The letter “F” and the “minus” symbol don’t normally represent success, but the combination of the two is looking awfully good on Tony Carrillo’s résumé. Carrillo, a 24-year-old cartoonist from Tempe, Arizona, is the creator of “F Minus,” a new random-joke, single-panel cartoon coming soon to a newspaper near you.
As one might guess, “F Minus” celebrates failure by making light of life’s little indignities. “Everyone in my comic is either a failure or stupid or just kind of a loser,” begins Carrillo. “If they were being graded in life they would get an F-.”
Ironically, Carrillo never dreamed of becoming a professional cartoonist. He stumbled into drawing cartoons out of financial necessity. As an underclassman at Arizona State University (ASU) he came across an ad in the student newspaper, The State Press, looking for a cartoonist. “The ad said, ‘Can you draw—even just a little bit?’” recalls Carrillo. “It sounded like a fun job and I needed the money so I drew three little cartoons and sent them in. They hired me over the phone and I have been doing cartoons ever since.”
Looking back, Carrillo realizes his early efforts were less than inspiring. “They were not very good. I admit that,” he says. “I had almost no cartooning experience and everything I had done before was classical drawing or portraiture. So when I started out all my drawings were too detailed. When they were reduced for the paper they disappeared,” he says with a laugh.
Carrillo simplified his style and soon developed a cult following among ASU students. In November 2004 he entered his work in the inaugural “mtvU Strips” contest, which offered a tantalizing grand prize: A six-month development deal with United Feature Syndicate, home to such comic strips as “Peanuts,” “Dilbert,” and “Get Fuzzy.” To his delight, Carrillo won the contest, which was judged by mtvu.com users, as well as renowned comic artists like Scott Adams (“Dilbert”) and David Rees (“Get Your War On”).
Suddenly, Carrillo found himself working alongside United’s Jake Morrissey, longtime editor of such cartoons as “The Far Side” and “Calvin and Hobbes.” According to Carrillo, spending six months with Morrissey was invaluable, noting, “You can’t get a degree in cartooning and there aren’t many cartoonists with whom you can discuss things. And even if you can track them down they tend to stay in their houses and never come out,” he quips.
Still, even a seasoned veteran like Morrissey couldn’t help Carrillo with the most challenging part of the job—generating new ideas on a daily basis. “The drawing is the easy part,” begins Carrillo, “because that’s what I went to school for. I’ve been drawing since I was a little kid.”
In fact, it’s the fear of running out of ideas that convinced Carrillo to develop a random-joke comic, as opposed to one that features specific characters or a running storyline. “If I wanted to do a joke about computers and my character was a Viking that just wouldn't work.”
Instead, Carrillo mines the subject of failure—in a lighthearted way, of course. “I try to poke fun at things that people don't think about on a day-to-day basis,” he begins. “I have one of a guy crossing the street in a wheelchair and he’s flipping off the ‘Walk’ sign. That could be really annoying to someone in that situation.”
Carrillo also has a way of taking stereotypical comic strip themes and turning them upside-down. One “F Minus” panel features a man on a desert island—a rescue boat headed in his direction. In the boat is a ferocious man-eating tiger. “A lot of people associate the boat with an opportunity. But sometimes the opportunity turns out to be worse than having nothing happen,” reminds Carrillo.
However, Carrillo made the most of his opportunity to showcase his talent to United, which elected to syndicate “F Minus” after his development deal ran its course. National syndication begins on April 17, with early adopters including the Houston Chronicle, Denver Post, Seattle Times and Albuquerque Journal. “When The Star-Ledger [Newark, New Jersey] picked up ‘F Minus’ that was the first time anyone bought it. I was like, ‘Wow, they must really want it if they are going to pay money for it,’” says Carrillo.
At the same time, the young cartoonist admits he gets a little nervous thinking about the prospect of hundreds of thousands of people reading “F Minus,” as he uses reader reaction to help gauge how well he’s done his job. “There are many times where I’ve done a comic I've been proud of but then people just shrug when they read it. Eventually my own opinion of it starts to decline because I’m trying to get a reaction from people. I’d rather have people hate it than not really care,” he says.
Not that Carrillo is ever out to offend or make readers angry. Asked about the Jyllands-Posten Muhammed cartoons that triggered violence and riots around the world, Carrillo says, “Political cartoons are a whole ’nother world. I just draw little doodles that kids read when they eat their cereal in the morning. I’m not so devoted to the cartooning world that I would risk somebody killing me over it. If somebody told me, ‘Stop doing cartoons or I’ll kill you,’ I’d say, ‘You’re the boss!’ I could always taking up air conditioning repair,” he says, mindful of Phoenix's sweltering weather.
In the meantime, Carrillo plans on taking “F Minus” as far as it can go, hoping to eventually compile enough material to produce a book. And while Carrillo plans to steer clear of politics he admits that the news—especially political news—is particularly inspiring. “An old guy shooting another old guy in the face just brings ideas to my head,” he says, recalling vice-president Dick Cheney’s hunting accident. “Crazy stuff happens every day that you just can’t make up.”