Bill Amend: Still Crazy as a "Fox" After All These Years

It's been more than two decades since a 25 year old Bill Amend unleashed "Fox Trot" on the newspapers of America. It was a family strip, but it had personality and humor and a unique combination of pop culture savvy and timelessness.

Jason, the younger brother, is Amend's greatest creation, managing to be tied to the culture of the moment in a way that manages to straddle a fine line between being almost incomprehensible to someone not immersed in pop culture and yet laughable, so that for those readers who don't get the "Lord of the Rings" or "Super Mario Bros." references, what's happening and why it's funny is easily understandable and relatable. More than that, Amend writes and draws the Fox family as characters with personalities and not simply an assemblage of running gags and recurring themes.

Amend semi-retired "Fox Trot" in 2006, and it now appears only on Sundays.

Anyone who's had the chance to meet Amend knows he's a class act. The long line of people who came out to meet him at this year's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books can attest to that, as Amend signed and sketched for almost two hours. Amend was kind enough to take some time out from the festival to talk to CBR News about the strip and his work habits.

It's been a while now that you've been producing "Fox Trot" on a weekly basis. How has your life has changed?

I have a lot more time to do things like clean the garage, which is nice. Not that I have actually cleaned the garage since the dailies ended, but it's nice knowing that if I wanted to, I could.

What was it that led you to make this change and how did the syndicate react to it?

My 20-year contract was coming to an end and it'd been pretty clear to me for some time that I needed to find a better balance of things going forward if I was going to stay sane. This job is rather all-consuming, and pulling all-nighters starts losing its allure after a while. My syndicate tried every argument they could think of to get me to reconsider, which I appreciated. In the end, when it was clear that this was what I wanted, they were very supportive on a personal level. As a business they were crying a bit, naturally.

Is a 20-year contract standard, and when you signed it oh so many years ago, were you intimidated by the prospect?

It was borderline standard back then. I was an unknown, unemployed kid living with his parents, so my negotiating leverage was about zero. I was probably too naive back then to be as intimidated by the term as I should have been. Current contracts tend to be in the 5-15 year range.

Are you now in the midst of another 20 year contract?

Um, no. The leverage was all on my side this time. My current contract is for three years.

Was the idea of others writing and drawing the strip ever raised?

As my syndicate and I discussed my desire to switch to Sundays-only, they offered up all sorts of alternative scenarios to avoid the big hit on both our incomes. I don't blame them, but I wasn't interested.

Did you think about demanding more space for the strip or something along those lines now that you're once a week?

I was already giving newspapers enough of a headache by dropping the dailies. I don't think adding format or space demands would've been a wise move.

How do you typically create a strip?

I write out the dialogue on a legal pad, usually with only minimal thumbnail sketches to work out any visual elements to the joke. Often I write stuff with no idea where it'll lead, and sometimes I find a good strip that way, other times it leads nowhere. Once I'm semi-happy with what I have, I'll pencil it on Bristol board and usually rewrite a good portion of the dialogue in the time before I ink it.

Do you work in a different way for the Sunday strips?

About five or six years ago I started assembling the dailies in Photoshop, so I had a lot more flexibility with changing text and moving characters around. The Sundays, I've always done the old-fashioned way on paper from start to finish. There's something nice about starting with a blank piece of paper, and turning it into a finished comic all by hand.

Do you approach the strip any differently now that when you were producing it daily?

There's a lot more pressure to not have a clunker. Before, if I did a bad strip, readers would get a new, hopefully better one the next day and forget all about it. Now they have to wait a whole week.

So you still write and draw the Sunday strips in the same way?

It's pretty much the same, at this point. Although I now have about five free days after the strip is turned in instead of the five free minutes I used to have.

Did you read a lot of comics as a child?

Mostly Mad Magazine when I was younger, with a couple years of superhero comics thrown in. The few comic strips I did read tended to be in paperback reprint collections rather than in the newspaper.

Were you always drawing?

I remember coming up with my first original cartoon character in fourth grade and from that point on loved to draw all kinds of goofy comics to amuse myself and my friends. However, I would characterize my younger self more as perpetually creative rather than perpetually artistic.

What were the books/movies/comics that made you want to create your own work?

I'd always wanted to create my own work, so I can't assign an inspiration to that per se. Walt Disney was certainly a big creative hero growing up. Then later, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. "Doonesbury" and "Bloom County" were the two strips that made me think doing a comic strip would be fun.

You started Fox Trot when you were 25. I know you studied physics at college and have said that you wanted to work in movies but how long had you been trying to be syndicated by that time?

After college I spent about three years submitting strips to the five or so big syndicates before Universal made me an offer. "Fox Trot" was my second attempt at a strip and I think I submitted it about five times in slightly different art styles before it got picked up.

Obviously, after all this time the characters mean something different to you now than when you started, but I'm wondering who you identified with most when you started and is that the same character you identify with now?

When I first started doing the strip, I think I identified most with the older brother Peter, probably because I was an older brother myself and wasn't that much older than him. As time went on and the characters became fleshed out, I think Jason evolved into more of my alter ego. He and I have a lot of the same nerdy interests. But really, all of the characters seem to be imbued with various aspects of my personality, so I can relate to all of them in different ways.

You mentioned that Jason is the character you've come to identify with most. Whenever he talks about "Lord of the Rings" or "Star Wars" or video games, is he your mouthpiece or are you just using him to comment on pop culture or some combination?

With most of the geekier pop-culture stuff, Jason's sort of an exaggerated mouthpiece for my own views and ideas. Whereas Jason might visit a "LOTR" rumor site 1000 times a day, I'd probably only go 10-20 times.

Have you ever heard back from George Lucas or Apple or any of the other people you've addressed/parodied/talked about in the strip?

I've heard from Lucasfilm and Apple employees, but never the big guys like Steve Jobs. The magician David Copperfield called me up one Saturday night while I was watching TV to thank me for mentioning him. I have no idea how he got my phone number. Magic, I guess.

A while back, the dimensions of the collections of your strip changed, from the typical squarebound size to a smaller rectangular size, and I was wondering if you could talk about why you asked the publisher for that?

About 10 years ago I switched the format of my Sundays to one that lets me have the panels break wherever I want. This worked fine for newspapers and made me a much happier cartoonist, but when it came time to put the strips in books, it was clear that the square format of the books didn't work well with the now horizontal Sundays.

Also, I never liked how we had two little books then a big one that was just the little ones combined, so figuring out a new book format/schedule appealed to me. It just seemed like it confused readers who never knew which to buy. My preference would have been to just do one book a year with the Sundays in color and eliminate the duplication, but my publisher didn't want to do that. So in the end what worked best, I felt, was to make the little books a bit smaller, the treasuries a bit bigger (they actually got a little shorter, but they now have more strips), and make the difference between them more obvious.

What are your own personal thoughts on merchandising?

It's something I've never been particularly interested in pursuing beyond the few t-shirts and mugs I've done in Cafepress, but I don't fault cartoonists who do it. Especially web cartoonists who need to make money off their strips in alternative ways, since they can't rely on those whopping $10 per week paychecks from newspapers.

Cartoonists of or around your generation are much more inclined to stop the strip and not have it run forever. Do you think that's a question of ownership or is it something else?

I don't have a good answer for you. It's probably a mix of ownership rights and generational attitudes. I'm sure it'd make a good subject for a college thesis.

What's next for you? Do you have any concrete or vague plans for what creative projct you want to pursue next or are you still recharging and thinking?

I have lots of vague plans. I'm really good at those.

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