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Whatever Happened to The Family Monster?

[This originally appeared as an at the top of the site to explain the origin and reason for my comic strip, Welcome to Falling Rock National Park (2006-2012). I am reprinting it here as a post.]

My previous comic strip, The Family Monster, ran from October 2002 to May 2006. While I was writing it, I began to develop the idea for Welcome to Falling Rock National Park. I moved from Colorado to Oregon in the summer of 2006 and the timing seemed right for a change.

That’s the short version. Here’s the longer one.

The characters in The Family Monster were created in my senior year of college. I was finishing up my college comic strip, Atticus and Glen. Atticus was a wise old squirrel and Glen was a naive college student with a strange hat and a large dot on his shirt. Glen’s unrequited love was a fellow college student named Dee.

When I graduated college, I left the characters of Atticus and Glen behind. I decided that they belonged to that world, and since my life was about to change drastically, my comics had to reflect that.

The Family Monster was the first comic strip I did after college. It ran in The Colorado Daily. I am still amazed that they took a chance on me, given the horrendous comics I gave them to review. After a few years in that paper, I was picked up by the McClatchy-Tribune Campus, a college-friendly wire service. The Family Monster could then appear in any college paper that subscribed to the MCT Campus. Welcome to Falling Rock National Park is still thankfully run by this service.

For The Family Monster, I took Dee back in time to when she was just a girl growing up in the Arizona desert. Three monsters – Monster, Dirch, and Eggman – moved in with Dee to scare her silly. They failed miserably. Nevertheless, they stayed on, living in an underground fort in Dee’s backyard. The strip came to be about the interaction of the four main characters’ personalities.

The Family Monster was fairly open-ended in terms of the stories I could tell because of guest characters. If I wanted to do a story about pirates, I’d have pirates visit. If I wanted to tell a scary monster story (as opposed to the decidedly unscary three main monsters), I would bring in a character called Brulock the Destroyer. Another recurring character was Monster’s brother, Theo. Theo had renounced his monsterhood to become a wandering Buddhist, much to Monster’s dismay.

I had a lot of fun with The Family Monster. It was a comic strip that could never be syndicated, though. The responses I got from the syndicates (who, in turn, sell the comic to daily newspapers) were: the art is too alternative and the story not accessible enough. I also grew tired of the restrictions of drawing the monsters – they were basically sticks with heads, and I wanted to draw characters more capable of expression.

When I thought to set a comic strip in a National Park, I got the same feeling I do whenever I see vast possibility in front of me. I don’t know where I’ll end up, but it will be a long, long ways from where I started. Just as if I was visiting an actual National Park, there are many directions I can go without sacrificing the cohesiveness of the comic strip. The landscape is very much a part of the story.

Dee is still around. This time, I’m taking her to her first job after college. She’s a park ranger. She’s easy to spot: she has the big goofy hat. Maybe by the end of my career I’ll have told Dee’s entire life story. I would like that.

I learned a lot from drawing The Family Monster, and I appreciate everyone who took the time to read it.

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looking back ten years

I don’t often think about how far I’ve come as an artist. But, it being on the verge of a new decade, I thought I’d see exactly what I was doing ten years ago. In 2009, I released Welcome to Falling Rock National Park, the third comic strip collection of the above-mentioned comic strip.

Here is the cover to that book, as well as one strip that I particularly liked.

Happy 2020 everybody! I hope we all grow into ever more wonderful beings over the next decade.

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cartoonist announcement

Two heartbreaking decisions I’ve had to make recently: one, the next issue of Falling Rock National Park will be the finale. The second, that I won’t be exhibiting at San Diego ComicCon next year.

Falling Rock has been a big part of my identity for much of my adult life. I started the strip in 2006. After six years of that daily strip (and four years of my previous strip), I realized I was not going to ever be a syndicated newspaper cartoonist.

Falling Rock made its debut as a comic book series in 2013 (with the awesome help of guest artist Reid Psaltis). Over the past 7 years I’ve released 8 issues (with two more guest artists, Tyrell Cannon and Oscar Woodruff), and hopefully will release issue 9 next year. But it never made the bigger impact I was hoping for, never got the readership or publisher’s interests. And so, it’s time to try something new.

As for ComicCon, it’s been an amazing 8 years, but it’s been getting more and more difficult to afford that convention. I can’t do it at a loss. Every year I am amazed at how well it is run, and how gracious the people are, from attendees to exhibitors to celebrities. I will miss it, and I definitely want to return.

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Lee Salem 1946-2019

The first famous person I ever saw at ComicCon was Lee Salem. It was my first year attending that convention, before I even had a table. One of my early stops was to the Universal Press Syndicate booth. To my complete shock I saw the man himself, talking with a few other editors. I approached him with the awe appropriate to kings and religious figures, and I think he was baffled by this young man’s recognition. I shook his hand, mumbled something about how great it was to meet him, then moved on. That moment stands as one of my all-time ComicCon highlights (and I’ve met the voice of SpongeBob).

As longtime readers of this here blog know, I wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist since I was a kid. Calvin and Hobbes has been my guiding light since around age 10. Through that strip, I’ve learned just about everything I know about making good comics. Of course there have been others, but Watterson’s work has become so ingrained I believe you can see some of the jokes written in my DNA.

At some point I learned that Lee Salem was Bill Watterson’s editor. I later learned he edited many of the greatest comics to ever grace the pages of newspapers. This was a man I needed to know. As any good writer knows, they are only as good as their editor (Salem’s suggestion on an early submission from Watterson, to focus on the younger brother of the main character, led to the creation of Calvin and Hobbes). When I was old enough to submit comics to syndicates, my first letter was always addressed to Mr. Lee Salem.

Though I never got to work with him (he was promoted to President of Universal Press Syndicate before his retirement) his legacy left a lasting impression on me.

Bill Watterson’s retirement gift to Lee Salem

It feels strange to miss a man whose work was, for the most part, invisible. He helped innumerable cartoonists be funnier. He led the industry to give creators more rights. He was president of a comics syndicate during a time of great uncertainty and change. He did all these things well. I am sorry to hear that he is no longer with us. I am grateful for the good work he did.

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Cul de Sac, part 6 of 6

I hope you’ve enjoyed my little homage to Richard Thompson. He was (and still is) a cartoonist who deeply inspires me. The fact he is no longer around to make new work doesn’t lessen the impact he had on me, or really, the industry as a whole.

This was a unique Inktober for me. Instead of making one drawing per day, I made six strips (the equivalent of one week of newspaper strips). I drew them entirely digitally, making the “pencil” sketches on my iPad then using Photoshop and my Cintiq tablet for the finished, “inked” strips. It was a useful experiment, and I find the finished product fairly close to my traditionally inked pages. Maybe you can tell me if you find this approach appealing.

I hope to make more new work soon. In the meantime, this has been a fun diversion.

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Cul de Sac, part 5 of 6

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Cul de Sac, part 4 of 6

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Cul de Sac, part 3 of 6

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Cul de Sac week, part 2 of 6

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Cul de Sac tribute week

I’ve been a fan of Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac since even before it was first syndicated. I found his blog and, with it, early versions of the characters we all came to know as the Otterloops. His sense of humor was loopy and filled with kid logic, and his art was at once messy and incredibly precise. There has been no cartoonist like him before or since. If there is a comic strip royalty lineage, it could easily be argued that it goes Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson, Richard Thompson.

With Richard’s death in 2016 Cul de Sac’s (way, way too premature) end was certain. Comics had lost a truly great artist and a really good guy, too.

Ernesto Lacuna is one of my favorite characters from the strip. I have been curious for a long time what it might be like to write a story about Richard’s Ernesto meeting my Ernesto. And so, this being Inktober, I decided to finally scratch that itch. I wrote a weeklong (6 strips) story about Ernesto L.’s journey to Falling Rock. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed making it. Below is part one.