The Rejection Process

I got my first syndication rejection this week, on Tuesday, February 5, 2014. I'm not surprised, by any means, but it's naturally still a little sad. 

There are good sides to it, though. For one, I can now count myself among some of the best company in comics. Bill Watterson was rejected by syndicates for five years before he got a nibble for a strip submission that would eventually become Calvin and Hobbes. (That's right, even Calvin and Hobbes was initially rejected.) During that time he made six (six!) attempts at getting syndicated. And now I've made my first. I've completed one revolution around the sun, made my first round trip, completed my first full lap. I have a sense of accomplishment, success or no. A sense of achievement: I have achieved, if nothing else, rejection. And there is some success in simply having made the attempt, because that, in and of itself, is no easy task. 

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The other good thing is that my rejection included notes. Some kind soul at Universal Uclick Editorial took the time to give me a really good critique. You'd think criticism would be hard to take, a difficult pill to swallow, but strangely it's just the opposite. Not only do I totally agree with the critique, but again I feel a certain pride at having gotten it via this process that artists go through. I haven't really been a part of that process as much as I'd like over recent years, but it's one I respect and enjoy a great deal. Engaging in it with industry professionals makes me feel like I'm actually doing this thing — whatever this thing turns out to be — in a real and earnest and tangible way. 

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Moreover, this reviewer had some really encouraging things to say. He or she liked my drawings and storytelling and was really positive about the parts of the strip that I liked best myself. Hearing things like this from an essentially anonymous industry professional — someone who looks at this kind of thing all the time, with no motivation to sugarcoat anything —  has really helped affirm for me that my work is decent and worth pursuing. That really means a lot to me. 

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Of course I'm a little bummed by being rejected. But I see now why people recommend focusing on process rather than goals. The process of seeking syndication has been incredibly edifying, challenging and rewarding for me. It's forced me to try harder, to push myself and to think really hard about my work. It's given me a much clearer understanding of who I am as an artist. And it's made me a better cartoonist on every level.

Taken all in all, it's really hard to be that sad.

Notes on Comic Humor: 3

I've often heard it suggested that writing is more important in comic strips than drawing. In fact, here's a quote from the King Features Syndicate submissions page

"Second, we very carefully study a cartoonist’s writing ability. Good writing helps weak art, better than good art helps weak writing."

As someone who is constantly looking at, thinking about and creating comics, I can tell you that this is total bunk. While it's true that the foundation of a comic is often (but not always) the writing, and the drawing doesn't have to be realistic or beautiful, terrible drawing — or drawing that just doesn't work with the writing — can kill a comic just as thoroughly as a poorly turned phrase. 

Saying that writing is more important than drawing in comics is like saying that writing is more important than performance in stand-up comedy. This just isn't true. Go to some open-mics and you'll quickly see that a beautifully crafted joke can easily be killed by terrible delivery, and vice-versa. In comics, the drawing is like the performance of a stand-up comedian. It can enhance, detract or add nothing to the writing.

Working on a recent Malcontent I was again reminded how a drawing can make or break a comic.

Malcontent brand webcomics almost always begin with writing. Usually two or three lines of text, but sometimes only one. These one-sentence Malcontents can be the hardest to draw. The drawing has to add something to the writing or the whole thing tends to flop. Often I'm lazy about it and rely on the facial expression of my protagonist to convey the idea and, thus, some of the humor. But the best one-liners are the ones where the drawing adds a new dimension to the idea set forth in the written text.

To wit, I recently set to work on a Malcontent that consisted of the following line:

"But if you have a cheeseburger you're already in paradise."

That's it, that's the whole gag. It's a pretty funny line on its own, but the drawing will make or break this one. Here was my first attempt:


Here you can see that the drawing just kills the joke. It's static and has no attitude whatsoever. It merely illustrates the most basic elements of the scene: a guy listening to the radio. There's nothing inherently funny about that scene; there's nothing inherently funny about the drawing. There's no emotion to this drawing, no perspective. It's just observation. It's flat. It's decidedly unfunny.

Now here's my second attempt:


This is much better for a bunch of reasons. First of all, there's movement, it's kinetic, it's fun to look at. Secondly, the drawing is funny: the dancing figure in contrast with the static one is a good visual gag. Also, the scene is funnier: this is a scene of two people dancing, but one has stopped to make an observation, which creates tension and drama lacking in the earlier image.

But most importantly, this drawing adds something to the humor, to the story, to the whole of the piece. It adds another dimension. Now it's not just a funny line, but it's about a character. This character can't enjoy himself because he gets too wrapped up in minutia. It speaks to the relationship between these characters as well. While he gets bogged down by details, she happily keeps dancing along. She doesn't let him get her down.

This drawing does something for the comic, where the other did nothing. And that's what I would like to strive for in every comic.  I often fail at this. But it really helps to try and come up with multiple takes on a comic idea, rather than settling on the first one. 

But the fact remains: drawing and writing in comics are equal partners, each complimenting the other. When either element is off, the comic tends to suffer or even fail; but when both are on it's a thing of beauty.

Syndicate Submission

Today I accomplished something I've wanted to do for a very long time. Today I submitted a family-friendly version of Malcontent — called The Malcontents — to two syndicates.

Putting together the syndicate package has been a lot of work, but I've enjoyed the process immensely and I think it's driven me to produce some of my best work yet. I've worked really hard on character development, storytelling, joke writing and, of course, my drawing. I think it's all gotten a lot better, though there's still tons of room for improvement.

Since developing The Malcontents I've started thinking more in stories, and come what may, I plan to use these stories in the future, whether that future involves syndication or not. Which is just to say that, if The Malcontents doesn't get picked up, I'll be using it in the webcomic in the future, as a part of the Malcontent universe.

In the meantime, I wait. It can be several months before you hear from a syndicate regarding your submission. Until I get a response, I don't want to reveal this work — I might need it for my big syndication deal, after all. In fact I'm sitting on a bunch of ideas, on the off chance I get a deal.

But let's be realistic. Getting syndicated is about as likely as winning the lottery (though it's a lot harder to play). I have no illusions about my chances. They are close to zero. And I'm okay with that.

In fact, I'm pretty jazzed. Because today I accomplished a major goal, one I've been working towards for months, and one I've always wanted to try. And I have some great experiences and new ideas to show for it.

Even if I don't get syndicated — and it's almost certain I won't — it's all very, very good.