FiF Postscripts by John Barber

We’re back, continuing our conversation with Brendan Cahill, my old friend and collaborator and creator and writer/artist/programmer of Outside the Box at ModernTales. You can read the first part of the interview here.

Brendan, does working on the web affect the tools you use?

The Web doesn’t necessarily drive what tools I use, but it opens up possibilities for me to experiment with new tools. The most basic method of producing a webcomic is almost identical to that for print through most of the process—script, layout, pencil, ink, scan, clean, color/tone, letter. But at this point in the print process you basically have only one option: go to a page layout program, collect the files, put them on CD and ship them off. In the webcomics world you have a myriad of options, including HTML, Flash, Shockwave, QuickTime VR, etc.

What kind of creators do you find particularly inspiring, from comics or anywhere else?

In general, I think I’m enamored with creators who can effectively meld pop culture, romantic aesthetics and genre work with more “serious” or philosophically weighty subject matter. Dreary pontificating is just as boring as vacuous filter – pop sensibilities don’t invalidate thematic achievements.

You’ve always seemed to me to be like (and I mean this in a positive way, your art is very distinct) a cross between Shirow and Matt Wagner, and I know you were in fact influenced by both.

Masamune Shirow, indeed, is my favorite manga artist. One thing he did that I’ll never forget: there’s a scene in Appleseed where a car is speeding through a park. The car is rendered as if it were still, but the trees and surroundings are motion blurred. The idea of rendering the background as though you were viewing it from within the car, except that you’re seeing it from outside of the car, blew my mind. It conveyed the action so perfectly, but in an unexpected way. That panel alone got me to rethink a lot of how I present motion and action—not that I go around ripping it off, just that I use it as a touchstone for rethinking what seems “obvious” in a layout (i.e., that if you’re outside the car and it’s moving, then the car should be blurred).

But in a lot of ways, many of them probably unapparent, Matt Wagner is the biggest influence on my work. The Batman/Grendel storyline he did (the first one, with the drab green covers) is probably my favorite single comics story ever. The plot, the themes, the way he tells four stories simultaneously, and the way those four stories are intertwined in the art and layouts… fucking brilliant. That one got me to rethink my approach to just about everything.

Do you think about your style very much?

I used to, but not so much anymore. When I really started getting serious about comic art, I did what I assume a lot of people do: I copied my favorite artists stroke for stroke, trying to figure out how they did what I liked. I went through a Jim Lee phase, then a Todd McFarlane phase, then a Matt Wagner phase. Then I went on to attempt to rip off Chris Bacchalo, Masamune Shirow, even Stan Sakai. Occasionally, I would try some Frank Miller or Mike Mignola.

Anyway, now that I’ve “arrived” at something that I can call my own, I guess I don’t think about it as much – a lot of it’s completely ingrained now. But I think about thinking about it. The next step for me, probably, is, now that I’m comfortable with my style, to try to break it.

You’re actually a big fan of fantasy, right?

Yeah, I’m a huge fan of fantasy. In a way, I try to work some fantasy aspect into everything I do. I don’t really see the point in telling stories that are 100% realistic and believable. I mean, you can experience those things in real life—you don’t need an artist to tell you about them. Not that some people don’t do that type of thing well—many do. It’s just that I’m not usually interested in a story unless it starts from a non-real point and then goes on to intersect with reality in some way that has impact for the reader. This is what a lot of sci-fi writers do – use a hyperbolic, fictionalized version of their theme to drive it home. It’s one thing to say “rampant government expansion is bad”—it’s another to write 1984.

But beyond that, I just love swords and sorcery. Always have. I played D&D, I played RPG video games. The first novel I ever bought for myself with my own money was a Dragonlance book. To this day, I read horrible fantasy books ravenously. Most of them are really terrible, but they fill a certain “comfort zone” role in my life. There are some really excellent fantasy authors out there, including Steven Brust, George R.R. Martin, Roger Zelazny. But for every one of them, there’s six-hundred Sara Douglass’s, who churn out barely-tolerable tripe.

There’s something about fantasy that’s always worked for me, and, I think, always will. Swords are more interesting (and personal and violent) than guns. Magic opens up new questions: we think of things this way, but what if this were possible? Putting your ideology up against non-real eventualities is a good way to test it. If a change in circumstance changes your ideology, then it’s more consequentialist and less ideological than you thought. Themes you use in fantasy stories have to be airtight because they can’t be hidden in or mitigated by circumstance.

Fantasy also invariably deals with honor. It deals with a setting in which the dodges and equivocations of modern life are unavailable. You can’t hide behind your PR team in a fantasy world. It presents larger-than-life heroes who take larger-than-life heroic actions. Westerns are good at this, too, but have never worked for me quite as well as fantasy.

What lead you into doing a noir series like OTB, then?

I’m fond of saying that I was drawn to the OTB idea because it was a “little story.” Fantasy stuff (which is where my natural inclination lies) is, almost by definition, big and epic. It involves a ton of world-building, a lot of planning, mapping, etc., and a lot of reader investment. The reader has to care about your world to believe it. Or believe it to care about it. Whatever. But doing something that really required no setup, no exposition, just characters moving on a slightly distorted stage… that seemed like a good project to kick off my webcomics career.

And I’m a big fan of noir, too. I love Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy. I’m big into Humphrey Bogart. And it was intriguing to wonder: what happens when you take this stylized mid-century world and drag it into the Internet age. What if Sam Spade could google someone?

I’ll do basically any story that piques my interest: noir, fantasy, sci-fi, war, character study, etc. It just has to have some out-of-whack element—something that can’t or hasn’t yet or doesn’t often happen in real life.

What else do you do? Either as a day job or other creative enterprises.

Currently, I’m the Creative Director of a small communications media agency. I’m responsible for art direction, messaging, media authoring, and, to a lesser extent, business development and steering.

In my free time, I try to avoid avoiding creative endeavors of every sort, from putting off working on Outside the Box, to ignoring ideas for new comics projects, to continually delaying work on a novel of some sort.

I hope by the time I die I’m: a respected comics/webcomics figure, a published novelist, an essayist of some sort, and very rich.

You used to DJ, too. Is this all over?

No, I still DJ at occasional events—I just don’t have a residency anywhere. I make my living (both in terms of money and in terms of personal fulfillment) at creative endeavors—I’m always open to a new one. I used to play guitar and bass as well—I say “used to” because I haven’t actively practiced in a while. But I could always come back to it. Ditto DJing—it’s not where I’m focusing right now, but I’m always open to a return if the right project comes along.

Do you think webcomics will be—generally speaking—profitable in the future?

I don’t see a whole lot of room for profit in webcomics, particularly for people like me who are really bad about marketing and interacting with the community. At this point, I think webcomics will serve me better as a visibility generator so I have something of a fan base (or at least some level of name recognition) for other, more potentially profitable

I don’t think it will necessarily be this way forever—I’m rooting for webcomics to become a viable market. But even the print comics world only barely qualifies as “viable” right now, and with the myriad of opposition elements stacked against webcomics (the pride of ownership issue, the “information wants to be free” movement, the physicality barrier) over and above those stacked against print comics (the abovementioned ignorance, ineffective marketing, stigma, and narrow distribution), it seems like a longshot in the foreseeable future.

You’re in a position where your “day job” pays you enough money that it would be economically difficult for you to give it up to do comics full-time. I mean, I don’t know exactly what you’re making, but I know it’s more than you would if you were drawing a regular monthly book for Marvel or DC, let alone what anybody’s making on webcomics.

I mean, this is really a sign of how much you care about comics, about doing comics. If Marvel or DC offered you the opportunity to do a series what would you do? Would you rather do the comics you want for a little money or do comics that maybe you don’t want for more money, but still not money that’s essential to you?

I won’t intentionally take a pay cut for any reason. If Marvel or DC wouldn’t pay me what I think I’m worth, then I wouldn’t work for them. “Paying your dues” is bullshit. I’d rather do the comics I want—if I’m not making much money at it, that’s my problem and it’s my job to find the solution.

My day job is certainly not as fun as doing comics or writing fiction or whatever, but it’s fulfilling in its own way. It’s also, in many ways, my core competency. I’m a good writer and illustrator, but I’m a really good graphic designer. In a way it makes me feel better to have produced a project that is excellent for its industry than to have produced a product that is merely good for its industry. This fulfillment can offset the “less fun” factor.

I certainly wouldn’t want to do crap comics for less money than I’m making now—if I’m going to do something other than my absolute number one preferred job, I may as well make as much money as possible. A compromise position like doing a bad comic wouldn’t, for me, be any “closer” to my ultimate goal than doing good graphic design is.

And on a related note, you have the nicest car in webcomics. Fox News reporter jamming the mike into your face: “How does that make you feel?”

It feels pretty good, I guess. A dubious distinction.

Do you think there’s a split—real or perceived—between print comics creators and web ones?

Definitely. Any new endeavor, industry, or medium will be opposed by entrenched interests. This works on an economic level, as the new threatens to undermine the profitability of the old (though this certainly isn’t happening with webcomics yet), and on a psychological level, as tradition shapes peoples’ attitudes. The very democracy that makes webcomics a valuable form of expression lies in distinct psychological opposition to the more traditional approach of print and publishers, i.e., if anyone can do it with no editorial supervision, then who’s to say what they’re doing is good? Or, more to the point, if these guys who are relying on “free” publishing and distribution were any good, then a “real” publisher and distributor would want to work with them.

But as with all new markets, this will erode with time. The general attitude will shift such that entrenched prejudices will begin to seem reactionary and obsolete, instead of traditional and common sensical. Consider that in its early days, hip hop music was largely considered to be silly and unmusical, of interest only to a very specific minority. Now it comprises arguably the most important (pop) cultural pillar of the USA.

Well, I don’t think there should be any barriers to putting comics on the web, but I know I wish I had an editor. At a certain level you need someone who is knowledgeable and cares about the work as much as the artist, but isn’t as wrapped up in it. You can’t write The Waste Land without Ezra Pound.

Do you ever wish you had someone looking over your shoulder saying–”this scene doesn’t work” or “who’s this character”?

Totally depends on the project. With OTB, I don’t think I could involve anyone else at a detail level like that. I don’t want to have to second-guess someone else’s motives or qualifications, nor their (mis) understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish. If the story feels right to me, then it’s right as far as I’m concerned. It’s tough to rely 100% on your own judgment, but I think it can be really rewarding.

However, some projects seem to be built for a team effort. [The forthcoming comic that’s a collaboration with John Barber,] Dabria, for instance—as you’ll recall, I had this embryonic storyline that just didn’t feel like it would ever be “right” or “finished,” so I pitched you to come in as the writer to “fix” it (what you actually did to it notwithstanding). For a project like that, I think it’s essential that each of us act as each other’s editorial control—we could both make missteps.

I’m not entirely sure what qualifies a given project as “collaborative” or “individualistic.” I’ll have to give it some thought.

Overall, I’d prefer to make my own mistakes and not have someone else butting in.

Do you think webcomics could be doing something to reach outside of people that already read them? And if so, what?

Yeah, sure. I don’t know what, though. I’m going to interpret the question as “Do you think webcomics could be doing something to reach out to people willing to pay for them?” I’m sure there are plenty of ways to “work the web” to build interest in a webcomic—it’s probably even pretty easy to get people that aren’t otherwise interested in comics to show a passing interest. I imagine this could be accomplished by using Internet versions of traditional PR tricks: paying for mentions in online zines, talking up the product on blogs, etc. The Web should make it pretty easy to focus on certain demographics (as you mention above). But how do you turn interest into readership, and how do you turn readership into dollars? That’s the big question.

I’ll admit that I’m in a pretty contradictory position in that I believe that people should want to pay for webcomics, but I, myself, am mostly unwilling to do so. The cost-value relationship isn’t right for me, but I have to hope it is for other people.

I think this goes back to pride of ownership and how I have it and how younger people don’t or won’t. We need to aggressively target people who are (or will be) comfortable paying for virtual content. This seems obvious, but there’s a crucial distinction to be made. I suggest this as opposed to trying to convince more traditional thinkers to grow comfortable with paying for virtual content. The iTunes Store will probably never have me as a customer until it’s the only way to purchase new music (meaning the complete absence of physical media alternatives). It will get to that point (if it does) by courting an audience that doesn’t have preconceived notions of how to buy music. Once it accomplishes that coup, then it will convert me to a customer by default.

Again, I think Modern Tales is a good first step toward solving the “how do we reach out to new customers?” problem. Creators are typically willing to pay (usually in the form of commissions—that is, profits never gained rather than money paid out-of-pocket) for other people to worry about the marketing and distribution aspects of their work. There’s probably room for more companies to grow into this realm. If you could sign with someone who would “work the Web” for you on a commission basis, I think you’d be pleasantly surprised by the results—at least in terms of page-views. Again, turning page-views into income assumes there’s a suitable pool of people comfortable with pay-for-content.

For myself, I hope to be seen as an early adopter and an innovator. I’m far from the first wave (or two or three) of webcomics creators, and also a step behind in innovation (having stolen most of my formal ideas from John Barber and Daniel Merlin Goodbrey), but if I’m not the Sex Pistols, at least I’m the Buzzcocks or something. I’m here now, and doing this before it becomes a Big Thing, which has to count for something in the name recognition game.

Lastly, let me note that it is crucial for the future of webcomics that companies like Modern Tales exist to sell it. Words like “sell,” “profit,” and “capitalism” (especially “capitalism”) tend to be demonized, particularly in artistic circles, but these elements of business are essential to the success of any endeavor.

Money is nothing but the medium by which we exchange the fruits of our efforts for those of someone else’s. If I want to take something you produce out of the system, I have to put something that I produce into the system. Labor has value, and that value is expressed in terms of money. To demand or expect something for free is either to opine that it has no value (in which case why would you want it?) or that the cost of producing the value should be borne by someone else— in the case of Web content, usually by the creator. What makes anyone think that they are entitled to the fruits of another’s labor, at that other’s cost?

Every product of labor has a price and therefore a built-in incentive for the producer to produce it. Sometimes it’s not money (it could be fame, positive feelings, esteem, or any number of other things), but most often it is money, precisely because money is a symbol of that labor’s value that can then be exchanged for other products of value. If there is no incentive to produce (in this case, cash), then the most effective (in this case,
most talented) producers will use their talents elsewhere. For webcomics to have a future, the creators must be able to make a living doing it.

Selling a product makes that product better. That which is free is usually worth exactly what you pay for it.

Thanks for your time, Brendan. Next month I’m back with Nowhere Girl’s Justine Shaw!

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.