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So You Want To Be a Cartoonist
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High Class Caricature by Terry LaBan

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So You Want To Be a Cartoonist

Photo by Herb Rich

People are always asking me how I became a cartoonist. This is understandable--cartooning is one of those jobs you fantasize about as a little kid, like being a cowboy or a race car driver. Around puberty, most people chuck these childish daydreams and turn their attention to more realistic pursuits, like becoming a tax lawyer or a manufacturer of auto parts. The notion that one can support oneself at all, let alone maintain a suitably middle class lifestyle, by sketching the sort of doodles commonly found in the margins of high school notebooks is, when you think about it, absurd. Yet some people do.
     Probably no one becomes a cartoonist in precisely the same way, though it's safe to say that most who do wanted it very badly and for a long time. For me the itch set in around the time I learned to talk. After having a fairly typical proto-cartoonist childhood(obsessive love of and identification with comic strips, contributions to school publications, being known throughout educational career as "the kid who draws") I studied graphic design in college and then, after graduating, went around Ann Arbor, Michigan with a portfolio of illustrations I'd made for the purpose. I was lucky to find a friendly editor at the late, lamented Ann Arbor News who told me they were looking for political cartoons on local issues. I drew up a few ideas and they bought them; in a few months I was selling enough to basically support myself. Thus a career was launched.
     The thing is, it's actually pretty simple to become a cartoonist. All you have to do is draw up some cartoons and either find someone to publish them or publish them yourself. Get paid for them and you're a professional. You don't need a degree, you don't need much money, you don't even know how to draw. Just your brain, your hand and something that makes a reproducible mark.
     But of course, if it really was that easy, there would be as many cartoonists as there are, say, people who mow lawns. The technical barriers to cartoonist-hood are low, but the psychological ones are high, and it's safe to say that no one should attempt to enter the profession unless they feel that doing anything else would result in either insanity or suicide. It's so much easier to get a regular job that pays the rent and leaves at least a little time for the spouse, kids and home repairs that only the most obsessed and driven self-flagellating nutcases are willing to endure the psychic trauma and financial nightmares that inevitably accompany a serious stab at professional cartooning. If that's not you, pour your ink down the crapper and thank your lucky stars. But it is, well then, you're stuck. No where to go but forward. In that spirit, comrade, here are some small scraps of wisdom earned from many years spent toiling in the paneled trenches of cartoonland:

Be Versatile

The more things you know how to do well, the more chance you have of making a living with your art. I've done political cartoons, comic strips, gag panels and comic books. I've also been a writer and an illustrator, a caricaturist and occasionally a designer. Don't say "no" to any job you're competent to attempt--you can learn an awful lot from work you don't particularly want to do. It also doesn't hurt to be intelligent, well-read and curious about everything around you. Though, of course, if you're really intelligent, you probably won't be a cartoonist.

Be a Good Businessperson

There was a time when a significant number of cartoonists could find regular-type jobs(i.e. with benefits and a paycheck) doing political cartoons for newspapers and, if they were lucky, do a syndicated comic strip as well. But those days, if they aren't gone, are rapidly passing. For almost everyone today, cartooning is an entreprenuerial activity, and that means you're not just going to have to produce the work, you're going to have to sell it. The more comfortable you are with what that entails, the better you'll do. Time and time again, I've seen cartoonists with mediocre creative abilities and excellent business skills do far better than those who were merely artistic geniuses.

Don't Worry About People Stealing Your Stuff

It amazes to me how often I meet people who have never sold a cartoon in their life and yet are terrified someone will rip off their ideas. Some of these folks are so paranoid that they refuse to let others even look at their work. For the record, all you need to do to copyright your stuff is draw a little "c" somewhere, put a circle around it, and then write your name and the date. If you're still worried, put a copy in an envelope, send it to yourself registered mail, and then file it away unopened--you can now prove the idea was yours at the postmarked date. But let's get real--it's far more likely no one will want your work than everyone will. To that end, get it out there, any way you can. If by some chance it goes viral on the Internet and everybody starts emailing it to their friends, it's not a disaster--it's an extremely lucky break.