Sometime in 1990, I was seized by the idea of becoming a syndicated cartoonist. Inspired by Gary Larsen’s off-beat but intellectual comic, The Far Side, I launched into the wacky world of comics. I carried a tape recorder with me everywhere to log any zany ideas that came into my head. By the end of the year, I had enough material to start drawing single panels for a new cartoon, The Chronic Comic. I had some experience with cartoons from my work on the seven caricature maps created in the eighties but I quickly discovered how challenging it was to develop an original style worthy of publication. By late 1990, I produced about 80 panels that I thought, were worthy of submission to national syndicates. While some of the gags were genuinely funny, the artwork was rough, even by the funny page’s standards.
Four examples from the first incarnation of “The Chronic Comic”.
Not only was my concept unoriginal, but with the average syndicate receiving over 3000 submissions a year, this was a typical response. Strangely, just having my stuff reviewed gave me a sense of accomplishment. Although I wasn’t selected , I felt pride in having come this far. At the time, King Features Syndicate was inundated by Far Side wannabes and in response, created a showcase called The New Breed. They invited me to send in more samples and two of my cartoons were chosen and seen across the nation.
By May of 1991, I relocated to Iowa from the the San Francisco bay area and, encouraged by my small success, arranged to meet with Brian Duffy, the Des Moines Register’s in-house editorial cartoonist for a professional opinion of my material. He was gracious but not impressed with my “amateurish” artwork and his frank criticism hit hard. On my way home, still in shock, I decided nobody would ever say that about my work again. Ever.
The “New” Style.
The new “Salmon Run” shows dramatic improvement in technique and style.
I was inspired by the work of editorial cartoonists and in particular, was quite impressed with Jeff McNally of The Chicago Tribune. Nothing, however, compared to the work of Don Wright, of The Palm Beach Post. Everything about his work, from the wonderfully exaggerated characters, to the perfectly executed cross-hatching and brilliant use of negative space resonated with me. Even his liberal politics and sharp wit were an exact match my own views. I was so in love with his style that I basically lifted it. Screw originality: his work was genius.
It doesn’t take a detective to see the obvious similarities in my work to Don Wright’s style.
An example of my newly adopted style: a Don Wright love fest with a bit of Tom Toles‘ after thought in the lower left.
Within a month I transformed from the “amateurish” to the “new” style and it paid off. Three months later, “The Chronic Comic” was running a the local publication called, “City View” and my editorial cartoons were regularly featured in “The Des Moines Business Record”. By 1992, six more Iowa based newspapers were added to my self-syndication list. Soon, I joined the Association Of Editorial Cartoonists and my work was featured in “The Best Editorial Cartoons of The Year” three years running. Of course, the goal would have been to land a salaried job at a major newspaper but the ink was on the wall; the business of editorial cartooning was in decline. With shrinking readership, the full-time position of cartoonist was no longer justified and most mid-level papers replaced their artists with syndicated cartoons. When I penned my last editorial cartoon in 1994, over 200 of my creations had been published but for all the hard work, I earned less than $5000.
Seeing my work in papers was somewhat satisfying but the dismal income led me to start thinking another path to make it in the cartoon business. In July 1992 an idea struck like a lightning bolt.
Planets was clearly influenced the great Bill Waterson’s strip Calvin and Hobbs. Knowing this, I tried to make my strip as original as possible. Still, the past is hard to shake because all artists forever carry the DNA of their idols.
My story was set around a lost-in-space air-force test pilot, Trans Terraman, who, in this early phase, was to have a sidekick, appropriately named, Brainchild.
Some of the many character sketches for Trans Terraman and the first occurrences of Brainchild.
Scores of attempts were made to refine Trans’ features which ended up looking conspicuously similar to the the artist. His spacecraft went through numerous designs changes as well until the sleek final design was captured.
Early and final version of the spacecraft.
Terraman would visit planets on his journeys and they would have to be populated by colorful characters. The possibilities were endless and this assured a deep well of source material for what I envisioned would be a long career with this strip.
The characters above were never developed beyond these initial sketches but they most likely would have been used later. The same was true for Brainchild.
Three characters did make the cut for the six weeks of material needed to sell the idea: an omnipotent poly morph, a sexy cross between a female superhero and a gardener, and a manic soul who’s head had evolved into a TV from over-watching.
Top: Growlsqueak, who can almost always change into any creature. Middle: Queen Cultivina, a darling gardener of giant produce who packs heat and is leader of her botanical army and finally, Videohead.
The sketch that would become the moniker for the full-color Sunday panels.
The process of creating a finished strip is quite laborious. First the story for each daily panel had to be written and then a sketch was refined until a good trace was made. Finally, a transparent but durable vellum was laid over the sketch and the inking process began. Each daily panel took approximately eight hours. Working in my spare time between other projects, It took seven months to develop and draw the initial six-week sample .
The final sketch and inked vellum for a single daily panel.
By January 1993, I was ready to send my material out to the world but I first attempted to get the Des Moines Register to run the strip as a way to gain a foothold. This, It seemed, was more likely than trying to be chosen from the thousands of submissions received by the national syndicates. In early February, Diane Graham of The Des Moines Register agreed to look at the strip. By coincidence, Wiley Miller, who was the former editorial cartoonist for the San Francisco Examiner and creator of the nationally syndicated strip Non Sequitur, had also relocated to Iowa. He was kind enough to meet with me and critique the strip. He felt my strip could use more edge but offered to help me get to the syndicates.
Trans Terraman burns up in re-entry.
My first wife, Laurie and I had come to Iowa with the agreement that for a period of two years she could complete her science research while I attempted to make a living as a full time artist. Although I was making great strides artistically, I was always broke. Then came the rejection from Diane Graham of The Des Moines Register who said my work was “some of the best artwork that had ever crossed her desk” but it just wasn’t funny enough. I was crushed. The pain of rejection and the pressure to find a source of income overwhelmed my spirit. Exhausted from the development, I shelved the project. Ultimately, if I had continued with Planets, it probably would have improved – it’s hard in the expository phase of a story when the characters have to be introduced and the scene set. If I had more time, and as folks got to know the players, I might have found my groove, but my time had run out. Besides, things were shifting in my life and a new dream was growing: Hollywood. Just three months later, in a manic 8-day burst of creativity, I wrote my first screenplay.
I continued with my editorial cartoons until April 13th, 1994, exactly ten years from the day I left my job in Silicon Valley to pursue a career in art.
The final output: hundreds of inked originals and a stack of about a thousand sketches.