The Thinker

In a comic frame of mind

Since retirement is on my mind, what to do next is also on my mind. Here’s what I won’t be doing:

  • Playing golf. I never tried, but it’s expensive and since it requires agility then I am likely to do as well at it as I dance. (I have little sense of rhythm or balance.) So I figure I would prove to be spectacularly bad at it.
  • Ski. See playing golf. Plus I imagine myself in casts and walking around for weeks in crutches.
  • Sitting around the house all day. I get cabin fever after a few days. I figure I need a dog in retirement. They always want to go outside. And while I love my spouse, too much togetherness is not good. I saw what it did to my parent’s marriage. They would have been much happier if they spent much of their days apart.
  • Not working. I don’t want to work full time, but I want to do something productive at least part time. Teaching at a community college, which I have done off and on for many years, is doable but it doesn’t pay much. I’ll want to supplement my retirement income by more than teaching at an adjunct’s salary.

Ideally you spend your retirement doing things you like to do, but doing it on a schedule that suits you and hopefully making some money at it. I’ve done IT management for fifteen years or so. It’s not the most interesting thing to do, but it could be worse and it pays great. In retirement I’ll be glad to put that behind me. It seems a shame to waste my IT skills, because I still think IT is fascinating. So I am thinking of writing some mobile apps, once I learn how to do it. It’s not an easy market though. You have to find a niche plus everyone and his brother is doing the same thing and selling them for ninety-nine cents on Google Play. The vast majority of apps have no buzz and languish in obscurity.

I am obviously a political creature, given the nature of this blog. So combining social action with something I enjoy sounds like a good way to spend my time. If it can be profitable, it is even better. So I am thinking of creating a comic strip.

I have noticed that being able to draw doesn’t matter much anymore. Dilbert is a great example. Scott Adams is a millionaire and he cannot draw worth a damn. What he had was a clever idea and he was fortunate enough to work it until it took off. Dilbert is an example of a comic strip that is minimalistic and this type seems to be more popular these days. The online strip xkcd is a better example. If you are creative enough and hit a new and emerging market then the ability to draw is irrelevant.

Based on my research, creating a comic is a lot like selling a first novel. Many try but few succeed. Also, the market is declining, at least for comics on newsprint. Still, there is something about being a creative force behind a comic that appeals to me. I like that, when successful, you can get paid a lot of money for doing so very little. (At least that’s the way I perceive it.) I’ve come up with two comic ideas and curiously both arrived in the middle of the night.

Going with the existential, minimalist, “I don’t need to actually be an artist to write a comic” theme, my first idea for a strip was “A Pile of Ants”. Three frames for every strip during the week of course. All you see is a pile of ants represented by a lot of dots on a surface. One ant talks to the other. It’s an ill-formed idea, but it occurred to me that ants could articulate things that humans cannot and get away with it. Like Monty Python, most people would not “get” it, but those who did would find it hilarious. That you actually never see any of the characters would make it singularly unique, sort of like radio was when you had to picture the action and characters in your mind. However, after a few days I realized I doubted I could sustain this idea for very long, and it was unlikely to be marketable. And it probably wouldn’t do much for social action.

The second idea, and one I am considering pursuing with a friend that can at least draw, is a strip about life in the retail world. It has the virtue of never being done before. Most of us have had the retail experience in our careers, and found that it sucked. So it would be a strip that most could relate to, which might make it marketable. Of course, it would be all about life in retail, probably a fictional big box chain that seems like some amalgamation of Walmart and Target. In my days it was a Montgomery Ward, now defunct. The experience though does not change much from decade to decade. Clerks and salespeople are used, more often abused and occasionally recycled. Customers frequently act pissy, managers thrive on exploitation and staff turns over so frequently you can’t keep up with who is supposed to be working on a given day. In general, in the retail business every effort is made to keep costs low primarily through the infliction of pain on retail employees. At least, that was my experience in about two years working retail after college but before landing a government job. And from reading sites like Not Always Right, which documents customer abuse in the retail world, stupid customer syndrome has not abated.

I don’t have a working title for the strip yet. I want to keep details private until I find out if this thing can fly, and given the odds it probably won’t. But I am a decent writer, and I can write good characters. While artwork is less important than it used to be, I don’t want to embarrass myself, so I am hoping I can find an artist who might take it on. My friend Tom from childhood gets first dibs, if he has time for the project. We worked on comics together as teens and he has a lot of natural talent plus he works in advertising. If I need inspiration there are plenty of places online to find it, but also plenty of material to dreg up from thirty years ago as well.

The main task right now is to flesh out the strip, sort of the way screenplays are done: with a treatment. I need to set up the whole thing, the main characters, the big box, the staff, the managers, how they interact, etc. When I find an artist, we’ll prototype the characters until we have a set that we both like. We’ll then create a month or so of strips and shop them around to various syndicates. There they will likely get ignored, but you never can tell. And if I find it doesn’t seem marketable in print but is still interesting enough to spend time on, like xkcd it may be an entirely on-line thing. Any income generated from publishing it solely online is likely to be marginal at best, with most income coming from merchandising.

In any event, the strip will be there to entertain but like M*A*S*H on TV it will have a surreptitious purpose. For the first several years the idea is to keep it light. Have characters interact and generate a lot of humor. Once it is established, or when I get to the point where there is not much to lose, I’ll give it more of a social action focus. I’ll highlight just how marginal life in the retail world actually is. I imagine a character that sleeps in his car and runs his social life from sitting in a McDonalds parking lot. He has with a flaky laptop plugged into his cigarette lighter and accesses the Internet using their free WiFi.

Dilbert has sort of plumbed this material for the tech world through characters like Asok and Tina the Tech Writer. However, their pain does not begin to match those who inhabit the retail world. We are getting a glimpse of it from the scattered strikes at fast food restaurants and Walmarts across the country. It’s clear to me that these employees have their backs to the wall and simply cannot endure it anymore. It is actually even harder today than it was when I worked retail, and it was soul crushing then, just paid marginally more. The right comic can help broadcast the injustices faced by these vital but abused workers. If I can market it, the timing seems right as well because the subject is topical.

We’ll see if I can get it together. Wish me luck.


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