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A Short Interview With Mark Heath
posted March 25, 2005
 

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Mark Heath launched the comic strip Spot the Frog in early 2004, part of a wave of a comic strips at least partially about animals that have seen some measure of success since the turn of the millennium. Heath's strip features a really loose, open art style and a gentle sense of humor. The cartoonist just launched a blog (link below), making him one of the more technologically friendly cartooonists out there as well. He was nice enough to agree to a short interview.

TOM SPURGEON: First of all, congratulations on reaching the one-year anniversary with Spot, as I think I heard that 1/3 of all strips launched don't make it that far. I don't want to pry too much, but how's the strip doing? Has it sold healthily, or is it still in that nebulous zone a lot of work ends up during the first few years?

MARK HEATH: I'd say it's doing fine. But I wouldn't rule out the nebulous description. This is my first strip and I can't measure Spot's progress beyond the obvious -- good feedback from editors and readers, I'm in about fifty papers, there's a Spot book coming out this fall or spring. I certainly feel nebulous, but that's nothing new. The world's always been a hazy and confusing business for me.

SPURGEON: How has your approach to strip changed over one year of doing it? Have you hit any of the burnout periods yet?

HEATH: The closest I've come to burn out is the idea that I need to please the readers first. You can burn down to a nub, wondering what someone else wants to read. When I remind myself that I'm the first audience, the burning goes out like a wet coal.

My approach to the strip hasn't changed, but I'm hoping it will. I still fuss over details, I still third-guess my words. I'd like to cross a threshold where my confidence triples and I trust my work more. A part of the problem is the subtle kibitzing of readers -- the comments I imagine, not the letters I read. If readers like this idea, this concept, this gimmick, will they like this new one as well? Before I signed the contract, I was merrily writing strips just for myself, confident in their charm. I have an idea that most of what I wrote was giddy self-amusement, a few edits away from being tossed or made workable. But I'd like to take a few steps back and regain some of that assurance.

imageSPURGEON: Tell me about your decision to do a blog, and what you hope to accomplish with it. Do you find being on-line has been an advantage in getting your strip before the public? I ask because so few strips seem to have a dependable presence on-line outside of the syndicate sites.

HEATH: I have a few goals with the blog. First I'd like to network with readers -- tossing one stone into my blog reaches anyone who cares to investigate the splash.

Second, I like the idea of airing my thoughts in public. Readers get a better idea of who I am, and so do I. It clarifies my thinking. With every comment or explanation I offer, I come closer to understanding myself -- and what I know -- a bit more. I don't mean that the blog is an ongoing therapy, a self-help book composed one page at a time. I mean it's a lens to focus my thinking. I'm not a linear thinker. The lobes of my brain are like those tops that spun around a plastic arena when I was a kid. I think the game was called Battling Tops. There's a lot of bumping and jumping in my head. And when a thought holds together and leaps up for attention -- or when two thoughts combine into something new -- that's a good moment for me.

Here's a blog moment. I used to believe in the Three Ls: to create a good strip, you needed Laughter, Likability and Location: Laughter to hook the reader, Likability to bring the reader back for the characters, and Location for the overall sense of place. But a few days ago I borrowed a clip from your site on how to get syndicated and put it on my blog. You pointed out that a beginning feature needs to be funny, while forever reminding readers of the premise and characters; as M.A.S.H did in its first few years. When I tagged on my commentary, I had a new thought and revised my Three Ls into the Two Fs: be funny, be familiar. In the scheme of things, it's a small distinction, to hopscotch from one set of letters to another. The game of semantics. But I love semantics. And it helps me understand how Spot the Frog works, or doesn't work.

SPURGEON: One thing I like about your strip is its all-ages approach. Can you talk about why you're doing that kind of strip in a world and on a comics page devoted to very politically driven, cynical humor? Are there antecedents that you look towards for the kind of strip you'd like to accomplish over the years?

HEATH: It's not that I'd hesitate to put cynical humor into the strip, or even politics, if it arose naturally. I have a toad character who's cynical, as most people would be if their defense against being eaten was to be eaten and spit out. But cynicism doesn't drive the strip. If I had to stand back and reduce the strip to its essentials, I'd say it's about the fantasy world of the frogs, bouncing against the reality of Karl's world. I love fantasy. I like being surprised. And the best way to bring that out in a strip -- well, in my strip -- is to give a wide-eyed innocence to the characters. Keep their eyes wide, let their imaginations expand, let impossible ideas seem possible..

I don't think of Spot as a kid's strip. At the moment it might be considered a Young Adult strip, in the way that a lot of novels are marketed as Young Adult. No one's fretting over mortgages or cheating spouses or sour workplaces (though Spot occasionally struggles to find a dime for the rent). But there are constants in life that apply to everyone -- hope, love, disappointment, anger, courage -- regardless of age. That's what drives Spot (and most strips, for that matter.)

By default I have a Pogo-like strip -- in the way that a rowboat might suggest an ocean liner because both can float and take on passengers. But few would confuse one for the other. And Peanuts -- my prime inspiration -- is so big I can't really see it whole. It's just there, informing everything I do. I don't like to compare my strip to others because it would be ridiculous -- I'm the flea dodging an elephant's foot. I'd rather hop onto the elephant's back and see how far I can go.

SPURGEON: Another thing I think is interesting about your strip is the older human lead, Karl. Can you talk about how you went with that character as opposed to a younger character, or even a female foil?

HEATH: Karl's a guy in his sixties because I'm a guy in my forties. I know that I'm still spouting nonsense and making mistakes, so it's hard to see the qualities I wanted for Spot's roommate in someone my age. I wanted a character who would take Spot's occasional mania in stride. I also wanted Karl to be fairly self-satisfied, without the need to beat his chest or cry in his beer. I needed a stable character to balance Spot and the other frogs.

And Karl isn't a woman because my imagination failed me. Over the years, I'd use the same technique to write a strip. I'd break my personality into bits and pass them out to the characters. Unfortunately, being lazy, I saw my fractured selves as male. There's no reason why Karl couldn't have been a woman. In fact, if I could flip a switch and revisit the strip in 2002, I'd change his gender -- namely because Karl is actually a reflection of my fiance, Mary, who provides the stability that keeps me on my feet. But I didn't catch on to this connection until the strip was launched and I was talking with a reporter. (Another example of why I write a blog: the interview was a blog-like moment. Whenever you answer a question, or juggle for answers, and you know your words will appear in print, you aim for the truth. You need to believe that you can stand behind your words. I think writing a blog demands candor and context and examination; otherwise it's just a brochure or a pitch.)

imageSPURGEON: Do you have any sort of handle on your audience yet?

HEATH: All ages. All genders. They seem to appreciate the friendship between the characters. Perhaps I should expand my Two Fs to funny, familiar, and friendly. I was watching Cheers the other night, and it was the familiar setting and companionship that impressed me the most. I liked the jokes, I love the show, but it's all context. Hard to imagine the one without the other two.

SPURGEON: I know you've written a book of advice on how to cartoon; what's the very first step for someone's that's been putting it off?

HEATH: My book was the primer of primers: my aim was to inspire readers to simply draw. To live and let live with the line they make. It's the rule I routinely break as I tweak and twist a line that no one will particularly notice. But my first and best advice to anyone who wants to be a cartoonist is to approach a cartoon as a mechanic approaches a car. Don't wrap yourself in the veil of the Muse. Don't swoon on to a couch and wait for inspiration to strike. Pull on a pair of ink-spattered coveralls and make yourself comfortable on one of those wheely things that let you slide under a car. Inspect the underside of cartoons. Stick your head under the hood. See how the cartoon works. Learn the parts. Subtract the mystery from cartooning and make it a skill, a hobby, and then possibly a business.

Second step: understand that rejection is inevitable, and rarely personal. And for what it's worth, remember that I was rejected 13 times by the syndicates. Rejection is the rain storm we work in. Being damp is routine, and cartoonists are frogs by default. Get used to the wet and keep submitting.

I have a favorite joke that describes cartooning and why I do it, despite the stress of deadlines and the club of self-doubt. A duck in a pond is asked if he likes the water. "I hate the water," he says. "But I hate the land more."

Cartooning, like any business, isn't easy. But it beats the alternative.

*****

Mark Heath's Comic Strip
Mark Heath's Web Site
Mark Heath's Blog

All art copyright Mark Heath