How I almost became a syndicated cartoonist
I’ve been enjoying a podcast by Connor Ratliff called Dead Eyes. It’s about how he was cast for a small role in Band of Brothers, but was then fired by Tom Hanks because he said Connor had “Dead Eyes.” But more than that, it’s about almost attaining a dream only to have the rug pulled out from under you. How do you go on? How do you overcome? Do you second-guess your career choices? It’s wonderful and it got me thinking about my almost-was story.
Years ago, I was lettering a ton of comic books. I had always wanted to be a cartoonist, but lettering paid well and I made the mistake of chasing money instead of dreams. I was lettering a book called Savage Dragon which is perpetrated by Erik Larsen. We became really good friends and would talk all day every day while we worked. At that time I talked to Erik more than my wife and those phone bills were insane, but on one of those calls, I mentioned that I lamented not cartooning more. My dream was to be like Charles Schulz—be a nationally syndicated cartoonist. That was when Erik did the most Erik of things…he said, “You can have 2 pages a month in Savage Dragon. Do whatever you want. First one is due tomorrow.”
I had no time to think, I just had to write and draw about what I knew. I chose to do a story about 2 bachelors, Marty and Toad, living together. It was really based on me and my college friend, Jody Gross. I called it Desperate Times. Eventually, I would add in a drunken sloth named Kennedy, and gave Marty a sister who fell in love with a guy who always wore a theme park character costume. Honestly, I had so much lettering work, I was scrambling every month to do the 2 pages, so it’s all a blur. I just wrote whatever happened to come into my mind. But people seemed to like the comic.
So, after a year or so, I asked Erik if I could do a Desperate Times comic book through his publisher, Image. He not only did, but helped me out by doing covers for me. The first issue’s sales were actually really good for a black and white humor comic, but Image was still new and their business wasn’t always run properly. Orders came in for the second issue and someone only counted half the orders, so they only printed half of what was actually ordered. Retailers assumed the book wasn’t doing well and didn’t reorder. Soon the sales really fell. So, after 4 issues, I pulled the plug.
So, I did the only logical thing, I decided to do strips formatted for newspaper syndication and submit them to syndicates. The syndicates are the companies that buy a comic and then sell it to newspapers around the world.
My first submission was to Jay Kennedy at King Features. He seemed like a really good guy, based on what I read about him. He sent back a rejection letter, but it was so nice, I’ve kept it all these years.
He said I had considerable talent. That meant the world to me. But before I could come up with a new strip idea to send to him, tragically, Jay passed away.
So, I submitted the strip to United Features, the home of Peanuts, my favorite strip of all time. A little while later, an unbelievable thing happened. I got an e-mail from Amy Lago, editor at United. I knew her. She was the editor of Peanuts and she was interested in the strip. She asked to see more samples, which I quickly wrote, drew and sent.
We went back and forth a few times. She even called me to talk over things. Finally, one day she called and said that I was going to need to get a lawyer. She was going to submit the strip to the company to syndicate it. She was telling me what was to be expected, how I wouldn’t be making a lot of money at first, keep my day job, but this was happening. All she had left to do was show the strip to the VP of sales, which wasn’t a big deal and we’d be on our way.
I got off the phone and I took my wife and kids out to dinner to celebrate. Two days later I got the e-mail.
Amy had shown the strip to the Sales VP and he said he couldn’t sell another bachelor strip. They were passing on Desperate Times. I was this close to my dream and it was gone, just like that. I was destroyed. I was going to be syndicated alongside Peanuts, my favorite strip. The reason I wanted to be a cartoonist…and it was all over.
Or so I thought.
Amy e-mailed and asked if it was okay to send the strip over to a former boss of hers, Sarah Gillespie, who was now at the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. Amy felt so strongly about me and the strip, she still wanted to see us in newspapers. How amazing is that? To this day, I’m amazed at how nice Amy was.
Sarah got in contact and she was really nice as well. Sarah, though was really particular about strips and what they needed to be. She asked me to make up more samples, but she said that there should be no more than 30 words a strip. Tough, but doable. I submitted new samples. She then asked for more samples, but not to chose subjects that were in any way controversial or make anyone uncomfortable. Done.
We went back and forth a number of times, and while Sarah was right about what was needed for syndication, I felt it was making the strip really boring. Sarah confirmed my thoughts when she e-mailed to say the strip was now mundane and dull. So, that was that. We agreed to end it there.
I went back and did a few more issues of the comic book, but I had grown beyond the single guy life, so I figured I had said all I could and the Desperate Times folks faded out.
Newspapers were dying out and syndication wasn’t as lucrative as it used to be, but I saw people making money doing what were then called “webcomics.” Doing a comic strip online. No word limits, no subject limits. I could do whatever I wanted. So, what did I do? A strip about a boy named Sherman, two aliens and the living embodiment of Death. I called it Misery Loves Sherman. But that’s a story for another day.
Great story! There's SO MUCH I didn't know about you when we worked together! 😄 I wish I had - I would have reached out more, but I never wanted to be intrusive. I figured you were always super busy. I had no idea back then that you loved to draw and write -we have so much more in common than I ever knew. Did you know that I have my own comic strip that I do as part of my own newsletter? I love the Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, and Bloom County - enough that I also always wanted to do something in that medium. ☺️ I feel, reading your emails, that I'm getting the chance to know you that I missed out on back when. I'm sorry I didn't have the courage to take better advantage of the opportunity back then.