Q: You’ve decided to put the pen down on “In the Bleachers” … What gives? The comic is only 33 years old.
A: Yeah, 33 years. Would you believe I started Bleachers when I was 4-years old?
I didn’t think so. Anyway …
I still have three youngsters who need to burn through Dad’s hard-earned cash until they’re fully launched, so I would have preferred to carry on a while longer. But my decision to hand off Bleachers was made for me.
I have a neurological disorder that causes tremors, mostly in my hands and arms. It’s called Essential Tremor. The symptoms are similar to Parkinson’s, but ET is not fatal.
There’s no cure, but the tremors can be temporarily relieved. There are two ways that were effective for me:
The first is a drug called propranolol, but it has health-threatening side effects. And it doesn’t relieve the tremors enough to control a pencil or pen – even for a ragged-line artist like me.
The second way is to down a couple of cocktails while drawing. Sounds like fun! But it is a tightrope walk if you draw every day over the course of decades.
Neither option is sustainable and the tremor is getting worse, so I’m hanging it up. But it’s not the end of the world. It’s not like I’m going to keel over and kack or anything.
Q: Do you take the Propanol medication when you aren’t drawing?
A: I take propranolol whenever I do any public speaking. It’s awkward holding a mic with a shaky hand. And the drug is a beta blocker so it not only calms the tremor, it also shuts off the adrenaline or whatever it is that causes nervousness while speaking in front of large audiences. I also use the medication in certain social situations such as a lunch meeting where I need to get a fork-full of linguini into my mouth without spilling all over my shirt.
I learned the hard way a few years back that propranolol and air travel do not mix. I took the medication before I got on a flight to Houston because I didn’t want to sit next to a stranger and be Mr. Shaky Guy. But the medication lowers blood pressure and the low BP combined with high altitude caused me to black out and perpetrate a mid-flight medical fuss. (But at least my hands were fairly calm.)
Q: Are you happy to be done with the deadlines? What will you do with all the free time? Will ‘In the Bleachers’ keep going?
A: I was never bothered by deadlines. I worked 18 years in newspaper journalism, so constant strict deadlines are no big deal to me. If anything, I sort of pine for the deadlines. They gave structure to my life. These days, without deadlines, I shuffle aimlessly around the house mumbling and drooling.
Life after Bleachers? Well, I’m not going to be doing much of anything that relies on steady hands. Like brain surgery or disarming live bombs. I plan to focus on writing.
I just finished the fourth book in a series of children’s books for HarperCollins. King of the Bench is about a middle school kid who is extraordinarily average in sports and many other things in life. (Pretty much an autobiography.) The final book publishes in September. I did all the drawings in the series (120 per book) and my body is still recovering.
I’m writing another middle-grade book series about a character who blew through school and became a doctor of veterinary medicine at age 12. I’m hoping to find someone more talented than me to do the drawings so I don’t have to deal with the tremor.
And then I’m jumping back into the animated film biz with a couple of new concepts.
Meanwhile, dude, In the Bleachers will abide!
It’s in the hands of the very funny Ben Zaehringer, who’s last name I always forget how to spell. Ben is a former DreamWorks Animation worker bee, and he also is creator and cartoonist for the eccentric and oddball cartoon Berkeley Mews, which can be found on GoComics.
Q: When you say “jumping back” into the animation business. Have you worked there before?
A: In 1996, I left the Los Angeles Times to focus on Bleachers and also to pursue a career in entertainment creating and writing for animated film and TV.
My properties that were produced include “Metalheads,” an animated TV series that aired in Europe and Australia; a series of “In the Bleachers” animated shorts for ESPN; “Open Season,” Sony Pictures Animation’s first animated feature film; and “Alpha & Omega” another animated feature film produced by Lionsgate.
I put the entertainment stuff on the back burner the last few years while writing and drawing the children’s book series.
Q: You’re one of the few syndicated cartoonists who’s worked for newspapers, what’s your prognosis for the future of both?
A: I was a writer/news editor for the Lake Oswego Review in Oregon and The Maui News in Hawaii. At the Los Angeles Times I was executive news editor.
I believe newspapers made a monumental error by selling their souls to mediocre online versions while stripping bare the print versions. It’s like they quit grilling great steaks and started flipping burgers.
I believe the Lake Oswego Review and The Maui News will be fine once they adjust to profit margins of 5% instead of 25%, which is painful. Also, those two newspapers cover a distinct location and focus on local news, so broad internet aggregators (fancy media word) are not as big of a threat.
But the Los Angeles Times is hurting. Just my opinion, but it’s online version is not a satisfying product. It is not being perceived as a “national news source” in the same way as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post, which are having some success online.
Syndicated print cartoons are pretty much handcuffed to the good or bad fortunes of the newspapers. Meanwhile, online comics continue to develop a business model. My one-word advice: Paywall. Like those at the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times. If content is given away it diminishes their perceived value.
Anyway, that’s my brilliant analysis. (Or maybe it’s just the Ambien talking.)
Q: Who was your favorite person to work with at Andrews McMeel?
A: Okay, that last question? It’s a trap. I’m not falling for it. But I will say that there was no one I ever worked with at Andrews McMeel who I did not love and admire and want to hang out with on weekends.
Q: Can you talk about what you’re doing in children’s publishing?
A: I moved into children’s publishing because my inner child was kicking and screaming for attention and I had to do something to settle him/her down.
Since I can no longer draw (barring a miracle cure for Essential Tremor) I want to write books in the final phase of my career. Children’s books seemed like a logical entry point.
It’s sort of like what I did when I entered the entertainment field with a grand total of zero experience. I started as a writer for animated TV series because it seemed like an entry level job. I did that until I got a feel for the process. Then I moved on to create my own animated TV series and then an animated film.
I intend to write children’s books, then move on to young adult novels and maybe adult novels, although I don’t think my brain is big enough for that.
Q: What’s the pitch process like in children’s publishing?
A:I got lucky when I first pitched. I was contacted by an editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books. She asked if I had any sports-related ideas for the “novel with cartoons” genre that was popularized by Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” They wanted a sports angle to target mainly middle-grade boys, who are the notorious “reluctant readers” in our world.
I pitched the idea of an extraordinarily average 12-year-old boy who plays the same position in every sport: Benchwarmer.
HarperCollins reacted positively to that premise, so I created a book proposal for “King of the Bench.” It consisted of a one-page cover letter explaining the premise, a one or two-paragraph description of each main character, two sample chapters, character sketches and a personal bio complete with a mug shot that had been Photoshopped to make me appear brilliant and witty.
I submitted the proposal and HarperCollins responded with a four-book deal. So my experience was unusual in that my premise got a thumbs-up before I invested any sweat and tears into a book proposal.