Most of the cartoonists I’ve ever met tell me that they knew they wanted to be a cartoonist since they were very young. The inspiration did not hit me until I was about 24 and out of college and out of work. I got my degree in mechanical engineering in 1983 from Bucknell University at a time when jobs for engineers were scarce. It was during that time of job searching that I started playing around with cartooning.
I always loved comics as a kid and read the funny pages voraciously. Though I did follow some strips, I always gravitated toward single-panel cartoons because I liked the immediacy of the humor of single-panels. As a kid, I liked Grin and Bear It, Herman and anything by Charles Addams. Later, I loved The Far Side. For a few years in college, I started having cartoon ideas pop into my head and started writing them down in my college notebooks. I was very eager to see my ideas drawn up and thought of sending them off to a cartoonist to see if he or she would put them on paper. But, I didn't know any cartoonists, so I was left to my own devices. I had no art experience at all; nonetheless, I sat down one day and forced myself to draw. I picked out my favorite idea and drew it up. It took me about eight hours to finish it, and when I got done, it looked like a chimpanzee hyped up on caffeine had done. Nevertheless, it felt great to see it on paper.
So I drew up another, and another. And after a few weeks, I had a dozen cartoons completed. I made photocopies of them and sent them off to a small newspaper that ran twice a month in a nearby town. To my amazement, they liked my stuff, and agreed to run one cartoon an issue, for a whopping $5 a month. I remember running to a newsstand to see that first cartoon in print. That is one of the great things about cartooning: There have been so many highlights along the way.
After I broke into that paper, I started churning out more cartoons and began sending them off to magazines, which pay much better than $5 a cartoon. I used the book "The Artist's Market" to find magazines and would mail about eight cartoons along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope, and off they would go. I sent out 150 batches of cartoons and got 150 straight rejection letters. But I really didn't care — I was having so much fun cartooning that getting something into a magazine would have just been icing on the cake.
After a year and a half of sending out cartoons, I finally got two accepted in Campus Life Magazine, a monthly magazine for high school and college students. Campus Life paid me $50 each, and to get a hundred bucks for two cartoons felt great. From there on out, I became a regular contributor to Campus Life. Their editor, Chris Lutes, gave me lots of freedom to be really out there and explore the crazy side of teenage life. Within a year, they were running full-page layouts of my cartoons on various teen themes. It gave me great exposure and a nice side income.
I found that once I had broken the ice with Campus Life, it was much easier to break into other magazines. The visibility that I got with Campus Life also resulted in editors from other magazines contacting me to work for them. I soon got into another teen magazine called Breakaway, and started writing a monthly humor column and drew a comic strip, The Adventures of Buck Felner. It was nice to be doing some writing and a fun shift to do a comic strip, which is SO different than doing a panel. Around the same time, I got into Yankeee magazine. Yankee paid $100 a cartoon and was a national newsstand magazine, which gave me more great exposure. I quickly added The Saturday Evening Post to the mix, which continues to be a great outlet for panel cartoonists.
From 1985 to 1987, I worked my way into about 40 publications on a regular basis. I also lined up several assignments doing book illustration, which was a lot of fun. It was nice to be able to just focus on drawing and not have to worry as much about the humor when I did illustration work. The illustration work also paid very well.
By 1990, I was making more money moonlighting as a cartoonist than I was at my engineering job, and was having a blast at it. So I started to think seriously about leaving my engineering job. One day, I just made the decision to go full-time as a cartoonist. I would be giving up a steady paycheck and lots of benefits, but I loved the freedom and creativity of cartooning and knew that was where I wanted to go. In July 1990, at age 30, I quit my day job and never looked back.
Things went well right from the start. I continued to pick up new magazines. I found it best to simply call editors and art directors rather than writing, and to this day, I use that method to break into markets. Somehow, making that voice connection opens doors much better than a letter does.
I freelanced for two years and loved not having to go into an office and calling my own shots — it was just really fun. I loved working with different editors, having the phone ring with new assignments and juggling the different projects. Always a new horizon to reach for.
In 1992, I approached two syndicates about starting a panel feature and was very fortunate to get offers from both of them. Creators and Universal each offered me a contract, but I quickly made the decision to go with Universal since I admired so many of the strips that it carried. It was a great decision as it continues to be a fantastic partner in the business and just a tremendous organization.
Close To Home launched in 55 papers in November 1992, and Universal did a really nice job of growing the feature. It continues to be a really fun career, despite the challenges that papers are facing.
Read Close to Home here.