Sunday Mailbag

November 18th, 2012 | Posted in Mailbag


Q: Did you always want to be a caricaturist and illustrator? Did your parents support or discourage your career choice?

A: I have wanted to be an artist, since before I can remember. The 1960’s Batman TV show was what started it. I was born in 1966, the year the show began, so by the time I was old enough to watch TV it was already off the air but in endless reruns. My parents say even when I was as young as two, I would come scurrying into the living room when they turned up the volume during the opening theme song. Then I would sit rapt before the screen watching the show. I went through many old towels used as capes, and eventually hoods/capes my mom would sew for me. Some evidence:

Me at age 2, and not on Halloween… I always wore my cape and cowl to breakfast.

Me (age 3) and my sister Tami.

Me age 46. Only the elaborateness of the Batsuit has changed… and I have to shave now.

This all led to my dad bringing home comic books for me to look at from the grocery store he worked at. I’d draw Batman and Robin all day long, as well as Captain Marvel, and the Harvey and Disney comic book characters. When I got into grade school I was writing and drawing my own comics, mostly kid versions of the superheroes I liked. When I was in 5th grade, Star Wars came out. That was it for me. I didn’t want to do anything else except draw comics. Eventually as I approached the end of my high school years, I switched my idea of a career from comics to “commercial art”. I wasn’t sure exactly what that was, only that you got paid to draw. That seemed like a great idea to me. I had mostly left comics behind by the early 80’s, and thought working in advertising art, doing album covers, maybe some book illustration, and other applications of art would be my best path to earning a living as an artist. I still did some cartooning, but was no longer fixated on it. I was brought back to cartooning when I got a job doing caricatures at a Six Flags park when I was in college.

Basically, I can’t remember a time I did not want to be an artist of one sort or another.

As for my parents, I often joke that they wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer, or to get a “real job”, but that’s just the old standard gag of the parents being disdainful of any creative career their children might pursue. Actually my parents were very supportive of my wanting to be an artist. We had a very working class family, so there was not a lot of extra money floating about. My parents made due in getting me as many art supplies as they could find. I often drew on the backs of discarded mimeograph paper or reams of old printer data paper, the kind that had alternating lines of green and white and the printer track perforations on the edges, that they brought home from work. My dad transformed a corner of our basement into a studio for me, with an old, hollow-core door on a 2×4 frame as my drawing table. I had coffee tins full of half pencils and old ballpoint pens, and ice cream buckets fill of broken crayons. I used every scrap of paper and wore every pencil down to the nub.

When I was in early high school, maybe 1980 or 1981, I submitted one of those “draw Tippy the Turtle” drawings where your might win a free scholarship to the Art Instruction Schools correspondence course. I didn’t win it of course (not sure how many of those scholarships ever got awarded) but we were visited by a salesman who wanted to enroll me in the school. By “school”, I mean a correspondence course where you were mailed a lesson that included a small booklet teaching you some simple art concept and included an assignment you completed and then mailed back to them. The hook was that your artwork was supposed to be graded by an actual art instructor, and you received specific, personalized feedback and critique. My parents were divorced by then, and we really were struggling for money. My dad asked me if I really wanted to do this, and I said yes I did. Somehow he found the money to enroll me. After three lessons I went to him and told him this was not worth the money. The “personalized feedback” I was getting was obviously nothing more than an instructor looking at my assignment, selecting one of probably several different pre-printed vellum overlays that corresponded to whatever he or she thought was the chief problem with my work, and then scrawling a grade and maybe two or three generic words like “keep at it” or “good effort” and a signature. This was maybe the work of 30-60 seconds.¬¨‚Ć I was mortified, since I knew we really could not afford the lessons and we were not getting what were thought we would get. I could probably learn more from the cheap Walter Foster booklets that were available in garage sales and used bookstores. The problem was there was a contract, and no way to get out of the payment plan once enrolled. Somehow my dad managed to get them to release us from the contract… I have no idea how he did that, I’ll have to ask him sometime. Both he and my mom sacrificed a lot so I could have things to draw on and with, and had as many opportunities to learn as they could find.

My dad was in the audience in Las Vegas last May, when the National Cartoonists Society honored me with the Reuben award for Outstanding Cartoonist of 2012. He was very proud, and I was glad he was there to see that . . . he and my mom had no small part in why I was standing on that stage that night.

Thanks to¬¨‚ĆMarcel Recasens¬¨‚Ć for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!



  1. Lee White says:

    Holy Nippled-Crusader, Batman!!

    I’ve seen your Batsuit in other posts, but for some reason, I thought it was some sort of non-functional (not wearable) prop- Very cool that you can actually wear it on Halloween, or whenever the mood strikes…. now all you need is a TomSignal on top of the house, so the Lovely Anna can let you know when it’s dinnertime.

  2. Lisa says:

    Not only do you have to shave when in Batsuit getup, you give out full-size candy bars on Halloween…awesome!!

    How wonderful that your parents were so supportive. My mother (ironically a cartoonist) did everything in her power to keep me from being an artist. Didn’t work, I make a nice living now as an artist. Karma!

  3. jailerjoe says:

    Holy Hersheys, Batman. Those ain’t the ‘fun size’! Fun pics and awesome suit. Looks like you grew up in the Brady’s house…Love it!

  4. Bill Dunn says:

    Great story about your Dad, Tom.

  5. Hi, Tom! I’m Marcel Recasens, the one who wrote the question. I’m 12, and i’ve got a bloc: (in my language). Apart from congratulating you for the excellent answer and history, I wanna ask you to put and recommend this post and your page in my bloc. Thank you! (I know my english is not very good)

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for the great question, Marcel! I checked out your blog, and your artwork is really fantastic, especially considering you are only 12! Wow! Keep drawing, my friend!


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