We took the best of the readers’ questions and mixed in some of our own to conduct this interview with the six current members of Blank Label Comics: Howard Tayler (Schlock Mercenary), Steve Troop (Melonpool), Paul Southworth (Ugly Hill), Paul Taylor (Wapsi Square), David Willis (Shortpacked) and Greg Dean (Real Life).
ComixTalk: Just this month you launched a revised homepage for Blank Label Comics — it now shows the latest comic and blog post from each of BLC’s 6 members. What was the genesis of re-doing the site and who did the design and coding work?
Howard: The idea has been knocking around BLC for a while. I had some free time late last year, so I tackled all the organizational stuff. John Jolly, a brilliant programmer I met fifteen years ago at Novell, did all the coding. The design belongs to Liz Dean, who really put the polish on the whole thing. Then Greg took her design and coded the template that John’s script uses for formatting the output.
ComixTalk: I’m impressed — for all that content it still loads pretty quickly and makes it easy to read everyone all at once.
Howard Thanks! That was the goal — quick loading, easy all-in-one-place reading. Credit goes to John and Liz for delivering the goods.
ComixTalk: Having been together now for a while; what, if anything, do you find has changed concerning the original ideas behind creating the group.
David: I’m pretty sure the bit about required matching jumpsuits wasn’t in the original charter.
Southworth: Howard doesn’t spoon with me anymore, and Willis won’t even look me in the eye during our "sweaty man-time". But seriously folks… we’ve all still got the same vision as when we started: support each other to make good comics.
ComixTalk Any plans to add to the Blank Label lineup, or are you content to remain the Sinister Six of webcomics?
Howard: Content? I don’t think we’ll ever be content with anything.
Steve: I think our current plan is to just keep having children so eventually they can take over BLC.
Southworth: Well, I had a kid last year, but I don’t think he’s officially a "member" yet.
Howard: Hey — I’ve got four, Southworth and Paul Taylor each have one… now all we need is about eighteen years, and a few spare kids just in case. I’m looking right at you, Greg.
Greg: Future Deans will be trained in Illustrator, CSS, and hand-to-hand combat. Just in case.
Steve: Don’t forget — I just adopted an 8-year-old and a 16-year-old. My plan is to put them both through business school with a focus on LLC takeovers.
David: Children will "eventually" take over BLC? Have you seen my action figure collection? I’m like five kids myself.
Southworth: Unless Willis decides to divide asexually sometime in the next six months, I think we’re sticking with the current lineup.
ComixTalk: So… no expansion plans then. With the webcomic scene tending towards more groups of comics and artists, what do you recommend to someone starting out: go solo, try to join an existing group, or form a new group?
Southworth: Go solo first and make something good. Then worry about joining groups, making groups, etc. Whether you’re in a group or not, no one wants to read a crappy comic, much less a whole slew of them.
Steve: I think the most important thing for someone starting out to focus on is making the best strip they can. Worrying about how big your fanbase is or how fast you can make money at it is irrelevant if you’re making a crummy product — no matter what the medium. Posting on a free hosting site until both the strip and the cartoonist matures is the best thing someone can do. Once they get that far, the choice of going solo or joining a collective will be both easier to make and easier to do.
David: I recommend my model. Host yourself while you’re small and cheap, grab the attention of a collective and build up a readership, and then learn to become more independent, more self-sufficient. If you write the best comics in the universe right off the bat, you might be able to skip part two. Ultimately, just make sure you’re getting a big enough piece of your own pie. After you make a huge pie.
Paul Taylor: Yes, what they said. Not all of us jumped into this head first — save Howard — and made a go at comics as our career. I had a day job and was doing the comic on the side for quite some time (even before posting it on the web). It was a passion but I knew I had to get a following before trying to make money at it.
ComixTalk: I was checking out the Project Wonderful stats for BLC, which I assume includes blanklabelcomics.com as well as each of the 6 members websites. Collectively you’re averaging around 500,000 page views per day? Is that about right?
ComixTalk:I know Howard has experimented with several advertising platforms since leaving Keenspot – is Project Wonderful still a good option for you or are you looking to try out other options this year?
Howard: It’s not either-or. Project Wonderful is still a good option, AND we are trying out other options already this year. Our ad revenue has been on the rise for the last few months, but we’re still not content.
David: Money money money…
Steve: Willis manages our ad serving. That’s why I’m in charge of managing Willis.
ComixTalk: If I do the math right (and that’s not necessarily a good bet) BLC will be entering its third year this coming February. What’s different now than when you started this group and are there any lessons you can pass on to others just starting out together.
Greg:I think we’re all just a bit wiser, mostly. We’ve managed to really learn some of the ways we can make this (cartooning) work for us, and we’re helping each other accomplish those goals very well.
Southworth: As I said, there’s always room for more spooning.
Paul T.: I learned not to eat convention hot dogs.
Howard: Oh, man. My wiener has a first name, it’s Ralph the Chuckhurlbarf…
ComixTalk: Here’s one from a reader. jhorsley3 asks: "How do you promote webcomics? I asked because I am finding it very hard to promote mine."
Greg: See, and here I was hoping someone else would tell me. I’ve got no idea – I literally have never actively advertised Real Life. Posted about it once or twice back when I was a member of the PvP forums, added it as a link my forum sig from place to place, and then pretty much never advertised it again. Word of mouth is a powerful force, my friend.
David: It’s much harder to separate yourself from the pack now that webcomics have been going on for over a decade and there are fifteen million of us. In 1997 you could just kill off a major character and everyone’d be all "Oh crap, look at this guy!" But now, statistically, a webcomic is killing off a major character every thirty seconds. New webcomics today just might have to depend on "consistent quality" or something trite like that. Whatevs.
Paul T.: Word of mouth is the most powerful force. And be darn sure that if it’s your mouth doing it, do it carefully. The worst thing you can do is join a forum and say, "Hey! Lookit my comic PLZ!". As Greg mentioned, have a link in your sig, join in on the conversations and leave it at that. I’ve had 4×6 cards made (comic illustration on the front and description on the back with website) and left them in local coffee shops around the Twin Cities. Terry Beatty, a comic artist for DC and comic instructor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, saw the card and took it to his class to talk about marketing your comic, and half the class already knew about me.
Howard: Paul’s right. Word of mouth is your bestest, effectivest advertising. And for the rising generation of webtoonists, I think the answer lies in those social networking sites, where word of mouth has teeth. Don’t spam them, but do enable your readers to share your work within them.
Southworth: I’m terrible at this. All I do is try my hardest to put out a good product and hope word of mouth brings the world to my door. This is probably a bad idea.. wait, I’m getting something… yes, yes this is a bad idea.
ComixTalk: In our brief interview with Howard in November he mentioned "two big projects in the works which I shall conspicuously fail to outline for you here". I’ll venture a guess that one of them was the new hub. Any chance we can extract a hint on the other? Any "big reveals" for us?
Howard: The new hub was definitely the first project. Next up… we’re laying the foundation for a common store-front, hopefully in which you could order any mix of BLC product and have it shipped in the same order. There’s no beta yet, but I have this great vaporware solution powered by intartubes full of hot air.
Steve: There’s a third thing — mostly in my court — that will debut sometime this year as soon as Melonpool finally comes to an end.
David: Here’s your big reveal: I’m not going to wear any pants. In solidarity with the WGA strike.
Steve: Make up your mind, Willis. I just got done sewing the matching jumpsuits and now I’ve got to cut off all the bottoms?!
ComixTalk: How useful do you think joint projects in a collective are in terms of their return on the additional effort (above and beyond your own work)?
Howard: Obviously it depends on the project. The Katrina fund-raiser and the joint ad-server were both great projects that drew us together. The jury’s still out on the new hub.
David: What about my "no pants" thing?
Howard: Again, the jury’s still out. But I’m expecting a verdict of "cute boxers, Mister Willis."
Steve: One of these days, I’d like to attempt some kind of stand-alone mini-series featuring all the BLC characters… but for now I’ll just have to make due with guest art for online comic magazines…
ComixTalk: Howard mentioned that BLC was a member-managed LLC. Could you explain briefly what the advantages of that are? When do you think a webcomic artist (or a collective of them) should consider setting up a formal legal structure for their work?
Howard: Greg and Liz actually recommended the LLC. I was in favor of going subchapter S, or maybe C. Turns out I was wrong.
Greg: LLC is just the best option, tax-wise. It offers the most protection to each individual within the group. (I had just finished a mini business course in Culinary School around this time, so it was all fresh in my mind.)
Howard: For us I think it really comes down to two things: 1) Since we had joint revenue, we needed to NOT penalize one person with the tax burden of receiving those monies and paying them back out to the rest. An LLC simplifies that. 2) Anytime we enter into a business arrangement with a partner, it is helpful to do so as a corporate entity. This protects individuals from liability… hence the term "limited liability corporation."
ComixTalk: Okay, that was pretty dry. Do you guys make each other laugh?
Greg: Oh, if only you saw our private discussions.
Howard: Paul Southworth and David Willis are hilarious. In our private discussions, they are the masseurs of my funny-bone.
David: Did you laugh when I described my WGA strike non-pants wearing as "a big reveal?"
Howard: Yes… but not for any reason I’ll post here.
David: Hmph. Not all of us can be as big as Big Paul, you know. (You know which one I’m talking about.)
ComixTalk: Do you read each others’ comics?
Greg: Oh, yeah, I keep up with my fellow… Labellers? Blankies? What the hell do we call ourselves, guys?
Steve: I usually call myself â€œunemployed.â€
Howard: The corporate paperwork describes us as "member managers."
David: See… you were supposed to come up with a funny answer.
Howard: If you don’t think "member manager" can be funny, you’re not trying hard enough.
Southworth: I read every BLC comic! And man, if they didn’t make me laugh, what’s the point? 🙂
ComixTalk: Ahem. Okay. And where do you see webcomics going from here?
Southworth: More mainstream and, subsequently, leaving me far behind.
Howard: I think the democratization of content will continue until we’ve reached equilibrium… Every comic will eventually be web-accessible. The top 1% will get 99% of the traffic, and the remaining 99% will rotate dynamically, until new major talents emerge.
ComixTalk: We’ve got a few directed questions here…
To Greg Dean: What were the major influences that lead to you becoming a "full-time cartoonist". With Real Life being an older comic, is there something you’ve done/will be doing to bring in the new readers, or any nifty new money making ideas you’d like to share?
Greg: Nothing mind-blowing to share, really… my wife Elizabeth and I were planning to move to Texas to save some money on rent, and possibly look to buy a house in the next few years, and I just looked at what I had going as far as income streams, and realized that I could really make it work. Also, with a second book about half-finished, I realized that if I just had the time to work on it, I might be able to finish that and make some decent money there as well. So, I figured the base revenue we were making would be enough to cover us while I got to work on these projects I’ve been neglecting for so long.
The nice thing is, I’ve been able to spend more time on the comic itself. I don’t have to resort to time-saving shortcuts anymore – I can actually spend four or five hours on a comic if I want to. Or, for instance, there’s a storyline I’ve been mulling over for almost a year now. Not only can I devote time to it, but I’m actually planning on working on it on the side, so I can get it done to my liking, in total, before even one of the comics in it hits the web. I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am about that.
To Paul Taylor: First and foremost, I gotta compliment you on your artwork, especially the hands. How do you deal with criticism? Having read several times Wapsi being blasted for having characters made up as blatant fanservice, I can only assume the first few times reading it must hurt like hell. How do you teach yourself to brush off something like that?
Paul T.: Thank you kindly. Regarding the hands, I remember in one of my Art History lectures, the professor stating that Leonardo Da Vinci made a point to always include all the hands in all of his pictures. Iâ€™ve never checked to see if this was accurate or not, but it did make an impression on me and I do see hands as a major way to convey mood and character intention. Iâ€™ve been known to spend several hours just working on sketches of a characterâ€™s hand gestures until I get what I want. Itâ€™s both frustrating and rewarding.
Criticism can sting but I try to understand the intent of the criticism. If it is constructive criticism, I normally will look closely at what Iâ€™m doing and see what route I can take to try and improve what Iâ€™m doing. As for the â€œfanserviceâ€ blasts; yes, my comic has cheesecake in it and someone would have to be blind not to see that Monica has big boobs. As Iâ€™ve stated before, all of these characters have their bases in reality and itâ€˜s not really necessary for me to be any longer-winded than that regarding why they look the way they do. As for brushing off those kind of cuts, just because a character has a defining physical trait, if a reader/critic canâ€™t see past this (claiming the work as merely fetish) and not notice the other character development going on, then any further dialog with said jaded reader/critic is pointless.
Greg: Wait… Paul has the ability to draw perhaps the sexiest characters of any webcomic, and people think that’s a negative thing? Good lord, man! If I could draw like you, I would redefine fanservice!
To Dave Willis: Having taken the same characters across several genre… how do you keep then sane? To make that clearer, how do you take a character from a comedy, into an action comedy, into an action drama, and then back into a comedy without losing who they were along the way.
David: It’s easier if they’re real people. I’d like to think that if my life were subjected to a variety of genres, I’d still be mostly me. Mind, in any action genre, I’d be the guy last in line, huffing and puffing trying to keep up, and I’d probably end up eaten by giant ants, but you have to admit that’d be pretty damn me-ish.
It also helps to be prepared in advance. When I started writing my college strip, Roomies!, I knew a lot of these folks were going to be ending up fighting aliens. I made sure to portray characters like Sal and Joyce as physically capable fighters right off the bat, so that when the genre changes, they don’t seem so out of place. And, well, absurdist humor tends to bounce of characters the same whether it’s college-based or aliens-based. The rules of their universe didn’t really change.
Now, a character like Danny, who’s just a boring everyman, you might think he’d be out of place in an alien space opera. He’s not going to be picking up a gun and firing it competently any time soon, but never underestimate how powerful a "fish out of water" component can be.
To Paul Southworth: How much time do you spend on character design, and what details do you focus on to keep a singular look and feel to a comic casts design.
Southworth: I spent a lot of time designing the core cast of characters before I started drawing the strip. At least a month just sketching and reworking designs before I even drew the first strip. Nowadays, when I need a new character, I don’t really have that luxury because of the daily schedule. I’ll usually spend maybe a half hour just sketching before I really start drawing. I find character design at the same time fun and frustrating! As for a singular look and feel, I think that just comes with knowing your characters and your own style. I don’t really make a concerted effort to keep the designs cohesive, they just seem to fit because that’s how I draw. A lot of times I’ll have to push myself to come up with a new body or head type because I feel like I’m falling into a rut. There are only so many combinations of horns, eyes, wings and claws you can do before you start to repeat yourself!
To Steve Troop: How did your background as an animator effect the way you approach making comics? Also, does having a puppet on hand help when you’re trying to draw a character from an odd angle?
Steve: My background as an animator was kind of a tangential part of my career… that is, I was a cartoonist for many years, worked for two years as an animator, then pretty much stuck to being a print cartoonist.
I’d say that certain aspects of the way I design carried over between the two (creating characters that work in both 2D and 3D environments) as well as the speed that I can draw (I used to have to churn out 60+ drawings a day as an animator), but they’re two very different art forms.
There is one advantage to drawing comics, though: As an animator, I was employed by a company to animate their (often lame) ideas. The nice thing about drawing comics is that I can draw whatever ideas I want to write — and whether they’re lame or not is entirely up to me.
As far as the puppets go, I’ve never really used them to help me draw the characters in any particular pose. Design-wise, they’re very different beasts, since you have to accommodate wrists (making the necks larger on the puppets) and manipulation limitations (like non-expressive eyes and large flapping mouths) when designing a puppet. When you draw a character, you can pretty much put anything down on paper that occurs to you.
Where the puppets have come in handy is in defining the characters. I get a lot of material out of watching my friends interact with people at conventions as the characters.
To Howard Tayler: The buffer!!! HOW??? REVEAL YOUR SECRETS! I’m sure you’ve spoken about the buffer before many times so you really don’t have to get into it too much, but I was wondering more about why. Is it something you really push for all the time or is it just part of your personality to work so far ahead. Also, do you find you look at the story differently being so far ahead. Having to wait so long from when you finish up a piece that you know (or at least really hope) the audience will love. Do you feel any sort of disconnect between you and the readers because of the time delay?
Howard: Okay, it sounds like you want to know "why" more than you want to know "how." The "how" is simple. Draw more than one comic per day until you’re a week or more ahead, and then you’ll have figured out how to manage your time so you can do something less strenuous in perpetuity.
The why? Well… I just took two whole weeks off for Christmas and New Years. I spent time with my family, ate too much, slept too much, and frittered the time away with a clean conscience. The rest of the world didn’t notice. Ultimately, that’s more why than anybody should need.
I don’t feel at all disconnected from my readers. If they want to interact with me in near real-time, there’s a blog, a Live-journal, and three forums. I always get a thrill when folks start talking about a comic — even though I finished it up a month ago.