Amherst Magazine

How to Write a Comic Strip

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[Comics] Get Fuzzy cartoonist Darby Conley ’94 interviewed FoxTrot cartoonist Bill Amend ’84—whose anthology The Best of FoxTrot came out in November—for the Amherst Reads online book club. Here is a condensed version of that interview.

DC: You did editorial strips for The Student when you were at Amherst.
BA: I cut my teeth on drawing cartoons under deadline pressure. In those days, [The Student] came out twice a week. I would go in after I finished doing my homework, show up at maybe 9 p.m. and start brainstorming. I’d get my strip done at 2, 3 in the morning. Because I was already awake, I’d end up pulling an all-nighter helping finish the layout and paste-up of the paper itself.

DC: When I was starting college, the greatest thing about The Student was that it had two full pages of all six dailies for that week of you[r strip], Calvin and Hobbes and—was it?—The Far Side.
BA: For a few years I had The Student as a client paper. It was really cool to feel like I was suc­cessful enough that my own college paper would want to run me. [My freshman year, The Student] started using me to do logos for the arts page. I turned in these weird cartoons. Sophomore year, they let me be a recurring editorial cartoonist. I did cartoons about campus issues—some quasi-political jokes that weren’t particularly funny, but I was trying.

DC: When you first submitted a strip for syndication, was it a strip or a panel?
BA: It was a strip. My first idea for a strip was about a guy who goes off to a jungle and studies animals, and the animals all talk. It was a lot like Bloom County—Michael Jackson jokes and things like that. And as is typically the case, I got Xeroxed rejection letters from all the syndicates. I tried again, because the last rejection letter had a little encouragement at the bottom: Your art’s not so bad, and your writing’s not so bad—we just don’t like the idea.

DC: When I first got it in my head that I would be a syndicated cartoonist, I sent you some samples. I only understand now how remarkable your response was: it was literally two pages via snail mail. You sent an amazing point-by-point recommendation. I do remember a phrase you wrote: “Newspaper syndicates need another talking-animal strip like they need a hole in the head.”
BA: I guess I was wrong.

DC: Tell me about your writing process. [Writing a comic strip] actually is hard writing: the deadlines, the weird abstractions.
BA: Hard? What are you talking about?

DC: Oh, that’s right. You use the Family Circus comic generator online. The Internet has saved you.
BA: I generally work with a legal pad and a ballpoint pen and just doodle out words and thumbnail sketches. I actually have a Get Fuzzy calendar up in my office right now. I’m stealing my ideas from you.

DC: Are you ever going to work on any other writing projects?
BA: I’m trying. I have a friend in the children’s book industry who has been kindly encouraging me to write something that she can then reject. I have an idea I really like. It’s just a matter of being happy enough with what I’m producing that I want to share it with people. Tell me what you’re working on, come on!

DC: I didn’t sleep last night, just getting the daily strips in. I screwed myself early on—you might have even told me this in the letter—[by choosing] a really detailed drawing style. Oh, I’m paying for that now.