Because of the intricacies of the contract process involved with securing a syndicated cartoon strip, author Fred C. Rodewald does not go into much detail about opportunities for illustration jobs in that field. His October 1954 article in American Artist mentions only that, "salaried employment for cartoonist, illustrators, letterers and mechanical men" does exist in the syndicate business. Luckily for us, there has been plenty of documentation about this field, and we have the benefit of friends with expert, firt-hand experience.
When Noel Sickles gave up his strip, Scorchy Smith, it was because of a combination of "restlessness, deadlines, boredom and money," according to biographer Bruce Canwell. In an online excerpt of an interview from The Comics Journal #242, Sickles himself mentions that his salary at the beginning of his three-year stint on the strip was $47.50 per week. In spite of his managing to negotiate it to a respectable $125 a week, Sickles quit the strip in 1936 to pursue a career in magazine illustration.
For Sickles' life-long friend and admirer, Milton Caniff, sticking with the syndicates proved to be the road to spectacular success. The caption under this 1946 photo of the artist at work in his studio reads in part, "the young cartoonist earns $80,000 a year, and will do even better when he drops Terry [and the Pirates]."
Ten years later, the title of another article, this one actually written by Milton Caniff for Cosmopolitan magazine says it all.
Caniff wrote, "Today, 100,000,000 Americans follow at least one comic strip each day." Successful syndicated cartoonists like Caniff, Al Capp, Walt Kelly and many others were akin to Hollywood celebrities, earning top dollar for speaking engagements, appearing on newspaper society pages and were much sought-after by advertisers for product endorsements.
No wonder so many cartoonists dreamed of landing a syndicated cartoon strip!
I asked Tom Sawyer, who for a time chased the dream of a syndicated strip himself, if he could give me some idea of the threshold for success in this particular field of illustration. Tom replied, "Yes, back in the sixties, I sensed that even the second-rung syndicated guys (Howard Post, Bud Jones & Frank Ridgeway leap to mind) lived pretty comfortably -- not of course on the level of Mort Walkers, Caniff or Capp.
"Stan Drake had a lot of disposable income (which he mostly spent on sports cars), and of course Leonard Starr. John Prentice likewise lived very nicely. Though I can't nail it to the penny, my impression back then was that even the non-stars did $150-200 K per year, which, back then was fairly serious money."
How does all this compare to today? Perhaps someone who draws a modern day strip will give us some idea of the range of income a syndicated strip artist makes. But based on the mini-empires built by some current day creators like Jim (Garfield) Davis, there's no doubt that the potential for success is huge.
That potential attracts many hopefuls and, for their benefit, we are fortunate today to have the following expert advice (not to mention valuable reality check!) from Brendan Burford, Comics Editor of King Features. Brendan writes:
"King Features receives and reviews up to 5,000 comics submissions a year. We launch 2 or 3 new strips a year. The odds of getting syndicated right out of the gates are not good. We can usually dismiss a large percentage of comics submissions we see fairly quickly because so many submitters haven't done their homework on what a professional submission should look like or they simply have no talent for making comics. Often times our new launches are by a cartoonist who was already on our radar -- through years of submitting, or through notoriety in another branch of comics publishing. Sometimes, we have to pass on cartoonists are are very good or even firmly established because their strip is too similar to something already out there or their strip just isn't the right fit for a mainstream comic strip market."
"All of that said, we have a very open mind about what we choose to option for syndication. The next big strip could come out of nowhere and surprise us all. It's a great feeling when, as syndicate editor, you have that "a-ha!" moment upon seeing a strip that you believe will work. I've felt it several times now, and the results have been wonderful. Take a look at our three most recent launches: DeFLOCKED, OLLIE & QUENTIN, and ARCTIC CIRCLE. All three are very different from one another, yet I think each are great examples of what new strips are capable of bringing to the syndication market."
King Features submission guidelines can be found here.
Tomorrow: Comic Books
* My thanks to Brendan Burford and Tom Sawyer for generously providing their informed expertise for today's post, and to Michael Lark for sharing the Noel Sickles scans at top from his private collection.