Ruined for life
I still can’t believe that I’m a cartoonist. Even though I began drawing and making comic strips at a very early age, I resisted at every turn the impulse that drove me, slowly and inexorably toward cartooning.
Of course, everyone who’s known me for any length of time will wonder what took me so long.
As a child, I copied Peanuts out of the newspaper (the Charlotte NC Observer, for those of you playing the Home Edition of our game). From copying, I graduated to writing and drawing my own Peanuts strips, wherein I removed the subtle and gentle humor of Charles Schulz and replaced with the sledgehammer-like nuances inherent in the sensibilities of a 5-year-old. When I proudly showed these newly minted masterpieces to my father, he explained (as best he could) about the concept of “copyright” and why that meant that only Mr. Schulz could make new Peanuts strips. Instead, he suggested, why didn’t I try making my own comic strip?
Needless to say, my life was either set in motion or ruined (or both) at that moment.
Long, strange trips
I had veered away from cartooning, having chosen filmmaking as my career and creative outlet. This was before Atlanta became a real hotbed of television production, thanks to The Walking Dead and Tyler Perry, so I ended up mostly doing graphics for corporate pep rallies.
One job I did brought me back to cartooning. I was hired to design, animate and produce a series of safety videos for children on behalf of a nonprofit professional organization. My employer’s previous attempts at designing an appealing character resulted in something that looked more like a rat than the kangaroo it was supposed to be. I spent two years working with and animating Troo the Traumaroo (I know, I know… the name was picked before I came on board. “Troo” is good, but “Traumaroo”?!?).
Troo was the first character I ever did that got any kind of wide exposure. Kids loved the character, and it was very gratifying to work on a character that really touched people’s lives and made a positive impact on them—and maybe even saved some lives, as well.
After that, I went back to doing corporate logos and animated opens for sales meetings. However, I hated doing that, and decided that a career change was in order. The only thing I’d ever been truly happy doing was the cartooning part of the Traumaroo gig. That was the answer, I decided. I was going to give in to inevitability and become a professional cartoonist.
Problem is, there’s no Becoming a Professional Cartoonist For Dummies out there (a book that would have been written with me in mind). I started working on a comic book. With no idea of how to get it published and distributed, I eventually abandoned that project. I still wanted to be a cartoonist, but now I was even more in the dark on how to make it happen.
About that time, Scott McCloud posted a few essays on the future of comics, in which he talked about webcomics. I began to investigate that as a possibility and decided to make a go of it. I searched through my sketchbooks, looking for an idea to develop into a webcomic I could run for about six months to test the waters, then dive in with my magnum opus at a later date. That temporary strip was Accidental Centaurs, an action/adventure fantasy that can be seen at www.accidentalcentaurs.com. It launched in 2002. I’m still doing it in 2015.
So much for "temporary."
While I never did develop that other strip—you know, the “permanent” one—Accidental Centaurs opened up worlds of opportunity for me. I entered the world of self-publishing and Internet commerce. I even got inducted into the National Cartoonists’ Society (an organization that has really let its standards down, as proven by my membership). It even led to me getting to meet “Weird Al” Yankovic! How cool is that?
Of course, my original influence was, as mentioned earlier, Charles Schulz. I think that’s true of every cartoonist of a certain age. Peanuts was our gateway drug, introducing us to the wonders of cartooning and the comics. I still love reading Peanuts and now, as an adult and professional, I marvel at the depth and subtlety that Schulz managed to hide away in a few simple panels.
Another influence is another obvious one: Mad Magazine. Every six weeks, like every red-blooded American boy my age, I’d plunk down whatever outrageous amount was emblazoned on the cover of the latest issue—a sum that I was assured was “CHEAP” by words right there on the cover. Mad formed my snarky sense of humor, shaping it to create the bitter, cynical burnout I am today. Whenever I see Nick Meglin at an NCS function, I thank him for this, usually by turning down his oxygen until he falls asleep. In the pages of Mad, I was introduced to a stable of Idiots: amazing artists like Al Jaffee, Don Martin and Jack Davis (who I am fortunate to count as a dear friend and fellow University of Georgia alum).
Bill Holbrook is an inspiration and a mentor, as well as a good friend. He does three daily strips a day and hasn’t missed a beat or taken a hiatus. Ever. Since 1984. Bill also helped get Accidental Centaurs off the ground by letting me advertise on the website for his webcomic Kevin & Kell. Bill also encouraged me to try for membership in the National Cartoonists Society and wrote my letter of recommendation. I owe my career to Bill and hope to be half the cartoonist he is.
Another mentor and inspiration is my Nancy boss, Guy Gilchrist. I’d known about Guy for decades, remembering his work on The Muppets. When Guy asked me to work with him, I immediately jumped at the chance to work and learn from him. I still have much to learn, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow working for Guy.
One thing I love about cartooning is the fact that I don’t have to deal with Atlanta’s notoriously hellish commutes. In fact, my commute is about 25 feet, as is the case with most cartoonists.
My studio is located in a bedroom that was expanded a few years ago to create a second master suite at my house. The room looks out into the backyard, which lets me watch the dogs play when I need a few minutes to goof off—I mean, relax.
My drawing table is usually covered with half-done projects, drawing implements and scripts and notes for stuff I haven’t even started yet. Above that is a shelf filled with coffee mugs that hold all manner of pens and pencils (What? You can actually put a beverage in them? What a novel concept!).
My studio also has (at the moment) three Macintosh computers: Compy, an 8-core Mac Pro; Lappy, my trusty MacBook Pro (and the computer I’m writing this on); and Streamy, a Mackintosh I built that will be used for live streaming (soon). Compy (the computers were named for machines appearing in the Web animation series Homestar Runner) has a 12” Wacom Cintiq that gets an extensive workout producing Random Acts of Nancy.
When people ask me what Random Acts of Nancy is, I tell them it’s their little daily ray of Absurdist sunshine. The lack of context—indeed, it’s very removal—is what attracted me to Random Acts the moment Guy explained it to me. It was taking Scott McCloud’s “Five Card Nancy” game to its ultimate level and making what is already a surreal comic strip experience trip into an encounter that would make Magritte’s head explode.
The process begins by skimming through Nancy daily strips. Currently, we’re using Ernie Bushmiller’s art exclusively, but we’re not limited to his work. We actually have some Periquita comic books, which are Spanish translations of stories done by John Stanley in the 1950s for Tip Top Comics.
Once I find a strip with a promising panel, I clean up the art as much as I can in Photoshop.
I remove the extra panels, and then begin coloring the art.
When the panel is colored, I run a filter on the art to create the halftone dots that make the panel look as if it was printed on an old-fashioned four-color press.
Finally, I flatten the image and add the indicia, including the original publication date of the strip.
Repeat the process until … well, I run out of material. Thanks to the genius of Ernie Bushmiller, that’s not going to happen any time soon.
It’s a good gig, if you can get it …
How many people really, truly love their jobs? In the population as a whole, I’d venture to say the number is pretty low. Most people love to complain about their jobs. I am so lucky to be in a profession where literally (not figuratively) everyone who does it absolutely loves it.
I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the help and guidance of many people, such as Bill Holbrook and Guy Gilchrist. I also owe an enormous debt of gratitude to my parents, Paul and Esperanza Lotshaw. Both parents, I think, didn’t really get what their weirdo son was trying to do with his life—they just knew that he needed to do it. So with lots of love and support of kinds, they gave me the room to pursue this wacky dream. They understood it would be hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it. But without their help and support, I wouldn’t be writing this now. I wouldn’t have the chance to be a part of the legacy of Nancy. I wouldn’t have a webcomic that’s been running 13 years and a new strip getting ready to launch.
OK, enough rambling about me. Time to getting back to being random ...
Read Random Acts of Nancy here.