December 22, 2013
CR Holiday Interview #05 -- Dave Kellett
is the cartoonist behind the humor strip Sheldon
and the humorous science fiction comics Drive
. Both of these creative effort have their primary home on-line, where Kellett has forged a career as a cartoonist. He started out wanting to do a syndicated newspaper strip, and as he'll point out below, comes to that world of comics as an appreciative professional on a variety of levels. With Fred Schroeder
, Kellett has made the documentary Stripped
, about the intersection of those two worlds as webcomics have surged into viability and newspaper comics have weathered a rough period relative to their long and glorious history. The movie was crowd-funded not once
. The film may get a publicity boost from the fact that it features audio from Bill Watterson
, and I think it stands to connect with audiences for its genial and hopeful tone. One nice thing about the film is it simply gets a lot of people on camera in a way that provides a snapshot of this unique moment in comics history; the resources represented by its raw interviews and research materials will be a boon to comics for years to come. The following conversation is shaped in large part by the movie. It was nice of Dave to take time from his various projects during such a busy period to talk with me, and I'm very appreciative of the additional work he did on this interview. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Where are you exactly with the movie, Dave? What do you have to do that's left? What stuff has to be done with the movie itself?
The good news is that all the creative stuff at this point is locked. In the terminology of film-making, the sound was locked a few months ago -- that means it got re-recorded, leveled and mastered. That included all the music, the dialogue, the ADR
, all of that stuff. So that was locked a few months ago and the last two or three months was spent trying to lock the picture. That's everything from color timing the interviews so that so-and-so doesn't look too pink or too blue, and then also getting final approval for all of the comic images and illustrations and caricatures that appear in the film. There are 627 different ones in the film, so it took a while. The good news is if we're not picture-locking this week, we'll be locking in 7 to 10 days.
SPURGEON: So then you have to get it out there so people will see it, or it goes into some sort of alternative distribution system, I assume. How does that track of it work?
This is the part of it I'm actively learning about now. The interesting thing from a comics perspective is that independent film, or smaller film -- depending on how you want to say it -- is sort of going through a similar thing to comics in that there's a breakdown in traditional models in how you get your product to people. The traditional way you would do it if you were an independent filmmaker is you would hook up with an agent and/or distributor, you would get it out to a very short theatrical run, and then you would have sold it on DVD and streaming, that sort of thing. But there's been some really successful and landmark films, like Indie Game: The Movie
-- I don't know if you're familiar with that one --
-- that have really completely sidestepped that. They won at Sundance
, had offers at Sundance, and really said "No, thank you" to all three of them. And they proceeded to self-distribute, removing all sorts of middle-men. They've done absolutely fantastic for themselves. I'm personally kind of leaning that way. I like the idea. Unfortunately -- not unfortunately; fortunately
-- the side effect of making a living in webcomics is that I like that whole model.
SPURGEON: The fact that you cut out the middleman, is that an implied critique of the money involved? Or is the control involved? Do you feel like you can simply do a better job in helping this movie find its market because of your personal experience with its subject matter? What exactly makes that model more appealing to you?
It's definitely not a question of ultra-confidence that I can do a better job of it. [Spurgeon laughs] I'm absolutely sure there are pros that can do a better job of distributing the film than I could. It is a statement on the money aspect of things and the control aspect of things. Just as a web cartoonist, I love that I don't have an editor; I love that I don't have anyone telling me what I can or can't do in the way the business is done. From a film standpoint, it's kind of a dirty little secret that the money has never been great in independent film. So you could sell your film to a distributor or to HBO
and -- this is true for many people -- still be in debt in how much money you spent to make the film. It was never a great proposition. So even some films you or I might consider a high visibility independent film might still be in debt or might not have made more than a Midwest teacher's salary off of the net profits.
I think the potential and the joy of holding onto control is a wonderful thing.
SPURGEON: When you did the book [How To Make Webcomics], did you do the book the same way? I actually don't recall this off the top of my head, if that was self-published by the four of you that did that book. Did you work on that distribution yourself?
Oh, no. None of us wanted to be the main -- what's the best way to say it? -- the main protagonist in getting that published and out to the world, so we decided none of us would spearhead it, and we'd do it through Image, instead. Which I don't think we would do again. I think one of us would spearhead it and do it on our own. It's unfortunate, but I think because they handle so many titles I found Image's accounting to be really wonky at best. I think they made some... well, it doesn't matter. I think we would do it ourselves at this point.
SPURGEON: I can't let that go, Dave, without asking -- you think the number of titles they handled means they didn't pay attention to the sales that you had?
They did fine as far as launching the book. And overall I think they're best-of-breed at what they do. But I do think they made some easy-to-catch administrative mistakes in printing up the third edition, which had us scratching our heads big time. I think looking back on it, and hindsight is always 20/20, that we would have done it ourselves if we could do it again. A successful webcartoonist always sticks with what is working for them, especially because our careers not reliant on any distribution system or publisher. So it's telling that all four authors on that How To Make Webcomics
book haven't used them again.
But I think at this point, there's a maximum profitability point for any book, and this book has passed it. So it's not worth it for us to take that book back over, to handle it now. There's only a few thousand dollars left in the arc of that book's life at this point.
SPURGEON: So you have that experience and the webcomics experience generally -- do you think you're just more attuned to the possibility of self-direction with a lot of these business decisions? Is DIY in your DNA? That would be the cheesy way to put it. Do you feel more comfortable and actualized as a cartoonist to at least have self-direction as an option? It would seem to me likely to become an orientation.
Oh yeah, absolutely. The joy about retaining ownership and doing it all yourself is that even if you screw it up the first time around, provided you make manageable-sized mistakes, you've learned enough to rock it the second or third or fourth time you do it. I may well make a huge error with this or that print run, or this or that book, or the way that I handle this or that thing, but overall, cumulatively, my career is so much better for having done it myself.
SPURGEON: You've been around a while now. Do you count on that as a resource, this core of people that are interested in what you're doing? Are you that analytical about it -- do you have a mailing list, do you have transferable knowledge about the more passionate fans of your comic? Do you think about it in those terms? Are you that kind of businessman, even if it's just the business of being Dave Kellett?
Absolutely. I think it's really to the detriment of the artist's career who doesn't think about it that way. In my way of thinking about it, it's akin to health insurance. You can be an asshole and say, "Oh, I don't need health insurance. I'm fine." But then you're the moron that gets stuck with the kidney operation that damn near kills you and bankrupts you. That's probably a stretch as a metaphor, but I think it's similar in that nobody wants to deal with the numbers, no one enjoys sitting down and poring over your cost-per-goods-sold or how your books are doing or this or that. But it has single-handedly insured that I will have had a career for at least a decade now, and into a second decade. You and I both know far, far better artists than I who don't have a full-time art career because they can't keep a grip on the numbers.
So I think it's critical to being a functioning artist.
SPURGEON: Was there a point in the learning curve for you, where you had to make that decision? Or did that always come naturally?
It's a story worth telling. I grew up wanting to be a syndicated cartoonist. That's where the audience was. That's where the money was. That's where the prestige was. A few years after the turn of the century -- god, that sounds stupid -- but a few years after the turn of the century, I had done a series of labels for a barbecue sauce company in Kansas City. They flew me out to do a signing, and I was next to Andrews McMeel/Universal
. And so I was at this point where all of my friends in syndication were like, "Oh my gosh, this is far less money than I thought it would be." And all my friends in webcomics were saying, "Wow, I'm hiring an assistant, and a second assistant for the Christmas shipping season." That kind of thing. The money was getting better and better in webcomics. So I realized I kind of needed to make a decision about which way to go. I don't know if he even remembers this, but I e-mailed John Glynn at Universal Press
and said, "Hey, can I take 15 minutes of your time. I'm going to be in Kansas City." And I sat down with him. I said, "Hey, is this ever going to happen for me? Am I ever going to be syndicated? Do you guys have any interest?" And he said, "You know, just not at the time. I don't know that we could launch it. I don't know if we could make it a success for you or for us."
I needed that, because it was like, "Okay, fine. Now that makes that decision super-easy, to step away from the childhood dream of syndication and make a career in webcomics." So that's what I did. It sounds kind of silly to say that I needed that one last confirmation, but from there, I've been 100 percent towards building a career in webcomics.
SPURGEON: So when you do this film, that's your background. One of the things I thought was interesting about the movie is that during the period the movie was in production, there was a shift in the discussion of webcomics vs. print comics. It seems to me that the germ of the movie might have come in that newspaper collapse period, but then things stabilized. It seems like if things had continued to decline rapidly, the movie might have been much different than it turned out. Did the movie change according to events?
It changed for two reasons. For an audience, watching a disaster movie of "Oh, everything's falling apart" is really sad after an hour and a half. You walk away bummed about it. Where's the joy in saying "Hey, guess what, everybody? Vaudeville's dead" for an hour-and-a-half? That's not a fun movie to watch. So that had an impact.
More importantly, the newspaper market went form "Oh my God, it's all falling apart" to "Oh my God, it's just really bad." Which was a step down in terms of their dire financial status. Sure, editorial cartoonists kept getting laid off left and right, and syndicated strips went from two a year being launched to one every two years. It's still not good by any stretch, but it's not, "Oh my God, it's all falling apart." So I think the attitudes shifted a little bit.
And what happened is we also realized in the process of making this film that this has happened three or four time in print comics, where [William] Hogarth
and [James] Gillray
figured out a completely different way to do comics in the 18th Century, Punch
figured out a different way from there, the first generation of newspaper guys figured out it one way, then syndication came along and figured it out another way. One of the central themes, and I don't know if you remember this from the film, is that comics find a way to survive. That I think is the most hopeful note in the movie. Comics always find a way to survive.
SPURGEON: Maybe I'm just old and bitter, but I'm not sure that I was convinced by the hopeful ending to your movie. And I'm further suspicious in that there's such a pressure on people when doing art to be positive, to hit that positive note if only because the negative note is so hard to take. Did you feel compelled at all to end on that positive note? Or do you really think comics will be okay? And if you think comics will be okay, I'd like to know why you think that.
Good question. So, a couple of answers. First: You are old and embittered. [Spurgeon laughs] I'm kidding. Ultimately, I'm an optimistic person. And that's probably a fault. But I do think that the number of careers that I'm seeing -- and I think that's as good a measure as any -- the number of careers I'm seeing where people are paying rent or their mortgage or their kids' schools from comics is going up. It's just that you and I don't see it because they're not water cooler comics. They're these smaller, almost micro-audiences that have huge support for their creator. It's just that you and I don't have them on our radar.
I imagine your average reader doesn't know me from Adam, or my work from Adam. Which is fine, I don't need them to. I just need the few 10,000s, or however many there are, readers to keep supporting me. If that make sense.
SPURGEON: It does. Now who are some of these people that I wouldn't have heard of, or just that comics fans might not have heard of -- who are examples of that kind of cartoonist?
I think a good measure is that your parents and my parents would know Pogo
. They would know Peanuts
. They would know For Better Or For Worse
. Those were water cooler comic strips. Compare that to The Oatmeal
, or Diesel Sweeties
, or my strips -- anyone you want to name. Even Penny Arcade
-- outside of their core audience, nobody knows who they are. So we no longer have water cooler comics, but that's fine, because there's atomization in comics. Provided the fan base is there, it doesn't matter that everyone in your average accounting office isn't able to talk about me in the office kitchen. The only thing that matters is these artists have careers, and their tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of fans are supporting them.
SPURGEON: It seems like you're comparing what we have now to top of the line syndicated people, but the syndicates had pretty deep catalogs back in the day. There were guys making a living not as well known as a Walt Kelly or Milton Caniff. The water cooler comics doesn't seem to me an entire set of how people made a living, but a subset of those making a living through syndication back then. So I'm not sure there's a direct correlation. Do you think there are more webcartoonists making a living right now than the entire roster of one of the old syndicates in 1948, say?
I should couch my optimism in context. My context is the '90s and early 2000s, where I was losing hope that comic strips would even survive. And largely, aside from the recent Dutch or Swedish comic strip that Universal launched a few weeks ago [WuMo
], nothing has really taken off in the last few years in comics syndication. You can point to Lio
, and there are another few probably, but for me the context was, "Oh hell, the entire syndication model doesn't seem to be launching careers anymore. But wait... there seems to be a lot of webcomics where there are careers. So there's not a cause for absolute despair; there's a cause for hope.” So my optimism in the movie, that you were asking about before, comes from comparing it to, "Oh God, it's all going to end."
SPURGEON: So it's really a critique of the last 20 years.
Remember that before anyone figured out how to make a living on-line, there was real hand-wringing going on about the death of print, or the death of the print syndication model at least. It's not unlike -- and I know far less about this -- when the market in comic books started to dry up, when all these shops closed. It's like, "God, what do you replace this with." For syndicated comic strips, when you start losing two-newspaper towns, and you start having entire pages cut from newspapers, the genuine question is, "Oh God; how do you replace this." The answer seems to be you replace it with digital distribution and it seems to be working for a few dozen creators around the world.
SPURGEON: So the creative aspect of those strips that are making it work... they do seem to be specifically targeted, for instance, which indicates a creative outcome to this model. Something like
Penny Arcade has a specific creative mission that's not the same as a lot of strips that attempt print syndication. Many of those strips are asked to play to the broadest possible audience, or at least as much as content and approach allow. Do you feel like the strips that are making it according to this newer model are strong for that specific focus? Or is only difference access to a business model through specificity, a model that allows them to survive?
I think a good way to start that answer is to say that form follows function. So for a newspaper comic strip, the function was that you had to appeal to a five year old and an 85 year old, you had to appeal to all sorts of social and religious backgrounds, and above all else you had to not piss off the publishers so that you could continue to sell newspapers. The common critique, now, is that it's 1950s humor: You can't say the word "sucks" in the newspaper -- Stephan Pastis
often jokes about that, what he can't say in the newspaper. What syndication did was create a comic strip that everybody in America could relate to and understand. What happens when you get to the on-line world is that you don't have to do that. To make a living, to make the art you want to make, you don't have to appeal to a lowest common denominator. You can make a super specific math joke, if you're xkcd
, or a super specific video game joke if you're Penny Arcade
or a super specific joke about the nuances of running if you're The Oatmeal
. That may not appeal to the lowest common denominator, but it will be a much more passionate resonance for a very specific kind of reader. So yeah, you get a new subset, a core readership, that's much more passionate. Whether or not that's better or worse is a subjective call. I happen to think that it's better in the sense that a certain... not malaise, but a certain retreading had started to happen in syndication. So it's nice to have new blood, new energy in it. It's a completely subjective call, so I wouldn't claim if it's better or worse.
SPURGEON: So are there people you think might be suited to one or the other realm creatively? You mentioned Pastis, is that someone that might be better served by a direct model? Are there strips in the webcomics world that are broadly pitched that might be better served by traditional syndication?
Again, it goes back to form follows function. [Robert] Crumb
never would have worked as a syndicated cartoonist. That wouldn't have worked for him. Thank god there was a model that worked for him, and a living to be made, that established his career. Different cartoonists rise to different occasions and the webcartooning model brings about a generation of artists that are better at wearing 20 hats than a Mort Walker
-- well, actually, Mort's a bad example. It's a different kind of cartoonist than someone who would draw their cartoon, send it in, and then golf. It's a different kind of cartoonist that rises to the occasion. That absolutely means that some cartoonists will fail that would have succeeded in a syndication model, but the opposite is true -- there are fantastic cartoonists that never would've made it into the syndication model because they couldn't create for an audience in the way that syndication required.
So yeah, absolutely. Different artists succeed in different syndication models. If you look at this generation of cartoonists that are succeeding and hiring staff, they have almost a different make-up as people than syndication artists or the black and white -- although no, actually, the black and white artists are very similar. I'll take that back. People that work for Marvel
. It's a different sort of genetic code for this generation. But it definitely means some people aren't succeeding that are fantastic artists because they can't handle the business end of all this stuff.
SPURGEON: Have you given any thought as to why there hasn't been a model that's bridged that gap? I guess there have been some attempts at publishers and packagers within the webcomics world distinct from the artists themselves, but it's not usually the model you hear about working. Why hasn't there been someone to solve that riddle? Is it that there's a limit to the audience? Does the audience not want that person involved? Is it the money?
I think generally in culture there's not only an atomization of comics, there's an atomization in all types of popular culture. So there's absolutely less money than would have been the case when Hearst and Pulitzer were setting up the syndication models to tap into that. What you're finding is, in individual cases, there are business people that step in like Robert Khoo at Penny Arcade
, and say, "Oh, there is money to be made here, enough to pay four, five, 20 different salaries." And then you find businesses like TopatoCo
that say, "Wait a minute. We can absolutely provide, if not business management, then services that allow the artist to focus more on the art." And then there are companies that focus on ads. So as opposed to the all-inclusive, all-your-needs-are-met model with syndication, cartoonists are finding individual companies that provide this and that. So TopatoCo for my books and t-shirts. Another company for my ad services. Still another company to handle any animation I have to do. And this is a better model for the DIY mindset.
SPURGEON: The section you did on Robert Khoo in the movie was interesting because what he did seemed a bit like magic -- you presented him as a guy who came in and helped them make money but didn't in any way get into how. One thing I wonder is why someone like Khoo seems unique, why there hasn't been more than one person that people can name that have that relationship with a webcomics effort. Why hasn't that become a model as opposed to more of a unique, one-time thing? Why has his achievement remained singular?
There's a many-faceted answer to that.
So, in the same way that I think in the 1920s and 30s and 40s all the talent in comic art got drawn to comic strips because that's where the money is, now they get pulled to Pixar
. Or they get pulled to DreamWorks
, because that's where the money is. A similar thing happens to people of business orientation. They look at comics or webcomics, and the average business person says, "If I can sell it on to Sony, then great, I'll get involved. Otherwise, this is a pittance compared to other business I could be in." So for the most part I think your average businessperson looks at comics from the outside and says, "Nah, not enough money there." But Penny Arcade
, even more than anything having to do with their comics, have tapped into one of the biggest media movements in the modern age. The videogame market is I believe bigger than film. Yet how many well-produced comics are commenting to a broad audience about videogames? It's pretty much just them. So there's a lot of money to be made with that company. Really, any good MBA grad could've executed on it... but Robert was the one that saw the opportunity. So that's why I believe he's somewhat unique. And I don't know, but I'd be surprised if Matt Inman doesn't have someone like that with The Oatmeal
. I'd be surprised if he doesn't have a business manager. And there are a few artists for whom a business manager would be better. But yeah, from the outside looking in, most people just don't see a return on the day to day drudgery of working with comics.
SPURGEON: Do you ever get sick and tired that we're that focused on the monetary aspects of the webcomics world? [laughs] I mean, your film kind of invites discussion of some of these issues, so I can't all-the-way apologize for this interview going there, but the discussion in general... The last six or seven years, no matter what the reason webcomics might come up, it seems like you guys are pressed to justify your existence as business entities or something. There's a massive curiosity there, but that has to be exhausting.
Yes. Absolutely. No one every talks about how Karl Kerschl
's art on The Abominable Charles Christopher
is some of the best that's ever been produced or how Oglaf
's writing is genius, none of that stuff ever comes up. It's always the business model. And that's fine. What I recognize is that for most people these questions are coming from a place of fear. Most people are terrified about where their own careers are going and where comics are going. They're desperately trying to make sure that "Wait a minute, is it true that these people are hiring in webcomics, and how are they making a career on this and how is this happening?" I'm sure you get this even with what you do: how the hell do you make a living?
SPURGEON: Sure. I do, quite a bit.
What that is is that's grown men and women terrified about their own career. They're trying to figure out if this is legitimate, and how they know it's legitimate. It's hard for them to know because there's no third-party confirmation. It used to be when you heard somebody was syndicated, and you heard they were in 400 newspapers, you knew they were making a living. For all you know, on the other end of this line I'm in an RV and barely making do with beans and hot dogs.
SPURGEON: I knew it.
[laughs] What I'm saying is that there's not third-party confirmation, so these questions keep getting asked until some kernel of confirmation can come through that it's working.
SPURGEON: I think the dialogue deteriorated years before webcomics came along, in the last three decades with syndication. There were a lot of people making a modest amount of money that never really let on they weren't making Jim Davis money. So the dialogue was already pretty lousy on those issues.
Because webcomics cartoonists are DIY, they don't mind so much talking and being honest about what works and what doesn't. "That didn't work, but I made a lot of money doing this. I sure didn't doing that." If you wanted to go down that rabbit hole, I could take you through what works and what doesn't with my business. I wouldn't necessarily mind. But if you did the same with a syndicated cartoonist, or even more accurately a syndicate, there's no way in hell they'd tell you what's working and what's not working.
SPURGEON: Was there any desire with the movie to shy away from business -- to purely talk about the art of it, and not talk about Robert Khoo or the newspaper industry collapse, just generally not bring up these issues? How would you prefer the conversation go past the conversation you host in your film?
I think the ideal situation is ten more films get made by ten more people about comics. There's no way that this single film, even though we try to touch on the art, the history, the business and the personalities of comics -- which I hope you see we at least tried to do -- it's really hard even in a feature to pack in as much as you want to about comics in one movie. So we tried to basically crack the door on a lot of these topics and handle them as thoroughly as we could in a feature. So we talk about the passion and the joy that cartoonists had when they started cartooning the first time, we talked about the greats and the lives they led in comics, and we talked about the newspaper crisis and the rise of digital, and we talk about where things are going. I think from all of that, different people will take different inspiration from the film. It probably says as much about you or I that this is what we ended up talking about, the business stuff. But different people have asked completely different questions coming out of viewing the film. In that sense it's good, because it's a litmus test for what you find interesting in comics right now.
SPURGEON: Do you think there's an under-appreciation -- you mentioned Karl's work -- but do you think webcomics are consistently under-appreciated?
No. I guess what I was trying to say about that is that this is where the conversation naturally ended up going: To business instead of the art side of things.
SPURGEON: Let's take it to the art side of things. What is it about the world that excites you right now? I think there was a point at which with webcomics 10 years ago, maybe even 15 years ago where going on-line meant discovering new people, just this endless parade of new voices. Now you still have that, but you also have artists who have developed on-line, who can mark the majority of their creative progress in various on-line projects. What do you enjoy amongst the people that do what you do?
Not to sound wide-eyed or naive about it, but I'm excited about the possibilities that digital presentation presents. We see it in format. We see it in the footprint of a panel or a page. We see it in the materials being used -- the mixed media being used. I think we see it most importantly in the voices, the writing voices that you hear coming out, that you never would have seen in syndication. To me there are more artists writing, more voices for more audiences, than you ever would have had in syndication. It's the equivalent -- and this is a bad summary -- of syndicated comics becoming a version of the desert island joke in The New Yorker
. They were all either a baby strip, or an animal strip, or a white family dealing with white family problems. That is basically what syndication had become. Now there are all sorts of voices. You look at Meredith Gran
, or Danielle Corsetto
, or Kate Beaton
, there are so many new female voices, which is exciting. You look to the new audiences being written to, and what's being said. It's an incredibly exciting time for webcomics. Again, that's not mean to sound naive or wide-eyed or "Oh, golly, what a great world we're heading into." It's just that I see a re-emergence of comic strips as something exciting to write for.
SPURGEON: Your specific joy is for that strip... why is that? Do you like the beats there? You've been doing one for years and years and years now, Dave, and asked that question about work in general it's where you went -- for the most part, anyway. Where is your specific joy for
Sheldon right now?
Even different than a comic book or a graphic novel, for me a comic strip is commonly a single person working on a regularly updated basis talking to a vast audience. There's an immense joy in that, that a team working on a comic book that comes out once a month or working by myself or with others on a graphic novel that comes out every three years or so, that's just so joy-filled. It's a great format, it's a great way of communicating. No single idea is a make or break one. If Thursday's is bad, then the next one will be fine. Over time, if you're batting .700 you're going to be doing great. Maybe that number's too high. It's a great way to communicate.
For me, I love being able to switch back and forth between character jokes and situational jokes. And the stand-alone single jokes... so I find great joy in it.
For me with Sheldon
I've been doing it 15 years now, since '98. And in the last five or six years, I started doing a sci-fi strip. That's given me a whole new jolt about comic strips in general. It feels like I'm doing one of the old adventure strips.
SPURGEON: The fascinating thing to me about
Drive -- and I'm not sure I can articulate this without coming across as insulting -- is that you have a very stylized approach, your strips have a stylized look; they're not rendered in the classic sense. They're not based on figure drawing, and there's a certain amount of arch cartoony-ness to your figures.
SPURGEON: So it surprises me in
Drive how well you employ that in that milieu. It doesn't seem like that should work.
No, you're right. It's funny that you say this, but I had another cartoonist tell me, with such brass balls... he e-mailed me about six months into the strip and said, "Hey, I'm really enjoying the strip, but you shouldn't be drawing this. Someone else should be drawing this." And I was like, "Wow, that is ballsy." But you're right. You're right. If you look at Sheldon
, you wouldn't think, "Oh, this is a guy that should be drawing sci-fi." But for me, I wanted that Hitchhiker's-Guide
feel to the strip. You would have these vast science fiction empire kinds of things going on like you would in Dune
, but you have the goofiness of a Hitchhiker's Guide
. I think the style works because of that.
SPURGEON: You mentioned Douglas Adams... I imagine doing humorous science fiction he has to be a colossal, nearly unavoidable figure. How do you deal with a genre where there's a singular, obvious influence like that? It seems like he would be almost the definition of that sub-genre, and I wondered how you negotiated that.
Yeah. That's a really good question. I think the best way to describe it is that for whatever reason that wasn't an overriding fear on my part when I started. I don't know if that's a helpful answer. I was less worried about... I knew from an alchemy sort of way I wanted a little dash of Frank Herbert, and I knew I wanted a little dash of Adams, and I knew I wanted a little dash of this and that. I could never write the scope and power of a Frank Herbert story. I could never write the goofy joy of a Hitchhiker's
, but I knew if I shot in that direction with my own writing and drawing skills that I would find my own story, which is what I really wanted to do. And Drive
is one of those stories where the whole arc of it kind of sprang into my mind, if not complete, then near-complete. So it's not like I was thinking, "Oh, I want to do an android, but I want to do one different than the one in Hitchhiker's
.” For me, the story was whole cloth, and I wanted to present it in a way that reflected those two styles. But I never had an overriding concern. He is so damn good how could I ever come close to that style?
SPURGEON: To tie that back into the film... your film ties print and webcomics together via the strip format, which isn't the primary interest for a lot of people working in print or on-line. There's also an argument that there's an ossification in webcomics, that there's a gentle nudging towards models "that work." That there are a few dominant ways of doing webcomics that are favored over others. And that maybe some kinds of comics have faded a bit. For example, I can't remember the last time I saw someone working in a strip format that was also interested in infinite canvas notions as a way of simply presenting such material, like, say, Drew Weing used to be. Do you wonder if webcomics will end up being like so many other art forms, with a kind of webcomic becoming dominant and the range of expression narrowing a bit? Someone that wants to do work on-line about gaming culture, for example, has PvP and
Penny Arcade to negotiate in a way they would have had those institutions 15 years ago. How does webcomics avoid the rigidity that can come with success?
To go back to the first part of your question, I don't want to keep going back to the phrase of "form follows function," but I think one of the reasons why some aspects of experimentation with webcomics fell by the wayside is that they just weren't able to make a living from it. For me, Drive
is a long-form story where you have to know the characters and the plot to read any individual installment. That can be a killer on-line depending on the type of reader. For me, it was only because Sheldon
was affording me a great living that I could take the time to do Drive
. I couldn't start my career with a Drive
. So I think the same kind of thing happened in webcomics. People got experimental. "Oh, I can do infinite canvas." Or "Oh, I can do lots of things." "... Change the way I update. Change the way a comic appears on the screen." All of that is great, but if you can't figure out a way that contributes to you making a living, then that experimentation or that path withers a little bit. So there's that.
The second part of your question is how does the second or third generation... not fight the existing webcomics?
SPURGEON: How do you not end up repeating the same cycle you're claiming for syndicated strips, where building on tried and true routines because of that desire to make money doing this limits the creativity involved? And is there at point where the kinds of cartoonists that will go to webcomics will start to be more and more the ones for whom some sort of financial success is built-in due to a willingness to chase certain styles? How do you avoid the same cycle. How do we avoid three to five people doing what you're doing, or doing what Scott Kurtz is doing?
I take your meaning. First of all, it's worth acknowledging it can happen. It's happened a couple of times in comics. Both in magazine cartooning and newspaper cartooning. It's probably already happening in webcomics. How you avoid it, is that the magic thing about webcomics is that there are no gatekeepers. So you have this constant opportunity for success going to a new voice and a comic that's never been done before. If you had asked me, "Hey, Kate Beaton's history comics. Is that going to go?" I would have gone, "No. No." But she's brilliant and that voice she has is so unique that now you're like, "Of course that work does well and has a massive audience." The same is true for all sorts of different comics. The Unshelved
library comic strip; I never would have guessed before I knew and saw their audience how massive and passionate a library audience could be for a comic strip. So I think what's happening is that sure, a lot of people might go, "Hey, Penny Arcade
is doing video games. That is what I should do." But if you're not writing from where your passions are, it's only going to last for a few years anyway. But, the flip side of that is that the people that truly write from a place of passion and interest, a Kate Beaton or a Meredith Gran or a Karl Kerschl, you might see a format you wouldn't think would work for webcomics, but it's brilliant. So that's the saving grace for webcomics, I think. Because there are no gatekeepers, people are allowed to follow their passions. That means 100 failures to every success, but that one will be new and different.
SPURGEON: We always talk about these things as if they're brand new. You've been around 15 years, which is the length of a standard syndication contract plus a first option period. And in Internet time, that's a billion years. I certainly get my information on-line differently than I did in 1998. What is it about comics that allows you to have a continuity in the way they're distributed and consumed that doesn't apply to other media?
Here's the criticial difference. It's a thing that people with a tradition from print comics never grasp at first. Webcomics is never a zero-sum game. For me to succeed, Ryan North
doesn't have to fail. For me to make a great year of profit, The Oatmeal
doesn't have to fail. What that means is, how I weather the storm, is that because of this I can be absolutely open with my peers and friends as to what is working or not. You would never have the head of DC calling up the head of Marvel and saying, "Let me tell you, these crossovers we're doing are really working. You gotta try it." But in webcomics you have that all the time. You have friends and peers that will say, "Guys, XYZ isn't working as a business model. But I'll tell you what is working. YZX." That helps us collectively weather the storm because none of us are in direct competition in a way that surprises people from a print model.
So you can have a rising tide of information that lifts a lot of careers.
SPURGEON: You have an immediate peer group with whom you share information like that.
Absolutely. It's both at shows and constantly through other ways that peer groups talk to each other: e-mails, forum postings, all sorts of stuff. For example, you'll see a ton of webcomics over the next six to 12 months trying Patreon
. It's a new version of Kickstarter. It has the potential to be a game-changer as to how webcomics work, and because some of the initial reports from some of the webcartoonists is them saying, "Hey, holy crap, this is really working" you'll see more and more cartoonists trying it.
That's what keeps us afloat. Six years ago we would have said, "Self-published books are really working as a business model." Or "Shirts have a tremendous profit margin." Or "Do this kind of advertising." That passing along of information keeps entire careers afloat.
SPURGEON: I'm interested in the creative aspect of that. The strip form has remained sturdy for you.
Look at it in terms of output. If I was producing a page a day, or if I was producing a mini-story a day, it would be untenable. But with the strip format, the beauty of it is that you can produce a strip a day. It's just enough of a snippet of a world that people will keep coming back day after day and finding it satisfying. I tip my hat to the people at the turn of the century that figured that out, because it's a great format for a story on a regular basis.
SPURGEON: How are you a different artist now, Dave? It seems like you have more control over your line? How would you describe your own artistic growth?
I guess that I'm learning. I don't want to be falsely humble and say, "Oh, I'm no good." But I think I'm definitely better than where I was. That's no different than anyone else's career. I often think I'll be really good in about ten years. I think that's a universal for any artists that you'd ask. When the film is done -- I feel like I've been coasting a bit since the film has been going on -- I want to experiment a lot more, especially with Drive
. I think there are different ways I can draw now. I'm excited to get back to it when the film is done.
SPURGEON: You mentioned this earlier. How do you avoid the tyranny of your audience?
That's a great question. That's a really great question. It's hard to do, especially when this becomes your living. That's why ultimately I have to write for myself. If I don't, the spark is gone because I'm writing for somebody else's strip. I'm writing for tens of thousands of people embodied in an imaginary person. I'm not writing for me. That's why I was saying the beauty of the comic strip is that no individual strip is make or break. I can write a strip where the joke is very personal and makes me laugh, and know that five people -- maybe -- will like it. But I don't care, because I needed to write that one on my way to write a strip that will appeal to a broader audience. But it's hard, because who doesn't want to be loved in this world? So of course you want adulation and praise, but you have to be careful to write for your own joy, your own sense of humor.
SPURGEON: What's the difference for you between the 70 percent that work and the 30 that don't, then? When something works, what is that like on the page that makes it different from one that doesn't?
For different styles of jokes, it can be entirely different things. For one, there are times where you think you've written a punch line in your last panel but actually what everybody loved was the physicality you drew in the second panel. And you didn't even know that is where the humor was. Sometimes the joke is accidental, even to the cartoonist. If you're truly good, and this is one of the reasons why [Bill] Watterson was brilliant, and why [Charles] Schulz was brilliant, is that they had many legs under the table. If the writing couldn't support it, then the art could support it. And if the art couldn't support it, there was something structural in the strip that made it more beautiful to look at. I think if you do enough of those, you're doing all right as a cartoonist. Where the 30 percent don't work is usually where you don't have enough legs under the table. You either phoned it in on the art, or the writing needed to or three more passes, or the punchline wasn't strong enough and you didn't realize it. Or it's too inside baseball a joke. There's a billion reasons why, but when it comes down to it, it's that there wasn't enough legs under the table.
SPURGEON: I wanted to ask you a Watterson question -- not about his involvement with your film, which I think will be a big part of how you roll this film out and will likely be pretty well-covered in feature articles. I thought you used his responses well and that you earned his trust. His statements are interesting, too, but that's not really a surprise since he was always a fine thinker about comics. I'm more interested in the reason why people will be interested in him being in your film, in the fact that he appeals to two entirely different generations of kids that read his work. People my age and people in their 20s seem equally interested in his work, and maybe even more so now that he's been gone for a while. As a fan, and as a fellow cartoonist, and as someone who thought enough of him to try and get him on the record about some things, what do you think the nature of his appeal is? Why so much passion for him?
Can I back up and take a broader view first?
SPURGEON: Of course.
I was -- for lack of a better phrase -- a student of cartooning. I did two master's degrees in comics history at UCSD
and University of Kent in England
. When I was in England, I was a junior assistant art curator in their archives, whatever my title was. Basically a junior archivist. And it was really helpful to me as a cartoonist to hold forgotten strips' originals in my hands and see how poorly the average comic's writing ages. It's kind of a version of why those 30 percent of strips don't work. If you take a comic out of its age, and try to have it communicate to people 50 years on, so many of them fail. Right? The Gumps
or Mutt & Jeff
were massive hits of their day, blockbusters that made millionaire cartoonists. But if you ask the average person on the street now? Never heard of them. Never read them, never seen them, never even heard the titles.
SPURGEON: I find the one that's happening to now is
Pogo. That's faded from appreciation over the last 20 years, I think in part because it's very specific to its time.
The same thing will happen to Bloom County
. I am aware as a cartoonist that my own work will fade very quickly from history. I'm OK with that. But one of the things that I think Watterson did so brilliantly, and Schulz to a similar extent, is that they wrote for timelessness. Watterson almost never had a reference that couldn't be inferred 30 years from now, 100 years from now. I haven't asked him about it, but I think that was a rational choice from day one, to have a timelessness about what the characters were talking about, the world they inhabited, and what they were doing. Calvin's average playdate was to be up in a tree or making mud pies or playing an imaginary game of football, right? There was never a joke about Dr. Who
or Star Trek
or even a product -- there's never a brand. And so much of today's humor is based on that kind of thing. It's the same as when I would read comics in that archive from 60 to 70 years ago and think, "This doesn't land at all." I think one of the reasons why Watterson will succeed for generation after generation, and maybe for a few hundred years, is that he wrote for a timelessness. Because it's sweet, and because the philosophy is also timeless, I think it will hit for years to come.
SPURGEON: Remind me what the next step is with this movie. You may take the reins yourself, so what does the next six months hold?
Pixar has invited us up to show it to them. We'll show it to the whole studio up there. I'm excited/vomiting thinking about it. Out of nervousness. But that'll be purely for fun. And because it's not set yet we'll be figuring out the best way -- probably digitally -- to get it out to people. Whether that's a service like iTunes or a short theatrical tour we control -- that's called four-walling -- we're going to be nailing that down the next few weeks: a first quarter release to the world.
* Dave Kellett
panel I like
* promotional image for Stripped
* the book in question
* a big panel from Sheldon
* two from Drive
* two from Sheldon
* from The Gumps
* a page from Drive
that I love because it's just drawing spaceships (below)
posted 2:00 am PST
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