Cartooning Q & A (To Mr. Sergi’s Class)


Recently I received an email from 5th grade art teacher, Mr. Sergi. He said he does a unit on cartoons and his students are curious about tools of the trade, career info, publishing norms, etc…

I’ve actually meant to do a post like this for a while, so for kids out there interested in cartooning as a career, here’s the quick and dirty on my process and experience:


Every artist is different and I recommend that you play with as many pencils, pens, papers, or whatever as much as you can. It probably took me a good two years to find the tools I use now, but putting in that time is part of finding your style. I know cartoonists using pencil, crayon, ink & pen, and ball point on papers ranging from watercolor to copier quality.

But, since you asked, I use Faber-Castell Pitt brush pens and Prismacolor cool gray markers on Borden & Riley bleedproof marker paper. I still do all of the art the old fashioned way, but of course I use my computer for scanning, cleanup, and playing Hordes of Orcs.


You of course need to be a decent artist to be a cartoonist, but even more important is the writing. Good writing can carry bad art, but not the other way around. Study comedy and figure out how it works. And once you’ve done that, edit yourself well. Brevity is wit.


“How big should I draw my cartoons?” is a question every beginning cartoonist asks. If you’re looking to be a comic strip cartoonist, you’ll want to look at the dimensions of current strips and size that up as needed. For gag cartooning (what I do), or web cartooning, there’s really no preset dimensions to worry about. Just draw as much or as little as you need to get the joke across.


Everyone’s style is going to be different, and I don’t think you necessarily need to go to art school to be a cartoonist, but you do need to draw well enough so your cartoon reads quickly and effectively. The best advice I can give is to draw constantly; it doesn’t get any simpler than that. The more you draw, the more happy accidents occur and your individual style emerges. Draw, draw, draw, eat a sandwich, then keep drawing.


Newspapers are having a rough time of it, and magazines aren’t doing a lot better. Where I used to make most of my living selling to traditional print, most of my income now comes from selling my cartoons online. Where will cartoonists earn their livings in the near future? It’s hard to say, but don’t believe anyone who tells you you can’t earn a living at it. Do good work, do a lot of it, and keep an open mind.

So that’s cartooning in a nutshell for me. I hope you and your teacher get something you can use out of this, and I wish you all kinds of luck cartooning. I can’t think of a job that’s better than drawing funny pictures all day.

5 Common Cartoon Writing Mistakes to Avoid Like the Plague

Cartoon Writing MistakesWriting is probably at least 75% of a cartoon. Good art attracts readers initially, but good writing is why readers come back.

Avoid these five common cartoon writing pitfalls and not only will your readers stick around, but you might even earn a rare “why didn’t I think of that?!” from a fellow cartoonist:

1) Funny names.

Example: “Mr Snuffenheimer will see you now.” Silly names slow the read and dilute the cartoon. Don’t use them.

2) Waiting for your muse.

Cartoonists that make a living from their cartoons write often and write purposefully. It’s a skill you can learn, but only if you stop waiting for inspiration.

3) Puns.

This is an Achilles’ heel for all of us. And, yes, occasionally they’re OK and might even sell, but they’re easy cartoons and you know it. Don’t be that easy cartoon guy.

4) Explaining captions.

Example: Businessman to chicken across desk – “I see here by your resume that you’d be a perfect fit here at Fowlco. Especially the part about you being a chicken since we make chicken nuggets here for restaurants where people consume them. So you’d be food which is why, ironically, you’re such a good fit here.”

If you have to explain the joke in the joke it needs to be rewritten.

5) Repurposing other cartoonists’ captions.

I remember reading a book about cartooning when I was starting out that suggested borrowing other cartoonists’ captions and reworking them slightly to make them your own. Maybe change the setting from an office to a school. Or change the gag’s point of view from patient to doctor.

Listen, we all dip our pens in the same gag well, so occasionally you’re going to come up with a cartoon that’s been done by someone else. But do not ever do it on purpose.

Keep the above tips in mind the next time you’re sitting down to write cartoons and you’ll be much happier with your gags. (And so will your readers!)

Beware: 7 Phrases That Drive Professional Cartoonists Criminally Insane


Never ever under any circumstances say any of the following phrases to a professional cartoonist:

1) Can you look at my work and tell me what you think?

I could, but it doesn’t really mean anything. Send your cartoons to an editor. If they hand you a check ya done good.

2) We pay on publication.

Super. And I’ll pay for your magazine when I’m done reading it.

3) I saw this cartoon once. Can you help me find it?

Yes, because I know all and see all!

Honestly, if Google can’t help you, what makes you think I could.

4) Ha-ha! You should do a cartoon about that!

No. I shouldn’t. Because that’s crap.

5) Hi, you don’t know me, but could you tell me who’s buying at (insert cartoon market here) and how much they pay?

Sure! And here’s my address book, my taxes for the last ten years, and where I buried me treasure! Yar!

6) I have an idea for a great cartoon for you.

Trust me, you don’t. Please stop right there.

7) We have well over a hundred readers. This would be great exposure for you.

When I’m in Reader’s Digest I’m read by millions and I get a nice fat check. I think I’ll stick with that.

Do You Know the 5 Cartoons Most Likely to Sell?

iStock_000003821345XSmall.jpgSelling cartoons is hard enough; give yourself a leg up on the competition by playing better odds.

After scouring 10 years of files, databases and Quickbooks reports, here are the cartoons I’ve found sell best:

1. Business Meetings

Put a couple of people in a room with a PowerPoint and you’ve got a great chance at a sale. Here’s the fine print:

  • Sales graph cartoons sell especially well (bad sales sell even better).

  • Anthropomorphize to stand out from the rest of the submissions.

  • White men are boring. Make sure you’re representing all genders and ethnicities.

2. Pets

People love their animals, and a good pet gag is a sure bet.

  • Dog cliches abound. Freshen one up and fetch your check.

  • Cats are almost too easy to make fun of. Get to it.

  • Birds are harder to mine for humor, but they’re a much appreciated palette cleanser for editors.

3. Kids

Whether you play them as innocent, worldly, or just plain silly, kids sell. Try one of these:

  • Taking a bath. Water has a lot of comic possibilities.

  • Teacher conferences give you lots of options. Study hard.

  • Playgrounds are like the standard bar scene for adults; a great place to ponder all sorts of things.

4. Recent Trends

Hard to spot, and a small window of opportunity, but almost a guaranteed sell. Some recent ideas that are almost surely dated by now:

  • Twitter

  • Going green

  • Newspaper decline

5. Holidays

Christmas and Halloween are the champs, but they’re extremely competitive. Break through an editor’s inbox clutter with cartoons about:

  • Groundhog Day

  • Fourth of July

  • St. Patrick’s Day

Of course there’s no guarantee as to what cartoons will sell. A lot depends on what and how much other cartoonists are submitting. But a decade of selling most of the top markets has shown me that the above cartoon topics certainly better your chances.

(BTW, check out my sales cartoons too!)

Stop Making These 5 Common Cartoon Art Mistakes!

5 Most Common Cartoon Art MistakesMost cartoonists aren’t classically trained artists (myself included), so we tend to learn as we go.

Want to draw like a professional cartoonist quicker? Here’s some common cartoon art errors to avoid:

1) Start with poor writing

So this first one’s not really about the art per se, but if you’re going to draw an entire orchestra staffed with gorillas in Hawaiian shirts, that had better be a really inspired gag.

2) Live in the past

I’m not saying you need to sweat accurately drafting design changes in the latest iPhone vs. the iPhone 3Gs, but drawing a businessman in a fedora chasing his secretary around a giant CRT computer monitor is a sure way to not to sell cartoons.

3) Draw everything and then some

That scalloped rim amber cherry conference table surrounded with chrome trimmed leather lumbar support chairs and a mandaianum fern in the corner sure is fun to draw, but your standard bar graph gag really doesn’t need all that.

One way I’ve found to edit myself is to draw my scene, throwing in whatever I think I need, then drawing one box around what’s important. It forces you to focus on what’ needed for the gag, and not just what you like to draw.

4) Hand hiding

If you can’t draw a decent hand, learn. Stop putting characters’ hand in their pockets. Just stop.

5) Kill your line

Nothing leeches the life out of a line like drawing it over and over and over and over and over until it’s juuuuust right. No one will notice that little imperfection but you, and the loss of that just-dashed-off vibe isn’t worth it.

This is why I still use good old fashioned ink and paper. No undo for little surprises.

Take these to heart the next time you’re at your drafting table and your cartoons will improve dramatically.

What stuff do you avoid when you’re cartooning?