Cartoonists & Failure 1

A few months back I spoke at the Success in Comics seminar and the part of my talk people commented on most was when I talked about failure.

Depending on how you define success, I guess you can say I’m a successful cartoonist. I’m never going to be a Schulz or a Penny Arcade, but my art and writing is pretty good, I’ve been published fairly widely, and I earn a living drawing funny pictures. Not bad.

I must have done everything right, right? Not so much. When I take a good hard look at it, probably 95% of the things I’ve tried ended up failing. But the other 5% turned out really good.

If I had a mantra, it would be this: fail big, fail messy, and fail often. I’m not saying you should make stupid or rash decisions, just stop being afraid of things not working out, because, realistically, for the most part they won’t. But if you’re not failing, you’re not trying.

So, in that spirit, here’s just a few of my most notable failures. Enjoy:


Cartoonists & Failure 2

Like most cartoonists, I tried my hand at syndication for a few years. I did a strip about a young married couple (top,) and another about a dog and his owner where the dog was the breadwinner and the guy was more the pet in the relationship.

You can see me figuring out my style, and the writing is clunky. They were right not to give me a contract (although Jay Kennedy wrote me some lovely comments). Ultimately a strip was not a good fit for me.


Cartoonists & Failure 3

When CafePress started out I was sure it was going to be all kinds of money for me. My wife and I spent an entire summer coloring my cartoons, uploading them, putting them on t-shirts, mugs, etc… I think I earned maybe $50 when it was all said and done.

I’m sure someone is succeeding on CafePress, but it isn’t me.


Cartoonists & Failure 4

For a while I thought selling books was the way to go. I did one on Lulu, printed up some SPX-ready minicomics, some themed collections for the art fair crowd (more on that later), and even an iBook. They sold OK, I made my money back, but for the amount of work I put into them, books have been a bust.


Cartoonists & Failure 6

I’m not a big fan of Facebook. I’ve recently gotten my act together with an Andertoons page, but for the most part I don’t like/trust it. Still, when they debuted apps a few years back I paid my developer to figure out FBML and build a daily cartoon thingy. It never went above 50 users, never sent me any business, and cost me a fair amount of money. Sigh.

Art Fairs

Cartoonists & Failure 7

For time and money spent, my art fair set-up is probably one of my biggest failures. I spent more than $6000 on the tent, tables, frames, signs, supplies, entry fees, and more. I also spent a summer of 90-100 degree days sitting outside while people read and laughed at my cartoons before moving on sans merchandise to the hand-made earring or what-can-I-make-out-of-beer-cans booth next door. Add in the set-up, tear-down, travel, and the time I held onto my 10-foot steel pole frame in a 50 MPH thunderstorm so my entire investment wouldn’t blow away and you’ve got one serious failure. (Remind me to tell you about the flood sometime too.)

New Yorker

Cartoonists & Failure 8

I’ve done my time trying to sell the the New Yorker too. I submitted for years and never got so much as a nibble. I’ve even met cartoon editor Bob Mankoff a few times:

Cartoonists & Failure 9

Once he told me that my art was good, but my writing was terrible. Another time he said my writing was good, but my art was terrible. (He also once thought I drew Family Circus.) But I think mostly he’s afraid of me. I’m a big guy, and I suspect when he sees me coming at him excitedly he’s worried I’m seeing this:

Cartoonists & Failure 10

So there are just a few of my most spectacular failures, and a picture of Bob Mankoff as a sandwich. When you add in the dozens of smaller and less entertaining failures, I’ve done my share of falling down. You really should give it a try. It’s better than you think.

BTW, if you liked that, here’s a few more blogs you might like:

5 thoughts on “FAIL!”

  1. Good article, Mark! Not too much to say, I just wanted to be the first commenter. Also that I’m working away on a couple of monumental failures right now!!

  2. Thanks so much for posting this! It’s so helpful to see that a successful cartoonist doesn’t just magically sail into their wonderful career.

  3. Hey Mark, My wife and I tried the art fair thing last summer. What a bust! People would come into the tent, look at a framed cartoon and say things like, “Oh look, Janice, this would be PERFECT for Dad!” They would then smile and walk away. I would stand dumbfounded, in what was either a pool of sweat or tears.

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