One of the reasons I gave up my day job to create Sleeper Ave. was that, frankly, I was tired of the unceasing deadlines. I drew a daily editorial cartoon for 31 years, adding a six-day-a-week comic strip for twelve of them, and for another four years after that a daily comic strip. That’s 35 years and 10,000 cartoons.
This was not, I freely admit, all that much of a burden. The best job on a newspaper staff, if you can do it, is editorial cartoonist. You’re a department of one, nobody can really edit your work, and you can set your own hours as long as you meet your deadlines. You’re basically your own boss, with health insurance and paid vacation and a pension. I’m not whining.
That said, the deadlines do get to you, and the level of work and concentration required make it difficult to do anything else artistically creative. The last thing I wanted to do at the end of a week was face another blank sheet of paper. Many of my peers have other creative outlets; a fair number play music, something I learned early in my life I have zero aptitude for. As Natasha, my musically gifted daughter–she of the golden pipes– will attest, you do not want to hear me try to sing.
During the last few years of my employment at the Rocky Mountain News, I started daydreaming about telling stories in a new way. Graphic novels were maturing, becoming a viable literary form. The internet was exploding with fresh ideas and new ways of delivering content. Both my kids kept pushing me to find a way to tell the stories I was telling them about what it was like to grow up in a time and a place so different from theirs.
Drawing a graphic novel never really appealed to me. I’m much too accustomed to the rhythm of daily journalism to embark on a project that might take years until it sees the light of day. I ended up with the idea of telling relatively short stories in a hybrid cartoon/text form, stories that stand on their own but are thematically linked. I spent months making notes, sketching characters and locations, deciding what the look and feel of the art should be, experimenting with the length, the feel, the tempo of the stories, until I felt I was ready to launch.
Then I was ready for the really hard part–making the leap to an internet-only feature. For my entire career I’d had a ready-made platform for my work. The newspaper and the syndicate did the marketing and distribution for me; all I had to do was draw. Now I’m my own marketer and my own distributor as well as the creator of the feature. And I’m my own IT person, too. That’s maybe the most daunting part. Fortunately, my son Gabe knows how to do this stuff, and he’s been a (mostly) patient teacher.
The other reason to embark on this project, aside from my aspiration to create something new and different, was a desire to see if I could crack the code for building an audience for my work without the sponsorship of a newspaper. I knew it wouldn’t happen overnight; it would take time and effort and new skills. I would have to become familiar with the mysteries of social media. This is the part I am still not comfortable with, and I suspect that I will never really be bosom buddies with Twitter and Facebook, even though I am assured that they are tools as essential as my pen and ink. The idea is to constantly work to add new readers, and hope that somehow some day soon the work goes viral, which I find more than a little disturbing. How many people can I infect? Can I become an epidemic? Will I mutate? Sigh.
The other thing I’m told I must do is constantly ask my readers to spread the word. I have less of a problem with this, because I genuinely believe that I’m doing interesting and entertaining work, and I have to believe that those of you who like what I’m doing agree. So please, let your Facebook friends and your Twitter followers and everyone else you’re in touch with on any other platform know about Sleeper Ave. Send them links. Tell them in person (how pre-tech. Do people still do that sort of thing?).
Let me go viral.