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How I Got Started as a Professional Cartoonist

(NOTE: This post is a response to many questions I get about getting started in a professional illustration and/or cartooning career. I specifically want to thank artist *LazyAsHell at http://lazyashell.deviantart.com/ for asking the specific questions that led to this response. She asked me how I got started and If I ever had trouble finding steady work. I wrote such a long answer that I figured I might as well share it! Hope this is helpful. Like it or not, it's the real story.)
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I had quite a long journey before I was able to work full-time as an artist/illustrator/cartoonist. Although I always knew I wanted to draw cartoons, when I enrolled in college as an art major I found out right away that I had no desire to be an “arteest.” I learned the difference between “fine art” and commercial art, and finally understood why I didn’t feel like I belonged in the artsy-fartsy crowd.

After dropping out of my first year of college, I went to a trade school in New Jersey called the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. Kubert School was an unbelievable boot-camp experience where old-school comic book guys from the 40's thru the 70's taught you everything they know about drawing comics and the real world of work. I imagine any art school that focuses on practical illustration and/or animation would be fine. It's really up to the students to make the most of their education.

When I got out of Kubert school in 1985, I applied directly to the Hanna Barbera animation studio. I had spent months creating an entire storyboard from scratch and I was sure it would get me a job. Unfortunately, it was not nearly as good as the work of many other experienced artists, so I was turned down for that job. The bad part is that I got discouraged from that experience and pretty much gave up on drawing for the next couple years!

Two years later, since I was completely miserable working at my job ( I was working as an aide at a psychiatric hospital) I got back into drawing and started creating the kind of funny animal comic book stories that I wanted to see. Later that year, I took my work to the San Diego Comic Book Convention (it was a lot smaller in 1988 than it is now) and I went from publisher to publisher to look for work. Amazingly, I was able to get a freelance assignment out of that convention: I drew two issues of the California Raisins comic book for a very small publisher. I was getting $40 a page for that work and I thought that was the greatest thing in the world. Unfortunately, that company had a habit of not paying its artists, and after two issues the job was over.

I also got an inking assignment for $20 a page. All this time I was working at a bookstore, which would be my day-job for the next six years. From 1991-1993 while I continued to search all over for jobs, I went back to college. I was also doing cartoons for my college newspaper, and through that visibility, one of my classmates had a friend who worked for a small local magazine. Through that lead, I was able to do a number of illustrations and gag cartoons for various magazines. Those drawings were often done for about $10 each.

The point I'd like to stress here is that it is not easy to get hired as a staffer in a particular studio or publisher. You may have to gradually build up your portfolio, contacts, experience and exposure by looking for any opportunity to get your work out there underneath peoples eyeballs so they can see it and get to know you and your work.

Working for peanuts is all very fine...
In 1993 I started a full comic book based on some of the comic strips that were published in the small local magazine. This was a semi-self-published endeavor, and I was making absolutely NO money from doing this, nor did I really expect to make money from it. I was drawing these comics because I had to...we often get ideas and concepts that we as artists just HAVE to create or else we'll explode. I also was hoping that the comics I was creating would help me get other comic book-related work in the future.

In the summer of 1994, I rented a table at the San Diego ComicCon, and set up a booth to sell my comics. I was hoping to make enough money to pay for the food and lodging, and maybe meet some people that could give me some leads on more work. I was extremely blessed that Bill Wray, a director on the Ren and Stimpy Show, was there at the con and interested in my comics. He asked me if I had ever thought about drawing storyboards. Of COURSE I was interested...I asked him everything I could about the work. He said I could call him later when we were both back in Los Angeles.

Bill was very gracious and generous with his time. He gave me some material to look at, and asked me to come back to see him in a couple weeks with some storyboard samples. Even though I was working in the bookstore full-time, I put in tons of hours to prepare the samples. When I showed him the work I had done, he was not impressed. I asked him for feedback and I told him I'll try again. This scenario happened two more times, but I was not going to give up.


My First Full-Time Cartooning Job
After a few rounds and many weeks of creating storyboard samples, Bill finally thought the work was good enough to show the staff at Ren and Stimpy. They decided to hire me as a trainee, and I was able to work with some very helpful and talented artists for the next six months until the show was cancelled in 1995.

During that time, Bob Camp was teaching informal classes in the mornings before work hours. Layout supervisor Tom Owens took the time to tell me why my drawings were terrible and how to make them better. We went to the conference room and freeze-framed cartoons to sketch and analyze all the cool things the classic cartoonists were doing. Bob encouraged the artists to learn storytelling and acting and staging techniques from silent films, Three Stooges comedies and classic movies. One day I turned in some drawings -- simple little props -- and the director sent them back to me saying, "You can do better than this." He was right. I did them again. Made them better. Everything matters.

Fortunately I had done enough good work in that time to help me get a job on another Nickelodeon show, "Hey Arnold." Over the next three years, I worked as hard as I could and asked lots of questions...always trying to improve. I moved up to full storyboard artist and then director by 1998. Then those old comic books I had drawn for nothing came back to help me again...

One of my friends at Nickelodeon was Derek Drymon. Derek was a storyboard artist on Rocko's Modern Life, a show that was produced upstairs from the place where we were making Hey Arnold. Derek and I got to know each other because we had both put out our own black-and-white self-published comic books. Stephen Hillenburg was good friends with Derek, and one day Steve saw one of my comics in the back seat of Derek's car. He really liked it, and a couple years later when Steve created SpongeBob, he remembered that comic book and called me up to ask me to work on the SpongeBob SquarePants show. This was in 1998 before anybody had ever heard of SpongeBob because the show didn't even exist yet (except for the 7 minute pilot episode done by Steve and Derek).

If any of this sounds like "luck", remember that all these things happened because of three very important factors:
  • I was creating a lot of comics work, in spite of not being paid.
  • I was getting my work "out there" where people could see it.
  • I was gradually getting to know people who would eventually become coworkers

I think it's helpful to prepare artists by letting them know that it's up to them to make their career. You can't wait for someone to hand it to you. People will always show up to help you, but you need to put yourself out there in order to make those connections.

Enter SpongeBob

Working on SpongeBob for the next seven years gave me the opportunity to start writing the cartoons that I was drawing. I was not very confident of my writing abilities, but Steve Hillenburg (who hired me because of the comics I had written and drawn) had faith in me, so I decided I would try it. Of course that turned out to be the experience of a lifetime, and I will always be thankful for the chance to work and learn with such a talented crew.

I've continued to build on those experiences when I moved to Disney. I have been a writer, storyboard artist and director in the two-and-a-half years that I've worked at Disney, and I'm still learning new skills all the time. I am always learning new techniques, new software, trying new approaches. I've not even touched on the opportunity I had to concurrently create comic book stories for Nickelodeon Magazine -- fulfilling my earliest dreams of being a comic-book artist. My regret is that I have not been creating my own personal work during the last 15 years, so I am now doing more personal drawing and starting to draw just for the fun of it again.

I want to make clear that I didn't have a specific plan to do all this stuff. The main thing is to aim toward something you want, do the work, get it out there, and be willing to quickly shift direction when events change.

You've got to love what you're doing and continue to do it whether you're paid or not. With webcomics and online video sites, cartoonists and animators can now publish and broadcast their work at absolutely no cost at all! Are you guaranteed to "make it big?" Of course not...but if you constantly improve, get your work out there to be seen and critiqued, and make a lot of contacts with other artists and readers, you stand a much better chance of becoming a full-time professional artist.

Oh, and...be nice to people. Don't be a jerk. It matters more than you can imagine.

Hope that's helpful to you! Best of luck in your journey...

--Sherm

14 comments:

Ryan Kramer said...

great post, Sherm! What a journey you've had! I'm also a believer in making your own luck.
Glad to hear you're drawing some of your own stuff!

Will Finn said...

Sherm, what a great post, thanks for your candor and details. This is the very kind of thing that is important to hear at any stage of one's development. For someone who draws as beautifully as you do it is very enlightening to hear of the path you taken to make it to that level. The media love stories of overnight success but those are one in a million, and often the truth is that instant success was not as spontaneous as the publicists would have one believe.

Which alway makes me think of Jack Nicholson, who became an "overnight success" at the age of 30, after more than a decade of trying to get his career off the ground. He went un-noticed as everything from an actor to writer to director before becoming the "it" guy of his generation in one fateful performance (EASY RIDER). In a rare interview many years later he was asked to offer advice to young actors yearning for their big break. He had this salient advice: "It'll come along. Make sure you're ready for it."

Hai said...

Excellent post, Sherm! I'm a big believer that passion plays a major role in achieving that dream job.

Also you will impress a lot more people by doing your own personal projects because you'll be investing a lot of dedication and hard work into it.

The only way to achieve success is by working for yourself first and foremost.

Mike Nassar said...

Thank you very much for making such a detailed post, Sherm. you're the man.

I took to heart your advice of making personal work and constantly getting it under people's eye balls.

will: thanks for sharing the: "It'll come along. Make sure you're ready for it." gotta work hard. your reply, in addition to sherm's post, was motivating.

Thanks sherm. time to step my game up :)

VaCopierman said...

Great job on the post! It really makes me want to get back into cartooning. Thanks for your comments.

David said...

Wow, great story, Sherm!

In a short time I'll be out of school, so then I'll be were you was in the beginning. I'm glad I already know some guys in the field like when you met Bill and Derek. I hope someday they present me opportunities too! Until that day I will be making my own stuff!

Mike Moloney said...

Thanks for posting this Sherm! What a great story, it was motivational to hear the ups and down's to reaching your goals. I'm going to forward this around, I know a lot of students who would be inspired by this!

Sherm said...

Hey everybody...I've been amazed at the many heartfelt comments and email replies to this post! Thanks so much -- I'm really happy to find out that you find it inspiring...

Ryan: "making your own luck" is a great way to put it

Will: Thanks for your very kind words, and I love the example about Jack Nicholson. I wasn't really aware of his career arc, but now I want to find out more. I remember him being on the cover of Time in 1974 or so, but I also remember seeing him in The Raven the 60s

Hai: Yes, Passion is the fuel. Thanks for another vote about "personal projects"

Mike: Thanks...I need to "step my game up" too!

Copierman: That's really great to hear...Nothing like going "back to the drawing board."

David: You're already MILES ahead of where I was in the beginning; you've already made your own cartoon film!

Mike: I appreciate your forwarding this around. If I can help inspire a cartoonist to stick with it, it means more to me than I can express. Thanks again!

Dan Moynihan said...

Hey Sherm,
Thanks for sharing all this! You've had a very interesting career, and it's inspiring to read about the hard work behind it.
- Dan

Sherm said...

Hi Dan...and thanks! I always love hearing from you because it always gets me to cklick over to see your happy illustrations at http://danmoynihan.blogspot.com/

Segun said...

Hi Sherm,
thanks for sharing your story. Knowing you were still able to make it after your initial rejection gives me hope. Your post came at the right time for me.
Please keep posting, i really enjoy your stuff.

Gavin Goo said...

Very inspiring! Thanks for sharing this. It's a privilege to read what you have gone through with such details!

Butch said...

Thanks for this, Sherm! I'm starting up my webcomic soon and I need all the inspiration I can get!

Emily Tomasik said...

This is great! Totally inspiring. I can't wait to start posting my many-a-doodles and cartoons. Look out for them! Thanks again for posting!