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A Decade of Niftiness: Comixpedia Talks to Pete Abrams

Sluggy Freelance is now in its tenth year. How do you think the strip has changed? How as your approach to it changed?

One definite change is, if you can picture a slider bar that has "goofy gags" on one side and "intricate plots" on the other, I think I quickly got Sluggy Freelance to the middle of the bar, but for the last few years it's shifted all the way over to the intricate-plot side. Now I find that I'm constantly fighting to get a balance between the humor and the plot-movement. It's also one of the reasons for my recent push to wrap up the storylines. ("Push", right, like it still won't take me years! I need a clone!)

 

Did you ever imagine that 10 years later you'd still be writing about Torg and the gang?

Actually there are two answers to that. The day I started the strip, I'd say "no." mainly because my initial plan was to keep cycling cast members out to keep things from getting stale for me to write. So I thought, ten years from now, there'd be "*A* gang" but Torg, Riff, and Zoë would have left permanently many years ago.

But that "no" changed into a "yes" in less than six months. Very quickly into the comic I found myself too enamored by the characters to write them out too soon. And then I started planning out the big story arcs we're starting to finish today. And the characters have never EVER gotten stale for me (my secret? Ziplocks!).

To this day I could take Torg and Gwynn and have them stuck in an elevator for three hours and while I can't tell you exactly what would happen I can't help but grin.

 

You've been at making comics for 10 years now. What's a typical day like for you? How much time a week do you work on Sluggy itself (the actual comic) versus things related to Sluggy?

One of the problems in my life is I don't have a "typical" day. I mean I can tell you how much time a particular strip would take to execute once I had the script tight, but my life has little structure, BECAUSE of the scripts. Sometimes I catch a break and the finished tight scripts go for a few days but most of the time I'm wrestling the scripts right up to the 11th hour.

I have to check all my angles, it's a complicated world I've created and I mean to have everything consistent in it. Heck, some nights when I can't sleep I just bounce ideas around in my head or poke at ideas I have to see if they're solid enough to withstand the scrutiny of my peeps. And some days I go play videogames with Joe Sunday. Ah, I treasure those days. OH and my family, I treasure them too! ' little bit. :)

 

How hard is it to balance the life of a webcomic creator with being a husband and father? A lot of webcomic creators don't seem to have hit that stage of life yet so you may be providing some valuable Ann Landers-style advice here...

I think I'm almost quoting Ann Landers when I say "You've got to spend some quality time with your wife and each of your kids, or your kid and each of your wives depending upon your country and/or religion!"

I remember a friend of mine, before he was a friend, back when he was a teacher, telling my whole class "get married before you start trying to make a living as an artist, you won't have time after!" it's tough to make time, especially being self employed, because beyond your normal workload, there's always SOMEthing you can be doing to help the neglected business side. And not having an office to go to and (more importantly) leave behind means you have to schedule time for everybody important in you life. Do that or you'll end up not having them in your life.

And more importantly, take the time to read webcomics, like mine. They'll only make you a better lover. And it's all about the love.

 

Have you considered altering the story flow of Sluggy do to time constraints? As T Cambell has pointed out in the past, Sluggy averages at least five panels a day, often more, while more traditional strips do simply 3-4. And Sluggy has new content up on the site 7 days a week, 365 days a year, even when it is artfully disguised as "no-content".

Naw, when I get an idea in my head I tend to tell it until it's done. I think maybe I should TRY to edit my scripts tighter, but I'd rather do 15 panels a day than have a complicated story lie there at 3 or 4 panels for it's complexity. I should actually nip this problem in the bud and hit myself in the the head with a brick when I even consider adding complexity to my general Sluggy plans.

 

After the recent end of "Bikini Suicide Frisbee Days" are you considering recruiting anyone to work on a new Saturday comic for the Sluggy.com website?

I've always enjoyed the alternate take on the vast Sluggy universe the Saturday series have provided Both Ian McDonald of Bruno the Bandit and Clay Yount of Rob and Elliot and Cosmobear were the absolute rightest guys at the absolute right moment. Both are great cartoonists and fantastic and patient people I might add!

Until another perfect person shows up at my doorstep, I think I'll just play with my ferret on Saturdays. Don't, um..., don't take that out of context. Thanks!

The art on Sluggy has evolved over the years. The characters themselves have not changed dramatically but you certainly have experimented more with format, color and styles. How do you decide what approach to the art you going to take for a particular storyline?

The short answer is I go with my gut. Can I use a different style to set a stage or communicate a mood. A simple example would be the "Nothing Dead Here" subsection of "Kesandru's Well", where the color and shading style really set the mood and later serve to represent the change in environment.

 

Have you ever considered working on any comics projects aside from Sluggy, or in addition to Sluggy? Are you working on something right now?

Sluggy gives me a lot of flexibility story-wise, so there's little need for another venue for storytelling. But believe me, there's always something taking up any free time even if it's laying out the next Sluggy book or planning things for the tenth anniversary or what have you. Maybe someday.

 

You were involved in the Supercollider project last year. Can we look forward to any more Sluggy-related collaborative works in the future, or Pete Abrams work in general? Have you considered joining a collective at any point?

It's nearly impossible for me to squeeze extra projects into my life. Every now and then, like with the SuperCollider, things works out.

<sob>But I don't wanna go on blood pressure medication!</sob>

So right at the moment I'm looking at your question going… hmmmmmmmmm NO. But then again when I find that time who knows what foolish over-extending decisions I'll make! Somebody's gotta keep the pharmaceutical companies in business!

 

Do you have a sense of your readership numbers over time? Has Sluggy's audience continued to grow?

Sluggy was constantly growing until a couple of years ago, and now I'm just hanging solid with what I got, plenty of readership and tons-o-love. I'm lucky enough to be making a living doing what I love AND controlling what I do, so I am really happy exactly where I'm at. Of courses I'm not actually dancing at the moment, so I suppose I could attain a higher level of happiness....

 

At this point, are you making more money selling merchandise and advertising or Defender of the Nifty accounts.

I don't have an advertising program anymore. Mainly because it was tough to manage and never brought in much income. Sluggy doesn't really have a solid advertising niche, like console-gaming, or IT, and I've never found the right way to work the ads, so to make a living I had to look elsewhere.

The merchandise sells great, especially Sluggy Freelance Megatome 01 which came out beautifully (it's a compellation of the first three Sluggy Books. IT ROCKS!) Megatome 02 will be out in August this year. But sometimes I run out of time to MAKE new merchandise so that revenue stream varies year to year.

But the Defenders of the Nifty membership thingy has been the thing that above everything else keeps Sluggy going.

 

From the outside, at least, it almost looks like you are running a subscription comic site that is mostly free content, an impressive accomplishment?

It may be impressive, but since all I had to do was ask, it wasn't much of an accomplishment. It is my fanbase that is impressive. Ah the one time wild and rabid sluggites have become the loving and impressive sluggites over the years. Don't underestimate them though. We still maintain a rabid division, just in case.

 

For those who aren't in Defenders of the Nifty can you give a brief snapshot of what it's all about? How big a percentage of your readership has bought a membership in the Defenders?

"Defenders of the Nifty" is a kind of membership where you get access to all kinds of stuff. Like if there's an interesting true story behind a strip you get the behind-the scenes info. Also whenever I change comics last minute or have alternate punchlines, plus occasional convention photos, discounts on certain merchandise, some exclusive merchandise, and rarely some brand new exclusive comics. Oh and when I auction off original art from the strip, Defenders get their own separate auctions where I reserve some of my favorite art for them.

All these things are nice, but there's not SO much of it in a year to justify the $25-30 that is paid. The reason for the name "Defenders" is because they keep the strip going and thus they keep it free for everyone who can't afford to pay but still love the strip. The percentage is only about 5% of my readership, but I think it's the finest 5%. I really do.

 

From a purely selfish perspective (because I'd love to buy an ad on the Sluggy website) have you ever checked out the relatively new auction-style Project Wonderful advertising platform? We use it at Comixpedia now and it's much easier to manage (as in we have to do almost nothing) then our previous in-house banner system.

I will definitely have to check that out as soon as I find the time! ;)

 

With the more recent success of some webcomics creators expanding their distribution into other formats, have you given any thought about getting Sluggy into comic books or newspapers?

Sluggy Freelance has been on the web for the web as intended for the last decade. I remember back in the good ol' days when so may webtoonists were using the web as a stepping stone to newspaper syndication, back when some of us were in awe and wonder at the options a constantly accessible archive system gave us that newspaper syndication never could. So yeah, newspapers are out. A comic book would be nice, but I'd see that as something a few years down the line. After the strip ends. And that won't be at least for a few years if it happens.

 

What webcomics do you read right now? Any particular favorites?

Early on when I was on comic panels, people would ask what webcomics I read, and when I honestly answered "none," everyone else on the panel would list a litany of fifty plus comics, leading to accusations that I was "copping out". Now I find myself on panels where nobody reads other webcomics either so I feel vindicated, I tell you!

I know it's hard for some people to understand, especially people with ANY kind of structure in their lives, but there's no block of time at the start of my day or the end of my day where I'd peruse websites, and maybe blog a bit, check other blogs, and answer the days emails. I kind of dive out of bed into comic related stuff, and dive out to do family things followed up with some last minute comic work, a brief visit with late night TV and videogames and diving back into bed. (This is also why I'm notoriously bad at replying to email. And violent. It's the video games.)

Now just because I don't read any webcomics online doesn't mean I still don't have my favorites that I read in book form when I have the chance. And here's where I don't want to leave anybody out, so I'll cop-out and leave everybody out and just jump to the top of my list. Rich Burlew's Order of the Stick. IT ROCKS! And makes me giggle. Manly giggles, mind you.

 

A lot of storylines are wrapping up at Sluggy. Are you going to introduce new threads, or are we looking at the eventual climax and *sob* end of Sluggy Freelance?

I'm not going to state definitively that the strip is going to end at any given point. Who knows what will change in the future?. But I will say I'm past due finishing SO many stories that I don't want to start any new ones until the others are wrapped up. And some are going to have serious permanent ramifications on the strip. So as it stands now, the current chapter ("Aylee") is the beginning of the end.

 

You've always said you had Oasis's story planned out. Have you stuck to that or has it changed as time went by?

The way I tend to write is, the further out you get time wise, the more general the plan, and thus the final plot points tend to go into play moments before site update! (and occasionally an hour or two after! (Sorry!)). In certain occasions the characters themselves can drive the story in directions I never intended but I always try to crowbar them back on track. Oasis, on the other hand, was written pretty tightly from the beginning, has barely had a detour, and IS right on track to some really shocking moments.

 

Is there any hope of seeing Bert or his crotch returning from the dead? Please?

I'm sorry; I can't pull characters back from the dead all the time or it'll feel like the X-Men! I can use dead characters as ghosts and what have you but since Bert's spirit has moved on, my only options are alternate-dimension Berts, time-traveling to when Bert was still alive, flashback stories, and visiting Bert in the afterlife.

Hey, now that I think about it, that's a lot of options, so maybe! "Crisis on infinity Crotch" (shudder)

 

PS3 or Wii?

The Wii! It's cheap and easy, just like I like 'em! (Now if I could just get around to finding one.)

[Pete added later: Found a Wii! Plus I have a brand new baby daughter born the day before mother's day! Not sure how to split my quality time between the two.]

 

At the very beginning of Sluggy, you incorporated a character, Alyee, from a parody storyline (of Aliens) into the ongoing Sluggy Freelance universe. Are you ever tempted to do that with new parodies?

A perfect opportunity for me to cut and paste from a (previously) exclusive Defenders of the Nifty informative tidbit that explains both why the answer is "No" and where Aylee's shape-shifting ability originated. This was written by my friend Trillian who was my assistant at the time:

This actually came from a recommendation of Pete’s publisher, after the first Sluggy book came out. He warned Pete that since Aylee looked so much like the Geiger alien, having her in two successive books might make cross the line from parody to copyright infringement, and that Pete should probably get rid of Aylee before the second book came out. Luckily for Aylee fans, Pete was too fond enough of her to sacrifice her to possible copyright problems. Instead he gave her shape-changing abilities. It’s turned out to be a fantastic idea, giving him lots of writing flexibility and material with each of the shifts.

 

You brutally savaged the television series 24 recently. Did that come from a place of love, or somewhere more evil.

It's all about the love. Anything I parody comes from me seeing the holes in something I otherwise enjoy. This season of 24 has me scratching my head at some points, but the same goes for just about every show I watch this year. I haven't jumped on the Heroes bus yet, but I hear nothing but good things there.

 

Looking back, what are your most favorite parody storylines from Sluggy?

It's got to be the "Torg Potter and the Sorcerer's Nuts". I'm proud of the whole series of parodies, but that one was gold! Especially the Quidsatz Haderach match (with the bleachers expertly decorated by Joe Sunday I might add!)

Re: A Decade of Niftiness: Comixpedia Talks to Pete Abrams

Interesting interview. A geek salute to Pete Abrams.