Monday, January 8, 2024

My Origin Story

Me around age 14, holding a tempera painting I did of Dr. Strange. I didn't have much juvenilia even before my 2017 wildfire; now I don't have anything but a few photos and scans that survived on my computer backup drive.

I've just discovered a thing going around where artists and cartoonists talk about how they got their start. I don't usually bite at "things going around" but this one intrigued me, so:

"My whole life as far back as I can remember."

That's the short, best, honest answer. Always loved to draw. Always loved comics, or any text combined with visuals in general. I remember being very young and transfixed by rotating neon signs and animated logos on TV. If words were colorful or moved, they had my rapt attention. 

I began submitting comics strips to syndicates when I was about 13. Was sure I'd be the world's first 14-year-old syndicated cartoonist. I wasn't.

I also submitted pages of superhero art to DC and Marvel in my late teens and early 20s. (For a long time, my drawing style was "realistic"; I didn't develop the more "cartoony" style I've used in all my graphic novels until I was 25 or so.) At one point, DC asked to see more samples to decide if I was worth hiring. I wasn't.

Did cartoons and graphics for my college paper. After graduation, when I got my first job as a newspaper reporter, I also did cartoons and graphics for my small daily paper. Learned a ton about photostats, paste-up, color separations, and the nuts and bolts of printing that still serves me well. Tried to get work at bigger papers. I didn't.

An illustration I did when I was a newspaper reporter. This isn't my best artwork, even for the time, but I did it very fast on deadline so I'm inordinately proud of it. Graphic journalism. And yes, there is a street in Woodland, Calif. called "Dead Cat Alley."

Spent my 20s and 30s submitting comic strips to syndicates. Caught the eye of King Features editor Jay Kennedy, who worked with me for more than a year to see if one of my strips was worth signing. It wasn't.

Me trying to be Gary Larson. I wasn't.

Tried to see if I could be a single-panel gag cartoonist, like Charles Addams or Roz Chast. I couldn't.  

Created and tried to sell a children's picture book. Didn't. 

One picture book idea: a girl is drawn through a telescope and explores the universe. Kind of a Magic School Bus thing. All watercolor, I liked this one.

During those years, I also picked up whatever freelance cartooning and illustrating work I could. I illustrated a lightbulb catalog once. They come in a surprising assortment of shapes and sizes.

A lightbulb in its package. I drew about a hundred of them for a catalog once.

When I was in my early 40s, my mother was diagnosed and treated for metastatic lung cancer, and I decided to tell my family's story in the form of a webcomic. Although I had scant professional cartooning credits, I had sufficient experience and skill to pull it off. 

Went viral. Won some awards. Got a book deal. Instant 30-year success story. Now enjoying a half-assed career and working on my fifth graphic novel. 

I use my story as an example of perseverance. I didn't "make it" in my teens, 20s or 30s as I'd hoped, but I kept trying. I wasn't single-mindedly obsessive about it--I had other careers and a marriage and kids and a life. But I plugged away as I could. 

I also use my story to explain how nobody has the Magic Answer or Secret Recipe. This is why I have no advice for anyone starting out; what worked for me won't work for you. Everybody I know who made it has a different origin story. 

All I can suggest is this: do a lot of work and cast it out into the world however you can. Someday, if you're skilled and lucky, one of those seeds you plant will bloom, but you'll have no idea which one until you look back years later, when it will seem like it was inevitable.

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