I spent all of my adult life in the military which, shockingly, offers little in the way of art education. I've been very fortunate to have been able to gain the ground I have as a cartoonist, but realize how far behind the power curve I am when it comes to understanding basic concepts like color theory, values, and perspective, among others. To tackle that, I've purchased a number of courses and subscribed to some online art instruction sites. I can say in all honesty, from those I've listed below, the experience has been very positive. The knowledge and professionalism of the instructors has been impressive, and I've learned I great deal. Best of all, these are very affordable (ranging from $15-$150 for a course to a monthly fee averaging around $30) when compared to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend an art school. At any rate, here's the ones I've purchased from or subscribed to in no particular order:
Aaron Blaise's CreatureArtTeacher.com - I discovered Aaron Blaise via YouTube and have been an avid fan ever since. His live drawing videos are absolutely phenomenal and inspiring, which led me to checking out his website. He has a wide variety of course selections covering everything from digital painting in Photoshop, animation, watercolor, to animal anatomy and perspective. I've purchased a number of his courses, all of which have been very helpful. I also purchased some of his Photoshop brush collections and use them regularly for some of my own work.
SVS Learn - Like Aaron Blaise, I discovered SVS Learn by watching Will Terry's YouTube channel about the art and business of being a children's book illustrator. He's immensely talented and his discussions are engaging. The variety of courses available on the SVS site allows for a wide range of possibilities for those of us in learning mode. Even though the primary focus is children's book illustration, there's something there for every working artist - even licensing industry talks. As with Aaron Blaise, you can purchase individual courses or pay a monthly subscription fee which allows access to all available products.
Schoolism - Probably the most impressive, thorough, and extensive online art courses available, at least from my somewhat limited experience. Created by the immensely talented Bobby Chiu, Schoolism has a heavy emphasis on the animated film industry, but the courses are so thorough, and the instructors so knowledgeable, you really can't go wrong with whichever one you choose. I've had a subscription (about $30 a month) and it's worth every penny - a bargain in fact. The degree of detail covered is definitely university-level, and best of all, the instructors provide assignments to check your level of understanding, and critique the artwork you turn in, If you're serious about upping your artistic game, this is the site for you.
Ctrl+Paint - If you're looking to improve your digital painting skills, but your budget has no room left for any extras, this site is for you. Many of these professional-level courses are absolutely free, and those that aren't are still very inexpensive. I've purchased a number of them and have had nothing but positive experiences.
While I'm sure there are many other art instruction sites online, these are the ones I have personally purchased from or subscribed to and can speak about from experience. If there are others that you'd like to recommend, (or advise against) please leave them in the comments below.
As some of you may know, and I suspect most don’t, my path to becoming a cartoonist wasn’t exactly predictable. Least of all by me. I was a laborer, a stockbroker, an operator in the Navy’s Special Boat Teams, a special agent in law enforcement, and finally, a cartoonist.
Along the way, I learned a lot of valuable lessons that weren’t taught, at least to me, in school. I had the opportunity to work with and observe Ivy League financial wizards, Navy SEALs, and brilliant detective minds in law enforcement. My own experience as a Navy SWCC, (here’s a video featuring special forces training featuring SWCC – Making the Cut – SWCC) and the challenges encountered in making it through selection and training taught me a lot. From all of these things I found patterns and similarities in achieving success which I apply to my own career as a cartoonist. To be sure, I’m not where I want to be yet, but the key points below have brought me far closer to the goal. I’m sure there are other paths, and other truths, but this is mine, and I hope you find value in it.
Be crystal clear about your mission
It’s difficult to achieve anything if you don’t know what it is you want, and cartooning is no different. Are you seeking syndication? Is it your intention to follow the path of great webcomic trailblazers? Magazine cartooning? Animation? Humorous illustration? Self-syndication? Licensing? There are many areas in the field, and by knowing where you want to go, you can efficiently apply the most critical and valuable resources to them: time and creative energy. Be clear enough in your intent to be able to articulate it and write it down. By identifying the direction, you will more easily detect and benefit from the paths of those who have gone before you. It’s not to say you can’t seek success in more than one of the above, and perhaps all of the above, but time is a precious thing, and few of us have it in abundance. Expending your precious resources in a scatter-shot way, hoping you’ll strike something will likely result in disappointment. Know your target.
Know where you are so you can determine the distance that needs to be traveled
This is among the toughest, but most important elements. Self-honesty about where you are as a cartoonist is not an easy thing. It involves stepping outside yourself, your ego, and being objective about your art and writing. If you are moving toward syndication, does your work stack up well against what you see in the newspapers? One of the ways you can find out is by seeking input from industry professionals – both your fellow cartoonists, and those who are the decision-makers in the markets you’re trying to crack. Send samples and ask for feedback. And be prepared to receive feedback – it can sometimes be uncomfortable. But remember your mission – is it to seek accolades and adoring remarks, or are you genuinely trying to succeed? Knowing where you are and how far you have yet to go allows you to create a considerably more accurate map to success. And you can arm yourself with sufficient tools and resources to see you through.
Study the terrain
Each area of the cartooning industry has it’s own unique characteristics. For instance, if you seek success in magazine cartooning, you’ll approach it differently than you would syndication. And syndication requires focus that won’t necessarily bear fruit in licensing or animation. Knowing the terminology, history, players, success stories and decision makers will lay out the map clearly, and will allow you to avoid the impassable climbs, pits and roads to nowhere. You will be able to find the path of least resistance and move far more quickly than if you amble along, hoping to stumble on the right path. Navigate, don’t guesstimate.
Be honest with yourself, acknowledge your deficits so you can focus on them and bring them up to where they need to be
Similar to knowing where you are, self-honesty is like having a key to the supply room. If you know what you need and where to get it, you can supply yourself with it. And in the age of Youtube, Vimeo, and individual instructional sites by the thousands, there’s absolutely no reason to operate in a deficit position. If your art needs something more, there’s an abundance of help waiting for you to show up. If your writing isn’t up to snuff, the free resources out there to fix it are a click or two away.
Learn to love learning
The rate of change in today’s world is positively astounding. Whether it’s technology, society – even markets, things are dialed up to eleven. In order to prosper in a changing environment, we have to take on new information, new skill sets, and sometimes new resources and equipment. If you look at it as a burden, you add an anchor to your future that you’ll have to drag along, slowing you down to a crawl while others divest themselves of that mental attitude and seek the opportunities in learning. It broadens their creative horizons, exposes them to new capabilities and skill sets, and subsequently new markets.
Accept no excuses from yourself – discipline, discipline, discipline
This is another area where self-honesty is critical, and honestly, an area where I sometimes struggle. In today’s world of social media and infinite distraction, staying on task is no easy feat. The biggest challenge for most is time. Time to write, time to draw, time to learn, time to submit, time to market, and on and on. I’m sometimes approached by aspiring cartoonists who wish to jump into the art because they think it’s a path to easy money. They think, because the art looks relatively simple, and because they’ve told a joke or two at a party, that’s all the ingredients required to make it as a cartoonist. We know different. What we do looks simple because we’ve worked hard to make it look that way. And we’ve acquired that skill by investing the time and resources to perfect our craft, understanding that this is a highly competitive, professional vocation.
Time – it’s the one commodity that’s most precious and in greatest need of being used wisely. Every minute, if we fully appreciate its value, should be used in a way that advances our mission. Many have said to me, ‘I just don’t have the time.’ I catch myself saying the same thing sometimes, and I have to purge that thought as quickly as possible. If you want something – really want something, there’s time.
Right after my second son was born, I had to figure out how to continue to create cartoons, while balancing the needs of my family. After careful consideration, it came to one obvious answer – I just had to get up earlier, and in this case, that meant 4:00 AM. It takes a good deal of discipline to make that change, but which is more costly, changing the time on your alarm clock and walking away from the TV or Facebook a little earlier, or surrendering your dreams and aspirations? Appreciate the value of your mission, discipline yourself to do what needs to be done, consistently over time, to get you there, and hold yourself accountable – no excuses. You will own the outcome whether it’s positive or negative, so it’s worth building the discipline muscle to get you there. And that means now. Not tomorrow, or next week, or when you think things might lighten up. Now. New Year’s Resolutions be damned.
Strategic and tactical analysis
Strategy and tactics. Macro and micro. Big picture and little picture. As I’ve mentioned earlier, things change, and it’s happening at an exponential rate. Since things change, we need to step back periodically and reassess our situation, and where we fall on our strategic map. For instance, say you’ve learned new skills, which have opened up new possibilities and markets. Maybe you’ve learned vector art and have some logo design opportunities come your way. Or you’ve been approached to illustrate a children’s book. Or your magazine cartoons might make a good syndicate submission. Whatever the case, it’s wise to take a step back now and again and make sure your map remains accurate, or that the mission might need updating, requiring a reallocation of time and resources. In tactical terms, maybe you see an opportunity that requires a slight adjustment in your approach. Or you need to temporarily change directions to better position yourself for your ultimate goal. Like most things in life, success in art and cartooning is comparable to a chess game. Think about your immediate moves, step back and stay up to date with your overall strategy, and by all means:
It’s widely understood that these times, they are a’ changing. If this was a hundred or so years ago, and we were the best wagon wheel craftsmen in the world, the outcome would still be the same – our market is now driving off the assembly line in Model Ts. As conditions and markets take their own paths of least resistance, we need to take a look at where we are, what we’re doing, and our current resources and see if they still add up to mission success. If they don’t, what do we need to change to get back on track? Often, it won’t require a radical shift, just a mild adjustment.
When the going gets tough …
Success in most worthwhile endeavors will require perseverance, some fire in the gut, and the ability to pick yourself up off the ground, dust off, and move forward when you get tripped up. As most experienced cartoonists will tell you, rejection is an abundant part of your working diet. It’s not personal, it’s not a rejection of you as a human being, and it may not even be a rejection of your work – it might just be bad timing. Whatever the reason, understand that your mission is valuable enough to take the lumps when they come. In time, you’ll learn to shake them off with indifference, unless there’s a learning opportunity contained therein.
When a military unit returns from a mission, it goes into self-analysis mode; what did we do right? What did we do wrong? What can we learn from this? How can we capitalize on this experience to make ourselves better, more effective? So it is with cartooning. You made a submission and you got rejected – was any feedback included? You become aware of another cartoonist who is successful in your target market – are there discernible differences in what he’s doing or how he’s doing it that you can learn from?
This is a big one. In the military, we lived by this basic tenet – you own it. Succes is yours, and so is failure. If you don’t get what you want, the answer lies with the one you see in the mirror. There will always be outside forces that will not be acting to your advantage. That’s life. We can hang our hats on that fact and use it as an excuse for walking away from our mission, or we can embrace our personal responsibility in our outcomes and remain in the fight. I’ve heard it said that Babe Ruth, the Home Run King, was also the Strike-Out King – he swung more than anyone else, and actually missed more than he hit. But he knew that if he let the strike-outs define him, it wouldn’t be worth the effort to step up to the plate again. I believe that’s true for us too – own the outcome, learn from it, and don’t let the misses define you or your potential.
Spread the wealth
For me, this is one of the biggest rewards – getting to share with and assist those who come after me. I consider myself so fortunate, and therefore so grateful to be able to do this, to be a cartoonist, and to have people who enjoy my work. And I see how others are dedicating themselves and working so hard to succeed in this endeavor. Before me were great people who selflessly offered me guidance and the fruits of their hard-earned lessons to benefit me. It’s a great joy to be able to share my experiences and offer that same hand to those who may need it. As you stack up your successes and achieve career milestones, I hope you’ll stop to look around, see others who might be struggling and reach out to pull them back onto their feet. It’s impossible to replicate or quantify the value of that feeling in monetary terms.
To conclude, I find it most fitting to use the motto of my SWCC brothers: On time, on target, NEVER QUIT!
In Part 1 of our series on coloring Spectickles cartoons, we talked about the basic formatting and ended up with a completed black and white Spectickles cartoon. That's necessary before we move on to the next section - this section, where we discuss what layers are and how we use them in applying color to our cartoons.
First, what is a layer? The way I think about them is they're like a clear piece of plastic that you're going to lay on top of our black and white cartoon. What we do on that clear piece of plastic won't effect the black and white cartoon beneath it, which is something, as you'll see, we'd prefer. And fortunately, with the Clip Studio Paint Pro program, as with most other drawing programs, we can turn the layer on and off for our purposes. So, rather than keep explaining in words only, let's take a look at our screen and talk a bit more about where to find layers and how to set them up.
Here's where we left off in part one, with a completed, formatted black and white Spectickles cartoon.
When it comes to our first steps in adding color to a Spectickles cartoons, we need to turn our attention about mid-way down on the right side of our Clip Studio Paint Pro screen, where we'll have a look at the 'layers' section.
When we left off last time, we had 2 layers - our bottom layer which contains the black and white cartoon, and laid on top of that is our text layer. And remember too, whichever layer is highlighted in that blue/green color is the active layer, or the layer that'll be affected by anything you do in the image. In the area I've circled in red - that's where we click to add another layer, which we'll do now for our color.
As you see highlighted, the active layer is the one we've just added, which is sandwiched between our black and white layer (which for whatever reason is just labeled as 'white' - we'll change that) and the text layer on top.
As we work with our layers, we'll want to keep them straight - we want to know at a glance which one we're working on, so it's useful to label them accordingly. In order to change the name of the layer, just double-click over where you see 'Layer 1'.
When you double click on the layer, the box will open and allow you to relabel. In this case, I've changed the color layer to, oddly enough, color, and the black and white layer to - you guessed it, black and white. Next, you'll notice just above where we relabeled our layer to 'color', it says 100% Normal - we'll need to change that to 'Multiply' so the layer interacts differently with the other layers - you'll see why in the next screen.
In the screen above, you can see I've changed the layer to 'Multiply' from 'Normal'. Do you see where the little lighthouse-looking thingy is next to the blue and yellow pencil icon? Just above that is a dropdown box which now says 'Multiply'. Prior to clicking on the dropdown and making the change it said, 'Normal'. So as I'm sure you've guessed already, click on that box and make the change. The reason we want the layer to 'Multiply' is that when we color, if it's on the 'Normal' setting, it'll color over the layer beneath it, so it looks like your obliterating the underlying black and white. By making the layer, 'Multiply', it'll interact with the layer beneath, so you'll still see your line work as you color.
Now that our layers are all set up, we're ready to have a look again at the left side of the Clip Studio Paint Pro work surface and tools.
The first bit of coloring I do is laying down all the flat colors - the shading comes later. On the left of the screen, I select the pen tool, which is circled in red and labeled 2. Once that's selected, above that labeled 1. is the type of pen, and in this case, my preference in the gel pen - I just like the type of line it produces - pretty much as simple as that. 3. is the width of the pen tip in pixels. If I were drawing lines, I typically use 17, where it's set now. But to begin coloring, I start with the background and make the pen tip really wide - usually over 800 pixels since at this stage, precision isn't required. And of course, below that is our color pallet to choose from.
Because I want your eye to be drawn to the characters, the background color is usually pretty muted. As you can see where I circled on the left, I'm adding the color with the pen tip cranked up to 800 pixels and the color I chose is pretty bland.
When I color the background, I'm not at all concerned with neatness - just get it done and I'll clean up all the white trim areas later.
Next, I start adding color to the characters. Because this husband and wife team are the center of Spectickles, the colors I use, for the most part, should be the same to help make them instantly recognizable - the husband's shirt is always the same blue, and the wife's dress is always the same pink.
When it comes to coloring the characters, I need to be precise in the areas that terminate at another color - coloring within the lines, except in places where it doesn't matter, as you see at the bottom of the cartoon.
More color applied - in this case the wife's hair. See Ma - I'm staying within the lines!
Now that all the flat colors are applied, it's time to clean up around the edges. You can see encircled in red is the eraser tool. That can also be enlarged as needed - you can see here it's currently at 120 pixels.
Here the flat colors and cleanup are all done, and we're ready to start some shading.
One of the really great tools available in Clip Studio Paint Pro, and other programs for that matter, is the 'Magic Wand' tool. When I'm going to apply shading, I'll click on the tool, which is circled in red above, then hover over the area I intend to color, then left click on it. When you do that, the Magic Wand will select that area of contiguous color - you'll see a pulsing dotted line around the area when it's selected, and whatever actions you take will only effect that area. So for shading, I make sure I've got the right color selected that I wish to use for shading, then move down to the next tool we'll talk about, the 'Airbrush' tool.
Above you can (hopefully) the active dotted line that surrounds the area of contiguous color selected by the 'Magic Wand' tool.
Also, when the are you've selected with the 'Magic Wand' is active, an elongated box with show up beneath the area you've selected with a group of additional tools for manipulating the image. But since they go beyond the scope of our current topic, we'll save those for another time. On the left of the screen you can see a tool that I've circled that looks like the top of a can of spray paint - that's the 'Airbrush' tool we'll use. Below that is the spray area - just like with the pen and eraser, measured in pixels.
When you want to deselect the area used with the 'Magic Wand' tool just click on the left-most icon within the elongated box, circled above.
When you use the 'Magic Wand' tool, it will only choose the section of color that is contiguous. If it is separated by another color, it will remain unselected, as circled above.
The final results of using the combination of 'Magic Wand' tool and the 'Airbrush' tool to add a shading effect to the now complete cartoon.
No, this isn't a poorly chosen fashion statement - it's a half-glove I use to prevent the palm of my drawing hand from interacting with the screen as I draw and color. The software is actually really good in preventing it from happening, but I don't have time to discover too late that it didn't work.
Coloring on the Surface Pro 5.
The completed cartoon. Thank you again for spending time here. Up next, the step-by-step process I use in creating the now all digital Percenters cartoons.
I've been asked a number of times on social media about how I color my cartoons. In my last article, "Creating a Spectickles Cartoon From Start To Finish", I described how I drew the physical, or analog version of the cartoon using old fashioned Bristol board and a fountain pen. In this multi-part article, I'll describe in detail how I color my Spectickles cartoons, starting with the foundational formatting required.
First, a few notes regarding the equipment and software that I use for coloring. As mentioned above, the cartoon itself starts traditionally with pen and ink. Once the initial artwork is completed, I scan it into my computer with an older Epson Artisan 710 multi-function copier/scanner/printer. The settings for scanning are black and white at 400 dpi. The computer I use for my artwork is a Surface Pro 5, replacing my Surface Pro 4 which fell out of the backseat of my truck without any protective case. I chose poorly. My Surface Pro 5 is now encased in an Otter Box case, which, to my understanding will replace my Surface Pro if it breaks while the Otter Box is in use. I hope I don't find out.
The software I use is the Clip Studio Paint Pro program from Smith Micro. It's a fantastic program for cartoonists and artists, and at a one-time cost of around $50, it's far cheaper than the Adobe Creative Suite and Photoshop, and, in my opinion, better and more intuitive for our uses. On a side note, there's a free program called Krita that I'll be writing about in the future that's stacking up very well with the other professional art program, and again, it's absolutely free. As a career military man, I've found it useful in instruction to explain things in as great a detail as possible, so that anyone could pick up a set of instructions and put into action its contents immediately. That's what I've tried to do here, so even if you have no experience with coloring digitally, these descriptions will guide you through and answer questions before they're asked. For those who are experienced and skilled in digital art, you'll almost certainly know better and more efficient ways to produce these results, and I hope you'll share that with me and our readers in the comments section below.
The Surface Pro 5 tablet/computer that is the digital workhouse for my cartooning. I draw and color directly on the screen with the digital pen you see magnetically attached to the side of the Surface Pro.
The digital pen that's part of the Surface Pro creative system. At the time I purchased the Surface Pro 4, the tablet came with the pen included. For some unfortunate reason, when I purchased the Surface Pro 5, the pen was a separate cost of $99. Hopefully, they'll abandon that pricing model and go back to including it with the tablet, as part of the tablet's normal functional system.
Okay, getting into the meat and potatoes of coloring a Spectickles cartoon: first, I open the Clip Studio Paint Pro Program and as you see circled in red above, I go to 'file', then in the drop-down, select 'open' and choose the cartoon I just scanned as you'll see below.
Here's the untouched scan of the cartoon I'd drawn in pen and ink. There's a great deal of white space around the edges that I'll need to trim away.
To trim away the unnecessary white space surrounding the cartoon block, you'll see in the image above where I've circled 'edit'. When you click on that, you'll see a dropdown box with a number of editing choices. For the sake of trimming away the extra material, select, 'Change Canvas Size'.
After selecting, 'Change Canvas Size', you should see something like the image above, with a small window on the left to allow you to enter a precise number of pixels for the width or height.
Rather than selecting a pixel dimension in the small window, you'll see the small tabs on the edges of the image that I've circled in red. An alternative, and the method I use, is to 'grab' those tabs and pull them in to the area I want them, thereby cutting away unnecessary white space on the edges of the image, as you'll see below.
Once you're satisfied with the trimming of the image, click 'okay' in the 'Change Canvas Size' window, leaving the image ready for the next step, adding dialogue.
In the image above, you'll see where I circled and pointed in red 3 different areas to have a look at. First, for my Spectickles cartoons, I use Times New Roman for the gag line, and the lettering is sized at 30 pixels, as seen in the uppermost red circle. Next, in the bottom circle, I make sure the color of the text is selected; in this case, it's black. Now I'm ready to add the text, so in the middle red circle is the 'text' selection symbol. Click on that, then position your cursor at the point you wish to begin your text line.
Once your text line is typed, you'll be able to resize or position using the green tabs surrounding the text box. Just click on a tab and pull it away toward the edge of the window to make it larger, or push it in on itself to reduce the size. You can also reposition the text window itself.
When you're happy with your gag line, click on the circle I've indicated above. Once you've done that, you'll notice the text window is still active - just click on any of the tools on the left to deactivate. I usually just click on the top-most tool, the pen tool.
Now that your gag line is complete, you'll want to trim away the extra white space below it, and just as we did before, we go to 'edit', the 'Change Canvas Size', then adjust accordingly and click 'ok' to close the window and move on to the next step.
We'll cover layers in much greater detail in our next article, but for now, we need to note that the active layer, after just finishing our gag line, is the text layer. Since the next step requires us to manipulate the image, not the text, we'll need to click on the bottom layer.
Once you've clicked on the bottom layer, it should be highlighted, as you see circled above, and therefore active, ready for us to make changes as necessary.
For newspapers, I have to provide two versions of every Spectickles cartoon; a black and white version for print newspapers, and a full color version for their webpages. For the black and white version to work as a stand-alone cartoon, it needs more bold black to stand out and to give the image greater fullness. I've circled the areas above to indicate the items that typically appear in bold black in the black and white print version of Spectickles.
Since I have to create two complete cartoons every single day, seven days a week - each one with multiple versions, I have to work as efficiently as I know how. One of the very handy tools I use to fill in areas with color (in this instance, black), is the 'paintbucket' tool, which I'll explain below.
Before we use the 'paintbucket' tool, there's something we have to do first. We have to 'seal' the areas within which we intend to fill with black. As indicated by the red circles above, when I drew the hard copy version of the cartoon, I didn't extend the black lines all the way so that they connect with another black line, thereby 'sealing' that area. If you don't do this step, when you use the 'paintbucket' tool, it won't know where you want the paint to stop. Just as with real paint, if you pour it onto a surface with nothing to block its flow, it'll just keep going.
In the image above you can see (compare with the image above this one) where I used the Surface Pro pen and connected the black line, effectively 'sealing' the area I intend to fill with black using the 'paintbucket' tool.
On the left are the row of tools available in Clip Studio Paint Pro. You can see in the uppermost red circle the 'paintbucket' tool which looks, ironically, like a paint bucket. Below that, make sure you've selected black as the fill color for the black and white version of the cartoon.
Hover the paintbucket tool over the area you wish to fill with black, left click, and there you have it - the area is filled with black. It's a super important time saver when you have a great deal of work to finish.
If you've made a mistake, or forgot to 'seal' an area to be filled, the red circle above indicates the 'undo' button - click on it once and it undoes whatever you'd like undone. The nice thing about the 'undo' button in Clip Studio, is that it will undo as many things as you wish - there's no limit just in case you've made a mistake well back in your process. In Photoshop, there's a limited number of things you can 'undo'.
Very, very important - don't forget to save your work - indicated in the red circle above. As I've learned the hard way many times, save frequently, so you won't have to waste lots of time doing work you'd already satisfactorily completed.
In the next installment of this series, we'll get into the meaning and use of layers, how to create them, putting down the flat colors, then shading, and saving them. Thank you for reading this!
I've been wanting to put out a collection of my Percenters cartoons for a long time, and finally sat down to get it done and see it published. This collection is, in a way, my tribute to magazine cartoonists past and present, who've inspired me to want to be better as an artist and writer. The legendary cartoonists of The New Yorker, Barron's, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, among others - this is my humble attempt to honor them. While I've never been published in The New Yorker, there is considerable satisfaction and joy in pursuing that aim; to strive to be better, and look to those who've paved the way as the map to follow.
In the book, "The Percenters: A Cartoon Collection" I've included 150 of the most popular Percenters cartoons, along with how they came to be, how they've changed over time, and the step-by-step process I follow in creating them. For those who decide to purchase the book, it's available in both digital and hard copy versions through Amazon.com. I hope you find value in it, and I look forward to your feedback.
In the world of cartooning, few things are perceived as 'ultimate success' more than syndication. Cartoon characters such as Garfield and Snoopy have woven their way into the national fabric, and made their creators wealthy beyond their wildest imaginations. Calvin and Hobbes have enjoyed an unparalleled level of success, and Calvin can still be seen desecrating the name of various auto manufacturers on the rear windows of a hefty number of pick-up trucks winding through the roads of America, much to the chagrin of their creator.
So, what is syndication and how does it work? First, I must state that I am not syndicated with one of the major syndicates. My work is distributed nationally in the Funnies Extra through Ink Bottle Syndicate, led by Bill Kellogg who has made the comic Tundra one of the more successful dailies in the marketplace - over 500 newspapers. But I, like most cartoonists in the early stages of their careers, read everything I could on the subject (see resources below), and have a reasonable handle on the process and potential outcomes.
A syndicate acts as a powerful sales force on behalf of a cartoonist. They represent and distribute cartoons to newspapers nationwide and, in some cases, internationally, for which they receive approximately half of the revenue generated by the comic. That figure varies depending on the success of the feature, and the negotiating skills of the attorneys involved.
Gaining the interest of a syndicate is, in itself, an enormous achievement. King Features Syndicate, for one, receives thousands of submissions every month from cartoonists, covering a wide spectrum of talent levels. Much of the wave of submissions they open are of a high, professional quality, yet they still end up in the rejection pile. Not only does your cartoon need to be of the highest standard, it has to be consistent in quality, it has to have sufficiently developed characters that will be engaging to a diminishing reading public over time, and it has to be unique in a world awash with cute puppies, talking cats, and unique, kooky families.
If you find yourself with an indication of interest from a major syndicate, you still must be prepared for significant challenges. As you likely already know, the newspaper markets are continuing to shrink, and those that remain have desperately tight budgets. Supposing you are offered a development deal, the income you can expect will be insufficient to pursue cartooning full time. Even after a successful launch, and a well established feature, many syndicated cartoonists now have other full time careers in order to pay their living expenses. There are still a few comic leviathans making a handsome income from their cartoons, but many of them are 'legacy strips' - those that were started long ago by a now deceased cartoonist, and continued by a family member, or an artist appointed by the syndicate.
Depressed yet? Don't be. Yours may be the feature that connects with a public starving for something new and fresh, and a big syndicate may put it's massive marketing power behind you and your cartoon. But what if it doesn't? Is it the end of the road for your work? Hardly. As mentioned earlier, I'm represented by a small syndicate run by Bill Kellogg. Bill single-handedly approached newspaper editors around the country and succeeded in getting the very funny "Tundra" comic into 500 newspapers. If I'm not mistaken (and I very well could be), the average income per 100 newspapers was around $40,000 per year, give or take. That number has likely decreased since I'd heard that figure, but if it's still reasonably correct, that's $200,000 from the newspapers alone. Certainly a livable income (depending, of course, on your tastes!)
Self-syndication is the process of acting as your own sales force, marketing agency, and, of course, creator - in effect, your own syndicate. While this is a challenging and time-consuming route, there are also significant benefits. First, you keep all the money rather than split it with someone else. That means that you'll need fewer newspapers to sign your feature in order to make a livable income. Second, you can be assured your strip is getting the backing it deserves. If a syndicate's sales force doesn't get behind your strip, regardless of its potential, it'll end up a flop and the syndicate will terminate your contract. With you driving sales, you'll have your fingers on the pulse of the market-place, and you will determine the ultimate outcome. Have a look at the List of Newspapers - there's links to 25,000 different papers broken down by country. By contacting their features editors or managing editors, you may find yourself with a very viable cartoon property.
While the traditional syndication route has lost much of its financial potential and momentum in conventional print markets, it's hardly the end of the road. A new dynamic is emerging, and cartoonists with ambition, drive, and a good product stand to do very well. As with all things, having perseverance, a clear goal, and a vision for the future, are the ingredients for a successful and fulfilling career in cartooning.
For more information, I'd recommend (among others), the following resources:
Successful Syndication: A Guide for Writers and Cartoonists
Your Career in the Comics
How to Be a Successful Cartoonist
How to Self Syndicate a Comic Strip
Selling Cartoons To Newspapers
Bill Kellogg Launches New Comic Syndicate
Ink Bottle Syndicate
NCS Syndicate Directory
While syndication today has changed significantly in terms of distribution and financial rewards, for many it remains the brass ring of professional achievement. My single panel cartoon, "Spectickles" was picked up by Creators Syndicate in 2016 and launched in October of that year. More recently, my New Yorker magazine-style cartoon called The Percenters was signed into a syndication contract with Knight Features in the UK in October of 2017. While I'm certainly no expert, I frequently get asked by fellow cartoonists for advice, and it's in this spirit I put together this article of resources.
First, identifying the available syndicates. To my knowledge, those listed below are still accepting submissions, presumably with the intent of signing the most marketable. Markets are in a state of rapid change, so it may be of value to email them first to be sure they are accepting submissions. If there are others that I've missed, feel free to comment below, and I'll update this article. We'll start with the major U.S. syndicates, and we'll branch out from there.
King Features - Snail mail submissions only - Submission Guidelines
Creators Syndicate - Online submissions - Submission Guidelines
Andrews McMeel/Universal Uclick/GoComics - Online or snail mail - Submission Guidelines
Washington Post Writer's Group - email - see near bottom of page - Submission Guidelines
Tribune Content Agency - Online submissions - Submission Guidelines
Torstar - Submission Guidelines
Canadian Artist's Syndicate - Submission Guidelines
Knight Features - Submission Guidelines
Bulls Press - Submission Guidelines
Auspac Media - Submission Guidelines
Now that we've identified who to send your comic to, we should talk about what to send them. First, I would advise reading the submission guidelines carefully, and provide exactly what they're asking for, and in the format in which they indicate. Second, in my opinion, there's no need to get elaborate or gimmicky with your submission packet - it's not going to help. Your work will speak entirely for itself, and extra stuff will be a waste of your time and theirs. My submission packet to Creators included a brief cover letter detailing my experience as a cartoonist, including published credits, 24 color Spectickles encapsulated into a PDF document, which went to them as an attachment via their submissions page (link provided above). That's it. I thought it would be wisest to be respectful of their valuable time and not pack it with material that wasn't immediately relevant to their decision. A hard copy submission would be the same material in printed form.
A question that's frequently asked is whether or not to send your comic to syndicates one at a time, wait for an offer or a rejection before sending it to the next syndicate. I always advise to send out a simultaneous submission, and here's why: as a matter of percentages, you are unlikely to get a bite on your first submission. It happens, but I wouldn't count on it. In a worse case scenario, you get more than one offer, and you can decide which one best suits you. Again, this is unlikely, but you never know.
Once your submission goes out, I recommend getting right back to work and forgetting about it. Keep creating your very best work, keep exploring new ideas, enhancing drawing and writing skills, and growing as a cartoonist. Some syndicates will send out a formal rejection letter, others will notify you by email, and still others will answer with unrelenting silence. Waiting in a state of vibrating anticipation will only drive you crazy, so you'd be best served thinking about what you'll be creating next.
I sincerely hope this brief resource article will be helpful to those seeking syndication. More than that, I hope to see new faces in the comics pages, and new success stories from my fellow cartoonists - whether you know it or not, you bring a great deal of smiles, joy, and diversion to a world in desperate need of it, and I applaud you for your contributions.
I was recently going through the catalogue of my work, and couldn't help but notice how, over the years the appearance of my main characters has changed. When I first got started about 17 years ago, I drew characters as I had learned from the books I was reading at the time: "Cartooning: The Art and the Business" by great New Yorker cartoonist Mort Gerberg, and "The Cartoonist's Muse" by Mischa Richter and Harald Bakken, also of New Yorker fame.
I used India ink on Bristol board and added shading with an ink wash applied with a sable brush. It was an immensely enjoyable time as I learned the art and the various techniques employed by my favorite cartoonists.
I'd started to develop a modest body of work, and since my military obligations prevented me from conducting any meaningful, consistent marketing, I submitted my work to the relatively new Cartoonstock agency in the UK. To my surprise, they were willing to represent my work, which resulted in the first cartooning-related contract I ever signed. In addition to their representation, the good people at Cartoonstock, in particular Joel Mishon, offered advice to help improve the prospects for my work, notably, making my characters more cartoonish rather than realistic. With a little experimentation, I gave my characters a rounder head and a more squat appearance, like below:
Like almost every cartoonist I know, I'd hoped someday to see my cartoon in syndication. I'd submitted to all the major syndicates, and some not so major, all with the same result - not so much as a human-signed response, just a string of form rejection letters. Truthfully, when I look at my work now, it's apparent I just wasn't ready. Add to that, I continued to deploy in the military, and syndication would have resulted in disaster.
As I continued to produce my work, I began to add physical features that I found humorous. I noted that whenever I saw glasses in other comics, it seemed to me, there was something just a little more visually humorous. As a person who has worn glasses all my life, I'm not sure that's a good thing. At first the glasses I drew were either round or square, as below:
When I drew the glasses, I intentionally left them entirely blank - no indication of the position or shape of the eye, and no color other than a bland white. I'd read somewhere that the human mind tends to fill in the blanks when there's a piece of a picture that's missing, which for a cartoonist, could be a benefit. People import to their visual stimuli things that they've drawn from their own experiences and recollections. They actually fill in the blanks in a way that makes the visual stimuli most sensible - even personal - to them. So often I post a cartoon, and the feedback I get on what people interpret in it is varied and sometimes surprising. To me, that's a great thing - we see what we want to see, and it can make the cartoon funnier than anything I could ever draw.
I'm a big fan of the cartoon "Herman" by Jim Unger, and I thought he used open space and simplicity to the point of brilliance. While I tend to draw in a fuller, less airy style, I would be remiss if I didn't mention this comic genius as someone who had a definite impact on my work.
The next period in the evolution of my characters was the result of actually sitting down and reflecting on the physical characteristics and elements that I find humorous. From that, the glasses evolved into the type that my great grandparents wore - the horn-rimmed glasses of the 1950's and 60's. And since I took Joel Mishon's advice to heart, I made them big. Really big.
At this point, my characters started to become identifiable as "Spectickles". With a little tweaking along the way, including the inspiration of Walter Matthau and Ethel Merman, my "Spectickles" characters were more or less complete. Since being syndicated, first by Inkbottle Syndicate in 2014, then with Creators Syndicate in 2016, "Spectickles" has been refined further still. Who knows if they'll transition more in the future - we shall see!
"Spectickles" One Year Anniversary In Syndication With Creators Syndicate - Experiences and Observations
October 5th marks the one year anniversary of Spectickles launch with Creators Syndicate. I thought I'd take this opportunity to share primarily with my fellow cartoonists, but also with anyone with a general interest, the experiences, observations, and insights I've gained over this time. It's my hope that others seeking syndication, or cartooning as a career, find some benefit in what I write here, so here goes.
First, it must be said that what follows is my experience - it's not to say that others who've been syndicated during the same time period have observed the same things - they may not. But this is one perspective that is offered sincerely and as accurately as I can recollect.
In the early spring of 2016, I'd taken a step back and reassessed what I was doing as a cartoonist, and what I hoped to achieve. At that time, I'd been working with a small newspaper syndicate and had some minor successes, but wanted to know if my work had any chance at being considered by a major syndicate with international reach. Truthfully, I didn't think my chances were very good. The remaining major syndicates, King, Universal Uclick (along with GoComics), Creators, and Washington Post Writer's Group, receive thousands of submissions a year, many from exceptionally talented cartoonists.
One Friday afternoon, I put 24 color Spectickles cartoons into a PDF document and followed the submission instructions on the Creators Syndicate website. As I'd mentioned, I figured my chances were slim to none, and once I clicked the 'submit' button on the bottom of the page, I'd put it out of my mind - the cartoonist's version of 'fire and forget'. Monday morning arrived and I found an email from Creators. One thing you grow accustomed to quickly as a cartoonist is rejection. Fully expecting the Creators email to be a quick, polite, thank you, but no thank you, I clicked on it with the cursor already moving toward the 'delete' button. It took a solid thirty seconds or more to register that, within the body of the email, the words, 'we'd like to offer you a contract' were written. Well, that can't be right, so I read it again. And again, and many more times before it actually sank in.
Have you ever had an experience where you're somewhat bored, your heartrate is low, your breathing very relaxed, and then something happens, and all the dials in your body get cranked to 11? It's like the carnival game where you take a big, heavy mallet, and swinging it as hard as you can to try to strike the bell at the top - the electricity that goes screaming through your body and ringing the bell in your head - it was just like that.
My wife and I went out to celebrate, taking full advantage of the joy a moment like this brings, then started the more down-to-earth tasks that must necessarily follow. I contacted my attorney - the only attorney, in my opinion, you want to negotiate your cartoon-related contracts, Mr. Stu Rees - a world-class cartoonist himself. Stu wrote his Harvard thesis - a must read for cartoonists - on syndication contracts. After some productive phone calls and email back-and-forths, we had struck a deal.
It was decided that the launch date for Spectickles through Creators Syndicate would be October 5th, 2016. A word here about launch expectations in 2016 as compared to what might have been experienced in the past. Due to the brutally challenging nature of the newspaper business today, and the razor thin margins on which they now exist, launching with ANY papers will be tough. There are no quick decisions any longer - getting your comic in a newspaper is now a process, and often a very lengthy one, if it gets in at all. That's a stark difference from the two competing newspapers per city days, where you might launch with anywhere from 20 to 100 newspapers. That's exceptionally important to know for those seeking syndication. There once was a time when you achieved syndication, all your financial needs would be met very soon after launch. While it's possible that still happens, I haven't heard of any recent instances of it. More realistically, syndication, while still an enormous achievement, will for the foreseeable future, only represent a relatively minor second income generated from full-time work and commitment. The idea would be that, over time, you'll slowly but steadily add newspapers to your client list, and supplement that revenue through opportunities in licensing (greeting cards, calendars, books, etc.), and eventually, the income will rise to a survivable level.
The other major change in syndication would be the role the cartoonist plays in his or her own success. In days past, a cartoonist would provide the daily content, to the best of his or her ability, and the syndicate would do the rest. You draw, they sell, they send you a check every quarter, you eat filet mignon from the sundeck of your yacht, repeat. Today, it's very much different. You could still do that - the syndicate, to my knowledge, makes no further demands of you, but in my opinion, your growth and potential will be severely hindered if you don't take an active role, particularly through social media. Think of it like this: how much perceived risk do you remove for a potential client, whether it's a newspaper editor or creative director at a greeting card company, when your work arrives with a dedicated following? Based on numerous conversations I've had with editors in the past, that means a great deal.
Another realization that you become immediately aware of; it doesn't matter how you feel, what happens in your life, what personal tragedy might befall you - you have to deliver on-time regardless. Imagine getting up in the morning to find you've got a rough case of the flu that ends up lasting for days or more, or someone dear to you passes away, or any number of impactful, challenging possibilities - you still have to produce top-notch material to be delivered on time. If you're late, you get fined. Substantially.
Enough of the doom and gloom - how about some positive stuff? When you get into your groove in syndication, you'll likely find your characters developing in ways you hadn't foreseen, and that's a joy. With that, your audience begins to identify with your creations, and communicates with you. That feedback and interaction with your audience is a reward unto itself. For me, the people who spend time on my Bill Abbott Cartoons Facebook page feel very much like an extension of my family. Their support, their enthusiasm, and their kind comments provide additional drive and motivation to do the best work I'm capable of.
Again, I can speak only of my own experience, but I've found that the people at Creators Syndicate are not only top shelf professionals, they make you feel like family. I've read of some cartoonists speaking of syndication in a negative, corporate way, but I'm grateful not to have found it so. From my editor, to the sales staff, to the operations manager, to the president of the company, they've all been accessible and genuinely invested in my work. That's a great feeling.
With regards to the income generated, as mentioned, in the beginning it will be light. But over time, you may see that number grow significantly. I've been very fortunate to see new newspapers added to the Spectickles client list just about every quarter so far. And I know that represents a lot of work and dedication on behalf of the Creators sales staff. Additionally, your income won't be limited to newspaper revenue only; the syndicate is constantly looking for markets for your work through licensing and new media markets. While challenging, great potential still exists. Don't forget, Hollywood pays attention to the comics pages, and some major deals have been struck there too.
For my fellow cartoonists, I would summarize my advice, based on this first year of lessons learned, like this: however good your work already is, keep pushing and seeking ways to make it even better. Focus on audience-building though social media - syndicates will certainly factor that in when they decide whether or not to take you onboard. Be fully aware of what you're committing to, and prepare as needed - syndication is a wonderful achievement, but it comes at a price, and it's not negotiable. Be ready to do more for yourself - you're a business and it requires much more than if you were an employee. This is a tough one - find balance in your life. The pressures of creating quality work that will be seen, and judged by millions of people can cause stress, which impacts other areas of your life. Make and take time for the people you care about, and get away from cartooning enough to allow your batteries to recharge.
Wrapping up, my first year in syndication has exceeded my expectations. I've learned a lot, improved some I think, and have reason to believe the best days as a syndicated cartoonist lie ahead. I'd also like to think that my best Spectickles cartoon has yet to be written.