Green Bay Cartoonist Keeps Scoring

By: Dave Astor

One day, Green Bay (Wis.) Press-Gazette editorial cartoonist Joe Heller may have more newspapers than Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre has career touchdown passes.

Favre has 442 TDs. The self-syndicated Heller recently reached the 350-client mark ? an astounding total at a time when many editorial cartoonists with big syndicates have just a few dozen.

How does Heller do it? “When you look at the number of U.S. dailies with more than 100,000 circulation, there are only about 100,” he says. “It seems like the syndicates mostly go after those papers. I go after the others.”

Actually, Heller does have some big clients. But most of his 350 papers (of which about two-thirds are dailies and a third are weeklies) have less than 100,000 circulation. “What I really enjoy is getting the smallest papers,” Heller says. “You’d be amazed at just how tickled their editors are. They tell me, ‘No one has ever offered this to us!'”

He also gets clients by charging less than most big syndicates do (a self- syndicator doesn’t have to split earnings with a syndicate) and by allowing papers to initially try his cartoons for free.

What also may help sales is that the tone of Heller’s work is more observational than acerbic, though he doesn’t hesitate to make strong points about homelessness and other issues. “I consider myself a political atheist,” he says. “No party or candidate has all the answers.”

Heller contacts prospective clients with frequent e-mails and a yearly cartoon package postal-mailed to hundreds of publications. Once they become clients, Heller’s papers can get his cartoons (in color or black-and-white) via e-mail or by downloading them off HellerToon.com.

This is a far cry from when he started self-syndicating in 1980 ? soon after becoming a part-time cartoonist/graphic artist for The Daily News of West Bend, Wis. (while also working at a library and a pizza parlor). Back then, Heller visited a printer each week to make copies of his cartoons before stuffing them in envelopes and mailing them to clients. One of them was the Press-Gazette, which hired him in 1985.

Heller ? who draws at the Press-Gazette but runs Heller Syndication from home ? does five cartoons a week, of which three or four are syndicated. He draws at least one Green Bay-themed cartoon a week, and also tackles Wisconsin and national topics. Many of his clients are in the Midwest but he has papers in virtually every state, including Alaska and Hawaii. His efforts draw national traffic to GreenBayPressGazette.com.

“I love his stuff,” says Editorial Page Editor Dick Hughes of the Salem, Ore., Statesman Journal, who thinks Heller’s cartoons have an appealing “Midwest style” that reminds him of Jim Borgman’s work (for The Cincinnati Enquirer and Universal Press Syndicate). He adds that the Press-Gazette creator does “timely” cartoons, makes them “very easy to access,” and answers e-mails promptly.

The University of Wisconsin/Green Bay is also a fan. For a 2000 UW/GB fundraiser, a staggering 22-acre version of a Heller cartoon picturing George W. Bush and Al Gore was carved into a cornfield.

On a more high-tech note, the Press-Gazette wants Heller to join the growing group of editorial-cartoon animators. He began that training on Feb. 12. Heller also does graphic art and illustrations for the Press-Gazette, as well as a weekly cartoon-caption contest for the paper’s Web site that has drawn more than 12,000 entries in less than three years.

Heller’s syndication success may also be helped by the occasional cartoons he does about Green Bay’s iconic football team. He notes: “There are Packer fans all over the place.”

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