Bellingham cartoonist makes a living in a dying art

By Emily Hamann

The Bellingham Business Journal

Despite the success he’s found in it, drawing cartoons and illustrating was not George Jartos’ first choice.

“I was doing sculpture,” he said. “But I knew I could never make a living at it.”

Before he went into semi-retirement, Jartos was a prolific cartoonist and illustrator. His work appeared in greeting cards, Reader’s Digest, Better Homes & Gardens, Penthouse, and many more. He still does sell a cartoon to The Wall Street Journal from time to time.

Jartos draws cartoons featuring motorcycles and biking culture for Easyriders magazine. [Emily Hamann | BBJ]
Jartos draws cartoons featuring motorcycles and biking culture for Easyriders magazine. [Emily Hamann | BBJ]

But most of his cartoon work came from funny cartoons, a joke told in one panel, called a gag cartoon.

He works on one he plans to sell to the motorcycle magazine Easyriders. It shows a man getting fitted for a tailored suit. He is wearing the suit jacket inside-out, with the seams exposed, the sleeves cuffed and pins sticking out. The man taking his measurements is a biker.

Jartos is riffing on one of his earlier cartoons, one that never sold. Instead of a biker, it featured a hippie who asks “why would you want to wear a suit, anyway?”

He says the jokes usually come to him as he’s trying to fall asleep.

“It would be annoying,” he said, “Because I’d keep coming up with cartoons and I’d have to wake up and write them down.”

Drawing has always come easily to him. As a kid in Connecticut, he practiced drawing cartoons he saw in comic books and magazines. Mad Magazine was one of his favorites.

“I always liked art,” he said. “It was something I could always do.”

That talent helped him, oddly enough, when he was in the military. He was deployed to Korea.

“I originally started doing gag cartoons when I was in the Army,” he said. He drew cartoons for a newspaper that was handed out to the troops. “I did those so I could get out of doing Army stuff.”

He spent some time in and out of art school, while at the same time playing football. He was studying fine art in New York when he discovered his passion for sculpture.

“For 10 years, I did sculpture and worked odd jobs,” he said. He moved to Washington. For a while, he worked on a fishing boat. He was never able to make any money off his sculptures.

“I was tired of being broke all the time,” he said.

George Jartos [Emily Hamann | BBJ]
George Jartos [Emily Hamann | BBJ]

So, he put his natural talents for drawing to work. He started illustrating — drawing art for advertisements, logos, pamphlets and posters. One time he illustrated a textbook that a French teacher at Western Washington University had written.

“It was on-the-job training,” he said. “I was getting stuff I didn’t know how to do.” He learned to draw in a variety of different styles, to match what the client wanted.

When work was slow, he’d supplement his income by drawing gag cartoons. That’s how it started, anyway.

“George has got a really good sense of writing gag cartoons,” said John McColloch, Jartos’ friend and fellow Bellingham cartoonist and illustrator. McColloch was a fan of Jartos’ work long before he met him.

“He is quite famous,” he said. At the height of his career, Jartos was a syndicated cartoonist. His work regularly appeared in the Wall Street Journal and other major national magazines.

Jartos is semi-retired now. He lives in downtown Bellingham in a studio apartment.

Art and cartoons, some his, some by other artists, hang on the walls. His desk is full of cans of different kinds of pens and markers. Books and records fill shelves running along the length of his studio apartment. Conspicuously missing? A computer. He doesn’t have one.

He does all his art by hand. To submit his cartoons, he has them photocopied and sends them to magazines in the mail. He goes to the library occasionally to see if there’s any email or activity from the website that a friend built for him.

That friend, Ron Austin, is a filmmaker who along with co-director Louise Amandes just made a documentary on Pacific Northwest cartoonists called “Bezango, WA.” Jartos’ work is featured in the film.

“I just love his work,” Austin said. “It’s hilarious.”

Jartos does all his work by hand.
Jartos does all his work by hand.

Like McColloch, Austin was a big fan of Jartos’ before they met. Austin spotted Jartos drawing one day at a cafe in Bellingham.

“It was as if I’d seen a rockstar,” he said.

His favorite cartoon of Jartos’ is of an ice cream truck. Painted on the side, it says “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice scream.” On top, instead of a giant ice cream cone, is huge head, yelling. The ice cream man wonders “Why do kids keep running away?”

Austin says that’s the perfect example of Jartos’ humor.

“It makes a perfect gag cartoon,” Austin said. “You should be able to look at it and get the humor within two seconds.”

McColloch said Jartos delivers on both crucial aspects of cartooning.

“He’s a very good artist,” McColloch said. “He also has a great sense of humor.” Unlike Jartos, McColloch has embraced technology in his artwork. He works almost completely digitally, drawing on what is essentially a big digital drawing table.

“In some ways, it’s spoiled me,” he said. “If I make a mistake, I can undo.” When Jartos makes a mistake, he uses whiteout. Artists like Jartos are rare these days, McColloch said.

“Most cartoonists I know, even the old-school ones, have in some shape or form moved over,” to working digitally, he said.

At the very least, most cartoonists type the words into their cartoons on the computer, and do the coloring in Photoshop.

“[Jartos] is sitting there, and he’s hand-painting it and hand-lettering it,” McColloch said. “That’s what makes his work so far apart.”

With the decline of print, work for people like Jartos is getting harder to find.

“A lot of newspapers now, they aren’t taking on any new cartoonists,” he said. Magazines are publishing fewer cartoons all the time. Just like print media, since the advent of the internet cartoonists have been struggling to find a business model that works.

“The industry is changing,” he said.

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