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How to Make it as a Cartoonist with Jeremy Nguyen — People on Bushwick Daily

How to Make it as a Cartoonist with Jeremy Nguyen

Cartoonist Jeremy Nguyen, whose illustrated series appeared in Bushwick Daily for years, shares his secrets of success.

Katarina Hybenova

@kamelka

Welcome to the third installment of our How To Make It series, in which we talk to Bushwick residents about their field of work and how to become successful at it. Is there a specific industry that interests you? Do you have any specific questions to ask? Leave us a comment and we’ll find a neighbor that works in the industry and ask them all about it.

In our careers we often approach certain thresholds, the crossing of which keeps us up at night; the crossing of which means we’ve “made it.” In some cases it takes years of perfecting one’s craft and years of getting to know one’s game to figure out what that threshold even is, but once you do cross it, it’s glorious. (Also a whole new set of challenges opens up but that’s another story).

Jeremy Nguyen, a beloved Bushwick illustrator, widely known for his comedic cartoon series, “Stranger Than Bushwick,” which was published on Bushwick Daily for several years, has crossed a major threshold of having been published by the New Yorker. By the time of this article, he has had four cartoons in print, four Daily Cartoons online, and three Shouts pieces online as well. Naturally, we couldn’t pass on this opportunity to ask him how it’s done.

"An overnight success"

As a true many-years-to-overnight success, Jeremy moved to New York to pursue his career as a cartoonist in 2011. His first New Yorker cartoon was published in February 2017. “I think the magazine has always been one of the highest editorial spots for an illustrator,” he told Bushwick Daily. “But you never know if they’re going to buy something from you or not.”

The New Yorker Magic

“As a California person I never understood the weight [the New Yorker] carries and the culture that the magazine creates,” Jeremy said. “When I moved to New York, I found out first hand. You see people carrying it on the subway; you have people with the tote bags; there’s street vendors selling knock off New Yorker prints; people are bringing it up in conversations and linking it online; Twitter shares the covers a lot. I actually never thought I’d be published in the New Yorker, and I thought that the best thing would be to rip it off and do my own comics,” Jeremy laughed.

🎃🔥

A post shared by Jeremy (@jeremywins) on

Jeremy told us that he used to channel his creativity stemming from observations of the life in New York to Bushwick Daily’s comics and draw what was on people’s minds but nobody had yet put in words. “I would observe what was happening in [Bushwick] where I live, and train myself. I would read Bushwick Daily and I thought that I should draw the stuff that I was noticing,” he said.

Drawing since the beginning of his existence 

But naturally, Bushwick Daily wasn’t the beginning of Jeremy’s career as the illustrator. “I pretty much knew I wanted to draw since the dawn of my existence,” he laughed. “It’s interesting because as an Asian American, my parents lead me to become an engineer or a dentist.” But luckily Jeremy’s parents yielded when they saw his talent, also perhaps the fact that Jeremy is the youngest of his siblings played the role that he found himself in at art school, SCAD in Savannah, Georgia, majoring in illustration. “I went there because they got a comics departement. I was reading comics since grade school. I picked up everything from Spiderman, Manga, to Tin Tin,” he said.

In college, he played around with a few different genres, which included emo monsters and manga, and even considered becoming a comic scholar, but eventually found himself drawn to magazine-style and Sunday-style comic strip humor. “That single panel punchline. That seemed easier for me to do that a long-form graphic novel,” he said. Jeremy counts Dan Piraro’s Bizarro comics as well as Adrian Tomine among his many influences.

In New York, Jeremy found work at Comixology, a cloud-based digital distribution platform for comics, where he immersed himself in hundreds of pages of comics a day. In December 2016 he quit his job and decided to go freelance.

How to get your cartoon into the New Yorker?

Jeremy mentions the lovely tradition started by New Yorker’s former cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, which is now continued by Emma Allen.

“You make 10 cartoons a week and you bring them to the office. [Makoff’s] theory was that nine out of 10 things in life don’t work out. Maybe you’ll have one cartoon that works out, maybe not. His philosophy was also that you make a lot of bad cartoons and some good ones. And I subscribe to it as well--to be prolific and then maybe you’ll have something good that works,” Jeremy explained.

Jeremy had some illustrator friends bringing their cartoons to the New Yorker, and decided to try it himself. “Bob would look at your cartoons and judge them on site. He would look at them and say if they were good or bad. If he was interested in buying them he would take them to a meeting with David Remnick, the editor-in-chief. The difference with Emma is that she doesn’t want to judge on site. She would take them and consider them and read them on her own time, and see if she wants to buy them.”

According to Jeremy you can also email the cartoons, and many people who don’t live in New York do so. “I just think it was really helpful to get the feedback in person, and also for them to put a face to work. They can get to know you and then maybe buy something from you,” he said.

Jeremy recalled his first meeting with Mankoff. It was the first week of January, two days after New Year’s Eve and it was raining. Literally nobody but him and his friend showed up. “It was funny because I was expecting a dozen or 20 people to be there,” he said. “I think it was good we were the only two cartoonists to show up. Bob had more time looking over and asking me about myself. It was a really good meeting. I think it’s interesting that there aren’t too many Asian American cartoonists in the magazine--only maybe two or three others--and I think they want to have a diverse voice and were open to having me.”

Place your work in other magazines

Jeremy credits his work to Bushwick Daily for getting him gigs in other magazines. “That’s how I got one of my most regular clients. Thrillist reached out to me because they follow what’s happening in Bushwick because we’re the taste makers for them,” he said.

“Many clients see your work and they want to channel that passionate voice you have into commissioned work,” he explained.  “Also if you do good work, other illustrators will see your work and will want to collaborate with you and will recommend you for jobs if they can’t take on jobs.”

6 pieces of advice to a young illustrator from Jeremy

1. Make work that you like doing and share it for free by using social media.

2. Make a lot of work.

3. Find a supportive group of people who like your work. 

For me it was Bushwick Daily. Bushwick Daily people are all writers, and it was easier to impress writers than other illustrators because other illustrators have their own agenda or may not like your style. So if you can show your work to your coworkers or friends who don’t do comics, do it. Get feedback from real people, not only from other illustrators and cartoonists, because it’s not just about getting critical feedback. It’s also just nice to have people who like your work, which makes you keep doing it. So many people get frustrated if an illustrator they look up to doesn’t share their work or doesn’t notice them. But valuing people who are in the community is really important. It’s nice to find an audience outside of your field. Find a niche audience that wants its voice to be heard through your comics. I feel like Bushwick was underrepresented in the general conversation. So then people who lived in Bushwick shared a comic about what it’s like to live in the neighborhood.

4. Don’t follow trends.

It might be fun to get in on a trend, but you know… When I was in college everybody was doing DC or Marvel, and only a handful were doing comedy.

5. Find your voice by trying a bunch of different formats.

I have been trying out other cartoonists' voice trying to see what my own sounds like. I’m trying out the sarcastic witty one liner; I’m trying drawing surrealistic situations, and I’m trying out having more fantastical elements, historical elements, and there is different kinds of cartoons even within the New Yorker.

6. Be able to draw everywhere.

Definitely keep a notebook on you or a drawing app. I haul around this big sketchbook that I carry in the back pocket of my pants. Sometimes I share my notebook with people and they don’t know it’s been in my back pocket for hours at time.

Cover image by Philip Nix 

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