Decoding Mr. Roboto: An Interview with Chris Harding

Chris Harding was kind enough to do the February cover art for ComixTalk and it gave me a great excuse to hit him up for an interview.  Harding is the creator of the new webcomic We The Robots which offers a cynical, bemused take on work and family.

I saw the Cold Hard Flash interview with you so I know you're a "34 year old Flash animator living in Kansas City."  I have never been to Kansas City — what am I missing?

Boy howdy, this is the wrong time of year to ask what I like about Kansas City. It's been five months of dark, cold weather, and I'm through with it. I grew up in Tucson, and apparently when you gestate in the desert, your physiology adapts to that climate. Your blood thins, and your body stops producing heat, because you're better off soaking it in from your environment like a lizard. To paraphrase the gorilla in Nick Park's short, Creature Comforts, "I hate being wet and I hate being cold. And here, I find that I'm often wet and I'm often cold."

Other than the weather, it's great. The cost of living is very reasonable, and are a lot of designers and artists here and there's always stuff going on in that department… Good film community… Good music and food, too… I don't know if it's that exciting to visit, but it's a wonderful place to live. Kansas is often the butt of jokes about dumb, middle America. But the people here are not religious nuts or hicks, any more than everyone in LA is Jeff Spicoli. I just wanted to point that out on behalf of some very cool Kansans that I know (though people in Kansas do tend to get up obscenely early in the morning for some reason that I cannot understand).


So how did the inspiration come to do the webcomic We The Robots?

The comic evolved out of two other projects– an animated short I'm working on, and a project I was doing with my friends Chad Strawderman and Jeff Barfoot, called Robot Family. One value of using non-human characters is that it can kind of trick the audience (and the writer) into feeling like they are looking at something foreign under a microscope, which can be a fruitful way to get some distance as you examine your own everyday life.

Why robots? I was reading about Alan Turing. He was one of the originators of the computer, and devised the Turing Test to determine whether an artificial intelligence has become conscious. There's been speculation that part of Turing's interest in the subject came from fact that he was gay, in a time and place where that could get you in serious trouble. The idea of wanting to escape one's body and become a machine might have appealed to a man who was being harshly persecuted for his natural biological inclinations. The computer scientist Jaron Lanier has speculated that a similar need to escape the flesh (this time out of fear of death) might motivate current strong AI advocates, like Ray Kurzweil. For some, there is hope that combining humans and machines might be a key to immortality. There's a strong desire to use technology to perfect our species.

Anyway, I think part of the idea behind the strip is bursting that bubble a little bit. Even if there were machines that could think, or if humans evolved into robots, (or even if we could build the perfect techno-utopian society) I think we'd still wind up doing the same stupid shit we do now. Maybe there's no escaping nature. (Another good person to listen to on this subject is Bruce Sterling, who has a humorous skepticism about artificial intelligence)


I love the satirical attitude of the strip.  How do you build ideas for the strips though – do you start with humor or situations or some target of mockery…?

I wish I knew how it worked– then maybe I could have more control over it. I do a lot of work to figure out exact wording and pacing, but generating the raw seed of an idea is a mysterious, subconscious process. Part of your brain is always absorbing things you see and hear, and it's always chewing on that stuff like cud. After a while, you sit down and tug at your brain's teats, hoping an idea will squirt out. That's the most disgusting way I can think of to describe it without making a poop joke.

I've heard a few complaints that I don't really do any "robot jokes" in the strip. From a storytelling perspective, I'm not very interested in machines themselves. No matter how it's packaged, fiction is usually  still about the present-day life and times of the artist and the audience. Especially with a comic strip… you have to write so much, it's really helpful if it's more or less about familiar subjects. There might be occasional jokes about hydraulics or positronic brain anatomy, but I like this stuff best when it's in service of some idea about the human condition.


I was hoping to get a couple quick reactions on some of your strips.

I don't remember what I was thinking when I wrote the strips, so here are my made-up attempts to interpret them after the fact. Take them with a grain of salt.


When I grow up"When I grow up" — this one seems pretty straightforward (and I laughed and cringed at the same time) but does it apply to yourself?  What did you want to be when you grow up?

A lot of us learn, often painfully, that we are never going to grow up to be a cowboy, or a rock star, or a professional athlete. I think I wanted to be a cartoonist when I grew up, but I never thought that was possible. I studied to be an engineer until after my second year of college, just so I could get a job. But I've been pretty lucky and I have actually managed to become a cartoonist, more or less.

This comic falls along the lines of the same recurring themes in We The Robots. It's about plans and dreams being crimped and mangled in the chaos of the real world. The robots, being machines, should happily and flawlessly perform the tasks for which they were built. But it never quite pans out for them, and this is where I think a lot of the melancholy of the strip comes in. If even the best designed creatures –and their carefully designed society– have failings and defects, what hope is there for imperfect humanity? That can be a troubling idea, or it can be kind of soothing, depending on your outlook. I think it's potentially funny.

Anyway, that's kind of the heart of this episode, and a lot of others. That Mikey is convinced he can do whatever he wants when he grows up is so naive, and yet so hopeful. I really root for Mikey to succeed. But if he can't, I'd rather laugh than cry about it.


"You've Been Misinformed" — this is hilarious and a bit of a departure from most of the strips about the main character Bob.  Do you think as the comic goes on you'll spend more time with more of the supporting characters around Bob?

This particular strip got passed around a lot. People were arguing online – sometimes very angrily – about whether it's true or not. Personally, I don't care whether it's objectively, clinically correct that men and women tend to have different sex drives. I wanted to write about a subjective, emotional experience. A lot of people have had the feeling of being sexually mismatched, especially as teenagers. That's what's awkward and painful, and funny to me.

This one feature's Bob's daughter, Sandi. She's been in a bunch of strips, but not enough. I'd like to do more with the supporting characters. I guess my approach has been to focus on a few characters, and slowly branch out a little. I've been doing this strip now for about five months (at 3/week), so that's only about 2 months worth of material for a daily syndicated strip. I've got some stuff written that features other characters and goes off on some far out tangents, but for now I still feel like I'm trying to set the tone. Once that foundation is firmly laid, I'll be eager to deviate from it more.


"Things Are Going To Be Different" — take this one down!  I'm 39 and I swear this exactly how my January and February have gone so far.  Is this one a little bit autobiographical?

39? Yeah, that's probably a big year for New Year's resolutions, isn't it?

A lot of them have some autobiography in them. You try to have overlap between your own experience, and what you think the audience might also have experienced. So the note this one tries to strike is basically, "do you ever get a sinking feeling in the back of your head, even as you're writing your New Year's resolutions, that it is a hopeless and doomed effort from the start?" And if the audience thinks to themselves, "Yeah, I know that feeling. Thanks for bringing it up, you cynical bastard," then I've done my job.

Also, again, is the idea of someone making big plans to exert some control over his life, even though he knows he is not likely to succeed.


And the animated Christmas special was great.  How popular did this one get?  It was brilliant really.  On the one hand you're subverting the classic Peanuts special but then overall I think you really have a lot in common with Schulz, being funny and wistful at the same time.

I steal from other peoples' work all the time, but not usually as a straight parody like this. I justify it by imagining that a lot of school Christmas performances are interpretations of beloved childhood stories. This is Sandi's twisted variation on Linus' startlingly beautiful little monologue. I actually wrote it a long time ago for the Robot Family project.

Sandi is a teenage robot who is just starting to be socially aware, and eagerly inserts her feelings about becoming a woman into every situation. (as well as some feelings about the ineptitude of her father) Still, I think her take on the Christmas story is pretty perceptive. It was a time when women served as breeding stock for their husbands, or the Lord, or whoever the hell wanted to impregnate them at the moment.

I appreciate the Schulz comparison, though I could not hold a candle to him.


How do you create the art for the strip?

I write and sketch on notebook paper, but the actual artwork is all done in Photoshop. Rather than having complex, specific anatomies, the characters are based on gestures and expressions. Just enough to tell the story and leave room for readers project themselves into the situation.

When I was figuring out the design, I had mixed feelings about manipulating digital drawings to seem like they were printed in a Mexican firework factory. If you're faking a look, there's a danger of it being dishonest, or being a gimmick. I like very utilitarian design. Things should look like what they are, and every line should have a purpose. But, visually, I wanted to make something that would straddle the organic, and the mechanical, like someone failed to print it perfectly because they were using crappy equipment. The characters are machines, full of defects and imperfections. I think the look honestly supports the theme (and gives it some warmth), so I'm OK with it all being a lie.


I saw in one of your recent interviews that you now work pretty much on the Wacom all the time but that you tape a sheet of vellum over its surface so it's more like drawing on paper. That seems like a great idea – do you really do that?

I really do that. When I was transitioning from a quill pen to a Wacom, I was struggling and complaining about it enough that a friend of mine suggested the velum thing. It tricks your hand into feeling like it's drawing on paper. It has a tooth to it. It wears down your stylus tips, but it's worth it.


So – not to completely revisit your past life as a cartoonist with a syndication deal with Universal Press Syndicate since you've posted a pretty full accounting of that experience on your website (part 1 and part 2) but I probably can't resist a few questions.  Is We The Robots the first regular comic you've done since your syndicated comic strip, Feet of Clay?

Feet of Clay

Yes. When I finished with Feet of Clay, I was burned out. I didn't read or think about comics for a long time. I started trying to learn animation, which has been my main focus for a while. Last summer, something in my head just switched back on and I felt like doing a comic again. I cannot explain it. The first episode of We The Robots was the first comic I had drawn in ten years. I feel very, very rusty.


If you were getting out of college now do you think you would have even pursued a newspaper syndication deal?  Or would you have gone straight to the web like you have with We The Robots?

It's a tough call. My problems with syndication were not the fault of the syndicate. If I had been doing a webcomic, I  would likely have burned out anyway. But the Web has some nice advantages. I like having absolute control over everything, for better or worse. I like the freedom to use color, and to make the strip different sizes on different days. I like that I can write material that would violate the taste policy of a newspaper. So knowing what I know now, I might very well go the Web route. (Of course, if I knew then what I know now, I'd just buy the right stocks and I wouldn't have to draw a comic at all)


What are the plans for We The Robots this year?  Do you think a book is likely at some point?

Yes, I'd love to make a book collection, hopefully in the fall. I'm also working, with increasing success, on some screen prints I intend to sell, as well as some t-shirts. That'll all get going this spring. Other than that, I just hope I can keep doing the comic and get better at it.


I hope people realize that you've done all these fantastic short animated films — Learn Self Defense, from the clips I've seen, is hilarious.  Just to pull out a webcomic project out of this — what do you think of the webcomics that have spun out animated series like Ctrl-Alt-Del and PvP?

Thanks for the kind words about Learn Self Defense. It will be available on the Animation Show DVD this summer, so if anyone wants to see a high-quality version of it, that's a good place to get it. Someone also posted it on YouTube somewhere if you want to see the crappy, compressed version.

I've seen some of the PvP animations and I think they are very well done and funny. In my research before I decided to go the webcomic route, Scott Kurtz was one of the people who impressed me to the point where I thought I'd be in good company online, and that I could learn a lot from these people. I haven't seen the Ctrl-Alt-Del animation yet. Maybe I ought to go check it out.

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