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Six Degrees of Rejection

Right now I’m in the middle of the semi-annual self-flagellation that I call “sending out comics to syndicates.” That’s right! Every year I try my luck at the pot o’ gold, the summit of four-panel cartooning: syndication. Like your Bar Mitzvah, being syndicated means a lot of things. You get your strip in national newspapers (not the New York Times, though!), you get actual money for your work, and most importantly you get to call yourself a syndicated cartoonist at cocktail parties. I attend a bevy of cocktail parties.

I have been submitting comics since about 2001. I’ve become something of an expert on the syndicates’ rejection process. What follows is a brief outline of what I can expect over the next six months or so.

The first level of rejection is quite painless. Between one week and one month after the time I send out the packet, I’ll receive my comics back in the mail along with a xeroxed, form rejection letter. It is doubtful a human being read my comics, despite the xeroxed letter’s false promises. My guess is a trained monkey takes the comics packets out of their original envelopes, pulls a xeroxed letter from a large pile, then seals both comics and letter into my self-addressed, stamped envelope. He may even spit on my cover letter before crumpling and throwing it towards an overfilled trash can.

If I receive an answer between 1 and 3 months after submission (Level 2), I will still likely receive a form rejection letter. However, the odds are in my favor that a person has at least halfheartedly flipped through my submission. She or he may have even chuckled at one of the jokes before cramming the packet back into my self-addressed, stamped return envelope along with the xeroxed rejection letter. Although still dispiriting, this non-response is better than Level 1.

Level 3 comes 3 to 6 months after I send out my submission. It is by far the best kind of rejection I have received to date. I still get my comics returned to me with a rejection letter, but this time the letter is personalized. It is either a handwritten note on the xeroxed rejection letter or it is an entirely unique, typed response. These letters offer real advice and criticism and prove that, not only did a human being read my comics, she or he thought highly enough of them to respond in kind. These are the rejections every cartoonist – nay, every writer – needs to keep the hope alive that someday their characters will dance and sing in front of millions of bleary-eyed readers.

After syndication, of course, comes instant wealth and fame. Ask any syndicated cartoonist. That is, if you can get past their moat, security guards, and laser-guided stealth missiles.
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My Writing Process

I often find it liberating to write about writing. Instead of having to come up with original ideas, I can sit back and bask in the glory of the mind.

Today I’ll briefly tackle that cloudiest of subjects: the writing process.

My writing process is quite simple. First I make a nice cup of tea, which I sip with my eyes half closed. This really gets my brain juices flowing. Then I flip through the stacks of magazines and books I never will have time to read. There are lots of ideas in there. People have been paid to write their own ideas and I puchase those ideas. Those ideas then become my property under US Copyright Law.

After a brainstorming session or two, I hang up my pens with a great sense of accomplishment. I heave a sigh of relief and pat my belly contentedly.

Then my good friend Eric Clapton stops by and we wail on our guitars. A good jam session with “the Clap” is always enjoyable after a long day of coming up with funny comics.eric clapton

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Blog comic

Without Further Ado

I present to you…cats with umbrellas.cats_parachutes

 

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Blog comic fiction

How the Comics Section Should Look

the_arts
There’s even room for a cat on the page.

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autobiography Blog comic history

Hamlet and the Modern Comic Strip

Why do comic strips have four panels? When Charles Schulz began Peanuts, it was four panels. This made it easier to stack on the page. You could have four panels across or stack two by two. Or you could stack one by two by one. Or three by one. Like building blocks! What could be more fun than reading building blocks? Nothing.

The strange thing about four panels is, it goes against much of what modern storytelling teaches us. Most movies and TV shows are all about the three act structure. See how easily it works out: beginning, middle, end. You can tell a story in three anythings. Panels, rutabagas, sausages, onions. Three of anything makes a story. Or so they say.

Don’t be fooled into believing the three act structure evolved from plays. Many plays had four or even five acts. It’s true. Hamlet, a little-known play by Shakespeare, has five acts. For Better or For Worse, a comic strip by Lynn Johnston, has five panels. Therefore, For Better or For Worse uses the same structure as Hamlet. Really it isn’t the only thing Johnston stole from Shakespeare. The elevated dialogue, the death of all the main characters in the final panel: these elements come directly from the Bard. I’m surprised Kenneth Branagh has not adapted For Better or For Worse for the screen yet. (He’ll get there right after he does Two Gentlemen of Verona.)

To be fair, the first panel in a four panel comic is often a summary or a scene-setter. Are your characters in an old abandoned warehouse filled with toxic fumes? You need that first panel to show this. Then your characters say something witty about their dire circumstances before they perish. Are you continuing a story from the previous day? The first panel is a good way to remind readers what happened yesterday before you plunge them into today’s adventure.

Shakespeare might have been a competent cartoonist had he not slummed it with the actors. He certainly had the knack for creating new characters. Tom Batuik (Funky) proved you can kill off your character in the funny pages, so Shakespeare’s tragedies would fit right in as well. In closing, I hope to continue the grand tradition of the four act play in pictorial form with Falling Rock. Think of this: the Cliff’s Notes for a comic strip would only be a single sentence.
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autobiography Blog comic

Popeye

popeye_gun
I’ve been really digging the new Popeye book, a collection of comics that span 1928 to 1930. There is nothing like this today. Even the current Popeye comic strip has a much different style (which is fine; I’d rather see a cartoonist bring his own style to an existing comic strip than ape the previous one).

Anyway, I did a few quick sketches of favorite panels, and I thought I’d share.

The first panel is the single reason I bought the book in the first place. With characters like that, it’s no wonder Popeye was such a popular strip. The fact that he sits in his cabin (he’s on a ship) with a loaded gun, shells, and a large dagger totally lets us, as readers, know that he is one bad dude. I bet newspapers today wouldn’t allow an evil character to lustily stroke his gun. Back in the Roaring 20’s, however, the lax morals must have let that one slide.

popeye_flowersFor those of you into moustaches, Popeye (the strip, not the character) had some real good ones. The NOML would be proud.

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autobiography Blog comic

Say it ain’t so, Garfield

I suppose everyone has a story of the time their youthful ideals were crushed to the ground. Usually these ideals are crushed by some adult who is unaware of the catastrophe this causes in the life of the child. You cease to be amazed at life. The sunset no longer holds such rapture, the spring is just another season in which to drag your corporeal self through the days, your glazed eyes uncaring, your tongue lolling, your feet shuffling. You have left the wonder of childhood and entered into the jagged world of adolescence. It will take you years to regain that wonder. Some never do. For me, that slide began with a Happy Meal.

In the heady days of my youth, McDonalds was my Valhalla. I’d beg my parents to go at least once a week. It was bliss. Even better than the food, of course, was the toy in the Happy Meal. Now, for those of you thinking to yourselves, “Happy Meal toys are not for playing with. They are for collecting, like comic books, baseball cards, and license plates.” You people make me sick. How many times was I in a toy store as a six year-old, vainly searching for that last Transformer I couldn’t find ANYWHERE because jerk collectors had bought them all up? When I’m President, kids will get first crack at toys. All of us over the age of 10 will just have to wait.

Okay, I got off topic. If McDonalds was my culinary delight, then Garfield was, in my mind, the pinnacle of artistic expression. Garfield was my favorite comic strip as a kid. My first comic book purchase was a collection of Garfield strips. I was into Garfield in that way kids can be really into something. I set up a Garfield club with my cousins (we called it the Garfield Club). I read the books obsessively. I would think to myself, “What Would Garfield Do?” in a given situation. I knew Garfield like I never thought I could know another person. Was it love? It may have been, because Garfield broke my heart.

On a sunny day in Tucson my parents took me to McDonalds for my Meal. I was especially happy because this week Garfield was the theme. I was looking forward to my Garfield-related toy. As I was eating, I gazed at the Happy Meal box. It had jokes, games, and puzzles that would keep the average child rapt for about .01 seconds. However, one side of the box gave me pause. It was a maze. Garfield stood in the top left hand corner, smiling his catlike (but utterly non-catlike) smile. At the bottom right sat a steaming plate of lasagna. The instructions told me to help Garfield find the lasagna so that he could eat it, and then presumably sleep or kick Odie off the table. But there was a major problem with this maze. Can you see it, kids? Garfield would NEVER go through all that trouble for anything, even his favorite food. He may trick Odie into bringing it to him, or command Jon to go get it. He may devise a fishing rod of sorts that he can hoist over the maze walls and lift the lasagna up and into his waiting mouth. But he wouldn’t go on a “Labyrinth”-style quest just for pasta. My first thought, and keep in mind that I was still a pre-preteen, was that Garfield would most likely fall asleep in the entrance corridor of the maze.

On my way home from McDonalds, I became more curious about the obvious misstep. Jim Davis, creator of Garfield and therefore knower of all things, would never have drawn that maze. He would know better than that. It was totally out of Garfield’s character. So I wrote him a letter. I told Mr. Davis that I was a huge fan and that I was troubled other people were doing things to Garfield that Garfield would never want to do. I asked him to stop the production of these wrongful things. I hoped, at the very least, for a few sentences of explanation:

“I had no idea this was happening to Garfield! I will put a stop to it immediately.”
“The Happy Meal Garfield, the suction-cup Garfield, and the assortment of other un-Garfieldlike objects for sale are not condoned by Garfield himself, but a clone of Garfield specifically engineered to do those things Garfield has no time for. Garfield sleeps, eats, and kicks Odie off the table. All is well with the universe.”

6-8 weeks after I wrote, I received a letter from Jim Davis that was a real kick in the teeth. It was a form letter! It made no mention of my questions. It was worded in a way that was obviously targeted at someone two or three years younger than myself (I fancied myself a regular Man of the World at 10). At the bottom was Jim Davis’ familiar signature.

So not only did Mr. Davis not deign to check for obvious out-of-character displays of his beloved feline, he couldn’t even be bothered to dictate two sentences to his secretary in response to a letter from a worried fan. If there was ever a “Say it ain’t so” moment in my life, that letter was it.

I still cared for Garfield after the incident, but things had changed. If Jim Davis didn’t care about Garfield, why should I? I began noticing flaws in the comic strip. Why did Garfield’s look change so dramatically from his inception? I learned that Davis stopped drawing the strip long ago. I noticed that certain jokes were repeated too much. Garfield and I grew apart.

When it comes to licensing comic characters, it doesn’t need to be all or nothing. As long as the creator can maintain the integrity of the characters by strictly controlling the products they appear on, I have no problem. But when it gets to Garfield-levels, the character becomes nothing more than a shell, a mascot, a hypocrite. It destroys the magic the creator works so hard to conjure, and once the magic is gone, it don’t come back.
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Blog comic reviews

O Robotman, Where Art Thou?

Today I want to mention briefly the great, great modern comic strip that is Monty. I’m including today’s strip for those of you not in the habit of reading Monty.
Everything about this is good comics. The funny mouth Monty has in panel 2. The seated woman’s prattle about herself. Her husband’s skinny, skinny legs and the way he’s holding one of her shopping bags. I start to giggle before I even read a word of dialog.
monty sunday
Here’s a little little back-story on Monty. Monty was originally called Robotman. Now, Robotman was an “idea” cooked up by the suits way back in the heyday of corporate cartoons. Robotman was conceived as a cash-in for toys, books, games, and, the most lucrative market of them all: comics. This would have been in a similar vein to the Transformers. You know, a toy that has a Saturday morning cartoon. They had the concept, the licensing deals, and the character design. All they needed was a physical human hand to crank out 365 jokes per year, forever. The man they initially chose for this venture? Bill Watterson.
monty daily
Watterson, a man not known for his business acumen, turned the syndicate down. He later achieved lukewarm recognition for a short-lived comic strip about a boy with an active imagination. Jim Meddick was chosen (and accepted) the Robotman gig. And the rest is history.

Well, not very well known history. For one reason or another, Robotman failed to achieve the success for which was was conceived (for the conception of Robotman, imagine here four white men in business suits performing a pagan ritual in a skyscraper conference room. Coffee will be served). I grew up in the 80’s and kept pretty good tabs on the new cartoons of the day. You could say I was “childlike,” but you could also shorten that to say I was, in fact, a child. Robotman the marketing machine died a dismal death. Robotman the comic strip, however, kept running. Meddick probably had more creative control over the characters now that their original reason for being was wiped away. He introduced new characters, created bizarre, geek-based storylines, and eventually killed off Robotman. He didn’t literally kill the character; he just wrote him out of the strip.

Jim Meddick wrote Robotman out of Robotman.

Shortly thereafter, he was allowed by the syndicate to change the name of the strip. It should be noted that this was the strip’s third name change. First it was Robotman, then Robotman and Monty, and finally, Monty. Shed of it’s original meaning, Meddick has essentially created his own comic strip while drawing the comic strip itself. I can’t think of another comic where that has happened, exactly. Sure, new characters are born into existing comics all the time. But to morph into something entirely different while being published all along? Fantastic.

I just have to congratulate Jim Meddick on creating a great comic strip out of the shell of a mediocre one.

For more information, just check out this website. It has great information about Monty, as well as a section on Calvin and Hobbes.

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autobiography Blog comic syndication

Get Nice or Get Mean?

There is a deal among syndicated cartoonists, it seems, that no one cartoonist will slander another cartoonist’s comic strip. I doubt there is a written statement you sign when you get syndicated that says you have to be nice to Bil Keane and The Family Circus. However, there appears to be a tenuous truce among those people hard-working and lucky enough to make a living off drawing funny pictures. I was having a conversation recently when I was trying to explain this “deal.” The people I was explaining it to (my parents) thought it was ludicrous.


“Do you think people in other professions follow that code?” asked my dad. Then he laughed, a lot, to indicate the silliness of the statement.

This is true. You’d never see this among those in other entertainment industries. Fashion? Come on. Designers thrive on gossip and speculation. I happen to know that architects are a fickle bunch, as well (ask an architect what she thinks of Frank Gehry if you want an entertaining conversation). Why is it that cartoonists hold back?

Maybe cartoonists (especially the editorial cartoonist) are so used to cutting down politicians and celebrities that they’re afraid they will alienate the only people who really understand them. Turn that sharp wit on your ally and see where it gets you. Cartoonists are few in number (compared to, say, firefighters or accountants). Why engage in back-biting in a small pool? It will invariably come right back to you. Going back to the career comparisons, cartoonists are viewed as much less essential than either firefighters or accountants, so why should they make each other’s lives even harder?

Okay, I think I rationalized my point. However, it is really funny to read cartoonists bending over backward complimenting fellows who they obviously have an active distaste for. Here’s a great example: if you don’t like a comic, cite it’s popularity. “30 million Garfield books in print. Jim Davis must be doing something right.” Good compliment. You certainly dodged that bullet. This reminds me of my college English classes. If a book is considered Great, scholars will make the case that every single part of that book is infallible. You could argue these points either way: was Shakespeare anti-Semitic, or was he playing with stereotypes when he wrote The Merchant of Venice? If you listen to the scholars, Shakespeare, never having met a Jew and living in a wholly anti-Semitic world, was the latter. Had Shakespeare been John Rocker (remember him?), his remarks would have been torn down by every critic in the land.

My point is, if you don’t like a comic, even if you yourself draw a comic, you should be allowed to criticize it. Personal attacks are unnecessary (that’s what Fox News is for), but a little honest critiquing might even be helpful. Spice up the ol’ comics page. Every good artist wants to know that his work is being discussed, that it is relevant. Sliding into mediocrity may be okay for some, but it sure doesn’t help the art form in general when people keep mentioning the words “comic strips” and “retirement home” in the same sentence.

Full disclosure: this post is coming from a guy whose comic would be better if, as I was told by one newspaper editor, I worked on my drawings AND my jokes. Ouch.
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I am curious

Personally, I prefer to read my comics on paper. Call me old-fashioned: I also draw my comics on paper. I even paint the backgrounds for my website on paper, which may be a bit odd considering how they are meant to be viewed.

Anyway, my question is, given the choice, for a comic strip such as mine (a three or four panel daily, in black and white), do you prefer to read it on paper or on a screen?

I’m partly asking because I just had a friend email me an article (originally published on real paper, in a newspaper) about comics on cell phones. People subscribe to comic strips and even comic books, then they read them one panel at a time on their phone. I imagine the screen on a cell phone is a smaller than the panel size as printed in newsprint, but maybe that doesn’t matter to people.

I guess the question is partly a matter of convenience: you have a phone, but maybe you don’t subscribe to a paper, or your paper doesn’t get the comics you want. But, personally, squinting at a cell phone screen, trying to read a comic, just doesn’t seem like my idea of a good time. Plus if I’m reading it on a bus, I’ll get car-sick (bus-sick).

Enough from me. What do you think? (imagine me pointing a long finger at you.)