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how to be a real cartoonist

[NOTE: I found this essay while perusing old notebooks last weekend.  It was probably written in May or June 2002.  I hadn’t yet started drawing The Family Monster and was uncertain if I’d succeed as a cartoonist.  The stakes were high.  This was probably an attempt to build myself up for what was to be the beginning of the rest of my life.]

You must posses at least one drawing hand.  It can be either left or right, or both, but it can’t be two lefts or two rights.  Once you’ve chosen, there are no take-backs.

Pick up a pencil or pen.  A pen is better suited for writing dialog, because when people talk they talk in ink.  Pencils are better for drawing because you can erase your many mistakes.  You will make many mistakes.

Find a comfortable place to sit and compose.  You can’t take my place because I’m there already and I can’t work with you sitting on my lap.  You also can’t take Charles Schulz’s place because, let’s face it, he was a giant in this field.  Also, his place is in a museum, the Charles Schulz Museum, and the docents won’t let you sit there.  Sit and compose.  You will find that, upon sitting, you will want to do anything but compose.  Resist this urge.  Eventually the phone will ring or you will need the bathroom so so bad.  Don’t get up before you absolutely have to.  Don’t take a break before you start composing.  That is not a break.

Stare blankly at a blank sheet of paper.  Do not think “How will I fill these?”  Think of something funny your character would say.  Think of the funniest possible thing your character could say, then think of the reason why she would say it.  Write all that down.  None of this will seem funny to you.  It never will seem all that funny to you.  This is a good sign.  As soon as you find yourself witty and urbane, you should stop composing.  When you begin to find yourself funny, it is the exact moment you have stopped being funny.

Don’t try to finish a joke if it is taking too long.  Move on.  Come back to it if you think the setup is unique or has merit.

Compare yourself unfavorably to published cartoonists.  Compare yourself favorably to published cartoonists who you feel don’t deserve their sweet publishing deals.  Try to understand why they have been published, regardless.  Spend lots of time hoping you’ll get published.  Spend more time doing something about it.

Follow the above directions to become a Real Cartoonist, unless you already have a better plan, in which case you should follow that instead.

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autobiography Blog comic con

APE 2011

The Alternative Press Expo in sunny San Francisco has come and gone once again.  This was my third year tabling at APE.  Although the show had some stiff competition in the form of a free bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park, attendance was good and the Concourse hummed with the good vibes of people talking about their comics.
Representing Portland along with me was my tablemate Reid.  The only thing missing between the two white guys with beards was a pot of Stumptown coffee.

Reid was not only my tablemate this year, we also shared a ride to and from San Francisco.  On our way down we stopped in Arcata, California, a small college town that borders the woodsy home of the elusive Bigfoot.  It was in those woods in 1967 that Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin shot the famous video of Bigfoot lumbering across a clearing, looking back with what can only be described as utter indifference, and continuing on her merry way.
How do I know the gender of Bigfoot?  It was one of many facts I learned in the Willow Creek China Flat Museum, located in the business district of Willow Creek. Reid and I had made special plans to stop at the museum on our way to San Francisco, and we were not disappointed.  The Willow Creek museum celebrates the town’s history and has an entire wing dedicated to the ongoing study of Bigfoot.
I recommend stopping there not only for the wealth of Bigfoot-related evidence (mainly casts of footprints, historical newspaper clippings of men holding casts of footprints, and a beautiful painting of Mrs. Bigfoot), but for the lovely ladies who run the museum.  We arrived at the museum right at opening; one elderly woman was turning on the lights.  “I’ve got to go wake up Bigfoot,” she said as we entered.  Soon after two of her friends came to keep her company.  They are all in a quilting club; the museum had notices of their quilting events hanging beside maps of Bigfoot sightings.  It was an incredibly cute experience, talking to these women about Bigfoot.
The Bigfoot museum looked like a run to the grocery store compared to the strange restaurant we went to in Chinatown.  Sam Wo, a restaurant I cannot recommend highly enough, was where Reid, Tyrell, Matt, and I chose to eat on Saturday night.  Let me take you through our journey and attempt to illustrate what kind of place this is.
You enter Sam Wo through the kitchen.  Walk in the door, there you are.  March right through where all the food is being prepared and up a narrow flight of stairs.  There is a smallish dining area with maybe seven tables.  A tiny Chinese woman is the only server, and she cannot move quickly enough.  It is as though someone is constantly rushing her along.  That person does not exist.  The customers are patient (presumably they do not want to be the cause of her inevitable nervous breakdown).  The folks preparing the food downstairs work quietly; I never once heard them give her an order.  No, this server is the one running the place, and she is a force of nature.
When we got upstairs all the tables were full and we thought we’d have to go someplace else.  Not so.  The server told us that the upstairs is closed some of the time – apparently she decides when to open the third floor.  She unlatched a chain and ushered us, along with two other groups, up another flight of stairs.  The layout of the third floor is similar to the second.

Once we were all seated the server barreled up the stairs, threw dishes and chopsticks at all three tables, and then shouted numbers at us.  “You are table one, three, and four!” she said as she ran back downstairs.  A few minutes later she ran back up to take our orders.  Table one was a couple and she almost wouldn’t accept their order.  “That’s too much food!” she said.  They had to assure her that that was what they wanted.

There is a dumbwaiter extending to all three floors, although if anyone could carry trays of food up and down stairs all night you can bet it would be this woman.  By the time we got our food she had become a legendary figure, much more real than Bigfoot and in some ways scarier.  Don’t ask her for your green tea before it’s ready.  I made the mistake of going downstairs to see if we could get our drinks and she yelled at me to go back upstairs.  I felt like I had a Chinese grandma.

Our meal was complete but we still had to figure out how much we owed.  The receipt was in Chinese and had been torn.  Were we expected to remember how much each of our dishes cost and add them up ourselves?  Reid was finally able to extract a grand total from the server and we made the wise decision to tip generously.  It was one of the most bizarre, fun dinners I’ve ever eaten.

But what about the convention?  I was in San Francisco to sell comics.  This year, possibly because of the bluegrass concert, a hiphop concert, and the Castro Street Fair, I did not do as well as in years past.  I still made table, so the trip was definitely worthwhile, but I am beginning to wonder if I’ve tapped out my market in the Bay Area.

It might be time to investigate other comic conventions.  Next year I will be attending MoCCA in New York for the second time, and would like to try SPX in Bethesda and TCAF in Toronto.  I also put in my application for ComicCon in San Diego, fingers crossed.  If I can get in there, that will be wild.

Thanks again, San Francisco and APE.  I had a wonderful time.

Check out the comics of these talented and super friendly people.  I love that I have convention friends all over the country.
Monty Borror
Kevin Woody
Noah Van Sciver
Greg Means
Keith Knight
Stephen Notley
Miriam Libicki

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autobiography Blog comic

falling rock SEASON SIX

Hello dear readers and welcome to Welcome to Falling Rock National Park‘s record-breaking sixth season.  Although it is still too early for me to have won any awards this year, I expect Season Six to be off the charts in terms of awardablility.

 

Why am I excited to be back with Falling Rock?  I’ve never drawn a comic strip for this long before.  The Family Monster, my post-college “experimental” strip, ran for four years.  When the idea for Falling Rock came along, I was interested in doing what I charmingly refer to as a “commercial strip.”  This is as close as I can get, apparently, to the mainstream.

 

I’m also excited for you all to see my brushwork.  Over the summer, I finished my graphic novella Tomb of the Zombies, which I inked with a (very tiny) sable hair brush.  After learning that master cartoonist Farel Dalrymple uses a larger Raphael brand sable brush, I rushed out to the internet and procured one for myself.  The number 4 size brush is now my inking tool of choice.  The details are still drawn with the PITT pens I’ve used before.  I first tried a brush when I was drawing a comic for my high school paper.  Back then I needed a tool that gave me more control.  I wasn’t adept enough to jump in with the brush.  Now, 15-odd years later, I’ve returned to my cartooning roots.  And hey, anything* that gets me closer to Bill Watterson is a good thing.

 

What can we expect for the coming season?  More robots, more Lincoln references, more harebrained schemes.  Additionally, Dee is beginning to question her place at the park as she gets older.  Will she be a park ranger her whole life?  How has she avoided getting transferred for so long?  These are issues I’m hoping to deal with this year.

 

Thanks for your patience over the long summer, and welcome back! *except murder

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autobiography Blog comic

in case you missed it

I was interviewed by fellow cartoonist Palle Schmidt for his blog, Writing With Pictures.

 

Palle and I met at MoCCA in April.  He was nice enough to offer me an interview as part of a series he is doing on his blog.  Much to my surprise and delight, we ran into each other again at San Diego ComicCon.  He was there promoting his new graphic novel, The Devil’s Concubine.  Getting to know Palle was one of the highlights of ComicCon; he is not only a talented cartoonist, he’s a professional illustrator who knows how to market his work.  I mostly listened to him and hopefully I’ve picked up a few things.  (The re-categorizing of this here blog was at the top of my list when I returned from San Diego.)

 

Thanks for the interview, Palle!  As for the rest of you, check out his book.

 

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Blog comic

year four

Falling Rock National Park 20090817Today marks the fourth year of my comic strip, Welcome to Falling Rock National Park. If you only read this blog and haven’t seen my website, you may wonder who the heck posts a random assortment of topics and drawings and names it after a made-up National Park. The short answer is: a cartoonist.

I created Falling Rock after drawing The Family Monster comic strip for four years in The Colorado Daily in beautiful Boulder, Colorado. Falling Rock is my attempt at being just a tiny bit more mainstream than the surreal dreamworld of The Family Monster. Unlike The Family Monster, Falling Rock is inhabited by animals you’d really find in a southwestern desert. Park Ranger Dee dresses like a real park ranger. The whole thing is inspired by growing up in Arizona. I don’t live there anymore, but I really like drawing saguaros and mountains and dry riverbeds.

I’ve been drawing a daily comic strip for the past seven years, and comics in general since I was 10. If you’re listening to Malcolm Gladwell (and according to him, we all should be), you know that to master a skill you need 10,000 hours of practice. Similarly, Chuck Jones said that you need to produce 10,000 bad drawings before you can make your first good one. I’m not able to add up all the time I’ve spent drawing comics since I was a kid, but I feel close to 10,000 (choose your unit of measurement) right now. Maybe I’ll even crack it this year. Stay tuned to find out.

I hope you enjoy this year’s Welcome to Falling Rock National Park. I’m glad to be back at the drawing board, filling in little boxes with pictures and words.

OH, AND IF YOU’RE INTERESTED:
You can read more about me right here.
You can read today’s comic here and older comics here.
And you’re always welcome to buy one of my Falling Rock book collections.

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Blog friday robot

friday robots: welcome back to falling rock edition

Desert robots this week. Unfortunately they are about to be devoured by a rock monster, but hey, that’s the circle of life. Desert robots become dessert robots.friday-robots-8-14-9Monday August 17th marks the beginning of new Falling Rock comics for the year! Be sure to check joshshalek.com for the daily comic.

I’m excited to be drawing Falling Rock again after the summer break. Fear not, dear readers, this blog will still be updated regularly.

Be safe!smokey

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Blog

comic con 2009 super all-star collector’s edition

This year marked my first pilgrimage to NerdFest 09, also known as ComicCon. ComicCon is the largest comics convention in the world. It was the biggest thing I’ve ever seen. You could fill the Grand Canyon with the geeks, dorks, and nerds attending ComicCon. If you stacked all the comics from ComicCon, the pile would reach Saturn. Big is not a big enough word. Neither is huge or gigantic. Galactic may work, as it has the ring of science fiction. Essentially, ComicCon is the San Diego convention center overrun with comics and comic-related phenomena, spilling out into downtown.

In addition to the convention on the ground floor, the second floor hosted a continuous stream of panels and talks by some of the best cartoonists around. Sure, if you wanted to see James Cameron and Peter Jackson gab about movie stuff, you’d have to wait 2 1/2 hours in the sun. But for a brilliant cartoonist like Richard Thompson all you had to do was find the right room. I don’t have to tell you people’s priorities are messed up. On the other hand, James Cameron gave people 3D glasses. How can a newspaper cartoonist compete with 3D glasses?

I attended two panels: Richard Thompson and Stephan Pastis. Each was an hour in which the cartoonist showed a PowerPoint presentation of his work then answered questions.

Richard took us on a journey through Richard’s Poor Almanack, his weekly for the Washington Post, and the origins of the daily Cul de Sac. Cul de Sac, as I’ve mentioned before, is the best comic strip in papers today, bar none. His humor is wry and goofy at the same time, which is probably why I identify with it so strongly. He’s also one heckuva artist. Unsurprisingly, he began his career as an illustrator and, as he put it, started sneaking words in until he arrived at comics. Instead of deciding beforehand he wanted to make comics, he slowly realized comics was the best means of expression for him. It was similar (yet backwards) to my own discovery: writing came first and I slowly added pictures.
(Below is neither Cul de Sac or Falling Rock. It is an original Pogo Sunday, which I was happily allowed to photograph for free. Buying it would have put me out about 500 bucks.)
Stephan was cheered for getting his PowerPoint presentation up and running. It was somewhat surprising they had any technical difficulties at all. I would think you could page the convention floor for help: “ComicCon attendees: is there anyone in the crowd with IT experience? Does anyone know how to work a computer?”

It was not surprising to hear Stephan got his initial inspiration from Peanuts and Dilbert, as that aesthetic permeates Pearls Before Swine to great success. He told a very funny story about angering an entire country: Turkey. In one strip, he named a llama Atatürk. This is seen as sacrilege: like a Turkish cartoonist naming a doofus character Washington Lincoln Jefferson. The scandal culminated in Stephan’s receiving an admonishing letter from the Ambassador of Turkey.



In addition to panels, a good place to meet cartoonists was at their booths.

Jeff Smith signed at Cartoon Books. I was truly surprised when he recognized my comic book. I had sent him a copy a while ago, after I missed seeing him at Stumptown in Portland. The man must have the memory of an elephant, because he said he owed me a letter and made his inscription “To the creator of Falling Rock…” If there’s any cartoonist who is able to make comics accessible to readers of all ages and that don’t necessarily read comics, it’s Mr. Smith. If you haven’t read Bone, Shazam, or Rasl, do it. Now. Now!

Keith Knight (The K Chronicles) generously talked about self-syndication and gave me a badly needed boost to continue promoting Falling Rock. One booth over, Bob the Angry Flower creator Stephen Notley (in full flower regalia) signed my copy of Everybody vs. Bob the Angry Flower. While I was talking to Stephen, Keith interjected some tips aimed at Stephen about how to get Bob into more papers. Keith is not only a great cartoonist but a savvy businessman AND he looks good in a hat. Triple threat.

Kevin McShane, creator of ToupyDoops. When I first got to college, I checked the school paper to size up who I’d have to compete with for space. ToupyDoops was THE strip. Everyone knew it and loved it. Kevin turned out to be a great guy in addition to a talented cartoonist, and my strip, Atticus and Glen, wouldn’t have been as good if I didn’t have ToupyDoops as friendly competition. I was pleasantly surprised to see him again and glad he’s still cartooning.

Steve Lieber, Whiteout. I’m excited to read this murder mystery set in Antarctica. Steve also passed along a preview of his upcoming story Underground, about a cave in a state park in Kentucky and how differently the townspeople and park rangers see it. The townspeople want to open it to tourists and the rangers want to keep it closed for preservation. Values clash! Ed Abbey would have liked this comic, I think.

Scott C.’s Double Fine Action Comics. I’ve been following Scott’s blog for a while now, really enjoying his watercolor prints. Meeting him in person, he struck me as an older, taller, cooler, more successful version of myself. Action Comics is a web comic he later collected into a book. His day job? Video game designer. He also has a beard. Triple threat!
I made new friends; perhaps they saw a guy not dressed as a stormtrooper and thought “he can’t be in the right place.” Christian Ward, whose series Olympus is fantastic and not done with watercolor (but don’t tell anyone). Stephen McCranie is an Albuquerque cartoonist and is as talented as he is tall (he’s tall).
Of course I had to wander the movie side of the convention. It was there that I got all my cool swag, including: a Green Lantern ring that lights up (I’m thinking of going back in time and proposing to my wife with this Green Lantern ring.), a gigantic Watchmen swag bag, a Transformers seat cushion that does not transform into a robot, a light-up Astro Boy pin, an Adventureland key chain that lights up, and a few other buttons and posters that do not light up.

There were no less than two captain chairs from the deck of the USS Enterprise at the Con. One was part of a raffle. Yes, you could win Captain Kirk’s chair. Every time I walked by, someone was getting their picture taken while sitting in the chair. I was recruited for employment at Stark Industries. I saw Kenan Thompson (of Saturday Night Live) walking into a restaurant and subsequently getting stopped for pictures. Seth Green (of Robot Chicken) was doing some kind of webcast from the convention floor.
A few celebrities I did not see but were there: Kristen Bell, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Sigourney Weaver, Johnny Depp, Tim Burton, Henry Selick & Neil Gaiman (promoting Coraline’s DVD release), Eliza Dusku, Denzel Washington (?!?!?!), and more! Since I’m already good friends with Denzel, why try to get together at the busy Con? We’ll just have a beer back at his place in Indiana.
Finally, the ComicCon experience would not be complete without a stack of new reading material to take home:

Neptune, by Aron Nels Steinke. He was not able to attend ComicCon in person, but Aron’s book made its debut in San Diego. Having finished reading it, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to people who A) have either read comics before or not, B) like books or don’t, C) think Dick Cheney should run for President or think he’s the Great Satan. All political joking aside, Neptune is, like Jeff Smith’s Bone, accessible to anyone. I hope it becomes a huge seller so I can sell my signed copy on ebay for 50 million dollars. Which reminds me, I saw an issue of Spider-Man #1 at ComicCon. That shouldn’t be out in the open. It belongs in a museum!
Owly: Tiny Tales, Andy Runton

The Gigantic Robot, Tom Gauld

Little Mouse Gets Ready, Jeff Smith

Lonely Heart, Tara McPherson

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Blog comic con

back from san diego!

L1010107 L1010079L1010129I will post at length about the wonder that is San Diego Comic Con, but I just wanted to let you all know that I’m back at the ol’ drawing board.

I won’t say who, but I met a few of my heroes. Hint: none of them were wearing capes. (At the time.)

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Blog

still searching for step two

Step 1: Draw funny comics

Step 3: Profit!

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Blog comic

originality

Recently it was brought to my attention that original ideas are often not the same as commercially successful ideas. This cut me to the core. After all, I believe people love to accept new ideas. Just think how thinkers of new thoughts have been treated in the past.

I began thinking about how I could use this information to better my chances at comic strip syndication. Falling Rock is fairly original; I haven’t seen too many curmudgeonly owls or large lizards wearing baseball jerseys populating the comics section of the newspaper. What I need to do is think up a thoroughly non-original idea.

My first idea clearly has potential: Barley Clown.barley-clown1
He’s a real blockhead. He can’t ever kick a soccer ball, his basketball team never wins, and his pet chihuahua Loopy is temperamental and demanding. What could be funnier?

I’m diligently at work on my submission packet for Grapenuts, but here is the first strip just to get a taste. Hopefully it will be the next comics sensation!barley-clown2