The Birth of a Comic Strip

From the day I syndicated my first strip I made a promise to myself – I would quit as soon as I ran out of things to say. So in 2001, nine years after selling my first panel, I retired Sidewalk Bubblegum. I simply ran out of things to say, or wanted to say, in the comics medium. For me cartooning was a means to an end. I had ideas I wanted to express in comic form and drawing them in one to four panels, on a square layout, was the format I chose. I had no desire to draw cartoons for the sake of cartooning. It’s not a passion of mine or my identity. If you ask me to define myself professionally, cartoonist would be one of the last things I would come up with. I’m much more likely to refer to myself as an illustratorbranding expertlogo designerpackage designer, web designer, storyboard artist, SEO and web marketing specialist, or a writer, than a cartoonist.

This is not to say I’m not passionate about cartooning itself. I have very strong opinions about what makes a comic work or not, about the field of cartooning, and the politics and economics of the industry. I have complete respect for the comic medium and I’m a huge comics fan myself, it’s just that unlike many other cartoonists I don’t HAVE to do it. Nor do I WANT to make it my career. For me it’s just one of many ways to express ideas. In the past I’ve expressed myself through my own television shows and performing and recording with my band. More recently I’ve really enjoyed writing and have set up several blogs to explore parenting and fatherhood, email spam, domain names and my life as a graphic designer. Each medium allows me to create in a way that is fundamentally different than the others. But to understand why it was so easy to just walk away from my strip, perhaps we need to start from the beginning.

young cartoonist sample age 3 and 4

In The Beginning…

I’ve always been passionate about art. However my preschool work was indistinguishable from most other kids. I’ve looked back through the stuff my mom kept from when I was 3 and 4 and it’s not remarkable. It doesn’t suck, but it’s exactly what you would expect from a preschooler.

Starting in kindergarten and into first grade my work took on much more detail and purpose but was still mostly unremarkable. I look at the work my six year old daughter and her classmates do and mine would fit right in. Sure, maybe it would be on the upper end of complexity and composition for my age group but nothing that would make a normal parent sign me up for lessons or shell out the big bucks to send me to private school for the arts.

young cartoonist portfolio age 5 and 6

By the time I hit second and third grade though it became clear I was pulling away the other kids. My work grew exponentially better with each passing year. I just didn’t do it for “fun”. True, I absolutely loved to draw and create but it went far beyond that – I was on a mission to get good. What I would do with this skill once I got good was a mystery to me. It also wasn’t the point. The point was to get good.

I was developing my skills through what is now called deliberate practice; that is practice with purpose. That means I just didn’t doodle, I was in training. I would draw with a specific goal in mind and during the process I would evaluate myself and my progress. I’d make mental notes on what was working and what wasn’t. If I was weak in a particular area I would study, practice, review, and repeat until I figured it out. Many people are quick to dismiss the hard work by claiming I was just “born with it”. That somehow I popped out of the womb understanding perspective and anatomy and how to work with a pen. While I won’t deny that I probably had a genetic predisposition and an innate artistic sense, the truth is I just worked harder than anyone else I knew.

young cartoonist portfolio age 9 and 10

My grandmother picked up painting late in life and got pretty darn good, but for her it was more of a hobby. I’ve seen my mom’s work from college and she was also talented but never pursued it as a career. My sister and especially my brother were, and still are, better than average in drawing abilities, but they didn’t pursue it with the relentlessness that I did. If you look at some of our earliest work from comparable ages you could easily confuse whom did what. When I look back, it seems that it was my complete devotion, passion and desire to be the best artist possible that made me different than the other members of my family. Without that component, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. I simply would have done something else. I know that’s not as fun and mysterious as being a given a “gift”, but it’s a fact.

Putting My Allowance Where My Mouth Is…

While other seventh graders were asking for skateboards and bikes for Christmas I was asking for a drafting board and a decent light. While others spent their allowance on toys and candy, I bought books by Frank Frazetta and Boris Valejo and studied the wonderful sci-fi paintings in my  Terran Trade Authority collection. Later I fell in love with the incredible line work of David A Trampier while building complex worlds as a D&D Dungeon Master. Nearly every penny I had went to getting the materials I needed to pursue my passion. This has an effect. Anyone spending 15-20 hours per week in deliberate practice is going to see dramatic improvement. Who you are and what you pick is irrelevant – you are going to see improvement. Now if what you choose to devote yourself to also is a good match for your innate sensibilities then you’re really going to take off.  And that’s exactly what I did.

By age 12 my life drawing skills and pencil techniques were really coming together. My drawings were starting look much closer to how I imagined them in my head. In the beginning there is a huge gap between what you envision and what actually comes out on paper. However, I was now getting pretty close. By age 14 my work stared to look “professional” and from 15 on it was pretty tight.

This is an important point. Nobody just starts out good. You get good by overcoming an endless parade of challenges. A young artist’s mind is bursting with imagery that simply must be released but it’s frustrating because your skills just aren’t there yet. It’s this gap between what you see in your head and what you can actually execute that provides the fuel or point of failure for the young artist. Most will get discouraged, pull back and move their interests into other fields. However, some will hunker down until they get it. It’s the hunker down crowd that have a chance of making it a career. It took me 14 years before I had my first ah-ha moment. Here it is.

young cartoonist portfolio age 14

I remember this moment vividly. I remember what house we were living in, how my room was organized and exactly where my drafting board was set up. I planned this drawing out very carefully. I slaved over the shading to the point of overworking it. I put in just enough background to provide context. This was not an accident or an oversight. Not only did it not need it, I didn’t like drawing landscapes. Trees and grass were boring. Sure, I could knock out a killer twisted oak if I chose to, but what really interested me were people and creatures followed by weapons, armor and spaceships. Painting a setting sun behind a breaking wave or sketching a pristine lake at the foot of a snow caped mountain was not something I was ever going to do. Even for money.

Days later when it was complete I knew had reached a turning point. This drawing was different. The composition was more sophisticated. The anatomy and facial expressions more nuanced and believable. It finally matched what I saw in my mind.

So why was I willing to put in14 years of dedication to finally be able to accurately capture what I saw in my head? I have no idea and I suspect the answer is ultimately unknowable. However, I do know for certain that I never would have had the ability to pull off that drawing at age 14, or perhaps at any age, without the relentless devotion to my craft. Turns out all the cliche’s about practice and hard work are 100% true.

The next two years my skills would leap ahead with each new drawing. Improvements were no longer measured in years, it was now noticeable from month to month. It was like I had been driving with the parking break on and now it had been released.

Early drawings by Clay Butler age 14 and 15

When I look back at the best work from that period I don’t find a lot I would change. Sure, I could nitpick about some anatomical mistakes or a few tangent problems that slipped by me, but over all it still feels right to me. This is a source of pride, but it’s also a bit discouraging as it means I really haven’t improved that much since I was a teenager. My childhood work should look embarrassing but it doesn’t. And honestly, I just don’t have the patience to draw at that level of detail anymore nor do I think my eyes and fingers could take it. So I’m really glad I did it when I had the desire to spend 3 hours hand drawing 450 scales with a fine point technical pen on some freaky lizard warrior. I’m even more happy that I had the sense to save them.

School Daze…

My life from age 14 to 18, the period in my life where I saw the most dramatic artistic growth, is mostly a blur to me now. My family moved a lot. I went to two different juniors highs and three high schools across three states. From ninth grade on I lost interest in school and packed my schedule with as many art classes as possible. Usually two per semester. School was pretty easy so I could devote very little time to it and still pull mostly A’s. My policy from ninth grade on was to never carry more than one Pee-Chee folder for my entire high school career.

If, on the first day, a teacher told us that we would need to keep a separate folder for the class, I immediately went to my counselor and transferred out. I had a plan and central to my plan was to shed myself of as much school bullshit as possible. Less school equaled more time to work on my projects.

During this time I also had to ‘train” a lot of teachers on my methods for coping with school. Most of the class I’d be drawing away, head down on a piece of paper. If I was handed a ditto sheet and we didn’t start on it right way, it soon had doodles all over the margins and once that filled up, on the back as well. Even tests would end up doodled if the teacher didn’t take it from me after I was done.

The training was the same every year. A new teacher would try to “catch” me not paying attention by calling on me out of the blue. I’d repeat back what they said verbatim, or answer their question correctly, and they’d never bother me again. Once they understood that I WAS listening and learning and that drawing was my way of relaxing they were cool with it.

9th grade sketch book

Art is a funny thing. Even if you’re really good it’s still considered a waste of time to many teachers and parents. On numerous occasions various teachers would keep me after class to give me the “talk”. It’s the “you’re so smart, why are you spending so much time drawing, you should be a doctor or lawyer” talk. What is it about the whole doctor or lawyer thing? Are these the only two professions that are worthy or require intelligence? It seemed so arbitrary. They could have picked any two professions but they always choose doctor and lawyer. One teacher was particularly worried about students going down the artistic path and gave the same talk to one of my friends as we found out after comparing notes. He too was smart and loaded with artistic talent, but hated school. Now my friend and I were pretty focused and stubborn so we though it was amusing, but I wonder how many artists have been discouraged by this same teacher over the years. And this is just one teacher at one school. Compound this discouragement with disapproving  parents (not mine, but in many other families) and a surprising number of petty, close minded art teachers that discourage creativity (to be graded down for creativity in an art class is truly an ironic experience), and it’s a wonder anyone goes down this path.

So when I told these “helpful” teaches that I had no interest in becoming a doctor or a lawyer and on top of it I didn’t like school, so ten years of college sounded like a nightmare to me, they gave me a puzzled look. It didn’t make sense to them. I pulled good grades, tested well, and participated in class, yet I didn’t like school. If fact, I kind of hated it on many levels. However I didn’t see the contradiction. You didn’t have to like something to do it well in it or to take pride in your accomplishments. I hated school, but I also didn’t like sucking at things. Therefore, I did well in school. And if I’m forced to be there I might as well participate a bit. Not only did it help pass the day but participation gives you a certain amount of control. And I liked control.

Part II – More High School Crap, Senior Year, Art Contests, My First Professional Gigs, and The Colorado Institute of Art

Coming Soon!

File Under: Working as a Professional Editorial Cartoonist, Selling and Promoting Your Comic Strip, Becoming Comic Artist, Comic Techniques, Comic Syndication, Working as Staff Cartoonist for Local Paper, Getting Started as a Cartoonist, Cartoonist Biography

Discussion (4)¬

  1. Donna says:

    Hi Clay,
    I’m just curious. I took some art classes with a phenomenal artist in high school (Arizona), by the name of Clay Butler & wondered if you were the same person. I’ve often wondered where his incredible talent took him in life & thought you might be him… Or just an odd coincidence of names. Your work is magnificent, by the way. : ) thanks! Donna

    • Clay Butler (The Sidewalk Bubblegum Guy) says:

      Yep, I’m that Clay Butler. And thanks for the kind words.

      • Donna says:

        Wow! Well, you have done very well for yourself since Mr. Sebring’s art classes! Lol! We sat next to each other in a few classes. I’ve dabbled… More so have specialized in soldering. Specifically, rhinestone jewelry. As mentioned, I’ve wondered from time to time… & it’s awesome to see all of the great opportunities you’ve had as a result of your creative drive. : )

  2. MadMax says:

    so did you guys meet up…or at least emailed each other frequently after this brief meeting….did you guys fall in love? : )


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