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Cartoonist John Kovalic on Productivity, Focus, and Balance as a Creative

John Kovalic

Meet John Kovalic.

Cartoonist, illustrator, and writer.

John Kovalic’s cartoons have appeared everywhere from his hometown Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI) to The New York Times, and The Washington Post. His creations include the sell-out comic book sensation Dork Tower and “Dr. Blink: Superhero Shrink,” as well as Snapdragons, Newbies, Wild Life,  Beached, and panel cartoons including Murphy’s Rules, The Unspeakable Oaf, and others – including his proposal to his wife.

A co-founder and co-owner of Out of the Box Games, and a cartoonist for Steve Jackson Games, John has illustrated over 100 games and game supplements and is at least in part responsible for best-sellers like Apples to Apples (a GAMES Magazine Hall of Fame inductee), Munchkin, Chez Geek, and Blink.

He was also the first cartoonist inducted into the  Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA) Hall of Fame.

In his spare time, John searches for spare time.

This week we asked him a few questions to find out how he manages to do it all.

How did you become the cartoonist, illustrator, and writer that you are today? What were some of the steps you took along the way?

 My degree was in Economics from the University of Wisconsin (by way of Astrophysics at Queen Mary College, London). But I’ve been cartooning for as long as I’ve been able to hold a pencil. My mom wrote a comic strip for My Weekly Reader, when I was a kid, and I learned to read with comic books. Economics came easily to me: I could skip two out of three classes, and maintain an “A” average. That let me hang out at the Daily Cardinal student newspaper offices, where my comic strip at the time first went daily. However, like many creative fields, good fortune and persistence are just as important as honing your skills. I’ve been very lucky indeed and caught some important breaks.

Dork Tower

What advice would you offer less experienced creatives – especially in regard to staying productive, motivated, and focused?

 Make deadlines. Even if they’re ones you set for yourself. The two critical steps in any creative process are starting something, then finishing it. Sure, what comes in between is pretty important. But if you’re lucky, you can fake that middle bit, and then go back later and edit it. But starting something, then seeing it through to the end, is where a lot of folks stumble.

“The two critical steps in any creative process are starting something, then finishing it.”

What is the biggest mistake you have learned from during your career?

Being fearful of rejection. That probably cost me a good ten years of my career. I was working as a features writer and cartoonist at our local paper, and I was deathly afraid to send my work out, thinking that if it was rejected, that would be the end of my dreams. Yes, once I began sending things out, I received plenty of rejections. But I also received advice, and then soon enough, acceptances.

What excites you most about what you do?

Waking up every morning with a blank sheet of paper in front of me, and finishing the day with a completed page in my hands, ready to scan in. Creating new worlds. Trying to come up with an idea that’s fresh and different. Bringing a smile to someone who maybe’s had a rotten day. Trying to be a force for Good, if even in a teeny, tiny way.

When/where are you most/least productive, and how does this shape your daily working routine?

I’m most productive in the mornings. If I can get into the studio at seven or eight in the morning, I’ll probably have a terrific day. This is a total turn-around from my college days, when I was a night owl. But if I don’t get drawing until the afternoon, my work bogs down, and seems to take twice as long, or longer. I’m usually most productive at my studio, about a half hour from the house, in the countryside: it’s pretty peaceful and isolated, out there.

What resources or tools do you use daily and have found most beneficial to your working process?

The Internet is the greatest resource in the world – by far! When I was working for the newspaper, we’d have a clipping library, with some photos, and if I needed to look something up as a reference for a drawing, it was hit-or-miss. Now, if I need to find, say, a bazooka, or a paint-ball gun (a couple of things I had to look up yesterday, when I drew a paint bazooka – no I am not making that up), it’s just one or two clicks away.

What project are you currently most excited about?

The upcoming year marks the 20th anniversary of Dork Tower, and I’m pretty pumped about that. There’ll be new collections coming, some special editions, and I’m hoping to make some huge improvements on the website. After that, there are more games I’m designing and illustrating, some kids’ books I’m finishing off, and a couple of graphic novels I’ll be starting on. And that doesn’t even take in Munchkin (Steve Jackson Games) there’s some amazing stuff coming down the line for that. I just drew my 6,000th card for the game, and I still find it as fun to illustrate as ever.

Dork Tower II

What are your biggest distractors?

Games on my iPhone – Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride, specifically, and getting lost down rabbit holes on the Internet. The first is easy to deal with: I wipe all games off my phone when I’m at home, then re-install them when I’m traveling. The Internet, on the other hand, is a giant, distracting sink-hole. I can waste a morning on it, if I’m not careful. Twitter is my doom.

“The Internet, on the other hand, is a giant, distracting sink-hole. I can waste a morning on it, if I’m not careful. Twitter is my doom.”

How do you find a balance between being connected and overwhelmed?

Ah. That’s an ongoing battle. Today was pretty overwhelming, for example: scheduling games and appearances for an upcoming convention; hitting the latest Munchkin deadline; looking up recipes for dinner; Tweeting updates of my work; booking hotels for a trip in September;  coloring and sending a Dork Tower comic strip for a client. I’ll turn to the FREEDOM strategically, blocking it for three or four hours, then allow myself a half-hour or hour-long window to send things, look things up, fire off emails, and so on.

What do you do outside of your work routine that helps you stay productive? 

Just being with my wife and daughter is top of the list. But exercising even a bit, and getting a good night’s sleep come pretty close. If I can be in bed by 10, I’ll allow myself an hour to read a good book: that’s when I’ll schedule the last FREEDOM block of the day. Staying offline and relaxed then is critical. I love a good craft beer, but I only allow myself a drink on Fridays and Saturdays. For me, relaxation needs to be as much of a routine as work does. If I waste an hour or two, I’d kick myself – but a better response is to refocus, and get back to the work (or relaxation) at hand.

Want to learn more about John and his work? Visit his website at