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Dr. Eldritch In The House!

Evan Nichols is the creator behind the long-running Ask Dr. Eldritch webcomic.  The long-running adventures of the intrepid advice columnist Dr. Eldritch are nearing episode #500 which is a pretty significant milestone for any comic project.  The concept here alone cracks me up.  Just check out the intro to the "Letters" page at the site:

Dr. Eldritch answers the questions that no other columnist will touch, with solid, no-nonsense advice to get you through those once-in-a-lifetime crises:

  • Being menaced by the Undead?
  • Scientific experiments gone horribly wrong and may destroy the Earth?
  • A Loved One is possessed by Satan?
  • Your gorgeous lover is using you as a patsy for an elaborate swindle?

Don't fall victim to vampires! Don't get slashed by a psycho! Don't get stuck, ASK DR. ELDRITCH!

Read on for my interview about the good doctor with his creator, Evan Nichols.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I'm a Gemini who doesn't believe in Astrology (although this hasn't stopped me from writing a weekly horoscope).  I do seem to have a number of apparent contradictions like that in my life, such as being an IT professional with a Theater degree.  The nice thing about it is that I can relate to the creative and the analytical, and I think that helps with my writing. 

My short bio is that I grew up in Arizona, went to college in the Pacific Northwest, decided to settle in Portland, and have been writing stories in various forms as long as I can remember.  I also live with two wooden cats. I'm predominately diurnal, and it amuses me to tell people that my I'm described as "Mostly Harmless."

 

What's a typical day for you like recently?

My day starts at 5:00 a.m., when I check my webstats, post the comic, respond to reader comments and fan mail, and prepare for my day job.  Out the door at 6:30, and back around 6:30 p.m., since I've been working 10-hour days.  This gives me three-day weekends, which also start early, and are mostly devoted to assembling the next week's comics and advice column.  I'm essentially working a full-time IT job and a part-time webcomic job.  The former pays better, but the latter is much more fun.

 

Do you have another job besides working on comics?

Yes; by day I am a mild-mannered IT Consultant.  In order to not reveal client information on my blog, I generally refer to work merely as Big Happy Fun Time.  It is also my hope that by calling it that, I'll find it more enjoyable than it actually is.  Sometimes that works.

 

Do you read other comics?  What are you reading online or in print?

I have links on my comic page to Tiny Ghosts, Unshelved, Dinosaur Comics, Order of the Stick, Partially Clips, Perils of the Bold, Questionable Content, Reprographics, Something Positive, Theater Hopper, Twisted Kaiju Theater and Wondermark.  I also read xkcd, We the Robots, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Everwas, Girl Genius...  and visit a bunch more less frequently.

 

Give me the 30 second "convention pitch" for your comic.

Ask Dr. Eldritch is a photocomic with action figures in front of digital backgrounds, chronicling the adventures of an ex-vampire-killer turned advice columnist, who lives in a mysterious Pacific Northwest mansion with an erratic interdimensional portal and a troll in the basement. 

New episodes are posted Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays.  Not to boast, but I've posted every comic on schedule since the start in 2005, and Ask Dr. Eldritch is consistently ranked number one at Photowebcomics.com.

 

How has the strip evolved over time?

Since I use interior-design software to create the backgrounds, I initially decided to put in a lot of detail, to be different from the myriad of more simply drawn comics.  This may be a distinctive look, but I realized that the backgrounds were often cluttered and distracting.  I've backed off some of the worst choices, and have been making the scenes less complex.  One of the benefits of my early choices, though, is that three furniture items have become part of the cast, which I probably wouldn't have done otherwise.


That's probably an unusual software choice -- what's the name of the interior design program and what led you to pick it to help make webcomics?

I use Broderbund 3D Home Interiors Deluxe 2.0.  I went with Interior Design rather than a 3D Drawing application as a trade-off between speed and control.  The software has a huge catalog of design elements, and I can create and furnish a virtual room in under an hour.  There's no way I could do that if I had to draw and color every item in a room.  Of the few programs I tried, this one had the quickest learning curve, the most design options, and a satisfactory user interface.  Plus, it only cost $5. 

 

Do you have a favorite strip or storyline from the comic?  Which ones do fans seem to bring up the most?

That's so hard to choose!  I like Dr. Eldritch's encounters with the Evil Scouts, and the storyline where Ping the robot runs afoul of DRM, and the 4-panel retelling of the "Gift of the Magi" (with a happy ending), and when the characters save the world by holding a beauty pageant.  Perhaps my favorite single comic is #231, when Dr. Eldritch discuss what's weird.

There's no clear fan favorite, although several people have mentioned that they enjoy the Housekeeper Fembot Goes Berserk storyline.  Perhaps the most discussed was the "Zombies are carrion that you can chase" episode.

 

Are there any of your characters you're really fond of?  Any that are particularly difficult to use?

I'm fond of all the characters, but Trevor the Troll is probably the most fun to write for, since he's the id of the comic and has the fewest filters on what he says.  He's definitely a fan favorite, too.

As for difficult: A character named Evisceratina made a brief appearance, but her action figure has only a few joints.  It was challenging to make her emotive, and she looked oddly stiff next to the other, more flexible figures.  So she moved to Pittsburgh.

 

Do you have any long term goals or ambition for the future of the comic?

I started the webcomic intending to tell a finite story, and then end it. This is still the plan, but I've decided that I'd like to keep writing for the characters.  I'll move away from fumetti, and go to drawn comic-book style, with a more serious tone.  I'd like to create at least one story arc spanning six comics, which should be translatable into a screenplay. Ideally that would sell for theatrical production, but if not, could be produced as machinima.  If that goes well, I'd definitely do more Ask Dr. Eldritch comics.

 

That's pretty ambitious.  People usually just tell me they have "secret plans" when I ask that question!  Do you draw well yourself or would you plan on partnering with an artist for non-fumetti comics?

I'd generously describe my drawing skills as "mediocre," which is far below what I want for the comics.  So I would definitely need one or more artists to draw the comics.  Fortunately, I've known the fantasy artist Gilead since we were in sixth grade, and he's interested in doing a project together. 

 

Any plans for a print collection?

Yes.  Because I'm producing a photocomic with mass-produced action figures, I have to clear the obstacle of trademark issues.  In hindsight, I would have done that before posting Comic #1, not after #470, but I can't change that now.  Once I figure out a strategy for publishing without infringement, I'd like to publish books of the comics.

 

That is a real issue.  I'm sure you could probably talk to someone like Bernie Hou (Alien Loves Predator).  Have you ever talked to a lawyer or an arts-friendly organization about the copyright issues?

I've gotten as far as looking up the Oregon Lawyers for the Arts, but haven't actually contacted them yet.  I want to first release some podcasts, comic books and a volume of collected advice columns, then I'll investigate the legal issues for the print collection of webcomics.

 

How do you go about promoting your work?  What seems to be most effective at pulling in new readers?

I've tried the ranking websites, advertising on Project Wonderful, and exhibiting at Stumptown Comics Fest.  These all have some draw of new readers, but I think the most effective is the online version of word of mouth.  I've gotten the biggest surges from someone posting a link in their blog or in a forum.  Everyone expects an artist to say "Check out my webcomic!", so that only generates a moderate response.  But when a third party says "Check out this funny webcomic!", it gets far more credence and attention.

 

What conventions are your favorites to exhibit at?  What advice do you have for others just starting to show their work at conventions?

I've only been an exhibitor at Stumptown Comics Fest, the rising star of Portland's comics conventions, so I can't compare the experience to any other.  I like it because the emphasis is on creators rather than distributors, so most people at the tables are the writers and artists themselves, not just a vendor.

As for advice: No matter how talented, a new artist who sets up a table and waits for people to stop could have 99% of the attendees walk past without even looking.  Most people go to cons to see comics and artists they're familiar with already, not new talent.  So don't be discouraged when it feels as if there are lines at every table but yours.

 

Do you have a favorite convention story?

The great thing about conventions is getting to talk with fans face-to-face. I've also really enjoyed meeting other artists, like David Malki!, Chris Yates, Bill Barnes, and Phil and Kaja Foglio. 

But my peak convention experience was at Stumptown 2007.  I was in the men's room when Scott McCloud walked in.  I resisted the urge to accost him there with an "Omigod, you're SCOTT MCCLOUD!", as I really didn't want to have him always think of me as That Creepy Guy From The Restroom.  I'm glad for this choice, since when I introduced myself to him later, at his table, he looked at my business card and said "Yeah, I've seen this!"  I try to not be too star-struck, but damn; Scott McCloud has read my comic!  That had me euphoric for hours.

 

Do your fans send you cool things?

My best fan did knit a sweater for the Dr. Eldritch figure, which was worn in the NaNoWriMo sequence in 2006.  I don't know how many webcomics can claim to have knitted fan art.

 

When you create a comic, how do you approach it? Do you start with the words and then think about the scene that should go with it or do you start with more of purely visual approach or none of the above?

I'm primarily a writer, so it all starts with the written word.  When I'm advancing the story, I begin with the key plot points; what needs to be done or revealed in the comic.  Then I try to frame something humorous around that, so each comic has something funny about it.  Gag-oriented comics are often easier, as I can start with a punchline, I work backwards to build the set up.  Once I have the script, then I figure out how best to portray it visually.

 

What tools do you use to make comics?  Can you give us a brief walkthrough of your process?

I own about one hundred action figures, and boxes of costumes and props.  I set up the figures in the "studio," which is several pieces of white foam-core as a floor and backdrop.  To get consistent lighting, I have six high-temperature lights on lightstands, and I photograph the results with a basic digital camera.

For the backgrounds of indoor scenes, I've "built" a virtual mansion using interior-design software.  The application allows me to take snapshots of the rooms from almost any angle.  To assemble the comics, I combine those backgrounds and the photos of the action figures using Photoshop CS.  I separate the action figures from their white backgrounds, and superimpose them over the virtual rooms.  If I need additional props or effects, I add them at this point.  The final steps are to add dialog and word balloons, and save the finished comic as an optimized jpeg file.

 

Did you do your own website?  What software are you using on it?

I am my own webmaster, which is definitely a "you get what you pay for" deal.  I can code simple html, and so use templates and a find/replace tool to build each page.  It's rather Old School, but the pages load quickly, and it works well enough for readers to navigate around the site.   I'd like to migrate to CSS and PHP, but either need to find the time to learn, or hire someone else to do it.

 

How would you describe your relationship with your fans?  Do you engage in a lot of online interaction with your readers?

Yes and no.  My readers can post comments at a LiveJournal portal, a LiveJournal community, a forum at ActionFigureComics.com, as well as sending me email directly, but I probably receive about a dozen comments per week. I have a couple thousand readers, but only a few actually send comments or emails my way.  The input I do receive has always been positive and supportive, and is greatly appreciated.  I'm currently developing podcasts, and having fans record sections of the script.  That's gotten a good response.  So I'd say that I have a very positive relationship with a few enthusiastic readers.

 

Did you read comics as a kid?  Which ones?  What are your influences from comics today?

I never had a comic-book phase growing up.  I do remember reading books of newspaper comics, like Peanuts and Wizard of Id, but was probably more influenced by the collections of Gahan Wilson and Charles Addams.  I've always been fond of Scott Adams's Dilbert.  My influences from the webcomic world would be Rich Burlew's The Order of the Stick, (which was the first webcomic I started reading regularly), but it was Sean McGuinness's Twisted Kaiju Theater and Bernie Hou's Alien Loves Predator that made me think "Hey, I could do that!"

 

Other non-comic influences on your art and/or writing?

I think if you whirled Dave Barry, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Robert Asprin and Monty Python's Flying Circus in a blender, you'd end up with a mix that represented my influences in humor writing.  I aspire to being half as humorous as any of them, and of never being whirled in a blender.

 

What is it about comics that leads you to pour your creative impulses into that form as opposed to writing or some other art form?

I was looking for a way to build the audience for my advice column, and saw how iharthdarth on LiveJournal gathered thousands of readers in just a few weeks.  I figured that I could create a photocomic on my own, instead of having to collaborate with an artist to draw the comic, and it would be more fun, and less expensive, than just buying advertising.  As it turns out, not every webcomic gets thousands of readers so quickly, and only a few of my webcomic readers subscribed to the advice column newsletter.  Still, I haven't wanted to stop creating the comic.

 

Any other creative endeavors you're working on?

Absolutely!  The Ask Dr. Eldritch projects I've got going are putting together a book of the weekly advice column, assembling Ask Dr. Eldritch podcasts (which will have fans doing most of the voices), and scripting the upcoming comic books.   Other projects include finishing my fourth novel, planning for the fifth, and hoping to find time to write another screenplay or short stories.

 

Anything else you wished I'd asked you about?

We could address the question "Have you had any negative reaction to the mature themes in your comic?"  Fortunately, I haven't.  My comic gets attention from kids at the comics fest because I use action figures, and give away prizes.  But I always tell them, and their parents, that the comic is for grown-ups.  And I put a "Mature Themes" notice on every page.  Since much of the humor is from skewering the clichés of genre fiction, and those clichés are the modern reflection of narrative archetypes, the comic deals with those common elements.  And that includes sex.  I realized early on that I didn't want to tiptoe around that, so I announced at the beginning that there would be mature content, and anyone who objected to that just never became a regular reader.