Webcomics are a growing medium, a bit like the web, really. As a space for creativity, especially creativity that is cheap to produce, there seems to be no better place. In teaching a third year Communication Studies unit in first semester this year I had the opportunity of asking my two favourite webcomic artists for their views on their own creativity, their comics, and the webcomic world. Both the delightful John Allison and the charming Jeph Jacques work full-time for their comics and so have risen to the heights of success within the sometimes ephemeral world of the web and artistic creation. Their comics, Scary-Go-Round and Questionable Content respectively, are not only very popular with the punters, but are also aesthetically pleasing, more than passingly amusing, and for the semi-obsessed, have the depth of their own self-contained and, at times, slightly bizarre universes. Scary-Go-Round, the more fantastical of the two, has come to centre around the character of Shelley Winters, 'an innocent abroad', and her lives and deaths within the locale of Tackleford. Questionable Content is, by contrast, focused on the apartment and local café, Coffee of Doom, of Marten, Faye, Dora, and Marten's anthro-PC Pintsize, and narrates their lives and frustrated loves.
Scary-Go-Round is one of the best loved and most revered online comics around. I had the pleasure of asking John Allison, writer, artist and international man of mystery about his world in reference to his comic, the web comic industry and being 'creative'.
Interview with John Allison.
Firstly, I'd like to ask you some basic stuff about how you came to be a web comic artist, how you got into art and comics in particular. Was there a comic that you read as a child that was influential or did you just like reading the comics in the paper?
There weren't many comics in the paper, I think we had three - The Gambols and Garfield, and later, Calvin and Hobbes (I was probably 14 when our paper started carrying it). Even when I was young I knew that the Gambols was bad, it was like a very unfunny 1970s sitcom. I enjoyed Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes but I don't think strips of that kind were formative influences at all. I grew up reading and wanting to draw American-style comic books.What was it about an online format that you liked?
It was cheap (free!) There isn't all that much I like about it now beyond that to be honest, besides the fact that it opened up comics to a new generation of artists. That's quite a big thing isn't it?How do you think it effected your potential to work as a syndicated comic artist?
Apart from a 2-month period where I had a go back in 1998 (the process that gave birth to "Bobbins") I've never wanted to be a syndicated cartoonist. I don't find the format or the kinds of restrictions those comics are under very appealing.I don't really know of any other syndicated comic artists that are available online besides Boondocks by Aaron McGruder, although I can't say I've looked particularly hard.
I think the syndicates keep a month of all their strips online now, at ucomics.com and sites like that.How did you come to your characters? Did they just evolve or did you sit down and plan them out?
They evolved slowly. I've learned in recent years that you need a certain remove from your subject matter, so the older I've got, the easier it's been to write adult characters.Secondly, I wanted to ask you what made you keep going with an online comic, especially after you finished Bobbins?
I didn't finish Bobbins in order to leave comics, I have to make comics, whether anyone is reading or not. I did it so I could concentrate on Scary Go Round. I envisaged that Scary Go Round would be "done right" rather than being a series of experiments and false steps. Bobbins was far from perfect because I was still learning what to do - in terms of art and story and time management, everything. I'm still learning now but there's a curve of subtle improvement rather than drastic, jarring shifts as a rule.Have you had any help from experts, advisors, other web comic artists or web site people about how to run a successful business?
Only the experience I gained during my time working in web design and in publishing. I draw on my peers' experience as well, but mostly I utilise caution and common sense. I try to keep my books straight and watch for trends year on year - easy stuff if you are given to it (which a lot of creative people aren't).Did you foresee the possibility of working full time on the comic at that point?
Once I had seen other people just above my level succeed, I knew that if I worked hard I could do it.Did you see the potential of making money off of merchandising as a viable business prospect?
It's a simple matter of supply and demand. Once I had a certain number of readers, the demand was there. I'm careful to limit new product so as not to saturate the market - I'm really conscious when web-comic artists release a nondescript tshirt every week, it reeks of exploitation of a hardcore group of fans who (I anticipate) will eventually tire.(Sorry, I came late to the SGR world, so I've no idea whether your old site had merch attached or not) Was it a big risk starting to work for SGR full time?
I didn't have a job (I'd been laid off) so it was no risk at all. it was a lifeline.How many people are involved in the running of SGR? Do you know of any funding, seed grants, or assistance available to you as a cultural producer?
There are local arts council grants available in the UK but I've never applied for them. I would much rather they went to people working in fringe arts concerns that genuinely need support. I consider myself to be working in entertainment rather than arts.Was there any help available to you in getting the skills you need to run a business like SGR? How does Dumbrella fit into the whole scene?
Dumbrella is just a loose aggregation of friends, it has no overarching commercial remit. I have never sought any outside assistance with my enterprise so I can't really talk about the help available.Thirdly, I'm interested in the way that you think about your readers. I tend to lurk on the forums a bit and you often seem frustrated with the questions and comments that your readers make.
I've stopped reading the forums now, it was extremely counterproductive. But they're within their rights to talk about whatever they want; without my readers I wouldn't have a living.You especially seem annoyed when they try to predict what is going to happen next (or suggest doing *rude* things to your characters).
I don't think it takes a huge leap of the imagination to work out why this would be annoying!How do you see your readers fitting into your story and the way it is created? Clearly they make an impact on the way you write your plot, even if only in blocking certain plot paths. I guess I'm curious as to why you tolerate (and read) a forum at all?
I think it would seem very mean-spirited to take it down, and if I did, I'm pretty sure my readers would just start their own. I read an interview with David Simon (creator of Homicide:Life On The Street and The Wire) who said that if you ask [your viewers] what they want, they'll ask for more of the same that they enjoyed in the past, which is creative poison. So you have to ignore them. Once I read that, I felt vindicated. I'm grateful for and fond of my readers but I have absolutely no interest in their opinions about my plots and the characters.How important is your readership - in terms of unique site hits and actual personalities - to the way you think about SGR? Do the readers feature at all in the creative process? I believe many people were very upset when you killed off Shelley the first time. How did you (and do you) respond to readers reacting emotionally to your story lines?
I use feedback and the ebb and flow of traffic to the site to gauge the popularity of given stories, but I can tell myself if something is good or bad. I think killing Shelley was in some ways a big mistake. In a way it put Scary Go Round on the map, but it was too big a spike emotionally, it set some bad precedents in terms of expectation on the part of the readers. These days I try to work toward some sense of ambient excitement rather than big, cheap shocks. I may be less successful as a result but creatively it's the only way to avoid destroying your work with repeated attempts to top yourself.How have you avoided the trap of self-exploitation, of working too hard and not paying yourself enough?
I haven't. I work very hard. I try to pay myself enough though, I have a house and a car, it's important to reward yourself for hard work.You have a gruelling schedule of five comics a week, how do you maintain your creativity?
5 comics a week isn't gruelling by any stretch of the imagination! They take about 3 hours each. To maintain creativity, I find it's important not to become self-reflexive, to keep consuming new things and to keep questioning your own work. Never be satisfied.Do you have any practical tips for any of our students who may be about to enter the world of cultural production?
Never get lazy.How do you see the web comics world? Is it a particularly multi-cultural place for you?
I don't have an answer to this question.Do you see relative equality between the sexes, classes and ethnic backgrounds online in comic production and readership?
I don't have an answer to this question either.Do you read many other web comics?
I read a few but I don't find the vast majority particularly thrilling. But I don't really like reading things on-screen. I stare at a computer all day when I'm working, it doesn't form a large part of my leisure time.Do you even feel part of a web comic community, or am I (as a reader) imagining such a community because I read a lot of web comics and see the crossovers, fights, etc.
When the field was smaller, there was a sense of community. These days I don't feel a lot of affinity for the webcomics "scene". But that's partly cultural - the British presence on the that scene is very limited, and I like to meet people in person.What do you think about (if you think about them at all) the fights about Keenspace, Scott Kurtz and the rest?
I find it utterly pathetic.How did you feel going to the Comix Thing and other conferences on webcomics?
It's exciting! the range of people who come to meet you are very broad, a far cry from the increasingly middle-aged comic book reader. Comics are such a broad, versatile, fun artform that it's nice to reach people at last who should never have been excluded from the party.Thanks so much for taking the time to think through my somewhat laborious questions, and for your insightful and thoughtful comments.
Questionable Content is a relatively young web comic, and yet has made its presence felt through the creative talents of Mr Jeph Jacques. I had the privilege of asking Jeph some questions about his comic, his characters, and his creative process.
Interview with Jeph Jacques.
What inspired you to do a dialogue-people based comic? You've mentioned the delightful John Allison and Bill Waterson in previous interview, were there any other people or comics that inspired you to draw?
I don't think it was really much of a conscious decision at all, actually. I have my own particular sense of humor and ideas about what would be interesting and fun to work on, so that is pretty much what guides the style and tone of the comic. Inspiration from other people's work plays a part in that, so that's where people like the dumbrella (www.dumbrella.com) guys and Waterson and Berke Breathed come in. I like the idea of working with an ensemble cast and focusing on the interplay between the characters, and the sort of mundane events of their lives reflect how I think most of us find humor in the world- it's not a piano falling off an apartment building, it's the chick in the coffee shop you go to totally busting somebody's ass for hitting on her.What is it about an online format that you like?
Everything. Creative control, freedom in terms of art style and layout, the potentially unlimited audience...the rewards far outweigh the drawbacks.How did you come to your characters? Did they just evolve or did you sit down and plan them out?
When I started the comic I thought it would be pretty much just about Marten and Pintsize, with occasional Steve appearances. It was going to have a much more limited scope. Then Faye came along and all these ideas for her character started popping into my head, so it evolved into more of a Marten/Faye/Pintsize thing. Then Dora came along, and basically the same thing happened again- she was only going to be a supporting character until I realized how much I liked her, so she became part of the core cast. It's really been broadening in scope over the past six months or so as I develop some of the other characters like Steve and Ellen and add supporting people for them (Natasha, Dora's older brother Sven). Pintsize sort of gets pushed into the background because while the comic was originally going to be able this guy's relationship with his funny little robot and how angsty and unhappy he is, now it's more about the relationships between all these human characters and the occasional appearance of a goofy little robot guy.Secondly, I wanted to ask you what has kept you going with an online comic a year and a half in?
It's fun! It's a great creative outlet for me, and very encouraging that so many people seem to enjoy it. It's also the only full-time job that I can ever see myself enjoying.We talk about micro-businesses in our course, and as far as I can tell that seems to be the sort of enterprise you have going with QC. Have you had any help from experts, advisors, other web comic artists orweb site people about how to run a successful business?
Well in talking to other people who are doing webcomics full time you do get a lot of helpful advice and ideas. It's a pretty tight-knit community- everybody knows each other, so we all help each other out to some extent.Did you plan on working full time for QC from the beginning?
Nope. When I started QC it was just an outlet to keep me from snapping and shooting people at my old day job. I figured it'd get maybe 50 people reading it per day, tops, and maybe I could eventually make a couple hundred bucks selling t-shirts. Boy was I underestimating things.Did you see the potential of making money off of merchandising as a viable business prospect?
Well I knew a few other guys who were doing it, so I figured it was at least hypothetically possible for me to do the same, provided I had a big enough audience and well-designed merchandise.Did it feel like a big risk to work for QC full time?
Definitely. At first I didn't think I'd make it more than a couple months before I needed to find a part time job or something but it's been more than 7 months now and I'm doing better than ever.How many people are involved in the running of QC?
In terms of direct involvement, it's just me and my girlfriend- I do all the comic stuff and some of the merchandise stuff, and she handles more of the administrative and business things because that's her forte (and one of the things I am awful at, heh). Other than that it's just the guy who prints my shirts and the nice people at the post office.Are you aware of any funding, seed grants, or assistance available to you as a cultural producer?
Not really. I've been too busy to look into that sort of thing.Was there any help available to you in getting the skills you need to run a business like QC?
Taking a couple business courses in college would have been a huge help, if I had known I was going to be doing this for a living. Oh well!How does Dayfree Press fit into the whole scene?
Dayfree is a fun little network of webcomic authors. Aside from the inter-promotion on each other's sites, it's basically just an excuse for us to talk to each other online and send out press releases when anything interesting happens to one of us. It's pretty laid back but everybody in the group is growing.Thirdly, I'm interested in the way that you think about your readers. You have some remarkably insightful things to say about the nexus between your readers and your characters - feel free to share some more! How do you see your readers fitting into your story and the way it is created?
It's a tricky question- I started the comic with no audience to speak of so they obviously didn't affect the comic in any way. Nowadays, knowing that forty thousand (roughly- I don't know the exact number offhand) people are watching my every move so to speak is pretty surreal, but it's not really something I take into account when working on the comic. There's more pressure to maintain the quality of work, but QC has always been about trying to make myself satisfied anyway because I'm my own worst critic by far. I do try to take care not to come off as arrogant or an asshole in the newsposts or anything, because I'd rather not have that many people think I was a jerk. Time will tell if I've been successful at that I guess.How important is your readership - in terms of unique site hits and actual personalities - to the way you think about QC?
It's exciting, terrifying, and wonderful to think that so many people are enjoying (or even paying attention) to the silly little story I'm trying to tell. It's always been *my* comic, but I'm overjoyed to be sharing it with so many people.Do the readers feature at all in the creative process?
Not really. I get a LOT of suggestions and to this date I have used none of them. It's always been about using my own ideas, although people have managed to guess my intentions in advance a couple times.How do you respond to readers reacting emotionally to your story lines?
I think it's flattering and humbling at the same time that someone identifies with a character or situation to the point that it triggers an emotional response.Fourthly, (and finally) we look at the politics of creativity and being involved in a creative world, questions of exploitation, self-exploitation and the line between starving for one's art and selling one's soul to the big corporations. As well as how society can function and maintain critical reflexivity when ties between community, class and other identifiers are being undermined by "collarless work" - where one cannot question the political nature of the work place as there may be no identifiable workplace, as is often the case for creative people. (bleh, what a long sentence, sorry.) How have you avoided the trap of self-exploitation, of working too hard and not paying yourself enough?
Probably not. It's definitely a huge amount of work and creative energy to keep QC running smoothly, and sometimes it can be exhausting. I don't look at it as "self-exploitation" so much as the price you pay for being able to do something you actually enjoy for a living. I'd rather work 60 hours a week at a job I love than 20 hours a week at a job I hate for the same pay.You have a gruelling schedule of five comics a week, how do you maintain your creativity?
I have no idea! Writing a comic is like playing a game of Scrabble- in Scrabble you have seven random letters on your stand that you have to make a cognitive leap in order to assemble into a word. When I'm writing a comic I have to make that same cognitive leap in order to turn a bunch of disparate characters and ideas into something coherent and hopefully funny. I play a lot of Scrabble.Do you have any practical tips for any of my students who may be about to enter the world of cultural production?
Don't waste time working on something creative if you don't love it. It's hard enough to make a living off of art or music or writing that you may as well love what you're doing. Business courses would probably be a good idea. Come to think of it, finding four million dollars lying in a sack on the side of the road would probably be a good idea too.How do you see the web comics world?
With my eyes, usually. Seriously though, it's just a bunch of guys and ladies drawing pictures and writing stories or jokes because they enjoy doing it. Most are nice people, there are a couple megalomaniacs and some people more concerned with potential fame than the quality of their work, but that comes with the territory in any creative field. We tend to be weird, we tend to be loners. I'm just guessing at the numbers here, but probably 2% of all the webcomics out there get any significant number of readers, and then 2% of THAT actually make enough money off of their comics to live. The people doing it full-time are a pretty rarefied community and everyone has their own way of doing things.Is it a particularly culturally diverse place for you? Do you see relative equality between the sexes, classes and ethnic backgrounds online in comic production and readership?
Well, it's the internet so it's impossible to say for sure. You do see a lot more ladies and people of varying ethnic backgrounds than you would at Marvel Comics or on the newspaper comics page. I do think it's a level playing field- it doesn't matter if you're a woman or an Inuit, if your comic is good people will read it.Thanks so much Jeph for answering all of my questions with such aplomb!