I’ve got another #DeadChuck coming out soon, but in the meantime, I’m taking a little trip back in time.
It was the summer of 1992, and I was a recent college grad, hell-bent on becoming the next Berkeley Breathed or Jim Unger. The comic strip I developed was called J.D. Spam and the Rowdies, and the name is almost as embarrassing now as the artwork – yech! Maybe one day I will dig up some of that old stuff and post it. Or not.
Anyway, it was set in a run-down college dorm, not too dissimilar from Pardee Hall from my college days. And of course, no dilapidated student residence would be complete without a highly sarcastic, philosophical rodent who lived in the basement. I named him Fitzpatrick because I liked the name, and I feverishly submitted sample after sample to all of the major syndicates for several years.
After endless rejection letters, I decided to phase out the college motif and replace it with something more mainstream, thinking maybe Doonesbury had the corner on the “started on a college campus” storyline. I changed the setting to suburbia, where Fitzpatrick was a thorn in the side of Mr. and Mrs. Homeowner (I can’t recall their names) and their cat. Fitz become this mashup that was one part Garfield, one part Three Stooges, and one part something else.
The truth is, I never knew exactly what Fitzpatrick was, and that was evidently clear on the day I got “The Most Important Call in my Life that I Completely Screwed Up.”
It was early in 1995 and I was working at a financial firm, writing client letters on the various ups and downs of stocks and bonds, because nothing says “creative guy who wants to draw cartoons for life” like writing about the yield-to-maturity of the long bond. Anyway, one day, out of the blue, our office administrator pulled me out of a meeting and told me that there was a phone call for me… someone by the name of Jay Kennedy.
Jay Kennedy… Jay Kennedy. Think, Downs. Why does that name some familiar?
OH! THAT Jay Kennedy! He was only THE Managing Editor for King Features, one of the biggest cartoon syndicates in the world!* He HAD to be calling about my most recent submission. This was it! I still remember that feeling, like purpose and opportunity had crashed together to create destiny! I was so excited! I was going to get to do what I loved for my JOB! How cool was THAT?
If I was confident and optimistic between the ears, I was nervous as hell on the phone. He was such a polite guy. He really liked my artwork (I had been practicing!), but he wasn’t that hot on my storyline. He didn’t like that Fitzpatrick was so acerbic and occasionally physically abusive to others in the strip. Maybe this is why I love Pearls Before Swine so much… Stephan Pastis’ Rat is everything I wished I could have figured out Fitzpatrick to be.
Anyway, Mr. Kennedy asked me if I could rethink my angle. Could I do something more like Bloom County? A little more political? Also, the rat needed eyes (originally his nose was all you could see). I said I would try, and thanked him for the call. At 26, I didn’t know enough about politics. I didn’t exactly “pay attention” in Civics classes, and honestly I wasn’t mature enough to figure out how to seize this opportunity before me. Most cartoonists never get more than a form rejection letter, and I was fortunate enough to get a phone call with advice on what I needed to do in order to make the work more marketable. I responded with the professional equivalent of making the motorboat sound with your finger and lips.
Of course, I tried to tweak it, but it was half-hearted. The subsequent response from King was a rejection letter, but Mr. Kennedy had written a note in the margins, thanking me for trying. After that, I just got the standard rejection letter. That was the last time I heard from Mr. Kennedy. *
So close, and yet so far.
To pass the time and keep my drawing hand fresh, I ended up making Fitzpatrick an advocate of my favorite computer, the Apple Macintosh. Thinking about this some 20-plus years later, I wonder what might have been had I responded differently. Of course, I stayed at the financial firm for a few years, and Apple’s stock price was only about $1.25 back then. I think that if I put as much money into 1995 Apple stock as I spent on mailing cartoon submissions, I’d probably be doing ok.
Eventually, I got a gig drawing Fitzpatrick the Mac Rat for Mac Today (Thank you @ScottKelby), and it led to some additional opportunities with Mac Addict and Insanely-Great.com (Thank you Mike Flaminio @insanely_great). I’ve posted some of those old Mac cartoons below. You have to remember, this was the mid 90s, and the Mac vs PC debate was almost as hot as Trump vs Hillary. I was (and still am) squarely in the Mac camp, and while these jokes probably don’t age well, I still have a soft spot for Fitzpatrick.
*Sadly, Mr. Kennedy passed away in 2007. In the early 2000s, I was attending a licensing trade show in New York, and learned that he was on the floor in the King Features booth. I wanted to stop by and introduce myself, just to see if he would remember me. I missed him by 10 minutes.