When this cartoonist broke his right arm, he taught himself how to draw with his left

From his Punch to Kill comics to his work organizing the dearly departed Intruder magazine, Marc Palm is one of the most active members of Seattle’s cartooning community. So when Palm announced on Facebook earlier this summer that he broke his right arm — his dominant arm, the arm that did all his drawing — the community responded with a visceral heartbreak: one of Seattle’s most prolific and enthusiastic cartoonists was going to be out of commission for the foreseeable future. But then Palm did something unexpected: he taught himself how to draw with his left hand. I talked to him in late August about his experiences.

Thank you for doing this. I’ve been following along on your journey on Facebook and I think it's really fascinating. Let me start with a couple of personal anecdotes. I want to get your impression of them.

First, I had a friend who was an artist in high school. His mother likes to tell the story that when he was a kid he used to walk around the house with his hands in oven mitts. He'd hold his hands in the oven mitts right up to his chest because he was so terrified that anything would happen to his hands.

Oh, wow.

He identified as an artist so much that it was like a fear for him. He felt like he’d have no identity without his art.

And then second, my grandmother was born a lefty. At her school they tied her left hand behind her back until she became right-handed, because they thought left-handedness was a weakness of character.

Is she alive?

She died, a long-time ago. But she had Alzheimer's, and she actually reverted to left-handedness toward the end there. I thought those two stories might give you an idea of what I was thinking about when I heard about your story.

Speaking of which, I want to shut up and hear your story. So to start at the beginning, you bought a skateboard, right?

Well, no. For the last couple of years I've been getting more and more interested in skateboarding. When I was 12, my parents got me a skateboard — a big clunker. Then they got me pads and helmet and all this other stuff to be safe. And I tooled around in my driveway, which was the smoothest surface I had. But even then, I didn't wear gloves. I didn't wear oven mitts walking around or whatever, but I was a very careful child.

I've been a very careful person my whole life, really. So when I was 12 I was like, ‘You know. I think I'm gonna hurt myself. I don't really want to do this.’ Skateboarding was just cool to watch. I was gonna be a fanboy of it.

But then in the last couple years I was just getting more and more into watching it, and admiring it and thinking, ‘Wow, this is cool. Maybe I should give this a shot.’ So, [Seattle cartoonist] Ben Horak said, ‘I got this board I picked up from somebody. I'm never gonna use it cause I'm too scared to hurt myself, if you want it.’

He hands me off this skateboard. And whoever had it before, they actually were a skater. The thing was pretty well ground up, and it worked well. I was kind of tooling around wherever I could.

A couple of other cartoonists and started skating. They were very encouraging like, ‘You're not gonna hurt yourself. Don't worry about it.’ So we'd go find flat surfaces — tennis courts or parking lots or whatever. We call it ‘skate dad parks.’

That's where, inevitably, it happened.

It was the big Gotham Asylum up on Beacon Hill — the hospital up there. We found this great parking lot. No one bothered us. So I was off on one side, and they were on the other, and I just made this turn and there were some rocks, and I just stopped the board. And then I just landed directly down on my wrist, and that's when I eventually broke a chunk off the ... I forget what that is. It's one of the long arm bones.

I had never broken a bone, and I tried my best to avoid it. Until picking up a skateboard.

It was the worst fear that I had. [When I started skating,] other people were like, ‘What if you break your drawing arm ?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, I know, but it'll be fine.’ Then the worst case scenario happened.

Just to get some background: you're a fairly prolific artist. It seems like you must draw every day, right?

Yeah, I try to. It's definitely in my blood. And I've been doing it for thirty-plus years — just constantly producing and trying to do my best. But I'm not gonna kill myself over a broken arm. I just started going down the process of seeing if I could draw with my left.

My mom has a similar story to your grandmother’s. She was a lefty. She went to Catholic school, and they bound her left arm and forced her to go right. She eventually, grew out of it and went back to being a left-hander.

But while raising me she forced everything into my right hand. She was hoping that I wouldn't be a left-hander because she thinks it’s a curse. The world is right-handed, and she didn't want me to deal with the same problems she had. It's possible that I could have been a left-hander, had it just come naturally.

After you fell when did your thoughts turn to the fact that this was going to really screw up your drawing? How soon was it before you realized?

It wasn't like a big revelation, but it was definitely like, ‘Ugh, fuck. I broke my wrist. I can't draw.’ It was immediate and I tried not to be too bummed out about it. I was more annoyed that now I'm gonna be completely inconvenienced — I only have one hand. I work at the Fantagraphics warehouse and my job is lifting up packages and packing things and now I'm kind of wrecked on that.

I just thought I was gonna have to take a break. Which stinks, because I have a book that I'm working on, and hoping to have done by Short Run. I immediately just realized I had to try to figure something out.

What did that process look like?

Oddly enough, months ago — maybe even a year ago — I was having a little paranoid fantasy, wondering what would happen if I couldn't use my right arm — if it got cut off or I broke it. I was just fascinated with the idea of what my left arm can do that my right can't.

So I tried buttering my bread with my left, and I realized that these two hands had no idea what to do when they're faced with something the other hand usually does. My right hand didn't know how to hold the bread properly, and my left hand didn't know the subtleties of spreading with a certain amount of pressure without stabbing through the bread.

I played around with that. I'd started to be more efficient. I’d remind myself, ‘why don't I just grab the door handle with my left hand because that's where it's at instead of reaching all the way over from my right?’ I was already trying things with my left.’ I hadn't really tried to draw or anything, but I farted around and, like, tried to write my name with my left. It never went well.

So then, a couple days [after I broke my arm] I grabbed a big fat pencil, and I thought ‘maybe I can come up with a cute style,’ because normally my stuff's grotesque. I thought maybe I could actually draw cute things with my left hand.

So I was drawing dinosaurs just to start out. They did look kind of childish, and it was hard to have the control that I wanted. But I saw that I could do something, so I just needed to focus a little harder.

So I changed tools. I went to the smallest micron pen I have. It's a .005. I started going really small and I found that when I was doing details with my left hand, I had a lot of control. But if I made big gestures, or made big strokes, it would get all wiggly and I didn't have the kind of control I wanted.

Wow, that is the exact opposite of what I would figure would happen.

I had a bunch of people encouraging me to try drawing with my left hand. At first, it kind of annoyed me. I was like, ‘You know, this is kind of a cute, fun thing to post online, but it kind of hurts.’

So after I did those dinosaur drawings I put one up right away. I was like, ‘All right, here you go. Everyone that says I should draw with my left, here's the drawings. Fifty bucks, let's go. If you want to support me, put your money where your mouth is.’


‘Or keep your cute little comments to yourself.’ All right, yeah, I could draw with my left hand. So then I just started working on it. As far as being an artist, you're basically dealing with like problem solving: ‘I've got a picture in my head. I need to get it on paper. How do I do that?’

And what was fascinating to me about doing this, was my way of working doesn't come from my right hand. It’s not the hand that does it — it's my brain. I can visualize where things have to go. I've studied enough brush strokes and different techniques. I just needed to be able to get my left hand become a good tool, to get those lines to flow the way I want to.

So yeah, I took my time and really had to be patient and focus on the circle, where before, my right hand had been doing it for thirty close years. I was struggling to draw these little things. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is what it's like for like a normal person who doesn't know how to draw. I could see why they give up. This is hard!’

I realized that this is an enormous amount of work.

It basically was just working through it — figuring out how delicate I have to be, how hard do I want to press on this, what kind of style do I want?

Now I see it as really cool and fun. I'm kind of addicted to it.

Do you draw every day now with your left hand?

Yeah. I go to a coffee shop and sit there for an hour before work and just draw. And that was a great exercise. Every day, I sit there and pump out a new drawing.

And all the drawings I would be posting would take me two days or two mornings — an hour or less apiece. I even picked up speed as far as the amount of time I was working on them. I could do it faster and faster, and get more precise. It's interesting how it's an exponential growth of ability.

I feel my brain swelling.

Yeah, you really got good. I was following your story on Facebook and it seems like all of a sudden, you put up that drawing of of Vampirella, and I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ I don’t know how hard you are on your own work, but even you have to acknowledge that the difference is pretty impressive.

Oh no, that's the thing. It's weird because people come up and say, ‘Wow dude, you're drawing really well.’ And I share in their amazement: ‘Yeah, I know, right? These are really fucking good.’ And it's weird. I don't want to seem like I'm egotistical but I'm surprising the hell out of myself with this.

With that Vampirella one, I was sitting at home and just kind of sketching. I drew a different type of line. I had actually been trying to get to a point like that — I guess, like a looser style. It’s been hard to teach myself to get looser when I've been trying to get tighter and tighter for years. And so my left hand had that looseness that I was looking for.

It's just been really weird and awesome to see it happen. The big drawing that blew my mind that I was able to complete it and make it look as good as what I would do with my right hand was the one with two witches brewing up the bongwater soup.

I use a brush pen usually, but I pulled out a nib pen I hadn't used in years and it worked out great. It was like this cool new toy to play with and get different effects.

There's still a difference between your left-hand and right-hand style, though, right? You've gotten better, but you haven't gotten the same.

No, but I'm definitely getting closer, which I'm not sure like.

It's kind of fascinating — I talked to one of my other cartoonist buddies, Kalen Knowles. He said, ‘What if I told you I like these [left-handed drawings] a little bit more than your other stuff?’ And my girlfriend was getting close to saying that to me too.

It's weird to me because I've been working so hard to get a style that I can be comfortable with, and can produce well with my right hand, for so long. And now I'm coming up with this little bit more naïve, or raw, look with my left, and everybody's like, ‘Oh, I like that better.

It also looks more hand drawn. I guess that's what he was saying; it looks like it has a little bit more of a human hand to it.

And I think some people are drawn to that because it looks like something that they'd be able to do. I've had a couple of people say they like stuff that looks not too polished. If it's so polished and super hyper-realistic, they can't even understand it.

But if it looks like someone drew it, and there's mistakes and there's a wiggly line, then people get that. There must be something identifiable about it.

I've been trying to be cautious or kind of aware of how clean and how good my stuff looks, because I don't want it to look like it's made by a computer. I don't like a lot of digital art a lot of times. I see it as soulless. It's too clean, it's too nice.

So if [art drawn with my left hand is] a little rougher, or hand-drawn, or there's a mistake, that's cool. But I don't want my art to be full of mistakes. I look at a piece of my art and I see all my mistakes — I don't see how good it is. And I think that's the hardest thing for artists — liking your style, liking your little quirks, and all the strange things about it. Hopefully, your tastes match up with your audience.

So the cast is off, right?

Yeah, it came off yesterday. Thank God.

Have you been drawing a little bit? Have you had time to readjust to the right hand?

No, I’ve still got to go through some physical therapy. I have a new splint.

But I'm going to have to [get back into drawing with the right hand] because I've got to finish the vampire book I'm working on. I'm interested to see if my right hand has to learn to catch up now. Will I be able to jump back in? Or will my left hand now become the superior hand?

I'm looking forward to using the left hand to sketch out things, or do my rough pencils, because it has that looseness. And then I'll ink it with my right hand so that I can get a tighter look.

So you’re looking to use both hands in the future? Like, at the same time?

I'm not a gecko. I can't spread my eyes and look at two different drawings at the same time. Not yet. I may well try.

Maybe you just need a head injury.

Be kicked in the head by a mule.

Do you think you're going to finish the vampire book by the time Short Run happens on November 4th? Are people going to be able to see your latest stuff at your booth at Short Run?

Oh yeah, for sure. I have only a few pages left on the vampire book. It’s called The Fang and it's about a female vampire who has a job as an assassin of monsters.

I'm also thinking about coming up with a left-handed publication of some sort. Like the closest thing I'm ever going to do to an autobio comic, with photos, probably collages, and some sort of skate art. A photo of my skateboard, and x-rays from my hand, and then all my left-handed art. I think that's something I should definitely do.

I want to see if I can get, at the very least, a coffee shop to host a bunch of left-handed drawings.

Do you have a book out right now that you think is a perfect example of your right-handedness at its apex, before the accident? So that readers can do a before and after comparison?

Oh yeah. The Punch to Kills are the best I've done. And then, The Fang book is definitely the thing that I've been really excited about doing all this year. It definitely is looser than the Punch to Kills, I think, and a little bit more fun.

So, yeah, there should definitely be stuff for sale at Short Run, so you can look at what I did this way and that way. Choose your poison. Pick your hand.