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More Than Keen! An Interview with Dave Kellett by Leah Fitzgerald

Dave Kellett's big break came from Keenspot, where Sheldon, a daily strip about a pre-teen billionaire, his grumpy grandpa and his mischievous talking duck was hosted, to the delight of webcomics readers everywhere. Sheldon now lives on United Media�s web site along with ten other online-only comics. Kellett, a native of Southern California, started drawing in third grade.

His first strip, The Four Food Groups, was published in the student paper at the University of Notre Dame and went on to take second place in the Scripps Howard National Journalism Awards and be published as a book in 1996. He holds two Masters degrees, one from the University of California, San Diego and the other from University of Kent at Canterbury, England. He studied the historical relevance of comics, which, he remarks on his web site, �qualify him to flip burgers� and, perhaps, to answer a few related questions.

What inspired Sheldon?
DK: As a character, Sheldon was inspired by the young billionaires of the mid-90's; guys like Jerry Yang of Yahoo, who made umpteen-gazillion dollars at the ripe old age of 21. Here you had guys who by no natural law should have had this much money...yet they were swimmin' in billions and buying jets, sports franchises, and third-world nations. As an extension of that, I imagined the situations you'd get in if you had younger and younger software billionaires....and that's how Sheldon was born. He's a ten-year old who's become the second richest person in America...yet he still has trouble tying his shoes.

Why a talking duck?
DK: Ducks, to me, are the funniest animals on the planet. They're like feathered nerds. Nothing they do looks natural or graceful, yet they always have this sort of sweet, naive look on their face. When it came time to populate Sheldon's world, a duck seemed like a fantastic pet for him to have. And naturally, being the sort of child genius that he is, Sheldon downloaded an Encyclopedia Britannica and some speech-recognition software into his pet's head...and voila: a talking duck.

How did you end up with United Media?
DK: There's a lot of reasons why I love online cartooning: the sense of community between readers and creators, the absence of editorial controls, and the immediate feedback that's possible. You'll never get that working in print. Having said that, though, my ultimate goal has always been to be a nationally syndicated comic strip artist, appearing in enough newspapers so that I can make a living from it.

Anyway, for the past three or four years while I drew Sheldon online, I'd been submitting a packet of samples every six months to the various syndicates to see if I'd get anyone to bite. Eventually, United Media decided that they saw some potential there, I guess, and offered me a slot as a web-exclusive [strip] on their site, comics.com.

How does being with United Media differ from being part of Keenspot?
DK: First off, I have to dispel the commonly-held notion that syndicates are ogre-like meanies. The folks at United Media have been some of the nicest folks I've ever worked with professionally. You couldn't ask for nicer folks, actually. But in terms of differences between UM and Keenspot, it basically comes down to this: Keenspot, at the end of the day, is really run by all the cartoonists on board. Sure, there are some administrative and logistical issues that only the Keenspot heads can handle...but if the cartoonists lobbied for a certain cause, and logically backed up their argument, Keenspot as a whole generally goes along with it. It's a very hands-on group in that way, with an unbelievable amount of entrepreneurial energy and drive behind it. And it's because of that that I have no doubt they'll succeed.

United Media, on the other hand, is a traditional business with an organizational chart, a pool of resources, a paid staff, and a market-oriented need to hit the bottom line. But I'm familiar with this sort of corporate reality. My day job has me working in the creative department of a major toy company, so I can respect that sometimes compromises need to be made for business reasons-- and in that sense my transition from Keenspot to UM has been pretty smooth.

I had always kept "Sheldon" a pretty clean comic strip -- I still think it's harder to write a clean joke than just say "f**kety-f**k-f**k" for every punchline -- so the new editorial conditions weren't any harder than those I had placed on myself for years. The deadlines, though, were very real. Keenspot cartoonists for the most part create their strip the night before -- myself included. This meant that if I ever got sick or stayed out with friends too late, there wasn't a Sheldon for the next day.

Of course, this never looked all that professional, and generally pissed off readers, so I tried to avoid it whenever possible. But when I made the move to United Media, they asked that I work between 3 and 6 weeks in advance, and that I always have a minimum of 2 weeks' worth of �toons uploaded onto their server. So that, at first, took some getting used to. But I'm so much happier working this way, in that I can no longer allow myself to be a slacker.

Where do you see your partnership with United Media going?
DK: With luck, United Media will someday say "You know what? This strip has really grown in quality, and its online readership has been consistently growing. Let's launch this puppy into newspapers". That would be the ideal for me, anyway. But in the meantime, I'm happy to see some of the small steps that the syndicate is taking. For example, United Media is opening a Sheldon store in January, with T-shirts, hats, mouse pads, and coffee mugs. That lets me know that they think highly enough of the strip to invest in it.

But who knows? It could all fail tomorrow. The odds are still heavily against me that Sheldon will go anywhere. I have been frustrated at times, and even considered quitting. I've been producing daily comic strips for seven years now (3 1/2 for a college paper), and there were many times when I wasn't seeing any tangible "progress", despite all my effort. But my love for sitting down every night to cartoon always won out. In the end, you have to do it because you love it, not for any desire for money, fame, or readers. You have to love sitting by yourself for a few hours to produce this unique little piece of art that god-knows-how-many people will read.

Do you think United Media will help or hinder online comics? How and why or why not?
DK: That's a tough call. But at the end of the day, I don't think United Media will do either, for this reason: they don't want to focus on online comics. If they thought there was money to be made in online comics, I can assure you that they would jump into the market with all the financial and marketing resources they had at their disposal.

As it stands, I think they're just taking advantage of the internet as a means to "test" comics and see how they do. It's infinitely cheaper for them to test a comic online than to spend $250,000 launching a strip into newspapers, only to have it fail within a year. So for the most part, online comics will continue to develop very independently from any syndicate interference. In my mind, that's the strength of current online comics. That independent spirit that allows the cream of the crop to rise up in a sort of Darwinistic fashion from readers' word of mouth, not from any corporate marketing muscle.

Who's your biggest inspiration?
DK: My biggest inspiration has always been Berke Breathed. He was just a genius in every respect, and Bloom County is probably right up there with the greats. (But I'd also have to include the British WWII artist David Low for the quality of his line, George MacManus for his brilliantly-drafted strip Bringing Up Father from the 1930's and 40's. I'd also throw in Walt Kelly, Darby Conley, and Jim Toomey. And, from a very different angle, I'd have to include Frank Cho for his unique career path, and Scott Kurtz, for being one of the few to make a living off an online strip -- and deservedly so.)

Where do you think webcomics are headed?
DK: My real sadness is the slow death of the newspaper industry, and here's why: newspapers have been the only consistent way that comic strip artists could make money historically, and in the last 15 years this outlet has been contracting to the point where I sometimes wonder about the future of that medium.

But the good news is the explosive growth in online comics. The big problem here, though, is that there are few ways for professional-level talent to make a living off the web. The internet is an incredible outlet for new and interesting creativity, but a very precious few cartoonists have made any living off of it -- and most of it involves going back to traditional media. That's no way to build or support a new industry.

So for the near term, say, 2-5 years, I'm very pessimistic about online comics. I think you'll start to see a number of the medium-to-larger-sized strips giving up, not because they don't love drawing it every day, but because life has too many demands to support a non-income-earning hobby that burns up 20 to 30 hours a week. The "20-something" guys and gals that do a daily strip today might not be so keen on it in a few years, once there are two kids that need constant attention, and a mortgage that needs paying. My consolation lies in the fact that there are a lot of people like me who, even if they weren't making a dime off of their cartooning, would still draw every spare minute they had.

For the long term, say 5 years out and beyond, I have a very optimistic view of webcomics. I actually think webcomics are the future of the art. Who can say what the business model will be, but I do know that the trend in newspapers means that more and more people will be gettting their daily "update on the world" from some form of the internet. Whether that means from your computer at home or on-the-go PDAs or e-paper, I can't say. But reading comics digitally is definitely where we're all headed.

Leah Fitzgerald is the Executive Editor for Interviews. More Details.

Re: More Than Keen! An Interview with Dave Kellett by Leah Fitzg

Chris Crosby's picture

Heya! Dave Kellett and SHELDON rule.

One thing I hoped would be addressed in the interview is what Dave is being paid, if anything, by United Media to create the Sheldon webcomic. And if he is not being paid, how long does he plan to wait for them to make a decision on syndication?

Also, I'm confused about why the creation of a SHELDON store would mean any sort of financial investment on United Media's part, considering their online store is handled by Cafe Press, which pays for all the costs and gives the owner of the property a cut of the sales.

Re: More Than Keen! An Interview with Dave Kellett by Leah Fitzg

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

I guess I was also wondering about whether or not UM is paying Dave enough to get by or whether he's there on the chance they'll decide to push him to newspapers before his contract is up.

I'm also curious as to whether Sheldon is getting in cross promotion with the other UM strips - there is a dropdown menus of other comics on the site, but I'm not sure newspaper comic readers (even those reading them on the web) are as adventuresome in trying out new comics as I suspect webcomic readers have become.

Finally - I had no idea UM is using Cafeshops for its "stores." Not that cafeshops is awful or anything but that seems kind of embarassing to me for a big-time syndicate.

I run this place! Tip the piano player on the way out.