They were probably as supportive as most parents were at the time. I grew up in the 1970′s, when parenting consisted of telling your kids to “Go outside and play” and “Stop making so much noise.” In a way, parenting was more strict, but a lot more hands-off than we are today. I’m sure they’re wondering when I’ll stop wasting all my time with this creative nonsense and just get a city job. Something with a good pension and benefits.
What training, education, and/or mentoring did you receive and how useful was it compared to what your work is really like?
All my electives in high school were art classes, which I loved. I also found out early that if the art teachers thought you were particularly talented and serious about what you were doing, they let you work independently in a separate classroom from the general population. You had to be self-motivated and good at budgeting your time, both of which are very important now.
Did you make any epic mistakes that make great stories today? Tell us about it, and what you learned.
I once worked for a syndicate editor for a year, for free, because he kept dangling the promise of a development deal in front of me, which never happened. This same editor also launched two strips that were very similar to strips I’d been working on with him. I was young & stupid, though. I figured that if I just kept my head down and concentrated on the work, that I’d end up getting a break somewhere down the line. It made me start asking more questions before I got involved with someone.
Describe your typical work day.
There’s really no such thing as a typical day for me. I work from home as a cartoonist and columnist for The Kenosha News, so my work cycles are routinely interrupted by carpool, laundry and running errands. I do have a set list of work-related things and the days they need to be completed on, but they always need to get shuffled around in the long run.
What’s your least favorite thing about your work, and why?
After I draw my comic strips, there’s a fair amount of clean-up work and formatting that can get tedious. Compared to the aches and pains of working on an assembly line, which I did for seven years, it’s not much to complain about.
What’s your favorite thing about your work, and why?
Sometimes I hit on a joke or a really effective way to draw a certain situation, and it cracks me up. I literally laugh out loud. This is the only job I’ve ever had that gave me that much personal pleasure.
What are your creative superpowers, and how do you tap into them to do your best work?
For me, being creative can be really intermittent. There are days when I wake up and just don’t feel like I can be funny. I know from experience that there’s really no point in wasting my time trying to write gags. So, on those days, I do busy work like penciling in jokes I’ve already written, or the clean-up and formatting that I mentioned. On days when I’m firing on all cylinders, though, I really make it count and write more jokes than I need.
What about weaknesses, and how do you bust through them to do your best work?
Tell us a bit about Just Say Uncle and your big news surrounding that project. What inspired you to start it? Did you encounter any setbacks or hurdles?
Just Say Uncle is based on the friendship of Bobby & Uncle Norm, who tells outrageous stories to entertain the boy. His stories can take him anywhere in time, and often involve historical figures. The inspiration to start it came from knowing it was a great idea and unlike anything already out there. The concept actually came from a friend of mine, who originally hatched the idea. We both wrote a bunch of gags, and then he decided that he wanted to bow out and leave it to me. He’d been cartooning for years and was soured on it. Most of the time, you put a lot of effort into a strip with very little return.
Can you tell us about how syndication deals work (submitting, acceptance, rights, payment)? Is the income enough to keep a cartoonist afloat, and does it depend on how many markets you reach?
Like anyone else trying to get syndicated, I just sent in samples to the few feature syndicates that still exist. Compared to other things I’ve worked on in the past, this all happened relatively quickly. It was only a couple of months between my submission and the phone call from the syndicate. When I feel like I’ve still got a long way to go before the strip is successful, I remind myself that the odds of this happening are something crazy like 1 in 30,000. Knowing that the people who are handling my strip also handle Peanuts, Pearls Before Swine, Dilbert, Calvin & Hobbes, etc., is indescribable. For a cartoonist, there is no better team to be on than Universal Press Syndicate. The strip will appear three days a week on their website, GoComics.com. You’ll be able to subscribe to it for free, along with all your favorite comic strips. Basically, you can create your own personalized comic page, which you can either look at on the website or get in a daily email. I get paid based on subscriptions and page views.
There are only really four feature syndicates for comic strips, whereas there used to be a dozen. Each has roughly the same guidelines. They want to see 4-6 weeks of samples, a week being comprised of six dailies and a Sunday. Rights are retained by the cartoonist, the syndicate is acting as a distributor. Their percentage is taken off the top of whatever income the strip makes. If you’re one of the lucky few who gets into syndication to traditional newspapers as well as online, the income if very good. If you’re a Scott Adams who does Dilbert, and you’re in 2,000 print publications, as well as a ridiculous amount of merchandizing, your income can be five figures a week. On the other side of the spectrum, online guys like me are making equal to a really good part-time job. This happens to work for me, because I’ve already got a day job at the Kenosha News. However, there are really successful online strips that support their creators. It depends on how many subscribers you have. The more you have, the bigger piece of the website ad revenue you get.
Do you have any insights into the future for cartoonists in the Internet age? What do you think about what Matthew Inman, aka The Oatmeal is doing in terms of self-publishing and generating revenue through posters and books?
As more newspapers fold and the traditional markets evaporate, the future of comic strips is definitely online. The last 5-10 years the remaining syndicates are getting an increasingly greater share of their revenue online. Inman is doing what most smart cartoonists do now: Diversifying. If cartooning is your only source of income, you have to cobble together a living any way you can; a little from ad revenue, a little from subscriptions, merchandizing, personal appearances, freelance work, etc.
Who is really doing it right in your profession, and why?
Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine), Greg Cravens (Hubris) and John Hambrock (The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee). Each one consistently makes me laugh, and writes jokes that I never would have thought of. Their quality standards are right up there with guys like Charles M. Schulz and Gary Larsen.
Name at least one common misconception about your profession.
People are always surprised to find out how long it takes to create one strip. It can take hours. I guess to a lot of people, drawing doesn’t look like it should be all that much work.
Can you talk about rejection for a bit? Has your response to rejection evolved over the years? What lessons have you learned from rejection?
I’d need a file cabinet if I’d saved every rejection letter I’ve ever gotten. I’ve always felt like I was stagnating, though, if I didn’t have something in the mail that I was waiting for a response on. I was able to get through all those years working on an assembly line, because I’d imagine that maybe tomorrow, I’d finally hear back about my latest strip. When you’ve got submissions out there, you’ve got hope and the possibility that your life could be very different some day. That’s what kept me going, regardless of the rejections.
How does constructive criticism inform your work? What about destructive crit, say, from anonymous people online?
I’ve gotten a lot of great constructive criticism from cartoonists I admire, just by sending them my work and asking for it. For the most part, everyone liked what I was doing, except for the creator of a certain military-themed strip that’s been around for decades. He hated everything about my work. He said I had no punchlines, my drawings were weak….even advised me to look for another line of work. I should send him a postcard now that I’m with Universal! The comic strip I draw for my local paper gets an occasional piece of hate mail, but averages being what they are, I don’t pay that much mind. If one out of thirty-thousand subscribers doesn’t like what I do, I’m doing okay. No matter what you do, 100% of people aren’t going to like it all of the time.
What are your thoughts on the “starving artist” idea that seems to pervade our society? Myth, reality, something else?
Well, if you’re an artist that wants to starve, go ahead. Me, I’ve always worked a straight job to support my art and a decent lifestyle. I like mashed potatoes and gravy a heck of a lot more than ramen noodles. I’ve known musicians who’ve done the starving artist thing and always thought, “You know, if you just got a part-time day job at Walgreens, you could still play with your band at night AND pay your utility bills.” My daughter came along early in my marriage, which changes your perspective, too. You have that natural urge to take care of your kid, over spending $500 on a drawing table. How do you define creative success? I would define it as anyone who gets up off the couch to be creative. The success in being creative isn’t making money, the creation itself is the success. My wife does these incredible paintings and multi-media collages, but she hasn’t ever sold one. But, when she’s done, there’s something beautiful in the world that wasn’t there a few days ago. Lots of people talk about what they used to do or what they eventually want to do. The success is in the actual doing. If money comes later, that’s a bonus.
Name one of your big creative dreams for the future.
The ultimate for me would be an animated “Just Say Uncle” Christmas special, or cartoon series on Cartoon Network. I’d love that.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to 12-year-old Dan?
I’d tell myself to stop wasting so much time in between creative projects. At times, I’d get discouraged and stop cartooning for a year or longer before I went back to it. If I’d had better focus in my younger years, I might’ve gotten syndicated during the heyday of newspaper comics. In the 80′s and ’90′s, it was much more of a goldmine than it is today. Every strip that got launched was guaranteed to get into 300 papers.
What advice do you have to offer to creative people who are just getting started in their careers or with a bold new project or business?
First and foremost, you have to have a goal. After that, you have to lay out a plan to achieve the goal. You have to be unafraid of failure and asking people who know more about it than you for help. It’s also very important that you keep the route to your dream flexible. Life will always get in the way. Accept that. There will be setbacks, don’t let that stop you.
Finally, a catchall: If there’s something you’d like to share that we haven’t covered here, now’s your chance!
I’ve been drawing comic strips since I was in the third grade, roughly 37 years. While I do have a strip that appears twice a week in my local paper, I was never able to get signed by a feature syndicate until now. 37 years of “No, thanks, you’re not what we’re looking for.” Before I sent the submission to Universal that ultimately got me the deal, I said to myself, “This might be my last try for this strip.” Heck, I’ve got other writing options I’d like to pursue, and I play in two bands. Time is growing short. If the submission before the one that got me signed had been my last one, though, I wouldn’t be sitting here answering these questions right now.
John Mahoney was 53 when he landed the role of a lifetime playing Martin Crane on “Frasier.” Huey Lewis was 30, much older than your average pop star, when he had his first hit with “Do You Believe In Love.” I looked up to both of those guys over the years, because they always kept going; accepting small opportunities during lean times and consistently moving around obstacles and corners. That taught me that you can’t possibly find out if success is just around the next corner, if you stop going around corners.
A big Makearoo thank you to Dan for sharing his experiences and expertise and being such a great weirdo! Post your questions and comments for Dan in the comments section.