Carlo Jose San Juan is a licensed practicing physician (Nuclear Medicine Specialist), a newspaper and webcomic comic strip cartoonist for the Manila Bulletin, a comic book writer, a freelance animator, a voice actor, and a part-time professor at De La Salle University – Manila. His comic stip, Callous, is being published by the Manila Bulletin, as well as online at www.callouscomics.com and www.tapas.io. He’s the co-creator of Immortal Wings (published by Antarctic Press) alongside Rod Espinosa, and is also the creator of M.O.U.S.E. - Multiple Ordinance and Utility Synthetic Entity at www.mousecomic.com. He’s received four nominations for the 2017 Komikon Reader’s Choice Awards, namely: Best Cartoonist, Best Comic Strip Compilation, Best Webcomic, and Best Comic Cover). He plays a lot of video games, likes listening to heavy metal, hard rock, and, occasionally, some classical music, and is a huge fan of the men’s and women’s Philippine National Football teams. Plus, he also like tooling around with his moped. You can find more of Carlo and his work on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, CallousComics.com, CartoonistCaz.com, and Tapas.io
I had been exposed to comics since as far back as I can remember. My earliest memory of being into comic books was figuring out how to read Old Master Q comics way back in the first or second grade. The comic was often dialogue-free so I learned the fundamentals of comic illustration and paneling very early on. And even before that I had already been watching Peanuts cartoons on TV as well as seeing Charlie Brown and Snoopy pretty much everywhere!
By the third or fourth grade I didn’t leave the house much. I would entertain myself by drawing my own comics in cheap notebooks. I didn’t think much of it at the time, I just wanted to tell stories to myself.
My true love, however, were the newspaper comic strips. Thanks to my parents’ subscription to Manila Bulletin, I had brand new comics every day! And the newspaper had an excellent selection of comic strips to read, whether they were produced locally or abroad. I see comic strip authors as the “stand-up comedians” of the funny comics world. We are charged with the tough task of setting up and delivering our humor in three or four panels. But due to the typically daily nature of its publishing, comic strips can delve into many topics and look at life in various ways, not necessarily through jokes.
It wasn’t until I chanced upon Garfield’s 10th anniversary special on TV that I began to think of cartooning as a potential profession. Jim Davis, the comic’s author, would chat about all the various aspects of producing Garfield in various media. He also chatted with other comic strip creators. I didn’t realize prior to that documentary that cartooning was a viable career and I knew back then that I wanted to become a cartoonist.
I’m not sure what my biggest struggle was, just that there were many challenges to overcome. The first hurdle I had to conquer was the fact that whenever I brought up pursuing cartooning as a career, nobody around me was giving me any encouragement to go for it. From my friends to my teachers in school and even some members of my family, I would receive either criticism of my “too western art style” or flat-out discouragement due to the suboptimal financial compensation of the profession. Basically, I was told early on that I wasn’t going to make it.
Whether the second challenge I faced had already been there from the beginning or arose from the aforementioned discouragement I received, I can’t really say, but I knew I didn’t have the confidence in myself as an artist to pursue cartooning as a career. Back then, among my peers, only artists who could draw in the style of western comics books like those published by Marvel, DC, or Image or with manga-inspired flair gained any attention or praise.
Q: How have you been able to cope with (or overcome) this struggle?
I was definitely discouraged enough to not pursue a career in cartooning, at least not as my primary profession. Nevertheless, I treated it as a hobby and continued to study the comics I loved to read, figuring out why they worked and why they had whatever effect they had on me. I guess it was because of the criticism that I had the drive to continually improve on what I was doing.
Whenever opportunities arose to have my comics and cartoons published, I went for it. I joined my high school, college, and medical school’s respective student newspapers and drew comics for them. I would learn a lot from the very talented artists who worked with me there. Furthermore, feedback, whether positive or negative, from my fellow artists and the various newspapers’ readership kept me searching for ways to improve.
Eventually, I started publishing my comic strips online and the quick feedback I would get was priceless. Furthermore, I was exposed to the business model that worked at the time for webcomics and learned a lot from my peers in that field.
So to answer your question, I just kept getting my work out there, listened to feedback, and continued (and still continue) to improve myself as a cartoonist. Most important of all, I wouldn’t be where I am now if I had not just gone for it in the beginning.
I guess I just had the drive to keep getting inspired to improve. Nowadays, I go around an artist alley in any pop culture convention and find something that inspires me to get better.
For example, I see an illustration or a narrative technique that I find amazing and I try to figure out why I find it so appealing. I then wonder if I could incorporate that technique into my own work in my own way, so that it is still my voice. It’s a difficult thing to do but when it all works out it is very satisfying and fulfilling!
I’m going to cheat in this question because I just thought of something else. There was an article in the Webcomic Alliance website by Byron Wilkins about the difference in seeing yourself as a hobbyist and as a professional comic artist. It made me decide through some weird Zen-ish, introspective, internal philosophical overhaul that I can’t really describe that I was a professional cartoonist and I should approach my work and everything it concerns in that manner. Just that mental shift from treating my cartooning as a hobby to it being another profession made me think of what I do, particularly the business aspect, a lot more seriously. I valued my work a lot more. It also made me change how I presented myself and how I would interact with my comic colleagues. My work and efforts to improve as a cartoonist also gained more structure.
I wish I knew that it was possible to do all that I do early on. I was told by someone whose opinion I greatly respected at the time many years ago that there was no way to be both a doctor and a cartoonist. I had to choose one. And being past the proverbial point-of-no-return in medical school back then, the choice was obvious. Eventually, I still gave it all a shot, and here we are. Still, I sometimes think, “what if I started earlier?” I might have even taken some classes on it.
Q: What drives or inspires you to continue making your art?
Life itself inspires me. I know it may sound corny or overly-cheesy but when I look around I marvel at the miracle and impossibility of our beautiful existence in the universe. And having my mind be “forced” to look at the brighter side of things for the purpose of writing my comic strip has somehow made me a better, more relaxed person, I feel.
When it comes to my illustrations, usually it is other artists that inspire me to go on and continually improve. I came into the comic world probably later in life than most and being around a lot of very impressive up-and-coming talent during comic conventions invigorates my mind and keeps me going.
I wish I had more “average” days just so I had more structure to my work times! My days are very fluid due to the inherent characteristics of my primary profession. Admittedly, it’s becoming tougher and tougher to find the time to work on my comics. But when I do have the time, I work hard while continually trying to figure out how to further streamline my production process. One such change was my very recent switch to digital illustration, something I was very reluctant to do. So far the learning curve hasn’t been as steep as I feared.
In a rough sense, I squeeze in whatever comic work I can during my day. Like during lunch or in-between patients, I would be penciling or inking a comic strip. Then I do the coloring, lettering, submitting to Manila Bulletin, and online publishing and marketing when I get home.
Q: How do you deal with distractions or challenges that you encounter while you’re working on your art?
In anything we do, there will always be challenges. You just can’t let them stop your progress. Finding a way to get past them is a must if failure is not an option. So there’s always a way around such roadblocks.
Distractions, however, are another story. When working on comics I get into a workflow that is very hard to get back into if I had to step away. I try my best to work with no distractions around, which usually means I work best when my family is sound asleep!
Sometimes I go to a nice café and work there. I’ve been looking into shared workspaces and I might use them someday.
I believe there’s an ebb and flow to creativity and you just have to ride the wave when it arrives. In my work, that means I stock up on comic strip stories when the creativity neural synapses are firing at full rate. So when things aren’t coming to me as fast as they could, I have a bank of comic strip stories to work with.
Q: What would you say has been your most EPIC win so far?
I would have to say it was when I exhibited in my first comic con, Metro Comic Con 2010. It felt like such a gargantuan step for me and I was very nervous on how my work would be received by Philippine comic-reading fans. Up until that point I had only been marketing to a global audience due to the comic’s exclusively online publishing at the time. I put my all into preparing for the convention, taking advice from webcomic friends from all over the world. The overwhelmingly positive reception I got at the event was very encouraging, to say the least! I sold all copies of the compilation book I printed but a few I saved for myself. I couldn’t have asked for a better first comic con and I feel it marked my true entry into the fantastic world of Philippine comics and the people within it are truly amazing and a lot of them are incredibly underrated.
Q: What would you say has been your biggest failure?
Not having the confidence in myself to shoot for more in every stage of my progression as a professional cartoonist.
The importance of the internet in today’s world can no longer be argued against. Particularly during the early days of my webcomic publishing, Twitter was instrumental. Nowadays you have to use any and all tools to promote yourself online, from social media channels to crowdfunding sites. And there are many, many tools so it’s a lot of work!
Q: What has been your game plan throughout your journey? What’s the BIG picture here? The ultimate dream? The end game?
I would like to be the cartoonist synonymous to medically-related comics and hopefully grow my global readership. I’d like Callous to grow beyond the comic strip and pursue multimedia avenues of entertainment.
Honestly, I don’t think I had the artistic talent to start with. I had to develop it from practically nothing through studying the comics I read and the TV cartoons I would watch.
As for my ideas and creativity, I may have touched on this earlier. Life inspires me. I actively look around during my daily work and find something to talk about. I also observe a lot of everyday things that people take for granted and assist the reader in stopping to smell the roses, so to speak.
Q: What is your big “WHY”? Why do you feel the need to make art? Who are you doing it for? What’s the hidden reason behind your big dream?
From the get-go, it was about making people feel better and that goes hand in hand with what I try to do as a physician. That’s the secret superpower I feel a comic strip cartoonist has. You get to touch people with your work even though they are very far away.
However, I also do it for myself. The comic is a huge stress-relief for me and gives me a different type of fulfillment than what I get as a doctor. So it all enriches my life. These two careers work hand in hand. My life as a physician feeds stories for the comic while the comic reduces stress from the other job.
And lastly, I have something to say about life that I hide as an undercurrent in my writing for the comic strip. I just hope readers get it!
P.S. – On a not-so-minor note, I wanted to prove the detractors from my youth wrong. And they were. If you’re reading this, you know who you are. Hello, YOU WERE WRONG! 😉
Q: What 3 stories (comics, movies, documentaries, novels, etc.) would you say influenced and inspired your work the most?
The Adventures of Tintin
Calvin and Hobbes
Q: What are the top books, art books, blogs, podcasts, or workshops you’d recommend that helped you level up your skills? (Feel free to plug in as many as you’d like)
The Schweizer Guide to Spotting Tangents is a must-read. It’s a great layouting guide that I struggle to master. One of the things I actively try to improve on.
Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art” is another must-read. It’s a great deconstruction of how comics work and why they affect us the way they do.
Q: If you could work remotely, from anywhere in the world, where would your office be? Why?
Probably somewhere in the Mountain Province with a good internet connection just outside Baguio City or someplace similar abroad. I’ve always preferred provincial life over that of central Metro Manila but I’m nevertheless remarkably content with where I am now.
Q: Name ONE artist/writer that, if you could, you would pick their brain and find out all the hidden secrets behind their amazing work?
I’m sorry but I’m afraid that it’s a tie between Neil Gaiman and Hayao Miyazaki.
Who do you consider your biggest mentor that helped you improve your skills?
(Doesn’t have to be someone you’ve met personally. Can be someone you look up to, or someone whose art has inspired you to get better, over the years.)
Although he isn’t my mentor per se, I really look up to my editor, the great Roni Santiago. Not only is he a brilliant cartoonist, he saw something in me and gave me my big chance to be in newspapers. I continue to improve to live up to the potential I believe he saw in me. I’ll forever be grateful.