Tucked away in the lofty hills of Bonny Doon, inside the office of the Santa Cruz Comic News, Thom Zajac and the other half of his two-man team, John Govsky, leaf through the yellowing pages of the publication’s very first issue. The pair become animated as they take a nostalgic look at the 30-year-old editorial cartoons, and point out the custom advertisements of local, iconic businesses still in existence, like New Leaf (then called The Neighborhood Food Co-Op), Logos Books & Records, and Saturn Café.
“You see this ad I put together? These things were done with a daisy wheel. Do you remember the daisy wheel? It was a typewriter that allowed you to change fonts,” says Zajac.
“Oh, yeah,” says Govsky. “They were loud.”
On Sept. 12, 1984, Zajac published the first installment of the Santa Cruz Comic News, and although it has been his sole occupation for the past 30 years, he didn’t always know that weaving tales with editorial cartoons would be his fate. Before that, he had been working as a park ranger at the Palo Alto’s Foothills Park, but he wasn’t putting his journalism degree to good use.
“I liked it, but it wasn’t really my calling,” says Zajac.
He went back to school at UC Santa Cruz and graduated with a creative writing degree. Shortly thereafter, Zajac attended a protest at the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, and was arrested with a slew of others. He used his one phone call to put his two weeks’ notice in at the ranger’s office.
“It just inspired me,” he says. “To have a job and make a living is one thing, but I had to pursue a more meaningful life.”
Zajac became a political canvasser, living in a co-op, and began to draw his own cartoons. Emulating the style of the comic strip “Doonesbury,” he created comics that poked fun at … political canvassing and living in co-ops.
With encouragement from friends, Zajac set out to sell his strip to newspapers, but the outlook for budding cartoonists was bleak. Newspapers rarely bought cartoons from individual cartoonists, and instead bought subscriptions of multiple comic strips from syndicates. After reading a thematic editorial cartoon book, Zajac was struck with an a-ha moment on April 1, 1984, while driving down Highway 17.
“The idea came to me: if you get enough cartoons on the same subject, you can string them together in a chronological order to tell a story,” says Zajac.
In the subsequent three decades, the Comic News has experienced ups and downs. Govsky, a web designer and teacher at Cabrillo College, came on board in 2004 to create and run the website, in addition to helping with the editorial work.
While they hope the paper will continue to grow, its success is partially reliant on right-wing presidents like Reagan and Bush, who were in office during the Comic News’ headier days.
“The worse the news, the better the cartoons,” jokes Govsky.
Comic News will celebrate its 30th birthday at Louie’s Cajun Kitchen on Wednesday, Sept. 17, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. The event is open to the public.