Growing up on Garfield books and old Disney movies, I always felt compelled as a child to do something like those guys (Jim Davis and Disney). And from a kids perspective, that would mean creating black and white movies (yeah, I watched the REAL old animation stuff) or something about an animal as a strip cartoon.
I experimented tons.
One of the cool things I used to do (at this point in time) was go down to the Salvation Army thrift store and purchase books. It didn’t matter the content – just a good book that had a lot of space at the bottom right-hand corner of them. Lots of blank, white paper was what I was after. And actually, the romance novels seemed to be the best ones. Anyway, why did I do this?
I made flip books out of them.
Gobs and gobs of flip books.
I would draw a person (a “thing” sometimes) and duplicate it in a different movement – ever-so slightly – from one page to the next. AKA: animation. It would be on those bottom, right-hand little corners of the books.
As a young guy, I kinda thought one of these flip books might get picked up for animation. SOMETHING. I mean, they were awesome, right? (Okay, at least I thought they rocked.)
I remember I got my buddies involved also. And before you knew it, THEY were making flip books as well! Great, now I had some competition. But, it was fun. And God knows how many of these suckers I made. IF these were featured animated films, I would’ve gave Disney a run for his money. Well, again, I like to think…..
And then the Garfield influence.
I had a pet turtle, so instead of a cat, most of my characters involved turtles. Yes, sometimes I had other animals featured, but I remember turtles especially. When the Ninja Turtle craze hit in the late 80′s, guess who hopped on that wagon? You’re reading him right now.
So, I went after my niche.
I found things that were familiar.
What’s funny is as a child, I did that. As I grew older though, I felt this need to go AGAINST the grain. Everything BUT my niche. Weird, huh?
I experimented creating comics that looked like superheros. Nope. Not my niche.
I drew things like Robert Crumb or Edward Gorey might draw. Nope. Not my niche.
I created a comic about myself that didn’t even sound myself. I tried to make myself look cool in it. Nope. Not my niche.
FINALLY, it dawned on me sometime in my 20′s. Why don’t I draw something I’m good at and familiar with?
Everybody has an area or something that they can do better at than most. With cartooning, I realized my best work came mostly in funny, off-the-wall, off-beat and dry humor type things. Gags (panel) worked well and those topical strips worked well (like some of my strips that appear in MAD Magazine). And imitating exactly what someone else has done wasn’t working. So, I then stopped trying to create stuff that I’m not.
Don’t get me wrong: I think with practice ANYTHING can become one’s niche. This is kind of a side note, but the word ‘genius’ that some people associate with certain individuals, well, I don’t buy it. I think a genius is just someone that has practiced hard. Mozart gets called that regularly to this day. Genius? Nah. He just started practicing early at music. Easy as that.
Some people have advantages as well (Mozart, as an example again, grew up with his father teaching him everything early). But even without an advantage, you can master just about anything. Somethings not so much (like if I wanted to be a basketball pro and let’s say I was 4 foot eleven) but most things.
What I’m getting at though is if you have a niche area that you may have had some advantages at, are naturally a bit better at or something – maybe focus in on those areas in your career. Even if it’s not cartooning.
I know that when I kind of went with what felt good, I liked what I was doing and honed in on an area I’ve practiced continually, it’s worked out in the long run. I think I saved a lot of effort and frustration from going after something else that I wasn’t quite the pro at.
If you discover your niche it’s awesome as well because you can then see what all your competition or others in your field are doing. Use bits and pieces of these successful people. Don’t STEAL or COPY verbatim, but add some elements together and see what you come up with. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll develop your niche into your own STYLE and that’s when you can explode as a cartoonist (or whatever).
As a child you do it automatically. As an adult – not so much.
So, I’m not saying build Lego castles all day like you did growing up, but as you’ve developed, think of what you already know and maybe considering going with it. Saves time from learning a ton more and you have a jump-start on it.
A niche is a good thing. And as that became my style later, I continue with it. Stop learning more? Of course not. I’m constantly learning more and hell, I might change everything I know someday and go a different route. But getting to my initial state of my work and growing it, I think finding my niche has been the reason.
Whew! Thankfully we grow up.
Something to think about. I know most of this is pretty obvious to most people, but a little reminder here and there from your buddy Nate doesn’t hurt.
And if any of you want to have a flip-book competition someday, let me know. We’ll rock it out.
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