Ask A Cartoonist: The Comic Strip Critic Edition

By Tea Fougner

Welcome back to the Comics Kingdom Blog! I’m your Comic Strip Critic, and we’re halfway through my week hosting here on the Blog. I’ve actually had the chance to ask cartoonists some questions before on my show:

But I always have so many more to ask. So with that in mind, I’d like to ask the cartoonists of Comics Kingdom: What’s the best piece of constructive criticism you’ve received about your work, and who was it from?

My response to “constructive criticism” of Zippy  is to turn it into a strip as quickly as possible–Bill Griffith, Zippy The Pinhead



Once a long time ago I showed him my portfolio, and he said, “What ever your subject is – get closer to it.” He meant in terms of composition – to make sure you zero in and don’t leave unused or distracting space – but I think it can also apply to writing gags. It’s an approach that helps you to simplify. There is a great little children’s book by Tomie DePaola called “Simple PIctures are Best”. The title says it all. –Isabella Bannerman, Six Chix
“If you can, show it, don’t tell it.”  So if you have a cartoon idea, try to show the characters doing the joke, versus having them sit at a bar talking about it.  I learned this in an improv theater class in college and feel like it translates well to cartooning.  –Hilary Price, Rhymes With Orange
When I was applying for the job with Hank, we corresponded for a while by mail. He would send me gag slips to pencil and then he would return them with his critiques. This was a typical example.  He had the patience of a saint with me over the years. lol!  –Ron Ferdinand, Dennis The Menace


Way back when, I did a series called “Cheers for Losing Football Teams”. A gentleman named Frank Pauer sent me a note saying that stuff like that was too easy. Around that same time, my wife Cathy said that I could do better. So I began to attempt work that was more ambitious which started me down the road to being an outlier. –Tom Batiuk, Funky Winkerbean

When I was 23 my aunt and uncle had a surprise for me when I traveled to Santa Rosa CA to see them; they’d arranged for me to visit Charles Schulz. Meeting him at his ice rink, I was given the following advice: sit down and draw fifty strips. Of those, maybe five will be funny.  Build on those and throw out the rest.  Do fifty more.  Now perhaps ten will be usable.  Repeat this process again and again and eventually one will have enough strips to create a submission to the syndicates.  –Bill Holbrook, On the Fastrack and Safe Havens

Believe it or not, years ago, before “The Simpsons”, Matt Groening took the time to critique my work. I had friends in Atlanta who would send me the alternative paper to see “Life in Hell”. They said, “This guy is doing what you are doing. Write to him!” so I did, c/o Creative Loafing, and miraculously I received a 3 page letter. Instead of saying “Give it up” as I feared…he said “Keep going, you can definitely have some sort of career” and he told me how he used to make little books and just give them away until he developed a following and could sell his work, instead. He also said how he was starting to do these little animations for the Tracey Ullman show! I doubt he remembers all this, but it meant a lot to me and kept me going. Thank you Matt! –Stephanie Piro, Six Chix

I began in this industry young enough to have met and become friends with many of the Great Cartoonists of our time, both living and otherwise, and have taken much inspiration from each one. It’s hard for me to pick just exactly which one did more in terms of inspiration over the others. But I have two really good examples:
Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit and daddy to the graphic novel, was once an instructor of mine at The School of Visual Arts. He offered a no-nonsense approach to cartooning and grilled the class on the kind of reactions we as artists could/would would receive. By the time I arrived at the school I was already a seasoned professional, having years of being published under my creative belt. But Will challenged me to do things differently than what I was accustomed to. He got me to try different drawing styles. I studied and practiced very hard. I credit him with giving me the creative zeal to put it into CURTIS, in a offbeat parody, SuperCaptainCoolMan. It’s Curtis’ favorite comic book to read. I change my style of drawing to fit the storyline. It’s much more like a superhero-type style.
I enjoyed a close friendship with Charles “Sparky” Schulz and we often spoke by phone about the state of cartooning. I sometimes wondered why he, as “The Giant” of our industry, would be so close to me. But I never questioned him and just enjoyed our times. He once advised me to bring to my strip something that would be completely unique than any other. Some ideas that no one else could do. There were several topics I played with, but I think two things stood out-Gunk and his home of Flyspeck Island and my annual Kwanzaa stories. For the Kwanzaa stories I utilize Will’s influence and draw it in a different art style. It takes me completely out of my comfort zone and I like the challenge! It’s like being creatively-dangerous. –Ray Bllingsley, Curtis
Jay Kennedy (the late KF editor and comics god), wrote me an email after I made my Arctic Circle submission, saying “I like your drawing style and humor, but not your lettering. It is too
lax.”  I sharpened up the lettering and got syndicated! –Alex Hallatt, Arctic Circle
I received lots of great constructive criticism from cartoonist, Fred Lasswell when I worked as his inking assistant on the Barney Google and Snuffy Smith comic strip, but one piece of advice particularly stands out.  When referring to the comic strip, he said keep it simple.  Don’t get too detailed in either the art or the wording because it will be a distraction.  He said we only have a few seconds a day with the reader and we want to make him or her laugh, not get caught up in distractions.  I try to adhere to this every day.  –John Rose, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith

I’d occasionally get emails from male fans asking if I could make Rob (the husband) less passive and more involved as a parent. I never made him that way intentionally – I think because Jill is the main character, I subconsciously put everything on her. But I took the comments to heart.

Instead of making Rob “Mr. Mom” overnight, I turned this “passivity” into a marital issue. Every so often, Jill and Rob get into heated debates about Rob needing to be more involved in parenting and chores. Consequently, he is a much better husband and father now. (By the way, my own husband has always been a totally involved parent, thank goodness!)

And….When I first got syndicated, I got some flak about pushing the envelope too far when it came to Jill and Rob’s sex life. Consequently, I pushed the envelope further. –Terri Libenson, The Pajama Diaries

I remember being in development with Tina’s Groove and every day was a workshop in constructive criticism! My editor was Jay Kennedy, and I learned a lot from him in those early days. To single out a couple of things that Jay imparted to me, I’d choose the following two because I think they are the most constructive. 

Number one, my main character Tina was not enough of a likable character. Jay made me see how important it is for a main character to be someone that readers care about. It was all right to have a weird or nasty character in the strip, but did I really want my main character to play that role? 
The other bit of constructive criticism came when I handed in a few gag ideas and one of them was a pun. In Jay’s opinion — and I think he’s right– puns are the lowest form of humor. (Okay, there are exceptions, but generally speaking nine out of ten puns are cheap, and not funny, you’d have to agree.) Anyway, he told me that I could do better, and it was back to the drawing board for me!

(Now when I do a pun, which is rare, I try to add a little satire or something to supplement it. I try to not make the pun the main focus of the gag.) –Rina Piccolo, Tina’s Groove and Six Chix
In the late eighties, I was trying to get my comic strip published in my local paper, the St. Catharines Standard.  (This was years before my strip was accepted for syndication with King Features)  Mr. Murray Thomson, the managing editor had shown some samples around the newsroom for feedback.  When he told me their criticism, I immediately said I would change the strip.  He said, “No…don’t change it…you have to be true to yourself.”  That was confusing to me because he was telling me what was wrong with the strip but also telling me not to change what was wrong. I kept writing and submitting samples to him over the next few years and he eventually accepted them for publication. The strip gradually developed over that time but the original voice was the same. So it did change but it stayed the same.  It’s a fine line but I understand now what he was telling me.  –Sandra Bell-Lundy, Between Friends
The best piece of criticism I ever received was neither constructive nor helpful. I don’t feel there’s such a thing as constructive criticism, unless it’s given at gunpoint. All criticism is critical, and any positive results are solely the responsibility of the recipient. “Hey, your makeup looks great! Have you ever considered applying it with your dominant hand?”  See? Critical. But if you then change how you paint your big fat gob, and people who once hated you now love you for your superficial looks, then success!

Several years ago, I was writing a multi-part special for E! Entertainment. Jenny McCarthy was the host, and I was pounding out my usual blend of Noel Coward/ Rocker Grrrl comedy. Unbeknownst to me, E! had recently embedded an older low-level media manager whose job it was to go over every script in the building and edit anything that didn’t fit with “brand.” Oh, and she had zero background in television. That’s a prerequisite for basic cable.

Now, as I later found out, “brand”, as defined in her brocaded lexicon, included the proper mixing of participles and adherence to the Queen’s English. I, of course, prefer to write in the vernacular, which sounds more natural coming out of real peoples’ mouths. I built a career on this. So, I would get my daily revisions back from this editor, blood-stained in red pen (yes, she actually corrected our scripts with red pen, like a dour school marm), with eye-popping suggestions like: “Kim Kardashian is considering a sequel with Ray J, for whom she gave up the booty.”  

It sounds so natural, just pratfalling off the tongue, no?

This show was a slog. I battled Mrs. Doubtfire’s red pen every step of the way. Things came to a head one night when I got a revision on a toss to break. This a TV term which refers to a host’s “coming up later…” banter before the show goes to a commercial. There was a segment which discussed the sentencing that was handed down to OJ Simpson in his Las Vegas robbery trial. 

Now, to help you understand what I’m about to describe, a show which airs on television today is actually written months, sometimes years in advance. The show I was writing was going to air in about a month. But the writing, the host taping and all the production was going to be done this week. Now comes the important part… the O.J. trial was going to finish a few weeks beyond that. 

Pre-taped pop culture tv shows like to appear current. It’s what spurs Dating Hotline companies to give so much money to run commercials on their network. So there’s a problem… a show writer has no way of knowing the exact details of a big event that’s going to take place weeks after a show is wrapped. And the O.J. trial / sentencing was going to happen two weeks after our show ended production. So, the standard protocol is to be ambiguous in your scripts, with dialogue like: “O.J. is never going to see the light of day this decade” or “The judge really threw the book at the Juice.” 

Here’s what I got back from Miss Marple:

“These guidelines are unacceptable. I want the actual sentencing he received.”

I. Kid. You. Not.

I sent back a reply suggesting something along the lines of me wishing to buy a ticket on her quantum leap machine once she builds it. If you can imagine, my sarcasm was lost on her. 


It was right around this time that I started on my journey of getting my own syndicated comic strip…  –Jeff Corriveau, Deflocked