An Interview with "Rubes" Cartoonist, Leigh Rubin by Jackie Houchin

A cartoon is a mini (micro) short story, often told in a single panel. Astonishingly cartoons tell the “beginning, middle and end” of a story in a single line! How does a cartoonist DO that?  

Okay, okay, I know, a “picture is worth a thousand words,” but still, you have to envision the picture, and then create that “line.”
Leigh Rubin – a man I met decades ago when I went to his family’s print shop for some business cards – has created the now nationally syndicated Rubes® cartoons. Most times his cartoons are tongue-in-cheek, plays-on-words, or puns. Sometimes, you have to think about them for a minute to “get it.” But don’t good stories and books do that too?
Hi Leigh, thanks for stopping by Writers in Residence.
Take us back to the beginning of your story. Your first paperback collection was published in 1988, how did your signature cartoon series originate?  What gave you the idea for animal (and vegetable) humor? 
I had been walking through a drug store in 1978 and passed by the greeting card section. There were these very simply drawn cards with very fun and silly puns called

“Animal Farm” by Sandra Boynton. They were terrific and much different than your standard Hallmark card. It was at that moment I thought “Why don’t I start my own greeting card line?” 

I had been working at my folks print shop since high school so I knew how to run a press, do layout and design, etc. Of course I was majoring in advertising arts in college at the time so everything just sort of clicked. I started the card line in 1979. 

Skip ahead a couple of years….I was getting burned out doing both the card line and working at the print shop. 

I happened to be doodling around and made my signature character into a musical note. Then I started writing silly little puns to go along with the notes and Notable Quotes was born.

Jump ahead a couple more years and I was doing a book signing at a bookstore in Lancaster, California, with my first cartoon collection of Notable Quotes. The entertainment editor at the paper had written a little feature about the event. He and I became friends and it wasn’t long after that he asked if I’d like to draw a cartoon for the local paper. I jumped at the chance. 

On November 1,1984 the first Rubes® was published

At first you were self-syndicated. What does that mean? (Leigh is now represented nationally and internationally by Creators Syndicate.)

Self-syndication means that instead of a syndicate, which is a company that markets and hopefully sells your cartoons, that you (the cartoonist) have the pleasure of being rejected first-hand instead of the newspaper or publication telling the sales rep for the syndicate that they are not interested in your cartoon .

It also means that you “get to” make the sales, send out promo material, do the billing, chase down the people who owe you $$ and experience all the pleasure of running your own business.

Readers are always interested in process. Novelists and short story writers use the question, “What if?” to jump start their imagination and get the creative juices flowing. Describe how a cartoon that “delights millions daily” comes into being at your hands. 
My average day starts with a cup or two or three of whatever coffee my wife happens to brew that day. (I’m not all that picky.) It’s all downhill from there. If I didn’t wake up in the night with an amazing flash of humorous inspiration (yes, it still happens now and then) then it’s all just “winging it” with a mixture of doodling and daydreaming with a heapin’ helping of erasing thrown in for good measure. 

Call me old-fashioned but I still actually physically draw with a pencil on paper. There is something very satisfying with holding an original piece of art. Equally satisfying is tearing up the paper you struggled with all day because the gag didn’t turn out as funny as it was originally envisioned. 

The same cannot be said for drawing on a tablet. If you are unsatisfied, hitting “delete” does not give the same “take that you crappy drawing” sense of satisfaction. (Ah, the sweet sound of paper being torn in half!

Eventually, sometimes sooner than later, a workable concept will magically appear on the paper. An average day is one cartoon. A good day, two. An extraordinary day, three – though honestly, after two I call it a day. After all, there’s always tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that, etc.

Producing up to seven fresh cartoons weekly could get stressful. Do you ever get “dry?” What do you do to prime the pump?  (This might help “writer’s block” sufferers.)

As I mentioned, priming the pump consists mainly of intense mental calisthenics (aka “daydreaming”). If I don’t pick up the pencil then “ain’t nuthin’ gonna happen” so it’s best to just START. The sooner that happens the sooner an idea will manifest itself.

“Do I ever get dry?” Well, let’s just say that some days are easier than others. But, no. writer’s block is never an option for me.
You are also an entertaining motivational speaker for businesses, colleges, etc. I attended one and came away almost believing I could be a cartoonist! 
Describe what you do your demonstrations.

I like to think of myself as a “sit down comic.” 

Being in front of a live audience and telling jokes or sharing observational humor, going step by step through the creative process, connecting the dots, and of course some live doodling is great fun. It gives me the opportunity to connect with people from all walks of life with whom I would never have the chance to meet otherwise. 

What I hope that people take away from these live events is to find inspiration in their own lives by seeing from a slightly different and perhaps even humorous perspective, what would otherwise be mundane or unremarkable situations. 

I’ll bet you’ll never guess how funny flossing could be until you think about a sheep or a spider doing it!

Do you have any advice for newbie and hopeful cartoonists, writers and artists just starting out, or those struggling to get published?  

Advice you say? Well, yes. I do have some for what it’s worth. 

If someone you know tells or sends you a letter of rejection don’t take it personally. See if you can find out exactly why that person turned you down. Get the specifics if possible. 

One of my earliest letters of rejection came from a syndicate that loved my gags but thought my drawing needed work. I listened to them and really upped my game. That one reject coupled with some valuable constructive criticism made a huge impact on me and on my career.

Thanks, Leigh. And anything else you’d like to say before you leave? 

Say, would this be a suitable place to plug my latest book, which you can actually get for 25% off? It’s called Rubes® Twisted Pop Culture,and contains over 30 years of my very favorite pop culture cartoons-from Mickey Mouse to the Beatles to Godzilla and hundreds more! 

It would make a fabulous Father’s Day, graduation, belated Mother’s Day, birthday or any day gift!   Here’s the link and a preview:

Besides creating comic humor for newspapers, Leigh has produced books of cartoons, magnets, greeting cards, e-cards, tee-shirts and box calendars. Be sure to visit also his web site and peruse his witty collections and books.  

Interview with Leigh Rubin

Anyone who’s opened the Los Angeles Times to check out the “funnies” has seen Rubes. We wanted to know about the creative process that joins images and words to make these clever, often hilarious, cartoons. Creator Leigh Rubin generously offered to spend some time with WinRs.

How did you wind up writing cartoons?

I’ve always loved to draw and had wanted to be an artist from a very young age. The first cartoon I ever drew was in kindergarten. I also enjoy a good joke and it’s especially fun making them up so if you put the two skills together you have a cartoonist. Seems like the perfect profession for someone with absolutely no other marketable skills.

As a cartoonist, you both write and illustrate. Do you come up with your commentary first or doodle until an idea strikes you?

There really is no one way. Sometimes I doodle for a bit until an idea hits me just right or I may think of a phrase or hear a comment that someone says. There’s no real magic formula. If there was I’d bottle it and make a fortune selling it to other cartoonists.

Do you consider yourself an illustrator or a writer first?

Sometimes the writing is the main challenge. I really strive to make the captions just right. They have to fit the cartoon without giving too much away and leave something to the reader’s imagination. That’s the important part to me. I want the reader to contribute something to the cartoon. That’s what makes it art. Of course, having a funny picture along with the right words can be a bit tricky but that is the fun and challenging part.
What kind of hours does a cartoonist work? Do you ever get cartoonist’s block?

You call this work? Ha! …But seriously, my boss is a real jerk. He’s not going to see this interview is he? He makes me draw at least one cartoon per day but quite often he’ll make me draw two a day because I’m often out and about the country doing my goofy cartoon presentations and speaking engagements. I am going to be hitting the road even more often this year as I have a nifty new 25th anniversary cartoon collection coming out in March so I am sure my evil boss will be working me extra hard to make sure all my cartoons are drawn before I leave town…Cartoonist’s block?…Listen, I had a colonoscopy when I turned fifty and I guarantee you, after that there wasn’t any blockage whatsoever.

You were originally self-syndicated. What does this mean?

Self-syndication means that in addition to writing and drawing you also have the opportunity to call on editors, make the sales, send out promo material, do the billing, chase down the people who don’t pay you, etc. , etc., etc. It is not for the faint of heart and I did it for the first four years of Rubes. Being self-syndicated gives you a terrific appreciation of what syndication sales reps have to do on a daily basis, only most syndicates represent many features, so the reps have many features they must know inside and out…and there’s a lot to know.

How did you become widely syndicated in newspapers? Did markets approach you after you had built up a following or did you try to get people to take a chance on you?

My first paper was the Antelope Valley Press in Palmdale, California. I had met the entertainment editor when he wrote a feature story about a book signing event I was doing. We became friends and he, as well as a couple of the other editors at the paper wanted to know if I’d like to draw a daily cartoon for them. That was my first “big” break. After I drew about one hundred cartoons I started contacting all the major, as well as some of the smaller syndicates, but they all turned me down. Looking at their reject letters now makes me laugh. I’m a firm believer in persistence. I don’t easily accept “no” for an answer, so I started calling on newspapers myself….Big papers, little papers, weeklies, college papers, it didn’t really matter. Within a year or so I had built up a client list of around 160 papers…all while I was working a full time job. I only wish I still had that kind of energy! I did have a couple of papers approach me but as my dad used to say, “Don’t wait for your ship to come in, row out and meet it.” He was right. If I hadn’t made hundreds of phone calls and sent out an equal amount of letters I’d still be standing on the dock.
You give cartoon workshops and presentations all over the country. Do you find there are a burgeoning number of cartoonists out there?

Yes, it’s amazing how many closet cartoonists are out there are of all ages. From little kids, to teens to adults and that includes senior citizens. People really do love cartoons and cartooning and not just for financial reasons. They enjoy the fun of just being creative for the sake of being creative, which is absolutely wonderful.

Are the markets shrinking for cartoonists as they are for writers?
The newspaper market has definitely shrunk. There used to be many two or more newspapers towns but those days are gone. Still, newspapers will be around for a long time and with the internet it’s wide open. The trick will be to see how to get paid for your writing and cartooning on the internet. Some people have figured that out and I am certain that there will be new avenues that no one has even thought of yet to make a living writing and cartooning so I do remain optimistic.

If someone wanted to get into cartooning, what advice would you give them?
Stay in school, study hard, become a doctor or a lawyer because I don’t need the competition!

What’s up next for you?

I’ll be hitting the road in a week or so bringing the Rubes cartoony show to San Antonio. In between private speaking engagements I have lots of public events lined up. With the new book, The Wild and Twisted World of Rubes coming out this March it will be extra fun. It’s wonderful sharing laughs and connecting with a live audience. Nothing beats being a sit down comedian.

Thank you so much! You can pre-order The Wild and Twisted World of Rubes at Amazon, and you can learn more about Leigh at his website.