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Comics: Meet the Artist

Jeff Millar
Friday, August 13, 2004; 1:00 PM

Join Washington Post Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin online two Fridays each month to discuss the comics pages. From artists to writers to editors, Tobin is joined by a different guest for each show.

On Friday, Aug. 13, at 1 p.m. ET Tobin was joined by "Tank McNamara" writer Jeff Millar to discuss cartoons, sports and the start of the 2004 Summer Olympics.

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Suzanne Tobin: Hi, folks, and welcome to another edition of "Comics: Meet the Artist." Today our guest is Jeff Millar, writer for "Tank McNamara," who is joining us from Houston. Unfortunately, Jeff is flat on his back with a back problem, so I'll be typing in his answers today. So be patient...it may take a bit longer for answers to post. Welcome, Jeff, and thanks for joining us Live Online.


Jeff Millar: Thanks to everyone who will be participating in this chat. It's always exciting to know what our readers are thinking.


Deming, N.M.: How did Tank McNamara get his name, other than the fact he is big enough to be a tank? Is McNamara taken from anyone you know?

Jeff Millar: Back in 1974, when we began syndication, the type of sportscaster who became Tank was fairly common: A former athlete who got his job as a local sportscaster not because he had any skills at journalism, but because he had a semi-marketable name. That stereotype has largely disappeared and most former athletes who do come to broadcasting have camera presence and at least enough storytelling skills to make the cut as sportscasters. To be honest, I don't really remember how he got the name. I needed a name of a character who was very big, and Tank McNamara just came off the tips of my fingers.


Japan: Hi. Recently, I started reading "Tank" and I think it's a great sport comic.

I was wondering if you can explain this to me --

What's "Sport Jerk of the Year" contest? I'm still new so I don't know much about it.

I know cartoonists gets a lot of question on how to be syndicated. I was wondering if you have suggestion on how to just get PUBLISHED. I tried submitting it to local newspaper, but I don't get response, even though I told them I sent it.


Jeff Millar: The contest is we invite readers at the beginning of each year to nominate someone as "Sports Jerk of the Year." This is someone who has distinguised him or herself as doing something that make him/her exceedingly unpopular. For example, Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins won one year, likely due to the participation of the Washington Post readers. He bought the Washington Redskins from the estate of a longtime, much beloved owner and, according to all accounts, starting kicking people out of windows and starting such unprecedented revenue streams as charging admission to training camp.
As for getting published, I don't know much about how it works in Japan, but in the United States, it's very difficult to self-syndicate a comic strip. Usually, newspapers look to the larger, established syndicates, such as ours, Universal Press Syndicate, or United Media or King Features, to do the looking for them. And, generally, syndicates expect four or five weeks of finished material in a submission to even begin to have further interest.


Chicago, Ill.: Greetings,
Any suggestions on who to contact at the Trib to get you all back in the paper and ideally in the comics section?

I miss Second Chances, but understand that in the biz there comes a point where resources are limited.

Gotta run. My placebo is wearing out and I have to restock.

Jeff Millar: We were in the Chicago papers so long ago that it would be a slim chance of persuading them to take us back. However, if you want to try, write a letter to the features editor and say how essential Tank really is.


Wiredog: Since you're flat on your back with a back problem, I wonder if you've been reading "Get Fuzzy" this week.

Jeff Millar: No, I haven't. I haven't been able to sit up long enough to read a newspaper and reading a newspaper in bed flat on your back is hard on your arms.


Silver Spring, Md.: Even for someone like me who has grown disillusioned of sports, your comic is a pleasure. I especially appreciate your unceasing willingness to take on the NCAA and the shoe companies.

Boat rocking cannot come without cost. (Sadly, even the Post once discontinued your comic; fortunately they recanted.) How much pressure do you get to sidestep controversial issues? Has it grown or diminished over the years? And what's your reaction?

Jeff Millar: Well don't you say the nicest things! If there is any pressure for us to go easy on our targets, it hasn't either filtered down to us or felt threatening enough to acquiesce.


Southern, Md.: Do you ever hear from the winners of the Sports Jerk of the Year awards? And any predictions as to whom readers will choose for 2004?

Jeff Millar: We have never heard from any of the sports jerks. As any reasonably intelligent person does who is even tangentially attached to sports, prediction is not wise. And, anyway, we don't ask for nominations until January. People have alot more time to do really dumb things.


Arlington, Va.: We don't see as much of the fumble-mouth these days!; Is Tank getting better at his job?

Jeff Millar: What we've discovered is that the fumblemouth is a joke for the ears and not for the eyes, plus it chews up alot of space in a medium where space is a very dear commodity. So we've let Tank get better at what he does. It seemed like the decent thing to do, since he puts meat on the Hinds and Millar family tables.


Fairfax, Va.: My favorite character is the sports agent. He sums up perfectly how pro sports has become almost entirely focused on money -- and the hypocrisy and double-standards that exist in that situation. The best example of this is when a WNBA player is complaining to the agent about how she earns a pittance compared to what even the lowest-paid NBA player makes. The agent suggests that in order to boost her income, she needs to attract more attention -- maybe pose for a nude calendar -- "tastefully done," of course.

Jeff Millar: Well, thanks, our favorite characters are the ones that throw off the most ideas and the selling of sports is very fertile The issue of whether or not sex sells in the world of sports has been pretty conclusively demonstrated. It is largely a commodity consumed by males, especially the males 18-34 who are so precious to advertisers. Sex sells female athletes better and more nakedly--you should excuse the expression--than sex sells male athletes. That may not be right, but it's the truth. And there is nothing that our sports agent, Murray, does better than tell the truth, except when it's more expeditious to lie.


Loveland, Okla.: What's it like working with Bill Hinds?

Jeff Millar: It is just as easy as pie. Because there is such a wide separation of our duties, there is very little opportunity for us to have any kind of conflict and I write the material in a sort of a private little language, since Bill Hinds is the only person in the world who needs to read it, e-mail it to him, and I don't see the finished drawing until after he's transmitted them to the syndicate. In fact, I include only the minimum amount of information for what the drawing should look like so that Bill has to bring his own imagination to fill in the details. So Bill will often do things that surprise even me upon seeing it for the first time.


Arlington, Va.: Do you have, or have you developed, a lot of connections in the pro sports world? Or is all of your humor written from an outside, ordinary fan's perspective?

Jeff Millar: Well, the Class A Lowell (Mass.) Spinners have sent us bobbleheads of Jack Kerouac and Stephen King because we used the fact that they gave them away to fans at their games. Beyond that, I can't think of anybody in the sports industry we've had a real conversation with. We're just about as "outside" as you can get. We aren't in the sports business, we're in the newspaper business.


Washington, D.C.: Is there any chance you might revive your recently-defunct relationship strip? (I've forgotten the name; not "Thirtysomething," but something like that). I always kind of enjoyed that one. It was much mellower in tone than the satirical "Tank."

Jeff Millar: I miss it too. That strip was called "Second Chances," and it died for lack of enough newspapers carrying it. If enough newspapers didn't carry it then, they are not going to carry it in the future.


Tank on Sports Radio: Greetings,
Would it "work" in a strip to have Tank get a sports radio gig? Anything that could send up the hosts or the calls would be a lot of fun...

Jeff Millar: Although we haven't shown him doing it recently, Tank does appear on a radio talk show called "Sports Babble." When an idea hits, we'll probably have him put the headphones on again.


Rockville, Md.: This is not so much a question as a statement: Tank is simply the best strip that the Post runs and has been for twenty-five years. Millar and Hinds and Tank are right on the cutting edge of events in sports and rarely fail to draw a laugh from this one devoted reader.

Jeff Millar: Your kind words make me purr like a kitten.


Lyme, Conn.: How do you produce your strips. Do you work at a steady pace, do you produce strips in batches, or does it vary? How long does it usually take to produce a single strip?

Jeff Millar: I write the dailies (Monday through Saturday) in one batch, usually on Wednesday afternoon. Bill has until Friday noon to get them to the syndicate. That batch starts syndication a week from the following Monday. The Sundays are written much further in advance, about two months.
Obviously, tt takes Bill longer to draw the strip than it does for me to write it. On the other hand, I come up with all the ideas, which requires a substantial amount of reading.


Arlington, Va.: The Stephen King bobbleheads were based on a true story!;? I had no idea!; Weird.

Jeff Millar: Absolutely true. The Lowell Spinners gave away the Kerouac and King bobbleheads because they are New England literary figures. Kerouac, I believe, was born in Lowell. We proposed in Tank that Lowell do the whole panoply of New England '50s era beat writers. They have taken the suggestion as yet.


Suzanne Tobin: Jeff, with the Olympics starting today, do you have any expectations on who or what might provide you with some storylines?

Jeff Millar: We have more than expectations. As explained in an earlier answer, the Olympics have had to already happened in Tank McNamara. So look out for the consequences of the harried Athens venue construction schedule, security snafus and what the Chinese propose as a plug for the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.


Washington, D.C.: The Olympic Games must present a difficult problem for you, since your publishing schedules require strips to be ready so far in advance. I imagine this presents a problem with respect to a lot of sports topics. How do you balance the desire to stay topical with such long lead times?

Jeff Millar: It's the biggest frustration of doing topical humor on newspaper syndication deadlines. Newspapers just aren't prepared to receive a comic strip the day before it's published. Would that they were. Many papers suscribe to pagination services, which are third party agencies which receive all the strips from the syndicates and then sends its client newspapers lineups of the strips they choose to carry in one big gulp, as complete pages. Also, many newspapers print the sections that contains the comics as long as two days, and sometimes even longer, before they run, so that their presses will be available the night before to print the front sections.


Washington, D.C.: Is Dr. Tszap based on any specific person? Or is he just a composite sports medicine figure? And do you plan to have him weigh in on the issue of sports "medicine" that is currently making so much news in baseball, track, etc.?

Jeff Millar: Actually, Dr. Tszap in not a M.D. He is a Ph.D., Mad Scientist, who happens to specialize in Sports R&D. Dr. Tszap is the inventor of the self-bouncing basketball and the depleted uranium golf clubs. Dr. Tszap is clean when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs.


Suzanne Tobin: What is your opinion on the "amateur" nature of the Olympics?

Jeff Millar: It's obvious that not even the pretense of amateurism is preserved in any Olympic sports which can in any way be monetized. I don't see anything terribly wrong with this. If the ancient Olympians had been presented the opportunity to sell their names as the endorsers of shoes and sweats, they wouldn't have competed naked.


Jeff Millar: On that note, Jeff, I think we'll leave you to get some true rest for your aching back. Thanks for being such a trooper and coming on even when you were playing hurt. I hope you and everyone else will join us again in two weeks when we'll have a back-to-school chat with Lincoln Peirce of "Big Nate."


Jeff Millar: Thanks for having me. I'm off to put moist heat on my lumbar area.


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