Q&A with Cartoonist Clay Jones

By Chris Manson


What inspired you to become a cartoonist? Was there a specific influence?

I always drew. I don’t know why. I went through influences. First was Charles Schulz, then Garfield, and when I was a teenager, I graduated to Bloom County. But I’ll always love Snoopy. I got into political cartooning when I realized I could be opinionated, change the format and subject daily, and not be married to the same cartoon character for the rest of my life. Plus, with strips you have to wait at least six weeks to see your work in print and get a reaction (if you publish in newspapers)—with a political cartoon, your shelf life is much shorter.


You’re not represented by one of the major syndicates. Is this becoming a trend for cartoonists, columnists, etc?

Not yet. Most are afraid to do it themselves, and too lazy. It takes a lot of work, but it is worth it. I left a major syndicate in 2013 after being with them for 12 years. I don’t make a lot of money doing this, but I make about seven times more doing it myself than I did with a syndicate. Of course, I have to work a lot harder and I’ve given up sleep. I can only think of two other political cartoonists who self-syndicate. The hardest thing competition-wise is that I’m selling just my cartoons, while the syndicates are selling packages of a bunch of different cartoonists. But it’s redeeming to know when a newspaper picks me up, it’s because they want my work and not a potpourri of crap.


No major syndicate will ever offer me a contract again, because I know what they know, and they have nothing to offer me.


The industry has changed and is still changing. Most cartoonists are still clinging to life where they draw the cartoons and someone else takes care of the rest. They don’t create websites or even know how to correctly share their work on social media. I feel like I’m struggling to keep up, but in an industry of dinosaurs that still puts me ahead of most.


How many publications are you featured in currently, and what are some of your favorites?

I’m somewhere between 40 and 50, which I’m told is good for a guy like me. I have tiny weeklies in small southern towns to some of the largest in the nation, like The Dallas Morning News and The Seattle Times. I also have unique publications like The Week, GoComics, and Beachcomber. I take a little extra pride with being in African-American and “alternative” newspapers. Also, I’m published occasionally in The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, and every now and then I’m featured on CNN and MSNBC. Jared Kushner’s publication, The New York Observer, is a client. Go figure.


Favorites? I don’t want to name any of my clients. I do have online subscriptions with The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times.


You live in Virginia. What’s the political climate like there?

It’s a purple state that’s getting bluer every year. Right now, the climate from the left is “we’re not going to take it anymore.” It’s also varied. The rural counties can be some of the most conservative places you’ll ever encounter, while the cities are pretty liberal. My town, Fredericksburg, which is an hour south of the nation’s capital, is totally blue and it’s bordered by two very red, pro-Trump counties. Don’t talk politics in a bar here.


Have you ever drawn a cartoon and later hated it?

I hate just about everything I’ve done a few months after it’s published. Sometimes, I hate them immediately. I always think I can improve the writing and the art. A good and humbling exercise is to go back a year to the day and see what you created, and if you can even understand what you were talking about. These things do have a shelf life, and some don’t keep.


Recently, someone was critical of a cartoon I drew two years ago and demanded I explain it. I had to go read and see what I was talking about because I didn’t understand it. It was old. I usually can’t remember what I drew yesterday.


What is your process? What types of tools do you use for drawing? Is it purely digital?

It is purely digital, which I’ve been doing for a year and a half now. I was one of those who swore he’d always be analog (fellow musicians will get that) and never go digital. Now I’m really glad I did. I do miss paper, ink and whiteout, but I don’t miss erasing. Going digital just made it easier to make the color a bigger part of the art instead of just paint-bucketing it into places. Also, it’s a lot easier to make corrections and it’s cool I can draw a rough idea and immediately send it to a client. I don’t miss the steps of scanning, Photoshop, sizing, emailing. Now it’s draw and email. Going digital actually added the amount of time I put into a cartoon. From what I’ve read, I’m the only cartoonist who has done that.


The tools are a Surface Pro and the program Corel Painter Essentials.


Who do you like among today’s cartoonists?

This can change by the week, but currently my favorites are Mike Luckovich (brilliant, bizarre ideas, and sloppy great artwork), Steve Sack (brilliant ideas and amazing artwork), and Pat Bagley (very original ideas, sloppy and fun artwork in a very unique style that’s his own). I like the cartoonists who don’t draw the same cartoons as everyone else (sinking ships, hanging/going over a cliff, clown cars, etc.). The weirder the better.


What are your plans for 2020 and beyond, assuming Trump doesn’t get re-elected?

I ask myself that a lot lately, because it seems with the death of newspapers (came) the death of my career goals. It would be awesome to get another job with a newspaper or win a great big national contest, but those are very slim odds. I plan to keep creating opportunities for myself, because apparently nobody else is going to do it for me. There’s a couple of ideas I have, but if I spell them out now, someone’s going to steal them from me.


We’re not going to have Trump forever, but I will keep drawing cartoons. Even after Trump is gone, our situation is going to remain messed up. We ruined it. I will never run out of outrage.


This is going to be in our holiday issue, so I’m obligated to ask—what’s at the top of your Christmas wish list this year?

It’s been years since I’ve received a Christmas gift, though I do send a few out. But if I were to get a gift, I’d like for the insanity to stop, though that’d be bad for business. Material-wise, I’m going to need a new computer soon, so if Santa can drop something with 16 GB and an SSD into a stocking, that’d be really sweet.

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