How I Translated a Comic Strip into a Career in Computer Graphics

Last Monday, I mentioned how recently I stumbled upon my cache of 400+ comic strips that I wrote and illustrated during the tail end of my college career. The comic strip, in case you forgot, was called Cereal. It never actually appeared in color, but thanks to Photoshop, I can turn the official logo into a collection of colorful, sugar-coated letters floating in artificial milk. Just the thing for a high-calorie breakfast.

I also mentioned how Cereal is the reason I was first confused for a computer graphics expert. To learn why--you know, like, as if you care--forge ahead.

Below is a summary of the turning point in my career in one frame. For the sake of modernization, I've added color in Photoshop. But otherwise, the image appears as I created it 25 years ago, six years before Photoshop hit the market, a few months before Adobe announced its existence. It's a blend of hand-drawn line art--which I drew with a real pen on real paper--and computer art--which I printed from a personal computer, cut with an X-Acto knife, and pasted with rubber cement (not Edit > Paste).

Now for the long story:

The year is 1984. Cereal was in Book 3 and I, sadly, had graduated from college. Everyone acts like graduation is so great. But really, being in college, that's the great part. The real world, ug, don't get me started.

I had a terrific degree: BA double-major in Mathematics and Fine Art. These days, it might be a decent springboard for a digital imaging major and a career in applied imaging sciences. Only, nothing like that existed back then. So as I touted my resume from one interview to another, my degree was uniformly regarded as a curiosity.

Fast-forward a few months to Fall: I had a swell post-graduate job. Can't quite remember, but I was working either as a truck-unloader for Marshall's or a truck-loader for UPS. Either way, I was feeling the warm embrace of career satisfaction.

Anyway, Mom called. She wanted me to visit; she had a treat for me. So I and my buddy John (the J. Duane you'll see referenced in an upcoming graphic) drove down--Mom and Dad were about an hour away then--and she showed us a boxy little computer hooked up to a printer. These were not gifts; my parents didn't have that kind of money. Mom was a schoolteacher and she borrowed the equipment from her district.

The computer turned out to be a 128K Mac; the printer was an ImageWriter. As the Mac booted and displayed its trademark smiling-face icon, Dad likewise smiled and said, "Oh, look, it's happy." Mom fired up MacPaint. I sat down and fell in love. I drew shapes, filled them with patterns, and printed the completely arbitrary results, the way you do when you have no idea whatsoever what you're doing.

When I returned to my appartment that evening, I set about crafting the next week's cartoons. Young Milton would have a dream in which I'd integrate my wicked cool MacPaint patterns. And so I set about drawing and cutting and pasting.

Here's what I came up with, including the comic before the dream sequence and the one after (the "bookends," both of which involve a character named Lil, about which I'll tell you more in a later post).

So, a mildly amusing bunch.

But not to my publisher, the Colorado Daily. Like many small newspapers a the time, the Daily was investigating less expensive layout alternatives and were looking to the Mac as a soution. Unfortunately, none of their regular layout people knew the first thing about a Mac and they weren't inclined to learn. Suddenly, there was this underpaid freelancer who spent one afternoon with MacPaint and came up with an entire week's worth of cartoons.

The next year, they brought me in as an apprentice, which is when I learned the tools of the trade--code-based typesetting, paste-up, rubylith, stat camera, developer, halftoning, and so on. In time, they put me in charge of three Macs running PageMaker and networked to a PostScript LaserPrinter. (We didn't lay out the whole paper, just walk-up ads.) I had no idea what I was doing, but I took to it immediately. Nine months later, I traded that for a job as art director for an early service bureau. I and the boss, Craig Danuloff, wrote a visual guide to desktop publishing--the first book of its kind laid out in PageMaker and imageset from a Linotronic 100--followed by the first book ever on FreeHand, a smilar book on Illustrator, and one on PageMaker that earned us a Computer Press Award.

That led to this, and nowadays this leads to that. But I'm convinced that none of it woulda let to nothin' if it weren't for a week of Cereals.

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