Four of a Kind: A Cartooning Roundtable
Editor’s note: This interview was originally published in Hogan’s Alley #13.
Though the dimensions of a comic-strip artist’s work has diminished over the years, paradoxically his work has never been more challenging. Fewer newspapers to buy strips, dwindling newspaper readerships and the need for a new strip to establish a track record quickly combine to make straying off the beaten path risky and, more often than not, a blueprint for cancellation. Yet Dave Coverly (Speed Bump), Jef Mallett (Frazz), Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine) and Hilary Price (Rhymes With Orange) create personal, insightful and nevertheless popular comic strips, defying common wisdom that the strip’s current state has all but choked off innovation. They are four cartoonists in the early part of their careers, creating four very distinct strips, and despite the differences in their work, common ground exists in their perceptions of the industry and the possibilities of the future. Hogan’s Alley editor Tom Heintjes sat down with these cartoonists at the 2004 National Cartoonists Society Reuben Award weekend in Kansas City, Mo., to discuss the creative and business sides of their work and how the two balance each other.
Tom Heintjes: You’re all syndicated cartoonists in the early stages of your careers. What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Dave Coverly: Just staying syndicated. Getting in the paper and then staying there. Someone told me the attrition rate is something like 75 or 80 percent of strips don’t last beyond the first three years.
Jef Mallett: Every time I feel successful, I have a new challenge. When I was first attempting to get syndicated, I thought, “If I can just get the syndicate people to look at my submission, I’ll be OK.” And then I thought, “If I can get them to give me a development contract, then I’ll be OK.” Then it got harder. I got to the syndication launch, and it got harder. Then I thought, “Well, after the first year I’ll be OK.” It got harder after the first year. Each step raises new challenges.
Coverly: It’s like continually raising your own bar.
Mallett: Yeah, because if you don’t, someone else is gonna.
Coverly: I always feel like a fraud. I’m doing this thing I would have done anyway. If I’d been a carpenter, I’d still go home at night and draw cartoons, but someone is actually handing me…small amounts of money [laughter].
Hilary Price: Rolls of pennies. That’s how they pay me! For me, I think the biggest challenge has been learning the limits of what the syndicate can do and where I need to pick up the slack from there. Initially, the fantasy was that the syndicate would do everything. They would sell the strip, come clean my house, everything.
Coverly: You mean your syndicate doesn’t clean your house?
Price: I’ve wanted to see Jay [Kennedy, King Features comics editor] in a French maid outfit for years.
Coverly: He looks pretty good in it.
Price: [Laughter] But the hard part has been learning about the marketing side and taking initiative on my own to make things happen, which the syndicate might then support. So I guess I’ve gradually learned that I play a part in the overall effort of selling the strip.
Heintjes: So would you all agree that you have concerns apart from just being creative every day?
Mallett: That’s the one I try to focus on, because I figure if I take care of that one, the other concerns will take care of themselves. But that doesn’t stop me from worrying about everything in the book.
Coverly: It’s a lot harder than I expected it to be. I thought I would be the syndicate’s golden boy, but they’ve got a stable with lots of people, and they’ve got to give support to all of them. When I started, I took road trips to big papers throughout the Midwest with a sales rep from the syndicate. They felt it was important to put my face in front of the editors when they were considering my strip.
Stephan Pastis: That’s why it didn’t sell very well [laughter].
Mallett: It’s also kind of a guessing game. You don’t want the syndicates to feel like you’re stepping on their toes with your efforts. Price: I actually think they’re supportive. They don’t think you’re going to steal their job.
Mallett: It’s confusing. I’m still new at this. I’ll probably feel that way for the next 40 years.
Coverly: It’s all changing, too. I suspect if you talk to some of the older guys in the syndication field, they would also feel it’s changing. You’ve got the Internet, and people don’t know what effects that will have on newspapers.
Heintjes: Has the Internet changed the way you work?
Pastis: Without the Internet, I wouldn’t have been syndicated. United picked up the strip for syndication, but then they had doubts about whether they could put it into newspapers. So they put my strip online and basically just watched the hits, which is commonplace now, but it didn’t really happen much then. And when Dilbert‘s Scott Adams endorsed it, the hits went way up, and I held that audience for months. So they decided that I could hold readers and they could get me into papers. So without the Internet, none of that would have happened.
Price: How important is the Internet for you now?
Pastis: Really important. You can really get a feel for what’s working and what’s not working. People who e-mail you—whether they’re complimenting you or insulting you—generally have an agenda. But someone just talking about you on a random Web site is a pretty honest assessment. Because of that, I know how people are reacting to my work. I don’t know how guys did it before the Internet. Imagine doing a strip, and eight weeks later someone sees it and writes a letter, which goes through your syndicate, and three weeks later you get the letter.
Heintjes: Is it possible to pay too much attention to reader reaction on the Internet?
Coverly: Oh, yeah.
Mallett: I try not to pay any attention. Patty [Mallett’s wife and letterer] will Google me.
Coverly: That’s too much information.
Mallett: [Laughter] One other thing that nice about the Internet is not being totally at the mercy of newspapers. If one newspaper doesn’t carry you, people can still find you. Before, if newspapers didn’t carry you, people would have no way of knowing about the strip. Now they can find it out there.
Price: Yeah, but it’s kind of a Pyrrhic victory. If it gets dropped in a paper and people get it online for free…on a fulfillment level it’s a good thing, but economically it’s not great.
Mallett: As long as all the strips are available online, it’s kind of a wash. It will be really sad if newspapers say, “Well, the hell with it—readers can get all comic strips online, so we’re just going to use that page for something else.”
Coverly: I think the whole industry is in a big transition right now, and no one has absolutely any idea where it’s going to go or how anyone is going to make any money. It just seems like if people are reading it, they should be paying for it somehow.
Pastis: There are pluses and minuses. In the old days, if there’s a big paper I’m not in, no one is writing to that paper. I am a nonfactor. Nowadays, if someone from that town writes me, I’ll ask them to write to their paper. Suddenly, a newspaper editor who has never heard of me is getting letters from people in his city. So without the Internet, that doesn’t work. But as Hilary said, there are negatives, too. If you get dropped from a paper, everyone would write, because you’re not going to see that strip anymore. But now the rage is tamed. The reader will say, “Ahh, I’ll just read it online,” and that’s not good. But the syndicates are starting fee-based subscription services, so we’ll see how that works.
Heintjes: When you talk to cartooning veterans, are there ways in which you feel you have it better than they did? Or do you envy them for the “glory years” they worked in?
Coverly: That’s a good question. I don’t talk to them. Those guys are assholes [laughter].
Price: It seems like it was a much more insular community. Everyone lived in and around New York, and they went to people’s offices, things like that. Now you can cartoon from anywhere. There used to be a real sense of community. Also, in the “glory years,” the newspaper was the main medium. There were so many papers with such strong competition and rivalry.
Mallett: One thing they didn’t have that we do is e-mail. Like Stephan was saying before, that instant feedback is great. I have a dialogue with a lot of fans. They develop a real connection, and that’s valuable. Not only that, but I’ve made some good friends that way.
Coverly: I’m not sure I would call it the “glory days.” There were a lot of things that were great in the ’50s if you were a white male.
Heintjes: Well, I meant the glory days of cartooning, when cartoonists had more space to work with.
Mallett: I’ll tell you, I don’t envy the guys from the old days when they had to color their Sunday strips the old-fashioned way, with color guides and numbers.
Coverly: I still do mine that way.
Mallett: And I don’t envy you that!
Price: About having more space to work in…I don’t know what that experience is like. I know two by six-and-a-half inches.
Coverly: There were a lot of great artists back then. The size of the strip almost goes hand in hand with what is important. There were some great cartoonists then, and they could draw fantastically because they had space to draw fantastic pictures. Today, even if you could draw fantastic pictures, you really don’t have the room to do it. That’s what cramped Bill Watterson. It had to be frustrating for such a great artist. Right now, it seems like the writing is more important.
Mallett: And yet, people still do great art. It might be more minimalist, and Watterson may have been frustrated that he couldn’t do more elaborate stuff, but when he kept it simple, he still did it better than anybody else working.
Pastis: That trend is what allowed me to get syndicated. If everybody got a half page, I’d be done in a month. It emphasizes the writing, so if you’re not an artist, you can still be syndicated. I prefer shrinking comics [laughter].
Heintjes: You all are too early into your careers to feel complacent. But do you fear complacency? Do you battle it?
Mallett: I’m way too neurotic to ever feel comfortable and complacent. It’s just not going to happen for me, although the concept sounds nice [laughter]. I’d love to relax for a week—it sounds good!
Coverly: You sense the other talent out there. It’s competitive. You can be friends with all these people, but there’s a lot of great stuff out there, and we’re all competitive. Like Jef said, you’ve got to keep raising the bar on yourself or you’re going to find yourself out on your ass. You can see it some of the older strips, and I’m not going to name names. They’ve gotten complacent, and it happens.
Mallett: You can do everything right and still end up out on your ass. But then again, I’m neurotic. Pastis: I feel like Jef does. I feel like I’m going to fail every day. I hate it when I see myself mentioned in a letter to the editor.
Coverly: How about surveys?
Pastis and Mallett: [In unison] I hate surveys!
Heintjes: Hilary, you didn’t express an opinion about surveys.
Price: You can put me down on the record as hating surveys.
Heintjes: What do you propose to help an editor make those decisions?
Mallett: Thinking comes to mind. That’s what editors are supposed to do: They’re supposed to use their brains and their experiences and decide what’s good and what would satisfy the readers. They don’t hold a poll to decide what’s going to be on the front page. Left to themselves, editors will make good decisions and bad ones, but they’re fooling themselves if they think they can show readers three samples of a number of different comics and get a meaningful response.
Coverly: It’s impossible. You have to read a strip for a while to get to know the characters.
Mallett: The best strips are the ones where you want to be a part of that world, where you relate to the people. And it takes more than three samples to do that.
Pastis: If they test you and run less than a week of strips, there’s no way. You won’t know anything about my strip. At a minimum, you need a year. If you don’t like me after a year, you’re probably not going to like me. It also depends on how they set up the poll. Jef and I were both in a poll, and it was terrible. They took all the strips that they were already running for a while, and I was one of those, and they tossed in a bunch of newer ones, and Jef’s was one of those. They put them all in the same poll and asked people to rank them from one to 40. I had been in the paper for two years, and Jef had been in the paper for four days. Jef’s doesn’t stand a chance. There’s no way. Over two years, I’m going to get, say, a fan a week. Jef had no fans yet. It was not set up fairly at all.
Heintjes: I’ve seen poll results where the same strip was “loves best” and “hates most.”
Mallett: Those are the ones you want! Doonesbury is a great example of a strip that people love and other people hate. A good editor will seek that out.
Price: But there are also strips that could be loved fiercely by a smaller group, like children. They’re a legitimate group, but they wouldn’t necessarily show up in the results.
Coverly: Some of the papers are going a better job of breaking results down by category. Your favorite might not be at the top of the survey results, but as a member of a certain statistical category, your favorite strip is at the top.
Pastis: I was talking to a couple of newspaper editors this weekend, and I told them the same thing: You do these polls, and you get a disproportionate number of older people responding. So the strips that appeal to older people do better, and the strips that skew young do worse. Editors say that older people threaten to cancel their subscriptions when they try to cancel these dinosaur strips, and I said to them that they’re not going to cancel. Every town in this country is a one-paper town. There are like 10 two-paper markets. Where are they doing to go? My generation, on the other hand, is not reading the paper like generations past. That’s who papers should try to capture. So editors have to be willing to take the heat from that older crowd. I told those editors that they have tons of people in their buildings in their 20s and 30s. Look at their cubicle walls! What are they reading?
Mallett: One of the big mistakes with polls is who is being polled: existing readers. I don’t think newspapers’ goals today should be maintaining the status quo.
Heintjes: Speaking of editors, I wanted to ask you about your relationship with your editors at your syndicates. What is their role in your creative process?
Price: My editor has to play two very different roles. One part of him has to pretend that he is the world’s dumbest person when he reads it, the most easily offended. Someone with a rash. He has to see how the strip could be misunderstood. The flip side is, they have to ask if the strip is funny. The worst call you get is when your editor calls you and says, “I think this strip is funny, but you’re going to lose papers over it. Are you willing to risk that?” And sometimes you fight for it. I’ll say, “No, manic depression is funny, and I want to use that strip and see what happens.” So my editor has to be smart and play dumb.
Heintjes: Stephan, you imply in your strip that there are an awful lot of dumb people out there. That seems to be something you can safely get away with.
Pastis: Here’s the great part about making fun of dumb people: Nobody thinks they’re in that group [laughter]. If you mention a religion, you’re doomed. Diseases are sensitive. I did a really funny strip about Lou Gehrig’s disease. Pig thought, “Wow, what a coincidence that Lou Gehrig got struck by Lou Gehrig’s disease.” I thought it was really funny, and people were so angry. An editor at a very large paper actually got in touch with me through my syndicate, and asked me to personally call a reader who was in tears because her dad had died from Lou Gehrig’s disease. So I called and listened for a half hour about what Lou Gehrig’s disease does to you. It was horrifying. The e-mails reflected the same thing. I’ve never mentioned a fatal disease again. But with dumb people, everybody looks around and says, “Oh yeah, those people are so dumb.”
Price: I do Jewish holiday stuff. I think it’s known that I’m Jewish, and I’ll try to put something in there like Hebrew, so people will go, “Oh, she’s one of us.” But initially I think there was some nervousness on the syndicate’s part because it falls out of the generic holiday genre. Christmas is a generic holiday. If you go outside that and talk about Passover or Hanukah, there’s a greater fear of it being misunderstood or slandered.
Coverly: You can do a general religion joke. You can do an angel in heaven joke, or a halo joke, but you can’t do a Catholic joke.
Price: God’s OK, Jesus is not.
Pastis: We’re all young, and we’re not in a thousand papers, so we have to watch ourselves a little more closely. If one of us takes a wrong turn for a week, it could be devastating. We could lose 10 papers, which would be really bad.
Heintjes: Do you second-guess yourselves a lot at the drawing board?
Mallett: Is all the time a lot?
Price: That’s not my job. I would be selling myself short if I sit there and go, “Oh, I don’t know if this is OK.” I’m going to let the editor be the gatekeeper, because I’m screwed if I stop entertaining myself.
Coverly: The best advice I ever got was from Mike Peters. He said, “Stop worrying about who you’re making laugh. Just make yourself laugh.” No matter how many or how few newspapers you’re in, there are thousands and millions of people reading your strip, and if you’re going to start worrying about if so-and-so will think this is funny, you’ll bland it right down. You couldn’t function.
Mallett: I’m not smart enough to figure out what everyone else wants. Maybe I should do a survey.
Coverly: Do a survey in Frazz of what they think of the newspaper.
Mallett: Then I could go back to college and start a new career! But I just can’t read people’s minds. The best I can do is create this world that I like, which is largely populated by people like me, and I have to hope that I’m not that much stranger than the rest of the world.
Price: I have a certain arc of emotions like panic and depression, and then I go on to know that the ideas are going to happen. You’d think that by now I’d be able to shorten the anxiety and depression phases, but that’s what Monday and Tuesday are devoted to.
Mallett: You should do a joke about anxiety and depression in clinical terms and see how that goes over [laughter]. Just a thought.
Pastis: Then one of them gets Lou Gehrig’s disease [laughter].
Heintjes: So it’s fair to say that you write to entertain yourselves rather than to meet whatever you think the expectations of your readers are.
Mallett: That’s not the most flattering way to put it, but yeah.
Pastis: People want to see themes that you’ve done that they like. People want to see me do the box o’ stupid people, or the ones where Rat writes these Angry Bob letters. Teenagers really like it, so the temptation is to give them more of what they want. But oddly, you have to lead them. And if you do what they’re telling you to do, they won’t like you. At the same time, you do have to look over your shoulder and make sure there’s someone behind you.
Heintjes: I’m asking that if you give the audience what they want, do you eventually look back at three decades of lasagna jokes?
Coverly: What strip does that?
Price: I really don’t think of it reader-first. I go through my own process. When I first get the idea, I’m really happy. I think, “Oh, this is the best one ever!” Then I go through the process, and then I ink it, and after I’ve spent too much time with it, it sucks. It only gets redeemed again when someone looks at it fresh. And it’s too bad that it’s got to go through this lifespan, but at least I get those first 30 seconds to 10 minutes of real joy.
Coverly: I don’t spend that much time thinking about the process of getting an idea. I’m just happy as hell to get the idea, because it’s hard to get an idea. Then I spend my time worrying about getting the idea across, thinking about how to set it up. Since I have a panel, setting it up is very important. I’ve also had ideas that I thought were sort of mediocre, but I really nailed it in the drawing.
Pastis: I’d like to say that I never feel like I nailed it with the drawing [laughter].
Coverly: I was talking to Glenn McCoy about that, and he’s one of those guys who just draws funny. Even if the joke isn’t the funniest thing you’ve ever seen, it’s fun to look at.
Pastis: Monty does that, too.
Price: Jim Meddick is awesome.
Heintjes: I asked Dan Piraro if he ever feels like he dresses us a mediocre idea in Bizarro with this wonderful drawing to make it work, and he said he’s done that.
Price: I’ve heard him say that, and I’ve heard you say that [gesturing to Coverly], and I’m jealous.
Pastis: I used to feel that I had an ability to discern what will hit with readers and what won’t, but I really don’t have that ability. If you’re honest, your comic strip is you. That’s step one. Step two is, what if you’re an ass? So if you have strange things about you, they’re going to come out. My problem is that I’m too dark. I’m just too cynical. My strip changed in December 2003, when Pig goes to a slaughterhouse and thinks it’s a singles bar. He starts talking to these pigs who are going to die, and he doesn’t know it. I finished writing the series and I was so happy with it, and I called Darby [Conley, Get Fuzzy creator]. I told him I was so excited about this sequence, and he asked me what it was. I said, “Pig goes to a slaughterhouse and meets this girl, but she dies at the end because she gets slaughtered.” It was quiet on the phone and Darby said, “Dude, you’re really going to do that?” I said, “What?” and he said, “You can’t do that—that’s so dark.” But I don’t think that way. Who you are is going to come out. After that, I did a serious strip about a bus being blown up in Jerusalem.
Price: That was great.
Pastis: Thank you. After those really dark strips came out, I went through the next nine months of strips, because I’m ahead, and I purged a month of strips that I thought were too dark. I lost a whole week of strips where Rat goes to Wal-Mart to buy a gun to shoot his neighbor in the ass. But it was a good week.
Heintjes: Dave and Hilary, you don’t have continuing characters, while Stephan and Jef do. Do you feel that you can touch on subjects that strips with continuing characters can’t?
Price: Why don’t you ask them first? Stephan messes around with whatever he feels like.
Pastis: Well, they’re at a big advantage in one respect. The whole palette is open to them. I’ve tried to make my strip as much like that as I can. If there’s a joke I want, I can introduce whatever character I want. My characters don’t have jobs, I don’t know where they live, so I can keep it broad. We have a huge advantage too, though. When we don’t have an idea, we can rely on characters. Get Fuzzy is a great example of that: You see Bucky, and it’s already funny, because you know who he is. These guys [Coverly and Price] can’t do that. So it’s kind of a crutch for us.
Coverly: [To Mallett] Your strip is very character-driven, very location-driven.
Mallett: Like I said, I’ve created a world. It’s a world I like. It’s like I’m writing a novel that’s going to take me the rest of my life to complete. I don’t want to rely on characters—I want each one to be good on its own. But sometimes I get jealous of people who can do a gag that I can’t do because none of my characters would do that. But the writing process is so different for me than it must be for you guys. I have these characters, and I’ll have these imaginary conversations; it’s like daydreaming with a purpose.
Heintjes: Dave and Hilary, you don’t have characters to help you write your strips. Does that offer both advantages and disadvantages?
Price: There are time I wish I had more defined characters, and I wish they had a home.
Pastis: When you don’t have regular characters, it’s harder in polls, and that’s not fair. I would say 75 percent of a person’s vote is, “I just like seeing that little face.” I may suck, but some people just like seeing Pig. So I get that leg up. Dave and Hilary don’t have that advantage, so when people are polled, those readers don’t think of your characters.
Mallett: I’ll have some fun and disagree. I’ve done some school and library presentations with Dave, and while it’s fun, I kind of dread them. When we show our work, people laugh immediately at Dave, but they’re not sure when to laugh at mine. Because it takes three or four panels to get to the funny part. And I’m thinking, Damn—he’s getting more laughs than me again!
Pastis: You do know that he has his family members in the audience. Price:: And they’re still in elementary school [laughter].
Mallett: We were talking before about how you can’t get to know a strip in three or four days, but you can look at a gag cartoon and know right away.
Coverly: But you don’t know if it’s consistent. Is it going to be funny every day? That’s what you don’t know. I was talking to Jay Kennedy about this the other day, and he said syndicates have a hard time finding a panel that can be consistently good. I worked to develop a drawing style that’s a little closer to an editorial cartoon, because I wanted to have a look that was a little different.
Price: Jay told me to keep the title panel in my strip. The title panel started out kind of randomly, but he said to hold on to it because it’s recognizable.
Heintjes: Hilary, do you perceive yourself as doing a gag strip?
Price: Sure, but I bend the rules. Sometimes it’ll have a narrative form, so I can have more time to get the joke across.
Coverly: I don’t think your humor is as all over the map as mine, either. You seem to have a lot of relationship jokes. You have a lot of consistency.
Price: The dogs, the cats . . .
Coverly: Dan Piraro and I, we do whatever, and that can be hard sometimes.
Price: When I look back at my strips now, they’re kind of a coded journal. I can look at a strip that’s about such-and-such, and I can remember why it was about such-and-such at that point in my life. I’m totally leaking into the strip.
Heintjes: Do you guys see that in your work?
Pastis: Unintentionally, often. If you’re writing well, it comes out and you don’t even know it. I did one with a guy who dresses as a bear at an amusement park. His name is Tatulli, the Self-Esteem Building Bear, and he’s getting a divorce from his wife, who has a similar job. So in the amusement park, these two bears who are supposed to be amusing kids are fighting bitterly. After I wrote it, I realized that my wife and I had fought a few weeks before that. My six-year-old son, Thomas, was in the room. It disturbed me that we had the fight in front of him, and it had an impact on my writing. I didn’t even see the correlation until later. One thing I really admire about cartoonists is, we’re out there. Everything we are is out there in front of millions of people, every day. We are completely exposed. If we’re being honest, you know who we are, in some ways better than our families know us. These are our deepest thoughts.
Price: Sometimes I wish I could rent a co-worker. He’d come with a water cooler, and we could chat. [To Pastis] It seems like you have a good balance. You do your strip alone, and you work at Creative Associates a few days a week.
Pastis: Yeah, it’s nice.
Coverly: I get house-crazy sometimes. When Chris would come home from work, she’d be ready to put on her sweats and hang out, and I’d be ready to take off my sweats and go out!
Price: Kerry is really psyched that she’s got a half-hour commute. It’s a half-hour of time to herself before she gets home. And I’m clawing at the door to get out! [laughter]
Mallett: Before I went full-time with Frazz, I used to work at a news bureau for a chain of newspapers. The other people in the office were really smart, and just being around smart people kind of rubs off on you. But when I left there, it rubbed off real fast. I only had one smart person around the house. I was amazed at how many of my ideas came from being around other people. It’s almost a bad idea not to have a day job, other than total exhaustion.
Heintjes: How do you feel about creating a strip that takes the reader more time to read and appreciate, rather than allowing them to move on quickly to the next strip? How much do you want to challenge your readers?
Mallett: By the time I’ve developed a relationship with a reader, he’ll trust me if I ask him to do some work. I’ve done some strips where I won’t tell him what the gag is. It usually involves a word they have to look up. I get tons of mail when I do a strip that makes people run to a dictionary. I know there are also people who go, “Screw it; I can’t be bothered. I’ll come back tomorrow and it will be easier.” You don’t want to wear out your readers, but I believe you should challenge them. They’re reading the newspaper–they’re not the dumb guys! The dumb guys are all off watching Fox TV.
Coverly: I can’t stand strips that are big, bold letters and wham-wham-wham. I like for the reader to bring something to the table. And that’s the kind of humor I like to read. I grew up reading the New Yorker with Artie Levin and Jack Ziegler—that’s the stuff I liked.
Price: I’ve heard you talk about trying to use fewer words in your strip. I feel that my strip is really wordy, and that’s something I think about when I’m writing it.
Heintjes: Why is using fewer words a goal of yours, Dave?
Coverly: As far as panels go, the ones I really admire are the ones with no words. It’s just genius when someone can create a gag with no words. Like Quino, the South American cartoonist; he’s just brilliant. I have a hard time thinking of a purely visual gag. It’s just not how I think. I have a master’s in fiction, so my background is writing. I can’t do a purely visual gag every day because I don’t have time.
Heintjes: So your syndicates never warn you against using too many words.
Pastis: No, never. The Angry Bob ones, where Rat writes letters, have lots of words. I did one—you won’t see it because I nixed it—that had four rows, and each row had five panels. So it was a 20-panel Sunday strip. It had so many words with Rat typing that it was pretty much just the top of his ears in his panel. I think that if you have a lot of words, a lot of people are going to go right past your strip. They don’t want to work. You don’t want to do it too often, but some things need an elaborate premise. The only thing I’m really conscious of is, if I have more than four or five words in the last panel, I really question if it’s necessary. If you think about it, if someone says something funny, it’s generally a fast thing. Long sentences are rarely funny. I think that last panel has to be sparse, unless you can justify it. Dilbert strips are like that. If you look at Dilbert, especially from 1995 to 1997, when he was just on fire, the last panel is always three or four words.
Coverly: When you do a comic strip with different characters, do you write with different cadences for different characters? Do you hear their voices?
Mallett: Oh, yeah.
Pastis: Rat uses sharp words with hard sounds. There are funny letters, too. Bs are funny, Ps are funny, Ks are funny. S is never funny. That’s why I use “Bob” so much. It’s the perfect word. It’s got two Bs, it’s a palindrome, it’s a funny, goofy word. I read this book about using color as rhythm. The guy could sense what went together just like a composer. The writing of the strip is the same. I can hear it. Sometimes using a two-syllable word in the last panels breaks it up. So let’s take the word “supposed” and make it “s’posed.” I can’t describe it, but I can hear it. Really, cartoonists are akin to poets: We have limited space, and each word has to have an impact.
Price: [To Pastis] Have you ever done improv?
Price: The whole point of improv is that you get yourself in trouble, and then you have to justify it. And I see a lot of that in your work. You have a sea filled with angry monkeys in one strip. And I could see you sitting there going, OK, I have a sea filled with angry monkeys. How the hell am I going to justify that? BOOM, went the coastal angry monkey factory!
Pastis: Scott [Adams, Dilbert creator] taught me that you can trap yourself in the first panel on purpose. He told me that he will sit down when he has no ideas, and he’ll draw that first panel. So he forced himself into this setting with these characters. Now you’re trapped—now write your way out of it. If you start with a sea filled with angry monkeys, your options are limited.
Heintjes: Could you see yourself doing that in Speed Bump?
Coverly: I do that when I’m stuck. I usually think in terms of language or idioms or scatterbrained stuff, but when I’m stuck I’ll draw something like a cat playing ping-pong. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it leads to other things. You’ve just got to do something. You can’t just sit there, or else you’ll make up grocery lists.
Mallett: Something that I get to do, and Stephan gets to do, that the single-panel people don’t get to do is to take a theme for a week or even a couple of days. You can take an idea and see how many days you can make it fresh and funny.
Price: Yeah, I hate you both for that [laughter].
Coverly: I have the opposite problem. Sometimes I’ll get three great ideas on the same theme, but I can’t use them! I’ll have to save them.
Pastis: From where I am right now, that’s the single biggest challenge I face: series versus a week of six independent gags. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. If you do a series, generally the first one is going to be weak and the last one is going to be weak, because you’ve got to set it up, and then you’ve got to close it. Also, there’s at least one day during the week that’s not totally necessary. You’re milking an idea you already did. Also, if you write a two-week series and you realize on the second day that it sucks, that is the longest two weeks!
Price: And people won’t remember specific jokes, but they’ll remember the theme.
Pastis: That’s true! I did a series a while ago where Rat would hit people with the Mallet of Understanding, and people loved it. But when people tell me they loved it, they don’t love a specific one; they liked the idea of it. But a week allows you to explore ideas. I’ve got a week coming up—don’t rip this idea off, guys—where Rat reads Dilbert and sees Ratbert, and he figures that this guy Scott Adams has ripped him off. So he goes to Adams’ mansion with a bulldozer to break down his gates and talk to Scott. And Scott is an Elvis-style weirdo. I called Scott, by the way, and he’s OK with it [laughter]. Doing that as a series gave me a chance to set it up in a way that I could never do in a day. But at the same time, when you do a story, you have an interest that’s not being purely funny. When you do that, your strip is going to be watered down to some extent. It’s a danger, and I never know what to do. Let me add that if you’re polled the week you’re doing a series, you’re screwed.
Mallett: I’ll never ask my readers to stick with a series for more than a week, because the American attention span is too all over the place.
Heintjes: So you would never write a series that lasted more than a week even if you came up with something you felt merited more than a week?
Mallett: I try not to. Since my strip takes place in a school, I’ve got to come up with something different to do during the summer. The last few years I’ve had Frazz coaching a summer baseball league. That’s sort of like an extended theme, but it’s more like a shift in premise. For my strip, I think after a week it’s time to move on. It’s a strip full of kids, and kids have short attention spans.
Pastis: And Sunday breaks it up. Your Sundays have to be independent of the week. They have to stand alone because some people will only see Sundays. If you have a character who’s dead Monday through Saturday, he can’t appear on Sunday.
Heintjes: Hilary, you never feel the urge to do a series that builds on a theme?
Price: I’ve done it three or four times. It’s not something I’ve really done much.
Coverly: I don’t know why, but it almost feels lazy.
Coverly: When I read a strip that has back-to-back clown strips, I think, “Oh, that guy couldn’t decide which strip he liked better.”
Price: Dan Piraro did a week where it was it was gags based on people looking at a guy in a coffin, and I thought, “Wow, that’s pretty ingenious.” But I wouldn’t want to see it every week.
Heintjes: If you could change something about the way the comics business is run, what would you change?
Pastis: When the creator is gone, the strip is gone. Except for Peanuts, because I work there three days a week [laughter].
Price: I’m in that camp, too, but someone said something to me that was convincing. The big strips that make a lot of money are subsidizing the smaller strips.
Pastis: And the big strips are causing the need for us to be subsidized.
Price: Thank you! Now I can go back and say, “Hey!”
Mallett: I’ll play the contrarian here. I get as tired as anybody of competing with strips that are there simply because they’re old. But if they’re old and funny and fresh, they’re being drawn by real, live cartoonists even though the copyright is held by the syndicate.
Price: But you’re shooting yourself in the foot in terms of growing the business beyond the last two generations.
Mallett: But look at television, where so much good stuff is gone after a season or two. You don’t want that to happen. I kind of like that fact that comics are not trendy. I don’t like everything about that fact, because the fact that they’re not trendy means they can get stale.
Price: I don’t get what you’re talking about.
Pastis: Jef’s full of shit [laughter].
Mallett: Take NewsRadio, which was a fantastic series, but…you know what? I am full of shit.
Coverly: Take Cheers, which was great, ran its course, and then was gone.
Heintjes: So are you still playing the contrarian here, or have you come around?
Mallett: Jef has had an epiphany [laughter].
Pastis: Here’s the bottom line: I ask my friends who are in their 30s if they read the comics. They say, No, the comics suck. I get it every time. I ask them why they suck, and I won’t name strips, but they name all the dinosaur strips. To them, that is the comics page. My friends are watching South Park; they’re not reading the comics.
Mallett: I think the newspapers are going to have to change. They’re the gatekeepers, and they’re not looking at what’s good. They’re looking at what’s easy.
Price: Look at the success of The Boondocks. That’s an example of a syndicate taking a risk. I’m sure other syndicates looked at it and said, “It’s great, but we can’t run it.” That strip was a shot in the arm for the comics page. It created discussion about the comics page.
Coverly: I’m not sure how much of a risk The Boondocks was. The syndicates are really looking for strips that appeal to certain populations.
Price: So what would be an example of a risky strip?
Coverly: I’m hard-pressed to think of one.
Price: Stephan, your strip was risky.
Coverly: I don’t think Pearls Before Swine is risky—it’s just funny.
Pastis: But all the syndicates rejected it, because none of them thought they could sell it.
Coverly: I guess what’s edgy to me is different from what’s edgy to other people.
Price: I think there’s schizophrenia to the newspaper that the whole newspaper is this adult thing, except for one page, and there’s a different standard there. I occasionally get an e-mail that says, “Think of the children.” That’s the biggest bullshit reason I’ve ever heard, because if you’re reading the newspaper with your kid and something comes up, it’s a really good opportunity to have a discussion. People don’t read the newspaper to shield themselves; they read it to inform themselves.
Pastis: I get that, too. When I did that strip about the bomb in Jerusalem, a lot of people wrote to tell me that kids read the comics. I wanted to say, “Have you read the comics? Krazy Kat wasn’t for kids. Charlie Brown, when he’s at this darkest, wasn’t for kids. When Berke Breathed did the animal-testing series in Bloom County, it wasn’t for kids. Who said that comics have to be for kids? That’s not true at all. People tell you that the newspaper goes straight into the home. So does cable TV. There’s a show on called The Best Damn Sports Show, but I can’t say “damn” in my strip. “Damn” is in TV Guide, because that’s title of the damn show [laughter]. Really, the thing that’s driving it is the lack of competition among newspapers. If every town had two or three papers, like in the old days, they would compete for new, edgy features that would draw in younger readers. But if that syndicate salesman comes around today with that new, edgy feature, a newspaper editor is going to say, Screw it. If you edit the only paper in town and you take a chance, you might risk your job a little bit. If you say no, who’s going to know? There’s no competitor to pick up the strip you turned down. Saying no is risk-free.
Price: When someone breaks out and does something different, cartoonists love it! Cartoonists are seeing someone do something that they themselves are afraid to do, but it’s never a learning lesson.
Coverly: Papers are sheep. It takes one person to start doing well, and then it will take off, because the sales rep will be able to say that so-and-so picked it up, so it’s getting hot. They all want to see who goes first.
Pastis: Some strips that are big now were nothing to start with. Dilbert was in hardly any papers its first three years.
Price: What was the tipping point for him?
Mallett: I think he was just getting his legs when Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side and Bloom County retired.
Coverly: When Calvin was retired, Dilbert was the one who went into a lot of those spots.
Pastis: That’s another thing that’s hurt a lot of us—there have been no retirements since we’ve started doing our strips. Or there have been retirements but the strip hasn’t gone away. So we’ve all had to pick off each other, pick off the other strips that are in under 100 papers. We need a strip with more than 1,000 papers to leave.
Mallett: We were just sitting in a banquet room last night with three tornadoes heading for Kansas City, and I thought, “This will shake up the comics page a lot.” But they veered off toward St. Joseph, so never mind [laughter].
Here’s an amusing outtake from the roundtable’s photo session. To view it at full size–and might we humbly suggest making it your computer’s wallpaper?—click the thumbnail. To order a print copy of Hogan’s Alley #13 (cover at right), where this feature first appeared, click here.