Monday, August 17, 2009
A Cautionary Tale from the Creator of Snapdragon
Since you are a "curator of comics facts", I thought you might like to know a little bit about what I went through when I created Snapdragon. I will warn you in advance that it's a bit wordy and lengthy, so if you decide to just skip it and hit the delete button, I won't be offended:
Now you've piqued my curiosity, and I'm going to have to figure out the exact dates that Snapdragon was in the papers. It all happened a long time ago, so it's kind of lost its importance to me. It was fun while it lasted, but it sure did feel like I had walked under a ladder and broken a mirror towards the end!
The entire experience was rather bizarre, and not like most syndication stories that I've heard from other cartoonists. The comics editor I dealt with directly was a gentleman named Bob Ferguson, and I really enjoyed working with him.
It had been my dream to have a syndicated comic strip since I was a little boy. For a couple of years, I bombarded every syndicate I knew of with submissions. When one got rejected, I just came up with another one and sent it in. I did mass mailings, sending each one out to everyone, since I knew there was a long period of time where they were reviewed and competition for syndication was tough.
Eventually, I went from receiving form rejection letters to actually getting hand-written notes from Bob. Then, one day, the phone rang. I had submitted an idea for a strip called "Justin Case", which was about a lawyer. Bob told me that it was going to the final stage, and that the next day a combined editorial/sales meeting would decide whether to take mine or one by another cartoonist. He said he was pushing hard for mine to be the one they chose.
The next day, I got a call. They had chosen the other strip.
But Bob was really encouraging, and he told me to keep trying ... that he could see I had the potential to do a strip for Tribune. Then, he said, "If you can just come up with something that's completely different from anything else that's out there, we'll buy it."
Easier said than done, but I accepted the challenge. I had noticed that when I doodled for fun, quite often I would draw a little dragon or an aging wizard. Since it was obvious to me that I enjoyed drawing those characters, I figured I should try to put them into a strip, since I would (hopefully) have to draw them for years to come.
Then, as I started working on some rough ideas, I tried to figure out a way to make it different than the standard fare that was in newspapers at the time. The thought occurred to me that since comics are a visual medium, I could make the dragon talk in pictures. That would turn it into a combination of a puzzle and a comic strip. Some days it would just be a normal joke, but whenever the little dragon spoke, the wizard could interpret what he said for the readers at the end, since everyone knows wizards can talk to animals.
As soon as that idea hit me, the ideas just started to flow. Literally in two nights, I drew up two weeks of dailies and two Sunday panels. I was so excited with the concept that I over-nighted it to Tribune the third morning, which was a Friday.
When I got home from the Fedex office, I called Bob (breaking all of the standard rules for submissions!). I told him that I had just sent him an idea that was different from anything else he'd ever seen, and that I was excited about it. Then I explained that since I had established a relationship with him at that point, that I would give Tribune "first look". But, I wanted an answer quickly. I told him that if I didn't hear anything positive from them by the following Friday, I was going to mail it out to all of the other syndicates because I was sure someone would buy it.
He laughed and said, "Well, you certainly sound confident. I'll call you after I get it."
The next Monday morning, about half an hour after my package arrived at his office, Bob called. He told me NOT to mail it to anyone else, that they were over-nighting a development contract to me!
Everyone involved seemed quite confident that it was going to be a hit. We rushed through the development stage, and then it launched. Unfortunately, a lot happened in the middle of all of those events.
I was later told that just as the launch occurred, the salesperson handling east coast sales had resigned and gone to another syndicate. I do not know if that is true or not, but it certainly seemed to be, since the strip did really well out west and did not do "diddly" east of Colorado.
I was also told that editors were balking at the basic premise of the strip, saying it was too difficult for most readers to grasp. They wanted me to run a disclaimer on the bottom of each daily, explaining the concept over and over to the readers. I refused to do that, for a couple of reasons. One was that I thought it would be insulting to the readers, inferring that they couldn't comprehend such a simple idea. The other was that it would have taken up too much room in a medium that is constantly shrinking anyway, and has resulted in too many strips having to be just "talking heads".
Then I was told about the practice of newspapers buying strips but not publishing them. I think one of those was in Orange County, California but at this point in time I'm not sure.
When I originally submitted the strip, I had intended it to be aimed at an adult audience, something that everyone reading the paper could enjoy. But Tribune was looking for a unique "kid's feature" at the time, and asked me to aim it at a younger audience. I probably should have held my ground on that one, but I caved and said okay.
So, I did always feel like I had "dummied it down" a bit and do regret that. And "US Acres" debuted around the same time. It was also aimed at children. With Jim Davis' name attached, and a television show built around that strip, mine didn't stand much of a chance to survive.
It was difficult to do a strip when I also had to work at a full-time job during the day to pay my mortgage and eat. The deadlines were grueling, and even though it was a labor of love, I never felt like I had been given the time I needed to make Snapdragon the great strip that it had the potential to be.
Whatever really went on, I don't know. But the feature ended up dying an early death, and that was that.
I was worn out by it all at the end, and moved into the field of educational publishing for many years. It was, for some time, quite lucrative and fun. But, these days I have issues with the way the contracts have changed, and how little it now pays.
So I've returned to my roots and have begun doing single panel gag cartoons again. I've always loved doing them, and it's how I got my start when I was only in the seventh grade in elementary school! My work now appears in a myriad of "Complete Idiot's Guides" and other publications.
I may one day take pen in hand and try another shot at syndication, but I'm not sure. For one thing, newspapers are vanishing rapidly these days, and continuing to shrink their use of comics. Age is a factor as well. Most syndicates don't want to see submissions from a slightly older than middle-aged guy, and I've been told that by a few of them (in spite of the fact that historically, some of the finest comics ever created were dreamed up by a cartoonist in their forties or fifties).
In the meantime, my life is quite full and blessed. I live in a remote area of the mountains of North Carolina in a little cabin in the woods. I sell enough of my cartoons to put food on the table, pay the rent and have gas in my truck. I spend a lot of my free time out digging for gems at old abandoned mines, and have a house that looks like a combination of a mineral museum and a library (I have a weakness for old leather-bound books, too).
I'm not sure if the pressure of constant deadlines from syndication would be a good thing now, since I am so content. But….it's in the blood. I still have the "itch" to do it. I don't think that will ever go away.