Chances are you don’t know Brian Gordon by name.
But if you’re a parent — and even if you despise children — you’ve probably laughed at his online cartoon strip, “Fowl Language Comics.” His duck characters personify the often adorable, hilarious and absurdly annoying things children do to test their parents’ patience. The strip carefully sprinkles in swear words that are generally off-limits to parents in the throes of disciplining kids.
The cartoon has nearly 350,000 Facebook fans and is featured on Huffington Post and other big websites. It has a loyal fan base around the globe, especially in Spain and Germany. Yet few Kansas Citians know that Gordon creates the strip on a quiet tree-lined street in Westwood.
“I like to say that I’m the David Hasselhoff of duck cartoons in Germany,” he said with a trademark self-deprecating humor.
The former Hallmark cartoonist is getting a lot of attention these days after his book, “Fowl Language: Welcome to Parenting,” was published in March. He describes the book as a perfect gift for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and “naïve expectant parents who have no idea what the hell they’re in for.”
“I’m at the level of Internet famous where people know other people that enjoy my work.”
His wife, Georgie, and children, Max, 8, and Phoebe, 5, are prominent characters in the cartoon. They supply the material too. Nothing is off-limits, including the infamous s-word controversy.
“Phoebe said the s-word,” Max reported one day.
Gordon panicked and wondered aloud how she learned the s-word.
“You say stupid all the time,” Max said.
Bingo! Cartoon fodder.
There was the time Phoebe shrieked upon discovering sesame seeds atop her hamburger bun. It wasn’t long ago, Gordon thought, when he lived in fear the kids would eat rocks.
It made the cartoon.
Gordon works from a home office, and that means his children are often there interrupting and offering up the perfect storm of cute and maddening chaos to keep him rolling in good material.
“That’s the nice thing when your whole paycheck is writing about irritating things that children do,” he said.
The cartoons sometimes use salty language, but the strip is hardly crude. Still, readers occasionally ask Gordon not to swear or to say nicer things about his children.
“There’s nothing funny about saying my kids are cute,” he points out.
Frustration is so much more relatable. Rest assured, the Gordon household appears to be the picture of suburban bliss. But the Gordons are also honest about parenting.
He wishes more people had warned him that it was OK when his newborn son screamed for hours. Instead, a co-worker made developmental stages into an annoying competition that almost sent him over the edge. Some parents make it seem like every moment is magical, he said. The reality is that there are breathtaking moments of self-doubt and fear.
“Turns out a lot of people are big fat liars. No one wants to admit that their kid isn’t perfect or that they don’t always love being a parent. No one wants to admit that they’re falling apart,” he said in the book preface. “Hang in there, guys. You’re not alone. Seriously. You’re never alone. Just try using the bathroom by yourself.”
Gordon finds laughter in the dark moments and then writes about it.
“My kids are nuts, and they’re constantly interrupting,” he said during a recent interview at his home. Then, as if on cue, his 5-year-old shimmied into his personal space and began elaborately sorting her lip gloss and then interrupting Gordon every other sentence.
People sometimes write him to say: “Don’t you like your children?”
An outraged Phoebe put down the perfectly organized lip gloss and interjected — “Why would he not love his children!” — before gracefully skipping off to find her mom.
Exactly, he said.
“I’m making fun of my children to feed my children,” Gordon said.
“So we’re famous?” the 8-year-old asked one day.
“Not TMZ-famous,” her dad said. “It’s not like we have to worry about getting to Hen House.”
Gordon, who grew up in Brockton, Mass., spent 18 years working as a cartoonist at Hallmark. It was his dream job. He’s created “roughly a bajillion” Shoebox cards and drew “Chuck & Beans,” a cartoon strip about a bunny and a dog in their 20s. The two were obsessed with pop culture and dating.
“These characters didn’t age, and unfortunately I did,” said Gordon, who is now 46.
In 2013 he started writing “Fowl Language” at night and on the weekends, though the following was mainly his pals. Still, it was an outlet to be creative on a different level and be funny in part with swear words — unacceptable at Hallmark. But it wasn’t paying the mortgage.
“I could sit out front and set up a lemonade stand and quadruple my earnings,” he said.
It had a very slow start, but eventually the Huffington Post started posting a few pieces on its parenting site. The attention would draw a spike in visitors, but nothing sustaining.
But everything changed on June 1 last year, when Gordon was laid off from his dream job.
“I put all my eggs in one basket assuming I’d retire from Hallmark. Spoiler alert: That didn’t work out,” he said.
But then a twist of fate happened. The Huffington Post called two hours after he opened the pink-slip email. They wanted more cartoons and — given the layoff timing — they offered to write a story to boot.
“It was the thing that got my career in motion,” he said. “This serendipitous thing.”
One story led to another. More sites began promoting his cartoons, and traffic started spiking on his website. He wasn’t getting paid, but he was getting publicity. But much of it was here today and gone tomorrow.
“I’m famous now! And I would be for half an hour, and then the Internet is like — Oh! Cat video!”
Ultimately it was a set of strips on the website Upworthy that struck gold. They were shared again and again.
He went from making $20 a month to six book offers in a matter of a few weeks. He settled on Kansas City-based Andrews McMeel Universal, which publishes “Peanuts” and “Calvin and Hobbes.”
The global reach of his strip makes a book tour difficult at best, though he did sign books at Rainy Day Books in Fairway recently. But it hasn’t stopped fans from asking: “Are you coming to Italy?” “Australia wants you.”
“Well, right now I’m going to stop midway on my dog walk,” he laughs. “I’ve got Rainy Day down. Australia is on my wish list. But right now I’m going to the end of the street and hooking a right.”
“Well we could sell the kids or start fighting the other people who got laid off for under-the-bridge living space.”
After a slow start, the cartoon is making money, thanks in part to the book and people supporting him through a crowdfunding site called Patreon that allows readers to give money to specific artists. He couldn’t make it if he had to depend on Kansas Citians solely to survive, but it works if he can get 700 people across the globe to throw him a few dollars each month.
“It’s a really different way of working and thinking,” he said. “So now I am able to keep the lights on and buy food for the children because they like to eat every day and live indoors.”
The strip publishes on his website, fowllanguagecomics.com, and social media every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
“I’m easily in the top five drawing duck — swearing ducks — cartoons in the world. Especially the parenting swearing duck cartoons. That market is cornered.”
Gordon’s job as a duck cartoonist makes for awkward and hilarious introductions at, say, school events and parties. Speechless strangers aren’t sure what to say next.
“They give you the exact look that they should give someone who says they draw ducks.”
He imagines they’re thinking, “so like in a home or rehab-type of thing?”
Gordon knows his former colleagues at Hallmark must have worried about his sanity when he declared, “I’m going to draw myself as a duck.”
“You go get ’em, sport!” they might have told him, insincerely. “You dream that little thing, you dreamer.”
What could they say? Everyone knew finding a cartoon job would be impossible.
“You might as well do a job search for an astronaut,” Gordon said.
But it’s working out.
Former colleagues were among the first to line up for autographed books to support him. And those strangers he meets at school events and cocktail parties are starting to Google him and report back.
“Hey, you really do draw,” one told him. “You’re the duck cartoon guy. I know somebody who likes your work.”