By Josette Keelor
FRONT ROYAL -- Mortimer is mischievous. He eats junk food, he watches too much TV and he has no goals -- except for world domination.
The subject of a comic strip by Dennis Ward of Front Royal, Mortimer is a relatively harmless caricature of a cliché red devil. He has the horns, the tail, the wings and the desire to be bad. He also fails at almost everything he tries.
On April 1, 2011, Mortimer made his first stride toward becoming a household name when Ward published his first comic strip online at www.mortimercartoon.com.
Then last month Ward self-published a book of comics, "The Book of Mortimer: Rise of the Anti-Cartoon," at Amazon.com. He keeps his artwork simple, drawing the pictures digitally and writing the text by hand.
Mortimer is real. "He's not like an imaginary tiger," Ward said.
But readers wonder what Mortimer is and why "straight man" Sara puts up with him when she's a driven 20-something career woman, and he's a freeloader.
"I have my ideas, but I don't want to force it on others," said Ward, who majored in fine art with a concentration in photography. Mortimer identifies himself as an anti-cartoon, and Ward explains, "it's like a flawed hero."
Influenced by other strips like "Dilbert" and "Calvin and Hobbes," Ward derived Mortimer's personality from human inclination.
"It's politics, it's pop culture," he said. "There are a lot of TV jokes."
"To me he represents something in everyone that we all have."
Sara reads to Mortimer the ingredients in a processed food product she's chosen for dinner. He's disgusted until she adds, "...on a bun."
"Hot dogs," she tells him, and he throws his hands in the air.
"I want Cheez-wiz on mine!"
"That's our culture," Ward explained. "It's a consumer culture and people get spoiled. ... Here's your number six. You don't even have to think.
"That's funny to me in a way, so that's him. But that's all of us. He's just an exaggeration of us."
Through his weekly posts, Ward said he hopes to build Mortimer's name recognition like Snoopy from "Peanuts" has done.
It's a smart start, according to Editor Brendan Burford of comic strip syndicate King Features in New York.
"Establishing an existence on the Web and pursuing self-publishing of his work are good moves," Burford wrote in an email. "It's tough to stand out among the hundreds of other cartoonists who take a similar route, but persistence is a good strength to have."
King Features, which represents comic strips like "Baby Blues," "Blondie," "Zits" and "Family Circus," receives at least 6,000 print submissions a year, said Claudia Smith, director of public relations, speaking by phone from New York.
"It's not a simple process, the comics. If you're really doing a comic strip, you're doing it six days a week." Sundays require longer panels in full color, she said, "And it's 365 days a year, so it's a rigorous and demanding profession. You know, not everyone can do this."
Submission guidelines at www.kingfeatures.com include print and digital services, and she said, "We've seen a lot of changes, and certainly the digital world has been revolutionary."
For Ward, who works full time in marketing and sales, adhering to one strip a week has been an exercise in self-discipline. It's helped fuel reader expectation online, and it's paid off with enough content to fill his first book.
"It's an inspirational story for me," he said.
"You never get ahead. Many people are like that. When I was younger I did not give this my all like I should have. If it didn't take off then, I can't blame anyone but myself."
"Whatever your thing is, you should do it," he said. "You should try it."