ron ruelle

This article appeared in Metro Pulse in Knoxville, TN and on Metro Pulse Online April 20, 2000. Hopefully they won't get mad at me for reprinting it here...

ron ruelle

Ron Ruelle: Escaping The Zü
Knoxville has been home to a surprising number
of professional cartoonists

by Coury Turczyn

It sounded like a cartoonist's dream come true at the time, but for Ron Ruelle getting syndicated early in his career actually put a kink in his long-term comic strip prospects.

In cartooning terms, he was practically on the fast track to success. Raised in nearby Cookeville, he attended UT in the late '80s where he drew the popular Stoner's Aquarium (which was mostly about "a bunch of drunk, horny college students") for three and half years for the Beacon. After graduation in 1988, he decided to attend grad school in Atlanta before figuring out that ad design really wasn't what he wanted to do. He landed a gig in 1990 doing a strip called Stoopid Zu for the News-Sentinel's short-lived Detours on the Street; he took those strips, submitted them to the syndicates, and got several positive responses. While one told him he needed more development, another one (which will remain nameless for contractual reasons) offered him a contract - the holy grail of every aspiring cartoonist.

ron ruelle"I kind of had a gut feeling not to take it, but nobody else was offering me one so I did - and it turned out to be a disaster, unfortunately."

The strip, which was about a group of talking zoo animals that satirized society, was renamed At the Zü ("I hated the new name from the get-go.") and was launched in 1995 with little fanfare. "It launched at about the same time as Calvin and Hobbes was leaving the papers, so there were 2,400 newspapers up for grabs here and we started out with four - a less than overwhelming launch," Ruelle says. "It got into about 30 papers at one point and started to actually pay for its time, but by then sales had stopped and papers would cancel it, and the syndicate had the choice of either fighting for that particular strip or saying 'Well, if you don't like this one, how about this other one that we run?' They stand to profit the same amount. And it turns out that that's sort of the way some companies do it."

At the Zülasted about three years before winding down to being in just a few newspapers; Ruelle conferred with his lawyer and executed the escape clause in his contract. In hindsight, he admits that the editor who had told him he wasn't quite ready was probably right - the early strips weren't his best work and the cartoon didn't really hit its stride until about six months after its launch. But by then it was too late.

"It was frustrating... I felt like the strip had really gotten to be good at that point," he says. "The humor had peaked, the art style had improved dramatically, I felt like I was really onto something. But I felt like the editors had moved on to something else at that point ...I basically missed my opportunity. I would've been better off rejecting the contract offer and waiting a couple of years, even, before signing something. Because once you have the stench of failure attached to a particular comic strip, the odds are nobody's ever going to pick it up again. You don't get a lot of second chances."

Ruelle then turned to the Web, and continued doing the strip online as Darwin & Co. Meanwhile, now living in Boulder, Col., he made his living as a freelance designer and illustrator. He started a new, more mature strip called Food, Shelter, Cable that's geared more for weekly papers. At 34, he finds the Internet to be a liberating medium that's given him a lot more reader feedback than his newspaper strip. Still, he'll probably take another shot at the syndicates some day - but he'll also be submitting cartoons to periodicals like the New Yorker and developing graphic novels for publishers. After 15 years of submitting 'toons, he found that his childhood dream of becoming a daily strip artist needed expanding.

"The way I look at it is, this isn't about giving up, it's about getting on," Ruelle says. "I still want to be a cartoonist ... I don't necessarily have to be the cartoonist who draws this one particular thing. Or I don't have to be the cartoonist who works in this one particular corner of the cartoon world.

"That's one of the things I did realize ... while I don't have the passion for drawing this particular strip anymore, I still want to do this. I don't know what else I could do with my life, really. It's what I'm best suited for."

April 20, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 16
© 2000 Metro Pulse
LLC. No part of Metro Pulse Online may be reproduced without written permission, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. Metro Pulse Online is best viewed with some sort of web browser, although there is some anecdotal evidence that a toaster oven works okay.

(Or f
or more insight on how to be a cartoonist, see my list of free advice... )


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