Although Eastern Michigan University alumnus Dave Coverly has an impressive resume as a syndicated cartoonist with his comic “Speed Bump”—which is featured in over 400 publications and websites worldwide— Coverly said his upcoming commencement speech will not be about his experiences, but about the graduates and the next level of their lives.
“I want my talk to be about them,” Coverly said. “It’s their day. Instead of it being about myself, I’m going to talk about the mindset it takes to get to where you want to go. Not the nuts and bolts but the attitude you have to have.”
Coverly is set to speak at the 10 a.m. April 29 graduation ceremony at the Convocation Center.
In his address, he plans to tell graduates to follow their dreams and explore life.
“College is some place you go to learn about yourself,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who are in careers and very successful in careers that they didn’t go to college for. I don’t think any 18 year old should go to college and be like, ‘Oh, I’ll be a nurse.’ If you want to be a nurse, that’s great but it’s a great time to explore.When you get to be my age, you don’t have a lot of time [to explore.] College is the perfect age to form new ideas.”
During his undergraduate career at EMU, Coverly said he had an experience that changed his life. He graduated from Eastern with a bachelor’s degree in both philosophy and imaginative writing in 1987.
“One of my highlights at Eastern was the overseas experience,” he said. “I did an exchange program in England. That really changed me. I came from a really small town and going over to England really opened my eyes. The fact that Eastern gave me that opportunity was one the best things that ever happened to me.”
Coverly said his interest in becoming a cartoonist was sparked when he returned home from England and decided with his best friend to submit comics to The Eastern Echo. While at The Echo, Coverly penned a comic panel called “Freen.”
“That was kind of where I got the bug,” Coverly said. “It was really thrilling and scary to put your work in front of people. I think as far as the Echo goes, it has to be one of the most solid and consistent college newspapers in the country.”
After winning a few awards for his comics while in graduate school at Indiana University and people purchasing his comics, he realized he was on to something.
“I thought maybe this is something to pursue because when I was in graduate school in Indiana, I would teach writing and my second year I found my cartoons being reprinted in USA Today and The New York Times and I thought, ‘This is actually legit and I could make a living off of this,’” he said. “I kept following what I loved doing and I fell in love with it.”
In 1994, Creators Syndicate, a company that is considered an “active agent for artists,” picked up Coverly’s
untitled cartoon panel, which would later be named “Speed Bump.” A year later, the comic was running in nearly 100 papers.
However, becoming syndicated was no easy feat.
“When you’re a cartoonist and you want to do this every day, it’s kind of a pipe dream for us,” Coverly said. “It’s really difficult, there are about four or five major syndicates in the country and each one accepts maybe four new cartoons a year, and they get 40,000 submissions each. It’s kind of like playing the lottery.”
Coverly said the fact that it was his dream was enough to keep him pushing toward his goal.
“I kept submitting and it took me about eight to ten years of rejection letters,” he said. “One day I was thirty years old and one of the syndicates that was looking for a paneling liked mine … Someone there liked it enough to give me a contract.”
Becoming syndicated is a major accomplishment but staying syndicated is just as hard, Coverly said.
“The attrition rate for new comics in a paper is something like 85 percent, so even if you’re syndicated only 15 percent of them make it to the third year,” he said.
Coverly is in rare company, as he has been syndicated for more than 17 years. “Speed Bump” is featured daily in publications such as the Washington Post and the Detroit Free Press.
The comic, Coverly said, has a specific purpose.
“Speed Bump” is about you and it’s about me and about the things we have in common,” he said. “That’s my job to observe. I try to take the things that happen to people and the things that everyone has in common and add a new perspective on them.”
“I get my inspiration just from how silly people are. There’s always things we take for granted. What I like to do is look at things that we consider normal and ask why it is normal and what if it wasn’t the norm.”
Coverly’s studio, which is in his attic, is where he lets things he’s seen “percolate” into art.
“My job is to see something for the millionth time for the first time,” he said.
While much of his success can be attributed to hard work and dedication, Coverly also credits a strong support system. His parents, teachers and his wife, Chris, encouraged him. “They specifically said, ‘Yes, if that’s what you want to do, you should go for it,’” he said. “No one ever said to me, ‘no, that’s stupid.’ That was actually a good lesson for me to learn now that I have kids. It’s just bad parenting to trample on a kid’s dreams.”
Coverly said he is honored to be “back in the fold” at Eastern.
“President Martin called me to be a speaker after I got an alumni achievement award,” he said. “It was so surreal to be asked and so flattering.”