I never wanted to be a cartoonist.
And yet, I’m about to draw the 1000th weekly edition of Overheard in San Diego.
Sure, I loved and collected comic books as a kid, and even drew cartoons for my middle- and high-school newspapers. But my focus from the start was on writing, first for those publications, then with self-published fiction zines, and eventually freelancing for newsstand magazines, mostly writing about film and pop culture (Starlog, FilmFax, Cult Movies, and others).
I pretty much stopped drawing after I first arrived in San Diego via Greyhound in the late ’70s, though not before earning my first California cash with a paper pad and colored-pencil kit pulled from my backpack that afternoon. My buddies at school had always liked my comic caricatures — funny cartoons about friends and frequently unsavory ’toons concerning school administrators — so I thought I’d go to Balboa Park and earn some scratch drawing tourists and locals, as I’d witnessed during my first visit to the city. I even brought some of those high-school sketches to use as display samples.
Unfortunately, rendering familiar friends and foes is different from drawing complete strangers who glare at you impatiently from atop the drawing pad. At least half the people I drew that day refused to pay my (crudely) handmade sign’s “suggested” five-dollar donation. One couple gave me a quarter. Nobody tipped me.
Pretty much everyone looked at my artwork like it was something they couldn’t wait to scrape off their shoe.
I was mortified. And broke. But I stayed in San Diego and eventually found paying work in the comic-book publishing biz at Miramar’s Pacific Comics, home of the Rocketeer, Jack Kirby’s Captain Victory, and more. Not as an artist; I worked in the shipping warehouse. It would be several more years before I scripted my first comic book.
Even then, for the entire time I wrote and edited titles like Rock ’N’ Roll Comics for Hillcrest’s Revolutionary Comics (1989–1994), the company never published a piece of my artwork (though I did occasionally draw embarrassingly rough thumbnails as artist guidelines). Ditto the period I served as publisher for Carnal Comics (1994–2000), where I scripted something like a hundred issues, two stories per, without drawing a single panel.
By late 1995, I was already writing for the Reader, usually for the music section. When the Blurt column ran short one week, I spent around an hour or so mocking up my idea for a one-shot filler cartoon, using artwork from an earlier strip I’d done with Kiss comics artist Scott Pentzer. Unpublished before now, that pilot strip featured a stressed-out bus driver.
The editor was enthusiastic, and soon the paper commissioned the strip as a weekly Blurt feature. I immediately teamed up with Rock ’N’ Roll Comics artist Joe Paradise, whose established skill at drawing recognizable people and places made him the ideal penman. Over the next couple of years, our work appeared in the Reader every seven days. The dialogue usually came from nights I spent on the town working on Reader stories, and then tipsters began submitting their own bits of overheard chatter.
Until the strip became known around town, I ran into problems at a few venues. Velvet, on Kettner (which came to occupy the Casbah’s first location after that club moved down the road), wouldn’t let me photograph the place, especially the sticker-covered door, even after I explained that the artist needed photo references and the club would be getting free publicity in the Reader. The operator accused me of some sort of industrial espionage, so only the exterior of the place appeared in the final strip, with word balloons pointing inside the door.
Empire booted me after someone in a comic called the goth club’s patrons “airheads and pinheads,” something I may have overheard but would never have agreed with. I loved that place and its adventurous play-list, and didn’t mind the patrons at all, at least the ones I could espy through all the dry-ice fogbanks.
The Boulevard in La Mesa banned me after their stage was referred to in a character’s derogatory comment (“the size of a postage stamp”), and that was particularly disappointing for me, it being my favored neighborhood bar, just half a block from where I was living. Casbah honcho Tim Mays wrote a letter of complaint to the paper about my “silly little comic strip” after I apparently exposed one frequent guest band’s penchant for setting their instruments on fire to investigative scrutiny from the fire marshal (oops!).
Around two years into Overheard’s run, though, I began seeing cutout copies of the strip mounted behind the bar and on cash registers at several places around the city. Few knew I was the “Overheard Guy”; all I did in public was jot down notes — I was still just writing the strips. One time, I actually overheard someone at Rudford’s saying, “Someone needs to send that one to Overheard in San Diego.”
Then, Joe Paradise was no longer available to draw the comic. I was stuck with the task of either hiring a new artist or drawing the thing myself. Which at first seemed a ludicrous notion.
Of course, once I realized that drawing it myself meant I no longer had to split the paycheck, my choice was clear.
And thus, at the age of 38, I became a cartoonist. My crash tutorial included books on the art form, such as Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud; Comics & Sequential Art, by Will Eisner; and a series of how-to-draw books by Tarzan artist Burne Hogarth. I recycled a lot of Paradise artwork (still do, actually), as I studied how to render in a similar style.
My first solo Overheard comic debuted in 1998. No, it won’t be reproduced here. I’m still amazed the Reader didn’t fire me.
Once I got comfortable with the tools of my new trade, particularly after I mastered digitizing backgrounds from photos, the comics grew from barely competent to halfway decent to, I think, not at all terrible.