…Or at least, get ahead of the game.
Dick Kulpa is a formerly syndicated comic strip artist through LA Times Syndicate and TMS, former publisher of CRACKED Magazine, and now performing as South Florida caricature artist Captain Cartoon. He is also known as the creator of Weekly World News’ famous “Bat Boy,” as acknowledged by the Washington Post.
In this article he’s presenting tips and anecdotes based on his personal comic strip production history in an effort to help aspiring comic strip artists avoid pitfalls and hit the right path the first time. He does not speak for any syndicate, Kulpa’s observations are his own, based on his experiences.
By Captain Cartoon
Working with syndicates associated me with some of the finest media professionals I’ve ever dealt with, for a number of reasons. Chief among them — when these people said “we want you to succeed,” they meant it. Plus, you felt there was truly a team behind you, working toward your success. Were I to do this again, I’d immediately dump the %#&@ day job and devote all energies entirely to the strip.
I “achieved my comic strip dream” three times in my career. The strips I drew were either movie-based strips already in existence (Bruce Lee, Star Trek), or based on a current fad (Ghost Story Club.) However, there was a huge problem. These strips did not pay nearly enough for me to go entirely “comic”. Subsequently, I had to work the “day job”, and find quality time to get these features done.
So how did I land these gems? I started out doing the same thing cartoonists do. Sample strips were sent to syndicates, and reject slips rewarded my efforts. (Hey, that was better than nothing!) My Double Eagle & Co. comic strip was viewed as “too limited” in scope, or its main character was seen as “too heroic-looking.” Samples sent to LATS (LA Times Syndicate) in the late 70s drew similar responses.
(At one point I considered bribery, and another, calling in my cousin Guidoski — something I clearly needed to do when I published CRACKED Magazine.)
But things suddenly changed in 1983.
Relevant Comparison: I drew up one “actual” Star Trek sample strip, sent it in to LATS — and received a phone call three days later. My timing was perfect — I was asked to fill in on the last 8 weeks of Bruce Lee. Within a month of its completion, I was assigned Star Trek.
Networking — “Knowing someone in the system”: Famed paperback writer Allan Zullo, (Sports Hall of Shame and many others) contacted me about a “Goosebumps-inspired” comics feature for potential syndication in 1995. Zullo and I shared the same home town, and connected at the National Enquirer offices, where we both worked at one time or another. The resultant Ghost Story Club would eventually achieve syndication in 35 newspapers around the globe.
Movie and “fad-based” strips have a shelf life of about three years, I’m told, and that rule held true in my tenure. But I took particular interest in the marketing of these comics. And therein lies some valuable insight.
Aside from stating the obvious, i.e. “present your best stuff,” I’m suggesting you, as the creator of your feature, keep a mind’s eye on “silly little things” like marketability and ancillary product sales.
Let’s say you send in your samples (approximately three to six weeks’ worth) and, out of the thousands they see, the syndicate’s front people react favorably to your feature. After agreements are nailed down and everything’s in place, a syndicate salesman, the all-important foot soldier fighting for your tangible success, will present your feature to a newspaper’s managing editor, and hope for the best.
When I assumed drawing the Star Trek feature, I once heard that a salesman was told “I don’t care if Da Vinci is drawing it, show it here again and I’ll throw you out.” Oohhhh-kay.
Your comics feature, which you risked rejection for by submitting it to syndication, in essence puts the syndicate in a similar position: Acceptance (sale!) or Rejection (“Get out!”) These battle-hardened skeptics aren’t going to be easily convinced, though they really do want to be.
Expect the syndicate’s sales department to wield clout as to whether a strip is accepted. Remember, they’ve got a stable of ongoing comics and features already on their plate, as they are marketing THOSE too. NOW, let’s say you’ve developed your feature, gotten it local exposure and garnered “genuine, enthusiastic responses,” with web site counts to match. You’ve now developed ammunition with which to leverage the sale of your feature. You can use it to persuade syndicate reps to take you on, and they can use it to sell your strip.
The reader is the final judge. The Internet provides instant access for exposure, experimentation and development of your comic property, and you need to be prepared to listen and implement what you learn. A former editor of mine made major decisions in entertainment content based on input from (drum roll)…his Cuban gardener. Trouble was, that insight almost always worked.
View your works through a “reader’s eye.” Professionals look at brush strokes, composition, contrast and other devices, sometimes to a fault. Readers, looking to be entertained, view those same works differently. That’s why many hi-tech, fancy SFX films flop…the pros making them get too close to the technicals and overlook the obvious. Here’s where associates, non-artist friends, and even strangers, can help.
As we close out this essay, keep one thing in mind. Syndicates want you to send them the next Dark Side, or Bloom County. They want your submission to dazzle them silly. Nobody wants to send you reject slips. Hopefully, I’ve helped you to anticipate their desires. But wait — what if you’ve incorporated everything here, and “they” still reject you? Does that mean you are through?
A syndicate told me one up-and-coming Hollywood producer submitted a character as a potential comic strip feature, and was turned down. Undaunted, he went on to make his movie, which became the then-highest grossing theatrical release of all time. To this day that character has never appeared as a comic (to my knowledge.) Side note to that producer — “Hey, I’ll draw it for you, just phone me at home.”
If you review Part 1 of this essay, you’ll see I harvested benefits from my 1971-1976 Double Eagle and Co. strip which have paid off to this very day, and I’m sitting on a treasure trove of archived material. So, who knows? The principles listed above can apply to any property, be it music, children’s books, magazines and products. It’s all about common sense.
Epilogue: While hitting “the big time” with “national syndication,” I would quickly learn that such was not the case. Syndicates will start up a strip’s production with a set amount of newspapers, with expectations that it will grow in time. If you ever land that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, treat that feature as if it were bigger than Blondie, as I believe its chances of becoming so will expand exponentially. Treat it as a part-time job, it’s a good bet it will stay that way.
I will always be eternally grateful for the opportunities, personal associations, mutual respect and achievements relative to my syndication experience, and especially that pizza TMS Fed-Xd to me. All this cannot be taken from me. So to David S., Allan Z., Eve B., Mark M. and Doug P., my hat’s off to ya. Likewise to Mary E., for treating me as a respected erstwhile colleague.