Portrait of the Cartoonist

Like most cartoonists, I started young, penning my first comic strip, "Orville," in the first grade. It featured the eponymous character and his dog Salty. None of the originals remain, and this is as much of a blessing as a curse, since I can remember it being brilliantly witty rather than what it probably was — a bunch of pointless drawings of the characters with their names emblazoned inflatedly above their heads, and that's it. Somewhere around 3rd grade there was a cartoon about another funny-named kid and his horse, and in junior high I did a whole folder full of gag panels, which got lost when some other kids and I tried vainly to start a neighborhood newspaper. Due to a falling out, I never got my folder back from the guy who was to be our publisher (i. e., whose dad had a copier at work).

The earliest cartoons I still have copies of, then, date back only to mid-high school, thirty-plus years ago. In my junior year, I saw my first cartoon published. Naturally, it was in our school paper, The Spectrum. I don't think I was consciously planning on being a cartoonist at the time. But, then again, I wasn't thinking of being anything else. When I was picking a college, I visited Notre Dame. It was there, on a tour of the campus, that our guide blithely mentioned that the school had an entirely student-run, daily newspaper, The Observer. My decision was made, right there on the spot, and I could lead you to that very spot if you're so inclined. I told my parents that it was because I could get to work on a wind tunnel as an undergrad, whereas at Michigan I would have to wait until grad school. My official major was Aerospace Engineering, but, truth be told, I was an undeclared cartooning major. I started out with a strip about campus life, but my then rival and later good friend, Michael Molinelli, was doing a much better job of it. So I did what I do best: something different. It turned out to be a gag panel called "Lobotomy." It was very controversial, and I think not a year passed when a bloc of editors didn't lobby to have me thrown off the paper. Sour grapes, maybe? After all, none of those editors was ever given a full page to do with as they please. About twice a year, I was. One was my Christmas page, the other was usually my "Nuclear Holocaust Page," a collection of grisly themed cartoons. I've grown out of that, thankfully.

When I got out of school, I worked as an aerospace engineer designing cruise missiles (speaking of nuclear holocausts), but I quickly sought out cartooning work, and ended up moonlighting a little during my year in San Diego. I stayed with engineering for that long, just to prove to myself that I could cut it. Then I took the first boat out of there. It was a copywriter's job at an ad agency in Detroit, the agency that launched another copywriter-turned-cartoonist, Cathy Guisewite. Though I had no advertising portfolio, I got the job on the strength of my cartoons and figured it was my stepping stone to a career in silly pictures. Until advertising sucked me in and I hardly lifted a cartooning pen for nearly a decade. I managed to win a Clio and a bunch of other awards for my efforts. Other than that, it was dark times for the soul.

Finally I left the ad world — it was that or self-destruct — for voiceover. I had been moonlighting in nightclubs doing comedy that wasn't stand-up and wasn't improv. It was, well, to strike a theme, different. A buddy of mine from high school, Jim (these days known as James Finn Garner, the best-selling author of the Politically Correct Bedtime Stories series), and I started out together on a lark — a dare, actually — performing as jazzpoetry...TRUTH! Performance Art Company. Tights, little dark glasses, slicked back hair. And meat. Raw meat. We ran around the stage spewing non sequiturs and bombastic nonsense, all in the name of Art. Bernie Sahlins, one of the founders of Chicago's famed Second City, once dubbed it the funniest thing he had ever seen done in improv. Meanwhile, one newspaper reviewer dubbed it "out and out painful in its sheer stupidity." We were proud of both remarks.

From there, perhaps out of a desire to appear on stage in proper trousers, we moved on to the Waveland Radio Playhouse. We performed original spoofs of old radio adventure genre shows, beginning with "Rip Whittingly, Fashion Designer of the Serengheti." We collected glowing reviews from the local press, Chicago Tribune, Reader, and Sun-Times, and we played long runs at the Roxy, the Elbo Room, Boombala and other now-defunct comedy rooms; and we landed a regular feature on WBEZ-FM, the local NPR outlet. Then we branched out into industrial shows, our favorite being at a national convention of Batesville Casket salesmen, until we retired the act in 1992 after earning literally hundreds of dollars.

Then came Theatre of the Bizarre, a three-and-a-half year adventure to the very fringes of comedy. It ran weekly in the richly atmospheric rathskellar of the Elbo Room in Chicago. It was an outgrowth of an earlier attempt at the concept, The Serious Art Comedy Show, and launched several careers. My buddy Jim penned a two-minute, throw-away schtick, to serve as filler between acts, which the barmaid suggested he expand into a book. He did. 30 rejections later, he hit number 1 on the NY Times list. Two decidedly outre comics, Matt Walsh and Matt Besser, saw what the other was doing and decided to team up. They went on to found the Comedy Central hit, "Upright Citizens Brigade." I, however, did not become famous through my various bits, not as the tortured torch singer, the inept acrobat, an all-growed-up version of Highlights Magazine's Goofus and Gallant, or the dozen or so other experimental oddities.

There were other spin-off shows, such as The Best of Blue Collar Art, in which I played Roy Turdych, workingman poet of the people (i.e., limericist); and I actually took a stab at reading my serious poetry — sonnets, no less! — in a revue or two elsewhere. Bad idea. They're best left to the page. Same with the limericks.

Meanwhile, I managed to subsidize my moonlight experiments by working as a voiceover. The work was demanding of my schedule, but not of my time. I found long stretches of time between auditions. In that silence, I was once again able to hear my art muses. I started out with a children's book idea, then took to painting seriously. Watercolors, then oils. I was sketching and doing fine art drawings. The only cartooning I was doing was for self-promotional ads for my voiceover work. The ads were wildly popular and were a watershed for the trade magazine that ran them, since everyone else jumped on the band wagon, thus boosting the rag's ad revenues. I made a couple of half-hearted submissions to The New Yorker, but nothing really came of it, mostly because I wasn't really committed to the work yet, and it showed.

Jim was going strong with his books, and I helped him out with writing gags for a couple of calendars that were meant to cash in on the books' success. Writing all those gags made me think that it was time I came up with that comic strip idea that I always knew would someday come to me. One day soon, it did. I simply woke up with it. I started making sketches, developing characters. Then I stood back and looked at it. It reeked. BUT!... a couple months later, I woke up with ANOTHER comic strip idea. And I mean I literally woke up with it; it all came to me in that crepuscule of semi-consciousness between waking and slumber. This was "Monkeyhouse." I was dead broke at the time and carrying a mortgage, so I had to let the idea steep for a spell, while I sold my brain to advertising for a few weeks, something I had hoped never to do again. But enough of that ugly sub-plot. A couple months later, "Monkeyhouse" was ready for submission to the syndicates. First stop, Universal Press Syndicate, from whom "Calvin & Hobbes" had just retired. They liked what I sent and wanted to see more. I whipped up four more weeks in a couple of days and fired it back to them. They pondered, then said it was too eccentric. This stung, because there were two characters I had shoved into the strip that were indeed too eccentric. I had forced them to be that way, and the operative word here is "forced." So I pulled back and rethought the characters before polluting any more waters. The problem characters were the parents, so I killed them. That left the widowed uncle living in the attic as the new guardian. This felt so much better. Universal thought so, too, enough to offer me a six-month development contract. They had some concerns about the cartoon being — can you see it coming? — "different," but their biggest hang-up was with a single uncle raising a 9-year-old girl. They thought "people" would infer bad things. Well, I'm not easily shocked, but this shocked me. It was too perverse even for me to think of it. So I tucked that note into the back of my brain and went on with the development. The uncle grew very naturally into the role of dad, but not in time. They turned down the strip for syndication. They didn't give much reason (to be fair, they weren't obligated to), but alluded to their hang-ups about the bad things.

In the meantime, however, my style had developed significantly from the daily discipline of drawing (let that be a lesson to you, you aspirants out there). I had begun freelancing as an illustrator, picking up decent work here and there. And it wasn't terribly long after that that I decided to launch another sortie at The New Yorker. Now, this is against every bit of advice anyone has ever given about breaking into the magazine market. But my reasoning was simple: if I wasn't good enough for The New Yorker, I didn't want anyone else to see my work. Predictably, my first batch was rejected. Then came the shocker. The phone rang. They wanted to buy a cartoon from my second batch. (Secret Tip for beginners: Here's how you break in at The New Yorker. You make copies of your cartoons, stuff them in an envelope, and send them in! Yep, it's that simple. Either you'll sell something or you won't. It depends entirely on the work. Okay, it's not quite that simple. You have to keep sending them, week after week, for as long as it takes.) After the dizziness wore off a few weeks later, I got into the regimen of submitting more stuff regularly, weekly if possible. And they bought another. Then another. Then it became semi-regular, roughly monthly, which is how it stands presently. (A major highlight of my cartoon career was being out to lunch with a bunch of New Yorker cartoonists and hearing them discuss a cartoon from the magazine which they didn't get. It wasn't mine, but I did have the rare honor of explaining the gag to them. Man, I felt so sophisticated!) After I had a backlog of a couple hundred cartoons, I started submitting them to other magazines, and they started buying them. It was very heady how quickly my résumé expanded.

Meanwhile, I had been sending "Monkeyhouse" around to the other syndicates, one at a time, every few — sometimes a lot more than a few — months, as it came back to me in the mail. I'd slap another cover letter on it and stuff it in an envelope. I had racked up maybe three more rejections when my luck changed. Another phone call. It had been a good week already, with calls coming from two or three magazines wanting to buy cartoons, but this call was from the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. They wanted "Monkeyhouse." And they got it. Then, no sooner did they launch their sales effort than they were sold themselves, and they were subsumed by Tribune Media Services. So I spent the first 18 months of the strip essentially without a sales force pushing it. Then when the TMS sales team got it, it was already old news. Awkward timing (or should I say comic?). In any event, it never recovered from its less than blockbuster beginning, and after three years and a game run, it was time to move on. On the up side, I got a couple of books out of it — in Portuguese — and proved to the powers that be that I can produce a consistently funny strip day in and day out, even if it isn't raking in the dough. So the door was wide open for whatever concept I came up with next. Except I never felt like coming up with it.

In the meantime, I still have the paying work, which is the illustration for books and advertising. I am likewise continuing with magazine gags and have published a couple of books of my own, with more book projects in the chute.

In 2008, however, I had an idea for a gag. Well, half an idea. I couldn't quite make it funny enough to invest the ten minutes it would take to draw up a rough and have it rejected. But as I was letting it die, I saw it from a different angle. And it sparked an idea. Now, I have let lots of great ideas go for lack of resources to pursue them and make my millions, but this one took only a cartoonist and someone with computer skills. I emailed someone I know with the latter. I asked if the idea was "crazy or just a joke." He suggested we talk about it over lunch. Three years later, I was on the stage at a major tech start-up venue in Silicon Valley, and that cartoon that never was was creating a buzz as the next big thing in market research.

Outside of cartooning, I used to sing in my church choir. It was through that activity that I stumbled into to writing musicals. Pitchmen, which featured most of that choir, chronicles what happens when the Devil hires an ad agency to boost his image. It led to others, Despairadise, My Dead Irish Mother, and Fässi Goboggan and the Curly Headed Girl. The economy crashed just as two of those were almost stagebound, but they're slowly getting back on track. The Smurks project was also somewhat derailing, truth be told.

At this point, you may be wondering about my personal story. Well, it's interesting, I suppose. At least, that's what recently occurred to me. Somehow I have stumbled into an interesting life (although it should be noted that it is less important to be interesting than it is to be interested). The most interesting part occurred when writing gags for cartoons, fittingly enough. It was in early 2001 at my favorite neighborhood sandwich shop. I met a girl. She had a job in local government, which was admittedly kind of interesting, but no big deal to an apolitical mook like me. I thought it was more significant that she was smart, pretty — you know the cliché. Today it is sometimes hard to imagine that that girl is my lovely new bride. Okay, it's been enough years that I can't officially call it new anymore, but she's still lovely and it still seems new. Also surreal is that this lovely new-ish bride of mine is the same woman I see on TV or read about in the papers as the Attorney General of Illinois. "What, you were on CNN today, sweetie? That's nice. Pass the ketchup." She's too normal — decent, down-to-earth, and just plain fun to be with — to think of as a politician. Not to mention a terrrific mom. I can't think of anyone I'd rather have watching out for me, my kids, and my nearly thirteen million neighbors. (Is my uxorious pride showing?)

Of course, her job is very demanding of her schedule, while I make my own hours for mine. And that's what led me to the most challenging job I've ever known. But you probably know all about that one. Your mother told you more than once that it was the Hardest Job In the World. And guess what. Your mother was right. As usual.

Now, there are some tragedies I left out of this glossy account. You can probably guess at a few of them by reading between the lines. If you're that clever, you can also figure out that the reason I left them out was because they are not the focus of my life — except when exploiting them for material. I have been truly blessed in life, albeit with a sometimes breathless adventure of a life. But that's what life is, an adventure. What will happen next? I can't wait to turn the page.

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