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.
We've talked about this on Facebook, and I think it would be a lot of fun. At the same time, I want to keep it simple, straight forward, and sustainable. So here's how we'll do it. Every Wednesday, I'm going to post a cartoon with no caption - a cartoon that will have appeared in newspapers just a day or two previously, but has yet to be seen on social media. On Thursday, we'll all vote on our favorite caption, and on Friday, I'll post the winning caption alongside mine as it appeared in newspapers. How does that sound? While there won't be prizes, we should have a great time with it. And as always, if you have an idea for making it better or more fun, I'm all ears - just lest me know. How about them apples?
First, thank you for coming here to read this. The motivation behind going from my previous website to this is really two-fold. We've got such an amazing group of people on social media, and it's a joy to share my work every day But there's been a number of issues that, in my mind, require having at least a solid back-up plan. A place to go if, for example, Facebook suffers a continuation or expansion of the current crop of hackers who go in and steal accounts. If something doesn't appear right, it probably isn't, and so now there'll be a place where we can interact and carry on without interference. The second reason is that my previous site, while very technically advanced and well set up by the company I paid to create it, was beyond my capacity to add things and change when I wanted. While this site will be simpler, it will have a great deal more in terms of features and things I can share with you. And as needs must, I can make changes, add fun pages, and interact with you more personally and fully. I will be sharing and writing a great deal more about the art, business, history, and all things cartooning, too. I'm hoping the comments section will be actively used. Your feedback is so important. Thank you again for being here, and I look forward to building this site into a fun place to hangout! So, for Heaven's sake, please dress appropriately.