This month, in Macs at Work, I speak with cartoonist Michael Jantze, creator of “The Norm.” Michael is a long time Mac user and enthusiast who stands totally behind the Mac. So sit back, put your feet up, close your eyes and think, “it’s Sunday morning and time to read the Comics!”
My Mac- Can you give us a little information on your background and how long you’ve
been involved with Macs?
Michael: I’ve used Macs since the 128k. A friend and professor of mine each had one in college. I was a film major, so the first thing I created was a tab-set MacWrite document for my film scripts.
I think I’ve used almost every Macintosh that’s been produced. I graduated to a job as an Art Director and started with a Plus, then an SE30 and then had one of the first Mac IIs. At my next job as a newspaper graphic artist, I worked on a Mac IIfx, then a gx(?) and then a Power Mac 8100, etc.
At home, for freelance, I used to use a Mac IIcx and a PowerBook 180. Now that
I’m working exclusively on “The Norm” comic strip and its related Web site, I’ve upgraded to the 7500 Power Macintosh (7500/100 with 82 Megs of RAM and a Gig drive) I also use a Newton MessagePad 100 as my rolodex and list manager. At home, I
still have a MacPlus, but since the move in November, it hasn’t been plugged in. I think it’s time to upgrade to one of the new portables.
I’m not even sure how to spell ‘P-See’ or MacroSoft.
My Mac- How do you specifically use the Mac in your everyday activities?
Michael: Let’s see. Scanning of my original comic art. Coloring the Sunday comic.
Electronic delivery. E-mail with my syndicate as well as “The Norm” readers. Web research and surfing. Web design and uploading. Faxing. Book design. Database. Word processing. Print layout and design.
I use programs like Photoshop, Quark Xpress, FreeHand, HTML Editor, Netscape
Navigator, Explorer, Fetch, AOL, Eudora, WordPerfect, GIF Builder, BBEdit,
SoundMachine and Quicken.
My Mac- What is a typical day for you and your Mac?
Michael: I’m down in my office by 9:00 a.m. I check mail first thing. Then I’m at my
drawing board for the rest of the morning. I grab lunch and answer the e-mail. I usually spend the afternoon either coloring the Sunday strip in Photoshop, or working on parts of the Web site. When the daily strips are finished, I scan them with a HP ScanJet 4c. Then I size them, add the copyright information and send them off to King Features via America Online. The Sunday strip is sent to a Color House BBS in upper state New York.
In the evening, I’ll spend time answering mail again and doing some research on the Web, either for ideas for strips or to look at a site that someone suggested I check out.
I also do some Web design consulting on the side (my latest project was The Sonoma Traveler at http://www.winetraveler.com) and try to stay up on the latest in that field.
My Mac-Please give us some background on your comic strip, “The Norm” and the
characters who reside there.
Michael: “The Norm” is about getting along in the world today – the main character,
Norm, deals with everything from love, life, work and technology. What’s different from other strips is the single-point perspective. The reader is invited into Norm’s head daily and treated like one of Norm’s friends.
I use the device of Norm introducing topics as he looks directly at the
reader to do this. The strip often continues with Norm narrating the
situation or thought. I’m told that because of this, a lot of people think
the strip is dense – that there is a lot of ideas packed into one day.
Reine (pronounced re NAY), Norm’s college friend and confidant. She and Norm exchange inside information on dating. Reine has a no nonsense attitude about work and isn’t waiting for anyone to hold the door for her.
Ford, Norm’s friend and co-worker who’s in a “long-term” relationship with Jan. Ford considers himself the resident expert on dating because he’s in one and Norm isn’t.
Wonk is another of Norm’s co-workers – he’s a programmer and what we Mac people would consider one of the ‘PC types.’
There are also other characters who pop in and out – bosses, co-workers, clerks, etc.
My Mac- Where do you get your ideas for “The Norm?”
Michael: The strip is fairly self-referential, but let me put that in context. I’m
not so much recording something that happens to me, but rather the ideas come from how I felt about something. The rest I make up.
My Mac- Is the “Norm” really you, your inner voice speaking out through your
Michael: I wish I had some really cool answer to that question, but the success of
my strip has been that I’ve put my own voice on paper. I couldn’t write the more conventional humor you usually see in other strips and the current format of the strip was my personal solution to making it funny.
Yes, I write from that voice and to that voice. I think I said before, it’s not so much the situation that’s funny as what I think about the situation that makes THE NORM uniquely humorous.
My Mac- Regarding your work on “The Norm,” could you provide a more detailed look at how you actually do your work, say the Sunday comic, from the original pen work to the transmission to the color house (and please explain what a color house is).
Michael: Okay. You asked for it. The process of cartooning still starts on paper
and ends on paper. It’s everything in between that’s changed.
After I pencil and ink the strip (Sunday originals are 17.5″ x 5.5″), I scan the inked drawing at 600 dpi and as a bitmap image using a Hewlett-Packard ScanJet4c. I went with this model because it still offers a 14″ bed which means I can get more of my drawing on the scanner at one time (daily originals are 13″ x 4″). I assemble the two scanned pieces in Photoshop 3.0 and save it as a TIFF file. I also add the logo and art at this time. I save the document and duplicate it.
Then I open the dupe, convert it to CMYUK, decrease the dpi to 150 and put the black inks on a layer above the background layer. The “inks” layer is set to “darken” so that the color on the background layer shows through. I then erase the CMY channels on the inks layer. Finally, I erase the background layer and begin coloring using only CMY colors.
When I’ve finished coloring I discard the inks layer and save the document as a JPEG. It’s now only about 400k. I stuff the bitmap file and use FirstClass Client 2.6 to send both files to American Color in Buffalo, NY. American Color is a prepress color house that coordinates the printing of the Sunday Comics for newspapers all over the country; one of those big brother business you don’t even know about.
My Mac- How long does it take you to do a strip from the original idea to the sending out of your finished product?
Michael: That’s a hard one to answer. I work in “batches,” so I’ll pencil six strips all at once, then ink them like a factory worker a couple of days later. The ideas, of course, are the most elusive. I keep a diary sketch book that I throw all my ideas into. Some ideas come out just fine, others well…we don’t talk about those.
Let’s see, if I think about this I can probably figure it out: I need a day to pencil the dailies and Sunday. Then I’ll need a day to ink the dailies and the Sunday, sometimes less. Scanning and sending the dailies takes a couple of hours. The coloring of the Sunday takes a half day. The problem is I do a hundred other things in between all those tasks, so it takes all week to finish the strips.
Deadlines are fun!
My Mac- Regarding actually doing the comic strip, who determines what the strip
is going to be about, or the characters involved?
Michael: That’s totally my fault.
My Mac- Knowing that you are pro-Mac, and after reading through your strips, I
notice a definite Mac look when Norm deals with a computer. How often do you try to put a Mac in the strip or at least make sure that the reader knows the Mac is out there?
Michael: Every computer in THE NORM is a Mac – unless I’m making fun of ‘em. Norm drives a 8500/180 at work and a 7500/100 at home. And of course, there’s
Newtie, his first generation Newton that shows up frequently. Will he ever own a clone? Oh, the drama!
How often do I put a Mac in the strip? Let’s just say Norm readers are not burdened with cheap imitations or PCs in this strip. You get what you pay for.
My Mac- A lot of press has been declaring that the “Mac is dead!” as far as the
graphics/art world is concerned, with the new PCs replacing the Macs. Do you
Michael: The Mac isn’t dead. No way. As long as Apple doesn’t get weird about not
being the biggest company in the marketplace, there’s a very profitable chunk that rightfully belongs to them. I’ve worked on some of these new PCs and they still don’t have it figured out. Graphics and multimedia will continue to be the Mac’s stronghold.
My Mac- Besides “The Norm” and your work on the Web, what other projects do
you have on the “drawing board,” so to speak, that the readers would enjoy hearing about?
Michael: I’ve just started an ezine called “Club Norm.” Unlike the comic strip, the ezine will open up the perspective to include the reader’s true stories of modern horror. It’ll be quarterly starting in mid-March. People can subscribe by either checking out the Web site or sending a SUBSCRIBE to email@example.com. The first issue will rely heavily on Norm junk, but hopefully, by the end of the year we’ll get to the real personality of the zine – just a lot of different ideas colliding on cyber-paper.
I get a lot of questions about when the first collection of THE NORM will be printed, but I think we’re still a ways off.
One of the cool things about the Web site is that the strip is bringing in an international audience, something I hadn’t thought about at all. And “The Norm” is in print in 10 papers internationally. King Features, my syndicate, has done a great job with that. The strange part about syndication into newspapers is that it’s really a game of chance. “The Norm” is doing really well in the international markets – it’s sold into Pakistan, Indonesia, Estonia, Brazil to name a few – but still hasn’t sold in my home town of Bloomington-Normal, Ill. I guess I should have grown up in Pakistan…
Other than that there will be changes coming to The NORM NET, when I have time to do them. Anyone want to volunteer to write some code?
My Mac- Where would you like to take “The Norm” next? Do you become the first online interactive comic strip? Where do you go from here?
Michael: I think there’s some people who are already doing that kind of stuff. (Bill Holbrook has an online strip and George Rarey has created an online comic book – I’m sure there’s many more). I’m more interested in finding new markets for daily comic strips as well as new formats that use my characters in familiar, yet different settings.
New markets might include online services and the Internet (be it ftp or www) and the new formats may be CD-ROMs or graphic novels using the characters more as actors than as their present personalities.
I enjoy finding ways to break ground or reintroduce things that were done well and have since been abandoned. In many of my Sunday strips, I’m going back to “activities” and formats that cartoonists like George Herriman and E.C. Segar had nailed 50 years ago.
The strip in the short run will continue to develop the characters and dynamics between them all. I’ve just begun to flesh out some of the supporting characters like Wonk and Norm’s boss. To that end, you’ll probably see longer story lines that put the characters into situations and environments that define their more inner inclinations.
My Mac- Michael, a final question for you. For those readers with an interest in cartooning or with a knack for drawing, what words of encouragement and guidance can you offer?
Michael: The newspaper graphics industry is Mac all the way. So if you want to get
into newspapers, knowing the Mac and the graphics and multimedia programs will be a huge benefit. Daily comic strip syndication is one of the hardest things to break into – it took me about seven years – but it’s also one of the simplest. Get a hold of a book at your library or bookstore called Artists Market. It lists all the syndicates and other companies that buy comic art. And, of course, there’s always the Internet.
©1997, Michael Jantze. Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.
Redistribution in whole or part is prohibited.For those of you interested in seeing more of the Norm and his friends, check out http://www.thenorm.com. And don’t forget to check out the new site for CLUB NORM at http://www.thenorm.com/zine.html.
Russ Walkowich (firstname.lastname@example.org)