by Mark Evanier
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 10/30/98
Comics Buyer's Guide
There's a phone call I'm sick of getting.
No, it's not the one from the telemarketing firm that somehow got my number and wants to sell me a 20-year supply of wombat chow and which will, if I act now, throw in a lovely, stainless steel cheese-straightener so I can straighten my cheese with the cheese-straightener the professionals use.
And it's not the one from the "national research outlet" where the kid does the bad line-reading of the insipid selling script that starts off like an opinion poll but soon segues into a pitch for a lifetime subscription to String Collectors Monthly which, for a limited time only, includes a rare sample of packing twine from the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley.
It's not even the one from the phone sales division of the International Brotherhood of Richard Deacon Fans telling me that if I act now, I can be the first on my block to own a striking life-size Jell-o mold of Mel Cooley. (It quivers whenever you do a decent impression of Alan Brady.)
No, the call I really dislike is the one from a total or near-total stranger who is searching for a talented professional writer or artist who will work for free. Years ago, when I was the President of C.A.P.S. (the Comic Art Professional Society), I used to get this call with reference to cartoonists — and about as often as I got my mail. I still get it every month or so.
The caller is never someone who is in or around the comic strip business. They have, however, not just an idea for a new strip, but The All-Time Greatest Idea Ever for a new strip.
Not only that but someone at one of the syndicates — they can't tell me who or which syndicate, of course — has told them that this is, indeed, a sure-fire winner. It is "absolutely guaranteed," not only to sell to a syndicate but to every single newspaper this side of the Christian Science Monitor. The strip is invariably described as "the next Peanuts" or "the next Garfield" and all they need is a cartoonist who will draw up some samples of their idea and not be so unreasonable as to expect money…
Let's pause here for a quick Reality Check. There is no such thing as an idea so fabulous that, based on it alone, anyone could reasonably predict a smash hit. Not even Peanuts was that incredible an idea, in and of itself. The genius of Charles M. Schulz in executing that idea probably had a little something to do with its success.
But let's imagine that Mr. Schulz and his strip never existed. You walk into the offices of United Features Syndicate and you say, "Hey, how about doing a comic about kids who talk somewhat like adults?"
Editors suddenly stop whatever they're doing. Secretaries cease typing. Interns drop the crates they're carrying. Everyone rushes up to you. "Tell us more," they yell, excitedly.
"Well," you say, "The main kid is a real loser who never wins a baseball game…and there's this kid with a blanket and another one who loves Beethoven. Oh — and I was thinking maybe there could be a dog who sometimes thinks he's a World War I flying ace…"
The editor-in-chief goes berserk. He or she grabs up the phone and calls the president of the syndicate. "Mr. United? Drop whatever you're doing and get down here right this minute."
The president hurries down and they make you repeat the whole thing for him. This time, you append, "Hey, I just had a thought! What if the loser kid has a crush on a little red-headed girl?"
"Genius," they all agree. "How soon can we start?"
"I don't draw," you say. "We'll need someone who does."
"Oh, that's right," Mr. United mutters. "I keep forgetting comic strips need artists. Well, go out and find someone who can draw."
You say, "But I don't know any cartoonists."
The editor chimes in, "Make some calls. Maybe you can find some strangers who will recommend excellent artists to draw up samples for no pay."
Mr. United concurs. "Tell them that someone at one of the major syndicates said that whoever draws this strip is going to make millions."
You shrug and say, "Well, okay…"
This never happens. An idea like that is just a starting point. At best, it may be a good starting point. Someone still has to do a lot of creating to turn it into anything, let alone anything good.
What does happen — and it happens with bothersome frequency — is that I get this call. The latter part of the conversation goes pretty much like this…
ME: Certainly, I can recommend some fine cartoonists. Can you give me some idea what you're prepared to pay?
THEM: "Pay?" Well, there'll be money down the line when the syndicate makes the deal for the strip…
ME: Of course. But, in the meantime, you can't expect a talented professional artist to draw up your idea — which will include designing the characters, among other things — for zip.
THEM: No, but they'll be paid when the strip starts appearing.
ME: What if the strip doesn't sell?
THEM: Oh, they don't have to worry about that. We have all this interest from the syndicates…they're really hot on this idea.
ME: You're very sure it's going to sell?
THEM: Very sure.
ME: Well then, you should be willing to put up the money for a top cartoonist. Then you can get reimbursed when the strip sells.
THEM: Well, uh, I could…but I'd rather not work it that way. My funds are kind of tied up at the moment and I don't want to wait…
ME: You want the best, right? Well, the best guys are always in demand. They'd have to turn down paying work to do your samples.
THEM: Uh, gee, don't you know someone who could knock out a few sketches in his spare time? You know, like, on the weekend?
ME: What do you do for a living?
THEM: Me? Oh, I install pool heaters — but I'm looking to get out of that and…
ME: So how would you feel if someone called you up and said, "I don't want to pay you to install my pool heater. Could you do it for free in your spare time?"
THEM: I was kinda hoping to find someone who'd be willing to gamble…
ME: Oh, artists gamble all the time, but they prefer to gamble on their own projects. You're asking someone to gamble on your project. That's different.
THEM: But it's a very good gamble…
ME: …but not good enough for you to put up your own money, right?
THEM: Nobody's putting up any money. We're not asking the artist to put up any money…
ME: …just the time he would otherwise spend making money?
That's how the conversations always seem to go, although they usually don't last quite that long. The caller gets hip that I'm not going to help him so he wraps it up and goes off to call someone else.
You wouldn't believe how often I've gotten this call. I can't begin to estimate the number.
I can, however, tell you with absolute precision, the number of times that this kind of caller has managed to locate an artist and to get the guaranteed-to-sell idea sold. The number is zero.
It ain't easy to sell a new syndicated strip. If you predicted utter failure for every single attempt, the number of times you'd be wrong would be statistically insignificant — well below 1%.
Samples of proposed strips arrive by the barrel each week at all the major syndicates and even the minor ones. I've heard all sorts of different estimates of how many are submitted and what the odds are of rejection. Whatever they are, they're pretty bad.
I don't think I realized how bad until a few years back when I spent a day in the offices of one of the big New York syndicates. A lady was showing me around and she motioned to a cubicle containing three desks piled high with manila envelopes. "This week's," she muttered.
There must have been 500 packages on those desks. The number gets a bit higher, she says, shortly after any prominent newspaper or TV story that mentions the annual income of Charles Schulz or Jim Davis.
Later, I wandered in and watched an assistant going through the stacks. From what I could see, the submissions ran the gamut of professionalism. Some were expertly rendered and would not have looked out of place on the funny page, right between Hagar and Dick Tracy. Others looked like a lot like what I did at age eight, working in Crayola on shirt cardboards.
I asked the assistant what he was the sickest of seeing. He said, "Far Side imitations." (This was about 10 years ago. I'd bet they're looking at a lot of Dilbert clones, these days.)
The submissions all had two things in common. One was that they represented an awful lot of work. Most submitters had done at least four weeks' worth of strips, some as many as 20. Many packages contained elaborate presentations with color and fancy folders and reams of info on all the characters. One person had shipped them a six-foot, hand-painted wooden stand-up of his title character with an elaborately-bound album of sample strips in its hand.
And the other thing they all had in common was that none of them were accepted by that syndicate. Not a one.
In the years since, every time someone has told me they have an idea for a newspaper strip that is "absolutely guaranteed" to sell, I think about that pile. I'll bet it was full of strips that were "absolutely guaranteed" to sell.
As you might guess, what prompted this column is yet another of these "Can you help me find an artist?" calls. I got it this morning from a young lady who was quite polite and quite clueless about the comic strip business.
As usual, she was referred to me by a mutual friend — someone who could have told her everything I told her. (Attention, mutual friend: The next time you do that to me, I'm giving your address to the Jehovah's Witnesses and telling them to ring your doorbell every single morning around 6 AM and not to take "no" for an answer.)
She and her friends have a "wonderful idea" for a newspaper strip…and it will also be an animated cartoon and a live-action feature and a series of children's books and, of course, a whole line of dolls and toys and video games. I got the feeling they also have plans to clear the acreage next to Disneyland and build a competing theme park.
All they need is to find a fabulous artist who'll work on spec.
I don't know how good or developed their idea is. She said she didn't want to divulge it for fear it would be stolen. That was fine with me (saves time) but one cannot help but be a bit miffed at the implied insult. Last year, another mutual friend convinced me to see a lady in person to advise her on the new character she'd created. The woman walked in, sat down in my living room and whipped out a Secrecy Agreement that she wanted me to sign, pledging I would not purloin her idea. Guess who didn't get a lot of free advice that day.
Today's seeker of an artist who'll work for nothing knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who has some sort of connection to King Features. So as you can see, she has this terrific "in" to the syndication business. She is also not at all versed in the comic strip field. When I mentioned the name of Mort Walker, she didn't know who that was.
But the main thing she said that had me dashing for the keyboard to write this was a stray remark. It was something like, "We're not asking for much…just a month of strips, including Sunday pages. How much time can that take?"
Well, I told her, it takes some artists a month. There are professional cartoonists who work a 60+ hour week to get their strips done, and that's often with the aid of one or more assistants. Even for a fast guy, that's an awful lot of free drawing.
It is maddeningly typical of these callers that they neither know nor respect how much work they're expecting for the remote chance of cash in the future. The fellow I quoted above wasn't going to ask the artist for money. He was just going to ask the artist to forego paying work to draw up his silly little idea…that's all. Like that's not the same thing.
This is the bane of many writers and artists…the belief that they just knock the stuff out. It's just like the bane of columnists, which is "running out of space." Next week, I'll not only continue this tirade but expand it…to cover all the bottom-feeders out there, be they publishers or producers, who try to coerce professionals into working for free.
But before I go, I want to offer the best possible advice for anyone who's considering syndication and wants some real, pragmatic information: Hunt down a copy of a recent book called Your Career in Comics by Lee Nordling. Lee is a brilliant gent who has worked in all phases of comic art, syndication included, and his tome is "must reading" for this topic.
Next week: More tirade.