It’s Sunday night after my college orientation. After telling my dad I’d interview him about his nonexistent comic strip career multiple times in the car back and forth from the university – and after both of us forgetting – I’ve caught him on our muggy back patio. My dad spent his college years (and a few post-college-real-adult years) in the early eighties peeling back the layers of a passion he hadn’t recognized until he was offered a few art classes. This was to be in any of 1700 publications in the United States at that time, to make a career for himself – contrary to what his father wanted and thought he could do – in the business of cartoon strip art.
Dad: What are we listening to? What’ll it be?
Reed: (I click my pen incessantly and watch as my dog licks my knee. I am trying to get an interview started, but this is my dad.) Whatever you’re in the mood for.
My brother interrupts to ask what kind of pizza we should order. My dad does not care.
D: We’ll put on Murmur.
R: Murmur, okay, that’s REM. (With that, “Radio Free Europe” erupts.) How old were you when you developed an interest –
D: In college. They were in their…this album had just come out –
R: No, not REM! Drawing, when did you get interested in art?
D: Oh, wow, that’s a good question. I remember doing it in Jersey, but I don’t remember what I was really doing with drawing. I knew I had this, like, outside thought of being a fine arts major in college, but I had know idea what that meant, or what it would mean to me. Or what my life path would be as a result. Are you taking notes or are you just going to remember all this?
R: I’m recording it.
D: Oh. (He laughs at himself and it’s a very tender moment.) No, I just remember by dad telling me that’s not what I was going to do. I would wind of selling velvet Elvis paintings on the corner of Fifth and Lex in New York City. But in college, when we moved from Baltimore from New Jersey, I think that was the first drawing board I ever got, I was eighteen or nineteen. I spent hours and hours and hours there. But I took what I learned from college art classes – and I took every one I could take – and tried to use that stuff. But I don’t remember what sparked my interest. I don’t think I was particularly good at it.
R: No, I think you are, I mean…I’ve seen stuff.
D: No, I just think I liked it. I can honestly say I don’t think I had a passion for it before I got to college. Because that’s when I took drawing classes and painting classes and art studies…all kinds. Then I realized maybe I had a small little talent for it, so I started doing a comic strip for the college newspaper, and then I liked the intention it gave me because…that was my niche, right? All my friends were in sports. I was the cartoonist. I was the one ripping up the dean in the newspaper. I was the little bit of a renegade, I was the…I did these cartoon strips that were pretty raw – I mean, raw in the drawings, I don’t know if I was that good at it.
This is where I’d heard some stuff before.
R: Well, and that was ultimately what the issue was, right? That you were good, but not yet original enough.
D: Yeah, that was later when the Washington Post Writers Group and the Universal Press Syndicate would look at my work and just say it was well-drawn, but not unique enough. What they didn’t know was how long it took me to draw just one. Ideally, you need to turn them out everyday, and that was always a concern of mine, that I would never be able to think of something in a day. Or draw it. In time I thought if I did it enough, I’d be good enough at it. I never thought…there were 1700 papers in the U.S. I don’t think there’s nearly that many now. And probably not nearly as many carry comic strips anymore. I remember the artist got paid seven, eight, nine bucks a week for a single newspaper carrying your daily strip, and the same amount for a Sunday strip, which doesn’t seem like a lot until the amount of papers you’re in adds up. Two or five or eight hundred a week…back then, it was a crap-load of money. And then the merchandising, like Bloom County, Doonesbury, Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes…a bunch of them.
R: Huh. So, how often did you send in work after college?
D: I can’t remember. I just remember it was way too slow.
R: But you worked on them so hard, yeah? Noni (my grandmother and his mom) would walk in and find you passed out on your drawing board, right?
D: Yeah, I just remember…partly, it was just that I couldn’t think of the funny stuff fast enough, and then partly, I couldn’t draw it fast enough. I mean, I’ll show you my originals. I still have a lot of them.
R: Yeah, I want to. Like about when did you realize that it wouldn’t work out, you and comics? Like how far out of college, and why?
D: A couple, three years out. By then I had moved out to California, and initially I was looking for an advertising job, same thing I was searching for on the east coast. It’s what I thought I wanted to do. But then, um, after six months I had to get serious. I was living with my parents for a bit, I needed to leave, so I got a job at Monroe, who sold the best calculators, no retail. But they also sold copiers manufactured by someone else, which ultimately became the lead-in to [my first really big job].
(My dad’s “first really big job” was his second job out of college, though he’s worked dozens of odd jobs since he was eleven while moving all around the country about every two to three years. It is the job he still has now, over thirty years later.)
D: After a couple years with Monroe, selling their stuff in beach communities around Ventura County, you know, I’d go home and draw. But over time, I had to get serious about money. There was no salary with comic strips. If they didn’t sell, I didn’t get a cut from the syndicates. I mean, I was moving out of my parents’ house. So I took the [really big job]. And I got really good at it. I got more serious about selling the copiers and less serious about getting a cartoon strip published. The rest, they say, is history, I guess.
R: Ha. Okay, finally, what sort of advice would you give to someone in your position, like, differentiating a passion and a career, especially in such a time like college?
D: Oh, have a backup plan. Because Plan A doesn’t always work out. The best plan is the best plan until it’s no longer the plan.
R: Right. Right. (I was desperately trying to follow, and then I did.) Right.
D: And that’s the reality of it, because it’s like, give it your best shot, but make sure you’ve got a Plan B. Which I…didn’t really have. I never really got that far. I didn’t have the resources you do now. And quite frankly, I think a kid’s really stupid not to use that sort of thing they’re offered. All this advisement. I couldn’t understand what was possible, where I could go. How to get there. Sending comic strips to syndicates was difficult because I couldn’t find the addresses. And then getting a contract wasn’t possible if you couldn’t reach out. I found it after digging in libraries, papers…all that. All I’d find was an address, and I’d write a cover letter, and send it “to whom it may concern”. And I’d hope I get something back. And I did, I got critiques back, which meant they saw opportunity.
R: Which is farther than where a lot of others got.
D: Yeah. I still have the rejection letters. Met the Writers Group lady that would critique me years later after Memphis, in D.C. My commercial team called on the Washington Post. I sent her my stuff again, for shits and giggles. She didn’t remember me, but I said I remembered her. How crazy is that?
R: Crazy. But…copiers.
At this point, Murmur is long over.
My dad got his Business degree and ultimately did what his dad wanted him to do. The key is that he didn’t do it for his dad – he did it for himself. Now, thirty years later, I’m going to college and don’t know where I’ll go with writing, and he is following me into the future. He’s right behind me because he wants to make sure that I have a Plan B. However, he wants to see my Plan A work out, if possible.
I’d like to see my that, too.