Local cartoonist to debut strip

The April Fool’s Day launch of local cartoonist Bill Bettwy’s comic strip “Take It From The Tinkersons” is at once a serious business move and a play on a sales team’s great timing.

“We thought that was a great day” and really spoke to the mood of the comic, Bettwy of Altoona said, laughing.

“Take It From The Tinkersons” will appear daily in the Altoona Mirror, starting Monday.

After years of work and numerous submissions for different comic strip ideas, Bettwy finally got the green light from Brendan Burford, editor of King Features Syndicate, a Hearst Corp. company that distributes content including editorial cartoons, columns and puzzles to thousands of newspapers worldwide.

Burford said Bettwy originally sent in two submissions.

The first comic was centered around a young boy similar to Tillman Tinkerson, although he had a different name. The second was focused on the father.

“It even clicked then,” Burford said, although they worked together to focus the strip on the whole family and include the female perspectives of Tiff and Tweetie Tinkerson.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got to keep an eye on this guy,'” Burford said.

That was in April 2010, Bettwy said, and he worked with King Features for roughly 18 months before agreeing to a syndication deal in October 2011; he then began building a comic strip archive over the next year.

Burford said Bettwy melded two worlds together to create the Tinkersons, a family strip akin to television shows like “Family Guy” or “The Simpsons” but one that also harkens back to classic strips like “Zits” or “Baby Blues.”

Bettwy’s sense of humor is really good for that style of comic, Burford said.

“And [Bettwy] lives it, too,” Burford said, laughing. “You can’t just be making things up and hoping the well won’t run dry.”

With twin 8-year-old sons, a 10-year-old daughter and a dog that’s a bit like Tubby, that’s a sentiment Bettwy said he shares.

“I have such a deep well of material,” he said, that he can’t imagine ever running out of topics to turn into cartoons.

“It’s not like a biography per se,” he said, but there are a lot of common experiences that come through. That is echoed in the strip’s marketing material: “The Tinkersons aren’t the Bettwys, but there may be just a bit of the Bettwys in the Tinkersons.”

Bettwy said he keeps a regular submission schedule since the cartoon will run every day: six black-and-white dailies and a full-color Sunday strip.

Burford said a byproduct of a rigorous schedule is a stockpile of great material, and Bettwy has more than 100 strips to fall back on if he needs to.

Sometimes a cartoonist’s kid can get sick, or the family goes on vacation. When life gets in the way, it’s nice to have that cushion, Burford said.

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t push Bettwy to turn in seven strips every week.

Bettwy said he gives a lot of credit to the Altoona Mirror, because it “gave me a chance,” he said. Bettwy started drawing editorial cartoons in 2008, and later began a daily summer comic series for the Altoona Curve, where he works as brand and mascot development director.

“It kept me writing on a weekly, daily basis,” he said, and that experience gave him the tools he needed to attract the attention of King Features.

“If you don’t write every day, you’re not going to grow,” Bettwy said.

And while being a cartoonist means you can work from anywhere, Bettwy said he’s content to stay right where he is, with deep roots in Altoona including family, friends and a lot of childhood memories.

Those roots come through in some of the Tinkersons, too.

In one strip, father Ted Tinkerson asks the kids “Who wants dippy eggs for breakfast?” – although things quickly go awry when the yolks keep breaking.

Being that dippy eggs is a colloquialism for eggs over easy, Burford said readers elsewhere, like at the Modesto (Calif.) Bee, The St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press or Brownsville (Texas) Herald might ask, “What’s a dippy egg?”

But in Bettwy’s case, the description was done well enough that he believes readers will understand it, he said.

Plus, in the case of dippy eggs, it’s “fun, and I encourage cartoonists to do that” with language sometimes, Burford said.

You don’t want to confuse people, he said, but using your own vernacular helps people get to know the characters and, by extension, the cartoonist.

Right now, “Take It From The Tinkersons” is slated to appear in 53 newspapers, including one as far away as Alaska, Bettwy said.

But the market keeps growing, and the sales team always is looking to expand its reach, he said.

Burford said he views comic strips as a newspaper institution, and people consistently vote it as one of their favorite sections and expect to see it every day alongside news, sports and weather.

Plus, Burford said, the Tinkersons are special. There’s a bit of Murphy’s Law involved, he said.

If something can go wrong with them, it will, Burford said. But, he added, Bettwy tells the story with such levity that people can laugh as they relate the strip’s events to some of their own misfortunes.

“We see it and say, ‘That’s my life!'” Burford said, laughing.

While Burford said King Features doesn’t keep hard numbers on how many attempts it takes to reach syndication, he noted that it’s “a very tough job to land” and that there isn’t much room for change in any given newspaper’s comics section. The King Features only adds about one new strip per year, he said.

“I always like to say that becoming a syndicated cartoonist is statistically more difficult than becoming a major league baseball player,” Burford said, adding that Bettwy is a gifted cartoonist who “belongs in the funnies.”

Bettwy said he couldn’t have gotten to where he is without Burford, and said without his editor’s help, the Tinkersons might never have existed.

With so many talented cartoonists out there, Bettwy said he feels “truly lucky” that he was chosen for syndication.

“It’s literally everything I’ve been working for, for so long,” Bettwy said. “It’s my dream.”

In the Mirror, the Tinkersons will replace For Better or For Worse, which has been in reruns for several years.

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520.