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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Cup of Ambition: The Cartoonist

We've all heard it before, at dinner parties, from relatives, from our therapists: "Oh, you write. Does that mean you'll be a teacher?" Fine, fine. We can't make enough money to "eat" or "live" from our poetry. Every MFA graduate knows the horrible feeling that settles into her stomach as graduation approaches. You finished a whole book!, you keep telling people. And still, no prospective employers come a-calling. Here at HFR, we know how you feel. We thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at some jobs we writers and lovers of books might enjoy. Or do enjoy. Or have tried, and regret. This regular post, A Cup of Ambition, will talk to those in-the-know about what the working world is really like. (To see our previous interviewees, click here.)

My name is Julia Wertz, my place of employment is 5 feet from my bed, sometimes in my bed, and my job is cartoonist, writer and creator of The Fart Party.

How did you get started?
I didn’t have money for a birthday present for a friend one year so I randomly drew her this comic about a hobo spider because I’d just started reading graphic novels. As soon as I finished, I knew making comics was what I wanted to do with my life. For a few more years I continued waiting tables and publishing comics online and with a small press publisher but eventually one of them fancy New York agents started hounding me. I resisted her for awhile and eventually gave her some comics just to make her go away. She sold them to a major publisher and now here I am, living in Brooklyn and making comics as a career.

I know I’m really lucky to get to do this as a career, especially when I didn’t really peruse it, it kind of perused me. But then again, it’s not like it’s incredibly lucrative, I basically live on a teachers wage and there’s no stability in the job whatsoever but I’m just really grateful that I don’t have to wait tables anymore. I have this reoccurring nightmare that I’m working at a restaurant and my section is too full and we just ran out of all the food, and then I wake up and I’m crazed with relief that I don’t ever have to deal with that in real life. Well, at least not that day.

The Good Stuff
a) That I love it. I can work on comics all day, every day and be totally content. I actually sit at my desk working pretty much from after breakfast until I go to bed. Nothing in “real life” makes me happier than looking at finished pages.
b) I don’t have to wear pants

The Bad Stuff
Work wise, the hardest part is probably the physical outcome of working all day on comics. I have horrible posture, my back always aches and my eyes are bloodshot all the time. But it’s a lot better than waiting tables so I can’t complain. I don’t really dislike any part of making comics though.

I dislike parts of going to comic conventions though, which isn’t directly related but is an side effect of the career. No one HAS to attend conventions but it’s just a Good Idea to help build an audience, and I do really enjoy hanging out with other cartoonists. What I don’t enjoy is sitting behind my work all day, begging people to buy it. There’s something very awkward and uncomfortable about that.

Surprise Me
It actually very rarely make fart jokes. Sure I make a few here and there, but people are often mislead by the title so they leave comments or send me emails that are like “I like farts too! braaap!” and I’m like “uh, I don’t really like farts, I just think they’re funny sometimes.” Sometimes I wish I had named the strip something else but I’m stuck with it now.

Spin a Yarn
The first time I went to New York to meet my publishers was a hilarious debacle. I felt all grown up and responsible, but on the subway there, my pen burst all over my clothes and then I threw up in a trash can. I left the address and my wallet at home so I had to call my mom and have her google it. Then I had to buy a really ugly lime green shirt to replace my ink stained one. I showed up late and all frazzled and I sat there in the lobby of the Random House building looking like a street urchin while everyone around me was all smartly dressed and professional looking. Later I tried to go to the bar to drink away my day but I didn’t have any money or an ID, so I had to walk back to Brooklyn. That was my introduction into the world of major publishing.

Who makes a good cartoonist?
Personality traits needed to be a cartoonist most like would include anti social behavior, immaturity and the ability to laugh at oneself. You spend long hours alone so you have to be comfortable with solitude. Also, people are going to criticize your work because it has more than one element to pick apart (art and writing) so you have to have a thick skin. A hearty dose of self depreciation is always good, but don’t over do it. No one likes a whiner.

Thoughts about this job for writers...
Writing for comics is really different than writing for books or short stories. Many of my comics start out as short stories, but in order to turn it into a comic, you have to be willing to cut out a lot of good parts in order to pair it down into just a few boxes. If you’re really into flowery rhetoric and run on sentences, comics probably isn’t for you. You have to be straight and to the point, or if the intention is to be vague, you still have to be very selective about how many words you use. You have to be a strong editor to be a good cartoonist. You also have to be a good writer. People often mistakenly think that comics is just a mediocre output of both writing and art, like “hey, I cant’ draw or write real well but I like doing both so I’ll just be a cartoonist” which isn’t true at all. Comics, unless art comics specifically, is centered on how strong the story and writing is. Without good writing, there is no comic. There’s just a poorly executed drawing on paper.
Something people often never stop to consider is that even a page, or an entire book, of only images of comics, no words, is still pure writing. The story has to be planned and the illustrations have to take the place of the words. If the writing/structure of the story fails, so does the art. A really great example of a really well told story without words is Tom Neely’s The Blot. It’s an entire graphic novel without words, but with beautiful illustrations but at it’s core, it’s about the story. It’s a hard thing to do, and can easily backfire, but The Blot is a great example of one done well. No matter how good the art is, if the writing isn’t strong, the comic is either bad or mediocre at best. This absolutely does not work the other way around.

Advice for someone interested in becoming you?
Don’t do it.

Julia Wertz was born on the wrong side of the tracks in Northern California in 1982 to a preacher and a Sunday School teacher. Clearly something went wrong along the way to her becoming the creator of Fart Party vol 1 and vol 2 as well as the upcoming Twenty Five and Drinking at the Movies (2010). She currently resides in a tiny basement studio in Brooklyn, NY but wastes a lot of time on Craigslist looking for cabins in the Pacific Northwest. She doesn't own any house plants. You can read new comics thrice a week at


Isaac said...

Julia was also the editor of a fun anthology of short comics called I Saw You... that I'm happy to have contributed to. Good cartoonist; good editor.

Preena said...

Its strange how Julia says making comics as a career just sort of happened; her work makes me think she was always meant to be a cartoonist. I love the Fart Party!

carbomb said...

I spent a good few days hiding out at my job and JUST reading the Fart Party from start to finish. And I don't read comics. It's difficult to describe just how fantastic Julia is.