By Stacy Curtis
Like many cartoonists, I grew up reading Peanuts and Garfield paperback books. If anyone asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I never answered, “An astronaut” or “A fireman” or “A cowboy.” I always answered, “Charles Schulz.”
I didn’t just want to be a cartoonist, I wanted to be Charles Schulz. Since the third grade, I was always known as the class artist, I decorated my classmates’ pocket folders with drawings of Garfield and Snoopy, I drew cartoons for our school bulletin boards and in high school, I was asked by a friend if I wanted to be the editorial cartoonist for our high school newspaper. A career was born!
I loved drawing cartoons, and I loved stirring up emotions with my cartoons even more! After one of my cartoons was published, I had classmates patting me on the back and teachers shaking their heads. Thoughts of drawing a comic strip started to fade from my mind, and I started planning a new career in expressing my opinions using my cartoons.
As soon as I arrived on the campus of Western Kentucky University, I went directly to the college newspaper and applied to be their editorial cartoonist. Two semesters later, I got the job and held that position until I graduated.
At the college level, I was given full rein of any topic. I had my fair share of cartoons killed by the editor, but I was also allowed to explore how powerful an editorial cartoon could be. The editorial board of the student newspaper met with the President of the university once a year. I remember dreading my first time meeting with him. This was a feeling I would have many more times in my future, as I sat in conference rooms with people like mayors, political candidates and governors.
As I sat there in the room with 10 people or so, I felt his eyes burning a hole through my forehead. I had drawn him several times and if looks could kill, my obituary would be in the newspaper tomorrow morning. I received my degree in Graphic Arts, but I really felt I got my education at the student newspaper, one editorial cartoon at a time.
When I graduated, I was sad to leave my cartoonist position at the student newspaper. I had a good run, but I wasn’t ready for it to end. I decided I wasn’t satisfied with pursuing a job in my major, Graphic Design. So I went in search of one of the remaining 250 full-time editorial cartoonist positions in the United States.
I was lucky to quickly land a graphic artist position at a newspaper in Northwest Indiana. I was offered the job, but I only agreed to accept it on the condition that I would draw the illustrations and maps they wanted, if I could also draw at least one editorial cartoon per week. They agreed.
One of the first cartoons I drew was about the mayor of East Chicago and the next day, the mayor came into the newspaper to complain to the editor about the cartoon in the newspaper. I think it shocked the editor how upset it made the mayor, but it also showed him the value of having a cartoonist on his newspaper staff. The readers and politicians of Northwest Indiana weren’t prepared to open up their newspaper to editorial cartoons drawn on local issues coming from a young cartoonist with both guns blazing.
Remember me sitting in a conference room of the President of Western Kentucky University? Well, the mayor of Gary, Indiana, called one day and wanted the Executive Editor, the Editorial Page Editor, a reporter and myself to meet with him in his office to talk about one of my cartoons that had appeared in the newspaper.
Talk about an uncomfortable ride to Gary! I sat in the backseat of my editor’s car and tried to break the tension by laughing at how I got us sent to the Principal’s office. After the mayor spoke with us, he patted me on the back as I left his office and called me, “Cartoon Guy.” And from that day forward, I was known as “Cartoon Guy” by everyone in the newspaper office.
After my first couple years at the newspaper, the publisher created a full-time editorial cartoonist position for me. At that time, there were roughly 200 full-time editorial cartoonist positions in the United States and I had one of them. I loved my job, but a few years later, I had the wild idea that I would like to illustrate and possibly write children’s books. I have always been a fan of children’s books, because most of the children’s books I read as a child were done in a cartoony style. But I was just too busy at the newspaper to attempt a children’s book.
I thought I would be at the newspaper forever, especially since having an editorial cartoonist job was a rarity and the job I had was created just for me. Boy was I wrong! On a Thursday afternoon, when I was drawing my cartoon for the Sunday newspaper, I was escorted out of the building; my position was eliminated just as many other newspapers were also laying-off their editorial cartoonists. Today, there are roughly 80 editorial cartoonist positions left in the United States, and that number seems to be reduced every month.
The next day, with no alarm clock set for my day to begin with a commute to Northwest Indiana, I woke up and stared at the ceiling wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life. When my wife came home from work, I had a whole speech prepared, I decided I had nothing to lose and I wanted to take a leap into children’s book illustration. With my wife’s blessings, I began working on my children’s illustration portfolio, posted everything on my website and before my last unemployment check arrived, I had signed with an art rep, the wonderful Shannon Associates.
To this day, I don’t know how that happened so quickly, and I regard it as nothing short of a miracle. As one career ended, a new one had begun! I went from being in a newsroom with a hundred people or so, to working in my studio at home alone, it was quite an adjustment! But I gladly traded it for no commute, no dress code and no yearly performance reviews! I have been illustrating children books in the most comfortable clothes in my closet for nearly three years now, and I’m loving it!
Stacy Curtis lives in Oak Lawn with his wife, Jann, and his trusty studio assistant, Derby the Border Collie. Check out his blog at http://threemeninatub.blogspot.com.
Some of Stacy’s Books:
The New York Times Best Seller, The 7 Habits of Happy Kids, written by Sean Covey, published by Simon & Schuster
The Meghan Rose series, written by Lori Z. Scott, published by Standard Publishing.
The Raymond and Graham series, written by Mike Knudson, published by Viking Books.
Snack Attack, written by Stephen Krensky, published by Simon & Schuster.
The Fix-It Crew, written by Lara Bergen, published by Innovative Kids.
One by One, written by Mickey Daniels, published by Scholastic.