Pick up the comics section of any newspaper and there’s a good chance you’ll stumble across “Non Sequitur
,” the award-winning comic strip lovingly infused with wit and irony by the talented quill of cartoonist Wiley Miller. Miller ’s wry look at the absurdities of modern life has been a hit for newspapers, leaving millions of fans with a healthy addiction to everything from a pessimistic young girl to a commercial fisherman from Maine. The strip, which is syndicated by Universal Uclick and appears in more than 700 newspapers, is celebrating its 20th year in syndication.
To mark the occasion, I decided to get in touch with Miller to discuss the strip, his background as a political cartoonist, and where things are headed for the funny pages.
Did you ever think “Non Sequitur” would make it past 20 years?
The question was not so much if I thought would it go 20 years or more, but could it go that long. Syndication can be such a crapshoot, where so many aspects that can make or break a feature are completely out of your control. But one aspect we do have some control over is whether or not a feature has the depth to it that can sustain it over a long period of time, and that was the very foundation of “Non Sequitur,” to create a format that unlocks the boundaries of creativity in order to avoid burnout.
I don’t think many people are familiar with your first comic strip, “Fenton,” which was syndicated in the 1980s.
“Fenton” was more of a traditional comic strip with a central cast of characters, so “Non Sequitur” is very different from “Fenton.” “Non Sequitur” is a hybrid feature that combines all my past experience as an editorial cartoonist, magazine gag cartoonist, and comic strip cartoonist into one big hodgepodge. The whole point of it is that you never know what you’re going to get day-to-day or week-to-week. I like to keep the readers on their toes, and myself, for that matter. The worst thing that can happen to any form of humor is predictability.
Talk a bit about your days as an editorial cartoonist.
I was the staff artist for the (Greensboro, N.C.) News and Record
, which was back when they were two separate papers. The Greensboro Daily News
was the morning paper, and the Greensboro Record
was the afternoon paper. They let me do editorial cartoons "on my own time” for them, but seeing as how I was the entire art department for two newspapers, there wasn’t much of my own time to do many editorial cartoons. That’s what took me to the Santa Rosa
(Calif.) Press Democrat
in 1978, where I was their staff artist and editorial cartoonist. My work was then picked up for syndication by Copley News Service in 1979.
So what caused the jump from doing editorial cartoons to strips?
The recession at the beginning of the ’90s. I was working at the San Francisco Examiner
at the time, which I thought was a secure job, when newspapers started making drastic cutbacks in staff and a lot of papers were disappearing. The same thing happened a decade before that, when I was laid off from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat
, which I also thought was a secure job. That’s when I created my first comic strip, “Fenton,” while continuing to do my editorial cartoons in syndication. So, learning from experience, I decided not to wait for the ax to fall and developed “Non Sequitur” as an exit strategy, as I could see that staff editorial positions were rapidly becoming a thing of the past. The reason for that is an entirely different issue.
It’s obvious that your interest in exposing the truth stuck with you in “Non Sequitur.”
Yes, as I mentioned earlier, there’s a good deal of editorial influence in “Non Sequitur.” I’ve always believed that humor in general is a means of exposing the truth. That’s what makes humor ring true, as the readers recognize the truth and themselves in the satire. That doesn’t mean the material needs to be political, just observing real life and reflecting it back in a slightly warped mirror.
“Non Sequitur” is somewhat unique in that during the week, it’s mostly gags, but on the weekend you use recurring characters to tell stories. Do editors ever complain about the mix?
In the beginning that was true. It was mostly a single-panel gag feature. But with the introduction of characters and stories, the strip is now pretty evenly divided. One week will be single-panel gags, the next week will be multi-panel, dialogue-driven material, usually involving Danae as the instigator. And, no, I’ve never gotten a complaint about the mix. The readers love it, so the editors should be happy with what makes readers happy. But I do hear from readers about their preferences, and it’s quite evenly divided between the single-panel work and the multi-panel, character-driven work, and each one thinks I should stop doing one and only do the other.
What’s your impression of the state of the industry now, and what are your thoughts about the future of comics?
As an old newspaper guy, I’m quite saddened about what the newspaper industry has done to itself, committing a long, slow suicide. Unfortunately, comics and newspapers have a symbiotic relationship. When one dies, so does the other.
What’s next for “Non Sequitur”?
If I told you, I’d ruin all the fun! The whole point is you never know what’s coming next, and that includes me. Stream of consciousness can take you to wonderfully fun places, but you have to allow yourself to drift where that current takes you.
Rob Tornoe is a columnist and cartoonist for
Editor & Publisher and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.