Between the two of them Terrence Marks and Isabel Marks have done a whole lot of webcomicking.Terrence Marks is responsible for writing the early anthropomorphic tale, Unlike Minerva (which is now concluded). UM is cool for among other reasons, for being one of the first webcomics with a single writer and a rotating crew of artists. In fact, Terrence notes on the UM website that he first encountered Isabel when she emailed him in September of 2000, "offering to draw [Unlike Minerva]." It wasn’t until almost a year later he adds that they were "properly introduced."
Terrence is also the founder of The Nice, an online network for webtoonists and he organized the first April Fools’ Comic Swap and Fright Night webcomic events. And as if he wasn’t busy enough, for the past five years, Terrence has also done the coloring for Bill Holbrook’s Kevin & Kell.
What got you interested in doing comics on the web?
Terrence: I had been reading Kevin & Kell for a while and thought I could do something like that. Bill Holbrook’s natural abilities made it look easy. The fact that I couldn’t draw was just a minor obstacle.
Isabel: I found Unlike Minerva via Kevin & Kell, and Unlike Minerva inspired me to start working on comics to build a portfolio to send to Terrence to audition to draw Unlike Minerva. I didn’t send the portfolio in, but I liked the project so much that I kept it going as Namir Deiter. A year later, I made my comic (and myself) known to Terrence.
Terrence, I’m told you were responsible for the April Fools’ Day comic swap "back in the day". Care to take us back there and describe what that was like for you?
Terrence: A number of syndicated comics did a similar swap the year before. I figured that somebody ought to organize one with webcomics. I suggested that, and since nobody else volunteered within a week, I started organizing it.
It was interesting – this was the first large-scale webcomic event. These were the days before Keenspot, before Big Panda, before, well, just about everything. The Belfry was around, AstroNerdBoy’s site was around. There were probably some big comics who didn’t get invited simply because I didn’t know they existed. Most of the people who I invited were regulars on rec.arts.comics.strips. There weren’t any other forums where significant numbers of cartoonists hung out on, at least not that I was aware of. I invited most of the cartoonists that I knew.
The interesting thing was, mind you, that my comic wasn’t online when I was organizing this in February 1999. I had a few sketches – that looked nothing alike, by different artists – and scripts, which I’m sure made me interesting to work with. I swapped with Bob Roberds of Soap on a Rope and was amazed by what he did.
I e-mailed a number of cartoonists and, to my surprise, most of them decided to participate. I matched people up more-or-less randomly and they went with it. I liked being in charge of a group – it wasn’t too difficult keeping them focused since it was a one-off short-term project. And it was a good way to spread the word about my comic.
I think that most people had a good time participating and, hopefully, it let readers find out about comics that they otherwise wouldn’t have. The idea, that a rising tide lifts all boats, inspired The Nice.
Talk a little about your thoughts on the evolution of the economics of webcomics? Anything over the course of the last six or seven years that stands out in your memory as particularly successful, awful, etc?
Terrence: One of The Nice’s goals was to collectively sell advertising space, on the theory that one medium-sized entity would be treated better than several small ones. By the time we actually got things together, in 2000, the bottom fell out of the web advertising market, so we scrapped that idea.
I know a lot of comics – including ours – have switched to a donation model. In January 2005, Isabel suggested that I build a website for donors. I was unemployed at the time and could use the programming experience, so I built NamirDeiter.net (a website that we let donors access) on spec. I wasn’t sure if it would succeed, but it did, beyond my wildest expectations.
Isabel: Personally, we haven’t been keeping up with the economics of Modern Tales, Keenspot, and such. It doesn’t concern us and we’ve never been much for the subscription model.
Who have your influences been over the years? (Who were they then, and are there new ones nowadays?)
Terrence: When I started, my biggest influences were The Class Menagerie, Kevin & Kell, and Jack Benny’s radio show. Now, Isabel’s writing has influenced mine a great deal. Also, I look at Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix series and want to do something that grand, that good. There’s a certain type of manga centered on domestic relationships that has influenced my work on You Say it First – Maison Ikkoku, Living Game, Dance Till Tomorrow. But nowadays when I read something and start thinking that I want to emulate it, I stop reading it immediately. I’d rather be a first-rate Terrence Marks than a second-rate anybody else.
Isabel: When I first started doing comics in general,I was greatly influenced by anime, namely Rumiko Takahashi and Tavisha Simons. Nowadays, I would have to say Bill Holbrook – his writing is incredible. Artwise, I don’t really think I look towards other comics for art any more. I have my own style, and I just try to develop it. In my coloring, I have no idea. My coloring style is similar to the one I developed when I started doing comics 14 years ago, so I guess I was just working on it since I was 8.
What is the biggest change in how you used to work on your comics versus your process today?
Isabel: I switched from lead pencil to blue. I pre-print my borders digitally. I draw my backgrounds digitally and paste them in to the hand-drawn product. It saves a lot of time.
Terrence: I work with one artist, and tend to write comics one at a time. I used to work months ahead and have a large slushpile of comics and ideas. I’d come up with a lot of random ideas that were entirely unsuited for the comics I was actually writing.
What has the biggest challenge to your continued success been?
Isabel: Staying motivated, thinking of ideas. I’m my worst enemy and biggest critic. And getting Terrence to write regularly.
Terrence: Writing regularly. Not enough hours in the day.
How do you approach your work nowadays? Are there things you’re working on to continue honing your craft? (Not that you need it, natch’)
Isabel: I should take a figure drawing class again. I really should. Hopefully next semester. Everybody should take a figure drawing class as long as you’re ok with seeing other people naked. Once I found out that boys don’t have cooties, I was perfectly fine with it. I occasionally purchase figure drawing and body reference books and programs in the hopes of figuring out how the human body works without having to take a figure drawing class. I do have other projects that I work on that aren’t online, but they’re not really affecting anything.
Terrence: Last year, I read through everything that Mark Twain ever wrote, which I found enlightening. Reading the worst things he’s written, actually. I learn more from studying other people’s mistakes. Taking something that failed and doing it right is much more rewarding than trying to duplicate someone else’s success. I need to read more bad things; not the irredeemably bad but the could’ve-been-great-if-only type. I need to re-read my old comics and my old notes, not entirely for the same reason. I tend to forget details of anything I put down for more than a month, and some ideas have been sitting there for years.
Have you created anything on the web that stands out as your favorite work?
Isabel: Honestly, no. I like something, then a few days later I hate it. I see an issue of it that I don’t like and I go back to the drawing board and have a new favorite the next day. That’s the sad truth of the matter.
Terrence: I don’t re-read my old work. The problem is that I look at it and see how the comic doesn’t always match what I intended to do, the points I didn’t really get across or the character traits that weren’t emphasized. I’m sure anybody reading the comic enjoys them, but I usually don’t re-read anything under a year old for that reason.
What are the most exciting things happening today in webcomics?
Terrence: No idea. We don’t really keep up with the larger going-ons in webcomics, so we can’t answer that. Not enough hours in the day.
What are your thoughts on how us webcomics folks fit in with the convention cene? Have you had any success or "growth opportunities" (my nice phrasing for failures) in the convention circuit?
Terrence: We’ve had a number of unsuccessful conventions. My advice is — don’t expect to make money. It’s a gamble. Don’t go to cons with money you can’t afford to lose. I know it sounds negative, but I know of few experiences less pleasant than spending three days behind a table knowing that you have to sell ten more copies to pay the bills waiting for you back home.
Make sure it’s the right con for you. We’ve had very unpleasant experiences because the cons were targeting audiences who were more-or-less uninterested in what we did. We went to a few cons that targeted subcultures who were tangentially related to but not really a part of, and the people there could tell.
Get breakfast first. Nothing worse than being broke, hungry, and having to sell things.
Where do you see yourselves in five years?
Isabel: I try to live my life day to day. I don’t know where webcomics are going to be or what the Internet will be like. It might be something that you just travel with your brain. Or use your iPod to view. Or an extreme paintballing event. I don’t know. It was surprising that few webcomics were recruited into newspaper comics – if you asked me five years ago, I would’ve expected more of them to be working that route. I try not to guess the future. I think I see webcomics turning into reality TV in the next five years. Ultimate Webcartoonist Pantball and all that.
Terrence: There are a few side projects I’d like to work on. With some it’s a matter of time. With others it’s a matter of developing the skills to take on a massive project that spans twelve centuries (and do it well). But mostly a matter of dedicating the time to them. We’ll have a house of our own by then.
What would you say to aspiring web comickers trying to get into the scene now that the competition is so massive compared to when you got your start?
Terrence: If you enjoy doing other things more, or if you’re trying to make friends, get money, or be famous – do something else. It’s a spectacularly unrewarding field for at least 80% of the participants. I’m not saying don’t do it, but don’t do it unless it’s something you love. Back when I started, things were small enough so that you could read every comic that updated that day and still have time to do a few loads of laundry. Or publicity was bad enough that you’d only hear about a few dozen webcomics instead of the thousands upon thousands that we have now.
I can’t even comprehend what they’re going through. I’m lucky I got my start when I did. It was big when I got started but it’s overwhelming now. There are great webcomics out there that I’ll never see simply because we’ll never cross paths. There are self-contained communities of comics that I’ll never find out about, no matter how good they are.
Isabel: Advertise – on as many different comics, as many different types of comics, as many different communities – to get the word out. Otherwise people will never find you.
What do you think can be done to get more attention drawn to webcomics as a whole?
Terrence: No idea.
Isabel: More advertising on non-computer media. Magazines and TV. Mark Mekkes, of Zortic, did an interview with G4/TechTV, which was really cool.
What makes the web a better medium for comics than print?
Terrence: Low barrier of entry, ease of distribution, low costs. Print comics are great, but it’s hard to get them into stores and you only get a smallish percentage of the cover price. The fact that we’re able to develop and distribute new comics without having to sink a few thousand dollars into printing has let us do a lot more than we would have otherwise.
What is the single greatest thing you’ve gotten out of creating comics?
Isabel: Terrence. It’s wonderful, now, that I’ve made a full-time job out of it, but the greatest thing is Terrence.