Of Hipster Kings and Rabbit Detectives: An Interview with Ben Gamboa of Tweep

Ben Gamboa is the creator of Tweep, a comic he's been creating and posting to the web for over five years now.  It's about a group of friends who the comic looks in on as they go about their day to day lives.  I really like the description offered by Gilead Pellaeon in his review of the comic:

Tweep is a really sweet strip about friends who care about each other, relationships that make sense, and, of course, The Rabbit Detective. And I've gotta say, I'm loving it. It's not as edgy as Questionable Content, it's not as funny as PvP. It's definitely not as dramatic and emotionally charged as Megatokyo. While all of those strips qualify as relationship strips, in them the relationships are the vehicle by which the purpose of the strip is delivered, be it humor or drama. In Tweep, the relationships ARE the strip, and any drama or comedy that arises is simply the result of natural interaction between the characters.

And I don't think that description is intended to damn with faint praise.  Tweep is often disarmingly aimless as its characters go about their day, and while the characters do stuff, it's much more about this small clique of characters and their interaction with each other than what they do.

I was really happy to get Ben to do the cover for ComixTALK this month and talk to him about Tweep.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?  Where are you located these days?

I live in Whittier, California, which is nestled snug between Los Angeles and "the OC." It's named after a poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, who never even bothered to visit. Whittier has been, at times, home to such dignitaries as John Lasseter, Carol Lay, Oscar de La Hoya, and Richard Nixon; parts of the city have served as backdrop to some of the cinematic touchstones of my generation, including Back to the Future I & II and Masters of the Universe.

There's also an earthquake named after us, which I slept through.

It's an odd town, and I often feel out of place, but it's home.

 

I grew up behind the Orange Curtain too.  I remember sleeping through most earthquakes myself — you just get used to it after awhile.  I cannot seem to convince Mrs. X of this though and that's probably a  big part of why I'm living on the East Coast these days.  So what's a typical day for you like recently?

My typical day involves lots of procrastination, followed by feelings of guilt, and concluded with resolute productivity.

 

Do you have another job besides working on comics?

I consult for an architecture firm, off and on.

(More off than on, of late … but I majored in English, and am grateful for what I can get in today's character-building economy.)

 

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

The comic is about a trio of longtime friends, one of whom meets a girl. Said girl is eventually accepted into the fold, along with her best friend. Ultimately, all five are just trying to make it through each day the best they can, with a little help from one another.

There's also a rabbit and a cat. But neither of them talk.

 

How has the strip evolved over time?

Art-wise, the comic's evolved quite a bit. I really hadn't done any drawing prior to starting out and, in hindsight, I don't really know what made me think I could pull it off (although, it was 2003, and the quality of most webcomic art at the time was very encouraging to amateurs).

In terms of writing, it's hard to say. I do know that I write more comics that rely on visual punchlines nowadays, because I feel more confident that in my ability to pull them off. I also try to be a little less wordy than I was in some of my earlier strips, but I don't always succeed in that regard.

As far as the story goes, it's much the same as ever: friends having everyday adventures, with the occasional dose of the absurd thrown in for good measure.

 

For me at its best, Tweep is this interesting mix of watching pretty normal "hanging out" time between friends punctuated by random weirdness. You tell the story at a pretty relaxed pace.  To be honest, I actually enjoy reading it more in batches of a week or so at a sitting than checking in every day.  I wonder if in terms of you coming up with the comics do you really think in terms of each daily strip standing alone or do you compose the ideas for several strips together?

Reading the comic in batches seems like a perfectly reasonable thing! The slow pace can be kind of a turn-off to some people, but it's the only thing that feels natural to me. Plus, some of the strips I'm really fond of are the ones that happen in the ordinary moments, which would get skipped over if I were moving more briskly.

To answer your question, I have a very, very rough idea of how I want the story to progress on a weekly basis.  When each new week rolls around, I usually decide what I want to happen by Friday's strip, and then try to figure out how to get to there from the previous Friday's strip, and so the pieces start to fall into place.  If I'm really lucky, I'll come up with some dialogue during this step, but usually that doesn't happen until a day or two before each strip goes up (like I said, I procrastinate, and I haven't yet figured out how to function without a deadline breathing down my neck).  I try to make sure that each strip has some sort of punch at the end, but they're not really written to be read as stand-alone comics.

Sometimes I get sick of this process, or have a case of writer's block, so I just wing it for awhile; that's how the more bizarre strips come about.  Every cartoonist needs to blow off some steam now and then.

 

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

The one about sugar gets emailed around some. I also get a lot of positive response from the wordless comics; they're really fun and challenging to do, but I have to be careful not to go overboard with them.

I don't know that I have any favorite strips or storylines, but there are scenes that I really like: Milton and Julie at the diner; Lily and Jack walking at night; Milton, Kate, and Jack all bantering with one another in the kitchen.

 

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

Lily's a fan favorite, and one that I've come to be pretty fond of. She was only going to be a minor character, originally, but she lobbied pretty hard for a larger role.

Owen's kind of a tough one. He doesn't show up in too many comics, so I haven't really had a chance to figure him out all the way.

 

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

Like most webcomic folk, I'd love to make a living off of this. But, after five years, one's optimism grows tempered. That said, I can't imagine not having the comic as a part of my life. I'd miss the characters too much.

 

Any plans for a print collection?

Not at present! I'd probably have to redraw every strip that I intended to publish, for one thing. I'm not saying never, but it feels unlikely.

I'd really like to do some sort of print dealie, though. But it'd be something written and drawn with that intent in mind at the outset. I have ideas, but they are of the secret variety.

 

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

I am horrible at self-promotion. Everyone says to post in forums, but I can't figure out a way to blatantly plug my work without feeling like a tool. If some more experienced cartoonist has suggestions, I am all ears.

For the most part, I rely on my readers to spread the word. Links on forums, webcomic directories, or what-have-you certainly help to bring in new eyeballs, but most people won't sit and read through five years of archives unless someone they trust will vouch that it's worth it.

 

Any collectives you're working with?

There are none. Nobody's asked. I don't really know any other cartoonists, to be honest … which is kind of a bummer, because I don't have anyone to talk shop with.

I've exchanged a couple of emails with Joey Comeau and Ryan Estrada in the past, and I once won a free t-shirt off of John Allison, but that's about it.

 

I'm just going to chalk that up to what must be your incredible reserve.  I could see pitching Tweep to various groups for cross-pollination of readers – it's a slice of young adult life and there's boundless numbers of webcomics like that but it's also sort of a slow-motion romantic comic.

What conventions are your favorites to exhibit at?

I don't exhibit at any conventions. Should I? I always think of conventions as something for the big names in comics.  Obscurity has made me a little self-conscious. What if I set up a table and nobody came? I'm a man caught between his hopes and fears.

 

Oh believe me, there are no standards for most conventions I've been too.  I just hit SPX this past weekend — I do think Tweep would be well received at a convention that was focused on comics for comics (as opposed to more super hero-centric comic conventions).  Plus I've always found it interesting and encouraging to talk to other creators and other attendees wandering around.  Advice for how to exhibit at a convention is a whole 'nother topic, but needless to say you'd need some kind of Tweep on paper to sell.  Maybe a mini-comic printing one of the wordless stories would work.

Have you ever been to a comics convention?

When I was a little kid, my dad (being an awesome dad) drove me down to the San Diego Comic-Con to get my well-worn copy of "The Death of Groo" signed by Sergio Aragones. It was a long drive both ways, but it was worth it to meet my cartooning hero. He was very kind and whipped out a Groo sketch crazy-fast (as is his way). When I got home, I grabbed a big bowl of strawberries (my favorite fruit) and read the whole thing again, staining the pages in the process.

My signed copy of "The Death of Groo" is probably worth close to nil on the comics market, but it remains one of my most treasured possessions; when I see those strawberry stains, it reminds me of being a little kid again.

 

When you create a comic, how do you appproach 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?

Honestly, it depends what sort of mood I'm in. Most of the time, I start with the words first, because there's usually a certain idea I want to convey or a step I want to take in moving the story along, and it's best to make sure that I get that done before I start drawing anything; I only have so much room to work with, and once the dialogue's laid out, I usually find that my options are limited in terms of what I can draw in the space still available.

Sometimes, though, I get really tired of words and dialogue and decide that I'm going to do without them for a day (or week).

 

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

I draw the comic in Photoshop with my trusty optical mouse. Generally, the way it goes is that I block out the shapes in the foreground using patches of color, and then add detail until the picture comes into focus. After that, I move on to the background.

Does that make any sense? Another way to think of it is that instead of sketching something out, inking the lines, and then coloring, I do the coloring and sketching as one step, and add the lines at the end.

On the rare occasions where I'm trying to get a more traditional-looking illustration, I either use a Wacom or scan something in.

 

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

I did indeed do my own website. The "blog" portion (if you can call it that) used to run on a platform called pMachine, but I've recently made the switch to WordPress. I thought about using the ComicPress theme, but I would've had to rework a bunch of stuff, and it was just better in the long run to find my own solution (and I think the comic-archive-browse-by-month dealie I came up with as a result is pretty neat, anyhow).

The "comic" portion is all some custom PHP that's really straightforward and doesn't involve any databases or the like. I'm not sure how well it scales, but that's a concern for another day.

Coding is fun! It's all making up puzzles and solving them using a limited set of tools. Everyone should try it.

 

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

My relationship with my readers is a little weird. Maybe because it's a weird comic.

They're a very diverse bunch, for starters. I know the Internet's been around for awhile now, and we're maybe a little jaded to the whole "worldwide community" thing nowadays, but I still get thrilled when I check my site logs and see that somebody in France/China/Finland has spent a day and a half going through my archives. It's just weird to have that connection with someone way on the other side of the world.

That said, they're a very quiet bunch. I had a message board up for a time, but it didn't see much action (except from spambots). If it weren't for rising readership numbers and the occasional review, I wouldn't really have much indication of what people thought of the comic.

I do get some email from readers, for which I'm always grateful.

 

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

I do read other comics! My favorites these days are Scary Go Round, Overcompensating, and Octopus Pie. I also read QC and Penny Arcade (who doesn't?), PvP, A Softer World, Something Positive, Anders Loves Maria, Diesel Sweeties, Scadi, and others that I am probably forgetting.

Oh, and Erica Moen's DAR comics are adorable, gross, and extremely not-worksafe.  A winning combination, and certainly worth checking out. In the privacy of your home.

As for print comics, I don't read as many as I'd like. Groo is still my all-time favorite, but my tastes also lean towards the artsy/indie stuff like Flight. Every now and then I'll pick up an anthology of something along those lines.

I also have a copy of Narbonic, Vol. 1 that I picked up at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, in a show of solidarity (good stuff).

 

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

I read all sorts of comics as a kid! I mentioned Groo. I was also into those Carl Banks comics, like "Uncle Scrooge."

Beyond that, I was big on newspaper comics. Calvin and Hobbes was my favorite, but I also enjoyed Bloom County and Peanuts. All the old school classics. Those influenced me more than anything, I guess.

The great thing about those comics is that they weren't afraid to be melancholy or reflective. It seems like nowadays most daily (weekly/tri-weekly/whatever) comics are all about the wacky punchline or the snarky jab. The old comics were a little more willing to traverse the emotional spectrum, I think. Or maybe I'm just overly nostalgic.

(As an aside, I once won a contest where I got to ask Bill Watterson a question, because apparently I'm really lucky at contests involving cartoonists. Basically, I asked what he thought about the advent of webcomics and he replied, "To be honest, I don't keep up with this. The Internet may well provide a new outlet for cartoonists, but I imagine it's very hard to stand out from the sea of garbage, attract a large audience, or make money. Newspapers are still the major leagues for comic strips . . . but I wouldn't care to bet how long they'll stay that way." Not the brimming enthusiasm I was hoping for, but the man was pretty spot on.)

 

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

People say that they see an anime influence in my art, which is something I'll have to take their word on (I don't see it, although I do enjoy anime).

There are probably all sorts of influence on my writing that I don't even realize. I do know that there was one period where I discovered Joss Whedon and the amount of banter in the comic increased a thousandfold.

 

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?

For one thing, I pretty much grew up with comics. I never really thought I'd end up being a cartoonist though, because I was lousy at drawing (as it turns out, pretty much everyone is, at first). Eventually, I found myself with a lot of free time on my hands and I decided to give it a shot.

But, I guess the question is more about what makes comics special. Well, compare it to, say, literature. A writer can put his thoughts down on paper, but it's all open to interpretation; he can describe a scene, but the image he has in his mind's eye probably won't jive with what the reader envisions. Not so with comics, where the creator gets to put his imagination directly onto the page or screen.

So, there's all this potential to establish a direct connection to your audience, but you still have to abide by a certain format, and follow certain conventions. And yet, you get to make up the rules as you go along.

It's poetry with pictures.

 

Any other creative endeavors you're working on?

The comic is pretty much my sole creative outlet right now. There are all sorts of things I'd love to do, but one has to prioritize.

Xaviar Xerexes

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

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