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. When people are weirded out, he knows he has 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 ordinary or not-so-ordinary folks around the world. Graziano just got a submission about a fox in Montana that steals golf balls right off the course. The Wesley Chapel man who strangled a rabid bobcat is 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 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 started Ripley Entertainment Inc., an attractions empire that today consists of a worldwide chain of museums, aquariums, wax museums, minigolf courses, arcades, a resort, a TV series, publications and, of course, the cartoon that started it all.
Graziano, a 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, which Graziano mainly uses to send the cartoon to Ripley's headquarters and check his e-mail for submissions.
"What makes Ripley's cartoon unique from others is that it's interactive," he said. "Everybody knows something, and anyone can contribute and get credit."
Ripley did not exploit, Graziano said. "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."
Graziano got a shot at drawing the cartoon in 2004, when the current artist retired. He and wife Carolyn moved from Roselle, N.J., to Wesley Chapel that year.
He had 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.
"To be able to do something you're passionate about that you love no matter what it is, it's a blessing," he said.
Your weird ideas
Ideas for a Ripley's Believe It or Not! cartoon can be submitted to researcher Lucas Stram at firstname.lastname@example.org. If the idea is used, the contributor's name and hometown will appear with the cartoon.