Today is the 20th anniversary of the launch of Londons Times Cartoons and the time has zoomed by most of the time, and felt like walking through thick molasses at other times. It almost seems like a dream, sometimes mostly entertaining and at other times a vivid nightmare. In many ways it seemed like yesterday that I was back on my hometown in Ms, broke, without a job and no government assistance. My only resources were my wits and they were running dry.
I had been helping my mom in her final days of cancer and selling television ads for a small television station whose employees reminded me of the characters in the sitcom WKRP Cincinnati. I’m not sure which one I was but definitely one too.
A friend owned a tin shed on the outskirts oftown; sort of like a small warehouse full of rotting cans of vegetables on makeshift wooden shelves he’d built on the wall in sort of a rural spot between two counties.
A can would explode every once in a while due to its contents fermenting and it being way past its expiration date. My friend had also installed electricity, plumbing (but no bath or shower) and a phone line. I bathed in the cold-water only sink. I washed my stray dog Thor in it as well. Within months Thor found a friendly calico kitten meowing from a low branch outside who I also adopted. Somehow we managed.
Friends would come by and bring me meals or take me out to eat. Those were exciting, fun, and frightening times. I was but a tin wall from the outside elements. For most that time I had no car. I slept on a concrete floor in a sleeping bag. I bought and way overspent for an IBM Clone PC from a guy near Hot Coffee, Ms who bought old computers and fixed them.
His garage was full of computers, parts, and tools. He was asking $800. We settled on $600. I know now it was worth about $150, but for back then it was a bit of a workhorse and I was so naive about technology I hadn’t a clue that he probably would have taken much less for it.
The tin shed had a fenced-in acre and a half yard that overlooked I-59, the main road to New Orleans or in the other direction about 20 miles from The Free State Of Jones.
It was March 19, 1997, and I was a very late bloomer due to a number of issues and events, but the main one being a lifetime of un-diagnosed Autism and punished for it, mainly by family but also by community. The family press release was very much like Joe Kennedy’s of Rosemary “Severe issues, she needs to be locked away.” As we learned much later, she was probably Autistic with mild depression. She was extremely bright as her brothers.
The big question was, “Could I ever get past those demons? Could I ever get past being unwanted and put away in an attic bedroom with each of my friendships parentally controlled” and my being unwanted? Could I get past the pTSD and low self-esteem it caused? Who was I to think I could be at the helm of a cartoon project (or any project for that matter)?
They say time flies when you’re having a good time. I can remember most of those times not being so fun for me. In fact I was not sure if I would make it. By then my heart was giving out but I didn’t know it.
I also had vanus (a severe form of flat feet) but had been a long-distance runner and even completed two marathons from Lafayette to Crowley, La. in 1978 and 1979. When finally diagnosed at age 60, the doctors said I had been running (and walking) on “a bag of bones”. I was fitted for orthotics which I wear daily. Vanus is inherited at birth. My dad had it, but I was never checked for it until age 60. Lee noticed it first and saw it on a doctor’s site poster when I was getting a brace for tendinitis. The orthotic inserts have allowed me to walk without hurting for the first time, and even do high-mountain hikes with Lee. I’ve learned to love nature and wildlife.
Dial-up Internet was slow. There was no Google, no Twitter or facebook, nor was there any social media. There were forums and Yahoo! Since I was a novice at the Internet, I didn’t know. I bartered my way through the whole thing.
I contacted cartoonists who had paved the way long before me. While I could draw, I couldn’t draw to the level of which I wanted to to project in this project. I wanted it to be a “Dali meets The Far Side”, a cartoon which could be appreciated as art. Sometimes that worked, sometimes not.
I can remember the most generous people with their time were Charles “Sparky” Schulz, Leigh Rubin (Rubes) and also helpful were Dave Coverly “Speed Bump”, Jon McPherson “Close To Home” and several others. It seemed the bigger they were, the most generous with their help.
So as per Sparky’s suggestion, I wrote the concepts and dialogue, and assigned them to my illustrative partner who rendered them. He only did black and white for a long time but within a year I talked him into color. That year a California tee company paid us $10,000 for the rights to 12 color images. We thought we’d arrived.
Though I made a number of barters, I don’t think we made another sale for another 4 or so years so we just kept creating cartoons. I continued to write them and tweak several I’d written years before. I had a shoebox full from early college days. My parents talked me out of doing anything with them so I kept them hidden away and finally used them.
We made a few sales to academic publishers which never paid much but every little bit helped.
I was living out of my suitcase, which was a good thing since every now and again I was evicted. Friend’s couches or extra bedrooms became “my best friend”. I always had to pay something but never much. I never needed a lot of space; just enough to type and talk on the phone. God bless those who gave me a chance.
By the year 2000, we had close to 3000 cartoons (mostly color), but the unpredictable and dangerous lifestyle was taking its toll. I had my first major heart attack in 2001, and another one in 2010 with three surgeries. In between that time I had a vagus nerve stimulator implant installed to assist my vagus nerve to work properly.
In 2008 I met my later-to-be amazing wife Lee Hiller. She was (and is) a constant support. She was with me during the 2010 surgeries which were touch and go. All the while she has been developing her own line of designer gifts LeeHillerDesigns.com and taking incredible nature photos (many on gifts) in our National Park in her blog titled HikeOurPlanet.com. She’s an incredible person and talent.
Londons Times Cartoons had been the Google #1 ranked offbeat cartoon for 3 years. It has now been for the past 12+ years (since Jan 2005). It is usually Bing’s #1 ranked too (though it tends to fluctuate there down to #4 or so). I’m happy with that given that on both engines there’s about a half million competing offbeat cartoons.
We put a counter up on my cartoon site in Jan. 2005 after Google first named it #1. We were eight years old. It shows we’ve now had about 8.9 million visitors worldwide. That boggles my mind still. It is very easy to say “Look what I did all by myself” but that’s not how it has been at all. I have been but a cog in the wheel of amazing illustrators, managers, tekkies, vendors and Lee all of whom took the time to contribute to a project that had but a slim chance. Alone, I would surely have walked away from computers and try to learn something that didn’t require them.
This year I learned I also have type-2 diabetes and she has gone right to work on helping me figure out a lifestyle diet that works. While it continues to be vegan, the portions are different as is some of the food variety. We’ve beefed up the exercise/hiking (or we’ve “soyed it up” as we don’t “beef” anything).
Today we sit with a gorgeous view of Hot Springs National Park from our office. We see just about every type of flora and wildlife imaginable outside our window. Hawks and falcons fly by often. Squirrels greet us at the window along with a variety of birds and insects.
All the while we create our gift ideas using digital design on our computers. While my cartoons are fun to put on items so are my “Famous Historical Quote Designs” which came much later.
We are going hiking later today on our favorite trail known for its deer and woodpeckers (and much more).
Nature has been very good to us and provided healing, not always so available in cities (where we have lived most our lives).
A well-known quote in the Autism world is “The Internet does for Autistics what Braille has done for the blind and sign-language has done for the deaf”. So I accidentally also found my tool for living, by being a part of the cartoon industry. I would probably have never learned the Internet; as the Interest wasn’t there. I developed a bit of interest when I returned to college at age 50 at WGU.EDU. I learned a lot and Lee has taught me a great deal also. I would have never have known it to be “my lifeline” as an Autistic.
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I was trying to sum things up and our good friend, Sally Jane Paulson in Norway did so for us with a Harper Lee quote she happened to post today. I believe it tells the whole story. It’s at the top of this story.
Rick London is an author, gift designer and founder of Google #1 ranked offbeat cartoons and funny gifts Londons Times. He is active with outdoors and environmental, animal, Autism and Veteran’s causes.