Incredibly rich cartoonist Winsor McCay hosting a dinner party.
Working full time as a cartoonist is a wonderful dream. Some people get a chance to do it. But it’s a hard life. As a successful cartoonist told me once, “sometimes I make $100,000 a year, and sometimes I make $10,000. You just never know.” And that’s a successful cartoonist. Most of us are lucky to earn minimum wage a year, and you have to hustle for it. You can’t just make your comic. You have to be hitting up your editors, or making merchandise to sell, or looking at advertising. Some cartoonists share their struggles, and in my own brief experience trying it out, I agree.
After I graduated from the Center for Cartoon Studies, I moved back home with some prospects. I had a couple of publishers interested in my work, and I had work-for-hire with SpongeBob Comics. I figured I’d make up the rest of my income doing freelance design work. I made it work for about 5 months but I noticed a few things. One, I was spending a lot of time trying to get work and two, I was lonely. Cartooning (and freelance design) is a life of solitude. A little over two years ago I signed up to be the Creative Director at B² Interactive and I’ve loved every moment of it.
Let me take you back to 1994
I was about a semester away from graduating high school and I was not interested in college. I wanted to move to New York City and draw for Marvel Comics. This was the boom years for comics, remember. And if you saw some of the art Marvel was pumping out monthly, it was conceivable that I could get work if I tried. I remember driving with my father one day and he asked me what I wanted to do. College application deadlines were fast approaching. I told him my dream. And he said “no.”
He told me I could either go to college, or I could go to work in the warehouse with him (or join the Navy1). This was one of the best things to ever happen to me.
I hated that warehouse. I applied for college.
I graduated in 1999 with a double major in Graphic Design and Art and a minor in English.
Graphic Design is the Best
I love design. I can’t stress it enough. I love graphic design. I’m creative all day, but it’s a job. Graphic design is a service (and sometimes an art). And I learned all the old production methods. I did paste up. I carried a toolbox full of rubber cement, razor blades, and Rapidographs2. I learned how to take apart and hack my computers for more performance. I got into web design on the ground floor. I can visually communicate an idea to a mass audience.
That knowledge has informed my art. And my art is comics. I can build a webcomic site by hand. I know pre-press, or even how to bind books by hand. I often don’t have to meassure when I cut; I can just eyeball it. But the real magic comes in the drawing. I can visually communicate a story to you. The faculty of CCS are fond of saying that comics are a perfect combination of graphic design and poetry. I agree with that statement.
And the best thing is that I have a career. When the going gets tough (and oh man has it), I can find work. Going on twenty years of selling myself and my talent, and I can always find work.
And part of the reason I love graphic design is that when it comes to comics, it is not a job. It’s my passion, and I get to dictate the terms of how I engage it. Especially in this day and age of webcomics, you don’t need a publisher to get your comics out to the world. There are no barriers anymore3.
I also don’t worry about money with graphic design. I had a flat tire today, and it was an annoyance. Talk to a full time cartoonist with a flat tire and it’s a big deal. When I had open heart surgery, I was just concerned about surviving the surgery, not how I would pay for it.
The best part of working in graphic design for so long: I work with a lot of different businesses. I have to learn their business back and forth. I apply those lessons to how I sell my comics and myself as a cartoonist.
I’m a creative director for an agency now. Which is weird. I like getting my hands dirty and pushing pixels. But I’ve proven to the world that I have vision. So I write copy sometimes (and duties as assigned) and I set the creative standard for the agency as a whole. I’m the idea guy. And the boss. I teach and mentor more than I create now. I love it. I love waking up in the morning and I look forward to seeing my employees at 9am for our daily standup meeting. We joke. We laugh. We hit it hard4. My plans for the day never happen; I always get sidelined. How do we move this trade show display to another city? How can I convert this to a PDF? Have do I convince this business owner to trust us? Can we turn this room soundproof for recording video? Can I get some business cards for tomorrow?
The answer is always “yes.” I come home late, and I sit down at my drawing board. I grab my brush and my ink and I smile. I’m living life on my terms, and I like my life.
- I was almost a sailor, hand to God. The only thing that kept me out of the service were my bum knees from trying to play football. I was in the pipeline for boot camp until I shared that with my recruiter. ↩
- I know a lot of cartoonists love Rapidographs, but I hate them. They never had to draw pica perfect lines with them. Talk about stress. They are more complicated than a gun to clean, and the nibs break if you look at them wrong. ↩
- Which is a good thing and a bad thing sometimes. It’s hard to seperate yourself from the noise. ↩
- I said this one day in a meeting and my team has made fun of me ever since for saying it. They’re all young and I don’t think they’ve heard the saying before that moment. And I love that they make fun of me for it because honestly, it is a strange phrase. ↩