Tips for Aspiring Editorial Cartoonists (In case there are any left)
I often get asked this simple question: how one becomes a cartoonist? Well, I’m here to help. But first, let’s be clear that editorial cartooning is an act that combines satirical illustration with politics, news events, or social issues. If your desire is to become the next Charles Schulz then go elsewhere, he was a comic strip artist.
I’ve received many questions from people who are eager to find out how someone gets to the enviable position of full-time editorial cartoonist. While I would never dissuade anyone from trying such a goal, I would advise him or her that it’s always important to have a fallback plan. Ones chances of being elected to serve as a politician for a population of 125,000 is more likely than being hired by a newspaper with a circulation of 125,000. In these days of everything going digital all aspects of traditional print journalism and every position from staff reporter to typesetter, to photographer are rapidly evolving. The editorial cartoonist is smack in the middle of this transition and with it has been many casualties along the way.
Let’s not beat around the bush–every budding editorial cartoonist wants to know how much money a professional makes. While it depends on how prestigious and big the newspaper is, the majority of medium sized dailies (100,000-125,000 circulation), and we’re talking Canadian here, will pay their cartoonists a salary between $60,000 and $100,000. Extra income comes from freelance and commissioned art from other publications and organizations. (These days, newspapers under the circulation of 50,000 will rely on bulk cartoons from the syndicates.) There was once a time when editorial cartoonists enjoyed fame close to a rock star status in which they were paid handsomely. Many an editorial cartoonist lived liked rock stars as they fed their imaginations with spirits, nicotine and other substances. Those days are for the most part bygone days (at least in terms of the handsome salaries).
Introducing the Seven P’s to Professional Editorial Cartooning…Ok, maybe what follows is a poor attempt at alliteration…Work with me here, I’m trying to be informative and entertaining at the same time. Anyway, I’ll try and share some of my own experiences to advance the truth behind the so-called 7 P’s philosophy. The Seven P’s: Passion, Practice, Production, Promotion, Persistence, Publication, Patience.
Me, as an aspiring cartoonist, age 7
Passion: You need to like a few things to cause you to want to be a political cartoonist. Firstly, you really ought to hold a deep appreciation for news. Naturally, interest in a subject will take you on a quest for expanding that knowledge. I’ve been a news junkie all my life, or at least beginning at age 7 when I recall being concerned that a peanut farmer had been just elected President of the United States. One also needs an appreciation and a certain level of competence in the ability to draw. Every kid draws. Inspired by the great artists of satire, many professional cartoonists spent a good chunk of their youth doodling while their schoolmates were playing sports and making out.
Practice: Eventually the time will arrive when a budding cartoonist will combine his/her interest in news with an ability to draw. For me it wasn’t until my University days when the two prime passions were married. The marriage eventually leads to the birth of cartoons. Crude, untested creations will enter the world. Refinement will naturally follow with practice. I never received formal art instruction, except during my early teens, when I attended a couple years worth of Saturday morning classes at a local Art School. I believe that for the most part, my ability to draw has much to do with self-education, especially with on-site illustration of relics I found in museums. A 2-year stint, while working as a butcher in London, England, allowed me the opportunity to take a sketchbook to some of the finest museums in the world. Security doesn’t care if you’re standing next to some old piece of marble in the form of a Roman emperor’s bust, and drawing the hell out of it (as I called it). I now have a couple of nice books filled with the illustrations of those times. At the same time, I kept a big black sketch book filled with page upon page of photos and various clippings of things to inspire me, and to refer to when I was creating a cartoon. Eventually one amasses so many reference clippings that it becomes impossible to conveniently display everything in a single book. This is when the aspiring cartoonist once developed what was known as a morgue: a filing system that stored reference photos ranging from people’s faces, to costumes, to animals, to everyday things that aren’t necessarily easy to draw. I still have my neatly organized file of several thousand newspaper and magazine image clippings. Over the years, however, the Internet, in the form of Google images, has overtaken the need to clip paper images. Television also provides a nice source of reference imagery. Armed with a DVD player or a good quality VCR, or YouTube clips, with crystal clean pausing, there’s unlimited stills for which one can refer to. With all the sources of imagery out there, there is really no shortage of stuff to refer to when drawing. Practice at this point for a truly aspiring cartoonist must be an everyday experience.
Production. The time comes when confidence from practice leads to production of titled works, of personal style, of potential to promote. Keeping in mind that the next stage of the Seven P’s to professional editorial cartooning is promotion. One needs to show a prospective editor the sort of stuff one can draw. By this point, with all the self-instruction and attention paid to current events, the focus must only include that which you have recently created. So when compiling a portfolio of illustration, avoid including that really great high school dance poster you received so much praise for, or that still life you did when you were going through the practice stage as described above. Essentially, you’re going to have to bulk up that portfolio with up to-date stuff. Now is the time to start on Illustrations that one intends to get compensated for. During this point, I had concluded that I had reached a comfortable level of confidence in my ability to caricature. This time also coincided with a newly elected provincial government and the newspapers were filled with headlines relating to the new policies and undertakings. I had noticed some big dailies were carrying some pretty mediocre caricatures and spot graphics to illustrate long, text heavy opinion page pieces. Knowing my own abilities were better or at least equal in quality to the stuff that was running I began compiling a batch of caricatures of every provincial and national leader that was receiving the greatest amount of op-ed attention. When I had amassed a collection of 20, I was ready to promote.
Promotion. That little gray box (left) is the first published illustration of my work in a big daily. It was in the Toronto Star, Canada’s biggest circulation newspaper. Up until that point, everything I had drawn for the small community and college papers had been done for token amounts. What had begun with that simple caricature of Canada’s Human Resources (welfare) minister, in the Toronto Star, was the beginning of my days as a freelance cartoonist. It’s ironic, now that I think of it, that during my darkest days of poverty (which really should be added to the Seven P’s) it took a picture of the Minister of Dole to get me $75, the amount The Star pays every time it printed a cartoon. It was encouraging to see that not all my earnings would come from a low paying job as a part-time meat wrapper at a nearby supermarket. But enough about me…let us move on the tricks of Promotion… By now you should have at least one newspaper to focus on. You would have studied the newspaper you’re targeting to observe if they even use the sort of stuff you’re about to offer them. Big city libraries usually keep a nice assortment of recent newspapers from all over the place. But even better, your hometown library card probably lets you access firewall protected digital newspapers from across your country and around the world, from the comforts of your own Internet device. The trick is finding the person who is responsible for deciding upon what gets printed. Each place varies from one to the other but you can usually narrow it down to either the Editorial Pages Editor, or what ever they call the people responsible for that page right next to the editorial page. (They’re generically known as Op-Ed Editors, or assistant editors, or creative titles of the like). Find out whom those people are because those people decide if stuff is is worthy enough for their tastes, and ultimately, his or her coveted page. Now, the actual contact of the individuals may be done in a few ways, either by email, snail-mail, or telephone. There are merits for each, but I don’t think it’s necessary to have a face to face meeting with the editor. Let’s face it, editors are journalists and if many had it their way, their whole newspaper would be in text. Just look at some of those big serious financial newspapers where editors allergic to eye candy have succeeded at keeping illustrations limited to bar graphs and pie charts. So basically, they don’t need to see you personally to judge whether or not you can draw well. Anyway, they have so much copy to check over to bother with some aspiring doodler from out of the blue. My advice, therefore, is to call or email the people indicating who you are that you think they’d find your drawings good enough to publish and to expect a package from them very soon.
In creating your promotional package you should include not more than 15 illustrations to show your abilities and consistency. Be sure to put your name and contact information on each illustration because eventually your work could be added to a stack of other potential publishables and no one has the time to print your address on each drawing. A cover letter is useful to introduce yourself and the purpose of the cartoons that are enclosed.
While at the same time you’re targeting one newspaper, it wouldn’t hurt to go after some other newspapers that you’d think would print your work. After all, you’re going to be doing quite a bit of photocopying for your target newspaper, so it can’t hurt to up the chances of getting your work published.
Remember what I said about city libraries carrying other city newspapers? Check them out as well. Be careful not to go after newspapers that are in competition with each other. Things could get messy if competing newspapers published the same illustration that you drew. (It happened to me once). So keep a good record of the newspapers you’ve sent packages to and which illustrations were sent. This way, if you do get published you’ll know what not to send them in your next batch of cartoons.
If you get no response from one paper you can then approach its competitor. Better yet, if you want a quick no nonsense reaction to your package, include a self addressed stamped envelope, or a pre-stamped post card that lets the editor reply by checking of a box that means interested or one that means not interested in publishing your cartoons. Leave some room for comments, either good or bad. I found that by doing this editors would remark that they relied on the big syndicates as a source of spot illustration, or they didn’t have the money in their budgets to pay. These sorts of comments pretty much indicate that there’s no sense bugging them further. However, those that stated interest or didn’t bother to reply–those are the ones to pursue.
Persistence. Eventually the sales will come but it all depends on how determined one is of making cartooning the prime income generator. If, for whatever unfortunate reasons, you aren’t receiving the positive reaction you were so confident of getting, continue trying to find the newspapers that will. You will likely begin feeling that because of the lack of interest, your ability to draw just isn’t at the playing level that you once thought it was at. It can’t hurt at this point to seek out truthful input from friends and family for encouragement that your work is worthy enough to publish. With assurance from peers, you’ll feel armed enough with confidence to remind an editor of that package you sent them several weeks ago. A brief phone call will likely give you an indication of how the editor reacted, or didn’t react, to the contents of your work. I’ve had to deal with aspiring cartoonists that thought their stuff was just what my paper needed. I’ve often been put in the awkward position of having to tell aspiring cartoonists that “the work is goood…but more practice and refinement would be needed to come close to anything publishable.
Publication. The feeling is euphoric once you see your work published in a big mainstream daily for the first time. The sensation should top or at least rival that which was felt when you had your first illustration published in your a) high school newspaper, b) college student journal, c) small town/community weekly rag…(you get the idea here – Your debut in the big daily most likely will be preceded by some kind of lesser circulation exposure.)
Patience. (As if you haven’t indulged in enough of this already.) This is the period of time it takes to move from freelancer to newspaper employee. It could come soon, or it could take many years. What it all depends upon is how dedicated one is to upholding the Seven P’s philosophy. A big chunk of patience is the non-illustration activities you’ll have to perform in your quest to become professional. You’ll likely have to continue working that joe job that has nothing to do with political cartooning just to eat or maintain your standard of living. The other major component is the tedious record keeping and ongoing promotion involved in being a freelance cartoonist. The monetary dividends of your toil will trickle in but perhaps the greatest commodity attainable will be the tearsheets, those photocopied newspaper clippings that prove you been published. Gather any small change since you’ll be needing it to cover the costs of photocopying your cartoons that have been printed in papers hundreds of miles away. It’s probably a good idea to regularly visit the local reference library to keep record of the papers that have used your illustrations. Tearsheets can be included in your upcoming mail-out offerings to show prospective newspapers or fussy editors that you’re a proven contributor to reputable companies.
Clinton and Dole, (left), published in the Chicago Tribune. A pleasant cash endowment of $200 in my callused, ink-stained hands when I was in the midst of my freelance existence.
The former Provincial Education Minister (right), loathed by teachers, condemned by opinion analysts, this conveyed the arrogance and pomposity that was popularly felt at the time.
Big long-running intense issues require spot illustration. When the city of Toronto was going through its agonizingly long process of reorganizing its bureaucratic structure through amalgamation of boroughs and communities it was a sure thing that the drawing to the right would be published. Generic, graphically recognizable, nobody commissioned me to draw it, I just had a good feeling that eventually it would be used.
An international themed tearsheet. Ammunition to use when pursuing the big international magazines and newspapers. This cartoon of the late Chinese Premier was printed in the Toronto Star, which helped during my promotional campaigns to the big boys of newsprint.
Over time the tearsheets will build up, added packages will be sent out, consistency will be shown, and editors will start looking forward to your submissions. Once you get to that stage when you’ve illustrated every issue and each prominent headlining politician, the time may be ripe to advance to editorial cartoons.
There’s a good chance that the newspapers you’ve been sending illustrations to already have an established in-house editorial cartoonist. Consider that he or she is responsible for at least four editorial cartoons a week, meaning those other days of the week are open to competition among the freelancers. Get an idea of when those days are so that you can deliver the most newsworthy up-to-date product.
So long as you’re freelancing the cartoons you create are your property. No editor has any right to prohibit you from sending already published work to other publications. Commission work is an entirely different matter whereby the newspaper that requested you to draw something exercises more say in where else the illustration can be published. If a newspaper hires you, publication rights will be something that will have to be worked out between yourself and your new employer.
On Becoming Professional
Face it: to become a full-time staff cartoonist you’re going to have to wait. Basically, you have to wait for the established cartoonists to vacate, to retire, to pass away, or to be bought off with a severance package. Then, one needs to hope that newspapers will even want to fill the vacancy. In this day and age when syndicated cartoons are filling the spots where local cartoonists were so familiar, getting hired is getting more difficult. Along with the Seven P’s, my own elevation to full-time cartoonist was also about being at the right place at the right time. Being young, showing ability to draw, and the fact that I was hired by my own hometown newspaper, put me at the front of the line among the other applicant for the job.
I encourage anyone who’s determined enough to work towards it.