Young man with a pen: Darby Conley (photo courtesy United Media©)

 

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But transposing his sense of humor into a mainstream comic strip may also be a time-consuming effort for Conley.

"Newspaper cartoon strips have to be really, really mass-appeal type things and acceptable viewing to even the people who aren't going to think it's funny," Conley says. "There've been a lot of strips my editors wouldn't send out–definitely, there've been a lot killed. My editor complains I have too much potty humor; like I did a series where the cat fancies himself an artist and he's just breaking everything and calling it modern art. I played off an old turning point in art for better or worse, when some guy just pulled a urinal out of a factory assembly line, signed his name to it, and called it art. So I had one where he signed the toilet…so anything with toilet or potty (humor) is a no-no."

Growing up in Knoxville, Tenn., Conley never actually owned a cat–but he did immerse himself in comics. You could've found him lying on the floor at Mt. Olive Elementary School during the second-grade reading period, surrounded by a pile of Peanuts books. By the time he hit 7th-grade at Doyle Middle School, he was putting square borders around his doodles and inscribing them with captions. Finally, during his high school years, he found his epiphany at the Doyle High Trailblazer, ripping off Gary Larson's massively popular The Far Side. His single-panel strip of weirdness won him first place in a local newspaper student cartoon competition in 1986, thus planting the idea of someday becoming a professional cartoonist.

"Some people are into movies, some people are into TV–my favorite things in high school were Bloom County and The Far Side," he says. "I remember getting to school early and racing to the library just to grab the papers before somebody stole them all, just to read them. My favorite comic of all time is Tin Tin. In the newspaper (today) I read Robotman. I sort of scan them, but there are no (newspaper) comics anymore that hit a demographic between kids and adults. Anybody's who's twentysomething trying to read the comics is sort of out of luck."

Conley attended art school at Amherst College in Massachusetts, double-majoring in art history and fine arts while continuing to improve his Far Side clones for the Amherst Student. After graduating in ’94, he taught at an elementary school for two years, then became the art director for The Science Discovery Museum in Acton, Mass. Meanwhile, he had been submitting his cartoons to syndicates, the companies that distribute comics to newspapers.

"I had slapped together a bunch of stuff I did in college for the student paper, and it was all Far Side rip-off type stuff," Conley says. "But I guess it was funny enough that a couple guys got back to me and told me what they'd like to see–and that pretty much involved creating an actual strip with recurring characters. So from then on, I worked on the Get Fuzzy idea, the cat and dog stuff."

Getting an editor's attention is a remarkable achievement in itself–at any one time, there are between 600 and 800 people submitting their cartoons for consideration. That Conley was able to turn that bit of interest into a contract with mega-syndicate United Media (home to Peanuts and Dilbert) is amazing; that the strip took off immediately after launch is a genuine miracle in this industry. While there are probably thousands of aspiring cartoonists, established cartoonists aren't leaving their slots anytime soon–and there's only so much page space. This leaves most up-and-comers out in the cold.

"It's really static–it's a hard thing to break into," Conley says of cartooning. "It's a heck of a lot easier to get a book published than to get a cartoon strip into the newspapers. So I don't know if I'd go through with it again–it's definitely a hard road. And a lot of it can be time-consuming in your off-time, so you come home from your job and work through the night on stuff that doesn't pay you any money."

Nevertheless, the cartooning pay-off seems nigh for Conley. Of course, marketing juggernauts aren't always healthy things for cartoon strips; will he ever consign his creations to an early grave like his heroes Gary Larson and Berke Breathed?

"I'd do something as long as I wasn't embarrassed about doing it," he says. "The one thing I'm terrified about is churning out clichés, something I'd be embarrassed to sign my name to and have people say 'Yeah, I know that guy.' So as long as I can keep going and not feel bad about it, it is sort of fun."

 

Related Websites:

Get Fuzzy: United Media's official site offers a month's worth of Get Fuzzy (though some of Bucky's detail gets lost), background info, and the usual tie-in products for your consideration.

Mutts: King Feature's official site with the usual stuff.

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