More horrible than Hagar, greedier than the King of Id, Ian McDonald's Bruno the Barbarian has been storming the gates of webcomicdom for more than seven years now.Blending high Robert E. Howard style fantasy with cartoonish comedy, Ian McDonald began his long-running webcomic Bruno the Bandit in 1998.
How did you first get into reading comics?
When I was a kid, my siblings and I had a huge stack of Peanuts paperbacks, which I used to read over and over again. Those books probably did more to help me learn to read than any schooling I had at the time.
What made you want to use comics as a medium of expression?
Charles Schulz was a major influence on me as a kid. I loved Peanuts (still do, of course), and the strip inspired me to draw, and even do my own cartoons at a young age. I wanted to do what Schulz was doing, because it was just so cool!
Later on, I got interested in comic books, mostly Spider-Man, so I started drawing superheroes. Then I got into Conan the Barbarian, so I started drawing him, too!
But I never quit reading comics, of course! I used to love the early Garfield strips, and would draw my own version of Garfield for friends of mine. In fact, the idea for Bruno the Bandit came from a series of strips I drew, called "What if Conan the Barbarian Was Garfield's Owner?", the results of which you can see here. These strips were a combination of heroic fantasy and the real world, and they practically wrote themselves for me. I knew I had to pursue this theme in my own comic strip, and from it, Bruno the Bandit was born.
What drew you to webcomics specifically, rather than say a company or independent publishing?
Actually, Bruno became a webcomic after I tried to get it syndicated. I submitted it to all the major U.S. comics syndicates, all of whom promptly rejected it. Heck, even my hometown newspaper wouldn't run it! But I was too proud of what I had created to give up on it. Around this time (the mid-90's), the Internet was becoming more popular, so I decided to take Bruno online, thus bypassing the middlemen (the syndicates and newspapers), in order to bring my strip directly to the readers online.
Originally, my hope was to be able to gain a big enough readership so that I could charge readers a small fee (a micro-payment) to read the day's strip. Basically, I was planning to earn a living from my strip in the way that Scott McCloud would talk about years later in his book "Reinventing Comics". But, so far, the micro-payment system for online comics just isn't feasible, and perhaps never will be.
How did you get involved with Big Panda?
Through my publisher, Plan Nine Publishing. In 1999, I signed my first book deal with Plan Nine, but at the time, my website was on GeoCities. David Allen, the big cheese at Plan Nine, figured I should have a better website, with my own domain name. He helped get me set up with Big Panda, who were also hosting the Plan Nine website at the time. My strip and Sluggy Freelance were the first two comics in the Big Panda line-up. Sluggy was the first to leave, and I was the last, interestingly enough.
What were your expectations joining a community of webcartoonists, and what was your eventual experience?
I had hoped to make a bunch of new friends in the online comics community, and to gain access to a bigger pool of readers, as all our comic strips would be linked together. These expectations have pretty much been met, first at Big Panda, but more so with Keenspot.
How have webcomics changed since you started?
I don't know that they've really changed a whole lot. Of course, a lot of strips have come and gone in that time, as many artists realize what a commitment it is to put out a comic strip on a regular basis. There are obviously a LOT more webcomics on the go today, and the number seems to grow daily. And with so many more strips, there are so many more GOOD strips out there, that it's nearly impossible to keep up with all of them, unfortunately.
You mentioned the inability to generate a profit from micro-payments. Where do you see webcartoonists turning in the next ten years to fund their work?
To fund my work, I plan to start robbing banks.
As for other webcartoonists, I think the sale of books and merchandise (t-shirts, stuffed dolls, buttons, games, etc.) is a great idea for online cartoonists to fund their work, in order to stay independent. That is, assuming you have an audience large enough for there to be a demand for your products.
I know some online cartoonists are opposed to the idea, but I think you're crazy not to have a PayPal "Donate" button on your website. It can't hurt to have it there, and you just never know how generous some of your readers may be.
Another way to generate money (if you have a large enough audience) is to set up a membership program, similar to Pete Abrams' "Defenders of the Nifty" program for Sluggy, whereby you offer goodies such as savings on your merchandise and exclusive content on your site for those willing to pay for a yearly membership.
One thing I'm no longer so sure of as a money-generator in the next 10 years or so is banner and pop-up advertising. More and more people are using software to block advertising on our websites. I know advertising can be annoying at times, but it's what helps a lot of us keep our comic strips online. I wish readers would understand this! But alas, I think online cartoonists, and online comics companies like Keenspot may have to prepare for banner and pop-up advertising to go the way of the dodo one day.
How did your experience, and the community, change with the transition from Big Panda to Keenspot?
Well, the best change was that I started earning money from my website! Big Panda just wasn't around long enough to generate any real revenue for its cartoonists, and, well, it just wasn't being run as well as it could have been. Chris Crosby and Darren Bleuel, two ex-Panda cartoonists who formed Keenspot learned from the mistakes of Big Panda, and as such, created a more stable webhosting service for us better-known online cartoonists. Their cross-promotion between online comics was much better than at Big Panda, the promotion of the Keenspot brand name was better, and of course, we cartoonists were finally able to earn some money with our sites.
As an aside, this is not meant as a knock against Big Panda, or the people who created it. Lord knows, I don't want to re-open any old wounds! Big Panda was something new at the time, but it was beset by problems almost from the start. I think Keenspot may have succeeded where the Panda failed because its creators had cartooning in their blood, and as such, had the best interests of cartoonists at heart.
How has your work evolved since you began? Has being on the web influenced your style and creativity?
My stories have become longer and more complex, for one thing. Originally, my stories were formula-based: Bruno hatches/gets involved in some sort of harebrained scheme which he thinks will make him rich. Things go terribly wrong, and Bruno barely gets out of the mess he made. But he'd always end up back at Square One. This changed when he became King of Rothland. I decided to keep him as King for several stories, as a challenge to myself. He lost the kingship, of course, but now, with the aid of a mysterious little creature called the Bluebird of Happiness, he's starting to succeed as a criminal.
The characters in my strip have changed and grown over the years. Things no longer always end up back at Square One at the end of each story. Again, this is to challenge myself as a cartoonist, and hopefully give my readers something new and fresh to read. It's also fun (and satisfying) to see the "Bruno-verse" evolve with each new story I add to it.
And yes, the evolution of Bruno the Bandit has been influenced by being on the web. Just looking at the chances Pete Abrams has taken with Sluggy Freelance really inspired me to try new and different things with Bruno… things I wouldn't have been allowed to try if Bruno was a syndicated strip in newspapers.
Having experienced both, would you say the relationship between web and print comics has changed? Is there pressure to move to (or even from) print?
I can't speak for other cartoonists, but there's no pressure for me to move from the web to print. I love having my strip on the Internet, and having that instant access to my readers. There are no middlemen between my readers and me: no editors, no newspapers, no syndicates, none of that. Just my strip, as I created it, up for the readers to decide if they like it or not.
This is not a knock against print comics. We'll always have print comics, and I'm glad of it! But any cartoonist who does not use the Internet to publish and/or promote their work is turning their back on an invaluable resource.
What in your opinion is unique about the Canadian/Newfoundlander's experience in webcomics?
I don't know that there is anything unique about being a Canadian, or Newfoundland cartoonist. We use the same types of pens, pencils, papers, and computers as everyone else, and like our mainland/American/rest-of-the-world counterparts,we hope you find our cartoons worth reading!
Mind you, I have hidden a few Newfoundland/Canadian references in my work, just to see if anyone will spot them. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. But it makes the strip that much more fun to work on!
It seems many other webcartoonists in the community often have real-life peers nearby at all times. Have you felt isolated as one of only a handful of webcartoonists in Newfoundland?
Not particularly! As has been mentioned so often before, the Internet has made the world a much smaller place. My webcartoonist friends are scattered around the world, but they can easily be reached via e-mail or instant messaging! Prior to the 'net, I'm sure I would have felt VERY isolated as a cartoonist.
Have you ever met or worked with any of your peers outside of the Internet?
I've met some of my fellow cartoonists, such as Pete Abrams, Jeff Darlington, Bill Holbrook, Darren "Gav" Bleuel, Thomas K. Dye, John "The Gneech" Robey, Terrence Marks, and others during a few trips I made to the U.S., including Dragon*Con in 2000. I've worked on a few Internet projects with some of these guys, but nothing that was non-net related.
All in all, how successful has your experience in webcomics been so far? Do you consider it a hobby or a career?
My experience as a webcartoonist has been a great success for me! I'm proud of the comic strip I've created, and I enjoy every minute I spend on it. I admit, I had hoped it would also become a financial success one day, but that has eluded me so far. It would be nice to earn a living with my strip, but as long as it continues to be as fun to work on as it is, I don't see myself giving up on it any time soon! It might not be a career, but it's a lot more than a hobby to me!
What has been the most creatively rewarding part of this whole enterprise?
Creating a comic-fantasy universe that other people want to visit. I generally don't use the ideas people send me, but it's very flattering when people do write me with ideas. It means they sent their imaginations to the Bruno-verse, and spent a good deal of time there. That means a lot to me, as does the fan art that people sometimes send me.
I also love it when people write to tell me that my strip has inspired them to pick up a pen and try their hand at online cartooning. You can't pay a cartoonist a much bigger compliment than that!
What advice can you give to other aspiring webcartoonists, Canadian and otherwise?
First and foremost, have fun with your comic strip(s)! If your strip is fun to write and draw, chances are, it'll be fun to read as well!
Read your favorite comic strips with an analytical eye. Try to figure out what it is that makes these comics so good. Apply these rules to your own work, but of course, don't copy jokes, ideas or characters.
Don't be too ambitious when you're starting out. Start with a small cast of characters, and add more characters as your strip goes on. Too many characters, settings, storylines at the outset will confuse readers, and they'll give up on your strip.
Avoid using formula to create your strip. Very few of us can reach the Jim Davis/Garfield level of success by churning out the same dozen or so comic strips year after year. Be willing to challenge yourself as a writer and an artist.
Finally, get your work online! There's a huge community of online cartoonists online, and you're more than welcome to join us! If your work is good, there's a world of people out here who want to see it (though you will have to promote it, of course).
Where do you go from here? Would you ever consider doing another comic away from Bruno?
Actually, I am kicking around ideas for a second comic strip, one I could possibly pitch to the syndicates. It would be much different than Bruno the Bandit, however. In the meantime, there are plenty of stories about Bruno and the world he lives in that have yet to be told, and I hope to get to tell as many of them as possible before I die.