When Rina Piccolo joined the ranks of webcartoonists with “Velia, Dear” in May, she was the new cartoonist on the block. But even though her name may not be the most familiar, she’s one of the busiest cartoonists working right now. In addition to her webcomic which runs three days a week, she also writes and draws the daily strip “Tina’s Groove” for King Features syndicate. She also contributes to “Six Chix,” a daily comic that she and five other cartoonists work on, where she can be read Wednesdays and every fifth Sunday. She’s also a regular contributor to "Parade" magazine and has appeared in “The New Yorker,” the comics anthology “Syncopated,” and many other outlets.
She spoke with CBR recently from her home and studio in New York about her move online, the challenges of moving from gag comics to character-based strips, working with Jay Kennedy, and more.
CBR News: I first came across your name years ago when you filled in for Hilary Price for a few weeks on “Rhymes with Orange” when she went on vacation one year.
RINA PICCOLO: Yeah, that was about eight years ago or so. That was a lot of fun to do. Hilary can do that because the nature of her comic strip is basically gag a day so any gag cartoonist could go in there and fill in for her. But no one could ever fill her boots, because she’s so good. Most of us comic strip people with characters, I can’t speak for anybody else, but for me, to have someone else do the strip would be weird.
You started out in your career doing single panel comics and gag cartoons.
At the very beginning, that’s all I did. I did comics, but they were not character oriented. “Tina’s Groove” was the first one that I learned really about continuity. Even if you’re doing a gag a day, there’s characters involved and you have to see to it that the gags don’t interfere with the character development and things like that. There are more boundaries to a comic strip with characters. With gag cartoons you can go anywhere. You can put a couple people on the moon and do a gag, but with a comic strip it’s different.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t want to work in that kind of a world at the very beginning. It was strange for me. I think over the years I’ve come to love it as well. I’m not going to go as far as saying that I love it as much. But I do love the whole world that you can feel comfort in. There’s a comfort in knowing that you know your characters and what situation am I going to put them in today? With gag cartoons, there’s not that level of comfort. People are strangers. You have to figure out what they’re going to be in that five seconds that the reader reads it. And that’s it. You’re basically starting from scratch every time. What gag is this going to be. Where are they? Who are they? There is no comfort level, though I guess maybe the humor is.
On the topic of gag cartoons, “Six Chix” has been going on for a decade now. Where did the idea come from and how did you get involved?
It goes back to '98-99. The then-comic editor at King Features syndicate, Jay Kennedy, was a big promoter of women in comics. He thought that the newspaper comics page didn’t have enough of a woman’s voice. He cooked up “Six Chix.” He said, I’m going to get six women. Four I think he knew right off the bat and then the other two he found through research and references and things like that. He called up Kathryn LeMieux, who’d had a comic strip with King in the past. He said I’m planning to have six women cartoonists divide the week and it’s going to be a gag panel. She said, so six women cartoonists, it’s going to what, the six chicks? That’s how the name was born.
I was one of the four people that were that he was thinking of asking and I said yes right away. At the time I was working with him trying to come up with a premise for a comic strip. He basically asked me to develop something for him which took years and years. I gave up twice and then went back to it the very next day. [laughs]
It’s a great concept and an obvious one, but no one thought of it before. Six gag cartoonists, everyone takes a day. That way there’s not the burnout from having one cartoonist doing it seven days a week.
Yeah, no one ever thought of that. I guess he saw the obvious and that this could actually go somewhere. And here we are, ten years later, still at it.
You mentioned that you were developing strip with Jay Kennedy at King Features when “Six Chix” started, which led to “Tina’s Groove.” What was the original idea for that strip?
I was playing around with this one character. We didn’t even have a name for her. She was called Mary, just to have a name, and I put her in different situations. I would fax Jay stuff and he would get back to me and say, well this looks strong or this is not your best. What an editor does. I had been working on the weekends in a restaurant. I worked as a hostess Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays and the rest of the week I would do my cartoons. For some reason I put this character as a waitress in a restaurant. I did a couple gags around that and these gags were in with a bunch of other gags that I faxed him. He got back to me and the first thing he said was, I noticed that you made her a waitress and they really seemed to work. He said, give that some thought because I think you hit on something.
At the time I was like, really? Then I thought, here I am in this crazy restaurant, and if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant you know what it’s like behind the scenes, what the customers don’t know and don’t see. I’m there at the hostess stand one day thinking about what Jay said on the phone and thought, I could totally set it in a restaurant. I basically redrew the character. He wanted a more simplified design. One of Jay’s big things he said was, a well-designed character is one that you can recognize as a silhouette.
Your website and King Features’ press material make the point when describing the character that she is not a cliched thirty-something. Was this a big deal for you?
It was. I have to tell you for a cartoonist just creating cartoons is enough without having to think, how do you market this? Who’s it going to sell to? Who’s going to buy it? What’s the angle? That’s not me. I never sat down and said, do I want to be lumped in with “Cathy?” I didn’t consciously think of that until Jay started talking about it. He said, we don’t need another “Cathy,” do we? I was like no. I’m not going to do what someone else did since 1975. Cathy Guisewite has her place in comics. She really broke down a lot of doors for women cartoonists in the newspapers, but I certainly did not want to do what she does.
He made me aware of all that kind of stuff and he also taught me that to sell anything, for the syndicates to actually sell something, it’s got to have marketing potential, it’s got to have an angle. The way they pitch movies in Hollywood, with the entire movie boiled down to one sentence. Basically when they want to sell a comic strip they need an angle, that one sentence pitch. The pitch for “Tina’s Groove” was that she’s the anti-Cathy. This woman is going to be different. It’s the 2000s now, not 1975 and maybe it’s not cool anymore to cry about, will he call me and am I too fat? To tell you the truth, when Jay said this, it was a relief. Because I’m not that girl. I’m quite confident in my skin and that’s exactly what Jay wanted Tina to be. I was like, hey, of course she’s intelligent and strong, because I think I’m that way, so it’s easier for me to write.
You were creating the character along those lines anyway.
Right, I was going along that line anyway, but I wasn’t conscious of it the way that the syndicate was. Jay put it in a way that I became aware of it.
You mentioned the struggle of switching to character-based stories and character-based humor, because the strip is a good set up for letting you do gags just because customers, these one off characters, and you can let Tina and the other regular characters come through in their response to them.
You hit on something there. I guess it comes from doing gags all those years. That’s just how my brain works. You have to have a set-up, you have to have this, you have to have that. All these elements that go into a gag cartoon. Sometimes I’d be angry at the form, the comic strip. Oh god, if only I didn’t have this character then I could tell this joke, but then I’d think of a way around it. I’d be a little bit more creative with it and still use the joke, only in a different manner. I’ve written a lot of strips like that. If you were to go back, some of them end up being clunkers, but that always comes after you’ve seen it in print and gone, oh god, that doesn’t work at all.
How much of this is when you were developing strip you thought this would be a way to do that in a way that worked?
I guess so. After Jay said to do more of her as a waitress that’s when I thought, well, now I’ve got a place and a set of characters. That’s a tough question. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was so scared. [laughs] I was so nervous and scared and just that feeling you something get, oh my god, I have no idea what I’m doing but I’m just going to do it. I think any creative endeavor is going to be filled with that kind of thought.
So you make a daily strip for a major syndicate. There’s “Six Chix.” There’s cartoons weekly for “Parade.” And now on top of all that you’ve started a webcomic.
The whole idea behind the webcomic was that before last month I had almost no web presence. I was on the internet because of the strips “Tina’s Groove” and “Six Chix,” but my website was a place that nobody went to because I never did anything with it. I was the type of person that didn’t want to be on Facebook. I didn’t want to do Twitter. I used to make fun of things like that. [laughs] I just thought they were a complete waste of time. I needed more of a web presence and I think if you want to survive in this business, you have to do all this stuff. I remember thinking, this is survival.
You go to vet school and finish and you’re a vet and they hire you. It doesn’t work that way with people like us. I wish. I wish you go to cartoon school and then get a diploma and then the cartoon companies hire you and pay you to work.
I have a ton of stuff that I do on the side. You doodle or draw a little comic in your sketchbook. A lot of times I get these ideas that don’t fit into any market. “Parade” won’t buy that idea. I can’t use it for “Tina’s Groove” and I can’t use it for “Six Chix,” so what am I going to do with it? I still want people to read it and I still want people to see it and the internet is a great place for self-publishing. You can reach so many people and that’s where I could have my other things seen. And if it doesn’t go anywhere, it doesn’t go anywhere. My point is that I really had to do something to my anti-internet thoughts of the last five years. I changed. I really did. I think if you were to speak to someone who knows me a friend all my friends are like, wow, what’s happened to you? You’re on Twitter? (laughs) People who know me are like, what happened? You were such a Luddite. I hate this metaphor but everybody uses it. Radio became television and vaudeville became radio, so basically you could continue doing vaudeville, but you need to think about the future.
Where did idea for “Velia, Dear” come from?
That was just me thinking, what can I write that I really know? In “Tina’s Groove” Tina has a mother and she doesn’t appear in many of the strips, maybe twice or three times a month. A lot of people like those for some reason. I like them too, but there wasn’t much I could do with it because “Tina’s Groove” already has a world set up. I can’t have her mother there everyday. It’s about a waitress. So she can appear two or three times a month and that’s fine. But my husband Brendan [Burford, the Comics Editor at King Features], is a good editor and he can see things that, again, like Jay, aren’t very apparent to me. He said, you know those strips you do that people say that they like with Tina and her mother? You should do a mother-daughter thing because you’re good at that. I had already been thinking how do I spin my Italian-Canadian heritage into a strip. Hearing him say that, I was like, that could be it.
Then came the part where we had to actually think it out. Is she young? Is she middle-aged? Is she in her thirties? To tell you the truth, it was Brendan’s idea. He said, have her be this independent girl living on her own and then her mother gets sick and she’s aging and needs help and she decides to move in with her. In the same way that “Tina’s Groove” has a restaurant, that could be my premise for gags. And having now said that it’s a premise for gags, I’m going to be doing more story rather than gag a day. It hasn’t started yet but the ones that are running right now are basically little stories but it’s gag-oriented, whereas I’m going to be doing more long storylines. I’m having fun with it.
You talked about with “Tina’s Groove,” getting into characters and character-based humor in a way that didn’t always play to your strengths, and now “Velia, Dear” goes further away from gag cartoons and more about story. How conscious are you of moving in that direction?
Right now I’m extremely conscious of it to the point where I’m asking myself is it the right move. There’s a blog entry that I wrote about what you’re talking about. Sometimes it feels really wrong for me to do what you just said. Where you’ve got four panels or three panels and you’re just going to tell a chunk of story and it doesn’t necessarily have to end in a gag at the end because you’re telling a story. I feel like I’m going to lose people. I guess I’ve been training my brain to think in terms of gag writing and I’m so in tune with that, that I’m very reluctant to write another way, where it’s not going to end in a ha ha but will be a set up for the beginning of a story. I did a few and they still end in a funny way. It’s like I can’t get away from that and I don’t know if I ever will. Maybe I will. Maybe I just have to retrain myself and find that this is another venue with another premise and another comic. I’m just going to tell a chunk of story and in two days the reader is going to have the next installment of the story and I just have to find the confidence that the reader will come back and read it. That’s my big fear. People will go, that’s not that funny. And I’m not there to say, wait, in that way. Anyone reading the comic online, they’re not going to see it until mid-September or October.
You’re that far ahead? Have you thought about updating more often than three times a week schedule you have now?
I would if I didn’t have the schedule that I have. At the very very beginning I thought, is three days enough? People that I spoke to who know that world better than I do they said oh yeah, no one will look down on you for that. I went with the three days just because of my deadlines for “Tina’s Groove” are ongoing and it’s a lot of work.
The six dailies and one sunday a week every week is brutal. It’s grueling and what happens if it’s drawn and written by one person, it shows. Not every one of those cartoons is going to be top notch. It just can’t. Even the very best. There’s going to be a couple of clunkers in there. I remember thinking the best way to do a newspaper comic where you don’t have any clunkers is if it was four days a week. I said this a long time ago. Here we have the internet which allows you to do just that online so you’re not having oh this is the best I could do this week so I have to let this one go even though I think it’s a little weaker than what I would want if I had more time, so for the webcomic I think the three day thing works really nicely for me anyway.
Rina Piccolo will be taking part in a panel discussion, “The Future of the Traditional Comic Strip in the Era of Dying Newspapers” at MoCCA this Thursday August 12 at 7 pm. More information about the event can be found at moccany.org