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How Dr. Seuss Turned Me Into a World-Famous Cartoonist

"That's baloney! If all you do is dream your dream day after day after day, you will get nothing. Get up and do something about it, and any dream that you have can come true."

[Editor's Note: Gilchrist, first cartoonist for the Muppets and the artist who does the Nancy syndicated newspaper comic, keynoted the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association conference, May 8, 2004. He is a life-long resident of Canton, Connecticut. These notes are taken from his speech.]

Writers want to take the art from their heart and make it into their business.

Family of 8 kids, nobody had gone to college, my dad is an upholsterer--he made his living turning something that didn't look very nice into something beautiful.

The first notice I got was I could draw the characters I saw on TV, very small and in black-and-white. I loved Woody Woodpecker because he was nuts. I could draw Woody for a nickel. We got two-and-a-half channels. The two channels that came in really good were soap operas or old movies with Barbara Stanwyck kissing somebody. Doesn't work for a nine year old boy. Watching TV was a 2-person operation. That half a channel would come in for five minutes every other Thursday. You had to beg for rabbit ears--it looked like an alien eating our TV. And if you reached behind, to the nuclear reactor, your mom would yell from three houses away, 'get out, you'll get electrocuted.' I would hang the rabbit ears out the window, and my brother would describe the action, for seven minutes, and then we'd switch.

In those days, baseball was baseball cards and the radio. When a player was up, we'd get out his baseball card. There was no black, no white in Canton. Everybody was just poor. I had two Dr Seuss books, didn't know about libraries, had a bunch of the 19-cent Golden Books, and a ton of comics. I wanted to be either an artist and storyteller or a fielder for the Boston Red Sox. But I ran like I had a Steinway on my back.

When I was 8 years old, in 1967, we took a field trip to a festival of children's literature at St Joseph's College (near Hartford). I saw a city for the first time. They had put paintings of these amazing illustrators all over the walls. We all went into an auditorium and a whole bunch of writers stood up and amazed me. I was blown away. I knew none of these people. They stood there and shared their art, and for the first time I realized that one person could change the world, one person could make things beautiful.

At the very end of the day, a guy came out that I did know. It was Ted Geisel, Dr. Seuss. The first thing he did was draw his cat. He talked about five minutes. I don't think he liked to talk, but he did. I was all the way in the back. And when Dr Seuss came out, he looked about that big (holds fingers one inch). But his words were enormous: "Has anyone ever told you that if you have a dream, and if you dream the dream long enough, it can come true?" I thought he was talking right at me--and so did everyone in the room. Then he says, "That's baloney! If all you do is dream your dream day after day after day, you will get nothing. Get up and do something about it, and any dream that you have can come true." I wrote a poem, years later, writing to him and telling him the effect he had on me.

I started drawing for a living when I was 14.

Later, I was working for Weekly Reader and I knew Mort Walker, who did Beatle Bailey. Jim Henson was looking for a cartoonist. A great actor, storyteller, creator--but he couldn't draw. Mort suggested I go out for it, and a year later, I got the job.

I was famous overnight. I had been writing these books about Mudpie and writing these poems, and every publishing house let me know they'd be having a much better day if I hadn't shown up. But I'm drawing a pig, a frog, and a bear, and I'm in Time, Newsweek. For five years, I tried to sell my first book. I wrote to Dr Seuss and said if you told me I stink, I'll listen. Told him the story of hearing him speak. His story was similar. He drew cartoony, and no one thought cartoons in a children's book would sell. His roommate in college pulled To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street out of the garbage and published it with a university press. He wrote me back with three pictures of the Cat in the Hat, inscribed, "All cats love Mudpie," "All cats love Punkin" (Mudpie's sister), "Keep it up, Ted." It made it a lot easier. I wrote a poem for Seuss called "Dream It, Then Do It."

I sold four books for promotional publishing. It was the lowest of the low, but they got it in everywhere and sold five million copies. And everyone at Random House, Macmillan, said oh I'm sorry, come work for us. [Gilchrist then read a cute Seussian poem about excuses for not doing homework].

I draw with a brush and a pen in ink, on cardboard, and we scan it and send it in, and they proof it and send it all around the world. When you add the papers that run Nancy, my poems, my religious feature "Your Angels Speak," I'm in 1000 papers.

I get emails all the time, "Man, I've been at this for six months and nothing is happening." When you've been doing it for another 29 years, then come talk to me. Is it oxygen for you? If it is, then you'll make it. The prize is not selling millions of books. Your life is the prize. That's the gift, the gift of tomorrow. God promises you tomorrow. Make the most of today and each one of your tomorrow, amazingly great things will happen in your life. I've learned tremendous things from adversity, I've had a ball when I've been on top--and I'm one of the few people I knew in high school that did what I wanted. You don't have corporate security, but you have a happy heart. Before I was doing this for a living full time, I was working as a cook and trying to sell my stuff, and I had a happy heart then too. Just knowing that someone would give me an appointment just to turn me down meant one less no I had to face tomorrow.

Gilchrist's comments during the question period:

When I decided to take the "Night Lights" poems and make them into a comic strip, no syndicate would take them. They said it's not like 1910, you're nuts. I really thought it was a good idea, though. But I approach everything as a child, an innocent, that I know nothing. I went on the Internet and looked up the ways to find the newspaper editors themselves. Then I found a partner, using my 20 years experience as a syndicated cartoonist. I didn't let the "Nos" affect me. I started my own syndicate, paid someone to make the calls, and when they couldn't close, we made the calls ourselves. We had 100 papers and became the most successful self-syndicated feature. Then I sold it to a syndicate.

I'm subversive; I believe in God. When I created the angel series, an editor said "How fast was the truck going that hit you, that you think someone's going to read a religious pretty angel?" I'm in 50 papers now.

There's a difference between not taking no and smartening up. You might look for another approach. I have gone every way around and through to create a market for what I'm trying to sell.

Balancing business and creative time: I schedule it. You have to look at what part of the equation has the most fluidity. I used to be a night guy, midnight to 4, I had to turn into a morning guy, working 4-10, to be available to editors. You're going to have a lot of bad days, and you've got to find a way to separate selling yourself and your art from the art itself. You're going to build your own walls. I talk to people who say they can't get appointments--but they aren't making the sacrifices. The mountain isn't coming to you.

When did you learn you could draw? At 3 years old, I drew Mighty Mouse on the wall. My mom spanked me but she left it up. I never was in a formal art program. In about 9th, 10th grade, I went from copying comic books to writing to art schools and asking for their curriculum and brochures. Then I went to the library, to bookstores, bought the books, and I'd practice every night when I wasn't doing homework--I found out I needed to speak well, to do math, so I had to well ins chool. It's not where you go, it's who you are. You can be a real jerk going to Rhode island School of Design or Pratt, and you can be unbelievable going to Paier College of Art, in Hamden. Go to the local art students league and find out where the life drawing classes are, you throw $5 in the kitty to pay the model. It was always my opinion that the more I knew, the more employable I'd be. I learned to write by doing comic books for Weekly Reader. They had an advisory council that would oversee all the books. I went to them with my manuscripts and said "what am I doing right and what am I doing wrong." When they told me what I had was appropriate and marketable (not the first time), then I went out and started marketing my work.

I look at doing Nancy as babysitting an icon. The strip started in 1922. I was asked to take over the feature because it had gone astray from what it had begun. The syndicator came to me and said will you write this the from the perspective of entertaining children, as [strip creator] Ernie Bushmiller did. If anything, I was going to give it more warmth, more of a family feel. Nancy was copyrighted and trademarked many years ago by United Features, it was always a work for hire. My first original strip was a work for hire. Ernie had no heirs to convert the copyright, and it was up to them . I can use the feature as long as I give the copyright credit. In my contract, there are things I can and can't do, but I pretty much have total freedom to use Nancy in whatever way I feel is in good taste.

Guy Gilchrist's website is http://www.gilchriststudios.com


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