It’s my fault for bringing it up, but many of you asked about the most frequently asked questions of cartoonists. Here you go.
1. What newspaper first ran Dilbert?
Dilbert is syndicated. That means my syndication company, United Media, tried to sell it to as many papers as it could, for the same launch date. About 25 papers bought it before the launch. Only a handful actually published it on the launch date. Even I don’t know which ones ran it first. None of them were large newspapers.
(Other newspapers bought it with no intention of publishing it. They sometimes do that to keep the rights from their competitor in their city in case the comic becomes a hit.)
2. Where do you get your ideas?
In my case, I get most of my ideas from e-mailed suggestions to email@example.com. But I spent 16 years in corporate America and am often reminded of that experience by events in my daily life. I’m in business myself, in a fashion. So I’m dealing with conference calls and contracts and marketing and design all the time. Plus I co-own two restaurants, and those are fertile sources of human interaction too.
3. Do you do the writing or the drawing first?
Most cartoonists do the writing first. Then they draw. I start with only a germ of the idea and start drawing first. I draw the first panel, add the words, draw the second, add the words, etc. I never know where a comic is going until it’s done. It often takes a sharp left turn from where I expected it to go.
One advantage of my method is that after I draw a character, its expression or body language often suggests the dialog. It helps them “talk” to me. For example, if I draw Wally looking more relaxed or rumpled than usual (accidentally – it can be very subtle) then I might use that to suggest different dialog than I originally imagined.
4. Do you write one comic a day or a bunch at a time?
For years I did one per day, weekends and holidays included. Since marriage, I’m trying to do 2 per day on weekdays and keep more time open for weekends and travel. But I still end up working most weekends at least half days.
5. How far in advance do you submit comics?
The daily comic needs to be e-mailed to my syndication company about 4 weeks ahead of its publication date. The Sunday strips require more processing by the newspapers (because of the color) and have to be in about 8 weeks ahead of publication. Lately I’m only a week or so ahead of those deadlines. When I first started in this business, I was 6 months ahead of deadline. I’ve been chipping away at that buffer ever since.
6. Do you still draw the comic on paper?
Most cartoonists still use paper, at least for most of the work. They typically finish it off on Photoshop after scanning the inked work. Photoshop might be used for the lettering (using a font of your own handwriting) or adding shading and effects.
About 2 years ago I had some hand problems (from overuse) and switched to drawing directly to the computer, which is easier on my hand. I have a computer monitor that allows me to draw directly to the screen (as opposed to a tablet on the desk). It’s the 21SX by Wacom. It cut my production time in half. It’s different from drawing on paper, and there’s a learning curve of a few months to get it down. But once you do, it’s amazing. I use Photoshop for the entire process now. Then I hit a few keys and e-mail it to United Media.
7. How did Dilbert get his name?
I developed Dilbert as a doodle during my corporate years. He had no name, but my coworkers thought he needed one. So I had a “Name the Nerd” contest on my cubicle whiteboard. My boss at the time, Mike Goodwin, wrote down “Dilbert,” and I closed the contest. We had a winner.
After I submitted Dilbert for syndication, Mike sheepishly told me that he realized why Dilbert seemed such a good name for a comic. He was looking through his Dad’s old military artifacts and realized he had seen a Dilbert comic before. Since WWII, a comic called Dilbert had been used by military pilots in the context of telling them what not to do. A “Dilbert” was synonymous with a pilot who was being an idiot. It was too late for me to turn back at that point. I kept the name Dilbert, and I never heard from the family of the original artist. Obviously they are aware of my version of Dilbert. I appreciate that they evidently decided to not make it an issue.
8. How do you become a syndicated cartoonist?
The short answer is that you can buy books from any book seller on how to submit work to syndicates. There are only a handful of syndicates, and all you do is mail them photocopies of your work. All submissions are reviewed by the decision-makers, so unlike other fields, in cartooning there is no advantage to knowing anyone or pulling strings. Your work speaks for itself, and an experienced editor can judge a cartoonist’s potential in less than a minute. So while you are competing against perhaps 3,000 submissions per year, the good ones are easily spotted.
That’s the method I used. I submitted Dilbert to several syndication companies at the same time. A few rejected me outright. One syndicate suggested that I find an actual artist to do the drawing for me. (They liked my writing). United Media called and offered me a contract. They took a chance on my crappy artwork, and that risk paid off.
9. Do you plan to retire like those quitters Watterson, Larsen, Breathed, and Amend?
Not until the public doesn’t want to see Dilbert anymore. I don’t agonize over my work the way some artists do. Watterson, for example, did his art with a tiny paintbrush and ink. I can’t imagine how tedious that was. And he made more money in his short career than I will make in my lifetime. Retiring made sense for him.
I enjoy my work. And it’s not that hard. Plus I like the attention and the pure joy of creating. I can’t imagine not contributing to the GDP in some fashion. I tend to define myself by what I do. That means I need to be useful to feel good about myself. Leisure doesn’t suit me except for an occasional change of pace.
That’s enough for now.