Advice to a Young Cartoonist



I received the following email the other day, and responded with the advice that follows it. Then I started wondering if this is still helpful in 2015. Am I thinking like an old guy? What are your thoughts?

Q. Hello. I am thirteen years old and really enjoy reading the Zits comic strip in the Toronto Star. I love to cartoon and I aspire to be a cartoonist. Can I ask where you got your training to become a professional cartoonist.       –Jacob

A. Hi Jacob. Most of the cartoonists I know would tell you they “taught themselves” cartooning by studying and mimicking other cartoons as they were growing up, probably much as you’re doing now. I was a big fan of MAD magazine and some of the editorial cartoonists whose work ran in my local newspaper. Jerry was a great student of comic strips like Peanuts, Pogo and Nancy.

With the internet, you have the great advantage of being able to study everything being done for publication as well as web comics. Whole cable networks devote themselves to showing animated cartoons. Collections of strips published in book form are easily available. It’s a terrific time to be schooling yourself in what’s out there.
For me the best teacher was my sketchbook, which became my training ground as I tried many styles on my way to discovering what sort of work I wanted to throw myself into.
That’s not to say that formal training wouldn’t be helpful, of course. There are a few schools that teach classes specifically in cartooning — Cal Arts and Savannah College of Art and Design come to mind — but everything you learn in art classes will inform your cartooning. I went to Kenyon College, a small liberal arts college where there were no classes specifically in cartooning, but a nice art department and a school newspaper, both of which encouraged me. Bill Watterson graduated from Kenyon, too.
Study the work of other cartoonists you love. Try to get your work out in public somehow, either through a school newspaper or on a website. Stay current with the technology that features cartoons. Fill up sketchbooks. Create characters and stories. Take the art classes available to you. Follow your curiosity.
Jim Borgman

15 thoughts on “Advice to a Young Cartoonist

  1. I’m also a young aspiring Artist (19) and all the steps you named are still relevant and helpful along the path of becoming a Pro.

  2. Great advice, Jim – and yes, still very relevant for a new generation of artists. There’s no substitute for drawing daily and carrying a small sketchbook to capture life, ideas, and dreams.

  3. My daughter and son in law both graduated from Kenyon. A great school that gave them so many tools; the best one how to learn how to learn…

  4. Your letter to this young fellow is great. Kudos. OMG, you went to Kenyon…I’m a Sewanee graduate and most folks have never heard of either! Hope you two NEVER retire; and since I recently cancelled the Albuquerque Journal, I am so thankful that you place Jeremy et al right’cheer.

  5. This is great advice. I’m an aspiring cartoonist and I’ve used social media to get my work out there. I do a single panel cartoon about my hometown called The Bubble on Instagram (follow me @the.bubble) and it has become quite popular. It’s great because I get instant feedback from fans through their comments and “likes” which has helped me figure out what they find funny. My style is hugely influenced by you Jim and the other great cartoonists I grew up with like Jim Davis, Bill Watterson, Rick Griffin and Gary Larson. I’ve borrowed bits and pieces from my favorite cartoonists and incorporated them with my own techniques to develop my style (still working on it!). I’ve read most of the cartooning books out there and the one that has helped me most in understanding what makes a cartoon work as far as composition, captions and style is “Cartooning: The Art and the Business” by Mort Gerberg. Also, you must get “Exploring Calvin and Hobbes” the NEW book from Bill Watterson’s exhibit at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library which shares his original artwork, tools and inspiration. Thanks for passing on your knowledge Jim, you are one of the best!!

  6. I think your advice sounds great! The only thing I would add is, maybe reassure the young man that there are universities and colleges in Canada that teach drawing and cartooning as well. Attending an American college is beyond the financial reach of most Canadians.

  7. I am not a cartoonist but I think that all of your advice is great. There is one minor detail that you may want to go in to a little more detail…..collaboration. Don’t be afraid to get some help. A lot of cartoons are joint ventures. One person may specialize in humor and the other is the great artist. I’m not exactly sure how that works with Zits, but I do notice two names on the credits. And you should probably settle on one style of hu

  8. This is a continuation of the previous post. The gremlins are busy at work in my computer. “And you should probably settle on one style of humor. What suits your fancy? Irony, sarcasm, day-to-day observations, politics, double entendre, or my favorite —- puns?

  9. I think this is great advice. I got into the Joe Kubert School of Cartooning and Animation, but did not attend due to finances. But I did end up drawing a webcomic. I studied a lot of artists, including you and Bill Watterson. I would copy a Zits character in your style, and then tweak it until it felt like “me.” Sketching and drawing everyday did more to improve my artistic ability than anything else.

  10. Well said, old friend! I frequently offer the same advice to the up-and-comers who cross my path.
    Cal-Arts is indeed a worthwhile mention.
    Glad to see that you are still as ‘craft-engaged’ as ever! 🙂

  11. If I could add one thing it would be this…while you’re perfecting your artwork style don’t forget to perfect your ability to tell a story, a pun or a gag. A comic artist is a comedian on paper. If your gag falls flat, the best artwork in the world won’t save it. While you’re studying the comics of others, look at your favorites and see how they create their character’s dialogue. Look at the timing of their jokes. Yeah I know it takes some of the fun out of it when you start having to look at them analytically. But if you want to be the successful you can’t go wrong learning from the best….(Jim Borgman and Bill Waterson come to mind, plug, plug, plug). The characters of Zits and Calvin and Hobbs are tight and clean and yet so fluid it seems as if they could walk right off the page. But it’s the character’s dialogue that draws you from frame to frame. Okay I’ll shut up now. Best of luck to you Jacob and who knows it may be you we’re reading on Sunday morning.

  12. My usual go-to for reading “Zits” and several others online (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) seems to not have them anymore. Weird. Anyway, so I came here to get my daily fix, and thought to check a few of the archived blogs, and saw this! I’m a Kenyon graduate also (’04) and so is my hubby (’02)! “Zits” has been a favorite of mine for years and I was so thrilled to discover that I shared my alma mater with you! As for your advice, for what it’s worth I think it is spot-on, and I think it’s great that you’re engaging with young artists in this way! And encouraging them to go to Kenyon 😉

  13. Hi Jim,

    My wife loves to draw and she especially liked those Zits strips showing the in-process panels. She got a lot of enjoyment out of carefully copying each one, trying to mimic your style. She would love to have hundreds more. This brings me to my real question, have you ever considered writing a book on how to draw cartoons? I suspect it would develop have quite a following.

  14. Hi,

    I am drawing since I was 16, I have published comic books and comic strips and other type of books away from comics. How to learn to draw comics is interesting, but in my early years I sent my strips to 200 newspapers. No newspaper wanted them. Tough business, there is no space for everybody but social media and a good website can make your work grow up. I am from Europe, my favourite character was always Tintin, later I discovered the American comic strips and I love Blondie, Dennis the Menace, Zits, Doonesbury… mainly. Good luck to those aspiring artists.

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