Graduation Day: The End of Demonology 101
Looking at the current trends and practices of the webcomics world of today, you can't help but notice that imitation, emulation, and assimilation are fast becoming the standard – why try to be different when so many pioneers before you have found and blazed those "sure-fire" ways to success? Imitate other people's style, lay out your design to look like the Big Boys, and use the same tone and formula in your joke delivery. Guaranteed success, right?
Before you jump on the clone bandwagon, though, perhaps you should take the time to learn a little about a single Canadian cartoonist who tried to do things her own way – who, with patience, tenacity, and a dash of fiery stubbornness, proved that going against the grain can get you just as far.
And give you a lot more cred.
Faith Erin Hicks' quietly built mountain of accomplishments should serve as a prime example of the value of doing your own thing. With over 700 full-sized comic book pages under the belt, Hicks' long-running webcomic epic, Demonology 101, is finally wrapping up what has turned out to be a 5-episode story arc, spanning across the last 5 years.
A saga of angels, demons, and teenagers in high school (one can't have a good contemporary saga without high school being involved somewhere, right?), D101 has presented an engaging, original, and certainly addictive tale to its readers. Trickling in by the cultish numbers at first, her readership has exploded to massive numbers in recent years. Word of mouth proved to be a big factor in D101's success – readers and webcomic creators alike would hear about Hicks' work from peers and fans, and after being exposed to a few pages of her dynamic BW art and compelling writing, they soon find themselves talking to others about it, too.
D101's success story is further made impressive by the fact that Hicks – a recent graduate from Sheridan College – has never tried to push or pimp her work to anyone. No marketing blitzes, no spamming of message boards, no pleas to join any collectives or popular comic hubs. As the ensuing interview notes, Hicks was never interested in anything else but producing a work she enjoyed, and could be proud of. As such, D101 is one of the few webcomics in existence that gained massive popularity solely through the words and efforts of others, and a rare comic in that it can be called a 100% labour of love.
D101 is also one of the first webcomics to offer updates in batch installments. While most webcreators will traditionally update one page or one strip at a time, on either a daily, thrice-weekly, or weekly pace, Hicks stood out by publishing her full-sized comic book pages in batches, released either weekly or bi-weekly. This updating practice is now fairly widespread among long form serial webcomics, but Hicks was unquestionably one of the – if not THE – first to do so.
The comic's popularity bubbled over in the last few years, with Hicks' work earning industry accolades – D101 garnered two WCCA awards in 2003 – Oustanding Writing and Outstanding Black and White Art – while also being nominated for Outstanding Art, Outstanding Character Development, Outstanding Long Form Comic, and Outstanding Dramatic Comic. Sources tied to the WCCA have confided that, based on the nominee ballot returns (which are being tallied this week), Hicks' comic will be a finalist in at least a few categories again this year.
With the epic story wrapping up next Sunday, D101 also becomes what is perhaps the largest completed serial webcomic work on the Internet to date. Certainly, it is a massive, spectacular accomplishment, and nothing to sneeze at. In the interview that follows, Meaghan Quinn speaks with Hicks on the origins and the process of Demonology 101; she also speaks about future plans, and gets a few sneak preview details from Hicks about a Fanart and Fanfic contest being held to cap the series end.
Meaghan Quinn: How did you start Demonology 101? And how did it end up on the Internet?
Faith Erin Hicks: Oh gawd, I can't even remember, its been so long. I think I was bored in class at university and started doodling ... seems that a lot of grand ventures begin out of boredom. I don't know where the exact idea of demons/high school came from, but I'd seen some episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the first season), and thought its concepts were intriguing. I didn't really set out to create something similar, but there was inspiration for the starting point in Joss Whedon. So ... *tips hat* The Internet was just coincidental. D101 started right when the whole internet boom went bust, so all those comics that set out to make a buck through banner ads kind of ... couldn't. Money and fame weren't on my mind when I started the comic online ... I think I was just really interested to see if I could do the comic, and get people reading it. Oh, and I did all this in my third year of drawing (as in, I started drawing three years ago).
MQ: So how did it feel when you finally did get people reading it?
FEH: Well, at first I wondered why they were ... (heh, just kidding) It was pretty exciting. Those beginning days were really fun, mostly because I didn't know anything about comics, or popularity or whatever, I was just ecstatic whenever anyone sent me an email saying they enjoyed my work. It was really nice to have this public place where I could put my comic and get actual feedback on it. That's not something you can do easily in Real Life.
MQ: You went back and redid the first chapter a while ago, correct? I suppose that has something to do with having only drawn for three years before beginning it, but did the feedback you got from readers affect your decision to redraw those pages?
FEH: Yes. I wanted to be proud of the work I produced, and while I was proud of it back in 1999 when it was the best I could do... four years later (and after much advancement of skill) I wasn't happy with the beginning of the comic at all. And people were being rather harsh in their criticism of the artwork. Not that I blame them: I look back on that original artwork and cringe, but I got tired of the comments and felt that quite a few people were dismissing the comic based on the early artwork. I decided the only way to feel better about the comic was to re-draw the episode. It took me about four months to do. I'm very happy I did it. I'll admit it: I'm picky. If I had my druthers, I'd re-do about three-quarters of the comic. It seems the better I get as an artist, the more I hate my work. Lovely catch-22, that.
MQ: Even with going back and redrawing those pages, you kept updating the current chapter of your comic, if I remember correctly. You've kept a pretty constant pace with updates, despite breaks for school, but you've updated your comic in a way very different from the daily- or thrice-weekly schedule most online comics swear by. Did you choose to update with multiple pages at a time on purpose? And did that schedule help you pull off finishing the comic?
FEH: I chose that update method because I felt it contributed well to the flow of the comic. I update in 'scenes', sort of. If I went by chapters, I'd never get anything done. Scenes tend to be anywhere from 2-6 pages long. I think my largest update for the current episode was 13 pages, but I worked on those for a couple of weeks. It does keep me going because the scenes are usually a number of pages I can do in a week, and weekly updates are important to me. It's my routine. I've found readers respond to it very well, as they get to read a whole section at a time, rather than coming back to the site thrice a week to read one page. I don't know if the schedule helped me finish the comic, but it does keep me going. I get to see the comic progress right in front of me in scenes, rather than a page at a time. I like it.
MQ: Exactly how long have you been working on Demonology 101?
FEH: Five years, just about. It'll be five years old in August. It spans two decades! I feel old.
MQ: Ha ha, now I feel old too, I've been reading it nearly the whole time.
FEH: Good lord, really?? I didn't know that.
MQ: Yeah, at least 4 years, since I was reading it before I started ETR, and that would have turned 4 last month.
FEH: Wow, crazy. Well, at least you won't be hassling me to keep the comic going. Quite a few readers only came onboard with Megatokyo, so they've only been reading a few months. Thus the chorus of "please keep going, I just found the comic!" has been quite loud, recently. I feel badly for them, but .... I gotta end it.
MQ: Your fans sound like the LoTR fans, who think there's nothing left after the last movie came out.
FEH: Don't remind me! *cries*
MQ: How does it feel to be ending something that's taken up so much time? Relief? Accomplishment? The need to go back and redraw the whole thing?
FEH: A little of all three, and a big heaping of depression, oddly enough. I can barely remember not doing this comic, and having it end (even though it is a natural ending, and must be done) is very sad for me. And, of course, it seems to have come at an unfortunate time, just when I've graduated and am now trying to fight my way into some sort of Real Job. Maybe I'll stave it off by re-drawing parts of the comic, but... maybe I should do something else. Maybe!
MQ: The comic DOES have a natural ending, and was a sort of complete story through the episodes. Was this ending planned from the beginning?
FEH: No. In the beginning I had no plans beyond Episode 1. Then when I did that episode, I got really interested in the characters and their world, and it seemed like there were a lot more stories to tell. Around the end of Episode 3, I kind of saw the end in sight. I wasn't exactly sure where I would end up, but by then I had a decent idea. However, even throughout Episode 5 I was sure I was going to come up with an idea for Episode 6, because I always did. Whenever I was halfway through an Episode, the plotline for the next one would pop up, and I'd get focussed on that. But then I realized it was really the end, because all the characters' stories came to some sort of natural lull in Episode5. It's not like their lives were over, but they all reached a resolution of sorts. And I felt that was the best justice I could do them.
MQ: You've also started up another comic, Ice, during this episode. How's that going? Any plans for it go on five years?
FEH: Gawd, I hope not! I don't need another five year comic! ;-)
Ice is going well. I enjoy the freedom of writing/drawing it. As in, I can have a character swear or have various adult situations that I felt weren't appropriate for D101, and I love the world Ice exists in. It gives me an excuse to use references from all those English picture books I've saved over the years. Plus, I get to draw horses. So far I've restricted myself to doing only a page a week with Ice. At first I was really frustrated with the speed that the comic was progressing, but now I feel it's a decent way to update it, as it allows me more time to work on that single page, and make it a real work of art. After D101 ends, I may go up to two pages a week. Not quite sure, at this point. We'll see.
MQ: Well, that about does it for my questions, if there's anything else you'd like to say, tell me and I'll pretend I asked you.
FEH: Hm... I'm having a 'D101 is ending' contest soon, so those with artin' and writin' talents... come on down and join up!