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THE SUZY STORY
by Richard O'Brien
Bob Vojtko and I can’t remember precisely how we hooked up, or when. We think it was through a little publication that allowed would-be cartoonists and would-be writers to meet — probably almost always, at least at first,through mail or phone — and perhaps wind up working together.
But not just would-bes. Bob was already a regular contributor to established magazines, as well as to underground “comix”. I was writing for Woody Allen (still do!), Joan Rivers, Victor Borge and a number of cartoonists. Somehow, a spark was struck, and we latched onto each other.
My memory is that Bob was the one who came up with the central idea for the strips we worked on. There was one he thought of that would be about a newspaper. It would be called Peeples Paper. Did we work on that one? Bob and I can’t remember. Were there others? Almost undoubtedly, but again our collective minds remain blank.
I do know that by late 1978 or early 1979 I was high on Bob as a cartoonist, as I asked him to be one of the artists auditioning for “Koky”, a strip I’d sold to the Chicago Tribune-New York News syndicate. I hoped he’d win, as I loved his funny drawings, his wonderful enthusiasm, and his ability to understand the gags I sent him (I found out during the Koky auditions that some cartoonists didn’t). However, Koky needed a semi-realistic drawing style, and Bob couldn’t do it.
I gave up Koky near the end of 1981, and presumably it was not long after that when Bob came to me with the Suzy idea. There was only one important little-girl strip at the time, “Nancy”, so Bob felt we’d be filling a vacuum at one syndicate or another.
Bob and I may have forgotten other strips we worked on, but we’ve never for-gotten Suzy. What an experience.
On October 27, 1982, Bob received a letter from the Universal Press Syndi-cate, expressing interest in Suzy and asking for more samples — 24 or so. Universal was one of the great syndicates, so naturally we two comic-strip lovers got excited and hopeful. Almost instantly I cranked out the required amount of gags, and by November 9th Bob wrote me that he’d already drawn and inked all of them, made color cards introducing some of the characters, gone to the printers, the post office, and mailed everything by 4:30.
Well, Universal didn’t buy it. Neither did any of the other syndicates we un-doubtedly tried.
Time went on. A lot of time. Then one day, probably in January, 1985, I got a call from Bob. We had a sale! To a syndicate that sold basically to weekly papers. A tingle ran through me. I’d read about a syndicate that sold to weekly papers. Almost all their sales were to foreign newspapers, and a cartoonist they syndicated — though totally unknown in this country — was making a very good living from the strip he had with them.
We got to work. For about six months I turned out the gags and Bob did the same with the art. But very soon there were problems. The syndicate’s head complained he wasn’t being sent the strips on a regular basis, which made it almost impossible to sell. I figured maybe Bob, used to churning out cartoons in his occasional spare time (he had a full-time job which had nothing to do with art), wasn’t used to — or couldn’t — get himself to work on a steady basis.
But maybe it wasn’t Bob’s fault. I have a May 13, 1985 letter from the syndicate owner (whose letters were always a morass of misspellings) apologizing for having accidentally found an unmarked folder of 45 Suzy strips that had somehow made its way into a file drawer in which the syndicate kept “unused material or dead files”.
Long before this I’d realized this might not exactly be a golden opportunity. Nothing was coming in. The year before I’d read in a comics publication an announcement about a young cartoonist signing with our syndicate. The announcement had made it sound as if he were headed for stardom. I was beginning to have my suspicions about the syndicate, and wrote him, asking how things had gone with him. He wrote back on March 9, 1985, urging me to get out of my contract with the syndicate. He already had. “About three weekly papers” had bought his strip. “The most I made in one month was twenty-seven dollars” he told me. Many promises from the syndicate, almost no results.
Still, Bob and I plugged on, just in case. We were getting promises too. And some money. On May 27th Bob and I were told the syndicate had finally made a sale. To a weekly that paid two dollars a week.
I’m not quite sure when we quit, but quit we did. Were we lucky enough to have made up to “twenty-seven dollars in one month”? Dream on! I kept a record of what I made. In all that time there was just one check. For five dollars. Bob got the same amount.
More than twenty years passed. And then I stumbled onto Ramble House. They published my novel ‘The One After Snelling” and then two two books of my comic strip, “The Koky Sundays” and ‘The Koky Dailies”. I found myself wondering if Suzy was worth publishing. I hadn’t looked at it since we’d given up.
I read “Suzy”. I liked it. I think it was better than “Koky”. I believe if we’d managed to sell it to a major syndicate it would still be running. Of course, I wrote the gags, so naturally they appealed to me. I’ll let you, the reader, decide on whether I’m right. Meanwhile, I’ll remain as grateful as ever for the wonderful work Bob did on the strip.
Finally, as I finished writing all this, it occurred to me that if Bob and I had been smarter, less idiotically optimistic, and had cancelled long before we did, then of course we could never had had this book. So in the end, it seems to me, it was all worthwhile.
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