Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Making a Living as a Cartoonist

Above: a cartoon that I sold to PUNCH before it folded. It's gone on to make multiple sales to books, calendars, and other secondary markets. It didn't make me as much money as my friend Sam Gross' "Frog Legs" cartoon, but it did OK.

"Can anyone make a living as a gag cartoonist?" I was asked recently.

Not anyone, only those who are driven and maybe, just maybe, a bit mad ... as a hatter.

And not if you think that the only gag cartoon market is The New Yorker. And not if you think that magazines in general are the only way to go.

There are a lot more markets. I was chatting with veteran gag cartoonist Bob Vojtko and we were pulling some magazines off the racks at a grocery store. He was showing me some of the mags he was in. Bob was in a lot, as usual! I asked him how many publications he had been in, all together, in his career, and he said something like many dozen that I know about -- and then there are hundreds of other "hidden markets." And he did a little Groucho Marx eyebrow wiggle to let me know HE wasn't telling ME what those markets were!

After you've been cartooning for a while, you'll have a backlog of cartoons. These cartoons will have drawings of business people, cats, doctors, UFOs, etc. And there are publications out there (which may or may not use cartoons) that might be interested in seeing your work. Find out who the art director is by looking at the masthead and mail off some of your good work. Most of the submissions will hit a wall, with a best case scenario of getting a "thanks, but no thanks" note in your SASE. But some editors will be interested.

There is also the shark aspect. The idea that you keep moving your cartoons, keep seeking out new markets, carry your business cards with you at all times. And sometimes calling editors to ask where your cartoons are. Promotion, persistence, production! But this is something that is inside of you and something you have to decide to do every day, you know? It's easier just to have a "real job" and dream about it. Much easier.

Regardless, there is an organic progression in a cartooning career. For instance, sometimes my cartoons are cut out of the paper or magazine. Sometimes the person doing the cutting wants the cartoon for their article/textbook/presentation. Sometimes someone wants to buy an original of a cartoon they just saw. Sometimes a company asks you to contribute to a cartoon calendar. And so on. And this happens more and more, as you get published regularly and more eyes see your work.

Above: "My cello paid for a seat and my cello wants the veggie plate and another martini." I had sent this cold to BBC Music magazine. I didn't know anyone at the magazine and they did not publish cartoons. The AD, who had just been given a copy of CLASSICAL MUSIC FOR BEGINNERS when she came aboard the magazine, recognized my name on the credits. I sold to this UK magazine regularly for a couple of years. I then re-sold the cartoon a couple of years later to the local musicians' union in NYC for their publication.

One of the hardest things to do is to keep trying even though, inside, you feel like it would be easier to lay down and quit. Well, yes. But of course.

Mark Anderson has posted his first podcast. In it, we watch him do the most important work of a cartoonist: the writing part. This is the part that separates the pro from the am.

And it's not too action-packed (I'm not dissing Mark -- it's Mark's own admission). I mean, it's applying the butt to the chair and really thinking.

I was at a business function full of NYC business-types. This was to be expected since it was held on the fashionable edge of SoHo in a huge converted loft. One of the guys came up to me and asked what I did. I told him that I was the guy that did the cartoons for their Web site. He was intrigued, especially when I told him that that was the way I made my living. He told me, "It must be great to be creative all the time."

I smiled as pleasantly as I could. I told him that cartooning was a job. Cartoons don't flow out my hand like water from a faucet. They are work. But, like I always add, this is also a job I love.

Cartoonists can't just draw when inspired if hey want to make money. As for me, I have to produce marketable, salable work at a regular pace. I'm an assembly line, putting out good cartoons at a regular pace. I'm a marketer, aiming my product at clients large and small. I'm the R&D department, finding new ways to get my material out there. You wear a lot of hats, including that Mad Hatter one.

I hope this was helpful to some. Let me know. Thank you. Now stop reading and start to work!


David King said...

Great post, Mike! But it kind of convinced me I'll never be a gag cartoonist...

Mike Lynch said...

Ha ha! Good to know I don't have to compete with you, David. I almost didn't post this because it was a downer, but the only way professionals get ahead in any field is by doing more than needed.

David King said...

Not a downer at all; anytime somebody can make cartooning sound like a real job that takes hard work and professionalism, and not something that little kids could do just as well--I call that an UPPER. Anyway there's lots of good useful info here.

Unrelated: do you have a post about how you got started in the gagging business? I haven't dug too far back on the blog

Spikey said...

A long, hard look at the realities of the business end of cartooning by an experienced insider is always helpful...especially to those of us who really are mad as hatters. Thanks Mike.

Jack Ruttan said...

I was a little down when I posted that comment about markets. But it's great that you were able to make a cool and informative post from it, Mike.

I'm a dilettante in the gag panel game. It still seems to me like a rare, almost forgotten art form, like Sumi-e painting. Yet, a fun challenge to be funny and tell a story inside that little box.

I've done a few, but they didn't sell in the few markets I tried. Still, the experience of coming up with them relates to my illustration work, which often has to deal with heavy topics such as MRI scans for cancer and wind up with an eye-catching cartoon illustration. If it gets a giggle, so much the better.


Mark I sold a computer type cartoon Modern Medicine in '76.
A year later it was used in a new college textbookby Grace Murray hopper. So, I'm out their in a lot of colleges. Thanks, Don Cresci

Jack Ruttan said...

If I can venture another comment based on what I've noticed in my career, the market for panel cartoons today seems to be the glossy trade and specialty magazines. So, it's good to know a little about horses, tropical fish, or restaurants to give your cartoon a bit of that inside flavour. Or maybe not.

I did spot illustrations for a weekly tabloid in the early '90s. The pay wasn't extraordinary, but the work was regular, fun, and they paid on time.

But the depressing thing at a another paper I submitted to was seeing a dusty table piled high with prints of syndicated panel cartoons dating back to I don't know when, which they could use anytime. So why would they want to pay me for the same thing? (maybe for something a bit more topical or modern)

I don't have a complete issue of that tabloid ("News Extra" - now defunct) in the file, so don't remember the name of the gag cartoonist who regularly published there. But he had a very old-school bigfoot style, and his cartoons came in a manila envelope, with a cute rubber stamped return address, showing a caricature of him with beret and paintbrush.

Mark Anderson said...

I wish I'd read this before we talked the other day. I'd have loved to be able to talk more intelligently about it.

That being said..

WOW! Thanks for writing this!

This should go somewhere in the You Need To Read This, Cartoonist file.

Cartooning isn't pretty, and like you've said before, it ain't for sissies.

But, if you're willing to do a LOT of work for a LONG time and stick to it, you can actually earn some money at it.

Seriously, thanks again for really taking some time and putting this out there.


Anne Fran said...

Thank-you for your advice, which is genuine and informative. That was generous. I do cartoons -- maybe funny -- and although not always pro-looking, they're improving. They're just about people around me. But who could I show them too? Could one send them privately to a cartoonist for his (your) opinion?


Unknown said...

Mike, about those 'Hidden Markets', there's one at...shoot, sorry, there's someone at the front door...