Cartooning 101 — We Try Less Harder

I get a lot of questions from people trying to do their own comic strips.  Questions about how to come up with a concept for the strip, how to develop  characters, write jokes, blah blah bladdity blah.

So now and then I thought I’d post random cartooning advice for those who might want it.  

One small caveat:  I’m sort of an idiot.  (Of course, I have managed to get out of a job as a lawyer and now sit around in my monkey underwear, so I must be doing something right.)

My first piece of advice is on writing jokes, and I’ll use yesterday and today to illustrate this point.  Yesterday, I spent four hours writing strips.  They all sucked.  They sucked because I was trying too hard to be funny. 

Today I wrote for a few hours and got 9 strips out of it.  The difference:  Today I didn’t try so hard.

Here’s how you know when you’re funny:  The ideas seem to flow from you naturally, almost without work.   You’re more of a witness to it than a creator of it. 

Another caveat:  Sometimes the stuff that flows from you will be crap.  And that voice inside your head will lie and tell you it’s good.  That’s a risk you must bear.

But as a general idea, good jokes will pop out right before your eyes, like bunnies from a stream (I know what you’re saying — I’m good at analogies).  

You know this is happening because your reaction will be, “Someone MUST have done this before.”  (By the way, you’ll also get that feeling when you’re stealing ideas from The Far Side.) 

So, the lesson today is this:  Don’t put effort into your work.  It might show.


33 thoughts on “Cartooning 101 — We Try Less Harder

  1. Hmm that’s some great advice! I write this “strip” called Attack of the Stick People that I just write for fun and I’ve always thought there was something wrong with it. But I think you just explained my problem. And you are the master of analogies.
    If it makes you feel any better, I’m sort of an idiot,too. If you don’t believe me, ask my friends. They all think I’m an idiot.

  2. Ah, the stuff that’s usually found only in the Treasuries!

    I do find it funny that your advice is to not trying so hard, especially since you often say your about 10 months ahead of schedule (much more ahead of schedule than your fellow cartoonists).

    It almost seems counter-intuitive 🙂

    I look forward to more segments of Cartooning 101

  3. Works for me – the week that I was running out of time and dashed off some ideas to my editor was the week that he said to me “Alex, this is a GREAT batch.”. Despite, or because of my best efforts, it hasn’t happened since then.

  4. Pingback: Pastis’ comic writing advice: Don’t try so hard | The Daily Cartoonist

  5. (By the way, you’ll also get that feeling when your stealing ideas from The Far Side.)

    First off, it’s ‘you’re’, not ‘your’.

    Second, I’ve only done that about fifty times, so suck it.


  6. Great advice! After 30 years of writing sitcoms (and a few months of cartooning), people always ask me the same question. One highway to funny is to NOT allow yourself to write. You can’t punish yourself into being creative. That never works. Step away from the computer! Go to the beach (but take pencil and paper just in case). Karyl

  7. Pingback: Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Feb. 9, 2009: Some sort of sports bra

  8. This is great advice couched in very funny terms—bunnies from a stream! I am still laughing at that and I read this days ago.

  9. NOW he frickin’ tells me……… 😦

    ha it’s true…the other day I was practically constipated with frustration and nothing was coming out funny.
    Then after a hefty swig of ” STOP Fretting so much”.
    I churned out many gags that day…
    hmm..NOT the best analogy, but you get the picture…

  10. I’m trying to create a comic strip and would love to ask a few questions. What kind of paper do you use? Does if matter, now that everything is digital? What dimensions are newspapers looking for? What size do you draw Pearls? What about pencils/pens? I’ve been using mechanical pencils and micron pigma pens. Are these ok, or do professional cartoonist use something different? Do you do your own lettering or do you do it on Photoshop?

    I have a lot of strips “written” but very few have been successfully drawn. The reason being, my artistic abilities fall somewhere between cave drawings and stick figures. Any advice would be appreciated and, yes I have ordered The Saturday Evening Pearls.

  11. Larry needs Cuppa Joe (April 7,2009) kept me laughing for two days… so far. I used to lay in bed and call “Re Me Fill Me” for coffee in the morning. Drove my wife and kids crazy! Of course they are all gone now (I wonder why) so I moved the coffee pot into the bedroom.

  12. “Sometimes the stuff that flows from you will be crap.” — that line could be recycled into ads for various unmentionable (and quite personal) drugstore products.

  13. As a musician and the primary composer for my band, i wholeheartedly agree. My entire life i spent sitting and trying to create elaborate songs, but in the end, when when nothing’s happening and we’re all just sitting around throwing pennies at each other, the stuff that comes out of me is inevitably picked up and hailed as our next new song.

    Of course, with the same sort of comparison in mind, alot of it is still crap, whatever your brain says. Luckily for me, as a musician i can always just not play those songs – can’t really take back a comic strip. Sucker! haha


  14. Stephan Pastis, I am a huge fan, Pearls Before swine is the best comic strip of all time. I love it.

  15. Lately I’ve been writing comic strips for fun, and you’re strategy works!

  16. cool. I write a strip similar to Pearls it’s pretty funny according to my mother… What thats normal.

  17. “Don’t put effort into your work. It might show.”

    This is advice that I will apply to all of my work. Some of the best designs just come naturally to me. Don’t over think it, just flow with it.

    Oh, and by the way, I design nuclear power plants.

  18. I always feel like I’m stealing from The Far Side. It’s my little curse-to-bear. Hey! I just had an idea! But I’m probably just ripping off The Far Side.

  19. @TIM!: “25 or 6 to Four” ended up being a near-iconic song for Chicago, and it’s about trying to write a song. (Just in case that bit of trivia somehow escaped someone who lives in the music bizness…)

  20. I agree about usually finding that in treasuries. I always try to write good comics, but somehow, I always fail. I should probably read your blog more often.

  21. I tried to be a cartoonist back around 20 years ago, and realized I just didn’t have the drive to succeed at it. Some of my ideas were pretty funny, but I could never develop that loose style of drawing that a cartoonist has to have. It’s like I was trying way too hard at it instead of just having fun.

  22. Stephan, I am a great fan of Pearls. Woke up at 5 am thinking about crocs. What if grandparents from Africa came for a visit with lots of ideas about catching zeebas? They tell Larry to put up signs across yard “Zeeba migration route”. If that doesn’t work, “build a swimming pool because crocs can catch zeebas better in water. Invite neighbors to a pool party!” Crocs in Africa “ambush” zeebas. Larry needs camoflage to blend in to environment! … Stuff like that. I’m not a cartoonist, but I love your weirdness. Jim

  23. Hi Stephan, I love your strip and identify most with the pig and the goat. I hate the rat! I want the rat dead, I guess, because I work for lobbyists. If it isn’t too much hassle, I had a question about starting out as a cartoonist. When you started out how did you manage to work at a full time job and draw? With writing, a person can do that anywhere, on the bus, etc., and i love writing and I’ve been writing jokes for my strip and working on the characters and enjoying it very much because i can do that part anywhere and not feel tied down. However, after working mostly at a desk all day, the last thing I feel like doing after work is to sit down and draw. When you were starting out drawing Pearls, how did you handle the mental/emotional part of getting yourself to sit down and draw after working all day?

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