A new start after 60: I gave up teaching, started doodling – and became a cartoonist

<span>Artist at work … Nancy Beiman sketches a character from FurBabies.</span><span>Photograph: Derek Shapton/The Guardian</span>
Artist at work … Nancy Beiman sketches a character from FurBabies.Photograph: Derek Shapton/The Guardian

When Nancy Beiman was 65 and contemplating retirement from her job as a professor of animation, she had no clue as to how she would fill her days. “Many people take up an artistic hobby. But what was I, a professional artist, supposed to do? Take up accounting?” Before she could embark on a crash course in spreadsheets, she woke up one morning with the idea for a comic strip.

Beiman had been doing much of her drawing on computer but for this new idea, she returned to sketching characters on paper, then inking the drawings with a Pentel brush pen. “I just started doodling this kitten from a previous film I’d abandoned, alongside two dogs and a little girl who reminded me of the children’s book character Pippi Longstocking.”

The result was FurBabies, a series about a blended family of dogs, a cat and a child who can all speak the same language. Shawm, an Afghan hound, and Stella, a Francophile poodle fond of haute couture, act as stand-in parents to nine-year-old Kate while her human parents work long hours.

Beiman wasn’t planning on continuing with the idea until she showed the characters to a friend, the cartoonist Lynn Johnston. “When she saw the drawings, she said: ‘You’ve got something here,’ and gave me lessons in how to develop little scripts.”

Obviously, as an animator, Beiman was no stranger to working with larger-than-life characters. During her 45-year career, she had worked for Disney, Warner Bros and many other studios on animations featuring everyone from Snoopy, Daffy Duck and Goofy to Winnie the Pooh. Even so, she says the switch from animation to comics wasn’t as easy as it sounds. “In animation, the rule is: ‘Show don’t tell’. In cartoons you have to both show and tell. Comic strips are about illustrating verbal humour while animation is visualising pantomime and is not dependent on dialogue. Earlier in my career, people asked me why I didn’t do a strip because I drew so well, but I didn’t think I could write them.”

Following her friend’s tutoring, she wrote 24 mini-scripts and a few months later, in April 2023, she submitted them to Andrews McMeel, owner of the website GoComics. “I was extremely surprised to get signed by them on first submission. It was a nice feather in my cap: the comic industry equivalent of being taken on by Disney or DreamWorks.”

FurBabies is updated daily online, which is a big commitment but one that Beiman clearly relishes. “It’s like having a film premiere every day. Readers aged from 18 to over 60 leave comments in real time. It gives people a little smile every day.”

This is not the first time Beiman has made a career pivot. In December 1999, she was working for Disney Studios in Los Angeles as an animator when she was involved in a serious car crash. “I nearly died. After that, I couldn’t even look at a car – I had such a bad case of PTSD. I needed to live in a place where a car wasn’t a necessity.”

Unsure of what else she was qualified to do, she applied for a teaching position on the east coast and was surprised by how much she enjoyed it. In 2008, she was hired by Sheridan College in Oakville, Canada as a professor specialising in storyboarding, where she stayed until her retirement. Now she works from home near Toronto’s historic St Lawrence market.

One upside of moving into comics, Beiman believes, is that it offers some protection from “incredibly ageist” animation studios. “Studios tend to develop stories from younger people. Whereas a good friend of mine is 90 and still doing comics. The great thing is, if you can keep drawing, you can keep going. As the creator, you are chief cook and bottle-washer. If someone wants to buy up your strip, they have to hire you because there is no one else.”

• FurBabies is published on GoComics.

Tell us: has your life taken a new direction after the age of 60?