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Starting the Next Course

KC Kenney | Thursday, October 9, 2003

Before “School Daze” and “Fives,” before “Fourth and Inches” and “Happy Town,” there was another zany and toony way of looking at the world of Notre Dame. It was seen through the eyes of four friends named Nate, Dez, Sheldon and Carrie. These four Notre Dame students were the brainchild of Dave Kellet, a ’96 Notre Dame graduate, and the main characters the comic strip “Four Food Groups of the Apocalypse.”

The name of the strip was the result of a humor-filled brainstorming session between Kellet and his roommates. He was a sophomore and had just submitted his first comic for print, but it still didn’t have a name. Finally, the head editor called him at midnight before the paper went to press and said that they needed a title. Kellet is sure that they had gone through at least a hundred names that night trying to come up with something. Why “Four Food Groups?” Besides being a play on the Notre Dame legendary status of the Four Horseman, Kellet admits “everything seems funnier at 1:30 a.m. And the name haunted me for the next three years. I thought it sounded like the ingredients for a dietary supplement.”

Though sketching characters and comic strips had been a hobby of his since the third grade, prior to college Kellet had never done anything more than one or two cartoons for his high school paper. When he was a freshman in college he drew a few “Far Side”-esque comics for Scholastic, but his big break came as a sophomore when he submitted a sample strip to The Observer and they took him on as a daily cartoonist for the 1993-94 school year.

Writer’s block was something he always feared and had to deal with, but it was easily rectified by “watching [his]…roommates. Ideas would flow freely.” The comic strip was primarily character based, but it allowed him to comment on campus politics and world issues without getting into trouble.

“Things visually in a cute little package can get away from the harsh black-and-white of print,” he said, which gave him a great deal of freedom to comment on everything from dining hall food to human cloning to the NRA. One of the biggest differences, he said now that he’s away from campus, is the separation from his audience. As a student, inspiration often came from “opening his eyes to the jokes all around him. [He] could tell when people in the dining were looking at “Four Food Groups.” People had no problem letting [him] know if a story line stunk or if it was really good. And if it was really good, [he’d] go with it.” One series of strips with Regis Philbin seemed to end and segue way into a Notre Dame squirrel joke, but Philbin showed up at the end to tie the two story lines together. As one character was quoted at the end of that strip: “Never-ending story lines: the hallmark of quality cartooning.”

Kellet’s ideas were broad reaching and usually very creative. “I think there was one time that I turned in a strip at midnight and the editor wanted something changed,” he recalls. His larger-than-life characters were always fun to read about and easy to connect with. Originally the concept for “Four Food Groups” arose out of the idea of having two roommates, one a literature major and the other a chemical engineer, and capitalizing on the conflict between Arts and Letters majors and the sciences. Both captured the general buffoon nature of your average male Notre Dame student. He soon brought in Carrie, a marketing major, with the intent of having her play the voice of reason for Nate and Dez. Occasionally other characters would emerge, but they would typically not last more than one strip to represent a particular major or administrative role. It wasn’t until his second year that Kellet introduced Sheldon, a 10-year-old genius that attended Notre Dame, majored in PLS, and whom Nate took under his wing. Sheldon, as young as he was and new to the University, was able to offer that outsider-looking-in approach to the comic, often commenting on the crazy antics of Nate and Dez in a maturity that far exceeded his age.

Before Kellet graduated, he was mobbed by several die-hard fans of “Four Food Groups” to give them copies of old classic strips that they really enjoyed. He did one better, after being laughed out of the offices of Notre Dame Press and the Notre Dame Bookstore, Kellet found a small publishing company in Elkhart that was willing to make a collection of the best of “Four Food Groups.” He got together a large grouping of his favorite strips, took most of his life savings and made a book called A Well-Balanced Meal. He figured that though he might lose some money on it, it would be great experience and look really good on a resume. He put his book up for sale at the Bookstore and sold out his first printings in a week. The Bookstore went through two more printings very quickly, and he still receives a check every once in a while when somebody picks up one of his books.

Kellet graduated from Notre Dame in 1996 with degrees in Literature and Spanish, “two majors that steered toward the major money jobs,” he says, quoting his mother. Kellet moved back home to San Diego where he got a Masters degree in 18th century cartoons, and he interned at the San Diego Daily Tribune where he was able to draw political cartoons once or twice a week. This was, he remembers, “really good for a kid just out of college” and he quickly learned important rules of the cartoon/newspaper world, such as “don’t make fun of businesses owned by the publisher of the paper.” He was also able to spend time with his high school sweetheart that he had continued to see throughout college despite being in different cities.

While in San Diego, Kellet was honored with a Rotary scholarship to study in Canterbury, England, at the University of Canterbury’s Center for Cartoon Holdings. He moved there with his girlfriend and began his studies. There he received his Masters in 19th century cartooning and continued to draw strips for fun and for local papers.

It was while he was in England that he started building up a comic strip based around one of the original characters from “Four Food Groups” – “Sheldon.” Kellet took the basic concept behind Sheldon, but gave it a new spin by taking him away from Notre Dame and making him a 10-year-old child prodigy that wrote software to speed up the Internet and became the second richest person in the United States after Bill Gates. He put it online so that people back in the States could see it and he began to develop an audience.

Kellet moved back to the U.S. with his girlfriend, this time living in Los Angeles. Based on the success of “Sheldon” as of yet, he launched the “Sheldon” Web site where fans could continue to see the strip. He began submitting “Sheldon” to several newspaper syndicates across the country with hopes that “Sheldon” might be published. This proved to be frustrating until he was contacted by a syndication company that had seen his Web site and decided that they wanted to look more into the idea of “Sheldon.” Kellet is now what is known as the “syndication testing phase” in which his strip has been placed on a Web site with the intent of building an audience and monitoring the success of the strip online to get an idea of how it would do in a daily newspaper setting. Somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 new comic strips are submitted each year to syndicates for perusal. Kellet hopes to be one of the two or three lucky ones that actually becomes published.

Sheldon character was based on the “old Disney equation” of giving characters short limbs and big eyes to evoke a “ooh, ahh” response from readers. Though he began as a PLS major, he has evolved into a software geek, interested in Lord of the Rings and obscure history and literature trivia.

Sheldon is not alone in his adventures. Much like “Four Food Groups,” “Sheldon” is set-up with four main characters that interact with each other and share comic insights or get into funny situations together. Sheldon is raised by his grandfather, a befuddled old man who doesn’t know how to program his VCR in stark contrast to Sheldon’s techno-background. By having Sheldon raised by his grandfather rather than parents, Kellet feels it allows for Sheldon to have more freedom to grow as his own person without having a very specific base from which to sprout off of. Sheldon is also joined by Dante, Sheldon’s best friend, who Kellet describes as being “a few chairs short of a dinette set,” offering a comic foil to Sheldon’s pre-teen genius.

Arthur, Sheldon’s sarcastic and wisecracking talking pet duck, rounds off the group. Sheldon created Arthur when he downloaded the Encyclopedia Britannica and some voice-recognition software into his pet duck. Arthur gained the ability to talk and it quickly became evident that most of what Arthur had to say was smart-alecky and facetious.

One of the big difficulties of making a comic strip like this is not having the constant source of inspiration that he was able to bask in at Notre Dame. He cites his wife as his biggest source of inspiration, calling her the “most … funny human being all around.” As an actress and writer, she has helped him with ideas and remains his biggest fan. Kellet also reads a lot of books and subscribes to six or seven different magazines to stay up on pop culture and find inspiration. He also moonlights with an Los Angeles-based sketch-comedy group where he is constantly brainstorming up new skit ideas with some very funny comedians and writers.

Where is Kellet now in comparison to where he thought he would be? “The Observer was great experience for the real world. … [Working there] showed me I could and I wanted to be a cartoonist. … [Things] still haven’t happened as I hoped it would, but I keep plugging away with hopes that I can pull it off.” He reminds students, especially those interested in an artistic career, that “the world does not go out of the way to open doors unless you have an amazing stick-to-it-ness. … Lots of times I thought about quitting. The rewards may not be what you thought. But they may be better.”

See “Sheldon” online now at Sheldoncomics.com. Dave Kellet resides in Los Angeles with his wife where he writes hilarious strips at his cartoon desk everyday for the world to enjoy.