Tony Carrillo went to his first national cartooning convention when he was 26 years old. Wandering around the convention floor, Carrillo was in awe of the cartooning heavyweights in his midst.
"I ran into Cathy. The Cathy," he says, referring to Cathy Guisewite, who writes the self-titled comic strip. "All of a sudden a cartoon was standing in front of me. It was just bizarre to be in that room and think that any second someone's going to notice me and kick me out 'cause they're going to realize I'm a fraud, I don't belong here, I'm just a kid who draws doodles."
Those "doodles" are known to the public as the cartoon strip F Minus, which appears daily in more than 150 newspapers, including those of major cities such as Boston, New York and Phoenix.
But, as newspaper subscriptions dwindle and printing presses are shut down, Carrillo and other cartoonists face a dilemma: What is the future of the comic strip without the printed page?
The humor in F Minus is bone dry. Carrillo describes a recent panel featuring vegetarian zombies.
"It has some standard-looking zombies wandering through a field and they're saying GRAINS! GRAINS! ... A lot of these are just kind of midnight ramblings. A lot of times I'll just sketch for hours filling pages with nonsense and then I'll go back and pull ideas out of that."
F Minus cartoons stand out on the funny pages because they follow a simple format: a single panel, one scene and one line of dialogue.
The Cartoonist's Path
Carrillo was an art student at Arizona State University when he started drawing for the student newspaper. At the end of his senior year, he won a cartooning contest sponsored by MTV and was given a six-month development deal.
Kyrie O'Connor is an editor at the Houston Chronicle, one of the papers that carry Carrillo's cartoons.
"I just like its quirky take on the world," he says. "There's no cute dog, there's no talking cat, but you know whatever you see there will surprise you and it's going to be funny."
F Minus is one of those "love it or hate it" kind of cartoons, and it generates a surprising volume of e-mail from readers. Carrillo divvies up all incoming messages into two folders — fan mail and hate mail.
"This guy was mad that I even existed," Carrillo says, reading a sampling of his hate mail. "'The F Minus comic strip has to be one of the most — if not THE most — moronic comic strips I've ever seen in my nearly 50 years of daily comic strip reading/observation. If you can't/won't dump him, could you at least move his strip far away from the crossword puzzle?'"
Comic Strips In Today's Economy
But the career of a professional cartoonist is anything but certain these days. Alan Gardner writes a blog about the cartooning industry.
"If newspapers fail, then newspaper comics fail," he says.
To cut costs, Gardner says, many papers have been reducing the number of strips they carry. Everyone in the comics world is looking to the Web for the next business model.
"But that doesn't provide a lot of security," says Gardner. "It's a tougher road than syndication."
Carrillo says he's not worried.
"I never planned on having this job anyway," he says, "I feel like every year I get to do this job is a gift. But I'm not fooling myself into thinking this is the kind of thing that can last forever."
For now, Carrillo says, his real work-a-day concerns are much more practical and immediate, like trying to figure out the funniest way to draw a vegetarian zombie.