Rick Lem is a cartoonist who lives in Kelley, Iowa. He founded his weekly publication Toons in 1987, which is distributed in and around Ames bearing his “Lemco Productions” business name. Since Toons began, Lem and his publication have become an important and well-recognized part of the Ames community. The Ames Progressive recently sat down with Lem to talk cartoons and the secrets of his success.
The Ames Progressive: How did you come to start Toons?
Rick Lem: Way back in the early ‘80s I had several jobs. I think I was getting a job every six months or so. Various sales jobs and worked with my dad in his ad agency doing a lot of commercial artwork. I was studying a lot of advertising data and research and I noticed that the one thing people looked at in publications more than anything else was the cartoons. Whether it was Sports Illustrated, Playboy, or whatever had the highest readership ratings. So I thought if I ever started a publication it’d have a lot of cartoons in it. Then I had a job selling ads for the Ames Advertiser. That lasted about two months before I was fired for not being professional enough [laughs]. I would tell jokes a lot when I was selling ads and would put cartoons in the ads and that was deemed totally unacceptable. Plus I might have told a customer to go screw himself when he was being obnoxious. Hard to say what the precipitation of a new job was [laughs]. I was fired by the lady that owned the Ames Advertiser. Not just a mid-level firing. Fired from the top. That was probably the biggest motivator to start Toons. I was like, “I’ll show her I can do the newspaper business.” Had it not been for that I would have gotten a real job making good money [laughs]. If it hadn’t been for that revenge thing I would have really made something of myself. A lot of your successful companies where started out of spite.
After that I got a job with Ed Rood at the Tri-County Times and that lasted a good four years. I learned the most about publishing from that genius. He was quite a guy. He taught me lots about people, photography, writing stories, and just the business end of newspapers.
Around that time the first Macintosh hit the world. Then instead of having to have a $25,000 compugraphic typesetting machine and a $10,000 photomechanical transferred camera that [was] the size of a room and [took] lots of people to run everything you could do it all with a little computer. It was just amazing. It went from the Stone Age to the new millennium just like that. I stared to save my pennies and bought my first Mac and Laser Writer with help from dear old mom and dad. I think I had around $15,000 invested to start Toons. Before that, $15,000 wouldn’t have bought the copy camera. Not that anyone would know what that was [laughs].
AP: How long have you been drawing?
RL: Since I could hold a pencil. My dad was an artist so I had access to all the paper in the world. I can remember when he brought home the first felt tip marker, it was like wow [laughs]! But I didn’t get serious about drawing cartoons until about ‘84. But I love to draw cartoons.
AP: Was your dad your biggest influence? Did you have cartoon heroes?
RL: Oh, my dad would read us all the cartoons and he worked for Meredith Publishing and Wallaces Farmer way back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. So every cartoon that came through there he’d bring home and show us kids. It was fun. It was the highlight of my day. Hearing the jokes and seeing the new cartoons. I still like that stuff. Musicians gotta make their music and cartoon guys gotta make their cartoons and try and make people laugh. And I love to laugh at cartoons. They’re good for you! There would be all kinds of depressed people if it weren’t for cartoons. I’m a cartoon evangelist.
But my biggest influences were Mad Magazine and all the old Playboy cartoons. I used to love those. And the pretty girls. They had some of the greatest cartoonists ever, [like] Gahan Wilson. I wish I could remember them all. They had some of the best cartoons out of anywhere. But it was mostly Mad Magazine. If you need to up the ratings of your cartoon just include pretty girls and fart jokes. The American public is kind of simple-minded that way [laughs]. They know what they like!
AP: Toons is funded by advertisements. Do you personally solicit all the advertisements?
RL: I love my advertisers. I think they’re the greatest people in the world. I can’t think of a single advertiser that shouldn’t get the Nobel Peace Prize or the Mother Teresa Award for Humanity for just being wonderful people.
You really have to work hard. They don’t just give you the money. There is a thousand people out there that are after that advertising dollar and it doesn’t come easy.
AP: Do you have any wisdom to impart on those who will need to rely on advertisements?
RL: It’s not necessarily brazeness that gets you by. You have to learn to be nice to people. Figure out what the customer wants and how to give it to them. Dealing with advertising is 90 percent of publishing. If you don’t have the ads the rest of it just doesn’t happen. You can train a reasonably intelligent chimpanzee to be a publisher and editor but getting the ads is the tough part.
I have literally had hundreds – hundreds – of people calling me wanting to start their own publication and they always think they can just find somebody to sell the ads for them. It ain’t gonna happen. If you want to start a publication you better get a job selling ads first. Everything lives or dies by those sales. But people don’t like to think about that stuff. They like to think about the cartoons and stuff like that, and that’s what I like to think about.
The fun part is the cartoon. Drawing the cartoons, buying the cartoons, picking them out and having people laugh and calling you up to tell you that they liked a cartoon.
AP: Do you get a lot of feedback like that?
RL: Yeah, I’m lucky that way. I get tons of e-mails. People love their cartoons and their puzzles.
AP: People seem to really like Trevor Soderstrum’s movie reviews. They’re really good.
RL: Thanks. Glad you like them. Trevor is quite a guy. I miss him a lot.
AP: How did you come to know Trevor?
RL: He’s actually a second or third cousin of mine. He’s a bit of a recluse. Just one day he said he liked to do movie reviews and he gave me one and it was pretty good. I liked it right away. We can do a whole interview just on Trevor. He’s one of the smartest guys I know, and one of the most physically powerful too. He wrestled heavyweight for Roland-Story [High School] and he broke a guy’s arm accidentally in a tournament and he didn’t really do any of the physical stuff after that. There was this one time when he was helping me move a boat of mine and he went to push it. I told him to stop and to bend down square so he didn’t hurt himself. You hear that a lot from old guys [laughs]. He did what I asked and then went around to the back and picked the boat and the trailer up off the ground. [Adopting Trevor’s voice] “You mean like this.” I couldn’t believe it.
Anyway, he’s an imposing guy. He’s been a minister, [as well as] a history professor out at Iowa State. He’s quite a guy. He’s got a photographic memory. He can flip through a book and tell you what was on page 257, third paragraph down, second sentence and he can watch a movie and can practically repeat the whole script for you. Yet he can’t find his car keys [laughs].
I’m not sure what he’d doing now. He’s out in Las Vegas, but he just wrapped up and disappeared. He still sends me movie reviews but it’s on rare occasions that he’ll contact me to talk.
AP: Have you ever thought about putting together a collection of his reviews?
RL: I’ve got them all. Wanna buy ads for it? I’ll start it tomorrow [laughs]. No, that’d be nice to do. He’s a good writer. I really love his stuff.
AP: Does he write things other than the reviews?
RL: Maybe. Don’t really know. That’s about all I can tell you about Trevor. He’s a bit of a mystery.
AP: You have a pretty wide distribution in the Ames area, and even subscribers from all around the world.
RL: Oh yeah. 99 percent of the papers are picked up in Boone and Story County.
AP: What is the process for acquiring the nationally syndicated cartoons you publish?
RL: It’s easy. You just contact the syndicates, write them out a great big fat check for the next six months of cartoons, because they don’t trust that you’re going to pay right away. They want you to pay up front. And they’ll send you all the cartoons you can afford. There are syndicates who sell columns, puzzles – all kinds of things.
AP: What’s your longest running cartoon?
RL: One thing I’ve noticed is that once you start running a cartoon you can’t just stop it because it develops a fan club. People don’t like you messing with their cartoons. They get very upset.
I used to have Zippy the Pinhead for the old psychedelic hippie boys and girls. It was pretty off the wall. It got so weird that I decided to stop running it. I was walking down the east end of main street [in Ames] and a bunch of the biker dudes – like Sons of Silence – saw me and crossed the street to let me know that they like Zippy the Pinhead and “what the hell was I doing messing with that?” It kind of scared me [laughs]. So, a lot of them I’ve had for years. I wish I could run more. I like every cartoon we’ve got, obviously.
AP: You’ve published over 1000 Toons. How do you keep it going?
RL: I was skinny with hair, just like you, when I started. Look at what it does to you [laughs]! But I wish I could give you a better answer. I’ve been fumbling around the dark as much as I ever was. Twenty-some years ago I thought I knew the answer to everything. Since then it’s been a very humbling experience realizing I don’t know squat. I don’t know. Just be nice to people. Treat them with respect. Every time you see someone reading a copy of your paper tell them, “Thank you very much, can I take your picture?” I’d like to take a picture of everyone in Ames that’s ever read Toons. If I could afford more pages I’d have a few with just pictures of people holding up a copy of Toons but it’s been a tough winter. But hopefully it will be getting better and I can print two, three pages of people who read Toons again. I’ve got a big backlog.
AP: How has the current economic landscape has affected your business?
RL: I’ve seen a lot of different recessions over the decades but this is far and away the most widespread and nastiest.
It’s a desperate struggle. Every radio station or publication is fighting for the advertiser dollar and reader attention all the time. It’s not easy to get heard but you got to wake up and stand up, hold your head high, tuck that chin in, get that chest out, shoulders back, suck that gut in, and march forward. Look straight ahead fearlessly. That will get you through a lot of things.
AP: Where do you get your ideas for your cartoons?
RL: The best cartoons are the ones anyone can relate to. It works a lot better than the esoteric or the highly unusual. I made that joke about fart cartoons or pretty girls, but those are things people relate to.
AP: You were starting you business long before the Internet. Now, so many DIY ventures use the Internet as promotion. How did you make a name for yourself before the Internet?
RL: I stood on street corners and in campus and would hand out newspapers to anyone who wouldn’t run away from some lunatic that was shoving stuff at them. I’d just stick them in people’s face and try and get them to pay attention.
I used to have a well-paying job. Used to buy really good steaks and about six months after publishing Toons I was in the store with my wife and I asked if we could buy a package of the Corn King hot dogs – the crappiest hot dogs on the planet – and we couldn’t afford those. That was tough on the ol’ ego. Scary business. Hawking everything I own to just keep going.
AP: That’s dedication.
RL: [Laughs] Nah, I’m just too stubborn to quit.