A couple months back, cartoonist and all-around gentleman Brad Guigar did a writeup of his remembrances of ten years in webcomics. That’s a long time, and it looks like my ten-year anniversary sneaked up on me. During Brad’s reminiscing I realized 2010 would also be my tenth year in webcomics, but I put it out of my mind until tonight. November 10, 2010 felt familiar to me for some reason. Oops! And here it is, 1 AM, and I haven’t prepared anything to say.
I have always been a cartoonist. I drew my first comics at age four. I have memories at age eight or nine drawing careful two-by-two grids on copier paper. I would only draw in ink — often I would start a drawing of a person’s head (just a circle), decide that I didn’t like the looks of it, and get another piece of paper. Somewhere in my parents’ house, there are dozens upon dozens of bequadranted sheets with part of a face or head in the top left panel.
My first character was Diving-Man. He had a round head, a mask, and fins instead of shoes. It wasn’t like I loved diving — although come to think of it, my dad told me stories about how he used to scuba-dive, hmm — I think the only reason Diving-Man existed was two lines across the eyes made for an easy distinguishing characteristic to give a character.
He evolved a small cast around him. My drawing did not really improve. I barely read any comics. I never knocked out overlapping lines, so you could see through people’s arms and legs to other parts of their rectangular bodies. I couldn’t draw hands; they were just little lumps or paws. If I needed to indicate a pointing finger, I drew a little scribble-ball with a single stick extending from it.
This kind of thing went on until junior high, when I decided that I was embarrassed by my art. So I learned to draw hands from looking at Hobbes’ hands from Calvin and Hobbes. My stories started to draw heavily on ideas I’d seen in Tiny Toon Adventures. I moved my cast of characters to a “studio” where they “filmed” comic strips for print. The theme of comic strip characters being self-aware became an unshakable theme in my work.
I became a fan of Iron Man and subscribed to a fanzine, Advanced Iron, which at the time came in the mail and was just a stack of photocopies. I was enthralled not just by the content, but the fact that I had as many ideas in a month. I could do that too. With my mom’s help and her photocopy machine at work, I started to assemble monthly “magazines,” stapled in the corners, maybe fifteen or twenty pages each. They contained pages of comics of some kind, along with short stories or fake classified ads or columns written by thinly-veiled parodies of other characters. I sold these to classmates and the occasional art teacher for fifty cents a piece. I remember a good month having nine sales in it.
I stopped when I got to high school (after a period where I instead released my comics in quarterly journals for a buck each). My old cast of characters began to fade; they had the taint of careless youth about them. Nothing made sense in their designs — parts of their anatomy had open lines (how could you color them?), some still had scuba masks even though they’d dropped the diving pretense long before. I had no idea why any of them were friends. Everything needed reevaluating.
I came from a very practical family of doctors and engineers, and even though I drew and wrote all this time, it could Never be a Career. This was the stuff of hobbies. Even when I was little, I never said outright that I wanted to be a cartoonist. I said I wanted to be an architect — they got to draw, but for a real purpose. I had also been interested in computer programming, which is what I went to UCLA to get a degree in.
This would have been around 1997 or 1998. At some point I submitted a multi-panel strip to the Daily Bruin, calledCheckerboard Nightmare. It featured Chex, a checkerboard-suited character, in his failed attempts to become famous. The editor told me they already had a lot of multi-panel strips, and asked if I would do a single-panel gag instead. I went along with it. I remember they had me draw at size, which was four-by-four inches. Early on, Checkerboard Nightmare was very Ziggy-like, and while I thought it got a little smarter as time went on, I didn’t like the economy of a lone panel. I got jealous of strips I thought were awful that had three times the page space. Although, I thought a neat feature of the Daily Bruin website was the inclusion of scans of the comics, along with HTML versions of the columns and articles.
In summer of 2000 I graduated, but this was just after the dotcom crash. My friends, who had graduated a little earlier than me and already had amazing jobs, found themselves getting laid off and considering returning to school. It took me three months to find employment as a programmer in the valley. It was somewhere in here that I began reading Scott’s PvP and Barry Smith’sAngst Technology, and thought, “this is exactly what I do all day already, but they put their stuff where anyone can read it.”
I already had a website listing my interests, the nerd equivalent of blogging about one’s cat; the biggest one I had was a MechWarrior fan page that attracted a hundred people a month (!!!). I started posting a new, four-panel version ofCheckerboard Nightmare. A few weeks after that, I stumbled upon Brad’s Greystone Inn, which had almost the same premiseas I was shooting for. He beat me to the punch! I was wrecked and quickly changed my approach to the comic.
I did this with no pretense of getting rich or even being a cartoonist. I had ideas, and I thought I had a good sense of humor, so why not let other people read it? I wasn’t even sure that people were reading it at all, or if that even mattered. I joined PvP’s online forums and probably found most of my first readers there. I remember posting in the Angst Technology forum, asking Barry for help on whether I should update five days a week or just three. His advice is the advice I still give — do whatever you’ll be able to do week after week and be consistent with.
I was a software developer for almost four years. The job paid poorly and I later found out my boss believed that I could bail at any minute, what with being an impetuous UCLA graduate, and had actually kept me from projects that would give me longevity at the company and inside teams. The hours became unreasonable and I was putting in eighty-hour weeks without overtime. One day, I was informed that I wasn’t working enough, and was placed on six-month probation to improve my output. I gave two weeks’ notice the next morning.
Unemployed again, I thought this would give me a chance to really focus on my comics and see if I could get anywhere with them. At this point Checkerboard Nightmare had maybe 2,000 readers — all of them other webcartoonists. Worst case, I thought, maybe I could segue into graphic design or freelance work.
All the while webcomics as a whole kept ticking up and up and up. I joined Keenspot, having turned them down a year before out of loyalty to another webcomics collective I helped found: Rocketbox Comics. I sold some prints and stickers. I went to my first con, San Diego Comic Con, in 2003 — and sat next to a young Brad Guigar.
About a year and a half later in 2005, feeling like it was time to take back the reins, I left Keenspot along with the other five founding members of Blank Label Comics. I’m honestly searching my brain to try and remember what exactly I did to make money before that. It couldn’t have been a lot. Ha, I do remember going to Dave Kellett’s house for the first time and meeting with other Keenspot cartoonists about what we wanted to achieve. I was beyond nervous. It was the first time I’d really talked one on one with other cartoonists, and I shook visibly. It was like Eyes Wide Shut, but for fans of Garfield.
Also in 2005 I launched my second webcomic, Starshift Crisis. I renamed it some months later to Starslip Crisis after worry that an MMO (Starshift: The Zaran Legacy, which never came out) would create copyright issues for me. (And I wanted to get that name change in place before I started printing books.)
A year or so later, and one or two print-on-demand books under my belt, Scott and I started actively working on projects together and talking on the phone constantly. We had been friends since maybe 2004, having met a year prior to that at a forum meetup for PvP near Dallas. We talked a lot about comics and what they meant to us. I think the first thing we actually did do together was the PvP Alive! series of bad Flash animations with both of us breaking up in the recordings. These also gave birth to Scott’s term “Blamimation.”
I moved to Dallas specifically to work in a studio with him in 2007. Scott and I had visited Penny Arcade at their old offices in Seattle, and Blind Ferret’s offices in Montreal, both times coming away thinking “how do we create our own thing like this?” That studio became Halfpixel. In Dallas I printed my first real book with a print run and everything, Starslip Crisis: Volume 1. Scott also had been playing with the idea of a book on how to make webcomics — perhaps even called that — but he knew he couldn’t do it alone, so I came onboard.
Both of us realized we couldn’t do it alone either, so it became a reason to lure Dave Kellett and Brad into Halfpixel, turning it into a quadrangle of potency. (Actually Halfpixel as an entity is meaningless; it’s just a way of exhibiting together under a common name.) Image Comics published our How To Make Webcomics, which is now in its third printing.
The remainder of my time in Dallas also saw two more Starslip books, and the beginning of chainsawsuit, which was originally was a meta-commentary on lazy comics-making becoming au courant. Now chainsawsuit is bigger than Starslip. Go figure.
Dallas was never a final destination for me. For years I intended to move to the Pacific Northwest — and figure out what I wanted to do. What I wanted to do didn’t involve Blamimations, podcasting, short stories, late-night panels or songwriting at all, let alone Penny Arcade. But I want to — and need to — chase down anything that I might be good at. Now I’m staring down the barrel of a third webcomic. The environment up here in Seattle is amazing and so… nurturing, for lack of a less-lame word. All I want to do is make.
Ten years ago — even one year ago — I could never have imagined I would be doing this now. At this time in my life I am more creatively and emotionally fulfilled than I have ever been. I’ve had the chance to meet and work with so many amazing people. I feel so grateful for all the chances I’ve been given. I couldn’t have done it without the love and support of my family, friends, my peers, and most of all, my readers. Thank you so much.
The end hasn’t been written yet. But looking back, Brad ducks in and out of this story so much that I’ll leave it to one of you to write the shocking finale, where I find out he orchestrated the whole thing just to take it away from me in the end. So for my part I’ll close by saying: I’d like to see you try, you son of a bitch.