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Good Advice Is Worth What You Pay For It...

A number of folks have asked for advice on becoming a cartoonist, so here are some observations. I don't exactly have the keys to the kingdom yet, so take this with a salt lick...

A third grade teacher wrote on my report card once, "Ron needs to spend more time on math and less time drawing cartoons." You know where she is now? Dead. I don't think there is a correlation, but it's worth noting.

People often tell me "I want to be a cartoonist." If that's the case, simply drawing makes you one. What they really mean is "I want to be a PUBLISHED cartoonist." That takes a heck of a lot more work and discipline. It's a long haul, but ask yourself: "Is there something else I'd rather be doing?" If so, do it. If not, keep chasing it.

I drew a syndicated daily strip for almost three years and ended up with the conclusion that with easy access to information, (i.e., the internet) and A LOT OF HARD WORK, a cartoonist can succeed and flourish and ultimately be better off without a syndicate. That is the route I am currently trying to take. Since I haven't made it there yet, I should refrain from leading others down this road just yet.

Syndicates used to have a monopoly on three things: information on the comics marketplace; the finances to promote and distribute promotional materials and finished goods; and marketing savvy. With the internet, you can gather up the addresses and contact info for just about every paper in the world. And with email, you have the ability to distrubute your work at almost no cost. So that leaves the marketing savvy. If you can bust your butt and work hard at it, you can do that yourself too.

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Some observations on syndication if you are still interested...

The major syndicates get over 5,000 submissions a year, and only sign 1 or 2 of those. I started sending my work to the syndicates in 1987, when I was in college, and it took 7 years to finally get an offer. In the meantime, I got lots of feedback from each syndicate, so it seemed worth the pursuit.

The first step in becoming a cartoonist is to create something. You'd be amazed how many people never reach that step. This holds true for cartoonists, writers, musicians and mimes. After that, you want to send your work either to the local paper, who may want to have a cartoonist on staff, or send it to the syndicates. There is an annual book called "The Artists Market" which contains addresses and submission guidelines for quite a number of syndicates and other outlets. In general, they want to see about 2 weeks of material, usually without any sort of character sheet, because they want to see if they can get the concept just by reading a few strips. They are looking for funny writing, good clean artwork, and an original concept.

Most of the time, they don't have time for personal responses, so don't take it too hard if you get a form letter rejection. I have a large stack of these. But any feedback you get, even along the lines of "Never darken my in basket with your tripe again, or I will get a restraining order" means you at least broke through the clutter. This is a good sign.

There are several big syndicates (King, United, Universal, Tribune, and Washington Post), all of whom have their strong points and drawbacks. There are many smaller syndicates, but they can be a risk since you may get stuck with someone who doesn't meet your needs, and its hard to get out if you have a signed contract. This is not to say that you should ignore them, but they need to be investigated a bit more before signing on with one of them. If you should be lucky enough to get a contract offer from a syndicate, have a lawyer help you through it. I cannot tell you how important this is. You must make sure you understand everything that is expected of you, and it's a lot.

Once you have signed on with one, congratulations. That and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee. Cartoonists are paid by commission on the number of papers that buy the strip. The more papers you are in, the more you get. The artist and the syndicate split profits 50/50. There is usually no salary involved, aside from maybe a small signing bonus that a couple companies offer (a couple thousand dollars at most), so at first you are doing a lot of work for little or no money. In my first 3 months out there, I earned a total of $99. But with extra sales, that money should pick up quickly.

The terms of a contract are varied from one company to the next. Generally, they want to sign you for 10 years or so, with conditions to automatically extend that time (such as if they get it into a certain number of papers), they get exclusive rights to your work, and all profits and costs are split 50/50 (though beware of vaguely worded "production costs" on their side. Here you can really get taken to the cleaners if you aren't careful). Every point is negotiable, but the 50/50 is pretty standard.

Another distressing factor in newspaper syndication is that there is less competition in the newspaper market, and comics budgets are being slashed at papers everywhere. When I was a kid in Cookeville, Tennessee, we had competing daily papers in a town of about 20,000. Newspapers used comic strips as one way to differentiate themselves from their competition. In the past couple of decades, papers merged, went out of business or formed joint operating agreements, signaling the end of the era of competing dailies in all but the largest markets. Now, even a city as large as Denver has no daily competition. And as a result, comics sections have shrunk and shrunk.

For more on the ups and down of syndication, see the interview I did a few years back...

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Suggested (no, MANDATORY) Reading:

The PreHistory of The Far Side by Gary Larson
(Lots of thoughts and inside stuff from a cartoon genius)

The Calvin & Hobbes 10th Anniversary Book by Bill Watterson
(
Especially the Chapter about syndication)

Understanding Comics
Reinventing Comics
Making Comics
by Scott McCloud
(Three reeeeally deep study on the psychology of comics. More than you'll ever want to think about/ The first book is the best of the three.)

Cartooning the Head and Figure by Jack Hamm
(Old as dirt, but loads of good tips)

Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner
(The master of graphic story telling)

How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way by Stan Lee and John Buscema
(Lots of ideas that apply no matter what you draw)

100 Years of Newspaper Comics by Maurice Horn
(The complete history of this field up to 1996. Breathe it in...)

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
(Tips and techniques for writers, but still good advice)

Completely Mad by Maria Reidelbach
(The authorized history of the number 1 Ecch magazine)

Krazy Kat: The Art of George Herriman by Patrick McDonnell
(This is where we came from)

The Naked Cartoonist by Bob Mankoff
(Tips and inspiration from the New Yorker's cartoon editor. Read the New Yorker while you're at it...)

Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
(Just a really great graphic novel with beautiful character development. Better than the movie, which was pretty darn good.)

Stoner's Aquarium by Ron Ruelle
(Citizen Kane of comic compilations, by yours truly... Oh, come on, just buy a copy already!)

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Some observations on art...

Somewhere between the ultra crude scribble of his Yale days and his ultra slick inked-by-an-assistant present, Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" looked just perfect to me. If you've never seen his Yale comics, by the way, find a copy of them. They tell a lot.

Most young cartoonists get comfortable drawing only the side view, only the front view or only the 3/4 view of a character. (I'm guilty of the 3/4 view myself). Worse yet, they get comfortable working in a particular size. Work on mixing it up a bit.

Change perspectives. Old "Doonesbury" cartoons were drawn with the same basic art 4 panels in a row. Trudeau got so bored with this, he started playing games like drawing beer and chips sitting on a table for 3 panels and a martini and pretzels in the 4th. This was in the mid 80's when I was in college, so I started doing it as well. Anyway, now each panel of Doonesbury seems to have a different perspective altogether. Take a look at my stuff and you'll see I have started doing that as well. A close up of one character, a long silhouette the next, a mid range shot, then an overhead shot, etc. Bonus fact: It's easier to mix it up than to draw the same thing 4 times. Berke Breathed used to photocopy his first panel and change the details. Cheater!

Action makes a strip look real. Take a look at one of the Calvin and Hobbes sledding cartoons. They are having a philosophical discussion that could be perfectly suited to just standing there. But instead they are careening towards certain doom as they discuss this stuff. Lesson: The action does not have to be crucial to the joke, it just helps bring things to life. And in Calvin's case, the action turns out to be a subtle morality play adding irony and depth to the words. God, Watterson was good! (By the way, he lifted that technique from "Skippy" by Percy Crosby, but still great.)

I once did a cartoon where a human and a penguin turned into Steve Dallas and Opus from Berke Breathed's wonderful "Bloom County" in one panel. And in copying Mr. Breathed's work, I learned something. While aping his style, I drew a grassy horizon in the background. I had never done this before, but it made that one panel spring to life. Now I do it all the time. It adds depth. It doesn't take much background detail, just a little. Look at Bill Amend's "Foxtrot" when there is a crowd in the background. He draws stick figures with round heads. It's weird if you analyze it, but at first glance, it works. God is in the details, and the gods of cartooning know how to make you think you see detail.

Consult Jack Hamm's "Cartooning the Head and Figure" and "Comics and Sequential Art" by Will Eisner and "How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way" by Stan Lee and John Buscema. All of these have great tips for bringing it to life.

Above all, have fun. Are you just grinding it out or crafting a piece of art? I often felt like a slave working under contract, because they didn't seem to care, and it was really hard to give my best effort. I felt like I did, but it was a struggle. Now that I am no longer under their thumbs, I feel free to create and explore. I'm basically back to square one plus several years of experience.

As far as art supplies, do what I did. Take strips that you like the appearance of and enlarge them to 200% (this is about the size most cartoonists work in) to study them. Take this stuff to an art supply store and explore different combinations of pen and paper. I use a certain combination because I like the way the pen bites the paper (trade secret, so don't ask!). It's a personal thing and one that can make your work unique.

By the way, the cartoons on this page are from 1992 or so, back before I used a computer to do shading and such. Learn how to do cross-hatching. It's a forgotten art in itself.

The best advice I can offer someone is to attend a university with a daily paper and draw a strip for them. I did this for 3-1/2 years at the University of Tennessee. It was crudely drawn, fairly obnoxious, sometimes offensive, not syndicatable, and frequently hilarious. You learn to deal with deadlines, hate mail, and seeing your name in print. It is the best experience you can get and loads of fun. As far as classes, any art classes you can take will help, as will creative writing classes. I majored in Advertising but took a lot of courses in Journalism and worked at the paper 5 days a week.

Good luck!

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