Comics: Meet the Artist
With Matt Janz
Cartoonist, "Out of the Gene Pool"
Hosted by Suzanne Tobin
Washington Post Comics Editor
Friday, March 15, 2002; 1 p.m. EST
Welcome to the Washington Post Style section comics discussion, hosted by Comics page editor Suzanne Tobin.
Matt Janz was one of the first recipients of The Washington Post Writers Group's FineToon Fellowship. Through this training program for aspiring cartoonists, he continued to develop his skills and in January became the first "FineTooner" to be syndicated.
Janz was online Friday, March 15 at 1 p.m. EST to discuss "Out of the Gene Pool" and the art of cartooning.
Janz lives near Chicago and, as of this writing, has not yet been kicked out of the gene pool.
The transcript follows.
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: Greetings, comics fans! And welcome to "Comics: Meet the Artist" with Matt Janz, creator of "Out of the Gene Pool," a strip that has been syndicated just since January. We thought it would be a nice contrast to have someone who's only been in syndication for a few months after our last chat with Bil Keane, whose "Family Circus" strip is older than dirt. Matt is joining us from Chicago, where he is taking a break from his "day job" as an art director at an advertising firm. Welcome, Matt, and thanks for joining us here Live Online.
Matt Janz: Thanks, Suzanne. It's great to be able to interact with all the readers from the Washington area and beyond. This is certainly a first for me, with the strip only being out a few months, so I'm really excited about it. Let's get started.
Chicago, Ill.: Matt, tell us how your characters came to be? Did you begin "Out of the Gene Pool" with the original characters that we now see every day?
Matt Janz: For the most part, they are the same characters. I've been working on the strip since 1994. I've changed a few characters since I got my development contract with the Washington Post Writers Group in 2000. My strip and two others were selected to receive the inaugural "Fine Toon" Fellowships. That's a program the syndicate started to help develop talent among promising cartoonists. They have a comics committee that they would run all of our strips by, which consists of about 25 people outside of the comics industry. And some of the older characters, like one called Dextris, were rather bizarre. Dextris had a hand on the end of his tail, and he didn't have any arms. (He actually LOOKED a lot cooler than he sounds.) Some of the people on the committee thought he was just a little too strange. So I decided to take him out as a main character. But if you look closely in the strip, you might find him in the background sometimes.
CubeCity on the Mall: Mr. Janz, thank you for being here. I love your 'toon. All the characters are distinctive and look different from any others I know with one exception. The mother figure looks to me like the mother in Calvin and Hobbes. Is that a deliberate choice, or have I been seeing things (not that that would be unusual)? Thanks.
Matt Janz: I've received some e-mail from other readers saying the same thing. Obviously, I didn't model Andy, the mother, after the character in "Calvin and Hobbes." But Bill Watterson has been a big influence, and we have a similar drawing style, which may be what you're noticing. Just like every other cartoonist out there, "Calvin and Hobbes" had a huge impact on me. I have always loved his work.
Chicago, Ill.: Who's your favorite character and why?
Matt Janz: It would be hard to narrow it down just to one. I would say my favorite characters are Rufus, Andy's husband, and Madame Red, their next door neighbor, for the simple reason that they are the most fun to draw. The reason that they look so strange is that humans are so boring to draw and I wanted something to stand out on the comics page, something that was different and that would catch the reader's eye. I've always felt that cartoons should be fun to look at as well as fun to read.
Buffalo, N.Y.: Hi Matt, I love your strip and was wondering where you get your ideas.
Matt Janz: Thanks so much. I'm not the type of cartoonist who can just sit down and think of ideas. I usually get the best ideas while I'm doing other things like grocery shopping or on the train. For example, a strip that just ran on Wednesday, came to me while I was driving home after watching the Chicago Bears lose to the Philadelphia Eagles in the playoffs in January. (It was the one where Rufus and Miller were making a huge sundae, and they used the flower vase to hold it.) Don't ask me what football and flower vases have in common, it just hit me as I was driving. And that's where they come from, I don't know how or why.
Austin, Tex.: Can we see more of Madame Red, please? I just love that character. She's one of my favorites.
Matt Janz: I totally agree with you. As I've already said, she is also one of my favorites. Right now I like to keep her as more of a mysterious background character because she lends herself to that kind of role. I've always imagined her as that creepy lady next door that you don't really know much about. As the strip progresses, I'm sure you'll see more of her.
Naperville, Ill.: Are any of the characters based off of anyone you know?
Matt Janz: Actually, Madame Red is the only one. She's based on a former co-worker, who will remain nameless because, like Madame Red, she could be easily offended and slap me with a lawsuit. Her name is based on her hair color, which is bright red. When she's in a strip, she really stands out--especially on Sunday.
Suzanne Tobin: Matt, I understand that you're just 31 years old. How long have you been drawing?
Matt Janz: I started drawing cartoons when I was 8 after a friend of my mom's brought a whole box of "Peanuts" books to me. After reading those books, I thought what a great job it would be to draw funny pictures. I had my first book of cartoons published in the local library in Franklin Park, Ill., when I was 10. It was a 50-page hardcover book called "Dumbells." (I didn't have the same aptitude for spelling that I did for drawing.) It was a strip very similar to the "Family Circus" because it was about a family and it was drawn in a circle. Since then I've matured.
Austin, Tex.: What did it feel like when you saw your first strip in print?
Matt Janz: The first strip I saw in print was when my advertising agency's New York office faxed me a copy of the strip from the Daily News. Even over the fax, it was a thrill to see my strip right below "For Better or For Worse." After all these years of working on it, it was so gratifying to see that the hard work had finally paid off.
Lake In The Hills, Ill.: Hey Matt! Love the strip! Since you've been working on your strip since 1994, were you able to use a lot of your previous strips before you were syndicated?
Matt Janz: DEFINITELY!!!! My archive has saved my butt already in some tight deadline situations. Most of them, unfortunately, have to be redrawn because my style has already changed so much. Also, a lot of them cannot be used because of the characters that I've since taken out. I write based on the character's personality, for instance a strip written for Madame Red would not work if I wanted to replace her with Jackie or Andy. So it's not easy to use the same gag for different characters. I just can't use a lot of the older gags that were written for the characters that are no longer in the strip.
Oakbrook, Ill.: What did your friends and family think when they first saw your characters here in the Chicago Tribune? Will you ever do a strip using any or all of them?
Matt Janz: My friends and family have been just as excited as I have. They've waited just as long as I have for this. It's been nice that they finally have tangible evidence that all the time I spent at my drawing board did indeed have a purpose. As for using them in a strip, if I did I don't know that I would tell them, because if you draw one friend or family member, you have to draw them all.
Aurora, Ill.: How long does it take to write a typical daily strip -- start to finish -- including characters and wording?
Matt Janz: It varies but the average time from conception to final drawing for a daily strip is between four and five hours. Sunday strips are an all-day affair. So if you add all that time up, I've been lucky that I only work four days a week at my "day job" and that they have also been very supportive of my cartooning career, which makes things a lot easier.
Suzanne Tobin: So do you have any semblance of a life after all the work is done?
Matt Janz: Not really, which explains why I'm 31 and still single. As you may have gathered, I'm a huge Bears fan, and this past season I made time to watch the games with friends on TV. A friend did ask me to go to a regular season game, and I had to say no because to actually go to a game would have taken too much time out of my day. I haven't actually had an entire day off from both jobs since the strip hit the newspapers.
Franklin Park, Ill.: At what age did you start drawing and why did you choose cartooning?
Matt Janz: Hi, Mom!!!
Washington, D.C.: So are we ever going to be able to get your strip in the Washington Post online comics section?
It's not there now.
Matt Janz: Gee, I don't know. Suzanne?
Suzanne Tobin: I don't know the answer, but maybe my producer over at washingtonpost.com can research that one for you. Liz?
Aurora, Ill.: Matt Janz:
Great job on getting this into our area papers, too! Chi Town loves it! I too am growing to like the mom and I love her attitude. Do you think you will be doing more with her and the her neighbor next door?
Matt Janz: I assume you're talking about Andy, not Jackie, her next door neighbor on the other side from Madame Red. You'll see a lot of Andy and Jackie together, since they work at the same office, in the near future. Their relationship is a big part of "Out of the Gene Pool."
Woodstock, Ill.: I like the strip, it stands out amidst the cutsie and dull strips that have been seen since the likes of "Calvin & Hobbes" and "Bloom County" left the papers years ago.
What other cartoonists do you like currently or from the past? And what influenced the name "Out of the Gene Pool?"
Matt Janz: You hit it on the head with "Calvin & Hobbes" and "Bloom County," because they are my two favorites. It's unfortunate that neither of them are in newspapers anymore. As for the strip's title, that actually came from my editor's husband after we'd all spent weeks brainstorming and coming up empty. She was worrying she wouldn't be able to do everything she had to to get the strip off the ground on schedule, and he said to her, "What are they going to do if you don't, kick you out of the gene pool?" Ironically, it was coming up with a new name for the strip that was stressing her out the most. And she just looked at him and said, "That's it!" (I still owe him a dinner.)
Rockville, Md.: Mr. Janz: No offense, but your strip doesn't come close to Tank McNamara, in terms of connecting about sports and sports-related issues, and in The Post your strip replaced Tank McNamara. Many folks would love to see Tank McNamara returned to The Post comic pages --many, many, many folks. And I know many folks who refuse to read your strip in The Post -- again, many people. What is your response to that? And I don't mean to be rude here, or disrespectful, since replacing Tank was not your fault. But I'm asking in regards to how someone in your position handles such an awkward situation. Thanks for understanding.
Matt Janz: No offense taken. Replacing strips is part of the business and I'm sure there will be a day where my strip will be on the losing end of this, and c'mon, didn't you see earlier when I said I was a big Bears fan. I don't blame you for being upset, Tank McNamara been here in Chicago since I was a kid. At his point, I'm going to pass the buck to Suzanne...
Suzanne Tobin: Believe me, Rockville, you're not the only one who's complained. And I think I can safely say there's a VERY good chance Tank will be returning to The Post comics pages. (But the timing is not my decision, but for others who make lots more money than I do.) I'm actually surprised that any Tank fan would tune into this chat today with the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament in full swing. So I'm eternally grateful to you for taking a break from March madness.
Matt Janz: If you bring back Tank, Suzanne, maybe those readers will stop boycotting my strip. I also did a Sunday strip on the Super Bowl last February. Please don't hate me! I wasn't the one who made the decision to take Tank out!
Matt Janz: Well, Suzanne, thanks for having me online today. It was a lot of fun and it was great to interact with my readers and even my non-readers. I'm going to go write some sports-related "Out the Gene Pool" strip just for them.
Suzanne Tobin: Thanks, Matt! It's been great having a fresh new voice online as well as on the comics pages. We'll be back in three weeks, instead of the usual two (I'm going to sunny California for vacation, yeah!!!!!) with Jim Toomey of "Sherman's Lagoon." Tune in April 5 for more deep thoughts on "Comics: Meet the Artist."
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