5 tips to be a successful cartoonist – with Ben Wicks

Last time, I mentioned that I set out to publish a syndicated cartoon six years ago. I was telling the story of going to famous cartoonist Ben Wicks’ office when I was in grade eight to get his secret formula for cartooning success. Armed with a tape recorder and my interview partner Kris, we grilled Ben Wicks. Well, I’ve gotta be honest – now that I’ve just listened to the tape of my interview, my grilling amounted to little more than a spark and a wisp of smoke…and I’m exaggerating about the smoke.

Photo of Ben Wicks, Kris Platts and Dan Soelberg

This photo was taken in Ben Wicks’ office after our interview. Pictured here are Kris Platts, Ben Wicks (as if he needs the desk sign!) and myself.

At any rate, Mr.Wicks was generous with his time and gave some great advice. I feel very fortunate to share my interview with Ben Wicks, who unfortunately died of cancer in 2000 at age 73. Without further ado, Here they are: Ben Wicks’ 5 key points to making a success of your cartooning ambitions:

#1: Bide your time

“I left school at 14. I worked in the market selling fruit. I’ve had 30 jobs since I left school. I have no degrees or anything else, so I’m an absolute idiot as far as education is concerned. The one advantage I had in education was that the education of life gave me the opportunity to meet people in various jobs. So from working with Irish labourers on the building sites, to being a milkman to working in the market to being a glider pilot, whatever, gave me the opportunity to experience various things. (…) Then I was a professional musician for nine years, came to Canada with my wife, ended up in Calgary, did a number of jobs and then one day decided that I’d send some cartoons off to the Saturday Evening Post, which was the top magazine at that time and was very lucky. They bought them and I began drawing for them. That’s how I got started.” I asked “How old were you then?” Wicks answered, “God, I was very old. I was 31, 32. So you’ve got lots of time.”

#2: Think of a cartoon as a four-act play 

“When you’re doing cartoons, try and think of a cartoon strip. A cartoon strip is really a small play. It’s a four-act play, that’s what it is. The first little picture that you draw is the first act, then the second act, then the third act, and then the final act when the curtain comes down. So, consequently it’s very important that you concentrate on the strip cartoon because what you’re actually doing is you’re writing very short four-act plays. The reason I say this is because the world of theatre and the world of film and the world of story telling is much more in need of people than the newspapers are in need of cartoonists. (…) The great value for you and why it’s essential that you think in the cartoon strip is that as you draw it you’ll be writing dialogue so it improves your English and it’s extremely important that you have a sense of what the language is about that you’re drawing in. So, with the cartoon strip, you’re not only writing dialogue, you’re writing a play. But you’re fitting the characters to the dialogue. Obviously, you’re not going to have the Queen of England say bugger off. She’s going to speak very swanky and posh. So you write that dialogue to fit her.”

#3: Write

“Many cartoonists turn to writing. And I would really, strongly advise you to not only continue enjoying the cartooning aspect, because then you have a terrific start on those that want to become play writes. I know you didn’t expect to hear this. You probably thought I was gonna explain this magic way you were gonna become a cartoonist. (…) Don’t set your sights on cartooning as a way to earn a living. It’s too much an empty world. (…) It’s fun to do. I’m not telling you to stop doing it. I want you to carry on doing it. But I want you to set your sights now on something beyond cartooning. (…) The one thing I found is I have lots of time to spare. I’d done the cartoon, y’know what else can I do? I mean, as a syndicated cartoonist, it appears in a couple hundred newspapers, but I don’t have to draw it 200 times. I only draw it the once and send it up to the syndicate and they do all the work. (…) But now I’m finding it much more satisfying to write my books. I mean, this is number 16, this book [motioning to his computer] and that’s 80,000 words.”

#4. Inspiration happens on schedule

“My work in cartooning is an hour on Monday mornings for the week. That’s all it takes. (…) I come in on Monday morning and I sit and stare at a few pieces of paper and I don’t do anything till then. You find as a political cartoonist there is so much happening in the world that it’s not difficult.” I asked, “Do you maybe lie in bed and think, hey I’ve got an idea?” “No, I do not!”, Wicks replied, “No, I don’t think of anything until I come into work. (…) If I’m really stuck for an idea, because you do work for deadlines, I do usually two politicians facing each other and I open both of their mouths, and I find you only have to stare at that picture for about one minute and then one or the other will say something stupid and you just write it underneath.”

#5. Marry a nurse

I asked Mr. Wicks “Did you have enough money to live on when you started?” Wicks answered “No. I was fortunate. This is the other thing that is very good information to give you. If you can, before you start thinking about earning a good living in cartooning, try and find a wife who’s a nurse who also has a good living.”

After the interview, Mr. Wicks led Kris and I to an enormous set of paper drawers where he slid one giant drawer open to reveal hundreds of original cartoons drawn on postcard-sized cards just scattered in heaps. This is how he kept his published work! It was an amazing treasure trove. He let us each choose one and signed them for us. I still have the cartoon…somewhere. When I got home, I drew a caricature of Ben Wicks and mailed it to him with a letter of thanks. He sent me back a hand written letter of encouragement. I cannot express what a wonderful influence Mr. Wicks has been on me. A true gentleman with a bursting heart of gold. He is dearly missed by all who had the privilege to meet him.

Hope you enjoyed this. Next time I’ll let you know how Ben Wicks’ advice has been invaluable to me and why I’m not currently cartooning for a syndicate. I’ll take you to the moment six years ago that led me to the path that I now find myself on. Until then, take care.