Here’s the talk I gave in Kenosha. It’s the written version, and the reality version has some ad-libbing, but this is what I meant to say.
Hi, I’m Greg, and I draw comic strips.
I understand how difficult it can be to follow an unfamiliar accent, so if you have questions, raise your hands and bear with me. ‘Cause all y’all talk funny.
Today we’re discussing Behind the Scenes at The Buckets, which has a light side and a dark forbidding side replete with degradation, horror and recrimination- which of course I’m going to make you wait til later for. Brrr. Feel free to be on the edge of your seats.
Once upon a time, an editorial cartoonist named Scott Stantis had a wife and two young sons, a house with a mortgage and a dog. Weird, huh? So he crafted these elements around the theme that Fatherhood-Is-A-Baffling-Mess and started a comic strip called The Buckets.
Ten years later, he said he was tired of drawing Larry Bucket on the end of that same darn couch. So I was hired to draw the couch.
I had known Scott since college, and now was an advertising cartoonist. I had therefore drawn many couches and could draw them in any style that an editor, or a printer, ad agency, or any chimpanzee with a checkbook wanted. I had a wife and two young sons, a house with a mortgage and a dog. Also, I had desperately wanted to be on the comics page since I was very young. Perfect!
I learned Scott’s style, and we agreed that it was okay if the art migrated toward my style a little as time went by.
Time went by.
During my time as an advertising cartoonist, I was proud that I’d never missed a deadline. Ten years, and everything was on time except my sleep schedule. Pow!
Then suddenly instead of the random advertising jobs coming through at heaven-knows-when, I had a regularly scheduled deadline. Scott taught me that deadlines were padded and stupid, and nobody was that serious about them. The syndicate said otherwise, but computers were the new thing, and your delivery time was down to a few seconds, so that saved days from every deadline, right? Days! They can wait. I nearly got ulcers, but I learned to relax.
Anyhow, after six months, the trial period was over and my name went onto the feature. I was very proud.
As I drew The Buckets, of course I wanted to write The Buckets, so I would send Scott dozens of scripts that he patiently explained were not useful, or outright wrong. “We don’t talk about Eddie setting fires, even by accident.” “No urine, not even in puddles.” And… other thing. I forget. Occasionally, we used my scripts.
Eventually, I learned the characters’ voices and heard them in my head, and of course my own kids were old enough to start doing the things that belong in the sort of comic strips that wind up yellowed and cracked, magnetized to refrigerator doors. My writing was appearing in the strip more. I was very proud.
The work on the strip got me into the National Cartoonist Society, where I got to meet the people I’d always wanted to meet. You know how, in the U.S., we have this stupid Hollywood mythology – not just for actors, but musicians and athletes and artists of all stripes? The myth is that “If you’re very good at what you do, then someday, somebody will DISCOVER you and make you rich and famous.” I (sort of) felt like I got that. I’d been let into The Club, literally. I was very proud.
By now, I could do all the work on The Buckets, and so Scott and I made a deal where I would take over and his name would drop off. That was 2005 or 2006, which is when I signed the contracts with the syndicate instead of Scott. In fact, I just signed another one, so you’ll have to put up with me for years more now.
I mentioned computers before, and so we come to talk about the Web, and comics.com, who had The Buckets online until 2009. (Now, It’s on gocomics, where I trust you all read it every day. Yes? Good.) It was very convenient for discovering what readers were getting from the cartoons. At least I learned from the kind of readers who like to comment under comic strips. If readers were commenting about things that weren’t the punchline, I figured that I hadn’t refined the writing or art to bring my point into focus. So I changed my editing style a bit. That was really useful. Then I realized that some of my readers just didn’t get ANYTHING. Two of them in particular, seemed to recommend beating Toby and Eddie as often as not.
They said that their children would NEVER act like that… if they had any.
Ah. That explained a lot! I explained to THEM that beating a child hadn’t been used as a punchline in the comic strips since the thirties, but they weren’t buying it. I didn’t explain anything to them about family based humor. The fact is that they really, really enjoyed showing up every day and complaining bitterly about children in general. I love seeing comments from them now.
Once I even got an email from a reader over this cartoon. It was a long email and dealt mostly with John McCain being a Vietnam prisoner of war who lived in a dirty cramped space and said the pledge of allegiance to a contraband homemade flag and how dare I desecrate his sacrifice. I emailed back and said that my cartoon didn’t even mention McCain, and was a tongue-in-cheek indictment of our modern society where, because of TV, even our six year olds can not only recite their Miranda rights, but can confuse them with other recitations. Which is the sort of thing you make up when you have to explain the humor in what is essentially a goofy drawing with a caption. He wrote back, believe it or not, and said that he had just finished reading McCain’s book and was a little on edge and he was sorry for taking it out on me. Nice guy. He inspired a couple of plumbing cartoons later on.
So. Bottom line. I love doing The Buckets, I love scrutinizing my behavior and my family’s behavior for the baffling stuff that makes us funny. And I love the fact that I get to share it in newspapers and on the web. I become very awkward when I’m asked for autographs, which I revel in giving, so if anyone’s interested, let’s do that in a little while.
I’d like to back up a moment and point out that when I showed up on Scott’s doorstep in Birmingham to cut our original deal, I was driving a Chevy Suburban filled with a bike, two skateboards, an offroad unicycle (yeeeah.), camping gear, and with two whitewater kayaks tied on top. I was, in fact, not heading home after our meeting, but going to the Ocoee river to waste the rest of my weekend. Scott said that he’d heard a syndicate was looking for an outdoors strip, and that I should do one quick since I knew about that kind of stuff. I did, and let me tell you, it was exciting. I thought I might wind up with TWO syndicated features in the paper, and one would be ALL ME! The idea that one strip would be all mine and go through the so-called proper channels of syndication sounded thrilling.
Turns out, when the syndicate said, “Outdoors Strip”, they meant “Huntin’ and Fishin’” instead of “Kayaks and Bicycles”. I don’t do Huntin’ and Fishin’, so my strip wandered around for a while with a little syndicate input and then became a webcartoon called ‘Hubris’.
The Buckets book will be ready in time for Christmas sales, but I have Hubris books here for you this weekend. Just didn’t want you to be confused when you see what I brought you.
So back to The Buckets, and now, the DARK side. The Buckets is technically a LEGACY strip. Anyone know what that means? For some, a legacy strip is ‘a horrible zombie feature being prostituted after its natural death by evil syndicate money-grubbing toonpimps.”
For others, it’s “A comic strip being created by someone other than its originator.”
Some quick examples are ‘Dennis The Menace’, both the U.S. version and the U.K. version, ‘Gasoline Alley’, ‘Alley Oop,’ ‘Snuffy Smith,’ ‘B.C.’, ‘Dick Tracy’, ‘The Katzenjammer Kids’ Australia’s ‘Ginger Meggs’, and a pile of others. Possibly you read one or two of them. If they weren’t legacy strips, chances are you wouldn’t have ever heard of most of them.
There is a stigma attached to working on a strip that you didn’t start. Mostly the arguments against legacy strips are presented as artistic and high minded. And mostly the real reasons are about business.
On a chat forum once, I encountered a young cartoonist who was fearsomely upset that since Charles Schulz’s death, Peanuts had HIS place on the comics page. When it was pointed out that without the income from Peanuts, the syndicate would be short the income to keep its doors open, much less launch his new strip which wouldn’t be able to make up the difference quickly enough to warrant the loss, he did a thing rarely seen on the internet. He said that was a good point, and he’d have to rethink things a bit. I suspect he was on drugs during that last part.
In 1989, I attended Ohio State’s Festival Of Cartoon Art, where we in the audience were told that we were getting a surprise guest! We were also told that if we interrupted him, or photographed him, or recorded him or spoke to him that he’d leave the stage instantly and that the offending audience member would be ejected. They let us take notes and doodle caricatures. The guest was, of course, Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes. His talk was about the art vs. the business of comic strips, and what I took away from it without realizing was, quote, “There has never, ever been a successor to a comic strip half as good as the original creator”
So I didn’t respect my place on The Buckets until I realized that Bill Watterson was sort of the abusive father I needed therapy to get over.
I’m happy to say that I personally know several legacy cartoonists, and narrowly missed knowing a couple others. They’re good people and they love cartooning and their jobs. Marcus Hamilton, who does Dennis The Menace dailies, pointed out he’s never heard any ill will from readers or more importantly from fans. He only gets it from reporters or other cartoonists, which is sad. The fact is that most other cartoonists couldn’t have worked in Hank Ketcham’s writing or art styles even if they desperately needed or wanted to. Marcus was trained and ordained by the man himself after coming out of the same advertising waters I swim in. Hank Ketcham probably saw no oddity in passing his creation to another set of hands, since he’d been using assistants since the beginning. Like nearly every hotshot cartoonist did back then. Similar stories for Jim Scancarelli, who’s been doing Gasoline Alley since the 80’s, and for John Rose, who took over Snuffy Smith from Fred Laswell. Without legacy cartoonists, most of us would never have heard of Snuffy Smith, he’d have been some random footnote in history along with Mickey Mouse and Superman, who would also have been retired when the guys who thought them up went on to other things. There are probably a few of you in the room who’d say, “That’d be best, right?”
I used to think something like that so here’s another anecdote for you about a totally different strip. It was one I read as a child, and still read daily, since it was in the paper, but it hurt my feelings with how lame and repetitive the humor and artwork were. It was, fairly said, my absolute least favorite of the forty strips my hometown paper ran. During a conversation about the state of the local comics page and what strips we wanted and what we could do without, I was a split second away from saying a LOT of rude things about this particular feature, when the guy I was talking to said as long as they didn’t take THAT EXACT STRIP out of the paper, he’d be happy.
Having narrowly avoided cursing his favorite strip the worst possible blot on newsprint, I instead said, “What? You’re kidding, right?” He wasn’t. My least favorite strip is one that he can’t do without.
Add to that, I’ve since met people whose feelings are genuinely hurt by the fact that various soap opera strips that make my eyes roll were now no longer available to them every morning over their coffee.
Recently (and by that I mean because of this talk) I went back to (googled) Mr. Watterson’s speech that had so inspired me and fired me up and made me want more than ever to be a cartoonist in the newspapers. I discovered that with the dwindling of the newspapers and the ascendancy of the Web, most of his points about what the business of cartooning does to the art of cartooning have become utterly moot. Cartoonists are free now to say and draw what they like in formats more their advantage, and can garner huge audiences doing it. What cartoonists cannot do now, apparently, is make the sort of money that Mr. Watterson made, even with his refusal to cheapen Calvin & Hobbes by selling plush animals and Tshirts and other knickknacks.
William Randolph Hearst and other publishers made cartoonists the rock stars of their day. They created the world in which fortunes and fame could be had from the funny papers, and that world is going away. I’m very, very pleased to have come along in time to be one of the last guys who marked dozens of three-digit numbers onto Xeroxes of Buckets Sunday cartoons indicating to the printer where the colors should go. And now I’m part of the brave new world of online comics with both The Buckets and with Hubris. And we’re back to being the illustrator/businessmen that we were before William Randolph Hearst took the business end of it out of our hands. Wonder who’ll reignite the Hollywood myth online and promise to turn us all into rock stars?