The Business and Art of the Comic Strip
Kellett, Dave, Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Comic-strip cartoonists are often asked why we don't compete more often in professional body-building contests.
It is easy to see why, just by looking at us. Being the tall, well-tanned, gigantically muscular raconteurs that we are, it is understandable why folks assume that our looks are the central focus of our lives. But we are so much more than that--so much more than our stunningly attractive visages would have you believe.
Oh, who am I kidding? The sad truth is, we comic-strip cartoonists are a weird, solitary bunch. Wonderfully warm and effusive in person, true, but weird and solitary nonetheless. This phenomenon is probably the result of spending too much time alone in a room, hunched over a drafting table in a never-ending race against deadlines. Or perhaps it's the lingering result of our adolescent shyness--a shyness that, frustratingly, kept us from asking anyone out on a date until, oh, let's say, our thirty-second birthday.
Hence, the doodling. Lots and lots of time for doodling.
I caught the cartoon bug early and started creating comic strips almost as soon as I could hold a pencil. Comics, especially Sunday color comic strips, have a magical appeal for children, and I was no exception. My earliest memories are of reading the Sunday funnies, belly-flopped on my grandmother's hardwood floor, with my chin in my hand and a gigantic smile on my face. They absolutely captivated me. And with good reason: the way a cartoon simplifies and exaggerates the world makes sense to a child's mind. It is an extension of the way the human brain tries to make sense of the surrounding world. Of course, as a kid, I didn't care about any of that. Comics made me laugh.
My own early cartoons were met with some rave critical reviews. The lunch lady called them "bold, innovative, world-changing cartoons from a boy with his finger up his nose." Crudely drawn and clearly cribbed from tracings of Garfield, they were bad in almost every respect. But having started down the path of a cartoonist, it was a passion I could never seem to shake. There is something addictive about drawing cartoons. Something in the way the pen feels against the paper. Something about the minimalism of the art form, of creating characters slowly, over years, in fifteen-second installments. Something about making people--all sorts of people--laugh. It really is a magical art form.
It wasn't until my college days that my cartooning began to find its stride. When I began my college comic strip, I had the artistic prowess of a three-year-old, with clumsy dialogue and one-dimensional characters thrown in for good measure. But you can truly learn by doing, and by the end of my college years, the grind of daily deadlines and the in-your-face campus feedback that I received had honed my cartooning skills to a point at which the strip became surprisingly popular. In fact, by my senior year I had so many requests for a book collection of my work that I ended up self-publishing a collection of my college strips. Happily, the book sold out three printings and ended up paying for grad school. It was my first wonderful taste of art as commerce, and I knew without a doubt that I wanted to live the rest of my life working as a cartoonist.
As I ventured out into the world though, I would come to find out that the professional world of cartooning is not quite so welcoming as I had hoped.
THE BUSINESS OF THE COMIC STRIP
For all the joy that comics bring both to their creators and to readers, the comic-strip business is incredibly competitive. The reasons for this are twofold: limited space in newspapers and a glacially slow turnover rate of strips on the comics page. In terms of space, we are experiencing the long, slow decline of the American newspaper market. Both the number of newspapers and the space that newspapers can offer to comic strips have greatly diminished in the last two decades. …