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BELIEVE IT OR NOT, HE DRAWS THEM

And oddly enough, the Ripley's cartoonist landed his job 25 years after he first applied for it, at 16.

John Graziano does his best work when he's surrounded by aliens, monsters and shrunken heads.

The 44-year-old is all about the oddities, and when people are weirded out, he knows he's done his job.

Graziano draws the cartoons that accompany the internationally syndicated Ripley's Believe It Or Not feature.

Out of his home studio in Wesley Chapel, Graziano produces drawings in the traditional Ripley style for 22 fresh facts every week, three a day and four on Sunday. The ideas come from a research and editorial team at Ripley's corporate headquarters in Orlando.

Ideas also come from submissions from ordinary or not-so-ordinary folks around the world. Like the one Graziano just got about a fox in Montana who steals golf balls right off the course. And the Wesley Chapel man who strangled a rabid bobcat? Also a contender.

Watching the news clip about the fox, Graziano can't hold back a boyish chuckle.

"That's the perfect kind of story that Ripley would have put into the cartoon strip. The fox only goes for the expensive balls."

First drawn nearly 90 years ago by Robert L. Ripley, the illustrations have a distinct mission: bring the odd and unusual to people.

"Everybody is always curious about something out of the ordinary or different than what they're used to," said Graziano. "Ripley knew that. He would go to a different country, observe a custom and bring back to us what he found through his cartoons and later, attractions."

Ripley founded Ripley Entertainment Inc., an attractions empire that today consists of a worldwide chain of museums, aquariums, wax museums, mini-golf courses, arcades, a resort, a TV series, publications and, of course, the cartoon that started it all.

The New Jersey native is the fifth to draw the cartoon since Ripley's first appeared in the New York Globe in 1918.

"It can be hard to come up with stuff that no one's seen yet," Graziano said. "Ripley traveled the world beating the bushes for stuff. When people asked him, 'Where do you come up with your material?' Ripley replied, 'Everywhere and all the time.' "

Graziano gets inspiration from his studio, stocked with monster models, old toys, games, exotic books and drawings.

The odd-oddity-out in the studio is a computer, whose main function, Graziano said, is to send the cartoon to Ripley's headquarters. That and check his e-mail for submissions.

"What makes Ripley's cartoon unique from others is that it's interactive," said Graziano. "Everybody knows something and anyone can contribute and get credit. It was like early reality TV with people getting their 15 minutes of fame," he said.

But Ripley did not exploit, said Graziano. "In his early Odditoriums, people in the show were more than mere curiosities to gawk at. He wanted audiences to meet the real person and their real story. He even forbade his employees to refer to them as freaks. He had a childlike curiosity for everything, but treated people with dignity."

Believe it or not, Graziano got the Ripley's job 25 years after he applied for it.

When he was 16, he sent Ripley's editorial board some drawings. The board said his cicada and coelacanth (prehistoric fish) were good, but they suggested he develop himself professionally first.

He did. Graziano received his certificate in illustration from the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts in 1983. He designed trading card sets and a portrait series based on the 1960s cult TV show Dark Shadows and created comic strips for a horror movie magazine. He also designed T-shirt graphics and created concept drawings for Hollywood films.

"People used to tell me that my drawings reminded them of Ripley's cartoons," said Graziano.

Never forgetting about Ripley's, Graziano continued to send artwork in hopes of a freelancing break. Finally, in 2004, Graziano received a call.

"They informed me that the current artist retired and asked me if I'd like a shot at it," Graziano said.

The new Ripley's cartoonist and his wife, Carolyn, moved from Roselle, N.J., to Wesley Chapel that same year.

"To be able to do something you're passionate about that you love no matter what it is, it's a blessing," said Graziano.

When Graziano is not drawing, he plays bass and sings in an area band, 60s Groove. He also collects toys, games and monster models from the 1960s and dabbles in 3-D photography with an old 1950s Viewmaster Reel.

FAST FACTS

Your odd ideas

Ideas for a Ripley's Believe It or Not! cartoon can be submitted to Ripley's Researcher, Lucas Stram at lstram@ripleys.com. If the idea is used, the contributor's name and hometown will appear with the cartoon.

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