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.

Blog syndication

primitive falling rock

Though Welcome to Falling Rock National Park began running in papers and on the web in September 2006, I made my first attempt at the concept many months earlier.  When I was still drawing The Family Monster, I made my first attempt to draw Falling Rock.  What follows is the complete packet I sent to the syndicates.

It is an interesting time capsule.  Like the posts on my middle school, high school, and college comic strips, you can read this as yet another stepping stone.  I find it funny that, when I rediscovered this packet, I barely remembered drawing it.  Ernesto especially looks very strange.

Longtime readers will no doubt recognize some of the jokes; I transferred some of my favorite Family Monster jokes to the Falling Rock world.  Knowing these characters now, I realize that was a weird thing to do.  They’d never say some of the stuff I have them saying.  Ah well.  It’s so difficult starting a comic strip from scratch.  I figured I could at least use some previous writing to get myself going.  I don’t blame myself.  I wouldn’t go back in time and punch past me in the face.

Here we go:

 I still want to make that line about humans’ eventual extinction into a t-shirt.

 Carver would never drink coffee and listen to NPR.  This joke was lifted from The Family Monster.  I still like the joke, but I used it on the wrong character.
 This is an interesting use of time, with all the tiny panels.  It was inspired by Matt Groening’s Life in Hell comic strip.  He would sometimes use dozens of tiny panels.  Part of what made his tiny panel drawings so funny was the bug eyes on his characters: the eyes stayed large even when he drew the character small.
 I said that about my brother once.  I don’t know why I had Carver leaning on a saguaro.  That would hurt.

 I like the timing on the “can’t…quite…put my finger on it.”  That could never work in a medium other than comics.  I find it difficult to write that kind of last minute reveal joke.  When I read those comics I know something is coming because, well, why is that character in close-up for three panels?  I usually skip to the last panel, then read the whole strip.  That kind of ruins the joke.
 I should reintroduce some prairie dogs into Falling Rock.  These guys look too much like aliens, though.  Need to draw some better ‘dogs.

 The apple joke was from The Family Monster, but I think it works here.  Carver would try to psyche Ernesto out.

It seems to me that movies are the center of our cultural life.  They have supplanted music and books.  Not that the latter two are irrelevant; it’s just that most movies (and, therefore, actors) are discussed more than albums or novels.  Look at Harry Potter: when it got popular enough, it seemed necessary to turn it into a series of movies.

Berkeley Breathed used to xerox photos into Bloom County, so I thought I’d try.  It didn’t work for me, so I never did it again.

Rereading these, I am curious how much Falling Rock will look in the future.  It has already changed so much. 

Blog comic syndication

one less syndicate

Read the news last week that United Media, a syndicate that once managed Peanuts and Dilbert, will turn over their comic strip properties to Universal uclick.  For those of you keeping score, we’re down to three viable syndicates:

Universal uclick (in my limited experience, the most active syndicate)

King Features (once a fine syndicate, but they haven’t done much in the last decade)

Washington Post Writers Group (only syndicates a handful of comics; the upside is most of them are good)

The other “syndicates” (I use that term loosely as they rarely launch new features) are Tribune Media and Creators.

Comic strips continue to be profitable and, most importantly, read.  It’s been clear for some time that newspapers don’t want to run comics.  Maybe they should cut the cord and see what happens (hint: final nail in the coffin).  The internet is becoming an increasing revenue source.  Many un-syndicated cartoonists (hint) are either solely web-based or they use their website to increase their audience.

I’ve always liked to read comics on paper.  Call me Old Timer.  That’s why I self-publish books.  Anybody can go on my website and read, for free, the entire run of Falling Rock.  I haven’t heard from many people who actually do that.  I do hear from the people who read my books.  Maybe we’re all Old Timers.

Are books the future of comic strips?  I would be more than happy with that outcome.  Universal syndicate is essentially the same company as Andrews McMeel, a book publisher.  They publish not only their own comic strip properties but those of their until-now rival United Media.  Universal could be a web and book syndicate.  It seems as if they’re heading that way.  Newspapers are cutting themselves out of the loop.

Why are newspapers so stupid?  Ask David Simon; after he was fired from the Baltimore Sun, he went on to write The Wire.  But that’s a topic for another post.

Is this good news or bad news?  I am uncertain.  Universal is certainly the most forward-thinking comic syndicate out there.  I’m glad United Media’s cartoonists have a place to go where they will be treated with respect.  On the other hand, that’s one less submission I can send out this year in the hopes of finally getting syndicated.  On the first hand again, Universal has seemed like my best shot for a couple years now.  There are so many unknowns.

If you’re reading this post, it means I’m doing something right, and that’s really the most important thing.  Thank you.  Now let’s get back to the funny stuff.


ranking the comics

Most newspaper editors keep “legacy” strips (those comic strips that have outlived their creators) based on a negative-feedback system. That is, they may try to pull, say, Blondie, but quickly recapitulate when a few irate readers write or call to complain. They don’t get a lot of positive feedback (eg “You should run Cul de Sac because it’s actually funny“). There must be a better way to find out which comics are actually being read in the newspapers.

The Nielson Ratings, although somewhat obtuse, seem to work for television networks. They can judge how successful a show is by its number of viewers. Box office sales determine the success of a movie. Bookstores literally count the number of books sold, which contributes to bestseller lists.

The popularity of comics is a harder commodity to tabulate. You can’t judge how many people flip to that section of the newspaper, let alone which comics they peruse.

One good indicator of a comic strip’s popularity is how well it sells when collected into book form. Calvin and Hobbes books were still selling very well when I worked at a bookstore, and that was about seven years after Watterson decided to retire from the biz. I never saw a Blondie book collection, although the local paper did run it. That isn’t the only comic not to be regularly collected. Check the newspaper, then check your local bookstore or Amazon. Some comics really do disappear after they run in the paper.

Another indicator might be how often that comic is viewed online. People who don’t believe computers are the Great Satan like to read comics on the internet. I would like to ask the syndicates which comics receive the highest hit counts per day. Instead of hiding this information, syndicates should be sending it to every news organization. What comic is #1 online? Just like people are interested in the top-grossing movie of the week, we would love to follow the success of our favorite comic strip characters.

Knowing which comics are the most popular would only increase people’s interest overall. How often do comics get mentioned in mainstream media when they’re not being made into a movie or TV show? Talking about comics for the sake of comics would get people more interested in the art form itself. It would also turn the conversation from the dreadful “all comics are stale and out-of-touch” to a more positive tone.

So what do you say, syndicates? Is there a way to tabulate the most widely-read comics of today?


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.
Blog comic

Why not?

I would love to see a great adventure comic strip in the newspaper. I think it would be fun to do one myself. However, I don’t think it can happen unless a couple of fundamental things change in newspapers. I don’t think either of these will happen, but here’s my scenario anyway.
First, an adventure strip needs more space than an average joke-based comic. Part of the fun of reading an adventure comic, like Tintin, is the art. Your characters can be anywhere. It’s like a James Bond movie without the crappy song at the beginning (except, of course, Live and Let Die). A few comic strips rely so heavily on dialogue that it literally reduces the characters to tiny floating heads in the corner of the panel. My advice is, run comics in different sizes. They already do this on Sundays, why not the rest of the week as well? I believe Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine) made this argument in his comic: to prove his point, he reduced the final panel down to a fraction of its original size. It didn’t take anything away from the joke (although, I wouldn’t reduce the entire comic to that tiny scale: you’d need a magnifying glass to read the funnies. I’d say that reducing by half would still allow legibility while making more room for my AWESOME ADVENTURE STRIP).
The second roadblock to SUPER FUN ADVENTURE is how comics are read. For an adventure to be successful, you need it to be accessible for new readers. I can’t stand discovering someone’s web comic only to search back months and years in their archive to figure out what’s going on, who these characters are, and why I should care. People don’t read comics on a daily basis, and I’ve been told you have to assume a new person will be reading every strip you draw. That’s tricky for ongoing stories, to say the least. My solutions follow.
Make each adventure short. Two weeks, maybe three at most. Don’t introduce a whole lot of new characters. Have a recurring cast. Make something happen every day. It doesn’t have to be a major plot point, but each strip should have a mini-story. Make it well drawn. That sounds obvious, but I think if the drawing style catches the eye, people will linger for the extra couple of seconds to read the strip. Then they may read the next day’s installment. At the end of a storyline, publish it either online or as a pamphlet. If these sell well enough, you can publish a big book every couple of years. That way, you’ve got easy access to recent events in the story without having to go clicking around online to figure out why the helicopter turned out to be flown by the arch-nemesis, and why the mountain was really a secret fortress.
Sure, there are restrictions. The cartoonist can’t just follow a story endlessly, and must find a way to link daily episodes to the larger picture. But I think the restrictions could prove useful. It won’t allow self-indulgent wallowing. It will also promote forward momentum in the comic. It will be exciting to read! because even the cartoonist may not know how it will end.
So that’s my modest proposal. Who wants in?