Sunday, July 29, 2007

Mark Tatulli: Believe in Yourself

There is a statistic -- I don't know if it's true, but here it is -- most cartoonists' careers last 6 months.

Whether you're a comic book artist, a graphic novelist, or manga girl -- it's not easy to do the work, and then try and make a living off of what you do.

Mark Tatulli, creator of the HEART OF THE CITY and LIO comic strips, wrote about what it's like to be a working cartoonist on the pro/am cartoonist board The Wisenheimer. I thought it was one of the most heart-felt and true stories of working hard to achieve a goal that I had read. So I asked Mark if I could share it here, and he gave me permission. Here's Mark:

Let me tell you my little a minute?

In 1995, I was "syndicated" by Lew Little Enterprises with a little comic strip called BENT HALOS. I wrote and drew it for 18 months and I put my all into that thing. My ALL. By the end, I had two clients ... the Long Beach Press Telegram and the Philadelphia Inquirer, daily and Sunday. I was pulling down about $200 a month drawing a strip 7 days a week, color on Sunday, all while maintaining a full time job in the video post-production field. One day in '97 I remember walking into the kitchen and I said to my wife, Donna, "Honey, I just can't do it anymore. Not for this small payback." She said to me (and I'll never forget it), "I understand what you're saying, Mark, but I hope you know that you may never be syndicated again." I was devastated, hurt, angry, crushed, depressed ... but, really, I had no choice.

The next day I quit, making it official with a faxed letter to Lew Little, which he accepted and signed. And I immediately starting working on another strip. Taking what I had learned in those past 18 months with me. That was April. By June I had another strip concept. I remember because my air-conditioner broke and I didn't have the money to get it fixed. I mailed out to the syndicates and by July I had a response from Universal Press. By September I had a development deal. By December I had a signed syndication deal for HEART OF THE CITY. I launched in November of 98 with 56 papers. Since then it built to 113 papers. A nice number but not enough to make a living, and so I continued to work full time in the TV business and do my little strip.

Flash forward to 2005. I get laid-off from my TV job in January and have enough money to last me to October. So I gotta get moving. I come up with a new strip concept and bounced it off the wife (by the way ... wives; good to have in a clutch situation). Donna loves the idea and says I should run with it. She's always been such a great support and if it hadn't been for her I don't know where I'd be. Two weeks before the Reubens in May and I want to have something to show my syndicate; a solid pitch. So I write and I write and I come up with 7 solid daily strips and one Sunday and a pitch concept. I'm ready to go. As Yoda would have said, "On this, all depends."

First, I showed it to the head of sales at Universal, John Vivona. If he says he can't sell it, I'm not gonna even bother showing it to the big wigs. So he looks at my kit, strip by strip, and he says, slowly (or at least I remember it that way) ...."Yep, I can sell this ... oh, I can sell this." So, on Sunday, the day after the Reubens ceremony in Scottsdale, Arizona ... at 8:00am (the sun was already broiling and I had the sweat to prove it), I pitched LIO to Lee Salem over cigarettes and coffee. Lee looked at my samples with the trained eye of an expert poker player and said, "Yeah, I like it. But I can't give you contract based on 8 strips. Let's see what else you can do with this."

So I went home with new vigor and turned three months of roughs in two weeks. By the end of the summer I had a great development deal. By October I was putting together roughs for the sales kit. We started the sales campaign in January and by May 2006 I launched with 100+ newspapers. Then THE BOONDOCKS quit. And FOXTROT went Sunday only. I hit 200 papers by January 2007. A Reubens comic strip category nomination by May. I'm now at 285 papers and counting, 14 months after launching! Who would have thought it possible?!

So what's the point of all this? Well, back in '97 I thought it was all over. I had to give up my dream out of necessity. Sales weren't there and there was no money and it was too much work, the same reality so many of us face in this crazy business. So I stopped that strip ... but not the dream. It wasn't the end. Great things were to come because I was a cartoonist with passion and determination. And while now I would never recommend to anyone to start comic stripping for a living (it's just too much of a crap shoot to become successful, and I had the benefit of good timing ... but then again, you never know), it's never over when it's over. There are so many opportunities for cartoonists. And you're never too old. I was 43 when I launched LIO, a lot older than the average mook just getting started in the comics-biz. But it took 10 years to get here. The simple truth is you just have to believe in yourself. Today ends, but tomorrow starts something new and better.

Incidentally, it's 2:50am when I write this. I just got done working. This is the hardest I've ever worked in my life. But I love it. God help me, I love it so

Another link: A LIO-centric May 2007 podcast interview with Mr. Media here.


Mark Anderson said...

I'm so glad you were able to post this here! What a great story, huh?

I've always thought that generally people don't work hard enough or wait long enough to be "lucky."

Nice to hear otherwise now and again!

Eddie Pittman said...

Thanks Mark for writing this and Mike for posting. I needed to hear this right now!

Roy Delgado said...

Mark, you are an inspiration. I truly believe and practice your advice: "Believe in Yourself. "
A big heartfelt congratulations in overcoming the odds and I wish you continued success!