Celebrating 20 years of syndication this month, we hear from the accomplished, inspiring and passionate Reality Check creator Dave Whamond!
THE EARLY YEARS
My first-ever published comic was for a feature called the "Cartoon Bug" when I was probably around 6 years old. "Cartoon Bug" ran in the Edmonton Journal and gave kids the opportunity to have their comics published in the newspaper. My comic was about a hungry cat that was served a platter of food, only to find that he only had one pea. The punch line was the cat saying, you guessed it, "One pea?!" I thought that was gold. Pure hilarity ... but more importantly, once I saw my work in print, I was hooked.
Looking back, I was probably a bit of an odd kid. All I wanted to do was draw and write stories. I would spend hours in my room working on comics and books. I would even draw my own newspapers. My parents would get giant rolls of newsprint from the local newspaper, the Edmonton Journal. They would tape them up on both sides of our long hallway and I would fill them up with drawings. When I was finished, they would tape up fresh new pieces of paper and I would fill them up with drawings again. I loved it!
I remember waiting on the front step every day for the newspaper to arrive. Did I mention I was an odd kid? Once the paperboy dropped it off, I would eagerly leaf through the pages and find the comics. I loved everything about them - the drawings, the humor, the smell of the paper, even the newsprint on my fingers. And when the full-color Sunday comics came, well, forget about it! Pure heaven. I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up ... I didn't want to grow up. I wanted to be a cartoonist!
My favorite comics as a kid were Mad Magazine, Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, and The Far Side. I also admired the editorial cartoon work of Jeff MacNelly, Jim Borgman and Mike Peters. Presently, I enjoy most of the panel cartoons (too many good ones to list here), Zits, Mutts, and I particularly love Cul de Sac. What an amazing artist Richard Thompson is. I also like to see what the up-and-coming cartoonists are doing. Comics Sherpa is a great vehicle for young cartoonists to showcase their work.
As a young cartoonist, I would draw in the margins of my schoolbooks when I was supposed to be doing math, science, etc. My math teacher at the time, would say, "You better concentrate on your mathematics, David ... you can't make a living doing cartoons." I am finding this is a common story amongst many cartoonists ... it's something that just calls to you. You can't help yourself. Anyway, I consider myself very fortunate to be actually doing cartoons for a living now. It's a true privilege. And, there were many people throughout my life who told me I couldn't do it, that I was wasting my time ... and I love proving people wrong. In fact, I tell this to many young cartoonists/artists. Don't listen to the naysayers! There are many people who will tell you that you can't do something. If you want it, go and get it. You have to be realistic about it, but don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something. I was fortunate that my parents encouraged me to do what I love, even though they confessed to me years later that they thought it might mean that I would be living at home for the rest of my life. BUT ... the important thing is that they STILL encouraged me. I owe them a lot.
What I do is not something I even like to call work. I can't believe I have been able to do this as a job for over 25 years. I keep thinking someone from some government department is going to walk through the doors and say, "Our records show that you have been drawing goofy pictures for the last 25 years. You can't do that. It's not a real job. You will need to get some training in ... something ... but certainly not cartooning."
When I was just starting out as a cartoonist in my teens, I sent out letters and samples of my work to some of my favorite cartoonists, and Lynn Johnston, from For Better or For Worse, wrote me back with a long letter and inspired me to do this for a living. I told her what that meant to me, in my own awkward way, when I met her in Boca Raton, but I hope she knows what a difference she made in my life. This was the first time I realized I could pursue this as a living.
Lynn encouraged me to go to a good art college, so I was accepted in to the Alberta College of Art and Design. I quickly realized I had a lot of work to do as I wandered the halls and saw that I was out of my league in the drawing department. But, as they said in the movie "Boyhood," college was a life-transforming time for me, and I found my people.
After graduating from art college in 1987, I tried to get a job at an ad agency, but the economy was bad. The phone wasn't ringing and I began to think I had made a serious vocational error. I was only hired to do freelance illustration. However, this was a blessing in disguise, as that was what I loved to do, and I soon realized that I didn't really need a full-time job. I could just do this and pay the rent and still have some left over. How great was this? What was the catch?
In time, I started getting assignments from magazines like Sports Illustrated, Psychology Today, SPY, Wall Street Journal and many others while at the same time doing a regular freelance gig doing two to three editorial cartoons for the Calgary Herald. But all along, my real dream was to get a syndicated comic. I had sent out a few submissions and received many rejection letters, but I maintained my faith. In retrospect, what I had submitted wasn't ready for prime time. But in the summer of 1994, I had a single panel that I quite liked, and sent it out to a couple of syndicates. I received a call out of the blue one Tuesday afternoon from Sarah Gillespie of United Features Syndicate in New York, and she said they were interested in syndicating my comic. Once my heart started up again, I said something like "Oh, that's good," back.
That was the start of Reality Check, and I've been so blessed to be able to draw it for two decades.
I am inspired by many people, especially my wife (that will get me some points now, won't it?). I draw inspiration from artists, sports figures, musicians, authors ... anyone who focuses on something, makes the best of what they have and excels at it. Mostly, I am inspired by fellow cartoonists. One of the perks of becoming a syndicated cartoonist and joining the National Cartoonists Society is meeting some of your heroes. When you are a kid, looking at the newspaper comics on the front step, in your wildest dreams you can't imagine actually meeting these people, that they really exist. And the amazing thing is that they are all really nice people. There aren't many big egos in the comics industry. They say you should never meet your heroes, but that doesn't apply in the cartooning world.
I remember attending my first-ever Reuben Awards for the National Cartoonists Society in Boca Raton, Florida. My editor at United Features, Amy Lago, had invited my wife Carla and me to attend in my first year of syndication for Reality Check. Amy was so good to me and I feel like she kind of took me under her wing, but I'm sure she makes everyone feel that way.
I walked into a room full of all the people I had admired my whole life, and I was terrified. My knees were literally shaking, but everyone was so welcoming and down-to-earth. Years later, I would never have believed I would be standing on that stage accepting a Reuben award.
Over the years, I have been fortunate to be nominated for 10 Reuben awards, and have won four - for Book Illustration, Advertising, Magazine and Newspaper Illustration. If you want to talk about a mind-blowing experience, that would be it. Even as I am typing this, it still doesn't seem real to me.
UPCOMING PROJECTS AND EVENTS
I work on a lot of different illustration projects, including my new love: children's books. I'm working on three new books at the same time. My book "Oddrey Joins the Team" is nominated for a Blue Spruce award this year, so I am off to Toronto in May. This award show is very cool because it is voted on by tens of thousands of kids. I was fortunate to win this award twice for my books "My Think-a-ma-jink" and "Oddrey" (a book about an odd kid - go figure!).
When I first went to this award ceremony, they told me, "You will feel like a rock star." I didn't really believe that, but when I came out on stage and saw thousands of kids jumping up and down, cheering and holding my book in the air, well, it really was a rock-star moment. And these kids are all excited about books! How cool is that?! I've never seen anything like it. Writing and illustrating is such a solitary job and sometimes you wonder if anyone really ever reads your stuff, so to experience that is something you will never forget. You get to see their reactions to something you created firsthand. Unbelievable!
And, of course, there are the "÷Oscars of Cartooning,' the Reuben Awards, this May in Washington, DC!
My studio is in a walkout basement in my house. I used to work at a studio with a group of other illustrators and designers downtown, but it was getting to be like Grand Central Station, and there were so many distractions (we had way too much fun) that I decided to move the studio back home in the late '90s. My only distraction now is my dog, Aiko (the best dog in the world), and I get way more work done.
You have to be very disciplined working at home, however. TV, Facebook, Twitter, etc. is always calling to you as well as the great outdoors, especially if it's a nice day. Sometimes I will set up shop on the deck outside if it's a nice, sunny day. My hobby is my job ... so there is no possible way to goof off during the day. Although, sometimes I do math in the margins of my cartoons.
WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH THE SQUIRREL?
A lot of people ask me about the squirrel in my comic, Ralph. I actually didn't name him Ralph, the readers did. I started putting a squirrel in some of my illustrations and people would always say, "Where's the squirrel?" when I would leave him out. Not sure why it was a squirrel ... we back on to a park and there is one little squirrel who stands out. He has so much spunk and energy, and he is smaller than the rest of the park squirrels. Some days, I am convinced it is actually Ralph. Anyway, I started adding him in to Reality Check. I didn't think anyone would really notice. But when I would forget to add him in, the readers sure noticed. "Where's the squirrel?!" "Where's my little buddy?!" I loved the work of a Canadian editorial cartoonist Edd Uluschak. He always hid a snake character in his cartoons. I always liked that idea, so thought it would be fun to have a little character in my comic.
Anyway, the squirrel would appear daily in my comic for a year or two, sometimes hidden, sometimes adding comments here and there, sometimes he was just ... there. One day, I had a cartoon around Christmas that had a squirrel saying to someone on a park bench, "Hi. My name's Ralph. I'll be your squirrel today," not thinking anything of it. The comments poured in. "We finally know the name of the squirrel now!" "Thank you!" "What a great Christmas present!" From that day on, he was known as Ralph. That was so cool. The readers did all of that themselves.
A lot has changed since I started Reality Check back in 1995. At that time, the Internet was just getting started, so the industry has undergone a monumental shift, to put it mildly. Many newspapers have since disappeared and the industry is trying to find a way to make money. That's the downside, but on the positive side, my comic reaches a much larger audience online. I personally like the accessibility of other comics that I would never have seen otherwise. Also, I like that I get instant reaction from readers in the comments section every day. I can tell what cartoons get a reaction and which ones fail to register. It's always the ones that resonate with the readers that I think aren't necessarily the best. The panels that I think are strong on many levels are the comics that don't seem to get the reaction I was looking for. You would think I would figure that one out after 20 years. I guess we cartoonists are always learning. And that's a good thing.
After 20 years of doing Reality Check, it has taken me places I never could have imagined. I try to make my new work the best yet. My goal is to give people a good laugh during their busy day. If I can make just one person laugh a day, well, then I am not doing a very good job, am I? It's been a great ride, and I look forward to more. I don't think the best Reality Checks have been done yet. I'm just hitting my stride. I'm just getting started. Sheesh ... it took me long enough!