The time between getting a mission call and entering the Missionary Training Center left Arie Van De Graaff with a lot of time on his hands.
So he started drawing cartoons.
“I had months of time where I wasn’t in school waiting to go on my mission, so I started drawing and creating this story," Van De Graaff said.
That story would be heavily influenced by his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and it lives on in a series called "Mission Daze." Selected cartoons from Van De Graaff's series have been published online at deseretnews.com for the past two years and, beginning Thursday, will appear weekly in the print edition of Mormon Times on page C2.
Van De Graaff, who lives in Draper with his wife and four children, works full time at the Utah Association of Counties, where he represents county interests in the Legislature. His job, he says, is much more serious than his part-time hobby, but getting to this point with cartooning has taken a lot of hard work and has included some setbacks.
Van De Graaff decided to leave his art supplies at home when he left for the MTC. Two days later, and with the margins of his missionary books full of cartoon doodles, he sent a letter home requesting his family to send him the supplies.
From 1993 to 1995, he served in Slovenia, a small country bordering Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia. And every week in his letters, Van De Graaff included a drawn joke or gag for his family back in Orem.
The first drawings of "Mission Daze" were on the outside of the envelope and became popular with both his family and other Mormon missionaries. Later, he included the drawings on the inside of the envelope, which allowed him to provide greater detail to the gags because he no longer had to work around addresses and stamps.
“Every week, without fail, I included a strip with my letter to my family,” Van De Graaff says on his website. “Over the two years I was in Slovenia, I sent home nearly 100 gags — a couple of which were actually funny.”
And when he wasn’t proselytizing and drawing, Van De Graaff was observing the people and culture of Slovenia, which influenced "Mission Daze."
“The idea was this is one missionary, and it starts off when he receives his call and goes all the way through his homecoming," he said. "The country that I sent this missionary to is based off of Slovenia, though (in the strip) I call it Laputania. I also took what I wanted and created my own kind of culture. Then I came home and I thought, ‘This is pretty good. I wonder if I could carry it out.’ ”
Van De Graaff worked hard between the summer of returning home from his mission and the fall semester of Brigham Young University to turn the comic strip into something that could be published. After he had 50 strips ready to go, he approached editors about putting the strip in their newspapers. He quickly found that there wasn't a market for a cartoon series about an LDS missionary.
After continued rejection from editors, Van De Graaff decided to give up on the cartoon and focus on school. He graduated from BYU with a master's degree in public administration and began his career in the public sector. But he continued to draw.
Van De Graaff had many one-strip cartoons published in the New Era and children’s puzzles published in The Friend, both magazines published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Then, the motivation to finish the missionary comic strip returned.
“I had more time on my hands and my little brother was going out on his mission," he said. "I thought this would be fun for him — it would give him some help — so I started doing this with the idea of sending (it) to my brother as a missionary."
When Van De Graaff finished "Mission Daze," he had more than 500 strips that told the story of Elder Van Dyke. The story started with Elder Van Dyke's mission call to Laputania and followed him throughout his mission until his homecoming.
Now, Van De Graaff hopes his cartoons can inspire other missionaries as well.
"I think there’s a perception that Mormons are these frowning, unhappy, strict people without any kind of personality, and that couldn’t be further from the truth," he said. "I think anything that highlights the joy of the church is positive.”
Van De Graaff says while he doesn’t think his cartoons will directly lead to someone gaining a testimony of the church, he does hope that people who read his jokes will recognize the joy of the gospel.
“(In) my humor I try to celebrate the gospel,” Van De Graaff said. “We should be the happiest people in the world based on the gospel we have. It’s a celebration of it. I don’t poke fun at the church, but there’s a lot of funny things about our culture, so it’s easy to have some fun.”
Van De Graaff completed the "Mission Daze" comic strip several years ago, but he hasn't stopped drawing. He helped create the LDS Scripture Heroes app, which is designed to help children learn more about the gospel. He also creates single-panel strips for his blog at mormoncartoonist.com and the LDS Laughs app.
In order to create the jokes and funny scenarios that Van De Graaff puts in his cartoons, he has to always be on the lookout.
“I have to be observant,” Van De Graaff said. “I can’t afford to sleep through any sacrament meeting or anything like that because I have to always be looking. I have a sketch pad with me most all the time where I jot down ideas as they come.”
The hardest part of the cartooning process, according to Van De Graaff, is coming up with ideas that he can actually use. He has sketch pads full of drawings that he says weren’t funny enough to make it into the cartoon.
And while Van De Graaff hopes to one day turn his hobby as a cartoonist into a full-time job, he enjoys being able to do something that makes him happy.
“This is what I love,” Van De Graaff said. “If I didn’t make a penny off of it, I’d still be doing it.”
Ben Tullis is a Deseret News intern and freelance writer and copy editor. He graduated from Utah Valley University in April 2014 with a B.S. in English. He lives in Pleasant Grove with his wife and 2-year-old son. Follow him on twitter @bentullis.