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The Stinky Story
By Ron Wheeler
August 16th 2010
Here’s the story behind the Stinky Stevens books. It’s actually the result of a thirty-five year journey.
In 1975 I began a comic strip for the campus newspaper at the University of Nebraska. My first strip was making fun of Campus Crusade evangelist, Josh McDowell. The editor (an atheist) loved it and away we went. The strip ran every day chronicling college life, and it became an instant hit. My main character even won Homecoming King. It was then I realized I had a gift, and that gift turned into a passion for writing and drawing comic strips.
It was also then that I took my first stab at newspaper syndication. A newspaper syndicate is an organization that markets various features, such as comic strips, to newspapers. Newspapers rarely buy comics directly from a cartoonist. The response from one syndicate was, “my strip was good for a campus setting but it needed a broader appeal for daily newspapers.” I made a few more attempts, but I couldn't’t get the right doors to open. This agonizing quest to create the perfect comic strip so I could impress a newspaper syndicate, eventually led me to becoming a Christian. When I couldn't’t coerce God into doing what I wanted him to do, I finally gave up and let Him do with me what He wanted. The day after I placed my total trust in Christ, I got a full time job as a cartoonist right across the street from my apartment, the first place I looked at when I moved to Kansas City. This led to my current thirty-year free-lance career: a calling to create cartoons to be a communication vehicle for spreading God’s truths.
I’ve never lost my desire to syndicate a comic strip though. Over the years I continued to make submission after submission of my comic strip ideas. Writing and drawing about life in a daily venue scratched an itch deep inside of me. However, there was a new problem now, even though my work was improving. That is, when you write from your heart, your work is going to reflect what’s inside of your heart. Inside of my heart now was an allegiance to Christ I couldn't’t hold back. This would never work for the secular newspaper industry. In fact, one of my comic strip submissions was labeled “didactic” by one of the syndicate editors. (I had to look that one up.) Yet if I didn't’t reflect Christ in my strips, I wasn't’t being honest with how I viewed life.
So instead of newspaper syndication, God opened a door for me to write and illustrate a full-page episodic comic strip for a weekly Sunday school take-home paper. It was called The Adventures of Jeremiah. During this time I also got to write and illustrate seventy Gospel-oriented cartoon tracts that have, thus far, sold over 50 million copies worldwide.
Those successes were very gratifying, but the itch to write and illustrate a daily newspaper comic strip still burned deep inside of me. I finally hit on an idea I thought would solve the “Christian strip in secular newspapers” dilemma. In 1995 an idea came to me to write a strip where certain cartoon characters know the real truth about their world. That is, they realized there is a loving cartoonist out there who is controlling everything. And, he rarely does what they expect … which sort of mirrors my own life.
It wasn't’t until five years later that I had an opportunity to develop a strip along these lines. My 20-year run with the Jeremiah strip had ended when the publication folded, and my tracts were winding down as well. So I put together one more batch of strips and sent them out to the newspaper syndicates. I got some very positive feedback. One newspaper syndicate thought there might be room for a religious strip if it weren't’t alienating, and this strip fit that criterion because the religious aspect was allegorical. The late, great Johnny Hart (his strips were The Wizard of Id and B.C.) overnighted a letter to me letting me know he loved what I did, and he was passing my material on to his syndicate. I took my strip (called Overtones, for spiritual overtones) to Focus on the Family to see if they wanted me to work on something similar for their Adventures in Odyssey radio broadcast. Show developer, Paul McCusker, along with two other executives, said, “We don’t want to talk about Adventures in Odyssey. We want to talk about Overtones.” They loved it and wanted to publish Overtones cartoon books … IF a newspaper syndicate would purchase the strip. They even had a relationship with the syndicate that seemed the most interested. This syndicate took two full years before they eventually declined. It wasn't’t that they declined as much as they couldn't’t agree on a decision, and they didn't’t want to leave me hanging any further. Their no decision became a “NO” decision. Other syndicates followed suit. I heard rumblings that 9/11 might have had something to do with it. It was hard to get newspapers to buy anything during those days. Of course without the national audience newspaper syndication would bring, Focus on the Family wasn't’t able to do anything and they backed off also.
I wept bitterly. I had come so close.
I then looked for other ways to make this concept work. I entered an international Christian comic contest with a four-page strip I called Stinky Stevens. It was the same concept: Stinky Stevens knows the real truth about his world … there is a caring cartoonist out there who is in charge of everything but rarely does what Stinky expects. It won second place in the People’s Choice Category Among Professionals.
After that, I sent the Overtones and Stinky Stevens strips to a friend who was recently appointed to a high position in the children’s book division of one of the largest and most respected Christian book publishing companies in the country. He loved the strips and the concept, and so did others in his department. They thought it would work well as a children’s book series geared primarily to elementary age boys. We used the name Stinky Stevens. I was given a contract to create eight books in the series. I was thrilled. I had never written children’s books before but I found there were a lot of similarities to writing comic strips.
Midway through development (two books were completed, two were in sketch stage, two were text written only, and two just had titles) this company went through a major restructuring. People were fired from the top on down. My friend was gone, and they decided to trim their book line. Because my books were geared toward an uncertain market (elementary age boys don’t normally shop at Christian bookstores) my book series was axed even though the editors still loved the concept.
I wept bitterly. I had come so close.
Other Christian book publishers were going through similar difficulties due to the downturn in the economy, so no one seemed interested in Stinky Stevens.
More recently, another friend happened to be meeting (on an unrelated project) with the head of the newspaper syndicate that showed the most interest in my earlier Overtones strip. He wanted to know if I had anything I wanted to present to this man while there was an opportunity. I quickly threw together a simple package containing the award winning comic strip, some custom comic strips just for him, and a printed rough copy of one of the Stinky Stevens books. While this was being evaluated I feverishly completed the first four books of the Stinky Stevens series to send as a follow-up to the package my friend had delivered. Before I completed them, however, I got a personal call from the man himself, the president and owner of one of the premier newspaper syndicates in the country. He told me he had bad news for me. They thought the humor in my strip was inconsistent and the concept was too one-dimensional. But he thought enough of my talent that he wanted to call me personally to thank me and let me know that if I had any more ideas, please submit them. I shouldn't’t be discouraged because they are very selective and only take features they are certain would sell.
I didn't’t weep bitterly this time. I think it was more … I “sighed” bitterly. I honestly don’t know if I’m any closer or not.
The bottom line now is I have four really cool Stinky Stevens books I’m self publishing for the time being, and I’ll sell them on my website. I don’t know where this will lead. I’m sending them out to various places to see what happens. I even sent them to that newspaper syndicate president with an appeal they reconsider their decision. I told them I’d rather have them make their decision based on something I developed over two years than something I threw together in two weeks. I don’t know if it will do any good or not.
There is only one thing I do know. The great cartoonist does have a plan, but he rarely does what the cartoon characters expect … sort of like real life … and very much like Stinky Stevens.