"Honey I Wanna Be a Cartoonist" The Flip Side

So it's 1991 and we have a baby, (John at first remembered me being pregnant, but when we went back through stuff we discovered we already had our oldest child) we have a mortgage, and I'm only working part time. John comes home from a long day at work and says "I've decided to become a cartoonist."


What would you say? Because your husband has just basically said "I'd like to stop being grossly underpaid as a graphic designer and become grossly underpaid drawing comics that may or may not ever be published."

What did I say?

I said "Cool!" 

Seriously, I did. Because I think cartooning is one of the coolest jobs ever. Also, I had been tossing the idea of comedy writing around in my head for a few years and had decided that, while I could see myself writing material for someone else, I really couldn't see myself doing stand-up. John and I had already written the occasional cartoon for family and friends and had enjoyed working together, so this seemed a logical step for us.

Of course, it wasn't quite as simple as that. We had to figure out exactly how one does this thing of becoming a cartoonist. Decisions about format had to be made - single panel cartoons ala Gary Larsen vs. a three or four panel comic strip. A daily syndicated strip or freelance magazine illustrations/cartoons. We chose to go for a daily newspaper strip. Characters had to be chosen and they needed a direction. John had a real flair for drawing comic animals and a tremendously strong background in outdoor scenes so we settled on a cast of talking animals set in the Pacific Northwest and called it Second Nature. In hindsight, the setting may not have been our best choice as we have lived 90 percent of our lives in the stunningly flat midwest. But mountains are more fun to draw. 

John got busy and started creating the main cast, naming them, and drawing them in a variety of situations. We had regular writing sessions and established a work routine that we could slip in around our other jobs. We were having a blast. We decided it was time to figure out the next step. The internet was just starting to gain traction and my sister suggested we start posting the cartoons there. This was something we could not bring ourselves to do. I think at the time our biggest fear was piracy and copyright protection. With my background in the music business we had plenty of stories of songwriters being ripped off. We decided instead to pursue syndication. Great. How do you do that? Well, John went to the library and picked up a copy of Editor and Publisher and it told him exactly what to do to submit to the syndicates. It also gave the addresses of all the people to contact. We got busy putting together submissions that followed the guidelines set down by the syndicates and sent the material off with high hopes.

Within a few months we heard back from Jay Kennedy at King Features. He actually called John up on the phone to discuss the strip and request more samples. Well, we were pretty excited I can tell you, and sure we were on our way to syndication. Some rejection letters started to come in from the other syndicates but our spirits weren't really dampened - Jay liked them and we figured that was enough. Within a month we sent the other requested samples. Shortly after receiving them, Jay called to say King was passing on the strip at that time, but wanted to be kept in the loop for anything else John developed. Eventually all the other syndicates passed as well but we kept at it and put together a sort of self syndication mailing. It started with family and friends but spread pretty widely before postage and logistics got to be too much. I want to say we kept on with Second Nature for about two years before abandoning it in favor of another strip.

We learned a lot from our efforts on Second Nature. A lot about the syndication process, the comics business, and publishing in general. But the most important thing we learned was that it was very challenging to work together that intensely on a creative project and stay happily married. Especially since we now had another child on the way and carving out quiet time to toss ideas around was going to be harder to come by. If you look closely at the strips here you'll see both our names in the signature. The drawing was all John but the ideas and actual writing were about 50/50. I think one problem with having both our names on the strip was that we were both very emotionally invested in our own visions for it and found it difficult to compromise or come up with a solution when we firmly disagreed on a punchline.  I was also discovering I had less energy for writing seven strips a week. We decided to go ahead and develop another strip that would be purely John's. The result was a strip called Bill which can be seen here. (Scroll to the bottom of the page if you go to this link)

John worked on Bill for quite a while and continued his graphics job and I turned my energy more to my music career and the kids. "Bill" took a lot longer to pull together because, in the middle of it, John made the decision to leave the firm in Chicago and go out on his own as a freelance designer. He came up with some good stuff while working on Bill but something seemed to be missing and he ultimately scrapped it.

After some time away from cartooning in general John started another strip called Edison and we decided to try working together again. This time I was adamant that I did not want my name on it and that it should be primarily his creation - I would contribute in a more editorial role, giving him my opinion when he wanted it and pitching ideas when I could. 

Edison went through a lot of different stages that are detailed in John's lab notes here and here  (parts 5 and 6) and we settled into a good pattern of working together. Currently the process mainly consists of John running raw scripts by me for input and then again once the strips are penciled up. Sometimes we actually sit down in a brainstorming session and write like we used to, every once in a while I write a whole strip from start to finish, often John just asks me if I can tweak a punchline and many times I simply say "These are great! I wouldn't change a thing." My other  jobs are coloring, which I have already mentioned in  a previous post, following the comics business on the internet, and now this blog.  All in all though, I have the easy job. Because I don't have the burden of all that writing I can also pull back and get some space from the characters. John is the one who has to find a way to stay energized about the strip 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I personally think he does a terrific job and I am so proud to be part of this strip. 

Would I still say "Cool!"



  1. Just found your blog via Sandra Bell-Lundy's, and really like and appreciate it. I'll be a regular. In particular, the idea of a blog written from the spouse's POV has a lot of appeal to me. You see things I bet John doesn't. I write and cartoon myself, and I know absolutely that I couldn't do it without the support and partnership of my wife. It also helps that Edison Lee is a great strip.

    Jay Kennedy was terrific. When Jay died, it was stunning how many people had similar stories about how important his early enthusiasm for their work was to them.

  2. Brian,
    Welcome! I am definitely a fan of your work Mom's Cancer. John's development period was tremendously stressful because my best friend was battling metastatic breast cancer at precisely the same time. Your work speaks very powerfully to those of us that have walked that road.

    Yes, Jay was terrific. I will be blogging about meeting him at some point. John and I still can't believe he's gone - we'll be going to our first Reubens this year and still can't quite believe he won't be there.