The question, “Where do you get your ideas?” is possibly the most-asked question in the cartoon world. It’s asked so often that it has become a joke in itself — the one cliche question cartoonists inwardly roll their eyes at. We dislike the question for the obvious reason that it’s an old one that’s been asked a billion times. But I think the real reason we hate it is because we ourselves don’t know the answer. Where do we get our ideas? Is the question even answerable? Is it an effective question at all?
Once during an interview with a reporter the question came up. So, where do you get your ideas? She asked. I turned the question around and replied, I don’t know. Where do you get yours? Being a writer herself, she laughed. A cartoonist’s or writer’s ideas come from the same place everyone else’s ideas come from. The difference is that we cartoonists actively dig for ideas, put them through a process, and polish them up in a way that makes them entertaining — an exercise which takes effort and some know-how. If you read books on how ideas are crafted you’ll discover tools and techniques that make the job of idea-hunting a little less mystifying.
So back to the question “Where do ideas come from?” Well, let me see. Let me see if I can come up with some answers. I’ll just sit at my desk here and think. Hm. Maybe I need some coffee. I know — I’ll doodle some words and pictures and free associate; play around with them. Okay, now I’m thinking of stuff: Stuff from an article I read, things that I’ve heard people say, attitudes I’ve seen people have. Let’s see what happens when I put these things together even though they may not logically go together. Now I’m getting into this weird concentrated focus — a zone, really — I sense something funny is about to happen — like I’m on to something. I’m jotting things down so I’ll be able to pick up the inevitable trail of … ideas. Now I’m in “the zone” (that elusive place where ideas come from?). If I sit here and drink more coffee, maybe I can manage to reel one in. And if I catch one, the next step is to take my tools out and work on cleaning it up.
The vast majority of cartoon ideas are arrived at in this way. And if ever an idea pops into your head without having to dig for it — and this sometimes happens — it’s rarely usable straight out of the gate. Ideas need to go through a process of development to become usable, and sellable. Those tools I’ve mentioned are in fact actual methods used to do this. It’s not easy, but it can be a lot of fun when done successfully. (You’ll pull hair and teeth when done unsuccessfully!) I think it’s important to add that when you’re churning cartoons out by the hundreds, they can’t all be stellar — some will be better than others, and some will be real clunkers. If you’re in the business of making cartoons, you accept this as unavoidable. (Maybe this can be the topic of a future blog post.)
I’m nearing the conclusion to this article and I haven’t told you where ideas come from. I think it’s plain for anyone to see that wherever this place is, if it’s a place at all, it’s intangible and difficult to pin down. It’s like asking where a feeling, or a thought, comes from. I think the more useful question to ask is how you’ll treat an idea once you’ve got it — that’s where the real creativity happens. Coffee — although not mandatory — does help.