Smash Pages Q&A: Rick Stromoski on ‘Soup to Nutz’ and more

The cartoonist discusses his syndicated strip, a graphic novel he’s working on, how he works and more.

Rick Stromoski’s comic strip Soup to Nutz has been running on the comics pages since 2000. He had been syndicated before, but was better known for his illustration work, gag cartoons and greeting cards. He has won multiple division awards from the National Cartoonists Society over the years and has served as the organization’s president.

Soup to Nutz has its own sense of design, and it stands out on the comics page for the sense of humor, which has much more of an edge than other family strips, and for the character of Andrew, who remains unique. Stromoski has also been working on a graphic novel drawn in a very different style than the strip. Based on his mother’s life, this has been a project of many years that he’s close to finishing. We spoke recently about his strip, his graphic novel and how working digitally changed the way he’s able to work.

How did you come to comics?

I’ve always been drawing since I was a little boy. I always took to art and never gave it up. Every child loves to draw and color and I was no exception. I always liked to draw funny things. Even as a kid I would draw my house and my family and I would do something weird like have a dinosaur or have the sun looking like the devil. I would just do something silly to get a reaction. All through school I excelled in art. You go through phases. You have a fun phase and then you try to be serious and you try to be a fine artist. For a while in high school I wanted to be a sports illustrator. I always kept coming back to was cartooning and comics. I didn’t go to art school. I didn’t even go to college. I grew up in a very large family – I had eleven siblings – so there was just no money for college and in my family when you graduated high school you had to move out. Most of my brothers joined the military; I didn’t. I had factory jobs and retail jobs and none of it was very satisfying because I wanted to do art. I would go home and fill sketchbooks, but I had no idea how to do it. I started sending gag cartoons to men’s magazines, primarily. I started selling a few gags, but nothing to make a living at it. The last real job I had was in the early eighties. I was a house painter with my brother out in California and was on a forty foot extension ladder and I was sanding some lead based paint and I remember thinking, do I want to be on this ladder in ten years? I just wasn’t happy. I learned everything I could about cartooning. I bought every book I could about cartooning and illustration and promotion and how to market yourself. I subscribed to art marketing magazines. I started to apply everything I was learning and putting my work out there to different markets. I started getting illustration assignments. I focused on humor. A lot of magazines were hiring me to do spot illustrations. It just started to snowball. I got to a point where I didn’t have to be a house painter anymore. It paid my bills and became lucrative and I did that for about fifteen-sixteen years. I was doing all kind of things. I was doing fabric design. I was designing greeting cards for five or six different companies and selling magazine cartoons and doing illustration and doing some advertising work.

From reading up about you it sounded like before you were syndicated, you were mostly drawing gag cartoons and greeting cards, is that right?

I did a lot of greeting card and gag work, but mostly it was illustration. I was getting a lot of children’s magazines, women’s magazines, teen magazines, a wide variety of different publications. I bought every mailing list that I could and promoted myself and got some really good advertising work. I did tons of greeting cards and tons of gags, but gags I didn’t like to do as much because a lot of times it’s all on spec. You can create all this work and send it out and nothing gets purchased. I started to promote myself more as an illustrator because when you did sit down to draw you were getting paid for it. I liked that. I liked commission work versus spec work. That’s what I was doing for the bulk of my career prior to getting syndicated.

Before Soup to Nutz, I know that you drew another comic strip. How did you end up getting syndicated?

This came from a house painting job I had. I painted Luci Arnez’s house. She’s an actress and she’s Lucille Ball’s daughter. There was a television movie being cast about a cartoonist starring Jill Clayburgh about a cartoonist getting a divorce. They needed someone to draw the cartoons and so Luci asked me if I would audition. I met the producer and director and writer and showed them my portfolio and they hired me. Whenever Jill was drawing in a sketchpad or a garage door or a napkin, she would be talking about her life and that drawing would bleed into the next scene. For instance there was a scene where she was talking about her soon to be ex-husband playing tennis and so there’s a drawing of a gorilla on a tennis court and that would bleed into the next scene where James Farentino would be playing tennis. All the drawings in the movie were mine. They used thirty or forty different pieces of art. It was a horrible movie. [laughs] It wasn’t funny at all, but it paid great. It was one of the best paychecks I ever got. It was early in my career and it was a lot of fun.

I was syndicated that year as well. I sent an idea for a newspaper panel called The Dog and His Boy to Universal Press Syndicate and Lee Salem liked it. It’s very difficult to break into the comics pages. Every single newspaper has a set amount of comics and they don’t make space for you, you have to knock someone else out. My biggest mistake was making it a panel. You’re better off trying to do a strip because most newspapers usually only have one or two panels. Back in 1987 the two panels that were on most comics pages were The Far Side and The Family Circus. There was no way my panel was going to knock either one of them. [laughs]

The premise of the strip was this mute guy who never spoke and he had this dog and they were best friends and the dog did all the talking. It was a single panel gag a day cartoon where a lot of it was contemporary but one day they would be astronauts and the next day they would be cavemen. Sort of like Frank and Ernest. It was a pretty open-ended strip and it was fun to do. Lee Salem really liked it. But it never got into enough papers to be viable. It was a good experience having that deadline pressure. And being syndicated was great; back then I thought that was the holy grail. I was young and stupid and had no future. [laughs] But that was the thinking back then. If you get syndicated, it’s going to be easy street. Well, it’s not. I think I made ninety dollars a month from it. But I learned a lot from it. It was fun to do.

After that experience, did you keep chasing syndication or did you focus on other work?

It was always on the back burner. I thought about it but I was just so busy from my illustration work.

So what changed? What made you interested in making another strip?

My first editor at United Media was Amy Lago. She’s now with the Washington Post Writers Group but back in the late nineties I got to know Amy through the National Cartoonist Society. We would hang out together at the Reuben Awards, we had mutual friends, and we just connected really quickly. She kept hounding me to do a comic strip. I said, I didn’t really like the syndicate-artist relationship when I first had it and it didn’t feel like a true partnership and she said, it’ll be different this time. She convinced me and I came up with a family strip, Soup to Nutz. It’s based on my family. It’s not your sugar and spice and everything nice kind of Family Circus strip. It’s an edgier strip that reflects the childhood I had. Family Circus is a phenomenal comic strip and a very important comic strip, but it didn’t reflect the childhood I had. Mine was growing up with eleven siblings in this dysfunctional Catholic house and I thought there was a lot more ground for slightly edgier humor.

One character I always wanted to do was Andrew. There wasn’t a little boy like this in most comic strips. Back in the day you’d call him a sissy. He’s feminine, he wears capes, he likes show tunes, he plays with Barbies – but he’s comfortable in his own skin. He likes who he is. His brother will pick on him and break his crayons in half and Andrew will always look on the positive side and say, now I have twice as many crayons. There’s no kid like that in the comics pages and I thought it would be important to have a strong character who is like that little boy that we all knew growing up – or we were that boy growing up – that was picked on for being feminine or not good at sports and make him a strong character who’s comfortable in his own skin. I get a lot of e-mails from readers about Andrew that say, thank you for Andrew, I was that little boy growing up.

I would have said that the two things that make the strip stand out are the tone and the character of Andrew.

I push the limits sometimes – especially when I do something political. Whenever I want to get on my soapbox about the environment or politics or social issues, I do it through Babs because that’s what her character is about. She’s got this righteous sense of justice and she doesn’t tolerate fools and bigots and bullies – and our country is being run by a group of them now. Whenever I touch on that or try to make light humor of it, I get a lot of blowback. It’s interesting how many people will write in and complain. It’s funny because most of them will say, I really love your strip but because you wrote this strip about Trump – or insinuated it was about Trump – I’m going to ask that your strip be removed from my comics page. I usually respond, well how come when you said you really said you liked the strip you never wrote me saying how much you liked it? How come I only hear from you when you’re mad. The maybe twenty times a year I touch on politics are when I get my letters. I get several a day and most of the positive ones are about Andrew or something that struck somebody funny, but most of the mail I get is negative because I touched on social issues that are firecracker issues these days. I think it’s important to have that reflected on the comics pages. Some people complain that’s what editorials are about but there’s nothing wrong with a humor strip once in a while editorializing. Especially if there are characters in the strip where that’s what the character is about. And if you don’t like it, then don’t read it that day. It just astounds me how much people are affected by twelve words on a comics page. There’s a lot of power there.

How do you work?

For the past three or four years I’ve used a Cintiq. I used to use strathmore paper, india ink, pencils. I would cut the paper down to the size I like to work. Most of my gags are three panels and I have a template in my computer so I could run my paper boards through my printer and just have three panels already there instead of drawing them out. Once I had the gag written I would pencil and I would spend one day writing 10-20 gags and then I’ll pencil the gag. I used to draw with an Esterbrook 914 radio pen which is the nib that Charles Schulz used to draw Peanuts. When the Esterbrook company went out of business Sparky bought the entire remaining stock of the 914 radio pen. I had used other Esterbrook pens. My pen nibs are older than me but they’re just marvelous. I did find a box of 914 and they’re just wonderful.

On a good week I’d do eight comic strips. Now that I draw digitally I can do eight a day. I found that I was always repeating the same backgrounds all the time. I have hundreds of backgrounds that I’ve drawn so I don’t have to keep redrawing them, I can pop them in digitally. It’s still my drawing. Then I draw the characters and put in the text. It’s much faster. What that does is allows me to work on other projects. For instance I’m been working on a graphic novel for the past two years which I’m very close to finishing. It’s been something I’d been wanting to do for years but I was never able to give the effort and research that I needed to this project. Now instead of being four weeks ahead on my dailies and two months ahead on my Sundays, I can be four months ahead on my daily and six months ahead on my Sundays. That helps tremendously. I highly recommend getting a cintiq.

Having read the strip over the years, the style has changed like in any long running strip. How much of that is intentional and how much is just you finding a better design or new approaches you like?

I think it’s so gradual you don’t even notice it. If you looked at my early strips, my characters are really very flat. Their eyes were so far apart they were wall-eyed. They’re still far apart, but not as far. When you first start a strip – I think you can see it in a lot of comics – you’re not quite sure yet. You can see some hesitancy in the drawings. If you look at some early Garfields it’s very different form how Garfield is now. He’s so much more stylized now. I think that’s a gradual process. If you look at the very first Peanuts their heads are the size of zeppelins and they have these tiny little bodies. You can see it in any strip. I think it’s that hesitancy and not knowing how to draw the characters yet. You’re still feeling your way through the strip and you see it in the early work. After time you find your groove and the way you want them to look.

You mentioned the graphic novel you’re working on. Do you want to say anything about it?

It’s a story that I’ve been wanting to do for a while. It’s a biography of my mother. My mother passed away in 2009 and about ten years before that she came to visit my wife and I and she told us this stuff that I was never privy to as a kid. We never knew my mother’s parents and she would never talk about them. It was always a mystery. This weekend she came to visit, because she wanted me and my wife to be the executors of her will, she decided to just tell us everything. It was a compelling, compelling story. It’s not an easy story. I’ll read you the pitch:

For most of his life, Rick’s mother shared nothing about her childhood. While she never spoke of her years before marriage and motherhood, her frequent depressive episodes, use of corporal punishment, and erratic behavior betrayed a foundation of abuse, neglect and vulnerability. Like his many siblings, Rick attempted to connect with his mother any way she’d allow, and resigned that he’d never learn about her past. But unexpectedly, in the summer of Rick’s 30th year, Pat asked him to serve as her executor, and traveled to spend a weekend at his home to complete the paperwork. During that visit, she poured out her memories, never heard before – or ever again afterward. Stony Road is a story of lineage: the mysteries of our parents, and the desire to understand the forces that shaped them (and, by extension, us). It’s a story of regret and acceptance, resignation and survival. And – despite appearances – it’s a love story, the maddening, persistent, confounding love that only comes with blood and family.

It’s a pretty intense narrative. It involved a lot of research. I had two genealogists help me find out about my grandparents. It has an ending that you just couldn’t script. It doesn’t sound real, but it’s real. It’s changed how I feel about both my parents and about my family. It’s very different form the kind of art I normally do. It starts in the Depression and it ends upon her death in 2009. It’s been difficult at times because I’m thinking about them every single day. Going through old photographs and looking for photo reference. It’s been a long process, but it’s been very cathartic. I’ve been doing it with my niece, Sarah Pascarella. She’s a writer and and editor. I was trying to do it on my own but I’m so used to write just twelve words at a time that I was having difficulty with the narrative so I asked her for her help. So far it’s been a two year process. We’ve been interviewing siblings and going places and searching census records. It’s been emotional. It’s caused some rifts in my family. I have siblings that won’t speak to me because I’m doing this. It’s not a trash piece, but it’s not a puff piece either. It’s a real story. Some of it is fictionalized because there’s gaps. I make it clear in the beginning of the book that this isn’t a verbatim what happened, but it’s pretty close. It’s my opus. It’s the biggest project I’ve ever worked on, the most personal project I’ve ever worked on, and I’m hopefully going to find a publisher for it. I want to make sure that I find the right place so it gets as much exposure as it can, but if it doesn’t sell anything, it needed to be written.

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