Cartoonist Caesar Meadows often works in miniature. He creates postage stamp-size “micro-comics” and rolls with ‘tit Rex, the shoebox parade.
But his work is writ large across the big screen in “Five Feet Apart,” the new movie starring Cole Sprouse and Haley Lu Richardson as teenage cystic fibrosis patients who fall in love in a hospital.
Sprouse’s character, Will, creates comic illustrations to charm Richardson’s Stella. Meadows was hired to render the drawings used in the film.
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A passionate advocate of creativity in general and cartooning in particular, he mostly operates within New Orleans’ underground comics and Carnival communities. Contributing to a mainstream project like the PG-13-rated “Five Feet Apart,” currently playing in theaters nationwide, was an unexpected but welcome change.
“I’ve had an eclectic career,” he said this week. “For me, cartooning was more about the friendships and relationships you’d make. Opportunities have come from that.”
Meadows, 50, fell under the spell of comic books as a latch-key kid of the 1970s. They were a source of escapism and joy.
At Carrollton Presbyterian grade school, he and two buddies created comics in class, furtively passing a composition notebook back and forth, taking turns adding new panels.
Inspirations for his cartooning style include Mad magazine, “Vic and Nat’ly” creator Bunny Matthews and Charles M. Schulz. Anthologies of Schulz’s entire “Peanuts” output occupy a place of honor in the converted Bayou St. John-area double Meadows shares with his wife and fellow artist Jeannie Detweiler, plus four cats.
“My style is very approachable,” he said. “I have a wiggly line. I love looking at super-slick artwork, but I keep mine to where a younger kid might say, ‘I could draw as good or even better than that.’
“There are people who are composing (comics that are like) violin concertos of sublime complexity. I’m a pretty good fiddle player. I can play a great tune on a fiddle that I think people will enjoy.”
For his day job at the Port of South Louisiana, he is Dennis Millet. His “Caesar Meadows” pen name “feels like a barrier. Cartooning is an extension of who I am. When people critique my stuff, they can hate Caesar Meadows; I’m not going to feel personal about that.”
His creative career is wide-ranging. He contributed a monthly comic strip, Mumbeaux Gumbo, to Where Y’at magazine for 10 years. He’s now the comics editor of the alternative Antigravity magazine.
"Caesar has been a staple of the New Orleans alternative media landscape as far back as I can remember, literally," said Dan Fox, Antigravity's publisher and editor in chief. "His comics were featured in DIALOGUE, a black-and-white zine focused on the more progressive aspects of New Orleans politics, which I read and adored as a teenager in the 1990s.
"Antigravity certainly draws a lot of energy and perspective from younger contributors, many of whom haven’t lived in New Orleans that long. But it’s also important that we have staff who have been around a minute, and have a perspective on the arts and culture landscape that could only be gained from being here pre-Katrina and even pre-2000."
Drawing on his experience and knowledge of the scene, Meadows publishes an annual tabloid anthology of local cartoonists called Feast. “I like to think of it as a little campfire,” he said. “All the artists who are involved are adding a log to it. It has an identity and a sense of connection to it.”
He’s part of Antenna, the artists’ and writers’ collective based at a St. Claude Avenue gallery. Antenna’s initiatives include the annual “Draw-a-Thon,” a 24-hour, round-the-clock marathon.
“People will say, ‘Oh, I used to love to draw’ and wistfully talk about how they would get lost in their drawings. I tell them that that feeling is not that far away to getting back.
“But you have to sit down with the ivory void and the marking instrument. Suddenly you’re transported, to where you’re not thinking about anything other than what’s coming out of the pen and the images popping up in your head.”
His own work appears in Antigravity, in paperback collections, and as tiny “micro-comics” sold from repurposed gumball machines at Hansen’s Sno-Bliz and elsewhere.
“I think of my little books as a transitory joy, like when you puff on a dandelion. It’s nice to be buoyed by little things we come across that are really sweet. The idea of kids growing up and remembering, ‘They used to have these little comics in this little machine when we’d go get sno-balls’ — I love the idea of that.”
Carnival is big on his calendar. He’s a past president of the ‘tit Rex board. In 2014 and 2015, he created a custom micro-comic for the Krewe of Muses. He stapled together 30,000 copies and inserted them in plastic bubbles, which were thrown by Muses riders. Catching one of his own creations at the parade was a “full-circle moment.”
So was seeing his drawings in “Five Feet Apart.” Much of the movie was shot last summer in an unoccupied wing of the new New Orleans Veterans Medical Center on Canal Street, rechristened as the fictional Saint Grace Regional Hospital.
A search for a local cartoonist to ghost-draw for Sprouse’s character led to Crescent City Comics, where a staffer suggested Meadows.
Working with production designer Tony Fanning and art director Kelly Curley, Meadows created panels that reflected his aesthetic but also conformed to the script’s needs. When the rule-following Stella asks to see the rule-breaking Will’s medications log, he reveals a sheet covered with Donkey Kong sketches that were actually drawn by Meadows.
He can relate to Will’s urge to draw.
“My cartooning is a very grounding, meditative activity. I feel like it’s a form of therapy. I turn inward. There are times in the movie when they show Will in emotional states, where he’s channeling while working on drawings. Drawing is a way that the character dealt with his frustrations.”
Meadows saw “Five Feet Apart” three times in its first week of release: With his wife at the Clearview Palace 12, with a group of friends at the Elmwood Palace 20, and at the Grand Slidell with his mom. “She took me to my first movie when I was 3, ‘Snoopy Come Home.’ Now it was like, ‘Look, Mom, I made it on the big screen.’”
He’s already involved in a second movie project. This week, he was slated to appear in a scene of director Kevin Smith’s “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot.”
Meanwhile, he’s enjoying his cartoons’ star turn in “Five Feet Apart.”
“They serve the narrative. They’re telling this story, and it works. The artwork definitely contributes to the moment. I like being a small part of serving the greater good.”