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Meet Happy The Hodag and his pal, Buddy the Bulldog –2006

Meet Happy the Hodag and his pal, Buddy the Bulldog

By Sarah Juon, editor, The Northstar Journal

If you grew up in Rhinelander, no doubt you can recite the story about the ferocious mythical creature of the swamps known as the hodag, captured by Eugene Shepard. And if you move away? Do you forget about the hodag, or do you feel compelled to tell others about it?

If the outpouring of books, plays and poems about the hodag by former Rhinelander natives is any indication, the passion only grows stronger with distance.

Jill Kuczmarski, a 1994 Rhinelander High School graduate, earned a bachelor’s in graphic design from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. She worked as a graphic artist in Milwaukee for five years, and later moved to Helena, Montana to work for Farcountry Press. She now lives in Chicago, with a day job as a design artist for a large law firm. And off-hours? Why, of course, she pursues her passion for the hodag.

“It’s a cool legend,” she says. “ Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always had a lot of hodag stuff with me – slippers, t-shirts, hats, you name it. The hodag is a combination of folklore and mythology. It existed before Gene Shepard, and it’s tied up with other myths and folk tales, like Big foot and Paul Bunyan’s Blue Ox.”

Kuczmarski has just published her own tribute to the hodag in a book for young children. But in Tales From The Trees, Kuczmarski’s hodag is nothing like carnivorous, foul-smelling beast Shepard described. “I wanted my little nieces growing up in Green Bay to know about the hodag,” she explains, “so I tried to make him more cuddly and friendly.” Kuczmarski did many trial drawings before coming up with her trademarked Happy the Hodag. “I put him on t-shirts, postcards, and balloons,” she says, “so I could give him as gifts to my nieces.”

To illustrate a book about Happy, she needs a context and a story for him. That’s where Buddy the Bulldog comes in. “That’s Happy’s sidekick who narrates the story of who the hodag is, “ she says. It’s a sly twist on the legend in which the hodag dines on white bulldogs (only on Sundays).

Other friendly-looking creatures grace the page of the slim, elegant book, sized for small hands and printed on durable, “cuddle-proof” stock paper. There is a cute little worm, for instance, that pops up in unexpected places and makes wry comments. “I was heavily influenced by those I Spy books,” Kuczmarski admits. There are humorous cameo appearances by both Big Foot and the Blue Ox, and funny asides spoken throughout by the characters. “I wanted adults to get a kick out of this as much as the children,” Kuczmarski says.

Kuczmarski initially collaborated with a writer to create the story to accompany her illustrations, but the writer “didn’t get the hodag thing, so I decided to write it myself.”

Is there a sequel? “Not for a while,” she replies. “This took a lot out of me. I basically did not have a Winter.” Through business classes, Kuczmarski learned to proceed with caution and to have a carefully worked out marketing play, obtaining [trademarks] and copyrights as she went along. “I heard horror stories about artist getting ripped off,” she says. “This is too dear to me to lose control of it.”

Kuczmarski, who came back to work at Camp Deerhorn for many summers, often visits Rhinelander, where her parents, Lorry and Jerry Kuczmarski, live. Her boyfriend, Jess Paddock, is also from Rhinelander. His mother, Susie Miller, Kuczmarski says, “made some wonderful suggestions for this book.”

Juon, Sarah (2006, May 21) ‘Meet Happy the Hodag and his pal, Buddy the Bulldog’. The North Star Journal
Copyright 2006 The North Star Journal

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