Jorge Cham got his introduction to cartoons as a child in Panama. His parents were engineers who worked on the Panama Canal. When an American family they knew moved away, they left behind a big box of comics, including Archie, Richie Rich and Peanuts.
Cham devoured them. His only other exposure to the medium was through anonymous underground newspapers. These were the Noriega years, and the papers carried biting political cartoons that satirized the ruling regime.
But it wasn't until many years later that Cham began to draw. He was a graduate student in robotics at Stanford, facing tremendous pressure to compete and succeed. As an outlet, he started sketching a cartoon that satirized the grad school experience and poked fun at the professors who ruled his existence. It was called Piled Higher and Deeper — Ph.D. — and it ran in the Stanford Daily.
Cham spent another five years in grad school before getting his doctorate, then a teaching job at Caltech. He did cartooning on the side, while focusing his research on "brain-machine interfaces."
"You know the plug in The Matrix?" he asks. "I was working on that plug."
Cham was on track to become the cool professor who explains difficult subjects with cartoons and pop culture references. But at a conference in Spain, he met a famous MIT professor whom he admired. They began talking about the cartoon, and Cham mentioned that it could be a full-time job.
"You can do that for a living?" the professor asked. "Then why are you here?"
That comment gave Cham all the permission he needed. He is now, as he says, "the most overeducated cartoonist in the history of mankind."
The cartoon has been running for 15 years, spawning five books and an hourlong movie. It follows the lives of a handful of grad students toiling under the imperious whims of their thesis adviser, Professor Smith.
As with every cartoon, there are recurring jokes. The students subsist on ramen noodles. They procrastinate. They are slaves to their research, which no one cares about. They never graduate. If they do graduate, there are no teaching jobs.
"At the core," Cham says, "it's about young people trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. ... The characters are always asking, 'Why am I doing this?' "
He counts Doonesbury as a major influence. Like Garry Trudeau, he strives to earn laughs about both his characters and the broader culture.
Cham, 36, works out of a converted garage at his home in South Pasadena, where he lives with his wife and two small children. The previous owner used the garage as a wine cellar, and the walls are lined with empty wine racks. He draws directly onto the computer screen, using Photoshop — no ink or paper required.
He does three strips a week, but the cartoon is not syndicated in newspapers. Instead, Cham publishes them for free on his website, phdcomics.com. The revenue comes from book sales and merchandise. The enterprise stays afloat thanks to his large fanbase in academia.
They're drawn to the strip because academic life is so isolating. Students find their research is so specialized that they can discuss it with only a few people. Because it's a competitive environment, they don't want to admit how stressed they are.
"People read it and find they're not alone," Cham says.
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