[this article was updated on March 31st, 2015]

My dream career as a child was to be a syndicated cartoonist for newspapers, a passion which stayed with me for years and years (the very first thing I did upon graduating from college was send comic strip samples to as many syndicates as I could). It seems like I was born in the wrong era, though; by the time I began as a professional artist the newspaper days were at the Beginning of the End and sadly it became all too clear that an era was over. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some out there running comics, but it feels like a dream that I left behind, I’m sorry to say.

That changed, however, when I ventured into the world of webcomics, and while it’s obviously much different from being a syndicated artist, it still somehow carries a lot of the same passion with it.  All of the work that I put into the SCAPULA comic is part of keeping that old dream alive.  As difficult and time-consuming as it may be, I keep on doing it for the love and respect for the comics that made me want to draw, and made me who I am, in the first place.

The following is a list of the top nine newspaper/print comic strips that I believe were the most important in shaping my work as a cartoonist.  While there are a great deal many more comic strips I would like to mention, I have decided to mainly keep this list  to the comic strips that have had the strongest influence on myself and SCAPULA.


#10 Peanuts by Charles Schulz

While the majority of my favorite comic strips were the ones I read as a very young child, Peanuts was only a fairly recent favorite, something I rediscovered in my mid-twenties (oddly enough, around the time I was working at Knott’s Berry Farm as a caricature artist). While cartoonists worldwide sing the praises of this, probably the single most successful comic strip ever, I reserve most of my respect solely on the character of Charlie Brown and Schulz’ almost tragic, unflinching depiction of the life of a somewhat troubled child.

Bearing your heart in your art, much less in any way, can be difficult. Revealing your most personal fears and vulnerabilities for others to see can feel like an open invitation to let people mock, hurt, and scorn you while you lie there and weep like a hyperventilating child.  Yet some folks take the risk, and sometimes the result is beautiful. Charlie Brown is a near-perfect example on how an artist’s insecurities can be put on display, not in a ‘woe-is-me’ fashion but in a heartfelt and, often, very funny way.

I have used SCAPULA at times to channel out many troublesome emotions (read THE NEGLECTED ONE for an early example), and while it’s not all uncommon for me to second-guess myself for revealing those kind of feelings to the wide open Internet, I still end up doing it.  I’d like to think that Charles Schulz and Good Ol’ Charlie Brown helped me see that not only is that not a bad thing, but it can also result in some of your best creative output.


#9 Garfield by Jim Davis and PAWS Inc.

Many comic strips profit off of excessive, shameless merchandising (the aforementioned Peanuts being one of them), and while there are a great number of comics that fall into this business practice the single one that gets the most flak for being a sell-out is Garfield.

Don’t get me wrong; Garfield is most assuredly a sell-out. But here’s the thing that a lot of stuffy comic-snobs tend to forget when they turn to bash the fat cat: Garfield is largely aimed at children, and children don’t give two sh_ts about ‘selling out’. If anything, kids LOVE the plethora of Garfield merchandise available, and yes, as a kid I accumulated a lot of it.

Now, does this mean the comic is still a good one? I reread some of my old books, and my answer is actually yes. It’s a good comic. It’s not fantastic (not really imaginative or original…great, now who sounds like the stuffy comic snob?), but Garfield’s grouchy A-hole personality is pretty damned funny at times and I still find the occasional new comic that makes me laugh.

However much credit you want to give to either Jim Davis or his staff at PAWS Inc. who do the creative work is up to you. I will just say that Garfield was an influence on me as a child to draw cartoons (my habit of using very large eyes traces back to Garfield himself).  It may not be one of my favorites now, but try going back in time and telling my nine year-old self not to love it. You won’t be dissuading that kid.


#8 The Far Side by Gary Larson

It’s all too easy to count how many single-panel cartoonists are out there openly stealing Gary Larson’s style (and even his jokes).  If it weren’t for Charles Addams, I’d be sorely tempted to name Larson as the best single-panel cartoonist ever.

Although The Far Side was one of my earliest comic loves (and believe me, I LOVED it), I place it relatively low on this list if only because I can’t trace much of its influence on my work anymore, except for a general embracing of weirdness (and zoology). I occasionally swipe Larson’s habit of using a straight-line brow in place of characters’ eyes (which he, in turn, swiped from Tarzan comics).

In any case, Larson’s hilarious cartoons still make readers laugh even decades after being read for the first time, and I still count myself as a fan.


#7 Life in Hell by Matt Groening

Life in Hell was the first ‘adult’ comic that I got into (this was also the first comic I ever saw that had the words “f_ck” and “fag” in it), and while most of the humor went over my naïve young head it still became an early favorite.

Matt Groening (yep, the Simpsons dude) has one of the strangest talents that I’ve ever seen: he can write the most excessively cruel things and have it come across as gut-bustingly funny. Take his “How to tell when there’s a divorce on the way” guide: “Daddy screeching at Mommy. Mommy screeching at Daddy. Kids screeching in terror. Tires screeching as Daddy takes off and never comes back” (let me tell you, I grew up in an unhappy ‘broken home’ and even I thought that was hilarious). Look at all the mean-spirited, pointless punishment that gets meted out on poor Bongo by his teachers and father (bound and gagged for reciting a silly version of the Pledge of Allegiance…c’mon, what kid didn’t do that?).

Finally, in my single favorite Life in Hell drawing ever, Groening goes all out harsh and shows a high school teacher (a grinning pig named “Der Fuerher”), cruelly gloating to his students, “Good morning, my troubled little losers. You all failed yesterday’s test.” Twenty years after I first saw that and I’m STILL giggling out loud like an idiot.

Out of context of the comic it may seem brutal or unfunny (and if it came from most any other writer/cartoonist it probably would be) but Groening made it great. I can’t quite explain it. Maybe it was the funny drawings that accompanied them, maybe the presentation or something, I don’t know. Or maybe it’s just that they were really f_cking funny cartoons. Isn’t that reason enough?


#6 Bloom County by Berke Breathed

Bloom County was probably the first comic strip where I became aware that there was a “voice” coming out of it beyond that of the characters. Breathed’s opinions on politics, celebrities, scandals, love, sex, health, life, or whatever were pretty obvious to whoever read the comic, and while the strip definitely had its share of likable characters (even Bill the Cat), it seemed to me like they often existed mainly as mouthpieces for Breathed’s own thoughts and opinions. This was a pretty revolutionary idea for my young self, who thought the goal of most comic strips was to just have the characters lead you up to a punchline and not do much else.

Even if you didn’t agree with his opinions you still have to give Breathed credit for showing them in a more openly-engaging and funny way than most other cartoonists (Doonesbury was too bogged in politics and flat characters to ever grab my childhood interest, even if it did influence Breathed). To contradict my previous statement about the characters, they were still memorable and varied (both Steve Dallas and Milo Bloom were openly vocal about their ideals, even if they were polar opposites), and Opus does carry some of that ‘Charlie Brown’ vulnerability I talked about earlier.

The follow-up series Outland and Opus were tamer in tone (the latter is probably only of interest to die-hard Breathed fans), but still had their moments. Bloom County holds up surprisingly well to this day; even though one might think its reliance on mocking trends and events from decades ago would make it seem ‘dated’, I choose instead to see it as a historical record of all the crazy stuff that went on in the world during its time, and how badly it needed someone like Breathed to make fun of it all.  With talking animals, of course.


#5 Farley by Phil Frank

I’ve written before about the late Phil Frank, and how I had met him back as a confused young cartoonist. While Farley was a wonderful comic, it is largely unknown to people outside of California’s northern Bay Area, and for good reason. Frank, having formerly achieved the lofty goal of being a syndicated cartoonist, chose to withdraw his comic strip Travels with Farley from nationwide distribution and create it solely for the readers of the Bay, via the San Francisco Chronicle. While this may seem like a strange, almost counter-productive, move to most cartoonists, with Frank it became his greatest benefit.

Syndicated comics, as you may know, take a great deal of time from creation to the eventual publication. This makes commenting on current events difficult, since references are often gone in the blink of an eye. Other topics of humor can also be lost if they are too location-specific, and sometimes there’s just a great big chunk of people who just won’t get what a cartoonist is doing. You can’t please everyone.

While these are all issues that have largely ended in the age of on-line comics with niche-audiences, this was a much more difficult thing to deal with in the printed press days, and Phil Frank decided to forego it altogether in favor of doing something for a single local paper instead. But was making his job easier all that he had on his mind?

Phil once told me that a cartoonist must “find his demographic”, and while that may sound like a pretty impersonal bit of advice, I think he actually meant that in the most personable way. Phil loved the Bay Area and he loved his readers; it was for this reason more than anything else that he chose the local paper in lieu of the much wider (and yes, profitable) syndication. Phil enjoyed commenting on and lampooning the events, places, and people in San Francisco. His love for the area fueled his humor, and that in turn went right back into creating a comic that the Bay Area readers were proud to call their own.

If I were to forget everything else about Phil and Farley, I would still remember how much his life and career was a lesson in how a cartoonist can benefit by embracing not just their art but their readers as well.


#4 Batman (1940’s) by numerous artists and writers, namely Jack Burnley and Bill Finger

There have been too many adaptations of the Caped Crusader for any sane person to count (there’s probably some lone fan out there who can do it). While this particular version isn’t on many fans’ radars, I still count it as important for me, if for no other reason than it got me to begin doing SCAPULA as a serial comic instead of its originally intended monthly publication.

Serial comics, while largely absent from many newspapers following the early 1970’s, were an extremely popular part of any self-respecting comics page a very long time ago. While there are lots of great ones that I could probably mention*, it was a collected edition of the Batman Sundays from the 1940’s that inspired me to try the weekly  format for myself.

If you go back and reread some of the earliest SCAPULA stories in the webcomic series (namely A CRAPPY CRIME CAPER and JEMINI’S BEAUTIFUL STORY), you can see the influence of the old-time serial comics, from the splashy artwork to the cherished cliffhangers.

Truth be told, I have yet to finish reading that Batman volume, but it deserves a large amount of credit for helping me find the right format for my own work, and for that I am grateful.

*I almost wanted to include the newspaper version of The Amazing Spider-Man (by Stan Lee and John Romita), except that I’m still mad at Marvel and/or their book publisher for the asinine decision to print the books with the stupidest page-layout imaginable. Find a copy for yourself and see what’s wrong with it!


#3 The Amazing Spider-Man by Stan Lee and John Romita

While not having Spider-Man’s co-creator Steve Ditko is a sad loss, Romita is still a masterful artist and storyteller, giving the newspaper version of the classic comic books series all of the skill and flair that it deserves. If anything Romita should be given more respect for having to work with such a smaller ‘canvas’ (four little panels is much less ground than a twenty page comic) and still creating incredible work each time. While I sort of wish the newspaper series kept the same continuity as the comics (and they did for the first two or three stories at least), this is still a great series in and of itself and probably one of the motivating factors in increasing SCAPULA’s update schedule.

After only being available in a terribly formatted hardcover book collection the complete series has been at last collected in a decent (albeit expensive) paperback; I hear a hardcover version from IDW is on the horizon, but we’ll see if that’s true when it arrives.


#2 Dick Tracy by Chester Gould, and others (namely Rick Fletcher and Max Allan Collins)

The Batman comic may have introduced me to the serial comic format, but it was Dick Tracy that really made me respect it.  Chester Gould’s creation is, in my opinion, the best serial comic ever, and one of the crowning achievements of the comics page…and, believe it or not, it’s not just the great villains that makes me read this one (although they are REALLY great villains).

Some folks might complain that serial comics are “slow” (or just seem that way, due to the 24-hour wait or more between updates), but Chester Gould’s storytelling was anything but slow. The “chase” stories were always filled with twists and turns that were often surprising (Gould was notorious for using excessive violence and death, but he always used it to best effect in storytelling and timing rather than just showcasing wanton mayhem). I always loved how Dick Tracy stories never really followed a conventional three-act structure and were let free to wander around, get lost, find new surprises, and still wind up with exciting climaxes. The results were unpredictable, attention-grabbing adventures that made the fullest potential of the comic page format.

Tracy‘s cast of characters (including, yes, those great villains) made that ride all the more enjoyable. One of the things that had the most impact on not just myself but a lot of readers was how any character could be killed off without any warning (read the introductions and afterwords in the Dick Tracy book collections to hear about others who were traumatized by the deaths of the Summer sisters or Model Jones). The “no one is safe” approach gave the adventures more weight than the usual action comic. I kill off SCAPULA characters a lot for humorous reasons, but Gould would remove his cast for different effects, usually pathos.

After many years of being done by other writers and artists (my favorite of which was probably Rick Fletcher, whose illustrations were some of the best that any comic strip has ever seen), Dick Tracy finally returned to greatness when it was relaunched in 2011 with artist Joe Staton and writer Mike Curtis at the helm. The new storylines and artwork have been astounding (Winner in 2013 for the Harvey Award for Best Syndicated Strip or Panel), and it has been the first comic I read every morning for a couple of years now.

My decision to increase SCAPULA’s update schedule was largely based on realizing just how much more effective a story can be with more space to tell it, something which became clear after reading the work of Gould and his successors. Even in the new SCAPULA comics it’s obvious from the pacing to the artwork just how much of a debt I owe to Tracy.


#1 Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

This is the comic that made me want to draw, not just comics, but just draw anything that my imagination could come up with. I’ve mentioned before at great length the influence of Calvin and Hobbes on my life, and I’m not sure how much more I could add to it than I already have. Calvin and Hobbes is great, and it made me want to be a cartoonist. That’s all it needs to be on my #1 spot of favorite comics.

The big question is this: did Calvin & Hobbes have any influence on SCAPULA beyond just making me a cartoonist? They’re both very different in terms of genre, characters, storytelling, artistic style, humor, and so on…so is there really any connection beyond the fact that they’re both just comics?

I say yes, and for this reason: Calvin & Hobbes, I think, introduced me to the concept of the flawed protagonist. Remember that in a lot of kids’ cartoons and comics (especially the ones that actually star kid characters) the protagonist is usually someone who’s tailor-made to be liked by the audience, as well as the other characters. They’re usually cool, or nice, or smart, or funny, and so on. They tend to have lots of friends, or are generally well-liked (again, both in their fictional universes and to readers). They always succeeded. They were designed to be what children wanted to be, whether that made them truly relatable or not.

That wasn’t Calvin. Calvin could be, most of the time, a pretty unpleasant character. He fought with everyone, he wanted everything his own way, he had trouble seeing someone else’s perspective, and so on. Calvin was loud, tempermental, a bit conceited, and at times foolish. Calvin’s pranks and acts of childhood terrorism didn’t really make him seem cool or rebellious (read:Bart Simpson) since he always ended up getting punished or humiliated.  The real kicker is, in the end, all of Calvin’s trouble-making mostly stemmed from the fact that he had no one to relate to beyond his imaginary friend. His family, peers, everyone, just could not understand him…more than that, they didn’t seem like they particularly wanted to understand him.

…everyone, that is, except for the reader. THIS was a character that I understood. Whether or not Calvin succeeded or failed in his endeavors wasn’t so much important as the fact that I could recognize what motivated him in the first place. Calvin may have been just a kid, but he was a kid who had his own vision of what his life was about (both in terms of his imaginary world and in trying to relate to, and maybe order around, the people he knew), and that’s what made all of his adventures enjoyable. We could see the value of Calvin’s stories because, let’s face it, a lot of us WERE Calvin.

Scapula, as a character, is very emotionally stunted. His views of the world and reactions to it are honestly pretty juvenile (this is a grown man dressed in a comic book costume), and I think that may have stemmed from being a child a lot like Calvin. I’m not proposing that someone should ever do a fanfiction series about Calvin growing up and becoming a criminal (please…don’t), and I think Calvin has much more of a true conscience than Scapula has had in many years (and if Calvin’s conscience comes in the form of the most awesome tiger friend ever, that’s all the more better!). I am saying that SCAPULA sprang from the thoughts and emotions of a real-world child who had a lot in common with one of the greatest fictional kids ever in, what I honestly claim, is the best comic strip that I’ve ever read.

(This means any time-travelers reading this blog will know that they can stop Scapula and the Sinister Monster Doom Legion from existing by going back and taking away my copy of Something Under the Bed is Drooling).


So that’s my ‘dream team’ of the funnies page.  Care to share your own, or debate my choices? Leave a comment below and tell us all about which comic strips you felt were the best, or just the closest to your heart.