'Dilbert' Creator Expounds on Life, Finding Fodder for Comic Strip
Newspaper accounts of him were all complimentary when he started his comic strip as a wry commentary on the corporate world, but the tone of reporting changed when Dilbert's syndication reached 500 newspapers.
"According to the media, the more successful you are, the uglier you get -- look at Donald Trump," Adams told delegates at yesterday's 2005 Annual Teradata Partners User Group Conference and Expo.
So media accounts of Adams don't describe him as tall and handsome or fit, but "pale and bespectacled" and with a "bald spot." The Wall Street Journal, which typically doesn't use photographs of people, hired an artist to draw a picture that accompanied a story on Adams.
"He turned out to be a cartoonist," Adams said. "Bitter, obviously."
Adams was welcome relief for attendees at this mammoth database conference organized by users of Teradata software and services. His general session was packed with thousands in the audience doubling up with laughter at his cartoon potshots on corporate America.
The cartooning passion began young for Adams. Lack of encouragement from an artists school led to the pursuit of a straightforward education as he grew up. He decided to become an economics major.
"If you take enough classes in economics, you'll become a cartoonist," he said. "Not immediately, but eventually."
So he joined a bank in San Francisco, carrying a paper from room to room to look like he had something to do. A stint at a local telephone company followed. Promotions were twice denied in his early career. Then Adams realized something.
"The day you realize that your efforts and your rewards are not related, it really frees up your schedule," he said.
Thus began a difficult journey of submitting cartoons and receiving rejection letters. He even wrote Jack Cassidy, host of a cartoon show on television. In return, he got advice and tips for books. Cassidy wrote again a year later to make sure Adams hadn't given up -- when he almost did.
"Dilbert" was based on a co-worker at the telephone company where Adams worked, but the co-worker didn't know it. Realizing that he still had a marketable product, Adams pitched the six major comic-strip syndicates.
"One rejection letter asked me to find an actual artist to do the job," he said.
During this time, he received a phone call from a woman at United Media. He didn't recall sending her a letter, so he asked for references. There was a long silence at the other end. She finally said United Media syndicated "Peanuts," "Garfield" and several equally well-known strips.
"By the 12th name, I realized my negotiating position had been compromised," Adams said.
He signed with United Media, finally becoming the success he is today: cartoonist, author, online entrepreneur, television producer, licensing wizard and restaurateur. He recently launched a food product called the Dilberito that contains many nutritional ingredients.
Adams has run into controversy as an artist, raising eyebrows of editors and offended groups or individuals. He is not politically correct, nor suffers fools gladly. Or perhaps he does. For example, one strip suggested a line of luggage be called dorkkages. That resulted in an irate letter from someone with the last name of Dork, demanding an apology. So the next strip on the subject included this line: "I apologize to all the Dorks I've offended. I hope we can put this matter behind us."
Another time Adams' editor refused to run a "Dilbert" strip showing a police officer firing a gun at someone who had just surrendered. The editor was OK with the killing and the words, "Bam, Bam," but she didn't want the gun shown. So Adams replaced the gun with a doughnut firing bullets. The strip ran.
Some of his strips were deemed too risqué. In one, department co-worker Alice confides in Dilbert, "I've had torrid romances with half the department. Should I give it up?" Dilbert says, "No, I'd give it another year."
And once he incorporated into his strip a direct quote from a memo sent out by the phone company's vice president of engineering -- Adams' boss. The line read, "If we are to remain competitive, you must proactively improve quality on all actionable levels."
His boss wanted to fire him. But the boss's boss persuaded him otherwise, recommending instead that Adams be given really bad assignments so that he would quit on his own. That year, Adams thought he had gotten all the doomed projects. But it wasn't so bad.
"When you're a cartoonist, there's not such a thing as bad work," Adams said. "Because the more ridiculous the workday, the better my cartoons became."
Mickey Alam Khan covers Internet marketing campaigns and e-commerce, agency news as well as circulation for DM News and DMNews.com. To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting www.dmnews.com/newsletters. Mickey is a guest of Teradata at the conference.