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DM) Where do you do the actual designing of the comic?
PS) I work out of my home in Midland, Michigan, a small, Midwestern, heavily Republican town, where my family has now lived for six generations.
DM) Since you have lived in your hometown for such a long time, would you say your family has been an extremely big influence in your work?
PS) Huge. My mother and father stood up against two giant corporations which were building a nuclear plant here in the early '70s. It was hell on them, and all of us, living in this little company town, but they stood their ground, and won. The experience burned an awareness into me that we live in a very critical time. We're going to decide what kind of planet our children will live on, to a greater degree than any generation before us. Right now, we are in the midst of the greatest cultural shift and awakening, at least since the Renaissance, and maybe since the invention of fire. The sooner we realize it's time to grow up as a species, the more likely we are to survive.
DM) But wouldn't it be much harder financially without syndication?
PS) It is. But, if, as an independent operator, I can make the same money with 50 newspapers as I would with 100 syndicated, it has its advantages. The big obstacle is getting over newspaper editors' mindset that says if it doesn't have the corporate stamp of approval, it's not safe. I'm not saying I would never consider a syndication deal, but it would have to be the right one. And I am sure as heck not waiting for the Troglodytes at some mega-corporation to get hip to what I am doing. Judging by the dreck that they continue to put out each year, it's going to be a while. So the technology makes it possible for me to go ahead and just get it done.
DM) What is your favorite cartoon?
PS) When you have thousands of cartoons, it's hard to pick out a favorite piece. I was, however, one of the first people to start exploiting GIF animation to expand the range of my cartoons. I have yet to see any online animations that I think are anywhere near as good as the ones I am doing. I am proud of the characters I have created and the interactions that they have with each other. I think the strength of the cartoon is the way the characters mirror the tensions that I am exploring in society, as we go through an unprecedented cultural shift.
DM) Who would you consider your influences?
PS) Intellectually, I am following a path that I imagine Walt Whitman might have taken if he were working today, as a cartoonist, if you can imagine that. One of the points of the cartoon is that the current fascination with Eastern religions, global cultural traditions, and positive thinking New Age thought, are part of an old tradition as American as Franklin, Thoreau, Emerson, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Charles Lindburgh. Cartoon-wise, Pat Olliphant, Mort Drucker, Ralph Steadman, R. Crumb, Jules Feiffer, Gary Trudeau, Bill Watterson, Berke Breathed, Terry Laban, Gahan Wilson, Gary Larsen, Doctor Seuss...and many others.
But I am also constantly inspired by filmmakers such as Terry Gilliam, Ridley Scott, Stephen Spielberg and others. I think a number of recent films, such as "The Matrix," point to the same kind of audience that Alex's is reaching for.
DM) Where do you see your career going from here?
PS) The cartoon is gradually picking up newspapers across the country, and it remains a daily feature on the Web at their news site. I hope to prove that it is possible, using current technology, for one person, with a good idea, to compete effectively against giant corporate media conglomerates. I know from demographic data that the planet is basically moving toward where Alex's is. And I know that someone will be providing the cartoon voice for this audience, and right now, I am on track to be that person.
DM) You've said, "I hope to prove that it is possible, using current technology, for one person, with a good idea, to compete effectively against giant corporate media conglomerates."
PS) Let me give you an example. It used to be that you were syndicated, you sent your stuff each week to New York, and then this big company would put it out to all the newspapers in acceptable form. If you didn't get a syndicate to show and sell your work, you were dead. Now, I have my work showcased each day on one of the largest sites of the Net, The Nando Times. It gives me a platform to work from independently, and a modicum of credibility.
I send my cartoons to a pagination service that sets up comic pages for newspapers, in the same way all the big syndicates do. My work gets delivered with the same reliability that Doonesbury and all the others have. There is no reason why an editor has to worry about whether he will get quality copy from me any more than from any one else. The key, of course, is to establish a track record that proves you out, which I have done. I am setting up an online store on the Net, and it will soon be ready to sell my book using "Publishing on Demand," which means I don't have to put out $20,000 to have a bunch of books printed up. The same technology I can use to offer Tees, mugs, and all the other goodies. It puts me on an even footing. Ani DeFranco showed the way in music, in that while she may sell fewer records than, say, The Backstreet Boys, since she owns the whole thing, she still makes good money by getting a much higher return on her sales. I'm doing the same thing with cartoons.
DM) You call Alex's Restaurant "the 100 percent Organic Wholistic Cartoon strip." What does that mean?
PS) I also call Alex's "Your Friendly Neighborhood Over-the-Counter Culture," and "The World's Tastiest and Most Therapeutic Cartoons trip." It's simple, descriptive shorthand so that readers and editors will understand that Alex's is the cartoon voice of the cultural wave that is sweeping over the planet, the one that says we have to grow up as a species. It's the reason people are waking up to their own health, and how to take care of it, and why that relates to the health of the earth. It's the reason we are listening to other cultures besides our own, and finding out about herbalism, acupuncture, ayurveda, yoga, tai chi, world music, literature, and the wisdom of indigenous people.
I said 10 years ago that it was time to give this movement a comic voice, and with as much resistance as Alex's has met up with, I have kept at it because everything you see happening in the society tells me that this is the right view, the true story of what is happening, and people are truly hungry to have their experience and perceptions validated. Alex's is here to give people permission to think outside of the dominant paradigm. The media has treated this whole phenomenon like it's some kind of fringe, but it's really the main event. This is what is shaping the future.
DM) Have you ever done any activism?
PS) Well, not beyond participating in a few demonstrations here and there, and writing letters when it seemed appropriate. I think that we all need to participate, to vote, to write, when we can. But the most powerful thing you can do with your life is to live it as closely as you can to your values. Living a humane life is one of the most subversive things you can do in this day and age. That's kind of the impulse for the cartoon. Alex's comments on the fact that people who want to simply live as human beings, to treat their bodies well, to treat the earth well, are ridiculed by a certain segment of the society, especially, it seems, in the media. That is changing, as there is a very rapidly growing group of people that share these values. They number at least 50 million in this country alone, and they are my audience. One of the most debilitating things that people fall prey to is cynicism. Alex's is subversive because it's not cynical. I don't mean saccharine or naive. I mean that cynicism is a phase that you pass through, hopefully, as a college sophomore, and then move on. It seems that many people, especially in the media, never quite got beyond that phase. It's an emotionally stunted way to live, and I reject it.
The cartoon allows me to make an editorial comment on these kinds of issues almost every day, so, I suppose, in that sense, it's my activism.
DM) How did you start in your work?
PS) I began work as a cartoonist about 20 years ago, several years after graduating from the University of Michigan with a BFA. I started thinking about a strip like Alex's about that time, but I figured it would be a while before the mainstream was ready for it.
I spent a long time doing political cartoons for local newspapers, but I was unable to secure the position I wanted with a larger paper. At a certain point, I realized that the audience for work of this type was reaching a critical mass, and started to put ideas together. Alex's has been designed as the cartoon of all things herbal, green, organic, wholistic, and so on. It is the cartoon of the global paradigm shift, the Aquarian Conspiracy, if you will.
The cartoon met with unexpected early success, in that it was picked up for syndication by one of the largest cartoon syndicators. They told me that, with their history of selling only the very safest of mainstream cartoons, they wanted to see the "next Doonesbury." Unfortunately, they proved to be unwilling to weather the tough going in getting something like that started. They backed out when the cartoon did not make an immediately gigantic splash, although it was running in 50 papers in five countries.
To make a long story short, I learned a lot about how this business works, and what to look for in a contract. I had to go back to working as a paramedic and an ICU nurse to make ends meet, until the Internet suggested a way around the brick wall of media indifference to this audience.
DM) You mention that Alex's Restaurant has reached a "critical mass." What do you mean by that?
PS) After 10 years which have seen Alex's syndicated, dropped from syndication, and revived by the Internet, it's now clear to just about anyone that reads the strip that the vision has been a true one. If you want to know what happened in the '90s, or where we are going to be going in the new millennium, Alex's is the cartoon to read.
Several new papers picked up the strip this summer, and it is about to be tested by one of the most significant newspapers in the country. Editors from all over that I have been talking to for the last year and a half, have seen the strip continue to develop, continue to grow and get rave notices nationally and internationally. They know who I am now, and many of them are getting ready to come aboard.I have also proven that there is no need for me to have a syndicate to legitimize me. The current technology makes me as reliable and almost as powerful by myself, as is any one of them. By the time they wake up to what's happening, I will be eating their lunch, and showing the way to others as well.
DM) What were some of the ideas and opinions your fans have had about Alex's thoughts in the strip?
PS) People who resonate with the strip tell me that it's been a real lifeline of sanity for them. Since "Calvin and Hobbes" and "The Far Side" went away, there really hasn't been much for intelligent people in the comics pages. This strip is for all the people who are so disgusted that they don't even read the comic pages anymore. For instance, though I have no help or staff, I have a "virtual editor," a woman who is a professional writer in Texas. She found the strip during a difficult time in her life and credits it with helping her regain her perspective, through humor. Just finding another kindred spirit out there is a big part of what making and appreciating art is about. Anyhow, since then, she and I correspond almost every day, and she alerts me to typos and other errors early every morning. There's no escaping her. A lot of people have been writing to their local newspaper editors around the country to ask for Alex's, as well. It's beginning to have an effect.
DM) You've thought of going back to school as a nurse. Wouldn't that pull away from your cartooning?
PS) Well, actually, I am a nurse. After being a paramedic for 15 years, a job that I loved, by the way, I took a correspondence course for people who were in the field of health care already, and got the license.
I worked for a year doing graveyard duty in an inner city ICU. Almost killed me. You have to respect the knowledge and professionalism of the people in those jobs, but it certainly confirmed everything I believe about the deficiencies of our health care system, and the scientific-reductionist paradigm that Alex's is dedicated to exposing and killing off, once and for all.
DM) Do you enjoy nursing as much as cartooning?
PS) In nursing, you meet some of the most compassionate, efficient, and humane people on the planet. You also meet some of the most anal, neurotic, and unhappy people on the planet. Most everything you've heard about the health care system, good and bad, is true. I loved being a paramedic. You have autonomy. You make decisions your way. You see outcomes in real time. Nursing in a hospital is a whole different deal. When I was a nurse, I thought, seriously, that I was going to die way before my time. It was that stressful for me. I still have my license, but I have no plans to go back.
DM) And do you practice acupuncture, yoga, tai chi and such?
PS) Yes. I am certified in acupressure and have practiced for 10 years. I don't see too many clients anymore; I'm just too busy.
I have practiced yoga and tai chi for a number of years. I am zeroing in on Tai chi right now, as that seems to fit my body best at this time. If you are going to do either, get a good teacher. It's easy to hurt yourself. They are both very handy toolkits for self care. Really, 99 percent of the problems that my family and I have, healthwise, we can handle without a medical intervention. It's the kind of empowerment that is becoming easier and easier via the Net. It's driving the medical establishment nuts. They are going on and on about the dangers of herbs, when the drugs they are prescribing (even when correctly prescribed and used) are killing 100,000 people per year. Yet, I have had to struggle to get insurance to pay for Prolotherapy, a so-called "alternative" care for back pain, even though it's something that has been proven in double blind studies in medical journals. It has to do with who makes the money. It's an amazing thing.
DM) So you help your family medically, too?
PS) Oh, yes. Having a bit of background in both alternative and establishment medicine, I have been able to apply a lot to my wife and myself in cases that might have sent another person to get medicine or even surgery. It's amazing what a little hands-on healing can do for a marriage, and working to get something like this going does put a strain on.
DM) Does the cartooning relax you?
PS) It depends. I am someone who thrives on adrenaline. I think that was the attraction of EMS work. It may be there's a chemical imbalance in my brain. In any case, having a deadline seems to energize me. The work of putting out the final comic each day, or week, is kind of hectic, but seems to energize me. The relaxation part is when I curl up on the couch with a sketchpad and a book or magazine and just spin out little sketches and ideas. This has always been one of my favorite activities, and maybe being a cartoonist is a way that I can legitimize that guilty pleasure.