I used to do a lot of business travel back 10-12 years ago, and I always bought the papers of whatever city I was in to check out the comics pages. It amazed me, the variety of the comics that would appear in one paper, and not another. Along the way, I discovered THE NORM, which I liked for the self-deprecating humor and comments directed to the reader. Unfortunately, I’d go to another city and wouldn’t be able to follow along with any longer-running story arcs. When I started reading GoComics, I was very happy to find THE NORM there, but that was about the point where the creator, Michael Jantze, decided to retire the strip. I contented myself with the re-runs.
However, Michael started up a new series, initially mixed in with the older strips, that eventually moved to its own site on Feb. 23rd, 2015. Called THE NORM 4.0, updating on Mondays – Norm is older, wiser, but no more grown-up than before. The artwork is extremely clean, the jokes are sardonic, and family life seems to suit him. I’m extremely happy to present Michael here.
BC: Who are you?
MJ: Michael Jantze.
BC: Where are you from, what is your background?
MJ: I was born on the East Coast, raised in the Midwest and live on the West Coast, that means I’ll probably die in Japan. I live in Marin County, north of San Francisco.
BC: Do you consider yourself a cartoonist, an illustrator, an artist, or something else?
MJ: I always tell people I’m a writer who draws. But that’s what a cartoonist is by definition.
BC: How did you get your start as a write-drawer?
MJ: I studied film and writing in college. One of my film professors, Ben Brady, encouraged me towards writing and I learned so much from him on structure and character. Once out of college, I freelanced in L.A., doing everything from animation to documentary and educational film making and illustration, you know, a hand-to-mouth kind of creative existence. I started cartooning my old college strip in my spare time and eventually self-published a book and sent some of the strips off to the syndicates.
BC: How long have you been at it, and what do you think your biggest breaks were?
MJ: I think for artists, we’ve “always been at that”, so much of our personal experiences seep into our work so that when the big breaks do show themselves, we’re ready to act on them. Most young artists plan on their futures coming to them one day, instead of working on them today. My big breaks only showed up because I imagined myself in that role and then did the things TODAY that that role would one day require. I’ve had a lot of job titles, but basically I’ve always done the same work: I use character and story to connect people to the world.
BC: What led up to your starting THE NORM, and THE NORM 4.0?
MJ: Like most cartoonists of my generation, I grew up on Charles Schulz’ Peanuts. By the 1970s, I had rediscovered Pogo in book reprints and worshiped Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury. So in high school, I wrote and drew editorial cartoons for the school paper and then did that at college, too.
MJ: I was always drawing, but in junior high school, I traded an old 12” inch G.I. Joe doll for an 8mm movie camera, and then American Graffiti and Jaws came out in theaters and Monty Python was on TV and I was hooked. I made miles of movies and studied all the old films I could check out on 8mm film at the public libraries in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. I was always trying to put enough people together to make “bigger” movies and animation projects but most folks weren’t as into it as I was. So film got in the way of the cartooning for a long time, but post-college, I reconnected with it because I liked that I could “make movies” alone, without budgets and trucks and crews.
MJ: I really liked the raunchiness of Bloom County while I was in college, but I think when Calvin and Hobbes debuted I saw a new golden age of comics may be coming. The first strip I submitted to the syndicates was a continuation of my college strip and I wanted it to be a continuity strip but the syndicates said they couldn’t sell anything but gag strip. I got off track with an original DC Comics project (unpublished) and didn’t really know much about the business of comic syndication, so it took a while to learn to write short-form gags. I got there with the help of several syndicated cartoonists. I had mailed them my syndicated submission and asked for any tips on the writing and drawing and proper next steps. Surprisingly, all of them wrote back!
MJ: By the time I met my wife, I had gotten a bit lost on my goals. I was busy as a newspaper graphics editor and was renegotiating with DC on the book format and had had an unsuccessful development contract with a syndicate. I was “close” but couldn’t figure out what was next. So I took some time off, kept a journal, got married and just relaxed a bit. The drawings in the journal became THE NORM, just everyday observations about love, life and work. I broke the fourth wall because I always admired that in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and The Gary Shandling Show. I sent a batch of strips in and two syndicates offered me contracts. THE NORM 4.0 is the same idea, except now there’s four of them. It’s weekly, it’s my fun thing to do every week. It’s my selfish project.
BC: Which of your works are you most happy with, or proud of?
MJ: I don’t have that many works published, just THE NORM, really. But I do have more stories for Norm and other stories I’ve tinkered on. My other stories are either bigger stories or really smaller stories. As an animation director, I’m enjoying the educational animation I’m doing for Cengage Learning, it’s classic cartoon animation in the spirit of Disney educational films and UPA.
BC: Where can readers find your books?
MJ: The books are all out of print except “THE NORM IN COLOR”, a collection of Sunday strips from THE NORM’s ten year run in papers. But there are ebooks and print on demand books on Amazon Kindle and iTunes Bookstore. KNOCKED OUT LOADED, a graphic novel featuring THE NORM, is available as an ebook and the limited print edition is in China currently being printed. It was a benefit for the Indiegogo campaign I ran on it two years ago.
BC: How do you approach that blank sheet of white paper?
MJ: I write in sketchbooks, it’s not as daunting. And I use a piece of advice I got from Charles Schulz, just draw your characters doing things. It really works! I annoyingly made a hashtag for it called #drawriting.
BC: If your strip had a soundtrack, what would it be?
MJ: Definitely jazz, but I really really like music, so it’d be a mess of a mix.
BC: Does Norm have an actual personal philosophy, or is he pretty much “go with the flow”?
MJ: It’s a serious world, someone has to make fun of it.
BC: (I knew that.)
BC: Norm seems to be a big baseball fan. Or, at least, he likes to play back-lot ball himself. Is this a reflection of your own interests?
MJ: I think baseball is the perfect definition of humanity in sport. It’s a team game filled with so many opportunities for an individual to be better than themselves and to add to the excellence of the group. The pace of the game allows the players and the spectators to engage in conversation. And then there’s the dirt and grass. I love a well-tended garden.
BC: Most of the Norm 4.0 strips have centered around Norm. In the original series, Rene took over as a guest host for a week or so. Will we see something like this in 4.0 with Reine, the kids, or The Dog?
MJ: ALL of the strip are centered around Norm, except for the two week series you mentioned. I only did that to give the viewer a peak into Reine’s motivations for the year-long plot in “My Friend Reine” – currently in reruns in 2016 on gocomics.com/thenorm – I felt folks might think her a bit too “flat” and it gave me a chance to dance with that idea.
BC: What spins would each character put on the strip then?
MJ: I don’t know. I haven’t ever thought about that. It’s Norm’s world. I like that we have to see his experiences only through him. And, to be honest, I LOVE that he lies to us sometimes. He’s not an angel.
BC: In the original THE NORM, you had the Norm calender pages and the variations on the old children’s books. Is this something you may return to in 4.0 some day?
MJ: Those were fun Sunday additions I did during print syndication with King Features. I love the old E. C. Segar THIMBLE THEATRE Sunday strips from the 1930’s that had all kinds of activities across the top of the feature. I did the “One Month at a Time” Calendars for a few years just to have some fun working outside the Sunday format, and to ruin calendar sales worldwide. I was 1 for 2 on that plan. Ha.
BC: Have Norm’s other psychoses completely faded away, or are they waiting for the children to get old enough to play with?
MJ: I still use SuperNorm and Boy Norm (his inner child) as they translate well in the family dynamic. I’ve had an idea for a new alter ego, but haven’t written the right gag for it, yet. So, they’ll be back…
BC: Can you talk about what you were going through at the time you retired THE NORM? Did that have any impact on your decisions when you returned with THE NORM 4.0? And what were you going through when you did start introducing new content in with the re-runs?
MJ: That was a big leap of faith to stop doing one thing and go back to another. I had signed a development deal for a TV show and really didn’t want to take my syndicate along for the ride as they had no experience in that sort of thing at all, and, in fact, had botched an early deal. I also was back to working in film and animation on odd jobs and the daily strip was just too much to do to get any traction – more importantly, keep promises for deadlines – so with the term break in my syndicate contract, I decided to ask for them to triple my guarantee. They wanted to continue distributing the strip but not with the promise of more income. And that’s not all they’re fault, either. No one was “quitting” their strips in 2004. Another cartoonist friend and I sat down and counted the “missed” opportunities of strips like Peanuts and For Better Or For Worse going into eternal reruns… it was thousands of new sales that the syndicates would never make.
MJ: I had launched in 38 papers and ten years later I was in about 68 total. It was time to move, do the hard thing and not be the one to turn out the lights. I didn’t think the strip was ever destined to be a “huge” success, and maybe it’s my predetermined thoughts that created that.
MJ: The jump was a bit easier as a freelance job creating some animation for a hotel turned into one job after another and I decided to open Jantze Studios as a think-tank cross-platform awesome shop. Some personal things were also going on with my family and there was a need to be the sole breadwinner again in 2008, so it ended up being the right decision for the four of us…
MJ: Returning to THE NORM 4.0 was, or is, just a weekly fun thing to do. I am so busy these days producing and directing animation that I wanted to “tinker with something”. I thought of starting a new strip, but it seemed easier for me and anyone following my work to just fire up Norm plus three, hence THE NORM 4.0…
BC: If Norm ran for President, what platform would he run on?
MJ: The iOS platform, of course.
BC: Who are your favorite artists/writers?
MJ: I think Jerry Scott is an amazing comic writer. I’ve always marveled that he could write about subjects he hadn’t “lived”. When he started Baby Blues, he didn’t have a baby! His partner Rick Kirkman did and they wrote it from Rick’s stories. I’ve known Rick and Jerry for over thirty years, they’ve both been such wonderful mentors; they were both so kind to a young rube. I like all the obvious choices in comics, but I really admire Gary Larson’s Far Side. It still cracks me up. I think there are so many really great comics out there right now, the problem is exposure.
BC: Do you follow any other comic strips right now?
MJ: I read a handful each day. I’m not a big fan of “more comics is better”. I never believed anyone who said they liked all the comics on the funnies section, that’s just someone who has no taste.
BC: What do you look for when you read someone else’s strips?
MJ: A gag is recommended, an idea is required, unfortunately most don’t have one.
BC: What do you think makes for a good comic?
MJ: A clear voice, I think comics should say something, even just something silly. A lot of comics are just illustrated gags. I think the great comics push the uniqueness of the form: the interdependence of text and image.
BC: Do you use Patreon?
MJ: Yes, I have a Patreon page.
BC: Do you want to plug your sites?
MJ: Jantze.com has links to GoComics, Instagram, Facebook, Patreon, Twitter. But these days, with so many mobile users, I’ve basically set it up that everything pushes out from Patreon to Instagram, FB, Twitter, etc. The comics are at: THE NORM 1.0 and THE NORM 4.0
BC: How do you think they are changing the face of webcartooning?
MJ: I think social media has killed advertising for online creators. People are reading content through so many portals and platforms, and work is being forwarded (without the ad that ran next to it on a creator’s site) that it’s changed how creators stay economically alive. Hence, Patreon. If folks want to support me, the ads on GoComics.com/jantze and my Patreon page are the only chunks of income I see from cartooning. When no one wants to pay for content, the quality of the content will degrade. It’s happened before as long ago as the late 1800’s with the penny dreadfuls.
Direct youtube link
(THE NORM READEO.)
BC: Is there anything you want to say to promote THE NORM readeos?
MJ: Good question.
MJ: It’s my personal brain project, trying to figure out if there’s a way to mix comics with film, reading with experiencing, but not going so far it becomes a “bad” film, just an enhanced comic. With THE NORM READEOS I’ve stripped it all down to comic language, film form and audio. The camera movements (meant to simulate a viewer’s eye tracking) and the audio shouldn’t be noticeable, except to add to the reader experience. Turn off the audio and you can still read the comics full frame, cut out the minimal film language (cuts, zip pans and little else) and you can STILL read the comic. The reading experience is first, all else supports it.
MJ: By doing this it does two things: One, it keeps the comic as a comic at the center, no running off and turning it into its prettier cousin (animation). Comics and film grew up together in the early 20th century, my idea is to use only what enhances the comic reading experience, and leave the 800-lb gorillas out of the experience. No voice over, no theme music, no animation, very little motion, no synchronous anything. Secondly, removing so many of the production “values” keeps the time to produce a comic readeo to a minimum, something that even the comic creator could do on her own with a bit of practice.
BC: Do you have other any projects coming up? Appearances scheduled for conventions?
MJ: I’m too busy and too shy for any of that. I am writing some projects in fits and starts, but I think they’re a few years from anything being public. The animation is keeping me very busy.
MJ: And I did my time at comic conventions 15 years ago. I like meeting people, but that’s a really crappy way to do it and I think the “meet the author” exchange is awful. The “fan” has to pretend to like me, and I have to pretend I’m important. Blech. If folks want to “hang out” with me, that’s what my Patreon page is for… there’s a monthly online studio hang out.
(All artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Copyright Michael Jantze © 2016.)
(This interview is the copyright © of Curtis H. Hoffmann 2016. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.)
Do you own a turtleneck?