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Comics in the Fort

Profilies of 4 cartoonists living and working in Fort Wayne

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Dan Lynch

Dan Lynch is remembered for the years that he gently and brutally drew editorial barbs aimed at local and national political targets. He found his mark over and over as the staff editorial cartoonist for The Journal-Gazette from 1981 until his retirement at the end of 2001.

Lynch was born in Fort Wayne and raised in a region of northwestern Indiana known as the “Calumet Region.” Like any born cartoonist, Dan drew all of the time on everything—all through grade school. At Bishop Noll High School, in The Warrior student newspaper, his first cartoon for them was deemed “too controversial” for publication. Lynch was off to a good start.

After graduation, Lynch studied journalism at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. In 1968, Lynch’s interest shifted to cartooning, and led him to join the staff of Indiana University’s Indiana Daily Student as staff cartoonist in 1972. He stalked the halls of Ernie Pyle Hall slinging his ink until he left IU in 1975 to join The Journal-Gazette in Fort Wayne, upon the recommendation of Bill Sanders, the cartoonist for The Milwaukee Journal.

Lynch moved to The Kansas City Star in 1978, but returned to The Journal Gazette three years later. Lynch told the website Indiana Cartoonist (www.indianacartoonist.com), “The Star was a great newspaper and a fabulous experience, but Kansas City wasn’t home and I knew it would never be. When my old job opened up, I couldn’t resist going back.”

For eleven years, beginning in 1986, Lynch’s work was nationally syndicated by NEA (Newspaper Enterprise Association). Lynch retired from syndication in 1997 to again concentrate on local and state issues. Many readers prefer local topics to cartoons that don’t pertain to the local living experience. Lynch’s cartoons frequently annoyed readers, but that was evidence to Lynch that he was doing his job.

Lynch noted upon the passing of Jeff MacNelly (a cartoonist who was a great inspiration to him), “Most cartoonists are solitary creatures who rely on no one else for inspiration, and don’t work well in the traditional newsroom environment.” For many years, Lynch proved that he was an integral part of the editorial page of The Journal-Gazette. Readers looked forward to his cartoons every morning — even if it made them angry.

Lynch’s’s first book, There’s Gold In Them Thar Ills (1985), collects cartoons from The Journal Gazette and The Kansas City Star.

After the events of September 11, 2001, Lynch added his commentary on the event by reflecting back to December of 1941 and FDR’s reaction to that era’s sneak attack upon our sphere of influence.

Two weeks after 9-11, Lynch’s 25 year career of bringing humor and poignant insight to world events was stilled by a serious stroke, which sadly led to his retirement from the newspaper industry. Lynch currently lives in an old home on the St. Joseph River 12 miles southeast of Auburn with his wife Janet and their two dogs and a cat. The Lynch family is augmented by their daughter Anna, and son Kelly (a film maker who recently premiered his film The Passenger).

Lynch’s collection of cartoons—Dirty Little Secrets (a collection of Dan’s best cartoons from the 1980s/1990s/2000s) was published in June of 2003 and includes three exclusive articles of critical importance by Lynch.

Dirty Little Secrets is available for $19.99 (add $2 S/H) to: P.O. Box 94, Spencerville, IN 46788. A collection of Dan’s cartoons can also be viewed at: www.indianacartoonists.com

Dan Lynch was part of the last great wave of editorial cartoonists that enjoyed success in a time when editorial cartoons were appreciated for the way that pictures and text fused into instantly recognized commentary. They were a valued addition to every big (and small) city newsrooms. Editorial cartoons are one of the most powerful forms of communication in the realm of print journalism. Lynch’s untimely retirement has been our loss.

Today, staff editorial cartoonists are not replaced when they leave newspapers. Instead, canned material is substituted from national syndicates. Consequently, local voices are absent and reader interest is dimmed. In this era of declining newspaper circulations, local editorial cartoon content would surely be appreciated by readers, but no one is filling the void left by artists like Dan Lynch.

Kevin Coffee

Many artists work a “day job” top pay the bills while honing their craft during their off hours. The “day job” doesn’t necessarily take place during the day, of course, but whatever the shift hours, the “day job” is typically viewed as something to be endured, sort of like a flat tire or a bout of the flu — it happens to everybody eventually, and there’s nothing to do but get through it.

Not cartoonist Kevin Coffee, though. He loves his “day job.” And why not? He’s part of the graphics department for WANE-TV’s news team, a challenging, dynamic job that lets him use his diverse design skills. “I think I’ve found a really good balance,” Coffee says of juggling his day job with his outside projects.

Actually, to hear Coffee tell it, when it comes to illustrating and cartooning, he’s done a little bit of everything, from his own cartooning to book illustration to many freelance projects.

As a kid, Coffee was drawn to the newspaper comics, but his first love was Mad Magazine, in particular the work of Mort Drucker. “He did all the movie parodies.” Coffee says. “He’s famous for his caricatures. He’s one of — if not the — greatest caricaturists that ever lived.”

In his early teen years, Coffee took a cartooning class taught by Jerry Stewart, the editorial cartoonist for The News Sentinel from 1936 – 1986. “He became a really great friend and a great mentor,” Coffee says. “He always had so many good stories to tell.”

Coffee received a degree in commercial art from St. Francis in 1988, a weird time to get a design degree. “Everything in the graphics arts industry changed right as I went to school,” he says. “Stuff that had been done one way for hundreds of years just all became computerized.”

“I joke sometimes that my degree was actually in commercial art history,” he laughs. “But honestly, no one could see how massively everything was going to change in the next five years.“ Learning the “older” skills gave him a great foundation for when everything became computerized. Still, he says he had seven or eight jobs at small print shops that just went out of business when they couldn’t keep up with new technology. Coffee adapted, learning new programs himself as they became available. “Using the graphics tablet and software… to me it’s just like drawing on paper.”

He created a website for his work (www.coffeespill.com), one of the things that lead to his getting the job at WANE, and continued to work on other projects. One of the most exciting — and the most heartbreaking— came in 2002. The Sci-Fi channel launched a half-hour show called Dream Team with Annabel and Michael, where “dream expert” Michael Lennox (“I don’t know how you get the job of ‘dream expert’” says Coffee) would interpret the dreams of a member of the studio audience. Every episode would feature someone’s dream with illustrations. Coffee was one of the artists chosen to illustrate the dreams. “I worked on four episodes,” he says. “It was an amazing experience, I loved the project, but as I’ve learned in TV, a whole lot of stuff gets produced and people never see it. I think the show ran for three weeks and then was cancelled. The episodes I worked on never aired.”

“Where I’ve ended up with freelance work at this point is feeling very frustrated,” he adds. “I’ve done some good projects, but they’re very few and far between. The internet gives the impression that people can get everything for free, and the freelance work has been greatly devalued. I have a full-time job I really love, so I’m not pursuing it full-time. If I did, I might do better, but I just got of sick negotiating with potential clients who just never had any intention of paying.”

Rather than chasing after freelance projects, Coffee recently went a different route and took up another artistic challenge — he became a caricaturist for T.A.G. art, drawing at parties, festivals and other events. “At first, I was kind of intimidated by the idea,” he says. “But I just threw myself into it and now I love it. It’s a real challenge.”

Drawing caricatures takes Coffee back to his artistic roots. He learned on a pad and paper, taking his cues from caricaturist Mort Drucker. Now, he’s once again drawing caricatures on pad and paper. As far as his own cartooning… “If I ever could make a living from cartooning or illustrating, I would, but right now… I love my job, I enjoy doing caricatures. It’s a great balance.”

See some of Kevin Coffee’s work (including the material he created for Dream Team) at www.coffeespill.com and kcconcepts.blogspot.com

Steve Smeltzer

Drummer jokes are a popular past time among musicians. How do you get a drummer off your front porch? Pay them for the pizza. What do you call someone who hangs out with musicians? A drummer. What do you call a drummer without a boyfriend/girlfriend? Homeless. How many drummers…

I could go on. But a few drummer jokes made all the difference in the world to Steve Smeltzer, a cartoonist and, yes, a drummer. “Great jobs for a 16-year-old,” Smeltzer laughs. “I should have a paper route, too.”

Smeltzer had been drawing and cartooning his whole life, but when he was in his mid-20s he sent a few cartoons into Modern Drummer magazine, almost on a whim. To his surprise, they published them. The paycheck wasn’t big, but it was cool seeing them in print. “But I kinda put it on the backburner for a while and tried to be a rockstar,” he says.

When that didn’t work out, Smeltzer started to take his cartooning a little more seriously, researching magazines and other markets for his work. “I found out what magazines bought cartoons, and which ones paid the most, and just started at the top, just to see where I’d fall,” he says. “Some of the top ones started buying. I was shocked.”

And he’s had a pretty consistent run, as these things go in the world of cartooning. He has illustrated Sweetwater’s annual calendar since 1995, and his work also appears regularly in Fort Wayne Magazine. But over the years he’s also placed his cartoons in a number of national publications like USA Weekend, Better Homes & Gardens and The Saturday Evening Post.

Market consolidation and the high cost of print has seen some of Smeltzer’s older markets dry up. Many of those magazines now use a service called the Cartoon Bank (an extension of The New Yorker), which can be difficult to get into. But he still gets regular work, and he’s looking at other markets. One lucrative area for cartoonists: marketing and presentations. “There’s a lot of business where there wasn’t before,” he says. “I’ve got my website, and for the longest time I just used it as a portfolio. But there are a lot of cartoonists who optimize their sites so it comes up high in the search listings, and they get a lot of business from that. So that’s what I’m looking into.”

Smeltzer credits his father for his drawing ability. “My dad was a tremendous cartoonist,” he says. “For a living he was a commercial artist and he would do building and house renderings. I’d look at these things and they’d look like real houses. He was just a master. In the army, he painted those pin-up girls on the sides of war planes.”

He got humor training from his father, too. When Smeltzer was in grade school, he used to meet his father at home for lunch. “We got hooked on this soap opera called Love of Life, and we’d watch it and inject our own dialogue into the story. That really taught me how to take something normal and turn it into something funny.”

He adds: “The biggest thing about cartooning is it’s always the writing. It’s really not the drawing. You can have really… almost stick figures, and if the idea is good, that’s what people lock into.”

His favorite subject is the clueless guy with a heart of gold. “Those guys who really think they’re doing something good. Like when Lisa Simpson comes to her dad for advice, and he says ‘the most important thing is what other people think of you.’ I just love that. People just charging forward down the wrong road. They’re just living life, and as far as what’s going to result from this stupid behavior, they can’t even comprehend it.”

Smeltzer says he’s been lucky to work with a few editors who just seem to “get” his stuff, whatever the subject. But often needs to tailor his work towards whatever market he’s sending to — medical, business, etc. Some artists might chafe at this, and Smeltzer says that once upon a time, he would have been the same way. What turned him around was a biography he read about jazz musician Miles Davis. Davis’ experimentalism was partly based on a desire to compete with up-and-coming late 60s rockers like Jimi Hendrix; if a guy as cool and respected as Miles Davis can change his sound to find an audience, says Smeltzer, then he can do it, too.

Besides, sometimes guidelines can be used as a source of inspiration. “There’s nothing scarier than that blank piece of paper,” he says. “But if someone says, ‘do something with an umbrella and an SUV,’ then you start thinking.”

See Steve Smeltzer’s work at www.smeltzercartoons.com.

Stephen Wayne

Here at Fort Wayne Reader towers, not an issue goes by that we’re not called idiots or told “you suck” with varying degrees of vehemence. But perhaps the angriest responses we’ve ever had came in reaction to a work by cartoonist Stephen Wayne. We won’t tell you what it was, or when, but we’ll just say quite a few not-so-happy readers — former readers, we’re betting — called and wrote to express their displeasure, and some using language that might bring a flush to the cheeks of… well, a character in a Stephen Wayne cartoon.

Wayne’s cartoon To Make A Long Story Short has been running in FWR for a little over two years now, and their humor runs the gamut from incisive and clever to over-the-top visual gags, the latter maybe involving a severed limb or a black eye. Asked if there’s a unifying theme that brings together the egomaniacal authority figures, moronic bikers, and clueless rubes that populate his cartoons, Wayne is blunt. “Human stupidity,” he says. “Ignorance. I just really get a kick out of seeing how much stupidity there is in our society.”

And a big chunk of Wayne’s employment history has proved a rich and deep well of material for him. “I was a bartender for 15 years and enjoyed 10 of them,” Wayne says. “I can just think back over the years at some of the stupid things people have said…”

“And a lot of those years were at a nudie bar,” he adds. “Let me tell you, those places bring in idiots.”

Wayne began drawing as a kid. He believes he picked up the skill from his dad, who he remembers drawing for Wayne’s brothers and sisters. “I was always the comedian,” says Wayne, who comes from a family of eight. “My older brother always told me ‘you should be a comedian.’ But I could never handle the heckling. I’d be down off the stage fighting. But I always loved to draw. Drawing was kind of an escape, maybe, from reality, you know.”

Wayne says that when he was young he fell in with a bad crowd and had some trouble with the law. It’s not something he’s proud of, though it forced him to focus and “pull himself together,” part of which included working on his cartooning and drawing. “I remember thinking, ‘this is the thing I’m best at. It’s probably something I should try,” he says. “So I played around with it for years. People I knew would say ‘oh, you’ll never be successful. Why don’t you quit that and get a real job? And that’s when it really hit me that ‘okay, this is something I’m going to do, because no one else seems to do it around here, everybody seems to think it’s a waste of time.”

“I haven’t been that successful at it yet, and part of that’s my own fault,” he adds. “I’m not as aggressive about sending my stuff out as I could be.”

Wayne’s cartons have appeared in several magazines and newspapers, including — believe it or not — a religious tabloid in Florida that liked his stuff. His work has also been seen in a publication (besides ours) a little closer to home. “I was published in The News Sentinel for about a year, but they didn’t pay me,” he says. “They really talked like they liked my stuff, they printed a couple a week, but anytime I would try to talk to them about money they would avoid me. I quit sending them cartoons, they sent a letter saying ‘we really miss your stuff,’ so I started back up again with them, but… they kept saying there was a chance to make money. There never was and I never did.”

Wayne has written a couple of children’s books that he says he’d like to revisit someday and try to get published. When I tell him that might surprise anyone who has seen some of his more edgier work, he says the children’s books are much different. As far as some of the violence in his other comic panels, which often depict the results of stupid people doing stupid things… “That’s just cartoons,” he laughs. “I’m not making a movie of someone’s arm getting cut off. It’s a cartoon. Remember when you used to get up Saturday morning and watch the cartoon characters get their heads knocked off?. It’s a cartoon, it’s not reality. It’s far from reality.”

Like many writers, illustrators, and cartoonists, Wayne keeps a collection of rejection letters for inspiration. Many of them are hand written notes. “When I was younger it was form letters,” he says. “Now, I get positive feedback. ‘Hey, can’t use you right now, blah, blah, blah.’ I don’t have that mainstream kinda thing going on, you know, and they’re worried about taking a chance. But they always compliment me. That’s one thing that’s kept me going at it.”

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