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January 17, 2004: Maryland Gazette: Funny Business
by Elizabeth Leis, Staff Writer (
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Aaron Riddle at his computer.To understand Aford Turtle, one has to first understand what he is not.

He is not political. He is not edgy. He's not even overwhelmingly wise.

But to thousands of children and adults, he is a humorous hero reflecting their everyday experiences - even if he is a reptile.

The man behind the "Aford" T. Turtle comic strip, 23-year-old Pasadena resident Aaron Riddle, said the strip is influenced by his fondness for animal comics like Peanuts and Garfield. He began forming ideas for the strip at the age of 10, he said. His material includes experiences from his years at Chesapeake High School and the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

Aaron Riddle and his comic drawings."The comic has always followed me," Mr. Riddle said. "I always have pre-printed sheets with panels so if an idea comes I can write it down. Thinking of the ideas is the hardest part."

Recent strips have included the flood of Aford's home, one of the more unfortunate parallels to Mr. Riddle's life. In Tropical Storm Isabel, his Pasadena home, which belongs to his grandmother, was flooded. The soaked floors and other damages forced Mr. Riddle to move to a Glen Burnie apartment.

But since Mr. Riddle "looks at my life as a cartoon," he was soon inspired to exorcise his feelings through the strip.

"The flood was very traumatic in the beginning, which is reflected in the strip," he said. With the help of family, friends and his religious faith, however, he soon began cracking jokes at post-flood life in the strip. Mr. Riddle said he is now ready to move toward his goal of syndication. The panel debuts on Page B3 of today's Maryland Gazette and also is published in nine local papers in states including New York and Ohio as well as a bevy of newsletters.

By day, Mr. Riddle works as a graphic artist for Erickson Retirement Communities in Catonsville. By night, he creates the day's strip and publishes on his Web site, www.

The Official Aford T. Turtle Web site, launched in 1998, earned a "Chrysallis" Web award and a "Lil' Fingers" Web award last month for its content.

"If it wasn't for the Web site, it wouldn't have the popularity it has now," he said. "People from all over go to the Web site. It's kid-friendly, but for all ages."

Mr. Riddle credits much of the comic's success to his family, which includes brothers Wyatt, 13, and Josh, 20, he said. Simon the snake, the strip's "goofball," is based on Josh, while Robin the bird, whose inability to fly is often the source of jokes, is based on his cousin, Matt Weireich, Mr. Riddle said.

Josh Riddle, who like his older brother plays guitar, said the family's eldest son has a "Type A" personality.

"We're kind of opposite," he said. "But he has done that comic strip since he was real little. He is sticking to his guns."

Although he milks his brothers for comic inspiration, it is parents Mildred and Douglas to whom he gives credit for nurturing his artistic abilities, Mr. Riddle said.

"When I was young, my mother and father would always have a pad of paper out," he said.

Although Mrs. Riddle said she is more of a "doodler" than an artist, she said she "always wanted him (Aaron) to be able to draw."

"He's very organized and very self-disciplined," Mrs. Riddle said. "He got the copyright (for Aford) when he was in middle school."

Mr. Riddle said the Web site is what draws in the majority of his fans, some of whom write messages like "I love Aford. If you're not syndicated soon, I'm going on a hunger strike!" and "Thanks for starting my day off with a smile and a little laughter."

Aford's ability to click with children is what motivated third-grade teacher Amy Simpson to incorporate the strip into her reading curriculum at St. John's Lane Elementary School in Ellicott City.

"They don't think of it as educational, they think of it as fun," she said of her students.

"He's very modest," Miss Simpson said. "But he's so good - he has the confidence in both his artistry and the strip."'