Dec. 1 marked a milestone I never expected, but which I inwardly worried might come. One year ago, I joined the ranks of the laid-off, and began a journey of uneasy new directions.
Two days after the election of Barack Obama, the E.W. Scripps Company mandated staff cuts for all its newspapers. My employer, the Ventura County Star, complied by axing 44 jobs. As the sole remaining editorial artist (and cartoonist), I felt safe, having received a glowing performance evaluation. But with pages and sections shrinking, they decided an artist was no longer necessary. I was given until the end of the month.
The year 2008, until then, had gone pretty well. I'd been doing my best cartooning, was runner-up in a national competition and bought a house.
Suddenly, it was as if I'd been on a long bus journey, and then that bus abruptly pulled over to the side of the road, forced me out and drove away. leaving me in the middle of nowhere.
I officially became a freelancer; I already had a weekly freelance gig with L.A.'s Jewish Journal. With more editorial cartoonists similarly axed nationwide, the ranks of "freelancers" grew.
I let the local alt-weekly, the Ventura County Reporter, know I was out, and inquired about freelance illustration work. They invited me to come in for a visit, loved my stuff, but expressed regret that they lacked the funds to really use me.
Then in Des Moines, Iowa, cartoonist Brian Duffy got laid off, and the local alt-weekly offered him a regular space. I mentioned this to the VCReporter (hint, hint) and we ultimately devised a way for them to use me, drawing local and national cartoons on alternate weeks.
Job hunting went nowhere. My skills had become honed for producing newspaper graphics, but with that industry collapsing, those skills were mismatched for anything else. Nearly every art job available was for apparel design, packaging or video games, none of which I was qualified for.
I'd considered freelancing back to the Star, but decided it didn't feel right to give them back my cartooning at a cut-rate price. The VCReporter offered a fresh start.
Also, by not being in the Star, I was free to approach the rival Los Angeles Times. They ran no local cartoons, and I made that my mission, submitting cartoons relentlessly; finally in late March, they bought a state cartoon.
I'd arrived! I was in the L.A. Times! But as it turned out, for only that one time.
With piles of unused local cartoons, I offered them to a prominent news blog, LAObserved.com, which was delighted to have them. Overnight I became the most visible person doing L.A. cartooning. Great visibility. no money.
The Video Journalism Movement in Amsterdam, focused on international cartooning and documentary videos, saw my work online and liked it. They pay in Euros, but hell, it's still money.
Not everything has been good. Nobody would hire me, interview me or even acknowledge my applications. My main source of income was state unemployment benefits; combined with my freelancing I was -- at best -- earning half my former income.
Then in September, WHAM, a retinal detachment temporarily blinded me in one eye. The vision is sluggishly improving but is distorted. I still draw, but slowly and requiring Photoshop fixes. Unemployment checks have been replaced by disability checks.
So here I am, a year out of work. On the one hand, I'm a full-time editorial cartoonist again, something I hadn't been since the mid-1980s. I've become an online cartoonist, a niche cartoonist and an alt-weekly cartoonist. My visibility has perhaps never been greater.
On the other hand, at 55, I've never worked so hard for so little. I'm home alone most of the time. There are days of battling boredom and depression. The job market is wretched. And when you're a freelancer, you're essentially always on deadline.
I'm blessed to have an understanding wife with a good job, plus family, friends and colleagues offering support. I really don't know how I would've gotten through this past year alone. I really don't know how so many fellow citizens have gotten by.
Overall, my spirits are OK. The cartooning is still strong, the eyesight slowly improving and I have all these new, unexpected ventures.
And absolutely no idea how next year will look.
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