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Speed Bump Cartoonist Dave Coverly

Artist Dave Coverly grew up in Plainwell, Michigan, and began cartooning seriously in 1986 as a student at Eastern Michigan University. Eventually his cartoons became regularly reprinted in such publications as Esquire, Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times, and USA Today. By 1994, Creators Syndicate picked up his untitled cartoon panel, helped choose the name Speed Bump, and a year later it was running in nearly 100 papers.

Speed Bump now appears in over 400 newspapers and websites (including the Detroit Free Press) and has been the subject of three books. His cartoons also appear in The New Yorker, and are a regular feature in Road & Track and Parade Magazine. In 2009, Dave was given the prestigious Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year, the highest honor awarded by The National Cartoonists Society. Simultaneously his first major children’s story, Sue McDonald Had a Book, authored by Jim Tobin, was released. His next book, 10 Things You Should Never Do During a Soccer Game, is due out in 2011. Dave Coverly works out of an attic studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
BMN: How do you think growing up in Michigan has impacted your life and career?
DAVE: Well, in a broad sense, Michigan has always felt like home to me; there’s a real comfort level I associate with the state. My wife and I lived elsewhere for about 6 years, but both felt a strong tug back home (she’s from Portage), and returned to Michigan after we had our first child. Also – and I know this is true not just of Michigan, but it applies – I’ve always felt a very strong work ethic among people here. A colleague of mine refers to it as The Midwestern Work Ethic, by which he means we freelancers here get our work in on time, and we try to be accommodating and pleasant to work with. This attitude has served me well – if I can make an editor’s or art director’s job easier, we both are happier!
BMN: What was the Eastern Michigan University experience like for you?
DAVE: I absolutely loved my time at EMU, for several reasons. First, I had some great professors who encouraged my writing at a time when I was lacking in confidence. That kind of support can’t be overestimated. EMU also has a fantastic student paper, The Echo, where I was able to publish my work without much interference at all. You tend to learn faster when you’re allowed to fall on your own sword! Plus, the paper has a long tradition of supporting cartoonists, exemplified even now by their full page of comics by student cartoonists. There’s some real talent there. Also, I was able to play on the tennis team, which remains one of my favorite memories, and I met a guy who remains my best friend to this day while on the EMU Exchange Program to Reading (Bulmershe), England. Now that I’m in Ann Arbor, I’ve been very involved with EMU, and even created a set of cartoon cups that were given away at home football games this year. They didn’t bring the team much luck, but hey, they were fun to do.
BMN: When did you realize you could make a career out of being an illustrator and how did you go about it?
DAVE: Good question, because there actually was not an “ah-ha” moment when I knew this was a career. There was a lot of, um, perseverance to actually just make ends meet while I was in my 20’s – I was doing a lot of illustration work, but it wasn’t what a rational person (i.e., someone who values food and shelter) would have called a career. When I was 30, I became syndicated, which was always my biggest dream – but even then, it was never guaranteed that the syndication would last. The attrition rate for new syndicated cartoons is 80%, so amidst all the excitement, I knew it might not last. I’ve been very lucky in that regard. What I always tell kids who want to pursue this sort of career – or any self-made career in the creative arts – is that you can’t just “follow your dreams”. That’s a nice platitude that doesn’t get you anywhere. I tell them to follow their goals instead. A dream without a plan will always be a dream, and I was happy to take any work I could get just to get closer to that goal. It’s hard for a high school kid to hear this sometimes, but you should never think you’re “above” any job.
BMN: What other advice do you have for Michigan kids who want a career as illustrators and cartoonists?
DAVE: One big piece of advice I would add is to not be afraid to get in touch with professionals who have careers in the field you’d like to pursue. I reached out to a number of cartoonists for advice when I was starting out, and all of them had invaluable information for me. Some of it was philosophical advice, and some of it was practical, but all of it gave me a sense of what I needed to do and how I needed to go about doing it. Most of us in these types of jobs are more than happy to help a newcomer, because we were the ones doing the asking not too long ago!
BMN: What are some places you would recommend a visitor to Ann Arbor not miss?
DAVE: I hate to say it, but the Art Fair is still pretty cool, even after all these years. And there are all sorts of fantastic sports you can catch, totally for free, in Ann Arbor, if you like that sort of thing (I do). U of M has so much to offer, including the newly redesigned Art Museum. There are a million brilliant restaurants, like Cottage Inn for pizza, or Seva for vegetarian (a big thing in our house). And I guess my favorite thing about Ann Arbor, just in general, is the vibrancy and energy of downtown on pretty much any night of the week. You don’t get that in too many cities.
BMN: Aside from Ann Arbor, what are some of your other favorite towns, sights, andsounds of Michigan?
DAVE: Oh, we’re huge fans of Lake Michigan – the dunes, the beaches, the water that stays shallow so far out into the lake. My father grew up in Muskegon, and my sister now lives in Spring Lake, so we’re always looking for excuses to go over there. My wife and I took our two girls, Alayna and Simone, on a trip around the state a few years ago, and we were all blown away by the Leelanau Peninsula, Petoskey, Traverse City, and the whole north part of the state. I think it’s one of our country’s hidden treasures, and I kinda hope it stays that way a little.
BMN: What are your thoughts on the Buy Michigan Now campaign and the value of supporting local businesses?
DAVE: It’s hugely important, especially right now with our economy struggling to come back and unemployment being too high. Every time you buy local, you help your neighbor, and in many ways, you’re helping yourself. Besides, this state has so much to offer, and it’s past time that the rest of the country hears the good things about Michigan instead of the tired clichés and stereotypes that still seem to play in the national media.
BMN: What Shout Out do you have for your fans across the state?
DAVE: Oh man – it’s such an honor to be able to do these little doodles and have the opportunity to express my skewed sense of humor (such as it is) in papers and websites, and I’d just be happy if people knew how much I value their feedback. Get in touch via my website ( anytime! Not only do I love hearing from readers, but their thoughts on what cartoons work, and which ones they felt didn’t is honestly very helpful. And hey, thanks!