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GTPulse: Jeff Manley – Lifelong Cartoonist

One of the many TV series I binged during quarantine was The Wonder Years. The comedy-drama series follows Kevin Arnold, an all-American kid trying to be a good and moral person throughout the trials and tribulations of youth and the turbulent late 1960s and early ’70s. I found the show to be somewhat profound. Kevin makes a lot of relatable observations through his experiences that, at times, are painfully bittersweet. One quote that sticks in my mind is this:

“When you’re a little kid, you’re a little bit of everything: Artist, Scientist, Athlete, Scholar. Sometimes it seems like growing up is a process of giving those things up, one by one. I guess we all have one thing we regret giving up; one thing we really miss – that we gave up because we were too lazy, or because we couldn’t stick it out, or because we were afraid.”

It sticks out because it’s true for so many of us. Life gets in the way and we stop pursuing the passions or hobbies that once excited us.

Traverse City local Jeff Manley exemplifies not letting go of those things we’re passionate about. He has been creating and publishing his own comics since his childhood and hasn’t stopped since.

“My father was a newspaper reader, and so even before I could read I was looking at comic strips,” Jeff said. “I got to an age where I asked my mom, ‘who does this stuff?’ and she said there are cartoonists that get paid to make them. And I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I’ve spent the last 42 years trying to do it.”

Jeff grew up in Scottville, Michigan. The quiet farm town didn’t always provide inspiration for him, but the close-knit community taught him how to rely on his own imagination.

“Scottville is known for the Scottville Clown Band. Imagine 30 middle-aged men dressed like hobos and women. They march in the parade to The Stripper song. There’s no comic about it but it would probably be in the same vein of my work.”

His work isn’t for kids. His early style was developed in his teenage years, and there are still themes of a naive stoner youth in his current cartoons.

“My high school had decided to start up a newspaper, and we made one issue. I had a whole page where my friend wrote them and I drew them.”

He continued to contribute cartoons to his community college paper but didn’t pursue getting published locally after graduation. Instead, he began self-publishing collections of his own.

“I liked the do-it-yourself aspect of it because you didn’t need to have somebody’s approval to do it.”

He began attending comic shows where he would sell them, but selling comics don’t pay the bills. Jeff works full time and does his cartooning on the side. With the popularity of memes and the slow decline of newspapers, comic strips aren’t consumed like they once were. None of this deters him from continuing his work. His current comic Riley, A Teenage Bigfoot was published as a collection just last year. Riley epitomizes teen angst and sleaze humor through various woodland adventures all meant to earn a laugh from the reader.

Jeff says that he’s constantly inspired for new comic strips just by things that happen in his day-to-day life. He makes the kind of cartoons he wants to, and it’s been one of his life’s greatest joys. He doesn’t worry about whether they’re going to be well-received, or get published, or get a ton of social media likes. It’s a kind of confidence and persistence that I know I could benefit from, and so many others, too. He does this for himself, and if people like it, well – that’s just a bonus.

“Before I started drawing my current comic strip, nobody really jived with what I was making. So it was always like, I’m making this because I love comics. When I draw something, I don’t mind if nobody else thinks it’s funny. But when people see one and comment stuff like ‘I thought I was the only person that thought that kind of thing.’ It’s a good feeling, there’s another person that’s weird like me.”

Check out his work @manleycartoonist on Instagram. Order his book Riley, A Teenage Bigfoot off of Amazon.

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