Jonny and Carissa: Living One Panel at a Time

By Karen Scalf Bouchard
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A caricaturcaricature by Jonny Hawkins of himself and his wife, Carissa; cartooning together
Jonny Hawkins
How Jonny and Carissa Hawkins create a thriving marriage on a cartoonist’s income

Before cartoonist Jonny Hawkins met Carissa on a blind date, the friend who set them up told Carissa that Jonny was a writer. “He thought ‘writer’ sounded more dignified than ‘cartoonist,’ ” Jonny confesses with a laugh. He pauses for a beat. “I think that helped lure her to me.”

Carissa says what really attracted her was Jonny’s heart. “He had no sense of style whatsoever,”she says of their first meeting. “The day we met, he was wearing what we now laugh at and call his ‘grandpa pants.’ He doesn’t care about clothes. And when he meets people, he’s not judging what’s on the outside; he’s looking for the person inside. That attracted me.”

Jonny’s unorthodox career didn’t derail their relationship. Apparently, neither did his grandpa pants, and the couple married a year later.

In the coming months and years, however, they faced obstacles that could have wreaked havoc in even mature marriages: Jonny admits that the erratic income of a freelancer proved to be a hardship. To further complicate matters, Jonny and Carissa appear to be a classic case of opposites attract.

“Jonny is very creative and spontaneous,” Carissa explains. “I’m creative and analytical. He’s optimistic and tends to see the positive, and I tend to see the negative.”

There are, of course, benefits when couples have different strengths. Carissa says, “He’s kind and good and funny, and people are drawn to him. I’m more reserved. He draws me out, and I keep him from flying off. We balance each other.” Those differences also brought challenges to their marriage.

The life of a freelancer

For as long as he can remember, Jonny wanted to be a cartoonist. When he was in sixth grade, a vacation Bible school teacher gave him a book—The World’s Greatest Collection of Clean Jokes by Bob Phillips—and added the inscription, “Maybe someday you can come up with jokes like this.”

In college, Jonny started sending cartoons to magazines. He amassed  dozens of rejections before selling a cartoon to Scripture Press for $15. By then he was hooked. Two years later he sold a cartoon to Leadership magazine.

By the time Jonny met Carissa, he had established a modest flow of income by selling cartoons and drawing caricatures at craft festivals and carnivals.

In many regards, Jonny and Carissa discovered they were a great team. Ministering together at a church camp, Carissa kept things organized while Jonny interacted with the kids. When Jonny drew caricatures at fairs and schools, Carissa managed the finances. Today Carissa continues to handle much of the minutiae of the business and helps with marketing, too. Financial stress, however, exacerbated their differences.

Carissa adds, “Jonny’s a freelancer, so everything is speculative. He sends work out, and if it’s accepted, we get paid. As someone who is structured and likes to plan, this isn’t exactly what I pictured for myself. When we get a $30 sale, he’s grateful, and I’m rolling my eyes because there are $3,000 in bills that month.”

When they see life through different lenses, Jonny often tells Carissa she needs to lighten up. She tells him he needs to “heavy down.” So how do they cope?

Meeting with Jesus

In the middle of their living room is a round leather ottoman. It’s a great place for TV remotes, snacks and stockinged feet. It’s also one of the places Jonny and Carissa regularly meet with Jesus.

“When we pray together, it makes all the difference in the world,” Jonny says. “It softens our hearts and reminds us that, ultimately, our trust is in God, not in circumstances or even each other.”

When they gather at the ottoman, Jonny and Carissa are often joined by their three kids—Nate, 21; Zach, 19; Kara, 13—and their dog, Blue.

“We always make a point to be thankful for all the little things,” Carissa adds. “Definitely, when we were younger, we did more complaining about things that aren’t—but as we grow, we find ourselves so grateful for the things that are.”

Date nights with a twist

Another way Jonny and Carissa keep their marriage strong is by having date nights. But these date nights may be unlike any you might imagine.

Jonny and Carissa begin the evening by driving 20 minutes into town and eating dinner together at a restaurant. Then Carissa drops Jonny off at a bookstore while she shops or runs errands. When she’s done, she hangs out with her husband for a bit at the bookstore, and then they chat about their separate evenings on the drive home.

One of the challenges of working together from home, they explain, is that you’re always together. The change of pace is rejuvenating.

“Our date nights give us a little time to process life on our own,” Carissa says. “And then we always have great conversations on the drive home. He’ll say, ‘Guess who I ran into.’ (He’s so gregarious. He’s always running into someone we know.) And we share stories.”

God’s faithfulness

Carissa and Jonny agree that remembering how God has taken care of their family for 23 years empowers them to trust Him for the future.

“When you go through tough times, it’s easy to think, We’ll never get through this,” Carissa admits. “And one day you realize things have changed. Sometimes you can’t pinpoint exactly how God brought you through it, but you realize that He did.”

She’s also grateful that when things were really hard, she and Jonny were too poor to split up. “We had to stick together. I remember wanting to get in the car and leave, and then thinking, I cant drive away this is our only car!”

She laughs at the memory and then gets serious again.

“Look, we have family and friends whose marriages and families have been ripped apart. And sometimes I think, Could you have waited one more day? because I know God can bring good things and changes that you don’t think are possible.”

Jonny shares Carissa’s reliance on God. His favorite verse is James 4:8. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

He says that when he starts to waver, gets distracted or feels impatient, he returns to that verse, and it keeps him grounded.

Persistence in cartooning

The list of publications and organizations that have run Jonny’s cartoons is impressive: Woman’s World, Leadership magazine, Reader’s Digest, The Wall Street Journal and the American Heart Association, as well as 76 “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books. Jonny’s Cartoon-a-Day calendars have also sold more than 1 million copies.

In 2001, Jonny found a copy of one of Bob Phillips’ joke books at a flea market and wrote to the author. Within the letter he shared how he’d been given one of Phillips’ books as a sixth grader. The two men have since written nine books together, including The Hilarious Book of Heavenly Humor and Laughter From the Pearly Gates.

Where does Jonny get all his ideas? Sometimes he doesn’t look far from home. When son Nate was 3, he showed Jonny a broken crayon and said, “Daddy, my crayon needs a new battery!” Jonny turned it into a cartoon and sold it to Womans World.

Still, it takes persistence to break into each new market. Jonny began submitting cartoons to The Wall Street Journal in the 1990s. He received his first check from them on his birthday in 2020.

For Jonny and Carissa, their marriage and his career have taken a lot of God’s grace, intentionality and teamwork. Despite their differences, their commitment to pray, play and work together has made a world of difference for this couple.

As Carissa says, “Our similarities may not be obvious on the surface, but they are deep in our hearts.”

Copyright © 2021 by Karen Scalf Bouchard. “Living One Panel at a Time” first appeared in the February/March 2021 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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