The ComixTalk Interview with Blank Label Comics
We took the best of the readers' questions and mixed in some of our own to conduct this interview with the six current members of Blank Label Comics: Howard Tayler (Schlock Mercenary), Steve Troop (Melonpool), Paul Southworth (Ugly Hill), Paul Taylor (Wapsi Square), David Willis (Shortpacked) and Greg Dean (Real Life).
ComixTalk: Just this month you launched a revised homepage for Blank Label Comics -- it now shows the latest comic and blog post from each of BLC's 6 members. What was the genesis of re-doing the site and who did the design and coding work?
Howard: The idea has been knocking around BLC for a while. I had some free time late last year, so I tackled all the organizational stuff. John Jolly, a brilliant programmer I met fifteen years ago at Novell, did all the coding. The design belongs to Liz Dean, who really put the polish on the whole thing. Then Greg took her design and coded the template that John's script uses for formatting the output.
ComixTalk: I'm impressed -- for all that content it still loads pretty quickly and makes it easy to read everyone all at once.
Howard Thanks! That was the goal -- quick loading, easy all-in-one-place reading. Credit goes to John and Liz for delivering the goods.
ComixTalk: Having been together now for a while; what, if anything, do you find has changed concerning the original ideas behind creating the group.
David: I'm pretty sure the bit about required matching jumpsuits wasn't in the original charter.
Southworth: Howard doesn't spoon with me anymore, and Willis won't even look me in the eye during our "sweaty man-time". But seriously folks... we've all still got the same vision as when we started: support each other to make good comics.
ComixTalk Any plans to add to the Blank Label lineup, or are you content to remain the Sinister Six of webcomics?
Howard: Content? I don't think we'll ever be content with anything.
Steve: I think our current plan is to just keep having children so eventually they can take over BLC.
Southworth: Well, I had a kid last year, but I don't think he's officially a "member" yet.
Howard: Hey -- I've got four, Southworth and Paul Taylor each have one... now all we need is about eighteen years, and a few spare kids just in case. I'm looking right at you, Greg.
Greg: Future Deans will be trained in Illustrator, CSS, and hand-to-hand combat. Just in case.
Steve: Don't forget -- I just adopted an 8-year-old and a 16-year-old. My plan is to put them both through business school with a focus on LLC takeovers.
David: Children will "eventually" take over BLC? Have you seen my action figure collection? I'm like five kids myself.
Southworth: Unless Willis decides to divide asexually sometime in the next six months, I think we're sticking with the current lineup.
ComixTalk: So... no expansion plans then. With the webcomic scene tending towards more groups of comics and artists, what do you recommend to someone starting out: go solo, try to join an existing group, or form a new group?
Southworth: Go solo first and make something good. Then worry about joining groups, making groups, etc. Whether you're in a group or not, no one wants to read a crappy comic, much less a whole slew of them.
Steve: I think the most important thing for someone starting out to focus on is making the best strip they can. Worrying about how big your fanbase is or how fast you can make money at it is irrelevant if you're making a crummy product -- no matter what the medium. Posting on a free hosting site until both the strip and the cartoonist matures is the best thing someone can do. Once they get that far, the choice of going solo or joining a collective will be both easier to make and easier to do.
David: I recommend my model. Host yourself while you're small and cheap, grab the attention of a collective and build up a readership, and then learn to become more independent, more self-sufficient. If you write the best comics in the universe right off the bat, you might be able to skip part two. Ultimately, just make sure you're getting a big enough piece of your own pie. After you make a huge pie.
Paul Taylor: Yes, what they said. Not all of us jumped into this head first -- save Howard -- and made a go at comics as our career. I had a day job and was doing the comic on the side for quite some time (even before posting it on the web). It was a passion but I knew I had to get a following before trying to make money at it.
ComixTalk: I was checking out the Project Wonderful stats for BLC, which I assume includes blanklabelcomics.com as well as each of the 6 members websites. Collectively you're averaging around 500,000 page views per day? Is that about right?
ComixTalk:I know Howard has experimented with several advertising platforms since leaving Keenspot - is Project Wonderful still a good option for you or are you looking to try out other options this year?
Howard: It's not either-or. Project Wonderful is still a good option, AND we are trying out other options already this year. Our ad revenue has been on the rise for the last few months, but we're still not content.
David: Money money money...
Steve: Willis manages our ad serving. That's why I'm in charge of managing Willis.
ComixTalk: If I do the math right (and that's not necessarily a good bet) BLC will be entering its third year this coming February. What's different now than when you started this group and are there any lessons you can pass on to others just starting out together.
Greg:I think we're all just a bit wiser, mostly. We've managed to really learn some of the ways we can make this (cartooning) work for us, and we're helping each other accomplish those goals very well.
Southworth: As I said, there's always room for more spooning.
Paul T.: I learned not to eat convention hot dogs.
Howard: Oh, man. My wiener has a first name, it's Ralph the Chuckhurlbarf...
ComixTalk: Here's one from a reader. jhorsley3 asks: "How do you promote webcomics? I asked because I am finding it very hard to promote mine."
Greg: See, and here I was hoping someone else would tell me. I've got no idea - I literally have never actively advertised Real Life. Posted about it once or twice back when I was a member of the PvP forums, added it as a link my forum sig from place to place, and then pretty much never advertised it again. Word of mouth is a powerful force, my friend.
David: It's much harder to separate yourself from the pack now that webcomics have been going on for over a decade and there are fifteen million of us. In 1997 you could just kill off a major character and everyone'd be all "Oh crap, look at this guy!" But now, statistically, a webcomic is killing off a major character every thirty seconds. New webcomics today just might have to depend on "consistent quality" or something trite like that. Whatevs.
Paul T.: Word of mouth is the most powerful force. And be darn sure that if it's your mouth doing it, do it carefully. The worst thing you can do is join a forum and say, "Hey! Lookit my comic PLZ!". As Greg mentioned, have a link in your sig, join in on the conversations and leave it at that. I've had 4x6 cards made (comic illustration on the front and description on the back with website) and left them in local coffee shops around the Twin Cities. Terry Beatty, a comic artist for DC and comic instructor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, saw the card and took it to his class to talk about marketing your comic, and half the class already knew about me.
Howard: Paul's right. Word of mouth is your bestest, effectivest advertising. And for the rising generation of webtoonists, I think the answer lies in those social networking sites, where word of mouth has teeth. Don't spam them, but do enable your readers to share your work within them.
Southworth: I'm terrible at this. All I do is try my hardest to put out a good product and hope word of mouth brings the world to my door. This is probably a bad idea.. wait, I'm getting something... yes, yes this is a bad idea.
ComixTalk: In our brief interview with Howard in November he mentioned "two big projects in the works which I shall conspicuously fail to outline for you here". I'll venture a guess that one of them was the new hub. Any chance we can extract a hint on the other? Any "big reveals" for us?
Howard: The new hub was definitely the first project. Next up... we're laying the foundation for a common store-front, hopefully in which you could order any mix of BLC product and have it shipped in the same order. There's no beta yet, but I have this great vaporware solution powered by intartubes full of hot air.
Steve: There's a third thing -- mostly in my court -- that will debut sometime this year as soon as Melonpool finally comes to an end.
David: Here's your big reveal: I'm not going to wear any pants. In solidarity with the WGA strike.
Steve: Make up your mind, Willis. I just got done sewing the matching jumpsuits and now I've got to cut off all the bottoms?!
ComixTalk: How useful do you think joint projects in a collective are in terms of their return on the additional effort (above and beyond your own work)?
Howard: Obviously it depends on the project. The Katrina fund-raiser and the joint ad-server were both great projects that drew us together. The jury's still out on the new hub.
David: What about my "no pants" thing?
Howard: Again, the jury's still out. But I'm expecting a verdict of "cute boxers, Mister Willis."
Steve: One of these days, I'd like to attempt some kind of stand-alone mini-series featuring all the BLC characters... but for now I'll just have to make due with guest art for online comic magazines...