International Man Of Webcomics: An Interview with Ryan Estrada
Ryan Estrada is a prolific creator with several webcomic titles to his credit as well as the ongoing video short series, Expeditions. He is currently handling the art duties on the poker-themed webcomic Life's A Bluff.
As to where he is, well, either at his new home base in Mexico or literally anywhere else on Earth.
Can you tell us a little about yourself. Where you were born; where are you now?
I was born outside of Detroit, Michigan in 1980. I started working as a cartoonist very early on, and studied Animation and Digital Media at the College for Creative Studies. I planned to start working as an animator as soon as I graduated, but the year that happened was the exact year that almost the entire US animation industry got laid off. So on a whim, at about 3 in the morning, I decided to move to Korea to teach English (before I even knew where Korea was). I got hooked, and I've been travelling ever since. I took jobs or volunteer posts all over as excuses to travel, while making comics part time, until last year, when I decided to make the jump and just start doing my comics full time.
I rented an apartment in Mexico on a one year lease, with enough money from my last job training Citibank employees at an Indian call center to help me not starve to death in case the plan fell apart, and gave myself a year to build up a steady income from my comics. This really was a ridiculous plan, since the amount of money I'd made with comics in the four years prior was less than I'd need to make in a single month in order to make the experiment successful. And I'd just turned down a pretty hefty contract renegotiation with Citibank. But within my first week in Mexico, I was already making more per month than when I started working for Citibank.
Now, I can travel wherever I want, with my portable studio in tow, and keep working.
You wrote that your first published comic was in the Oakland Press when you were 15? Did you have any idea how hard it is to make a living as a cartoonist when you started off on this path?
I had been sending pitches to The Oakland Press since I was six, so I knew what I was getting into, and I also knew I didn't have a choice. I was filling up notebooks full of comics before I could write my name, and soon after I could write my name, I was sending letters to my favorite cartoonists asking for advice. It's just what I always wanted to do.
Just how many comic projects are you working on right now?
I prefer to work on many short projects as opposed to have many recurring features. It's just the way my mind works..... I get bored very easily if I'm doing the same thing too long. Case in point: my long in-hiatus strips Aki Alliance and Frank: The Comic. But I have a whiteboard in the Cartoon Commune with all the projects I'm working on at that particular moment. My two poker comics, Life's a Bluff and Livin' on Poker Road are always up there, various anthologies I'm submitting comics to, lots and lots of commissions from the Cartoon Commune site.... then there's my adventure show, Expeditions..... and there's a whole other side of the whiteboard for projects I'd LIKE to get to but don't have the time.
How did you get brought in to the Life's A Bluff project? You're the first artist who seems to know what to do with it since DJ Coffman left the project.
Comixtalk saved the day, this is where I saw the call for artists. I e-mailed Frank, sent some sketches, drew a sample comic, and they decided to go with me. There were some great artists also trying for the job, and some friends of mine, so I feel a combination of happiness and guilt for getting the gig.
It was a bit of a stretch, since I know nothing about poker. When I was drawing my sample strip, I had to open Solitaire on my laptop because I couldn't remember all four card suits. But it's a nice balance Frank and I have. He brings the poker gags to the mix, and I bring the longer form storytelling to the table. We shoot scripts back and forth, until it becomes a blend of my sense of storytelling and his.
I really enjoyed what Brandon J. Carr did with the strip, and of course D.J. Coffman as well. I'm pleased to pick up where they left off.
What's going on with your all-ages Aki Alliance comic?
I have the rest of the book all planned and outlined, but I just haven't had the time to devote to doing it right in a while. It's been on hiatus since.... oh, geez.... July '06? I hadn't even realized how long it'd been. But the eventual plan is to finish it up, and pitch it to some publishers as a graphic novel. I can't wait to get to some of the upcoming chapters.
Is your comic Frank: The Comic over or just on a hiatus?
Frank will return as well, but I've stopped trying to make promises as to when. When it does return, it'll be a one-storyline at a time deal, not a scheduled update thing. I still get e-mails regularly from people wanting to know what happened at the end of the last storyline.
There's also another comic you did Gamers Edge that I've completely missed. What was that one about and what's it's status?
Gamer's Edge was a project I did years back, to adapt the site Acts of Gord into a comic strip. The webcomic is over and archived at ryanestrada.com, but when I start putting together more print collections of my work, I'll be finishing up the never-finished storyline "The Book of Celebration" as a print-only exclusive.
I have to point out the year's worth of Welton Colbert strips you did for ComixTalk (and a bunch more on your own site). I remember spotting that character on a Webcomics Examiner cover I think (can't find it right now online). How did you come up with the cranky old man of comics and was it hard to write those strips?
Welton Colbert is so much fine to write. When I write a script for him, it just flows from the keyboard. He started out as just a recurring feature on my own site, essentially as a ploy to get the people I reviewed to link to my comics. Before Welton, I didn't know too many people in the webcomics world. But by doing a webcomic about webcomics, I got to be better known among my fellow webcartoonists. This is why a large percentage of my audience is fellow artists.
I think I first heard of you when you were engaged in a sort of "Iron-man" of continuous comics making. You took the basic idea of the 24 hour comic (making a page an hour for 24 hours straight) and it seemed like every year you were trying to create a longer and longer event. What is the longest period you went making comics and do you think you hold the Iron Man of Comics title?
Well, I failed at my first attempted 24 hour comic, and finished only 12 pages. So I started training myself. I did a 48 hour comic (which ended up being the first time I did comics about my own adventures), then a 72 hour comic (in which I did the epic sci-fi-comedy Ending it All), and finally my 168 hour comic, Ped X-ing. Despite the competitive persona I adopt when doing the challenges, it's just for fun, and I love it when other people try to do similar challenges.
The comics I do during these challenges often end up being my favorites, and I've gotten many of my favorite characters from there. The main characters from both Aki Alliance and my comic in Flight 4 were from my 168 hour comic. And just the act of engaging in the challenges gives me such a rush that it's well worth it.
But then this year you seemingly did a guest comic for almost every webcomic there is - all on the same day... How did you come up with the idea and how many guest comics did you do for that day. How long did it take you to do all of the guest comics?
Doing a guest day was one of those "man I gotta do this someday" things I always had in the back of my mind. But I never got the chance to do it until I got to Mexico, and wasn't working a full time job. Most people think it was just to promote my new business, and while I did configure the date to coincide with the launch of the Cartoon Commune, that was only because I was doing them both in the same month anyway. It was mostly because I LOVE making guest comics, and to announce to the world that I was back, after so many months of spotty updates and hiatuses.
I started e-mailing people in July, just to see if people would be on board. I also wandered around the San Diego ComicCon seeing who else I could get in on it. I went for a wide variety.... from the most popular strips, to the strips that were my favorites, and even threw in a few long-on hiatus strips, just to make the scavenger hunt aspect more difficult, and just to so that strips I wanted to see updated would have an update. I swore everyone to absolute secrecy.
On the way into Mexico in August, I had a little notebook with all of the artists who had said yes written down, and started coming up with ideas for strips while on the bus. As soon as I found an apartment, I got to work. I had around a month to do all of them. I believe there were 48 of them... I wanted to go for an even 50, but an unexpected trip to India kept me from that last two.
I was making guest strips all day and night.... I got to the point where I would fall asleep and dream that I was writing guest comics, and wake up with 3 or four finished scripts done. I realized along the way that my strength as a writer is definitely not in gag-writing. It's in telling stories and developing characters. So that's why so many of my guest strips ended up being 10 times longer than a typical strip. I needed that much room just to get my stories across. And that made the strips take even longer to draw.
The funny thing is, when the strips actually hit the web, I was on a plane to India. I only got to follow the reaction on the occasional 2 minute skim on an internet kiosk in an airport.
I still have to pick up a copy of Flight 4. You have a comic in this latest installment of the anthology series, right? How did you get involved with that project?
I had been following Flight since it was first being talked about on the web. That was about the same time I was doing Gamer's Edge. I was a huge fan of most of the artists in volume 1, and wanted desperately to be good enough one day to be in Flight. I kept working, kept talking to people involved, and hung out on the forums, until it finally happened.
I didn't even get an e-mail inviting me to join. I just got an automated notice from the message board telling me I had been added to the group "The Picollo Factory" being a huge Flight nerd, I immediately knew that this was the hidden forum where Flight artists share and discuss their work for upcoming volumes. I asked Kazu about it, and he said he had considered me one of the gang for a while, and hadn't realized that he'd never made it official.
Who are your influences on you in terms of comics creators? Just art generally?
Growing up, I was a HUGE Chuck Jones nerd. My friends were a religious lot, and while they carried Bibles, I carried a copy of Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist. I had the entire Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies library so memorized that from a single frame, I could name the cartoon, the characters, the director, the animator who had drawn the pose, and anything else you could ever want to know about the cartoon.
As far as comics, I followed mostly newspaper strips in the beginning. And many newspaper artists were friendly enough to answer my letters and give me lots of advice. My first published comic strip shows that the funnies were my only source of inspiration. It was a bland, unfunny blend of Garfield, and about every other newspaper strip.
When I started getting back into comics after my years studying animation, I started to explore more, falling in love with artists I found online like Derek Kirk Kim and Kazu Kibuishi..... reading more graphic novels like Mail Order Bride, Goodbye Chunky Rice, Shutterbug Follies, and Box Office Poison. I started following webcomics like Wigu, and Sam and Fuzzy. I even started checking in on what I'd been missing by avoiding superhero comics my whole life.
Every now and again, I check back in on the newspaper funnies, and nothing has changed. If you showed me a comics page from 1995 and one from 2007, I probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference.
I've really enjoyed watching the Ryan Estrada Expeditions videos. Have you always had such a spirit of adventure?
My family did have our share of disastrous vacations, but no... not really..... most people who knew me before I started travelling are shocked when they see the kinds of things I've been up to. They all seem to remember me as shy and introverted. That's not how I remember it, but I guess that's what I was projecting.
What really made it happen was two moments.... first was when I was sleeping on that park bench in Japan, soaking wet during a raging typhoon, no money, no food, and no way home, when I realized I could handle anything and started laughing hysterically.
The second was when I was preparing to leave Korea after my first year there. I had gone to the country not knowing a single person there. Not even knowing how to find it on a map. And 12 months later, I had a going away party that was so big we had to rent out an entire farm. Hundreds of people hugging me, crying, saying goodbye, and I realized that I had built a family.
The show came from the fact that I'd been making comics about my adventures, but the started happening so often that I just couldn't keep up. SO I started carrying a camera.
A big part of the Expedition project is that you encourage people to tell you where to go and what adventure to have. ("leave a message on the 24 Hour Adventure Hotline at 1(626)593-RYAN, or leave me a video response on youTube"). Do you get a lot of requests? Have there been any so strange you couldn't possibly do them?
I have gotten a lot of requests. And they all get written on post-it-notes and stuck to a special wall o' missions. Some choice favorites right now are to fight a luchador (I'm actually in training to do this right now), to ride a bull (that'll be a dangerous one), and to save baby sea turtles (which is happening this Spring when the eggs start hatching. Most ideas are pretty generic, and open to interpretation. Most of the ideas I initially disregard aren't because they're too intense, but because they seem too bland to base a whole show on. But later, I find something really interesting to do with it. For example, a while back I was challenged to "learn to play the maracas". I didn't figure anyone would be interested in watching me shaking a stick, so I left it on the wall, until recently when I was invited to play the maracas in a Mexican Death Metal band.
Now you're in Zacatecas, Mexico at your Cartoon Commune with John Campbell. How is that going? What inspired you to set up shop in Mexico?
Mexico is the one place I've always wanted to travel. My grandfather is from Zacatecas. But when i was travelling by applying for jobs, I could never find any jobs in Mexico that would even pay for the bus ticket down there. So when i decided to work for myself, it was the perfect place.
I love it here. This is the most beautiful city I've ever been. This summer, I'll be heading out again. I'm quite enjoying this life, a new country every year, all new experiences.... I'll see where the road takes me.