never had done it before … it was totally different to write for, and I was having trouble with it … I quit.”

But Mr. Gnu has been resurrected to the terror and delight of all. The genesis of this wonderful legacy of hatred and disgust begins many ye
ars ago, however.

“I started drawing comics when I was in fifth grade, and in seventh grade when I was 12, my mother got me a job,” Dandro recalls. “I started running my comics in the town paper, there was a small town paper that came out a few times a month, and that was a comic strip called Twerp about this bird, back then I was obsessed with Garfield, that’s how I got into comics and all that, and the bird kinda acted like Garfield, and kinda looked like him. That’s when I started doing that, and that was really cool to be in a paper when you’re like 12, and getting paid for it and everything.”

Dandro went to the Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Mass. for a degree in fine art and “a lot of knee hockey.”

“I was [an] illustration [major] but then I switched over to fine art because I wouldn’t follow the projects that we were assigned, I just wanted to do my own thing,” Dandro says. “So I started drawing these five-foot paintings of Boy Scouts getting sexually molested — one Boy Scout was roasting another Boy Scout’s penis in the fire, and the Boy Scout was tied to a tree, and the other one was bleeding, and my illustration teacher said ‘You should be in fine art, you shouldn’t be in my illustration class.'”

It was inevitable that someone would eventually look at the childhood of Travis Dandro — if for no other reason, to see what needs to happen for a twisted mind like that behind Mr. Gnu to develop. As a kid growing up in Lester, Mass., Dandro experienced what he calls a “good and bad” childhood living with his grandmother.

“I wasn’t very popular in school,” he recalls. “Me and my friends were just like outsiders. We caused a lot of trouble, I spent a lot of time drawing in class instead of, you know, paying attention … and passing around dirty pictures…. We weren’t really liked, probably because we were so annoying,” he adds with a laugh. “It was tough growing up … it was really good to have close friends, because sometimes my family wasn’t there.”

If there’s one vivid memory that sticks out in Dandro’s childhood experience, it is the weekly trips to the meat raffle:

“My parents used to take us to the restaurant and gun club a lot, it was like a bar, and that’s where me and my brothers kinda had to hang out all the time. On weekends they had the meat raffle, where it’s a big room full of smoke and drunk people, and there’s a little stage, and there’s a guy that goes around … you buy tickets, and then this guy gets up on the stage with some meat, like steaks or pork chops or something, and they pull a number out of a hat, I think it was a hat, and he calls the number and if it’s your number you win the meat. And that’s where I spent like every weekend of my childhood, we’d get there at like noon and … we’d be there like till midnight. That’s something that stands out. That was an interesting time.”

And by the seventh grade, when his psyche had been sufficiently scarred, Dandro began sending samples out to syndicates. The rest is chronicled in three-panel fragments at the back of college newspapers. When Mr. Gnu isn’t corrupting the morals of innocent students, Dandro lets his spirit roam free.

“Well right now I have no free time, but when I do, I do a lot of hiking, because where I am there’s a lot of places to go hiking; I spend a lot of time doing that, and mountain biking, stuff outdoors is what I really like to do, and that’s what I do with any free time I have, with my dogs” — a husky mix and a beagle mix, not to mention three cats.

So to those asking the question “Who is Travis Dandro?”: ask no more. Instead, ask “Why is Travis Dandro still a free man?”

“I really appreciate Cornell for running my stuff and coming out five days a week; it’s a lot of work for me, but I like having a deadline and having to do it, because it gets me to do it,” he says. “I want people to either get a laugh at [Mr. Gnu] or maybe just get confused, and a strong response I guess is good.”

And thus, the mystery of Travis Dandro is made several times more complicated.

Archived article by Andy Guess