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Q & A : The Cutting Edge: Computing / Technology / Innovation : Dilbert Creator Gets Away With Taking Swipe at Corporate Life

August 17, 1994|JAMES WEISSMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Name: Scott Adams

E-mail: SCOTTADAMS@aol.com

Age: 37

Education: Bachelor's in economics, Hartwick College, Oneonta, N.Y.; MBA, University of California, Berkeley

Computer: Apple Power Macintosh 8100/80AV (Power PC chip)

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For techies browsing the comics pages these days, the undisputed hero is Dilbert. He's a nerdy guy with a funny tie, a prototypical engineer working at a generic 1990s company--and he inadvertently exposes the strange ways of corporate bureaucracy in the computer age.

Dilbert is the creation of Scott Adams, who once worked at Crocker National Bank and now works in Integrated Services Digital Network development at Pacific Bell--and thus has plenty of experience with his subject matter. But most of his story lines now come via electronic mail, from irony-minded corporate soldiers all across America. And his philosophy toward his own business enterprise is sober indeed.

Adams' e-mail address is printed on the daily strip, and he generally receives at least 50 messages a day. Dilbert is also distributed electronically on the Internet--the first syndicated strip to be made available in this manner.

(Net users with Mosaic can go to the GNN URL:http://nearnet.gnn.com/gnn/GNNHome.htm. It's also available on America Online.)

While Dilbert's popularity arose from his acerbic take on engineers and technology, his merciless parodies target broader aspects of corporate life.

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Q: What were the origins of Dilbert?

A: Dilbert originally was just a doodle. He was a composite of my co-workers at a big bank that I worked at in San Francisco. He kind of formed over time, with no thought that he would ever be a commercial enterprise. That came later.

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Q: Had you done any kind of artwork before that or had any training in art?

A: I was once turned down by the Famous Artists School, a correspondence course. They turned me down because I was 11 years old at the time and you had to be 12 years old to be a famous artist.

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Q: How long was it from the time that you started doodling to the time you decided, "Hey, I think these are marketable."

A: Dilbert kind of formed in 1986 or so. He started taking shape in 1988, and I just got the bug and decided I wanted to try to be a famous artist again. Really I just wanted to get one cartoon published in one place in a magazine. That was my whole goal, and I didn't know how to go about that. (Then) I saw a special on PBS on how to be a cartoonist.

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Q: Literally?

A: Literally. I came in and turned it on just as it was winding up, but I got the host's name and where the show was made, and I tracked him down and wrote a letter and said I'd like to be a famous cartoonist. He wrote back and said buy a book called the--I guess it was the 1988 Artists' Market Book at the time--and it tells you that you make photocopies and send them off to the syndicates.

I put all my samples together and mailed them off to the big magazines, and they mailed them back as soon as they got them with rejections, and I kind of just put it all away. It was a year later that the cartoonist who wrote to me the first time, his name is Jack Cassady, wrote back, and I hadn't even thanked him for the first time he gave me the advice. He said he was going through his files and saw my samples that I'd sent him, thought they were good and wanted to make sure that I hadn't given up.

I thought, "Gosh, I'm not going to be rejected by these mere magazines when I can be rejected by major cartoon syndicates." So I put together my samples and sent them off to the syndicates, and actually after the first one rejected me and told me to take art classes, United Media called and offered me a contract over the phone.

The original name was Dilldog, actually, but I changed it for submission to the syndicate.

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Q: Why do you put your e-mail address in your strip?

A: It had to do with my business school training, oddly enough. That is kind of the basic thing you need to do for any successful business--you need to tap into your customers and change your product based on what they like and don't like. As a cartoonist, it's the only form of business I know where you're so far removed from your customer you have no feedback. I thought it would just be fun, but I also wanted ideas from people.

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Q: So people are saying, "I like this, I like that"?

A: Yeah, and they're also saying "I don't like this," and I listen to that as well. Right now I have the only interactive cartoon.

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Q: Dilbert can be quite cutting and, at times, almost subversive. Do you have any sense of wanting to bring a message or make a comment with Dilbert?

A: There are kind of two questions there. One is my intent. My intent is to earn a comfortable living in a job that I can do in my pajamas. I'm not out to change the world or make anything better. I wouldn't ever want to claim that. There is, however, a philosophy or an underlying theme in everything that I draw, and the theme is that people are idiots, and I include myself in that category. Although we're all idiots, we're all idiots in somewhat different areas. I've got some few things which I can do well, but I'm a real idiot in a lot of other things. I just try to plumb that area where otherwise normal and intelligent people are idiots. It's really just that simple.

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