Oregon State University business professor Chad Murphy just published a book, but it won’t be on his students’ required reading list.
In his free time, Murphy is Lord Birthday, the author and illustrator of nonsensical single-panel cartoons. Last week, Murphy released his first book, “How to Appear Normal at Social Events: And Other Essential Wisdom.” It includes dozens of cartoons featuring absurd advice on topics like “How To Have A Successful Dating Life” (hint: stack fruit atop the boombox).
Murphy, who is 37, first was inspired by British artist David Shrigley, whose hand-drawn cartoons he saw at a museum in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“I think I connected on some sort of deeper level with the aesthetic of it,” Murphy said. “It just kind of triggered these interesting creative ideas that I hadn’t had before.”
On that summer 2015 train ride back to Oregon, Murphy started doodling. His first comic was a drawing of a man and a woman standing side by side holding hands. The woman says, “I’ll never leave you, John.” The man responds, “My name is Brent.” And the woman says, “I’ll never leave you, Brent.”
Murphy started posting his cartoons to Instagram. He slowly garnered a following that has now amassed to nearly 200,000 people. Over time, Murphy’s cartoons morphed into more of a listicle style. But each still features Lord Birthday dispensing knowledge with his dry sense of humor.
For a year, Murphy posted the comics anonymously. Even his parents didn’t know he was moonlighting as a cartoonist. But in October 2016, Andrews McMeel Publishing reached out to Lord Birthday about a book deal. So last summer Murphy appeared on NPR’s "Invisibilia" podcast to make his public debut. He received emails from students who were excited and surprised a business professor was the author of a popular cartoon. Some of his family members had been following Lord Birthday’s Instagram account and didn’t know it was him.
Murphy said his cartoonist identity contrasts to his work as an academic. Murphy teaches business classes to undergraduate students and does research on identity and career transitions. He said his comics are not intellectual.
“It’s very dry and silly humor, so it’s kind of opposite in terms of the tone of the writing and the intention of it,” Murphy said.
But he said the authoritative voice of Lord Birthday is similar to a teacher’s, only the comic’s advice is often offbeat and not very helpful.
Murphy said he strives to find the right balance of reality and absurdity in each of his cartoons so that people can find meaning in them. A recent comic is titled “Things I Worry About That Are Totally Normal To Worry About.” One of Lord Birthday's responses: “That I will get stuck in the blood pressure machine at Rite Aid and just have to become part of the store.”
“People seem to really like it and it resonates with them, I think because it does have the undercurrent of actual anxiety that we all probably tend to feel,” Murphy said.
He said he takes delight in silly phrases he hears or sees. One cartoon incorporated a name his 5-year-old son called his 2-year-old child: “the chubical wonder.” His 11-year-old son suggested the other day that Murphy write a comic on “how to talk to your crush.”
“I think it’s the one thing they think is cool about me,” Murphy said of his four kids.
Murphy, who holds a master’s degree in humanities with a concentration in comparative literature from the University of Chicago, said he is influenced by writers such as George Saunders, Donald Barthelme and Kurt Vonnegut. Visually, with drawings around columns of text, he draws inspiration from William Blake, Lewis Carroll and Shel Silverstein.
Murphy also is impacted by his conservative religious upbringing. He grew up in a devout Mormon household in Atlanta. Murphy said he was always nervous about saying something inappropriate. Lord Birthday’s emergence coincided with Murphy and his wife leaving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints due to ideological differences.
“Stepping away in some sense did give me a little bit of freedom to take some risks, to create art and write things that are slightly inappropriate,” he said.
Murphy’s book features 27 never-posted cartoons. Find it online at http://publishing.andrewsmcmeel.com/books/detail?sku=9781449487966.