Edison Lee begins 4 week trial at Winston-Salem Journal

John Hambrock’s, The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee, begins a four-week trial run at the Winston-Salem Journal starting today. The Journal has published a get-to-know you article about John (and his wife, Anne – a frequent commentor here) and his feature.

Hambrock, who is 44, decided in 1991 that he wanted to be a cartoonist and mentioned the idea to his wife Anne. “I caught her off-guard,” he said. “It was ‘How was your day?’ ‘Great, but I want to be a cartoonist!'”

But Anne was also a big fan of comics. “She used to check out prospective boyfriends by showing them Charles Addams (The creator of The Addams Family) cartoons and seeing how they reacted,” he said. “She’s a big comics fan, a big New Yorker fan, while I’m more of a Mad magazine fan.”

She is the colorist for Edison Lee, and also serves as a sounding board for his ideas for strips. “I run stuff by her, and she comes up with ideas too,” he said. “I tell her what I’m planning, and if I get a stare or hear crickets, I know it’s something I shouldn’t pursue.”

He made several attempts to get a strip syndicated throughout the 1990s, and a precocious boy who was a secondary character in one of those strips eventually caught his imagination and became Edison Lee, the central character in the strip that he finally sold to King Features Syndicate. He spent years honing the strip, which finally made its newspaper debut in 2006.

35 thoughts on “Edison Lee begins 4 week trial at Winston-Salem Journal

  1. Edison Lee, in my opinion, is by far the best of King Feature’s more recent offerings. However I feel it is being held back from success because of its often far too overt joust with politics. Some days I can’t tell if it’s trying to be an editorial cartoon or a political bumper sticker. With all of the political commercials and sound bites we’re going to be hit with over the next year, I’m afraid the promising Edison Lee is going to get ignored because it’s seen as more of the same, and by the time the election’s over, readers will grow tired of it. I’m a fan when the strip departs from its heavy-handedness, but turned away when it doesn’t. The Hambrocks would do well to note that the best politically-oriented cartoons for the comics page are not the ones that beat you over the head with a hammer but the ones that knock you over with a feather.

  2. Jeff,
    I greatly appreciate your input, and you certainly represent a legitimate type of comics fan. I’m glad you enjoy the non-political strips, we enjoy writing them. However, Edison tends to also have fans who only read it for the political content and like their political commentary to be as “edgy” or “in your face as possible. I would posit that the early success of Boondocks had a lot to do with how “in your face” it was. I have never found that strip to subtle in the slightest, yet it had many, many fans.

    If you really look back at all the Edison strips since last January, (and if you are a dailyink subscriber you can do that very easily) you will find that the strip’s focus is much more about the struggles of hardworking people in this economy and social satire on popular culture. Though Edison has a reputation as a political strip, there is seldom more than one overtly politcal strip each week and sometimes not even that. There are weeks (like this week’s current storyline) when there are no political strips at all.

    The social and political material in Edison comes mainly from being surrounded by “middle class” friends and relatives who have been getting the short end of the stick, both economically and politically, for a long time and they are mighty fed up. We have friends in the trades who are laid off regularly every time housing slows down and we also have friends with “white collar jobs” who get “downsized regularly. One friend has had 4 different jobs in 6 years – including a yearlong period where he couldn’t find any job at all and had to burn through a lot of investments. This is not because he is a bad employee – his prospects are simply shrinking constantly.

    We also know personally a lot of people who voted for this adminitstration and now feel duped and abused, both about the war and the economy. None of these folks are in the least lukewarm about their opinions and they welcome what they see as hardhitting strips.

    Often Edison will be subtle – occasionally it won’t.

  3. Hey Anne (and John)! I wish you and the strip well even though I’m on the “other side” of your political and environmental beliefs. Like Jeff, I prefer the non-political and non-environmental ones, but irregardless it’s your fan base that you need to entertain. I just think it’s refreshing and exciting to see a new strip working it’s way up in an otherwise declining market! I am very much enjoying watching your efforts succeed. Go get ’em! Best of luck! Keep us informed 😉

  4. Sorry, Rich, I enjoy the Edison Lees that focus on environmental issues, so you’re not like me there. I consider most of them to have been right on target.

    Anne, Edison Lee is definitely part of my DailyINK line up. I understand from what side of the spectrum the strip is developed, I’m just telling you as a daily reader and longtime newspaper strip aficionado that the overtly political strips haven’t worked as well as the others. On those days, it is far too much akin to Mallard Fillmore — not from the same side of the coin, of course, but too overtly political to be enjoyed. Unfortunately Mallard never seemed to have better strips interspersed between the overtly political ones, so it never caught on with me — even though I’m supposed to be a part of the strip’s target audience — so now what ever message the duck is trying to get across is lost to me. Boondocks’ success is also lost on me, and I’ve never appreciated Doonesbury. As for strips with political humor, Prickly City and Edison Lee and the original Bloom County (none of the Breathed sequels, though) are far better because of their creativity. And it’s the genius of creativity I see in so many of the Edison Lee strips that causes me to be disappointed when John settles for the cheap political shot or resorts to bumper sticker mantra. I’d hate to see The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee, which has often shown brilliance in and of itself, become as annoying as Mallard or as much of a drudgery as Doonesbury. May the Hambrocks always achieve “A” days and may your creativity always beat the deadline to the punchline.

  5. Jeff and Rich,
    Thanks so much for your kind words of encouragement and support. Your comments are inciteful and well reasoned. I did not mean to imply that we aren’t trying to hone our subltety skills or that some of the political strips have not been a little clunky. There have certainly been times when passion for a point of view leads to what could be considered shots. The point I was trying to make earlier though was that those types of strips have their fans too and we hear from them as well. Our ultimate goal is a well balanced strip that deals with absurdity and ineptitude from whatever quarter it may come. I personally hope we acheive the balance that all good social satirists have. In the early days some of our own viewpoints may have had too much presence – I think really good satire relies on true neutrality (as should good journalism) and should shine a lens on issues important to all.

    While most of Edison’s political strips have been aimed at the Bush white house, that is as much a result of the strip’s launch date as it is the easy target this administration has provided. Ironically, if John had gotten syndicated in 1991 when he first began this journey, there would have been jabs at that administration. (How many of you editorial cartoonists out there are secretly hoping for the most lampoonable characters to win the election just to provide you with easy material? Shame on you!)

    My favorite social satire strips, Pogo and the very early Bloom County – and even Doonesbury in the 70’s – blended a lot of non-political storylines into their message. While I understand your concerns, I don’t think John has any intent of letting Edison become a one-note tune. He has so many funny non-political storylines in the pipeline and really enjoys writing those just as much as political stuff – sometimes more.

    I should add that I keep John abreast of the goings on at the Daily Cartoonist and he really appreciates the commentary here. He’s just so crazy busy with the two jobs that the internet stuff falls
    largely to me.

  6. I think Edison Lee is a very good strip, cleverly written, and I wish it all the best, but the thing I like about it most is that it flies in the face of all the perceived wisdom about what to offer syndicates.

    Edison Lee is a bit Calvin and a bit Jimmy Neutron, and if we are to believe the experts, the syndicates would turn their noses up at a boy strip or even a boy genius strip because the premise is already well-visited.

    It’s been my contention for many many years that the comics pages would be better with ten well-written, modern kid strips than two ordinary kid strips from the 1950s alongside eight ordinary gimmicky features chosen because they’re “different”.

  7. Anne, I wasn’t expressing concern, only support. You need to be true to your point(s) of view. I don’t believe there is such a thing as an unbiased reporter … we all have our point of view even if we try to suppress it to feign neutrality. I don’t have a problem with you guys making your points, I just don’t generally agree with the political/environmental ones so naturally I prefer the other days … but that doesn’t mean I’m not pulling for the success of the strip. A variety of points of view are generally a good thing. I’m certainly not offering advice, just encouragement and an occasional opinion! 😉

    Perhaps Malc just expressed more clearly the kind of thing I was trying to say.

  8. Thanks for the kind words Malc. Some of my favorite TV shows of the past, the old Dick van Dyke show, Taxi, Cheers, and Seinfeld to name a few, were ensemble shows with a strong deep cast and multiple story direction opportunities. John has always used a lot of different personalites in any strip he has tried to develop and that makes the work difficult to pigeonhole. As you pointed out, syndicates don’t usually go for that – they like a small tight cast and a clear demographic or niche to fill – so this may have something to do with how long it took John to get syndicated. You are also right that another “boy” strip can be a hard sell because of the strong legacy of boy strips and the big shoes to fill. We were very lucky that Brendan Burford of King passed over all those objections and saw the strip’s true potential and gave it a chance!

    And Rich, I know your words were those of support and I thank you.

  9. Congratulations, Ann and John

    (I don’t know how anyone in this day and age can be on the other side of environmental beliefs. This is the only environment we’ve got: if we don’t look after it better, we will be in more trouble than we are right now.)

  10. I submitted a girl strip a couple of years ago (I didn’t realise it was two years already! sheesh, time flies) and had encouraging replies from the smaller syndicates, but nothing like what I needed to persuade me to continue development.
    King didn’t reply at all, but that was before Brendan Burford took the hot seat.

    I did think of re-inventing the girl as a boy who drinks a magic potion and is forced to live in a girl’s body until he gets kissed by his true love. This might have been the angle a syndicate needed to make it “different”. Unfortunately that angle also gave it homosexual undertones which would have made it hard to sell to the bible belt. It was also stupid.

  11. I think the 10.3.07 Edison Lee is pretty funny…because it’s so true:

    And Malc, I always thought Eve was real good. I know that there are a few strips today with girls as the main character, but your strip was better than most of them. Eve reminded me of Suzie Derkins in her own strip…

  12. Alex, I’ll send you an e-mail. Don’t want to detract from the topic which is Edison Lee (not my conservationist views) … Alan can be sooo strict you know 😉

  13. I also think Edison is a solid strip, although I tend to tire of the political angle. I’d like to see Edison become a little more Calvin and Hobbes philosophical a little less Mallard and Doonesbury polemical. More like a kid, less like an Op-Ed columnist. Dare I ask, how many papers is it in now?

  14. “Dare I ask how many papers it’s in now?”

    Ah – the “how many papers is it in” riddle. Answer: we honestly have no idea! Because of this new practice of auditioning strips and polling rather than just adding them, we don’t know at any given time how many papers are testing it. Sometimes – as with Winston Salem – the paper contacts John for an interview and we find out they’re running it. Other times I find tests (like Olympia WA) through random google searches. Occasionally they show up on the monthly sales statement . And sometimes, we actually find out on the Daily Cartoonist when Alan posts it!

    It’s probably safe to say more than 50, less than 100.

    As far as the Calvin and Hobbes approach goes, one is D***** if you do, D***** if you don’t. Everyone wants the magic of Calvin to show up somewhere in the comics, but if it looks as though a strip is anywhere close to that, it is labeled as derivitave and a Calvin rip-off.

    Every author I’ve ever met or heard interviewed says that characters take on a life of their own and you become merely the tool of their expression. Even though John and I have known these characters (or permutations of them) for many years now, the interactions through the submission years were often sporadic, as other elements of life (jobs, kids) intruded. Now that a whole year of daily concentrated interaction has passed, John is really starting to see that the “character voice” thing is true. All the characters, but Edison most specifically, are growing in their own directions and we are mostly along for the ride. I personally think the current trajectory is a good one and following the characters’ lead is making the strip better all the time.

  15. “Anne, just ignore Murph. Unless Edison is espousing the Murphite agenda, heâ??s pretty much agin political comment in the comics.”

    I hate to remove any attacking points from Malcâ??s toolbox of preconceived notions but
    my favorite cartoon in the papers today is Doonesbury, and one of my least favorites is
    Mallard Fillmore. The difference between the two strips is illustrative of my point about Edison. Trudeauâ??s political satire is brilliant and funny, even though I disagree with most
    of his positions. Thatâ??s because his satire is character driven rather than being purely pedagogic. Mallard, on the other hand, is all about slamming home a position, usually with a two by four, so itâ??s less entertaining and less accessible. I think Edisonâ??s a great strip, with much more potential, but when the gags have been political, it has seemed to me to be less about who Edison and his family are and more about the political point. In my opinion, that makes the strip more superficial. I havenâ??t read it for a while so Iâ??m sure, as Anne has said, the characters are growing and finding their voice. Iâ??m sorry to have used the clichéd Calvin and Hobbes comparison, that is a no win measure, but what I meant to
    observe is that Calvinâ??s satire was more about the human condition, which I think is more effective with kid characters.

  16. “when the gags have been political, it has seemed to me to be less about who Edison and his family are and more about the political point”

    You know that is a really excellent point and it made me stop and think for a minute. What may be happening here is that John and I have known these characters for so long that we feel the political humor IS character driven – if you know Edison’s character and the family’s socio-economic position, his statements and views are very natural for him. One problem is communicating all the nuance of his character in a sales kit distillation for distribution to editors (which is standard format for all strip launches and marketing).

    The material for the sales kit was sort of cherry picked out of over 18 months worth of strips (many of which are only now surfacing and some of which were best left on the drawing board) . It is also standard to avoid all use of series storylines in the sales kit and during the first months of distribution. There is a big focus on “gag a day” format that is easy to plug in and out of papers for whatever amount of time they decide to test a strip. The sales kit is supposed to very narrowly focus the tone of a strip so that editors get a very clear idea of what they’re signing up for. I understand all these things from a marketing perspective, but I think it makes it very difficult to really get a cohesive idea of who the characters are in the big picture. It also means that the first 3 months or so had an unusually high ratio of political to socio-economic strips, and that the political ones had to give to a pretty succinct statement of where Edison’s politics are.

    Also, as I said earlier, if you review the past year’s strips, having gotten to know the characters more gradually and more thouroughly, many of the strips are more character driven than is obvious at first glance.

  17. Making ANY gags political is a BIG mistake, IMO. Whichever political side you come down on, you’ll lose half your potential readers.

    We’re immersed in politics. Most people don’t want it in their comics.

  18. Making ANY gags political is a BIG mistake, IMO. Whichever political side you come down on, youâ??ll lose half your potential readers.

    Weâ??re immersed in politics. Most people donâ??t want it in their comics

    Considering that Edison Lee tackles social issues by design, I really don’t understand your point here. Are you saying that political strips shouldn’t exist? Or are you saying that a strip should either be 100% about politics, or 0% about politics with no exception?

  19. I’ve never read this strip. I was just going by the description I saw which is:
    The central character is a 10-year-old boy genius with a knack for inventions, which allows Hambrock to tap into his love of science on a regular basis.

    Of course, I’m not saying that political comics shouldn’t exist. If this is a political strip, then so be it. But don’t make a nonpolitical strip a soap box. Most readers will resent it.

    If Bill Watterson used his strip as a political soap box now and then, Calvin and Hobbes would be dated, rather than classic, and his readership would be significantly cut.

    Scott Adams claims that his blog has hurt his Dilbert franchise, because it’s angered readers and has turned them off to strip. The main reason for that is because his blog got political.

  20. But a good, well-written comic should be able to dip into politics without too much danger, in my opinion. I enjoy “Edison Lee”; I also enjoy “Prickly City” which presents a very different political view. Both are well-written and funny. Their politics may alienate some extremists from the far ends of the ideological spectrum, but I like to think that the majority of people can respect some difference of opinion.

  21. To Josh’s point, from what I’ve seen of Edison Lee, it isn’t heavy handed when making it’s points, so they should be acceptable to the mainstream. You can’t do much about those that are looking to be offended on either extreme! 😉

  22. Edison is supposed to emcompass the whole spectrum of social commentary, political, economic, philisophical, scientific, and pop or mass culture. This is a time honored mix, Doonesbury, Bloom County, and Pogo just to name a few. The bead I’m getting is that most people feel the political ones are the least elegantly written and could use the most improvement to bring the level of the entire comic into sync. This may or may not be true depending on your point of view. It may or may not change depending on John’s and my point of view and what sort or writing style fits the characters best. As I mentioned earlier that arc is an ever changing one. I have very definite opinions on which years of Bloom County were his best. Likewise with Trudeau. If I got into a detailed conversation as to which strips were my favorite and why, I am sure I would find plenty of people to both agree and disagree with me.

  23. People on the right of the political spectrum often prefer to paint themselves as moderates to complain about political comment in strips, that’s understandable.

    However, they don’t complain about right wing bias in strips because they don’t actually PERCEIVE it.

  24. Regardless of your political bent, one will not always see the political bias that’s favorable to one’s own. I remember reading a bunch of liberal blogs after the 2004 presidential elections. They were complaining that that the main stream media was too conservative which surprised me because all the conservative bloggers that I read were always complaining that the main stream media was continually bent to the left.

  25. IMO, Anne, after reading some of y’all’s cartoons, I suspect the ones that people think “are the least elegantly written” are the ones that cross the line of Edison Lee’s voice and become the voice of the writer as you read along.

    Even though he’s a genius, he’s still a ten year old boy. The gags that remember he’s a child genius work much better IMO than ones where he sounds like an adult.

    Here’s a suggestion. Take it for what it’s worth. If you can replace Edison Lee in your mind’s eye with an adult, and the gag works…if an adult would actual say and do the same thing, IOW…then the gag isn’t great. If it doesn’t work as an adult, then the gag is probably good.

    The gag where he’s created a war game works, because a typical adult wouldn’t re-create Stratego. The tree digging (China) one falls flat, because what he is saying is more appropriate to an adult voice and has nothing “kid” in it.

  26. Dawn while I respect your opinion and your instincts, I happen to have given birth to a son who talks like that and has since he was 8. Also history is littered with comic kids who don’t talk like kids (Milo Bloom to name one)and – dare I say it – animals that don’t behave like animals. And also don’t talk like animals – if animals could talk. Every comic strip character represents a voice of the author. It’s just that some authors tick people off more than others. I would say that the points John makes in his strip are bound to tick some people off simply because he made them – that’s never going to change. What may change, and to some degree already has, is the bluntness of the point to be made.

    A comic strip that includes political commentary has to walk a much finer line, apparently, than an editorial cartoon. Many editorial cartoons that I read regularly are far more blunt than Edison without catching heat for it in this forum. John has always been aware that a daily strip is a much trickier platform from which to make a point, but both he and I enjoy the challenge. He did not get into cartooning just to make a living drawing cute characters. He had things he wanted to say and he is saying them.

    I have taken note of the comments made here because it is a forum of professionals and comics fans whose opinions I respect. That said, the strip will continue to develop along the lines that are meaningful to John and myself. Hopefully that will translate into success but one can’t start changing one’s work to try to please everybody. That only leads to a strip with no clear direction of its own.

  27. “John has always been aware that a daily strip is a much trickier platform from which to make a point, but both he and I enjoy the challenge. He did not get into cartooning just to make a living drawing cute characters. He had things he wanted to say and he is saying them.”

    The voice of a strip and how it is written is much more important than the art in the strip. Heck, a great strip can be drawn with stick figures if it has a valid point to make.

  28. “Also history is littered with comic kids who donâ??t talk like kids (Milo Bloom to name one)and – dare I say it – animals that donâ??t behave like animals. And also donâ??t talk like animals – if animals could talk.”

    Lee Salem has always said if an animal character doesn’t keep some of the animal’s traits, then there is no sense in having it be an animal at all, that it would be better to be a person. Guess I’m in that same camp.

    “Itâ??s just that some authors tick people off more than others. I would say that the points John makes in his strip are bound to tick some people off simply because he made them – thatâ??s never going to change.”

    Well, that’s true, but I wasn’t dealing at all with the politics, but just keeping an authentic voice from the character’s point of view. Of course, every writer has something to say, but it has to be done through one’s characters, which always imposes limitations.
    That’s why strips are trickier and much harder to write well than gag panels or editorial cartoons…strips must be character driven in order to be really good. Your strip is especially tricky because he’s a genius, and there will naturally be a tendency to think he can say anything.

    Anyway, I didn’t mean to offend. You obviously have a strong view of your character and that’s what’s important. It’s a good strip with lots of promise. I wish you much success.

  29. I say keep writing the toons that “offend”(in the thought provoking sense, NOT raciist, sexist,etc) peeps because that’s the part of your audience that will read Edison more often.

    There’s a scene in Private Parts where the radio heads are talking about how long fans of Howard Stern listen to his show v. how long peeps that hate his show listen, and the haters listened almost twice as long!

    Now…I’m not saying that you should introduce Butt-Bongo, the Wheel of Sex, or perverse song parodies into Edison Lee, but just keep doing what you’re doing, let the strip develop naturally and let the praise and criticism fall where they fall…

  30. Hi Anne and John,

    Good luck with your run in NC. Hope your recent visit to the JG (and my emails to them) will result in them adding Edison to their line up.

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