Bill Amend at Ten and Nearly Twenty
On the eve of FoxTrot’s tenth anniversary (well, in April 1996, two years before, but still, on the “eve”), I interviewed Bill Amend for Cartoonist PROfiles. The interview was published in September 1998 (in No. 119), by which time, the strip had celebrated its tenth anniversary on April 10, 1998. But even two years before, when I interviewed him as the strip was on the cusp of its eighth anniversary, Amend was beginning to feel the effects of the never-ending grind of meeting two deadlines a week, one for the daily strips and one for the Sunday, the grind that finally wore him down enough that he decided, last fall, to discontinue the daily FoxTrot. But Amend still loves cartooning; it’s the deadlines that wore him out. So he is continuing to produce FoxTrot but, now—starting January 7, 2007—meeting only one deadline a week with just the Sunday strip (see Opus 199 for details). A lot less grinding. What follows here is that 1998 article, more-or-less intact —with only a few minor adjustments, including information imported from an earlier PROfiles piece that appeared in December 1989 in No. 84. Here we go:
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot comic strip with Universal Press Syndicate will be nineteen years old ten years old on April 10, 2007, but the characters haven’t aged a day. The Fox family remains exactly as it was when they debuted almost twenty years ago. Roger, the husband and father, is still “trying to master the technologies of the time” and leaving crisis management to his wife, Andy. And she is “the sanest of the lot,” according to Universal’s press kit. Mother, housewife, professional writer, and grievance mediator, she “always wanted to have lots of children; now she knows better.”
The children include: Peter, the eldest, a highschool senior with a bottomless stomach, who forgets that such activities as football, baseball, and soccer are meant to take place outdoors; Paige, his highschool freshman sister, desperately waiting for Mr. Right (or Mr. Almost Right, or Mr. Almost Almost Right, or—) while being driven nuts by her younger sibling, Jason, who is only ten years old but is a genius and whose hobbies are tormenting his sister and planning world domination. And then there’s Quincy, Jason’s pet iguana, who “eats, sleeps, and throws up on Paige’s pillow— the perfect pet.”
Said Amend: “I like to think of the Foxes as a typical suburban American family but with their eccentricity knobs turned way up into the red zone.” The plot is simple: it’s a family, and the kids push each other’s buttons while the parents try to keep up.
“I’m deliberately not aging them,” Amend told me when we talked in April 1996. “I won’t say I will never age them, but I think the dynamic I’ve created is one that gives me a lot of possibilities to work with. Jason is at that wonderfully obnoxious age where he doesn’t like girls and he’s old enough to be dangerous. He can figure out all sorts of ways to harass his siblings. And Peter’s old enough that he can drive and go out with girls, but he’s not particularly worldly wise, and his social skills still need a lot of development. And Paige is number two, somewhere in between—not quite a girl, not quite a woman; hasn’t really dated. If I age them, all that changes, maybe not to the detriment of the strip— For Better and For Worse has done a wonderful job of maintaining a level of quality and humor just by changing— but I, for now, don’t feel that I have exhausted all the potential that I’ve got, and until then, I’ll probably continue.”
I asked him, as the strip passed its eighth anniversary, if there was anything he would do differently if he had it all to do over again.
Amend thought. And then he said: “If I was starting the strip all over again, I think I would probably go with a different art style. The style I’m using now— I deliberately stuck their noses off to the side of their eyeballs to create a cockeyed two-dimensional look. Which is neat, but it only works with profiles. And after eight years, there are times when I really wish I could employ a little different perspective or use three-quarters views.
“I’m comfortable drawing this way,” he continued, “but it does limit me tremendously. It’s the sort of thing you don’t notice the first year or so of the strip’s run, but after eight years, when you look back— well, gosh, I really get tired sometimes of drawing these characters looking in profile at each other all the time. I’m not sure what I’ll do long-term. Whether I’ll just keep them the way they are or gradually evolve the art. Maybe I’ll buy one of those computer morphing programs,” he said with a grin.
“If I was starting all over,” he concluded, “I’d definitely take little pieces of clay and do three-dimensional sculptures to figure out how they’d all look from every angle. The times I have my headaches are when I have to draw Jason from above, or something like that. I just go nuts.”
Amend chose to do a strip about a family because he was in one. Although he wasn’t married when he conceived the strip, he was living at home with his parents (he had already graduated from Amherst College), and he had three younger siblings, all teenagers.
Said he: “What appealed to me about doing a family strip— apart from the fact that I was in a family at the time and surrounded by teenagers— was that there are aspects of family life that are universally understood. A lot of the dynamics in relationships are pre-defined, or close enough to being pre-defined that people can pick up on them pretty quickly. You’ve got the parents, and they are the authority figures; you’ve got the kids who are the ones to rebel. You’ve got siblings and they tend to clash. You don’t have to do as much exposition as you might, say, in office life strip. In an office life strip, you’d have to constantly remind the readers who’s the boss and who’s the underling. Here, it’s pretty clear. The bald guy is the dad, and the three-foot-high kid is the kid. So I liked that, and that let me concentrate on giving them eccentricities within that framework.”
From the beginning, Amend has written the strip from the perspective of the kids. “If you look at a lot of other family strips,” he explained, “you get the sense that they are about parents interacting with the kids and the punchline is always, Oh— kids say the darndest things.”
I said: “But you’re not being parental about your kids. You’re not putting them down or holding them up as oddities.”
“No, no—not at all,” Amend said. “And I’m assuming my readers are able to put themselves in the shoes of the kids in the strip the same way I am. The strip has been fairly successful with younger readers,” he continued. “I get the sense that a lot of family strips are written for an audience that is over forty. I’ll write a strip, and I’ll mention a video game that I know my parents have never heard of. And so I’m hopeful that my older readers will indulge me for that one day, and let me make a joke that a twelve-year-old might enjoy.”
Amend tries to write a week’s worth of strips on a single day. “I find it’s easier for me to be funny one day a week— to be really funny one day a week—than to be a little funny seven days a week. I basically eat a big dinner the night before and think about the strip when I go to bed, and then when I wake up the next morning, I drink a lot of coffee and write and write and write and write. I use the rest of the week to draw the strip. Generally, it takes me two days to draw the dailies, and a day-and-a-half, maybe, to do a Sunday strip. I generally start working in the mid-to-late morning and try to call it quits by seven p.m.,” he went on. “Once a week, on the eve of my deadline, I end up working past midnight, but that’s just me. I can’t believe other cartoonists would be that masochistic.”
Almost all of them are, of course.
“To start with, I write the dialogue,” Amend continued. “I might do a few thumbnail sketches. Typically in writing, I do just enough sketching so I can get a sense of where the characters are in relation to each other. Occasionally, I’ll have an idea for a strip that is a visual gag, but even then, it comes to me in my head: I’m not sketching when the idea comes. I’m more comfortable with words than I am with pictures.”
I asked if he changes what he has written as he draws the strip.
“Frequently,” he said. “Once in a while, I’ll change things at two o’clock in the morning, and wake up the next day and say, What the heck was I thinking.”
I noticed that there’s often a second bounce to his punchline in the last panel. The second bounce seems to build on and extend the first bounce. And that double-bounce seemed to me to indicate that he tinkered with his punchline as he drew.
Amend agreed: “It’s that last line of dialogue that gets changed the most. Often when I write the strip, I end it with a traditional sort of punchline, and there might a bland follow-up comment. I find it difficult to have a character on the right side of that last panel who is not reacting. They have to say something. I might initially write the strip with them saying something, but after I’ve put the time and effort into the actual drawing, I look at it, and say, Gosh, this seems to fall flat; is there any way I can improve it? Frequently, I’ll go through six or seven endings— at midnight, usually— and hopefully, I’m not too delirious by then.”
Observing that his strip is intensely character-driven, I rattled on: “I would venture to guess that there’s a high percentage of your strips that wouldn’t be funny if you didn’t know the characters: the humor originates in the personalities of the characters, and they are each different. I’m sure that if I were drawing the strip, I would be thinking about the lives of these characters as I’m drawing, which would lead me into other avenues where I’d come up with a different punchline than the one I’d started with.”
Again, Amend agreed: “The writing process is very mysterious to me. It’s almost like the branches of a tree. I may start in one place, and I think in my head that I’m going to Point A, but by time I get to the third panel, I’ve branched off somewhere else. And suddenly a whole week’s worth of strips will come out of that. And it’s entirely because of some piece of dialogue that I hadn’t planned on that’s flowed out of the mouth of one of these characters.”
Character and storytelling are the driving forces in Amend’s creative process. He originally thought he might be a filmmaker.
“What me interested me in filmmaking,” he said, “was the notion of storytelling and how the characters react and interact— with humor. Mad magazine, Monty Python, and all that. But I’d always drawn little cartoons to amuse myself. I’d never planned to be a cartoonist. I was going to be a Steven Spielberg or George Lucas and make Star Wars movies. But cartooning worked well for me in college: I got positive feedback from friends, and I thought, Well, this is potentially something I could explore as a career, and I sent off to syndicates and got rejection letters that were somewhat encouraging. So I kept at it.”
With filmmaking in mind, Amend thought he’d major in English or Drama at Amherst. But after taking a number of drama courses, he didn’t think he was learning anything “good and solid.” About then, he took a physics course. “And since I’d always been mathematically inclined, I loved it.” So he majored in physics. But all four years in college, he drew an editorial cartoon for the campus newspaper. Between his junior and senior year, he tried his hand at a comic strip, submitting a week’s worth of samples to syndicates. The strip didn’t sell, but one syndicate responded favorably, asking to see more, a response that led Amend to decide, after graduating, to “postpone a serious job search in favor of spending three or four months to develop the strip.” The strip was entitled Bango Ridge.
“It was about an animal psychologist who goes off to Bango Ridge in the jungle to study animals, and it turns out that most of them are more human than he is,” Amend said. “They’re running around with Michael Jackson records, and you can imagine what else was involved in that kind of scene.”
Again, he received a number of rejection letters and a couple encouraging ones. He decided to try another comic strip. By this time, he had a day job in animation that evolved into another job with a new movie production facility in San Francisco. At night, he developed FoxTrot and started sending samples off to syndicates. Receiving encouragement from a couple syndicates, he did more samples and, again, sent them off to all the syndicates on his list. Lee Salem at Universal Press wanted to see more.
“Following this,” Amend continued during the 1989 interview, “Lee wrote me a long letter, going over some of the concerns the syndicate had, what they thought the strong points and the weak points of the strip were. ... The strip had a sort of ensemble cast of five family members, and the syndicate was afraid that readers would get lost trying to follow each one, and would be confused as to who was who. I hadn’t really wanted to focus on just one of them —and to make that character a ‘star’ character. But they wanted me to try this to see if it would work. Later, I did narrow things down to two characters, but they felt that the strip lost something in the process, so we went back to the original arrangement. I had taken the drastic step of just going with the daughter, Paige, and the little boy, Jason, and it was purely a sibling-relationship strip at that point.”
Following the misadventures of an ensemble cast is not as difficult as it is to tell the difference between Paige and her mother, with the masculine-sounding name “Andy.” This difficulty, however, is less the fault of the size of the cast than it is a problem with the drawing style Amend adopted for rendering his characters: the two females are simply drawn, as are all the others, and the only distinguishing marks are their hair-dos. But you can’t tell how the hair-dos are different unless you see both characters at the same time. The other characters present no recognition problems.
Amend’s success in selling the family strip idea is remarkable if we consider that the last thing syndicate editors were likely to be looking for in 1988 ago was another family strip. I said: “I suppose they all said, Another family strip. And yet yours really isn’t another family strip: it’s different than other family strips.”
“Yes!” Amend exclaimed in comic exaggerated exasperation. “That’s what I kept telling them back then! And they kept rejecting me! No, I’d say, it’s different. I have rejection letters from syndicates saying, We already have two family strips. And in fact when Universal first signed me up, one of their first questions was: how are we going to sell this? What’s the angle? I guess they figured it out; I’m not in sales. That’s their problem, right? I think there’s plenty of room on the comics pages for several family strips. We all live in families; we all grew up in families. As you say, my strip’s clearly different from For Better or For Worse, a lot different from Hi and Lois; really different from Arlo and Janis. I think the strong part of the strip from their perspective was that it has a very contemporary setting—it contains a lot of the trappings of our times—you’ll see a lot of Coke cans around, ‘Wheel of Fortune’ will be on the tv, and there’ll be much evidence of present-day paraphernalia everywhere. That probably separates it from other family strips. Universal had some criticism pertaining to the early strips because they didn’t show much movement of the camera or the viewpoint. They were very static so we’ve been trying [he said, during the 1989 interview] to intersperse some different camera angles as we go along. I was reluctant to do this early on because I felt that it might detract from the writing. But I’ve been getting better at camera angles and have discovered that there are ways you can help the humor with these variations.”
Although he drew editorial cartoons in college, he would have preferred doing a strip. But the campus paper came out only twice a week, too infrequently for the kind of character-based humor that Amend has always favored.
Character-driven strips are double-edged swords, Amend said. “When FoxTrot is just starting in a paper, I’m sure that there are a lot of readers who, for two months, have no idea what’s going on in my strip. And there are probably a number of readers who think, Well, this is silly, and they move on. But for those readers who do stick around for the initial exposition, there’s a chance for a loyalty there that may not occur if I were doing just a gag-a-day. My own experience as a comic fan convinces me that you get to know these characters—Calvin and Hobbes and Doonesbury. They become a part of your life and not just devices for setting up punchlines.”
I agreed, and pointed out that many of the most successful strips recently are character-driven. When I talked to Neal Sternecky several years ago while he was doing Pogo, he said that he didn’t like gags that could be picked up and moved to another strip. They had to be gags that belonged in this strip, not somebody else’s strip; they had to originate in the characters’ personalities.
“Right,” Amend said. “I try very hard—not always successfully—but I try to write punchlines that would only have come out of a specific character’s mouth. There are times when some joke is clearly generic—that’s what deadlines do to you,” he finished with a wry smile.
When Amend first began, Universal asked to see roughs of his strip for approval. This precaution is no longer taken, but Amend still seeks reaction from a reader—his editor, or his wife.
“After I’ve written a week’s material,” he said, “I’ll call up my editor, and read them to him over the phone. I’m blessed with an editor who has enough time to put up with this, and he’s also very good at hearing the spoken word and making a critical judgement on the fly. And he’ll say, This is all fine—or, That third one seems to me a little weak—or, I didn’t get a joke. He’s a good sounding board. Sometimes I’ll read them to my wife, just to make sure somebody agrees with me.”
Sometimes, Amend said, he runs into editorial opposition. But that’s not all bad. “Often from such editorial clashes,” he explained, “I’m able to find a better way—a better solution— because I’m forced to create it. In a strip that ran a month or so ago, I had Jason playing a board game with Paige, and he’s beaten Paige seven times in a row or something like that, and he says, Face it, Paige, you just plain suck. And my editor said, No no no. My argument was that whatever Jason said it had to be enough to trigger Paige: it had to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, the final thing, and it would provoke her enough that she’d tackle the board, which would set up the punchline.
“But my editor said I couldn’t say suck,” Amend continued, “and so I came up with, Paige, you suck waste water. Which is actually a little funnier and it gets the point across without offending anyone. It’s a huge challenge for me to write a strip chock full of teenagers that we know is being read by teenagers and yet not be allowed to use the language of teenagers. I can understand that editors don’t want to offend their readers, but at the same time, I have to be true to my characters. So it’s a balance I try to find.”
Amend teeters on yet another tightrope walk: with his teenage characters, he discovered that he must strike the balance between doing comedy and supplying role models. At the beginning, he expected that his chief audience would be young, college-educated adults. But very early in the strip’s run, he started receiving letters from children. He couldn’t understand why kids would be reading the strip until he realized that they were drawn into the feature by the presence of Quincy, the iguana.
“If you don’t want little kids to read your comic,” Amend once said, “do not— I repeat, do not—include a cute animal.”
At first, Amend was delighted to have youngsters reading the strip. Then he started getting letters every now and then that asked why the Fox kids argued so much and used insulting language to each other. “Why,” one correspondent wanted to know, “can’t your characters be role models?”
“That got me where it hurts,” Amend said when he described this episode to the audience at Ohio State University’s Festival of Cartoon Art in the summer of 1995. “I genuinely like children. I was a camp counselor. I taught kids. I’m a parent.”
Initially, Amend rationalized that since he wasn’t doing the strip for young readers, it didn’t make sense to worry about how those readers might be influenced by comic strip characters. But then he remembered that when he was a kid, he used to dive down the stairs in imitation of a character in the comic book Fantastic Four. So he decided to be more careful. “Do I really need to use the word dork here or will doofus work just as well?” he explained. Either word could refer to a stupid person, but dork is also slang for penis.
But if Amend is more careful now, he still realizes that the strip exists to be funny, not to set up exemplars. “Ideal behavior isn’t funny,” he said. “Humor isn’t about doing the homework you’re supposed to; it’s about the lengths you’ll go to avoid doing the homework.”
So the Fox children still squabble. And that, Amend believes, is as it should be. People are imperfect and complicated. And kids squabble. Amend knows you can’t eliminate all the less-than-desirable behavior and retain the interest (not to mention loyalty) of readers. And without dedicated readers, the strip would lose whatever power it has to affect and influence.
We talked a little about whether the early retirement of people like Bill Watterson and Gary Larson and Berk Breathed has established a new trend for cartoonists in the twenty-first century. At the time—April 1996—Amend thought of himself as “in for the duration,” but he confessed, too, a certain frustration occasionally.
“As a creative person,” he said, “it’s been frustrating at times to realize that these characters that I came up with when I was twenty-five years old are the characters that I’ll be using ad infinitum, and I know that there are other voices in my head that may wish to escape. The trick, I suppose, is to find ways to incorporate them into the framework I’ve established either by bringing in new characters or subtly reshaping the personalities of those on hand.
“After all,” he continued, “I’ve aged— I’ve gone from age twenty-five to age thirty-three. I’m a different person than when I started the strip. When FoxTrot began, I was very much writing from the point of view of the kids. At the age of twenty-five, I still felt close enough to teenagers that it wasn’t too much of a stretch to put myself in their shoes. And now I’m a parent, and while I don’t quite relate to the parents in the strip at this point— I’m somewhere in between— it’s an interesting time for me. The writer part of me is watching me change and trying to figure out whether the strip should change its point of view or whether I should just plant my feet and try to stay as immature as possible,” he finished with a chuckle.
Amend was still vitally interested in his characters, but he acknowledges “a certain boredom with the work”—the tedium of meeting deadlines week after week.
“The treadmill,” I volunteered.
“Exactly,” he said. “Coming up with material each week, drawing the material each week, and turning it in—like the tragic hero Sisyphus, who pushes the stone up the hill and then it rolls back down, and he starts all over again. There are times when that’s a joy and a delight to push the rock up the hill. And then there are weeks when the inspiration just isn’t there, and to be blunt, it’s not a lot of fun then. I wouldn’t blame the characters or the premise of the strip for the frustration so much as—”
“The daily grind?” I said.
“Well, that’s part of the job,” he said. “That’s the way the job is. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining. But in my case—as with Watterson and Gary Larson—when you do all the work yourself, you can’t just delegate. And so there are certain frustrations. There are only twenty-four hours in the day, and I have family commitments and responsibilities. And I have to sleep some.”
Eventually, as we’ve seen, the frustrations—and the need for sleep—grew greater than the satisfactions, and Amend decided to give up the daily FoxTrot. But he loved cartooning too much to give it up altogether; so he’s continuing the strip in Sunday releases.
I asked, back in April 1996, if he had any advice for aspiring young cartoonists.
“The question is often asked,” Amend said, “What should I do to better my chances to be syndicated? Assuming that the person asking the question is still in school, I would recommend that he take a broad range of subjects, not focus entirely on art. So often, I suspect, aspiring cartoonists forget that it’s not enough just to draw funny pictures; you have to put words behind those pictures, 365 days a year, and you’ll have thousands of people raising eyebrows and looking at your work every day, so you better have something to say. To go along with that,” he continued, “I also recommend that aspiring cartoonists keep their options open. I was fortunate to have signed a contract at a fairly young age, but I have a degree in physics, and it wouldn’t have been too terribly difficult for me to be a computer programmer or to go graduate school and study engineering, something like that. What frightens me is the thought that there are people out there who put all their eggs into this comic strip basket. They’re pursuing their dream of being syndicated, and I wish them well, but the odds are terrifically against them--and if it doesn’t work out for them, it will be very sad to have their dreams shattered but also to realize that they have no other options.”
After a few minutes, Amend added: “Another thing I would encourage aspiring cartoonists to do is to find their own voice, their own sense of humor— instead of looking at Calvin and Hobbes or The Far Side, and saying, Well, I really like Calvin and Hobbes, so I’m going to draw a strip about a six-year-old kid, changing it here and there. Instead, start with a blank sheet of paper, and create characters that come from you, not from other people’s imagination. And not from your supposition about what the syndicate wants either. Or what newspaper editors want. These are things to keep in mind, certainly: you don’t do a strip that you know doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding. But I think the more personal your strip is, the more honest it will be, and the stronger the writing will be.”
“And the longer you’ll live with it,” I said.
“Yes!” he exclaimed. “I’m drawing a strip that feels very natural to me. If I were drawing a strip that was contrived eight years ago for the purpose of pleasing a syndicate editor, I’m not sure how happy I’d be.”
“Did you think this was going to last eight, ten, fifteen years?” I asked.
Amend smiled. “I was wonderfully naive about the realities of the business. If I’d known enough about what the odds were against me, I may have been frightened off before even submitting anything. But I went into it thinking, Well, of course I’ll be syndicated, and of course it’ll do well, and of course the books will sell, and of course this will be my life’s work. I’ve been very fortunate in the way it’s worked out. I really do have fun writing and drawing this strip, and I hope, obviously, that people have fun reading it.”
Even if they get to read it only once a week.