Your Career In Comics

Watterson commentary from the book by Lee Nordling
published in 1995

On art:

The drawing is the fun part. Basically, I learned to write so that I could draw for a living. The writing is very difficult for me. I enjoy getting my thoughts down on paper, but trying to do that on a daily deadline varies from challenging to hellish. Failures are very public, and successes are short-lived. It's the pleasure of drawing funny pictures that makes up for it.

On Self-Editing:

The quality of a strip is probably determined by the quantity of ideas in the wastebasket. Every cartoonist writes a lot of bad strips, and the never-ending pressure to meet deadlines encourages cartoonists to publish virtuallt everything they think up. The only way to resist that pressure is to stay far enough ahead of the deadlines that you can throw away mediocre material and write something better. Of course, every idea you throw away doubles your workload, because you have to write one idea to make up for it, and another idea to get ahead. It's very frustrating to do, but if you're right up against the deadline, there's no quality control. It's just garbage in, garbage out. I've been in that situation, and it's miserable.

Normally, I stay far enough ahead that I can edit my strips many times. I write a month's worth of strips before I ink any of them, so I can focus solely on the writing problems. I reread the ideas over several days, and see how well they hold up to fresh scrutiny. I rework anything that seems awkward, and weed out the weak ones. After I've written a number of strips, I show the roughs to my wife, whose critical judgment I trust. Then, when I go to ink the strips up, I usually refine the writing once more. Sometimes the prospect of spending an hour or two inking will reveal a lukewarm enthusiasm for the idea, and I'll abandon it. I try to weed out as many unexciting ideas as possible, and I wish I could weed out even more.

On Syndicates:

Syndicates turned the comics into big business, and they make the comics visible and profitable. Syndicates free the cartoonist from business matters to concentrate on the creative aspects of the job.

On the downside, because syndicates offer the only real access to the nation's daily newspapers, they are in a superior bargaining position when it comes to negotiating contracts with new cartoonists, and they use their power to demand outrageous terms. Syndicates are sales agents: They're the middleman between the comic strip producer and the comic strip buyer. Syndicates do not create the product they sell, and they don't need or deserve long-term contracts and extensive rights to the strip in order to do their job. Their one-sided contracts turn cartoonists into adversaries, rather than partners. A few of the top cartoonists are beginning to turn the tables, and I think it's long overdue.

On the Art Form:

I think cartoons have the potential to be art, although obviously they very rarely rise to that level. Cartoons are a combination of words and pictures, the most powerful tools of communication we have. Cartoons are an unbelievably versatile medium, and they offer tremendous possibilities for personal expression. That said, it has to be acknowledged that the newspaper business puts severe constraints on what comics can be. Comics are produced on an inflexible daily deadline, given very little space for writing or drawing, and are often poorly printed. To attract a diverse national audience, comics must generally avoid controversial subjects and opinions. Comics were invented to sell newspapers, and the commercial, mass-market needs of newspapers are not sympathetic to the needs of art. The business encourages comics to be a formulaic, crudely crafted, juvenile entertainment. Even so, a great strip comes along every generation or so that offers a glimpse of what comics can do, and that's where my hopes for the art form lie.

On the Concept:

Behind the jokes, I try to talk about life in a serious way. I don't look at cartooning as just an entertainment. It's a rare privilege to be able to talk to hundreds of millions of people on a given day, and I don't want to squander that privilege with mindless chatter. There is an opportunity here to talk about real issues of life with sensitivity, warmth and humor. This is where the greater significance of the comic strip lies. Many cartoonists consider their strips a commercial product and are therefore able to justify turning the strip into factory work, hiring a team of writers and illustrators to crank out whatever the public will consume. That kind of cartooning holds no appeal to me. The strips that interest me are always the personal, idiosyncratic strips that reflect a unique and honest sensibility.

On the Daily and Sunday Formats:

Because of the space limits, I use the dailies for continuing stories or one-shot gags, and I try to vary the pace and tone to the extent possible. The Sunday strip offers a chance to take advantage of the power of pictures, so I try to set off fireworks when I can. The comics are a visual medium, and drawings can do a lot more of the work than most people think. Obviously, the better a cartoonist can draw, the more effectively he can design the space, and the more flexibility he'll have to keep his strip interesting.

On Submitting Strips To Syndicates:

The strip has to sell itself, so a set of photocopies, a cover letter and a stamp are all the aspiring cartoonist needs. The strip is either good or it isn't, and no amount of fancy packaging and salesmanship will change that. For serious consideration, a proposed strip must be better than the strips already in the newspaper, because those are the strips it will have to replace. If the submission isn't up to that standard, the cartoonist is kidding himself about the odds.

First of all, I think a new strip must be original. The world doesn't need second-rate imitations of what's already successful.

After that, I think characterization is the most important part of any strip: Do the characters have real personality? Are they rounded individuals with unique voices, or are they cardboard stereotypes? Do they reveal themselves through their actions, or do they tediously explain themselves?

Next, I think syndicates look for consistency. One funny strip will not carry you through five mediocre strips. The strip must demonstrate an ability to surprise day after day, week after week.

After that, a strip must demonstrate flexibility and room to grow, so that it doesn't exhaust its material in a year or two.

On a slightly more esoteric level, I think a strip must create its own world and be true to itself. The writing must fit the characters, and the tone of the strip must communicate itself naturally and unself-consciously.

And finally, a strip has to be fun. Assume that readers have better things to do than pore over a self-indulgent comic strip. A comic strip must entice, and that means polishing one's craft until the strip is an attractive product. A poorly drawn, ugly strip will have trouble bringing readers into its world, even if the writing is good. Strips with heavy-handed or preachy writing do not fly. The trick is to produce a strip so incredibly engaging that people will make an effort to seek out its company.

Any cartoonist who expects to pull all this off on the first try probably has some disappointment ahead of him. Persistence is important, but so is a willingness to learn from mistakes and start over from scratch.

On the Negotiating Process:

If you're an unknown cartoonist with an untested strip, you are in a poor position to negotiate. Unless you are willing to sell the work yourself, you will play on the syndicate's terms or not at all. It's very unlikely that more than one syndicate will be interested in your work, so shopping around for better terms is a nonissue in most cases. Consult a lawyer, but I don't know of any cartoonist who got a fair and balanced contract at the outset.

On Comic Strip Evolution:

Surprise is the essence of humor, so the challenge of writing a comic strip is to surprise yourself. The longer you work, the more effort it takes to jump tracks and go in new directions. Working with the same characters in similar situations year after year, it's inevitable that you fall into predictable formulas. When the characters are new, everything they do is fresh and surprising. Later, that's much less the case, so the cartoonist has to find ways to reinvent the strip's world. He has to find new subjects to address, new ways to approach things, or develop deeper and more subtle qualities of the strip. Sustaining that level of energy over decades is extraordinarily difficult, and I'm glad to see a few cartoonists acknowledging this and quitting their strips before they get stale.