Peter Sinclair sits in his basement office, flanked by the two crucial elements of his trade. On one side is a drawing table with its clutter of papers, a finely tipped brush, and an open bottle of ink. They are the tools of a cartoonist, the kind that have been used for as long as people have been drawing cartoons.
Along the opposite wall is a high-speed computer with a scanner and electronic drawing pad. Without it–and the Web access it provides–Sinclair’s cartoon strip might have died a quiet death following its brief syndication in the mainstream press nearly a decade ago.
But the “100 percent natural, holistic, organic” strip called Alex’s Restaurant didn’t die. Technology, and Sinclair’s persistent belief that his strip sheds comic light on a profound cultural shift, kept it alive.
The son of political activists, Sinclair grew up in Midland, Michigan, about 130 miles north of Detroit. Now 46, he lives there still with his wife and two children in a solidly middle-class ranch house featuring a large, well-tended garden–broccoli, squash, tomatoes, a large berry patch.
Downstairs, with the low rumble of clothes tumbling around the dryer providing background noise, Sinclair tells how his passion for drawing collided with economic realities after his college years in Ann Arbor, and how he satisfied himself with submitting political cartoons to the local daily while working as a paramedic. He even considered a job as an editorial cartoonist for a newspaper in upstate New York.
Then the inspiration for Alex’s Restaurant hit, and “I decided the real money is in cartoon strips,” says Sinclair, laughing.
Alex’s Restaurant is a sweet-tempered, middle-American place where the ribbing is good-natured and the humor more subtle than slapstick. Alex and his wife are corporate dropouts with New Age sensibilities. The cast includes a Mohawked Gen-X poet and busboy and a reality-checking redneck who sits at the counter sipping coffee with everyone from a spiritually connected Native American to a Dr. Andrew Weil-like homeopath.
Sinclair saw the strip as a way to tap into a social trend he noticed sprouting as the Reagan era drew to a close. Demographers call his target audience “cultural creatives,” a group that transcends traditional political ideology in favor of a path that embraces spirituality, ecology, and holistic health.
King Features, one of the country’s largest syndicators, agreed to pick up the cartoon in 1990, and almost overnight Alex’s Restaurant was appearing in 50 daily newspapers. With visions of a six-figure income dangling within reach, Sinclair and his wife, Sandy, a teacher, quit their jobs.
Eight weeks after the strip debuted, the Detroit Free Press conducted one of its periodic reader surveys, and Alex’s Restaurant finished at the top of the poll–as the paper’s most disliked cartoon.
Within a year, Alex’s Restaurant was cut by King and out of the mainstream. Sinclair was back working as a paramedic, and then as an emergency room nurse. His belief that the strip could be a success, though shaken, was not shattered. When a friend turned him on to the Internet, Sinclair transformed himself from a computer illiterate into someone with enough expertise to design Web pages. By 1997, the Nando Times, a prominent media Web site, found Alex’s Restaurant and began to feature the strip, providing a link to Alex’s home page.
The site now gets a few thousand hits a day, and Sinclair, who once again has quit his day job, is negotiating with a few big advertisers as potential site sponsors. He’s also bypassing the syndicators, directly marketing his strip to papers.
It’s been difficult, he says, but the effort is beginning to pay off. Five papers currently carry the strip, and more editors seem to be recognizing its potential. As evidence, Sinclair produces a pile of recent mainstream articles covering its central themes: a Men’s Journal cover about tai chi and yoga; Newsweek and Time covers on alternative medicine; stories about the power of meditation. And then there are the ads: the Gap’s Dalai Lama-like child, Toyota using a yin-yang symbol and talk of perfect harmony, Jeep ads featuring yoga positions, General Mills touting an organic cereal.
“The big advertisers and big corporations have figured this group is out there, and they are looking to sell to them,” Sinclair says.
So he plugs away, designing Web pages on the side as he produces a new strip each day and an animated version that appears on his Web site (www.alexsrestaurant.com) every Sunday.
“Somebody is going to fill this niche and give a comic voice to this cultural movement,” he says. “It’s inevitable. And right now, I’m in the lead. I’m riding the tiger, and I have to stay with it.