How did you discover you had a talent for cartooning?
I think I was back in art school when I began to be able to do drawings that looked funny. The writing part came a few years later and improved over time, as did the art.
How did your career unfold?
It was a slow process. In my early-to-mid-20s I would occasionally submit cartoons to the top magazines and get rejected. I wasn’t coming up with a lot of stuff and I was not disciplined about sending. Then I lowered my sights drastically and sent a cartoon to a very sleazy, low-rent men’s magazine and they bought it for 50 bucks. I sold them another one and raised my sights slightly, selling cartoons to a few slightly less sleazy men’s magazines (I never made it into Playboy). I was also still submitting to the top general interest magazines like the New Yorker once in a blue moon with no success. I was doing other things all during this period, and by my late 20s I got a little more serious about cartooning and worked up a book proposal, a collection of oddball cartoons and drawings. It was rejected by every publisher but one. They signed me when I was 29 and it came out when I turned 30. It was called Moot Points, and it got excellent reviews, but they didn’t promote it, so it didn’t sell very well. But that year I also began doing greeting cards for two different companies, so, all combined, I made a living as a cartoonist beginning with the book signing.
I branched out into some newspaper illustration and advertising art (both in a cartooning style) over the next few years. Then I worked up a proposal for my first comic strip, The Fusco Brothers. All of the newspaper syndicates turned it down, then a few years later a former major syndicate editor, Lew Little, syndicated it on his own, and it launched in 25 papers in 1989. This impressed Universal Press Syndicate enough that they took it over six months later and sold it to a lot more papers. Five Fusco book collections followed. With the decline of newspapers over the years, Fusco’s income has dropped, but it’s still running. During this period I also sold some cartoons to some mainstream magazines like Esquire, TV Guide and Lear’s (now defunct). In 1998 I decided to get serious about trying to break into the New Yorker and decided to commit myself to submitting 10 roughs per week for a year, as I’d read that they liked to see a consistent level of quality over time, and it could take as much as a year. After six weeks the phone rang and it was the cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, asking me if I was the same J.C. Duffy who did Moot Points. I said yes and he bought a cartoon, the first of many over the years. Since then I’ve sold cartoons to Barron’s, Mad, Time and other magazines. I also did a second newspaper comic, Go Fish, for United Media Syndicate, which ran for five years.
What do you enjoy most about your job, your career?
I love being able to do something creative for a living, and I love working at home and making my own hours. When the income is good, it’s a great job. When it’s not, it’s not.
Could you share a photo of your workspace with us?
What was your greatest success?
I guess being in the New Yorker would be in a tie with having a long-running syndicated comic strip.
You’ve worked on many high-profile projects so far in your career, The Fusco Brothers, as well as writing and drawing cartoons for The New Yorker. What are some of your other favorite projects that you’ve completed in your career and why?
I liked Moot Points a lot, I re-read it a few years ago and I thought it held up well, and that it was very original. And I liked my edgier work in greeting cards. Not the occasion-based cards wishing somebody a Happy Whatever, but the weirder cards that were just self-contained gags and strange concepts. I like the few short humor pieces I have on Narrative magazine online, some of which are accompanied by my illustrations. And I especially get a kick out of my daily blog, Night Deposits, which contains cartoons, drawings, writings, etc. There’s no money in it, but I have complete freedom and it’s a fun creative outlet. http://nightdeposits.blogspot.com/
Describe a typical day of work for you?
I wake up whenever I wake up, make some coffee, and sit at the computer, where, these days, I do most of my work in Photoshop. Though I also spend time at the art table doing drawings the old fashioned way, which I scan into the computer. (The New Yorker still likes its cartoons done the old way from start to finish, then sent via FedEx.) Depending on what deadline is nearest, I’ll be working on Fusco, or magazine submissions or my blog, or whatever other proposals and projects I’m trying to work up. I’m also answering business emails and sending rejects from magazine A to magazine B, etc. In the evening, if I’m home, I’ll generally do blog material for my own amusement. Finally, before bedtime, I write and draw in blank books, partly for my own amusement, but also, when a book is filled I go through it and scan anything I think may be a potential magazine cartoon or comic strip. This is actually the main source for my magazine cartoon ideas.
What mediums do you use for your work?
I draw in my journals with either a rapidograph or a Flair pen. For finished art I use a rapidograph. I shade (dailies) or color (Sundays) comic strips in Photoshop. I color magazine cartoons in Photoshop, and I shade New Yorker cartoons with various gray markers.
Who is your favorite cartoonist?
I guess I’d name the late B. Kliban.
What are some common myths about cartoonists?
Are there myths about cartoonists? I don’t know what they are, but I’ll bet they’re all true.
Tell us about your education. What did you like and dislike about your cartooning-related education?
I went to Temple University’s Tyler School of Art. I simultaneously dropped out and flunked out in my final year. I had no “cartooning-related education” there. It was primarily a fine arts school, and they did not encourage my cartooning tendencies, let alone teach anything on the subject.
How does a prospective art student assess their skill and aptitude for cartooning?
I suppose it’s hard to be objective about one’s own level of talent, in cartooning or anything else. I think you need to simply do a lot of it over time before you get good at it, if you ever do get good at it, but as far as assessing your skill and aptitude, at some point you need to ask yourself, as objectively as possible, if your drawing style has an amusing look, and more importantly, if the writing is funny. If not, try to make it funnier. There’s no easy answer for HOW you do that. If you feel you have it in you, and you’re driven to keep doing it, you’ll do it.
How can the reality of cartooning as a career differ from typical expectations?
I don’t know what typical expectations are, but the Golden Age of cartooning has passed. Newspaper comics are dying, and the number of magazines that run cartoons has dwindled drastically. Frankly, I would not advise anyone to choose cartooning as their prime career at this point in time. The odds would be against making a good living at it these days. As a sideline, sure, but don’t go into it with money as your goal.
What are some of the trends that you see in the field of cartooning which could help students plan for the future?
The trend is toward online cartooning, but unfortunately there’s currently very little money in online cartooning, and no one has yet come up with the new “model” that people talk about for how to make money that way. I have no advice for a plan for a future in cartooning. I don’t think anyone can predict how things will pan out in the industry. It might continue to whither on the vine, or there may be some new high-tech development that we can’t yet imagine that will offer some new venue that actually pays well.
What interests you about teaching?
I like the idea of passing along some of the benefits of my experience and knowledge to other people.
What will students learn from your class?
Along with firsthand information about many aspects of the business, I hope to get students to explore their own creative process and hopefully find ways to increase their creativity.
Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in cartooning?
Despite the state of the industry right now, cartooning used to be lucrative for those fortunate enough to succeed at it, and it may be again at some point in the future. And as far as creative outlets are concerned, it can be very rewarding on a personal level. Although this might be the wrong century for it, financially, I’m glad to be a cartoonist, creatively speaking. And if someone has a strong interest in pursuing it, I would tell them to do it strictly for their own satisfaction. While there is no guarantee of big bucks, the new “model” may be just around the corner, and you won’t be in a position to benefit from that without entering the field in the first place. And in any event, if it’s something you enjoy doing, I would say do it for that reason alone.
JC Duffy will be teaching CE 2112 Cartooning with J.C. Duffy this semester during the spring 2011 Continuing Education semester.