December 25, 2013
CR Holiday Interview #08—Gary Tyrrell
is one of the foundational comics bloggers, by which I mean one of the seven or eight bloggers currently working that I believe has an authoritative perspective on a significant aspect of comics making. Tyrrell covers webcomics-making and its supporting sub-culture as that kind of comic became understood around the middle of the last decade: the comics world of folks like Kate Beaton
, David Malki
, Chris Onstad
and Meredith Gran
is a daily stop for me.
I've been dying to meet and/or interview Tyrrell for years; I still have yet to meet him. I thought it was an interesting year for comics of the type he covers, and his conception of a milieu where creators are building on their relationships with their audience in these sorts of specifically targeted ways is an intriguing one to me. I am additionally grateful that Tyrrell gave me so much time for me to ask my old-man questions. I edited what follows a little bit more than usual because we quickly grew so comfortable talking to one another that the conversation became a bit ragged on my end. This is particularly true of the last couple of subjects introduced. That was all me; Tyrrell stayed mostly on point. In typical Fleen
fashion, we end on a super-enthusiastic note, in this case for the forthcoming documentary Stripped
I am super grateful for the time spent by Tyrrell in helping this interview see publication, for his trust in this edit, and for his daily attention to this crucial element of today's comics. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: So I thought I would go back and look at some of the earliest posts on
Fleen, or at least what you still had up.
Eight years now.
SPURGEON: Going back was no help at all. It's the same blog, Gary. It's almost like you started mid-sentence your voice has changed so little in that time. You're completely baffling to me. [Tyrrell laughs] Where the hell did you come from?
Where did I come from? [pause] I came from meeting Jon Rosenberg
and Phillip Karlsson
one year at MoCCA
. Thanks to our shared love of beer, they invited me to their regular Thursday night drink up at the Peculiar Pub in New York. Things just sort of cascaded from there. Once you meet one cartoonist, they have friends, and they have friends, and they have friends...
SPURGEON: So when did you make the choice to write about these people you were meeting? What was involved with making that decision?
It was actually something Jon prompted me to do, something he wrote back on the Goats
site back late 2004, early 2005. There were a number of sites that were purporting to do discussion about webcomics but were written by the people who were doing webcomics. He was railing that if you were doing this you shouldn't just be writing about what you were doing and what the people in your studio are doing. There should be somebody else who's not creating stuff who's doing this.
If you repeat something often enough, with enough beer, it becomes a good idea.
SPURGEON: [laughs] Are there people you consider predecessors? The only one close to you I can think of is Eric Burns-White.
Eric Burns and Xaviar Xerexes
were doing stuff around the same time -- everyone else has dropped out. Eric writes much more in-depth than I do. He does things from a half-fannish perspective, half lit-crit perspective. I don't have any of that training, or that background or that patience. I try to bang things out during the workday. It's more of a... it's a world that fascinates me because I know I could never do it. I enjoy the end product because the mechanics and the business workings and the rest fascinate me.
SPURGEON: Do you have some sort of writing background? You have a very distinctive voice.
No, I'm an engineer by training.
SPURGEON: Okay. [laughs] Is this the first time you'd written in a sustained fashion?
I'd contributed to various things, like writing humor through college and grad school. I've written a couple of technical books. But first of this nature.
SPURGEON: Was there a role-model, maybe outside of comics? Was there someone who covered a scene in a similar fashion with a similar voice?
person, but a lot of the approach where it's not overly fawning but occasionally a bit derisive, that comes out of the British tech newsletter scene. There are some tech newsletters where the tone is somewhat similar, but it's mostly my voice.
SPURGEON: You've been around eight years, which is a billion years of Internet time. But by 2005 it wasn't like it was a brand-new scene. Some people that are around now were already around in some fashion; you also had people who had been doing digital comics for multiple years. So had you been following this material from the 1990s? I'm assuming you hadn't stumbled into that MoCCA Festival out of love for old buildings, but I'm not sure where your comics interests lie.
I stumbled into MoCCA because I was volunteering with the CBLDF
. Which started from... oh... '98 or so. So I'd been to every MoCCA and a bunch of SPX
es working their table. I started to find that the people doing things on-line were much more interesting... their work was much more interesting to me than the people coming out of the older print and minis scene.
I probably started... there used to be a British tech newsletter called NTK
. Doesn't exist any longer. "Need To Know." A lot of the people from that went on to found one called The Register
. They had a writer -- who still does things for them occasionally, but at the time he was doing things for them weekly -- called Simon Travaglia
, who is a systems administrator from New Zealand and invented this character called The Bastard Operator From Hell
, which is every stereotype of the evil, manipulative, murderous even tech guy at a company. Don't cross him. Don't ever cross him unless you want to get stuck in the elevators for a long weekend. When the first collections of his writings came out, I think it was from -- I don't think they're still around -- the old Plan Nine
imprint out of North Carolina. They were at that time starting to print a lot of the first-generation webcomics. So Jeff Darlington's GPF
and Pete Abrams' Sluggy
and Kevin & Kell
and things like that were in their stable. They got people from that end of the world to do illustration. That is where I took the leap over and found Keenspot
, and found Brad Guigar
and a bunch of things like that. I spread out pretty quickly. The original Big Panda Era stuff.
I didn't realize it, but the original Fleen the name was owned by Rosenberg, which was the fairly large electronic entertainment network where Goats
and Waiting For Bob
and a bunch of other early webcomics -- Bobbins
-- were all portaled. I leaped into reading from there.
SPURGEON: Did you have any idea you'd stick with it this long? I know that's a standard question, but I'm fascinated by the continuity of what you've done.
It's sort of half-habit and half-"I'll Show Them All" vengeance seeking at this point. [Spurgeon laughs] Back in my undergraduate days I was on the radio: one of those really tiny college stations with an effective radius of about eight miles. The big, big, cabinet party speakers that we would rent out actually had a higher power draw than our transmitter. One of my friends said the best thing about being on this radio station is you can inflict your musical tastes on people for an hour at a time. If they happen to be listening! That's kind of how I look at what I'm doing. One of the occasional references I make to myself is as a vicious opinion-monger. This is a place where whatever is on my mind, whatever I can construct, whatever I think might be clever -- a gag I want to pound into the pavement -- this is the place where I can do that.
I went to a technical school -- I've mentioned this a couple of times -- with a stringent set of humanities assignments. [Spurgeon laughs] It was very popular. I'm thinking back one day my senior year, a friend of mine and I took a history class. The regular history professor there, and there was just one, was on a Fulbright fellowship
, so we had a substitute for that year. He was spending time on our campus but also at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
. He said about halfway through the term, "I just realized something, guys. I'm teaching you the same curriculum I'm teaching at Urbana, and you guys are on the quarter system so you have ten weeks to a term, they're on the semester system so they have 15 weeks, you're doing as much reading as they are in less time, you're cranking out papers as good as they are... they're history majors, you're engineers, what the hell?' [Spurgeon laughs]
We had to explain that this was the only class we were taking this term that doesn't have math. This is the break.
This was not "History: It's Good!" This was a specific 200-year look at war and revolution from the French Revolution forward. You're reading things like On Crimes And Punishments
and The Social History Of The Machine Gun
and Homage To Catalonia
-- some fairly in-depth stuff. It was the break
. It was where you didn't have to think; it was, quite frankly, a really relaxing time. In engineering the answer is either correct or it's wrong. The math adds up or it doesn't. But if I'm writing about Macchiavelli
, there's room there for argument or even artful bullshit that you can get past someone even if it's a bit weak. So it's creative in a different way.
SPURGEON: So why aren't there more of you?
I came in at a time when there wasn't anyone else. Then at some point, the comments became the place where the community sort of spoke to itself. If there was something about micropayments
, or something about Keenspot, or somebody trying to set up a syndicate model, I could pull a hundred comments on a thread and let people argue back and forth. That's dropped off tremendously. You ask why nobody else is doing this. Since about 2008, as you got twitter showing up, that's where the community talks to itself now. Perhaps that why nobody else has bothered to come in. Not that there's nobody else writing about this, it's just usually in the context of something else. Lauren Davis
writes good stuff, although it's frequently at ComicsAlliance
. Brigid Alverson
writes really nice stuff on webcomics, and so does Johanna Draper Carlson
, through their usual outlets. There's a woman named named Robynne [Blume]
that launched a weekly thing -- a much more in-depth column that runs once a week called Webcomics Worth Wreading
. With a "w" on "reading."
SPURGEON: Okay. [laughs]
So there are people doing this, in a more formalist context in a lot of cases. I'm either burying myself for a week looking at numbers in a kickstarter, or it's whatever I can bang out over 90 minutes at lunch time.
SPURGEON: From what I understand talking to you informally, you think the core Fleen readership, your few thousand regular readers, you think this is a well-connected group... very much at the core of people making the webcomics and/or making a profit from them or sustaining a business in service to them. You also get a number of people who want to be those people.
Or even if it's not the people who are making the profit from the webcomics, the webcomics are there along with where they're making their profit. A perfect example would be almost anybody out of Periscope Studio
, or Karl Kerschl
who has established a career at the big comic book companies but Charles Christopher
SPURGEON: So you don't have to explain things. There's not a webcomics 101 voice that you feel need to use. Are you comfortable talking with your audience in a kind of assured, "we're all in the know here" way or do you wonder after every post being potentially someone's first post?
It's interesting you ask that. As soon as you asked that, I went right to Stan Lee who always admonished that every issue was going to be somebody's first issue. I'm thinking I'm probably don't have continuity crud: "but in issue #27, Spider-Man's girlfriend clearly said..." [Spurgeon laughs] I think I write things at an apparent-enough level, it's possibly the engineer in me, that if somebody reading me can't get through what I've written and follow the links I've provided and figure out what's going on then I have failed at my job. But I don't sit back and define all my terms each time. There's been times where there's been complaining about something has been a little "inside baseball," where I was opaque enough that somebody said, "Huh?" And okay: I'll do better next time.
SPURGEON: You don't have continuity crud, but now that you've been doing it for several years do you ever think of your coverage in terms of recurring stories? Or repeating beats within your coverage -- like crowd-funding, or platform issues, do you think about it ever in terms of stories that repeat?
It's honestly whatever comes to me on the day. I've usually got within Wordpress a post or two of one-line things and then rearrange them according to some kind of theme I can hang a title on. Yesterday for example, suggested naturally doing some vaguely-related follow-ups on various things I've talked about recently. Hasn't gone up yet, but today's will probably be on the theme of holiday gifts. "Here are holiday gifts that are interesting to us."
SPURGEON: Let's talk about this year. Or if a year isn't a proper way to look at these things, let's talk about the recent past as it relates to right now. I thought Joey Manley passing away might be a place for us to start because certainly someone's passing is a thing we all recognize in the classic sense as being a story. It's as old-fashioned a story as you can get.
I didn't know Joey well. What struck me so much about Joey, was after he first hooked up with E-Line
, I spoke to him at New York Comic-Con
in I want to say '08. He was full of enthusiasm about what he'd be doing over the next six to 12 months... and it didn't show up. I'd ping him and say, "When is that coming?" He'd say, "I can't talk about that right now." And eventually those intervals between my pinging him became longer, and it became a ritualized once-a-year: "Still can't talk yet. Nope." I wonder what he didn't get to build because of his partners and where their focus was going to be or what they were willing to fund or their priorities and where they might have shifted.
SPURGEON: He was known for that kind of initial enthusiasm, though, enough so that it's a big part his legacy, I would imagine: this kind of overwhelming optimism about the possibility of of a structure or a plan or an element of organization brought to this world.
A lot of his really most influential stuff was a bit before I came on the scene, which I experienced as a removed consumer. Looking back at the number of people that cite him as having been influential on their having careers and then how long ago that was, he was very prescient in that respect. I wonder if he could have had a different kind of partner or someone that was willing to treat his work as an angel investment -- "Look, we think you're onto something here and we're going to write you a check and stay back" -- as opposed to bringing him in to run a division.
SPURGEON: I asked a bit earlier why we didn't have a few more figures like you, but is there a reason we haven't seen more figures like Manley? There aren't a whole lot of non-creators of significant import in that world. Robert Khoo, maybe. Yourself.
I think you'd have to put several levels of magnitude between me and Joey.
SPURGEON: I'm just saying there's a dearth of such figures on any level, which I don't even mean as a criticism but as something worth noting about the culture.
From my reading of the history, Joey got to be Joey because he got a good cash-out from his tech endeavors and then decided, "What am I going to do with this money?" And that's a rare enough thing... I'm surprised that we got one Joey Manley.
SPURGEON: I flashed on creator-producers -- you have creators that have been around a while now. They're lifers, or at least seem to be. And I think they're taking on those terms now more than ever. There's a shift away from looking at what people like that might do and as shift towards paying closer attention to what they're doing right now. People that you routinely cover -- like David Malki, for instance -- seem to be uniquely interesting creator-businessmen, and I have almost no grasp what the market they're working in is like. Is there a primer for those of us that behind the times there, an introduction you can give us as to what you're seeing right now?
When you said you wanted to talk about stuff that was going on this year, I jotted down a couple of notes. A theme that keeps coming up is that I think that 2013 -- I might even go back as far as 2012 -- has seen the flowering of, the end result of, the long-game. Malki is able to pull down a half-million on a kickstarter. Or Ryan North
is able to. Or Aaron Diaz
is able to. They have spent the last who-knows-how-long priming that field and establishing that audience.
Take Malki as an example. He spent a couple of years putting together that first Machine Of Death anthology
in addition to doing his own stuff. He spread things out. He started working on the second one, still spreading things out. Here's the card game that's coming along: $542,000 was I think the number on Kickstarter. In large part it's because he has this audience, but also in large part because he has this well-spring of "If only I had the right vehicle, I could do something this wacky." Did you see the video released this week of one of his kickstarter pledges, I think it was at the $299 level, in that they would take your particular order and show it to a goat before mailing it to you.
SPURGEON: No. No, I did not see that.
Six people bought into that, so he had to go find some goats. He went out to a university-run research zoo, and they had a herd of goats. The goats were not all that interested, but he had to make sure they stared at the box and were told which one it was.
He had some dumb idea probably five years ago: "Some day I should offer someone the opportunity where I will sell them something at a huge mark-up by showing it to an animal first." He had the opportunity to do something like that. Everything Ryan North has been doing for the past year with the Choose Your Own Hamlet
project: he says, "I will literally explode" and then he has to figure out how to do that. He says, "I will write a sequel" and he has to figure out a way to do that. He says he'll do this and that the other, and it's all a matter of these incredibly creative people that have this wellspring of incredibly creative ideas. "Well, I already had this project going; I can hang another incremental thing onto that."
The story I like to use to explain how this works as a case study: it's a year ago now, when Ryan North launched his kickstarter where for $25 you would get a print copy of To Be OR Not To Be
with I think 25 black and white illustrations. By the time that Kickstarter wrapped, 30 days later, that same 25 bucks got you that book, the prequel book about Yorick, To Be Or Not To Be
was going to have 110 full-color illustrations, a bookmark, stickers, an electronic copy of To Be Or Not To Be
and Poor Yorick
, electronic copies of all the Dinosaur books
and something else I forget. The value of what you got went larger in there.
SPURGEON: It seems to me like you're talking about two different things, basically. One is encouraging the audience to participate in the building of a cultural event around the making of something related to a creative personality, and the other is the act of ensuring that the thing received increases in value.
But the way I see it, all these things are possible because they spent so many years fertilizing that ground by saying, "Okay, I only have the mechanism, I only have the structure to do one thing at a time right now," and for Ryan that may be six panels of the same art with different language. Over five or six years people come to understand that nobody uses language like Ryan North. Now that we've seen him do these incredible things with those six panels, what might he do with this other thing that everybody knows?
With Malki... he always has something on the backburner. It's been a couple of years now that he's been going out to shows with a little Machine Of Death. You put your finger in, he hits it with a red marker, he gives you a band-aid, and out comes a card that tells you how you're going to die. He's been priming that audience with something they're becoming more familiar with. And of course I want to see more of that, because it was those stories, and the interaction and experience. Along the way he decides to make this stuff and take a class in machining and make little films about it. It's different bits of expression. It sets this expectation in the audience that these are people that are creative, and if you give them a project with lots of branching off points from it, they'll branch off in different directions.
SPURGEON: So what you're saying is that this all comes out of compact between artist and audience based on their art.
It comes out of the art and the expectations they've set. Ryan might not have gotten the enormous take-up on his book if by that time he hadn't been producing Adventure Time books
for about a year. He's just terrific on that, so people get to see what he would do with a longer format.
SPURGEON: That's not too far awat from the classic idea of using the way a cartoonist may corner a set of ideas or a certain area and then sell their expertise and access to that thing, like
Penny Arcade and their access to and expertise with gaming culture. It's just creating one's own, very specific area of expertise.
With Penny Arcade
, they got there earlier than anyone else, and they're better than anyone else for that five to eight year head start.
SPURGEON: Right. So this is more like... [laughs] You know, Gary, I'm not even asking questions anymore; I'm just expressing befuddlement in your general proximity. This is stuff I should probably have figured out from your columns. [laughter] Here's an old-man question. Is this a model you think is available to the entire artistic community, or is this unique to a few people?
It's absolutely available to everyone. This is a bunch of people that have in their own ways been establishing themselves and building their networks. The other huge thing that hit this year is these projects that spring up and it seems like half of webcomics is working on in one way or another. One of the Cartoon Network affiliated comics from BOOM!: between all the people that have done main stories, back-up stories covers for Adventure Time
and the spin-off mini-series, and working with The Regular Show
and its mini-series and Bravest Warriors
... half of webcomics is working on those in one form or another. Or you get everything that's coming out from ShiftyLook
-- half of webcomics is either working on their regular properties or the Namco High game
coming out next week. The creators know each other now. "Andrew Hussie
is going to be working with ShiftyLook. Because he knows Ananth Panagariya
he's going to get made head writer, and because Ananth knows Magnolia Porter
she's going to be writing with him and because they know all these different people they'll be the character designers."
SPURGEON: So it is different now that for someone that shows up, say, next week? Is that an easy community to enter, given those community ties may be so overwhelmingly important?
If your work is good enough, absolutely. Some of the people that are showing up were known for other things and boom, they're in their right away. I'm thinking of Ryan Estrada
-- he thankfully funded out his kickstarter for his next Whole Story
yesterday. Have you seen Broken Telephone
and its pitch? Eighteen interlocking stories, and the first name that jumped out at me on that list is Amy T. Falcone
who started this year. I don't think would have been on that list but she made her name in the first season of Strip Search
and she's done work since and it's good. Now is an eight- to 12-page story in an electronic anthology going to make a career? No. But it's a job. And it's a job she wouldn't have had if she hadn't made that impression in the last year. Ryan is living in South Korea; he's never met Amy. That has to be a matter of "I saw your work and it was good."
SPURGEON: And I imagine it's the comics themselves that keep people from bum rushing the scene. You can't really fake comics. So in that sense, there's a
greater chance for it to be a scene based on merit.
It's a scene based on merit, but I think it's more than merit there; I think there's also authenticity. I think it was Dave Kellett that pointed out four or five years ago when Kate Beaton just exploded onto the scene, she was drawing in ballpoint pen on copy paper these autobiographical stories talking to her younger self and putting it up on livejournal with not great scans. Everything that should have been wrong. But there was something authentic in the voice, a point of view that hadn't been done before, a thing that is fulfilling a need and she came out of nowhere. Absolutely out of nowhere.
I would argue that the most successful of the Strip Search
contestants, Abby Howard
, she was living in Montreal doing a fairly scribbly journal comic that almost nobody read called Junior Scientist Power Hour
. I hadn't heard of her before she was on the show. I went and looked at the work, and by no means was it the most sophisticated work out there but there's a voice out there and it's hilarious. Seeing her on the show she has a big personality. Her kickstarter comes along to do her big project and I think she cleared $100K on it. Literally unknown; just a matter of getting the right work in front of the right eyes. If it didn't resonate the right way, that wouldn't have happened.
SPURGEON: Now a television show seems different to me. If this mechanism exists, why wasn't she discovered solely on the merits of her webcomics themselves? Why did it take the TV show for you to go find them?
Well, web TV show. It's still a matter of the right person sharing with the right people sharing it with the right people. Kate Beaton through luck was roomies -- if I remember the story correctly -- with Emily [Horne} from A Softer World
who showed it to Ryan North who shared it on Dinosaur Comics
and boom that was it. The end of the week she's everywhere.
SPURGEON: So everyone's Nick Frost now.
Kind of like, yeah. Or Simon Pegg.
SPURGEON: One more old-man question. You've mentioned the size of these projects, these crowd-funding projects. You've talked about the aggregate total. How much of that goes to sustaining the living of the cartoonist?
Depends on the project. If it's an anthology from Ryan Estrada, everything that he makes aside from mailing out some of his rewards goes to the artist. If it's one of Spike
's anthologies, the more she makes on it the more she pays the artists. She lays out the schedule: "They've already been this amount; we hit this figure they get another $50. They hit this dollar figures they get another $50 per page." With Smut Puddler #1
, I think she hit somewhere in the range of the $400 to $450 per artist per page range above what she already paid them because the kickstarter took off. In other cases, I don't follow every kickstarter out there because there are so damn many of them, but in the ones I'm most familiar with it's supporting the work in question. "We've made x-amount of money, so we improve the project this way" rather than supporting the creator because that's where you end up with busted kickstarters and howling, angry mobs.
SPURGEON: Sure. [laughs]
There's a famous case recently where someone raised $125,000 and blew it all moving to Portland and establishing a company and not actually producing the project and saying, "Sorry, money's all gone!"
SPURGEON: The community that you cover is not prone to do that, I'm guessing.
The ones that are successful aren't prone to doing things like that. I'm still remembering at SDCC
last year, 2012, there was a kickstarter panel and people like Vijaya Iyer
and Batton Lash
and Jimmy Palmiotti
were up on the panel and it was clear that 97 percent of the people in that room were those that wanted to get in on the magic money machine and they haven't actually produced a comic before but they're certain if someone gave them $50,000 they'd make the best comic ever. There's a huge Dunning-Kruger effect
there. It tends to self-select out moreso in comics than a lot of other environments on kickstarter.
Howard Tayler set me up with an interview with a guy that follows kickstarters primarily in the boardgame community. That community is so desperate for new stuff that might only exist in Europe that anybody that comes up with a pitch for a Euro-style boardgame, they'll throw in 20 or 30 bucks knowing that a third or more will never produce, because it's cheaper than trying to import new product and the ones they get that are gems will have been cheaper than getting them that way. But in the comics community, it's a case of this wealth of material that can be read for free. Unless it's someone showing you something that's already given you a wealth of material you've enjoyed and you want to support them, or you've established a track record where you can deliver, you're not getting my ten bucks.
I won't name it, but there's a kickstarter with the most incomprehensible pitch ever and it went 30 days and garnered exactly zero dollars. And a month later the exact same pitch launched again, not a word was changed, and it garnered zero dollars. And then a month later it was up again and it garnered to bucks from a creator of my acquaintance who was so enjoying the insanity he wanted to encourage it. [laughter] "I want to keep this guy going forever." There's a lot of self-delusion out there. Even for people that have good support structures behind them.
I shudder to think what David Malki's sanity or Aaron Diaz's sanity might be like if not for the launching of Make That Thing
, which is the TopatoCo
subsidiary to fulfill kickstarters. It's broader than that -- they'll help manage the campaign and they're involved in it from the get go. Things that would have these great big huge outcomes without that, or without a Breadpig behind it, or one of the other support structures that have really come into their own this year -- TopatoCo, Make That Thing, Breadpig
-- I don't know what their magic ad manipulating, ad-wrangling formula but the Hiveworks collective identity has been picking up comics left and right and the creators I've been talking to say, "Yeah, I get nice big checks out of them." They've figured out how to run the ad brokering game that's tremendous for their people.
To that aspect as a support structure, you might argue that Strip Search
was that. It shined a spotlight. I don't know what the audience demographics were, and I don't know if Robert Khoo could tell me -- I don't know if they have that ability. I would wage that a good 80 percent of the viewership of Strip Search
came from PA's established audience. Which in a lot of cases their pop culture thing is entirely the videogames and not the comics aspect of it at all -- Penny Arcade
is as far as they go into comics, and now they've been exposed a bunch of different types of comics. And the creators that went through that are establishing points of interaction and passing jobs back and forth and a bunch of them have been hired onto various things and have found ways to organize their careers since. So that's kind of like a support structure.
SPURGEON: Dave Kellett also mentioned this to me: these companies that spring up to serve cartoonists, to serve self-starting cartooning crowd-funded or not, is what may take the place of a more standard industry infrastructure. It's a structure based on service.
They work for the creators rather than the other way around.
launched, I went through their contract line by line. I said, "This is probably better than we've ever seen before coming out of the publishers, and kudos to them for making it public, but what we really need is an anti-Zuda." I called it "Aduz." And that's what these companies are.
SPURGEON: Do you have any advice for traditional publishers that want to move into this space, any general words of wisdom? Because while the orientation is very different, these companies have almost no choice but to try and move into this space. They have to deal with it, anyway. Is there anything you would have them learn from the world that you cover? For instance, it seems to me that the Fantagraphics kickstarter was the younger people at the company, and that they were able to mirror the excitement that people bring to these webcomics-culture crowd-funders.
SPURGEON: Is there anything you would recommend, or maybe anyone you would recommend, companies pay attention to?
It maybe less a person or a trend or a mechanism, or more that... I brought up TopatoCo.
The biggest analogy to webcomics I find among the print publishers is First Second
. The reason for that is they have the sense of restraint and curation and they'd rather deal with a number of high-quality clients than grow unbounded. The smartest thing that Jeff [Rowland] and Holly [Rowland] at TopatoCo ever did was say, "We are not going to accept clients beyond our ability to make good things." They could be I'm guessing five to ten times their present size if they took on everybody that had an interest in working with them. But they can't do that well. So they don't. They say, "Look. You can send us your stuff and we'll look at it, we promise, but if we wanted to work with you chances are we've already talked to you. And we have to keep this controlled." They grew at a controlled pace for a bunch of years and then they tapered that off even though they've hired people in a way that you get a good, quality experience there. Same thing with Make That Thing. They could have sustained a lot more projects this year if they had been willing to half-ass a couple of them, if they had been willing to work outside of some of their comfort areas. They're not ever going to work on a technology project because they don't have expertise there. They can't say, "We can make this as bulletproof as possible."
Hiveworks has grown explosively this year. I hope that it doesn't get away from them. Because if they continue on that path there may be too many clients to serve all of their needs, which will not all perfectly align with each other simultaneously. I don't know if that will happen. I don't know that won't happen. I don't know the people that run it. I've been impressed with what they've built so far, as long as they keep in mind what they can accomplish.
I started thinking along these lines more than anything after talking to Howard Tayler
about his kickstarter earlier this year for the Challenge Coins. Did you follow that one?
SPURGEON: I remember that one, sure.
$1800 goal and he cleared over $100K. He stopped adding stretch goals with a couple of weeks to go, even though they were really driving up his totals. He said to himself, "It's not the manufacturing that's going to be the critical chokepoint here; it's me coming up with designs. If I keep committing to more, something will have to slip. I won't get a book out this year, or I'm going to have to do something with the strip I'm not happy with..." -- maybe some of these other writing things he was trying to do he wouldn't be to complete. Not might have done as many of the Excuses podcast
and he's got that rocket ship statue at home on his mantlepiece so what a good job that was.
That was the most visible indication to me. I'll admit, it snapped me out of the kickstarter, "another stretch goal, it's bigger; another stretch goal, it's bigger! something more! something more!" fever. Where someone said, "Nah, I've got to rein this back in." And have some sense of limit
It's the quality approach rather than a sheer quantity approach. Whether it's the number of clients you've got, whether it's what you're doing with your project, whether it's how many books you're putting out a year.
I think that last year I toted up that six separate First Second books were up for Eisner or equivalent level awards. They only put out 18 books that year, so that's fairly astonishing. If I got my count right this year it's 20, if you count Boxers & Saints as one project. Which is a sense of restraint you don't normally see. I think it's all done by four people there.
SPURGEON: Gina [Gagliano], Mark [Siegel], Calista [Brill] and Colleen [Venable]. They share and have resources, but that's essentially true, yeah.
If nothing else, First Second showed me something I didn't know that I could have: it showed me that I could have a favorite book designer. I love the stuff that Colleen Venable does. It's gorgeous.
SPURGEON: It seems strange that I just this interview's first aesthetic response from you, and it's directed at a print publisher. A designer at a print publisher! I'm not sure there's a good way to get into the art of webcomics, so let's just plunge in. One major talent that came back and started doing comics again in the webcomics world was Chris Onstad, although I don't detect as much excitement as I thought there might be for him doing regular comics. What do you like? How do your tastes run? What do you think was good, whether or not people noticed it?
My tastes are fairly... fairly broad. A lot of stuff that I love unabashedly is not necessarily the biggest market stuff. People come to me over the last five years and ask, "What is the best stuff out there?" and I don't think I've ever produced the same list twice.
I was very excited about Onstad coming back. He's shown a nice consistency, and he may be getting into one of his really weird story arcs right now -- and a long
callback, going back to the very beginnings of the strip, if he carries through on this penny bit. I would love to see that.
Just for people that are doing good, quirky, individual-voice, not-like-anything-else-out-there work, week after week, I love Magnolia Porter's Monster Pulse
. If Pokémon were real, and there was a little pinch of body horror mixed in with teenaged adolescence... she's not writing 'tweens and teens as little, wisecracking adults. She's writing them as kids. They're fumbling and they're bumbling and they doing they're best and they're got on each others' nerves and they're best friends and, and, and... all the things that people are at that age when they are trying to figure out who they are. And then you have the additional, "You've got a monster replacing one of your body parts." Really bizarre premise, but she makes it work.
I am unapologetic that K. Brooke Spangler -- she's largely dropped her nom-de-Internet of "Otter" -- does a terrific strip called A Girl And Her Fed
. It's about the surveillance state, and it's about technology and it's about how we interact with those things, and liberty and dick jokes. Absolutely wonderful, wonderful dick jokes, that are subtle and there's a long build-up to them. She's terrific and her art has come miles and miles and miles. This year she's started doing novelizations set in her world and they are legitimately really, really good.
I am really impressed by everything Jim Zub
does. Talk about the long game: the time he's spent establishing himself, and putting together skills, and if he's not doing something that's specifically web-comicky, it's close enough. The stuff that he obviously loves is the stuff he owns. And he's finding a way to work all that out. Similarly, the aesthetic you get out of Ryan Estrada and wanting to work with as many creators as he can and come up with as much good comics as he can... almost everything that comes out of Erika Moen
and Dylan Meconis
makes me smile, because they each have these wonderful, wonderful voices of their own. They're just awesome, hilarious people.
is a very diverse group.
I don't have a type.
SPURGEON: There's no implicit criticism in my pointing out that, I swear. Is there any way to figure out what is going on in a broader sense in terms of what we're seeing or what we're experiencing in terms of development? It seems at one point that webcomics was driven a lot more by formal issues, for instance, and that you had guys like Drew Weing and Cat Garza making things you couldn't necessarily do with print comics. More to the point, it's what we talked about when we talked about webcomics. And then, for while, it seemed like the rhetoric regarding the best of webcomics was dominated by the low entry point and the way this facilitated greater diversity in creative voices, and that you could experience these artists that for whatever reason were not going to come to you through the traditional gatekeepers. Do you see similar shifts?
I think we may be on to a third or a third and a half wave. Whereas your first wave was McCloud and the formalists, and your second wave was people who were doing things that couldn't get syndicated because of their content or their topic matter but were recognizably newspaper strip type things -- the children of reading the newspaper in the '80s. The ones that grew up on Calvin and Hobbes
and Bloom County
. Then you got to your third wave who were just starting out, 13 or 14 when that second wave started to get popular. So they decide, "Oh, I can do that." And a lot of them went off to art school and did that. You're onto kind of a third and a half wave where we're into a world where you didn't ever not see these possibilities. You end up with these -- I'll call them "kids" -- who are in their early- or mid-twenties and doing interesting stuff, but a lot of what's coming up newest right now are people who kept their artistic careers quieter and just exploded. In some cases... Emily Carroll
exploring what you can do with the McCloudian infinite canvas.
SPURGEON: It's not like those kinds of comics ever go away, it's just that this isn't the dominant mode of discussion. Because you're right: Emily Carroll would have fit in perfectly with the people over whom Scott McCloud became enthusiastic. But we don't tend to think of Carroll in terms of those formal flourishes first.
It's not about structure, it's about who these people are and where they've been and why we haven't noticed them before. You think about Boulet... okay, we didn't notice him before because it was all in French. But then... "Darkness" was the first thing that hit on this side of the Atlantic translated, and he's brilliant and he's got what, an 18-month delay on his daily comics except for his tour. Again, he's creating these things that couldn't be done anyplace other than digital. But it's still just a case of a creator having a vision and may as well go and do it himself. "No one is going to pay me to do an enlightenment tale of werewolves." "No one's going to pay me to do Girls
before it was Girls
set in Brooklyn, twenty-somethings figuring out their lives." "No one's going to pay me to do comics about literature and history."
SPURGEON: Is there anything you worry about?
Five years ago I was worried about co-option. When DC
were talking about, "Oh, we're going to do webcomics." And it was like, "Okay, you're talking about traditional publishing that just happens to go on the web and because you have corporate backing with too much it happens to be a horrible interface. I don't worry about that so much anymore.
When "We scanned a bunch of stuff here but the eyes blink." I can see things like that coming from major corporate interests, Functionally, to me, it's not any different than when in, oh, '65 or '66, they just photographed a bunch of static panels from early Marvel comics and made occasionally whooshing sounds and turned them into cartoons. It's not much more interesting than that.
There's an understanding from people that came up with digital that doesn't come naturally to other people no matter how well intentioned they may be. I'm going to be very careful about how I word this and I'll ask you to pay extra attention that I don't sound like a jerk.
I adore Vijaya Iyer. I adore Jeff Smith
. I will buy anything that Cartoon Books puts out. Absolutely anything. The approach they took to the reading experience of Tuki Save The Humans
is kind of terrible. The RSS feed leads to a static image of one panel, and you have to click on that to make it bigger. To navigate the archive, you get placeholder image which you then have to click to make that one page come up, then you have to go back in your browser to navigate through. It's a clumsy reading experience, which I attribute to the fact that Jeff and Vijaya are a couple of years older than I am.
Yesterday Meredith Gran tweeted a photo. She was grading papers for her webcomics class. Something had caught her fancy, and she had written in traditional professor's red pencil "LOL" next to something. She's dealing with kids that are not yet 20, for whom an immersive or at least a non-interrupted navigational experience is baked right into their DNA. It would never have occurred to them to a reading experience like Tuki
-- which I'm really enjoying the hell out of.
SPURGEON: It's super good-looking, and I think it's a storyline that plays to all of Jeff's strengths. I read it in an earlier form off of Jeff's computer, so I haven't seen their interface yet.
I was happy when Vijaya was asking after people that were really good at web design to put some names to her, because it needs to be re-done. They could not have conceived of that reading experience, where the structure and material are working at cross-purposes.
SPURGEON: So your worry is that there are some excellent cartoonists and virtuous businesspeople -- people like Jeff and Vijaya -- may have missteps along the way just because they come from a different perspective.
It doesn't have to last very long. They'll recognize it's a problem and fix it. Which means there will be a better experience than with a big corporation where everything's looked at from a very different perspective. Not that it always works badly. Thinking back, I don't think Girl Genius
had this experience when it launched as a web exclusive.
SPURGEON: So you sound pretty positive. You sound like you think things are in a good place, and it's something that I think comes out of your blog right now even more so than usual. You sound enthused for the successes people are having and the ability for people to build on these successes.
Webcomics can't implode barring a major shift to the structure and nature of the Internet, which would cause uprisings beyond comics on the Internet. If people can't get their cat gifs, there will be rioting in the streets. [Spurgeon laughs]
What may happen is that there may be a new delivery protocol or new delivery method out there that comes along and people are too slow to adapt much like the syndicates were too slow to adapt to the Internet. Or the music labels were too slow to adapt to the Internet or the movie companies were too slow to adapt to the Internet. But in the past couple of years, let's say, there's been recognition by the first generation of come up on the Internet and professionalize it creators to say, "The only thing that scares me is missing the next thing." They're constantly on the lookout for that. There have been incremental structural changes in terms of how they relate to an audience. Twitter for example. Tumblr for example. But nothing revolutionary like the Internet as a new technology. That would be the only thing that would cause the disruption. And even then that would be, "Okay, I've already figured out how to make things work here and maybe the new medium doesn't have an ad network the same way and I have to start up..." there's an adaptability there.
I think that that's most demonstrated by the fact that Brad Guigar is going to be teaching a class on the entrepreneurial end of art careers at art school. It's determined by things like I mentioned earlier this week: If you've got someone with ideas and the "well, let's just try it and see if it works" attitude as opposed to the "we must study it" attitude, you end up sometimes with a runaway success. Rich Stevens
has one of those every six months. I don't want to speculate what percentage of his income is built out of products with the word "fuck" on them. [laughter] That coffee mug is now a line of coffee mugs. The ice scraper he had to fight to get made is now so popular he's selling them in ten packs. He had an idea, said, "Let's try this. We'll do a run and see if it works." And boom. It worked.
SPURGEON: So to be clear, you don't see Tumblr as a game-changer.
I don't see Tumblr as a distribution platform because Tumblr's entire mechanism is built around re-sharing but in a way that doesn't lead back to the original. I don't know if Kate Beaton is the reigning queen or Zack Weiner is the reigning king of having attribution stripped off of their stuff and tumbl'd around and getting far more re-shares. "Look at what I found and now give me the credit" as opposed to even the original person putting it on tumblr themselves.
SPURGEON: Okay, I'm a bit confused, because when you describe it like that, it sounds horrible.
It sounds horrible if your model depended upon putting your stuff on tumblr exclusively and hoping that the eyes came to you.
There's no attribution culture on tumblr, although one could develop. The other thing about that is -- I have no presence on tumblr. I spend almost no time there, and go there if someone puts out a link and I end up there not realizing it's tumblr. My impression
is that it's tough to brand yourself there. "Oh, look at this thing I found on Tumblr" as opposed to "Look at this thing I found on Kate Beaton's tumblr." The most important thing for these creators to have is they are identified as the creator and the attention goes to them than the particular creation. As long as that share model sits on tumblr I don't think it can be an effective means of keeping the brand on yourself.
SPURGEON: So it's not an impediment to building an audience? If things primarily take off on tumblr, that isn't a worry to someone who would prefer it take off from a devoted site?
I really don't think so. Tumblr will die on the vine if there's not original content coming from someplace. The tagging aspects of tumblr make it easy to find a lot of stuff from a lot of people that you wouldn't have found otherwise. There may be a serendipity factor in there. It's almost an ideal infrastructure for things going widely
viral from community to community. Apart from that, the creators I know that maintain tumblrs, they do so in terms of having art tumblrs, or stuff that is not tied to the key property.
SPURGEON: You said you made a list, Gary. Did I hit everything?
You talked to Dave Kellett so I'm guessing you talked about Stripped
SPURGEON: We did. That interview will have run by the time this interview appears on the blog, but of course the movie roll-out is ongoing, and starts in earnest in 2014.
I'm so excited to see that. I cannot wait to see -- if people are going crazy over Dear Mr. Watterson
-- I can't wait to see what happens when people hear, "Oh, we happen to have [Bill] Watterson's voice speaking in his own words about what all this means." I cannot wait to see this movie. I am so thrilled for what it is going to do for Fred [Schroeder] and Dave and their crew Jen [Troy] and Ben [Waters] -- I know I'm forgetting some people -- and the praise it should bring them as creators -- even if it's just in very specialized communities. That they're invited to animation studios up and down the coast is very encouraging to me. I am perhaps more thrilled that this is going to become part of the canon, if you will, for future people inte0rested in comics, comic strips, animation -- seeing how these people that came before them thought and how they approached things. What they looked like, what they sounded like, what their passions were, how they approached this key point of inflection.
I'm also salivating at the thought that they're still in the process of figuring out what they're going to do with the 300 hours of material that didn't make it into the film. That they have two hours of McCloud talking... I'm eating this stuff up. I hope Dave and Fred get really, really drunk after they press that master and get it out into the world and take a deep breath before deciding what to do next. I know Dave's just itching to draw more.
* logo image from the Fleen
* from Goats
* from Waiting For Bob
, which I went looking for because I had never heard of it
* from The Abominable Charles Christopher
* David Malki at ECCC 2013
* logo from Make That Thing
* images from Achewood
* image from Emily Carroll
* image from Tuki
posted 4:00 pm PST
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