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The Cartoonist

How one of ASU's favorite alumni went from being a school newspaper cartoonist to getting a shot at syndication

 by Amanda L. Myers  published on Thursday, April 14, 2005

/issues/arts/692898
ON THE COVER
 
Since he was in preschool, F Minus cartoonist Tony Carrillo often has chosen to draw while other children chose to play or watch TV. Carrillo says as an ASU student, he often drew his comic strip during class./issues/arts/692898
Amanda L. Myers / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Since he was in preschool, F Minus cartoonist Tony Carrillo often has chosen to draw while other children chose to play or watch TV. Carrillo says as an ASU student, he often drew his comic strip during class.
 
Carrillo pictured with two of his charcoal portraits. He has been an artist much longer than a cartoonist, and says classical art is his first love./issues/arts/692898
Amanda L. Myers / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Carrillo pictured with two of his charcoal portraits. He has been an artist much longer than a cartoonist, and says classical art is his first love.
 
In addition to cartoons and classical art, Carrillo paints murals, such as this cityscape in a window well connected to 'The State Press' newsroom. Unlike his other murals, Carrillo painted this one for free./issues/arts/692898
Amanda L. Myers / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
In addition to cartoons and classical art, Carrillo paints murals, such as this cityscape in a window well connected to 'The State Press' newsroom. Unlike his other murals, Carrillo painted this one for free.
 
/issues/arts/692898
Amanda L. Myers / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
 

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For four semesters, Tony Carrillo drew F Minus, a cartoon that ran at the top of the comics section of The State Press.

And in those two years, Carrillo became the Gary Larson of ASU, and F Minus its Far Side.

But when Carrillo graduated in December, F Minus disappeared from the pages of the newspaper, leaving students to face a State Press without his unique wit.

But the same month Carrillo left ASU, the fine art graduate found a better opportunity, an opportunity young cartoonists only dream about. He won the first-ever mtvU STRIPS contest and an opportunity to develop F Minus for syndication, or, the national distribution and printing of cartoons and comic strips.

Now, just weeks into the deal, Carrillo is stock piling cartoons for the day when United Feature Syndicate tells him it's time for F Minus to go national.

Cartooning

Before Carrillo created and began drawing F Minus for The State Press, the publication had never ran a student-drawn comic that was quite as good.

The State Press prints three comic strips by ASU students five days a week every semester; the other cartoons on its comics page are nationally syndicated.

But F Minus was so good, not even the editor knew it wasn't a syndicated strip when Carrillo was hired.

"I was blown away when we first started doing it. I thought it was a syndicate," says Jessica Wanke, an ASU graduate who was editor of The State Press in the spring of 2003, when the managing editor of the paper hired Carrillo. "I definitely don't think there was anyone with the same form of wit Tony had or has."

Wanke says Carrillo's humor and talent is uncommon for someone his age.

"It's hard to do a comic when you haven't lived a whole lot of life and don't have a lot of experience to draw from," she says. "Tony just has this really great insight. He's beyond his years, and that's something most college students don't have."

Carrillo does have a certain maturity about him.

For one, the 23-year-old is rather shy around new people. His sense of humor is not limited to the panel that holds F Minus, but it's not the type of humor many notice right away because he is so quiet, especially in large groups.

But Carrillo also is the type who makes the funniest comments out of everyone in a room full of people. The difference between him and others is that he whispers them quietly to a friend, rather than shouting them out to get attention or a big laugh.

"I've never been one to take center stage, take the spotlight," he says. "That's why making the transition to do comics was easy for me. I get to say what I want to say to lots of people without having to speak, without anyone having to see me."

It's quite possible his desire to stay on the sidelines and observe is what makes some of his comics as witty and true to life as they are.

"Some of my best comics will come in middle of night," he says. "Sometimes sitting in front a blank piece of paper will work, but a lot of times, it comes from just listening to people talk. You listen to what people say in normal conversation, and when you put it on paper, it's just ridiculous."

For example, there's the F Minus that shows a schoolteacher returning a paper to a student. As she hands it back, she says, "Jamie, your paper was emotionally gripping, but failed to match the sexual intrigue of some of your earlier works."

Another is of an editor and writer talking in an office. The editor is saying, "I'll be honest with you, John. I haven't read your book yet, but I have made some significant changes."

Then there's the one of two cowboys riding a giant rabbit in the desert. One cowboy says to the other, "Hey Bill, do you ever think about the future? I mean, really think?"

When he drew that one, Carrillo says he simply wanted to see if he could draw with his left hand. Turns out, he can. A couple weeks later, he came up with what to write in the caption box, and the cartoon became one of his greatest.

Even though cartooning is a fairly anonymous art, Carrillo says he was recognized on campus once, and another time, one female fan would have quickly become a groupie with Carrillo's permission.

She knew Carrillo was the man behind F Minus because he was at a booth on campus selling books of his comic.

"This girl came up and she was totally star-struck. She wanted my autograph, bought my book and hung out for an hour and a half," Carrillo says. "I was flattered. I'm flattered anytime someone likes my comic, but it became a little strange because she was standing there so long."

Carrillo's girlfriend, journalism senior Lindsay Butler, wasn't as flattered as Carrillo was.

"Lindsay came out and she sat down to stake out her territory and stared her off," Carrillo says with a laugh.

Butler, who has been dating Carrillo for five years, says the fan was lucky it didn't go further.

"I am really protective of him," she says. "I am very territorial, and luckily, he's not very flirty with other girls because I'd have some ass-kicking to do."

Despite a strong following, Carrillo says there are still some people who just don't get what his comics mean.

"I hate having to explain to someone why my comic is funny because by the time I'm done, it isn't anymore," he says. "If you don't get it right away, just pass and go to the next one. Explaining it will kill any comic."

Carrillo says like all cartoonists, he, too, has critics.

"People are surprisingly willing to be brutally honest with you about your work," he says. "If one of your friends baked a pie and gave you a slice, they wouldn't say it tastes like crap, but if someone doesn't like comic, they don't hesitate to tell you."

And one time, Carrillo says The State Press would not print one of his comics.

The editorial board, which makes all final decisions about whether to run something that might be controversial, voted 5-4 to not run the comic. Sara Thorson, who was editor of the paper at the time, was the tie-breaking vote.

The cartoon is of women shopping in a grocery store in the fruit section. On display are canteloupe, melons, grapefruit and breasts. A plain-looking, flat-chested woman is eyeing the breasts with curiosity.

Carrillo meant the cartoon to be a commentary on the popularity and ridiculousness of plastic surgery, but Thorson and other editors didn't want it to run, saying they thought the strip was offensive to women.

"It was a tough decision, but ultimately, you have to come down on one side," says Thorson, who graduated from ASU in 2004. "I found it personally offensive and thought other people could interpret it that way ... the idea of breasts for sale in a supermarket. It was a little stomach-turning in that there were nipples on display."

As editor of the paper, Thorson says she had to anticipate reader reaction and thought if the comic ran, that reaction would be negative.

"Tony was very professional in explaining what his intent was, but sometimes, no matter what the artist's or reporter's intent is, readers won't interpret it that way," she says.

Popularity

During the course of his two years as a cartoonist for The State Press, Carrillo gained a loyal following of fans, many of whom only picked up the paper to see what would be in F Minus next.

When he left, fans say there was a void in The State Press.

"Last year, the only two comics in The State Press that consistently made me laugh were Foxtrot and F Minus," wrote secondary education sophomore Sergio Holguin to The State Press in February. "Ever since Tony Carrillo went on to bigger and better things, the comics section has left me with no humorous frames other than the Fox family."

F Minus was survived by W.M.U. and Ship of Fools, both of which are the work of ASU students. Snaggletooth became the third student comic.

But Holguin wrote that the others just don't compare.

"With all due respect to The State Press school writers, it seems that they are trying too hard to come up with interesting gimmicks or token animal characters. They often leave me angered more than satisfied."

He adds, "So while Mr. Carrillo is out there somewhere trying to become the next Gary Larson (and rightfully so), I hope that someone will take his place and just translate everyday stuff into a comic that is simple and funny."

But that isn't easy to do.

Cartoonist Joe Bowen was drawing his State Press strip, W.M.U., a year before Carrillo joined the staff. And even though he had seniority, Carrillo's strip got the No. 1 spot in the comics section.

While Carrillo and Bowen say they are friendly, the State Press snub and Carrillo's incredible popularity, eventually got to Bowen.

"I promise you W.M.U. will not be sucking up to F-minus anytime in the near future," wrote Bowen on his Web site in January, one month after Carrillo graduated. "Some people are really upset about his leaving, and those people should probably get a life."

Bowen says he did not harbor any animosity for Tony, but rather, the posting was a commentary on the first Snaggletooth cartoon that replaced F Minus.

The comic shows a tiny character standing in enormous shoes saying, "I guess now Snaggletooth will have to fill the shoes of F Minus."

"It was the guy's first comic and he was doing this tribute," Bowen says. "That's all well and good, but I was just commenting on that."

Bowen's Jan. 22 posting continued to focus on Carrillo.

"Now, as a result of Tony's absence, I have apparently inherited the 'top-spot' on the comics page, and I don't know if I can live up to it. Of course, I'm not sure what Tony ever did to deserve it, but ... that's probably why I'm not an editor."

Additionally, three months prior to the posting, Bowen drew Carrillo and Butler, who was a reporter at The State Press at the time, into his comic.

In the comic, one of his characters named Fish is holding a mace, a heavy medieval war club with a spiked metal head. Another character tells him he should put it down, and Fish says, "No way! This mace is the best thing that ever happened to me!"

In the next panel, two more characters appear. One is a young male with a T-shirt that says, "F-" and the other is a young female with a reporter's notepad in her hand. With mace in hand and an angry look in his face, Fish yells, "Hey, cartoonist! C'mere! I didn't get that one about the toilet and the tank!"

The strip was referring to an F Minus in which there is a U.S. Army tank about ready to fire on a toilet. The title of the comic is "U.S. Army in peacetime."

Carrillo admits a lot of people didn't understand that particular one, but says he never did anything to anger Bowen.

Bowen says, "It was just a week of Fish getting angry at things and attacking things. There was just one cartoon of Tony's I didn't get, and instead of asking him about it, I threatened him with violence in the cartoon."

He says the comic was all in good fun, and that he has long admired Carrillo's talent.

"Tony is a very talented young man," he says. "[F Minus] has an absurd humor without alienating people; it's smart without being above people's heads."

While Bowen says Carrillo is funny, that was never Bowen's primary goal with W.M.U.

"He's good at the daily joke thing as far as art work and cartoons and stuff, but the daily joke thing isn't really my thing," he says. "His strip appeals to a lot of people. I know my stuff isn't going to appeal to everyone, and I'm fine with that."

Beginnings

Carrillo had never planned on being a cartoonist. Sure, growing up he says he drew all the time, but he never thought about making a strip until a friend showed him an advertisement in The State Press for someone who could "draw a little."

"I thought, 'I could draw a little and it'd be fun to do,' " Carrillo says. "So I drew three stupid cartoons and was hired over phone. From that point on, I did F Minus."

Before F Minus, Carrillo focused on classical art, mostly doing charcoal portraits in both color and black and white.

He says though cartooning is fun, art always will be his first passion.

"It sounds corny, but in a lot of ways, it was a way for me to speak without speaking; it was an outlet for me, and I just love to do it," he says. "I could sit and draw or paint for hours and not get tired. It's a pursuit that I could pursue for my entire life and never be satisfied with."

Carrillo's mother, Cindy Carrillo -- who graduated from ASU with a fine art degree -- says when other children played, her son drew.

It wasn't until Carrillo was in junior high that she noticed his passion could turn into a profession.

"He was doing different work at a different level," she says. "I have a degree in art and a background in art education, so I knew what kids did at that age and what their works were like, but his had an edge to it."

She says now, even though she is his mother and is naturally biased, Carrillo's artwork is impressive.

"It's not just technically good, but he also has a real heart for the figure, particularly when he draws people," she says. "I feel like he saw what that person was like, and he was able to put that down, and that's not an easy thing to do, to pull off giving a sense of who that person is."

Cindy Carrillo says she's not as big a fan of his cartoons as his art.

"I'd say, 'That's not funny, I don't get it,' and then he'd get quiet. But a lot of that is age difference," she says. "My biggest worry was that I would show up in there one day, that he'd make some big crack about Mom."

Carrillo says sometimes it's difficult to hear someone criticize F Minus.

"I might be too emotionally connected to each comic, but when someone doesn't like one or doesn't get one, it's like someone just said my kid's kind of ugly," he says. "But I know I'm not going to make everyone laugh all the time, and that's something I had to come to terms with very early on, or else I would never be able to do it because of the pressure."

The deal

One day as a senior at ASU, Carrillo heard about a first-ever contest that mtvU -- a 24-hour college network -- was hosting to find the best college cartoonist in the nation. The winner would get paid for six months to develop his or her cartoon for possible syndication, the end-all, be-all for cartoonists.

He had lost several contests before, but thought he would give this one a shot, anyway.

In December, after more than 20,000 online votes and input from the cartoonists of Dilbert and Get Your War On, mtvU announced that Carrillo had won.

"I didn't have too high of hopes, because if I lost, it'd be devastating," he says. "When they called me on the phone, I was in shock for a while. It didn't seem real.

"But then I told Lindsay, and she started screaming and jumping up and down ... Then, I called parents and my mom cried. That's when I felt it was real."

Stephen Friedman, the general manager of mtvU, which is based in New York, says when F Minus arrived to his office, it immediately stood out above the rest of the entrees.

"He has a twist on situations that challenges expectations and that's where the humor lies," he says. "Cartooning is a masterful skill, and you see that in his work. It's reminiscent of some of the great stuff Gary Larson has done."

Friedman says although he is no expert and wasn't a judge in the contest, F Minus seems like a syndicated cartoon.

"It wouldn't surprise me if I picked up a newspaper and saw his work," he says. "It's already at that level where he should be syndicated all over the country."

But whether F Minus is syndicated isn't up to him. It's up to United Feature Syndicate, one of the biggest syndicates in the country with comics such as Peanuts, Dilbert and Get Fuzzy.

Mary Anne Grimes, a spokeswoman for United, says at this point, syndication is looking like an eventuality for Carrillo.

"He's wonderfully talented," she says. "It looks good as far as we're concerned."

She says when Carrillo won the mtvU contest, he won an incredible opportunity other cartoonists only dream about.

"We get 5,000 submissions a year, and of those, we launch two," she says. "It's a really tough business."

By winning the contest, Carrillo skipped the painful process of submitting work to dozens of syndicates and, most likely, getting rejected.

Carrillo says, "Just getting someone to look at what you do is really hard.

"It's kind of a mystery as to how to do it because you can't major in cartooning at ASU, and no one can explain the process," he says. "Most students get a degree and get internships and get a job. But that doesn't work with comics. If you can find someone to help with your career, you're lucky, so this contest was an opportunity I was so lucky to get."

Currently, Carrillo is in the beginning stage of the deal with United. The company will pay him for six months while he draws new F Minus strips, and later will decide whether to syndicate him.

After that, the syndicate will take his strip to newspapers around the country and eventually, around the world. Whether they want to buy the comic will dictate if Carrillo stays in syndication.

Legacy

For now, Carrillo will focus on creating.

Just this week, he quit his job as a waiter at Nello's Pizza so he will have more free time to focus on F Minus.

No matter whether Carrillo makes it as the next Gary Larson, his comic always will remain ASU's The Far Side.

Cameron Eickmeyer, the current editor of The State Press, says the paper is just not the same without Carrillo's comic.

"It was the best comic strip, and I think it shocked a lot of people that it was not syndicated," he says.

He adds, "When he left, a lot of people were mad because they were losing their favorite part of the paper. Some people only picked it up because F Minus was in there."

Reach the reporter at amanda.l.myers@asu.edu.



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