Not too long ago I attended a talk by Stephan Pastis the creator of one of my favorite comic strips: Pearls Before Swine. Of course he described the process of getting a strip selected for syndication (a process ultimately aided by Scott Adams), how many times he had to submit and so on. This reminded me of my own experience in that arena.
Being a “child” of the 60’s…uh, not the bead wearing “peace, man!” slacker types, my sister filled that roll, I had two things I wanted to be when I grew up. The first was an astronaut. Astronauts were in during the 60s. They were cool. The second was a cartoonist. I grew up on a daily dose of Charlie Shultz’s Peanuts and leaned in part to draw from copying some of his strips. Later on Bloom County would teach me how to draw posture and body language. (As one of my art instructors taught: every figure you draw should have a natural “S” curve, be they a dancer or sleep-deprived iOS developer). Sydney Harris’s single panel science ‘toons taught me both composition and the simplicity of the line.
Jump-cut by 20 years.
The astronaut thing didn’t work out, but I did end up out at NASA for several years working in graphics for their flight simulators.
One day in ’85 I thought the world needed a comic strip about a woman astronaut. Sally Ride had flown only two years earlier, becoming just the second woman in space. My strip, titled Ms. Astronaut, would follow the life of a 32 year old astrophysicist, Kelly Smith, from San Jose. She, and her friend Gretchen would find out what it was daily life would be, while in one of the most prestigious and public-facing professions in the world (after iOS app development that is). I approached this as a good project to learn how to draw pen and ink figures, something that is much harder then most people realize. My intent was not to get it selected for syndication, as I knew that was about as likely as be becoming an astronaut, though I would submit them just to go through the process.
As with Pastis, I picked up a copy of Cartoonists Market, a directory of syndicates and other publications that accept cartoons and comic strips. I learned that I needed to supply two months of strips including the larger Sunday features. That shows the ability of a cartoonist to keep up long story lines and character development.
I laboriously drew 60 comics over several months, and created the packets needed for the seven main syndicates that supplied comics to the countries newspapers. News America and Kings Features being the two most well known. By the start of 1986 everything was ready to go, and smart guy that I am, I decided I would mail the packets in the third week of January so they would pop up on the various editor’s desks during the middle of a high profile shuttle flight.
I got the strips back practically at light-speed, most without even so much as a rejection letter. Two strips referenced a shuttle called “Boobyprise” (A play on the first shuttle: Enterprise), and as I would play with little details in the background, one frame had a fish swimming outside of a window of a mission simulator.
Considering I had never hoped to ever get syndicated in the first place, I thought this at least gave me a good story to tell, along with the editors who got the strip: “Can you BELIEVE THIS LOSER sending us a strip about astronauts right after the shuttle blew up?? Man! What a loser! That loser!”)
I would get redemption a few months later at a cartoonist conference held at University of California, Berkeley. There were about 100 aspiring cartoonists there, editors from many newspapers and all of the syndicates…Charlie Schultz was supposed to come down, but couldn’t make it that day, but several other cartoonists were there including Phil Frank of Farely and Bob Thaves of Frank and Ernest.
In the morning we learned among other things that the syndicates typically get about 7000 submissions a year (likely the same 7000 for all syndicates). That works out to over 100 a week. Out of all of those, only a couple of strips are picked up for “further development” each week. And out of those only one or two a YEAR are actually syndicated.
Not good odds.
In the afternoon all of the “artists,” including myself, had a table for a show-and-tell while the editors roamed around and hopefully passed out a few business cards while saying something like “have you sent this to us?”
Ms Astronaut was stretched out on my table. Uh, the artwork that is. On a table next to me was a single-panel artist who self published his own books that were admittedly quite good.
The features editor from the Sacramento (California) Bee came by, and while not able to syndicate strips, he liked my stuff and said he’d run them in a minute if they were picked up. A few minutes later one of the editors of the afore-mentioned News America Syndicate stopped by and picked up my first of 60 24”x10” panels. And he started. Then laughed some more at the second strip, and the third. And….Finally he looked up at me and said “Have you sent this to us?”
I told him the whole sad and weirdly funny story, but he gave me his business card anyway and told me to contract him at his Florida home directly.
Mr. Self-Publisher next to me broke out in a big grin and shook my hand.
Over the next couple of weeks, I spoke with the editor a couple of times talking about how the strip could go in the future, and of course how to handle things in case another Challenger-style accident. After two weeks it was announced that News America Syndicate was sold to King Features. My editor “retired” and I got my strips back. Again. Meh.
The cartooning conference was repeated the next year, and I got interest from another smaller syndicate, but nothing came out of that.
In retrospect, I went a lot further with my strips then what I expected to. Getting some guffaws out of an editor who literally sees hundreds of submissions a month was special. And even though it was never picked up, I was pretty proud of my artwork and what I learned from that exercise when it comes to drawing figures. (In your face Mr. XKCD Stick-figure Guy!)
It’s fun now to see web-only comic strips flourishing, but as each strip took me about 3 to 6 hours to draw, there is no chance to bring it to the web.
Now, back to Distant Suns. It’s starting to look insanely cool these days. You’ll love what I’ve done with it.
PS. I did do some single panel science cartoons and actually sold two to a Science magazine in 1980 owned by Time, Inc. The magazine folded shortly after that before they ran my panels. Coincidence? You make the connection.
PSPS. Hands are really hard to draw!