…Or at least, get ahead of the game.
Dick Kulpa is a formerly syndicated comic strip artist, 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.”
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.
By Captain Cartoon
Thousands of up-and-coming cartoonists, and even some comics veterans, would love see their comic strip creations on the comic pages. Sadly, 99.437 percent of these folks will never make it, and are fated to work their day jobs till the end of time. That need not be the case.
I’ve been syndicated on three separate occasions, with three different newspaper comic strips: Bruce Lee and Star Trek through the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, and Ghost Story Club, via Tribune Media Services, Inc.
My very first comic strip, Double Eagle & Company, appeared in single newspapers three different times, from 1971-1976. It was this feature that gave me credibility as a daily comic strip artist, something that would play well six years later.
In terms of artwork, I was capable, but by no means “great.” There are many cartoonists with abilities far better (than mine were back then,) who probably can’t figure out why their “world-beating comic strip” isn’t syndicated.
This essay assumes you’ve developed a strip with viable characters and relevant theme, and are prepared to collect some reject slips. If you need drawing lessons, there are lots of online resources for that. Here’s one.
For the bad news: Today’s average, decreasing circulation newspaper is hard-pressed to afford new features, let alone support those they currently publish. Syndicate salesmen face challenges like never before (and hold that thought.) Conversely, newspapers more than ever should actively seek fresh stuff, and raise the bar for its comic pages, features which once served as major forces behind sales and circulation. But that’s another story. By nature, newspaper editors deal with facts, not dreams.
And most editors are reluctant to cancel established strips. Two little old ladies calling the desk crying over the cancellation of Rex Morgan, M.D., could probably save that feature, even if the vast majority of the paper’s readers outgrew it. I’m exaggerating, however comic strips certainly outlast TV shows in the longevity department, for the wrong reasons.
On a high note, the Internet has emerged as a new “broadcast” power, providing a potent exposure outlet for comics features. Had the World Wide Web been available in 1971, I would have saved myself considerable effort. Dilbert got its start there, way back in the 1990s.
Learn from my efforts, both miscues and successes
My first comic strip, The Double Eagle & Co., appeared twice weekly in 1971 in the Loves Park, Illinois POST, and was rebooted in 1975 — then again in 1976 — for two different daily newspapers. The DE&Co. strip projected my own interests, i.e. a geeky love for a 1960 Chevy. That restrictive theme appealed primarily to other hard core nutcases like myself thinking along similar lines, and might be more marketable today via “niche marketing.” Ah, that optimism still prevails, but it’s also why artists starve to death.
DE&Co. needed to appeal to enough of an audience to make it financially viable. While I initially believed any comic featuring a funny joke and good drawing would attract tons of readers, I learned it was not enough. I needed people wanting to see and “read” what I had to express.
While a subsequent reboot attempted to correct the comic’s limitations, via implementation of different characters, situations, more relevancy, more classic cars and so forth, I could not sustain a daily strip for the paltry $12 per month fee I received (about $100 in today’s money. The newspaper was not chincy, they simply paid me rates set for syndicated strips.) After nine months, the editor and I agreed to end the effort, upon my initiative.
What did I gain from this?
Cater to audience interest: My strip was not unpopular, but comics features on the same page were all “top ten” national strips. In fact, the Double Eagle came close to being cancelled mid-term, but a spontaneous contest I launched within the strip generated the newspaper’s highest response to any of its contests, which saved the day. Of course, what caught readers’ eyes was the split-back 1963 Corvette I drew as the guest “car”actor in that contest strip. That opened my eyes in a “Eureka” moment.
And it helped that the editor was a friend to the feature. After all, the main character resembled him more than me. He identified with the DE&Co.
Make sure your environment is comic strip production-friendly: I could not justify the time and energy invested in Double Eagle & Co. for the long haul, particularly with co-workers and business partners who did not share my vision. On several occasions, I’d hear objects being slammed and snide remarks uttered as I drew. My own father was not supportive, and back then threw out over 100 originals, claiming a basement flood destroyed them. This was not conducive to creativity.
Are you prepared for this “full-time” effort? Writing and drawing a daily comic strip is a 24-hour undertaking. Ascertain that you have the resources to do this. You might find your family rebelling, or your social life ending, especially as you’re burning the midnight oil. And guess what? This can be a major issue even after you hit the “big time,” something I’ll address in Part 2.
Material Sources: I wrote as well as drew the Double Eagle & Co. strip, but when I first began this massive project, I had just one idea on paper. Eventually, I’d have a list containing 15-20 potential gags, assuring myself of choices. It was a constant thinking process, requiring a pad in my pocket at all times. These ideas would come in a number of ways: From friends, from experiences, getting lucky, and sometimes, out of thin air. But as I progressed, my mind trained itself to generate these ideas, giving me a capability to create humor “on demand.”
While I consider it most desirable to be both writer and artist of a strip, there are many such teams out there doing this. Remember these “marriages” are often difficult to sustain. However, two heads are usually better than one, whether you utilize a partner, or simply show people advance copies of your strips, which leads me to my closing points for today.
Submit your work to scrutiny: Get reaction from people around you, to your work, your humor, etc. Believe it or not, nobody in the real world cares what a great artist you are, and syndicates DON’T care what your mom thinks. Artists function as cameras. Readers want a “payoff.” i.e. an intellectually satisfying “reward” for reading your feature, and this would be delivered via a solid punchline. Friends often patronize you with “great job,” but learn to see through that. Even today, I know when the person I’ve caricatured likes their picture, via immediate, spontaneous reaction. DON’T fool yourself.
Whenever possible, get exposure for your strip, either via neighborhood newspapers, small weeklies or through web sites. If you don’t post your own site (though you should,) Facebook and WordPress are great venues, with national and international reach. I actually published 48-strip collections into a newsprint book form, enabling me to distribute the strip wherever I wished. One reaction I recall…the Rockford, Illinois police department wanted to know where these books came from, because, according to the officer calling, “everyone was laughing their asses off.” This occurred over the 1975 version of the series, prior to the cop-donut comic strip above.
Readers don’t give you a second chance. Folks sizing up a comic feature will decide if they like it — or hate it — from first read. Regardless as to any developments, improvements, etc., you’re hard-pressed to get those readers back. Make sure that when you’re about to hit the comics syndication circuit, you’ve collected solid consumer or focus group response. A “proven” feature is more likely to get syndicate bosses’ endorsements, as well as justify your continued efforts.
Hopefully, you’ll glean some important knowledge about developing comic strips. A great theme, solid illustration, “laugh-out-loud” humor, and most importantly, relevancy to the targeted reader, must be part of the mix. Good, stylized art is extremely helpful, as I would learn the hard way that the vast majority of “mainstream” readers preferred simpler cartoony strips as compared to the Marvel-inspired but then-underdeveloped style I offered.
Sadly, my first attempt at comics syndication hasn’t succeeded…yet.
My next post: Part 2: How syndicates will view your work — the inside story.