Yes, Carlo Jose San Juan is a doctor. No, it was not his first career choice as a young boy. Being a comics artist was. Today, he is both – a physician specializing in nuclear medicine, and the brains behind ‘Callous’, a comic strip that appears in the Manila Bulletin, a national broadsheet.
No one took him seriously in grade school when he said he wanted to be a cartoonist. But the lack of encouragement did not keep him from pursuing his passion and fascination with comics. His work was first published in his high school paper.
In college, he juggled cartooning and pre-med studies. It was in medical school when ‘Callous’ took on a medical flavor. Although comics took a back seat during internship onto the boards, at the back of his mind, the young Carlo still dreamt of becoming a professional cartoonist.
His lack of formal training in the arts or even in computers did not deter the comics creator. Yet even with the success of ‘Callous’, especially among foreign comics fans, there was still the niggling doubt of whether he was good enough, particularly to get a publishing deal.
Doc Carlo has published four compilations of his comic strip. The first, printed at home in full color, was in 2010, when he first participated in a local comics convention. All 79 copies (he kept one as souvenir) were sold out.
Foreign fans and mentors
That first table at a comic-con was encouragement enough to pursue this creative passion. He was fortunate to have found foreign mentors, who liked his work, and gave him valuable tips about how to make it as a comics artist.
It was from them that he learned that success in the industry was 80 percent marketing and being seen, and only 20 percent talent and product. Once he picked up these valuable lessons, he kept on publishing the series online.
At that time, he had more foreign than local fans. The comics industry in the Philippines was only getting back on its feet and local comics fans were just starting to discover cartoons online.
“What appealed to me about cartooning was that you could tickle someone without touching them. You can make their day better with just three or four panels. At least for a little while… and that was an aspect of what I wanted in medicine, anyway, to make people feel better.”
Cartooning is time consuming because it is engrossing. Doing everything by hand, as opposed to digitally, required twice the effort. And it was only very recently when Doc Carlo began using a tablet for his work to abbreviate the process.
Aside from bagging a publishing deal, he is eyeing expanded distribution through bookstores. And it is for this reason he printed a thousand copies of his last book compilation.
His medical practice gives the comics artist enough cushion that he does not have to rely on cartooning to live a comfortable life. But it can be a lucrative venture, he admitted, especially for those with publishing deals.
Dr Carlos Jose San Juan, comics artist, has come a long way with Callous, starring Rihanne Nica, a young medical professional.
The choice of callous as name of the strip may have been with little thought, but it has taken on meaning – toughened by time.
Striking a balance
For reasons even he can’t figure out yet, readers trying to analyze his inspirations will say it has a very Western influence, while those from the other side of the world will claim it’s very Asian.
“So, I think I’m right there in that balance in having those two influences. Both west and Asian in my artwork. I don’t know how I achieved it, and people can’t figure out what it is. But I do like that they feel it works somehow.”
“But since that’s how they see it, that put together it shouldn’t work, but it does, (so) I’m very happy.”
Doc Carlo has likewise struck a balance between medicine and comics. “They kind of feed off each other. My comics work – a lot of the root essence of what I write for the comics comes from my experiences as a physician. Not just as a doctor, but in my daily life.”
Working on Callous is therapeutic, and finishing a strip is a “feeling unlike any other.” But to see it published in the newspaper, and sometimes he would hide to watch people’s reaction – whether it’s a smile or any other reaction – “that is what is fulfilling to me. To affect someone from a distance.”
More than a hobby
And lest anyone think that doing comic strips is only a hobby, the doctor makes it clear he was guided by an article, that changed his perspective about cartooning.
The article, intended for cartoonists said: “If you think of it as a hobby, you will only go so far. But when you make that mental distinction that I’m a professional at this, then you go a bit farther. Even just the mental aspect of doing that, even if you haven’t sold anything yet but if you see yourself as a professional, you act as if you were a professional, you produce your work like you were a professional. My entire mentality about comics changed once I read that article.”
Being in completely different fields, Doc Carlo shares the high he gets from cartooning and medicine is “different but the same. I can’t really explain.”
He tries: “It’s different because of the means… because with the patient, you’re directly affecting what’s happening. And everything should have been pre-calculated. You already have your expectations. Sometimes, you have surprises.
On the other hand, “there is a certain thrill to making a comic strip. And waiting to see what happens. How it will be received. If it’s good, that’s fantastic. If it’s bad, you learn from it.” Another thing he loves about cartooning is the feedback he receives from people online.
With all that’s happening to him in his two worlds, there are no plans for Dr San Jose to quit either one anytime soon. Rather, it’s moving forward to further explore what’s in store for the man who has met success in two professions.