Why I Keep Cartooning (3-27-15)

Mr. Fitz for March 28th, 2000: the very first strip.

Tomorrow marks 15 years since my little comic strip about teaching, Mr. Fitz, began running in the Daytona Beach News-Journal. It’s hard to calculate exactly how many strips I’ve drawn since I have occasionally had to put re-runs in the paper, and at one point (I don’t even recall when) I switched from being in the newspaper 5 times a week to 6 times a week, but I think it’s reasonable to say that I’ve probably drawn more than 4,000 Mr. Fitz comic strips. This anniversary, like the strip itself, undoubtedly means more to me than it does to anyone else. But nonetheless, I’d like to ruminate on why I have drawn and continue to draw the strip for this long. 

Ever since I was about six years old, I wanted to be a cartoonist. As I have related elsewhere, I learned to read so I could read the funnies. I grew up on Peanuts and The Wizard of Id, and when I was in high school and college, and as a young adult I had the privilege of reading Bloom CountyThe Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes first-run on the printed page. I dreamed I’d get syndicated, make lots of money, and sit around drawing cartoons all day.

Life had other plans. 

I tried a drawing a couple of other strips that ran in my hometown and college newspapers, but the syndicates weren’t interested. I think maybe I didn’t really have enough to say–there was no personal voice to the strip, or not enough of it. 

I ended up in teaching, and about 7 years into the profession wound up having a chance to run a comic strip in one local newspaper. I proposed a strip about teaching. I would say the rest is history, but I suspect I won’t end up in any history books. In the end, the rest isn’t history– the rest is learning. I have learned a lot over the last 15 years. 

I have learned that practice may not make perfect, but it sure makes for growth. I think the writing itself was fairly sharp from the outset, but the actual visual quality of the strip–the lettering and drawing–was very uneven. Fifteen years of fine-tuning have developed my talents, and I think my drawing is a lot better now than it was. I may look back on what I do now and think it looks amateurish too, but it’s still better than when I started. When I tell my students that you have to practice something a lot before you get good at it, all I need to do is show them a year-2000 strip compared to a 2015 strip to prove my point. 

I learned that sometimes, to paraphrase John Dewey, having to say something and having something to say actually go hand in hand. My great editor at Scholastic, Gloria Pipkin, once asked me if I ever suspected, back when I started the strip, that it would become so political. I had to say no. I just knew I wanted to write about the joys and frustrations of teaching in a way a general audience could enj. One frustration began to stand out among the rest–our country’s obsession with standardized testing. It so was antithetical to everything I stood for as a teacher, that it just started finding its way into the strip more and more. And that’s the thing– having to come up with five or six comic strips a week means I had to say something, and saying something that often eventually leads you to find you have an awful lot to say. Over the past 15 years, I have touched not only on testing, but on student motivation, reading, writing, proofreading, scripted curricula, student “baggage,” student motivation, and teacher depression, to name just a few. I have learned about my own attitudes toward teaching by drawing the strip, and I truly think it has made me a better, more thoughtful teacher. 

I’ve learned that you can educate people in a variety of ways, even through a newspaper comic. I’ve had quite a few people outside education tell me they understand what’s happening in schools and in the teaching profession better because of Mr. Fitz’s misadventures. 

I’ve learned that when you create something, you never know where your creation will lead you. The comic strip has led me, directly or indirectly, a variety of experiences: being my district’s teacher of the year 11 years ago; being in contact with teachers as far away as New Zealand; receiving emails from Ray Bradbury and Lois Lowry, who both appreciated me referencing their books in the strip; having a cartoon on the cover of the magazine Voices from the Middle; being featured on The Washington Post‘s “The Answer Sheet” blog by Valerie Strauss, and writing two books for Scholastic Professional books for teachers, each containing about 100 cartoons.

I also learned that speaking up about things can either get you in trouble, or get you ignored. About halfway into the strip’s run, a series in the strip got me in a little hot water, and combined with what was happening in teaching at the time, I actually went through a period of depression. I almost ended the strip. It took a long time, but I finally realized that the adage “Depression is just anger without enthusiasm” was very true in my case. I realized that I was actually very, very angry about what was happening to schools. I no longer worry about getting in trouble. Bring it on. People ask me if I ever get in any trouble for the strip, for being so pointed in it. I have to say, these days, no. And I’m actually kind of bummed about that. Drawing the strip has taken me up the ladder in the stages of moral development, from “I don’t want to get in trouble” to “I follow a higher code.”

I have learned that speaking up is worth it, even if you don’t ever sign the “standard rich and famous” contract, as Orson Wells puts it  in The Muppet Movie. It’s worth it if you get to have a positive affect on even a few people. I have had people write to me to about how the strip gets them through the day, helps them keep their sense of humor, helps them keep their sanity. I’ve see the strips posted in workrooms and bathrooms (such an honor!) around my district. I’ve been told by teachers how they’ve used the strips or my books in class. Perhaps most rewarding of all was when my series about Mr. Fitz’s bout with depression (I think perhaps my favorite of all story-lines I’ve done) appeared on The Answer Sheet. The comments made me realize I’d tapped into something very real, and very deep, and that I had perhaps helped some teachers out there realize they were not alone. 

I learned that being good (and I do think I write a good strip, or I wouldn’t be doing it) doesn’t always mean being successful in the way the world values success. The syndicates have turned me down 4 or 5 times. I’m not generic enough, I guess, for an international market. (So why am I read in New Zealand?)

I am as capable in my darker moments of self pity as anyone. Sometimes I think, “Wow– you haven’t had a real, substantial raise as a teacher in a while. You hardly make anything off the comic strip. Everything you do is undervalued. Why are you even doing any of it?” Well, perhaps I’m capable of self-delusion as well as self-pity, but in my better moments, I realize that I really am counter-cultural: I do the things I do for their intrinsic value. I make enough to sort of scrape by, even if I’m not rich. I have appealed to people to become a Patron for Mr. Fitz on the Patreon Website, and I’m making a bit more on the strip than I used to (I’m up to $55 a month– it helps pay for frames and pens!). Feel free to contribute. But please don’t tell me, as one person did, that all I do is ask for money now. 

I guess I have decided to teach (see my last blog) till I retire in seven years, or they throw me out for being my un-standardized self. How long will I do the strip? Good question. My wife has put up with my nearly constant drawing for 15 years now, and is endlessly supportive. (Thanks, Andrea!) When I started the strip, my kids were in Kindergarten and Preschool; now they are in college and approaching high school graduation. I have drawn my way through their childhoods, which has had both its benefits and its drawbacks. But overall, I think it has enriched our lives, since the strip has also chronicled parts of our family life in a unique way. 

Jeff Bowen, I guy who went to my alma mater, Stetson University, appeared in a staged reading of a musical, Stargazers, that I co-wrote with my friend, Brett Templeton. He went on to co-write and star in a musical, title of show, that went to Broadway. Near they end of the musical, they sing a song about being happy if their play is “Nine People’s Favorite Thing.” In the end, I’m pretty happy if I’m nine people’s favorite thing. You know, everything’s a paradox: I do it for love, but let’s be honest, if even 1/4 of my 4,233 fans on Facebook pledged a dollar a month–I’d probably keep drawing till I dropped. 

What I’d love to be able to do, in the end, is get back to where the strip started: writing and drawing about real teaching and learning. Sure, Big Education Reform has given me a boatload of material over the years, but my fondest dream is to finish the strip with our public schools in better shape than ever. I’d like to see us really investing in kids rather than focusing on endless rounds of useless assessments. I’d like to finish the strip by writing and drawing about the humdrum humor of everyday classroom silliness because the endless assault on our public schools is finally over. 

So who knows where this journey will end? I’m still learning, I still have things to say, the strip still serves as a form of therapy for me, and for my readers, and I’m producing it more efficiently than ever now that I type the lettering rather than drawing it by hand… So will I hit twenty years? Who knows. But I’ll miss it when I stop.

In the meantime, I just went to Quality Quick Print and got copies made. 200 more empty frames just waiting to be filled…. As it says in another show, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George: “White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.”

Mr. Fitz for March 28th, 2015.