An Interview with Soap on a Rope's Bob Roberds by David Wright
Soap on a Rope is one of the pioneers in the webcomic world, being one of the earlier comics to appear on the web. SOAR comes off not so much as a comic, but a damned good sitcom (and not the kind that get old after being around 4 years). SOAR is good because its focus is on its characters and the bizarre things that happen to them. Combine equal parts Seinfeld, Drew Carey, Soap, Simpsons, Family Guy, and throw in the movie Office Space for good measure, and you might get close to what Soap on a Rope is.
You've been doing SOAR for 7 years now! You had to have been one of the first people doing comics online. What prompted you to put the comic on the web?
Cartooning looked like something I'd like to get into for years and years, but I had no way of starting. The web gave me an opportunity to start out drawing and immediately have an audience to show it to.
The old-school way of becoming a cartoonist, where you sit around for years honing your craft drawing stuff that nobody else sees, didn't appeal to me. I have nowhere near the patience or dedication to do something like that.
How many other people were doing comics on the web when you started?
Hardly any, compared to now. There were a couple of mailing lists and newsgroups and just about every web cartoonist was on them. We all seemed to know each other. I miss that sometimes, but you can't turn back the clock. In exchange for the loss of the tiny, close community, we now have hundreds and hundreds of web comics to read, many of which are great. So I think we've come out ahead.
Where does the title come from? Is it a 'don't drop the soap' reference?
The original name was "Slacker" which is lame and a ripoff. Fortunately, "Soap on a Rope" came to me while driving home one day. I'm not sure just where it came from, but it sounded cool to me. It might have been inspired by the time on "Cheers" when Carla revealed that her loathsome ex-husband Nick had given her an engagement ring hidden in an X-rated soap on a rope.
Your characters are some of the most fun in comics, almost like the cast of a really GREAT sitcom. Are any of them based on yourself or people you know? What are the origins of their unique names?
They're based on various parts of my personality and the personalities of people I've known. Nobody is based on any particular person, so I never have a good answer when friends ask "Which one is me?" I can't really remember where the names came from. I just started doodling rough character sketches and the names seemed to just follow. For Joe, Max, and Stu, I came up with the first names and then came up with last names that fit to form a dumb play on words. "Joe Welcome" was the alias of one of the guys in "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three", but the rest of the names are purely original. Unfortunately.
Given that your current storyline is on writer's block, when do most of your ideas come to you?
While desperately wracking my brain for ideas. I'm definitely NOT one of those cartoonists who has a buffer of strips done ahead of time. I do them right up against the deadline. As for where the ideas come from, well, just from trying to think like the characters and see what they'd do in typical and unusual situations.
What is your favorite storyline in SOAR's history? Least favorite? Weirdest?
The storylines that last for a while without growing stale are my favorites. I don't have a particular one I like more than the rest, but faves would include the Moby Dick parody, any involving the black helicopters, the one where Annie gets pregnant, and the one with the all-gay fishing boat (named "Faerie Queene"). I've also done storylines parodying Akira Kurosawa movies, something like half a dozen times, but I don't think anybody noticed. I liked them, though. Least favorites would be the ones that start out with a good idea and go nowhere. Those are too painful for me to name, but if you look in my archives you'll know what I mean.
As for the weirdest, well, they're ALL weird if you ask me.
What have the high points and low points been during SOAR's run?
When I was out of work for a couple of months last year I was worried that I might eventually end up cut off from the Internet, living in my parents' basement or something. And they don't even HAVE a basement. It was that bleak. So I was worried about not being able to do SOAR anymore. Fortunately I got another job and all was well. That was a low point so far as my mood went, but I think I did some good strips then. I didn't really feel down about the strip itself. There are times I feel good about the strip and times I think it sucks, but I figure most cartoonists go through the same kind of phases.
Which comics inspire you?
I've always been a big fan of Calvin & Hobbes, and Far Side. But I feel that SOAR is really more of a sitcom on paper than a typical comic strip. I just wish my artwork was better so it would LOOK more like a typical comic strip, at least.
When are you going to come out with a book?
As soon as I can put one together. Keenspot has said they'd like to do one.
Many cartoonists have trouble maintaining regular updates, yet somehow you have gone strong for 7 years, having never missed one (I think). The part that makes this really amazing is how you have a medical condition, which forces you to spend hours a day exercising. Can you tell us about this?
I need lots of exercise to compensate for my slow metabolism, which also requires me stick to an extremely low calorie diet that would kill normal people. But you get used to it. The reason I don't miss updates is because I know what a slippery slope it would be. If I started missing a day here and there, then before long I'd be updating once every lunar eclipse or so. I avoid the whole mess by never missing an update at all.
How many calories are you limited to a day?
I'm limited to 200 a day, which doesn't sound like much but that's a whole can of low-fat Progresso soup. Two days out of the month I'm allowed to eat like a regular person, so needless to say those are my favorite days in the whole universe.
One of the best things about SOAR are the running gags that reward the regular reader, such as the ever expanding size of Max's house. Just how big is the house, anyway? How do you know when you have a good gag that you want to revisit down the road?
Max's house is an old ICBM silo, so there's no limit to how large it can be. It's almost all underground. They're constantly finding new levels and mazes of twisty passages, all different. I never know ahead of time when a gag will come back, but it's great when it does. I love it when a plan comes together.
Max is quite the slob, especially when he isn't working. Does your own house ever get that bad?
My old apartment got pretty bad, not in the sense of rats and roaches, but very cluttered. Now that I own my own place, though, I keep it a lot neater. It helps that I have one of those Roomba robot vacuum cleaners. Now I just need a robot to do everything else. The part of the living room where my three (count em) computers are is a mess, but what can you do? All those cables gotta go somewhere.
What are your non-comic hobbies?
I like watching movies, reading, messing with computers, and skiing when I get a chance. Which I never do. I'm also not averse to going to the occasional concert or Carolina Hurricanes hockey game (though, for the past couple of seasons, it's been a bit of a stretch to describe what they do as "hockey").
Do you ever re-read your old stuff?
Sometimes, when I'm in the right mood. The archive is so big now that I'll even find myself laughing at a joke that I'd completely forgotten about.
How far in advance do you plot the stories? Do you ever write yourself into a corner that you have no clue how to get out of?
I may have a vague (and I mean *really* vague) story idea in my mind but I write the strips one at a time, as I go. As a result, I get into corners I can't get out of *all the time*. When this happens, I usually just end the story with a deus ex machina or, barring that, a jesus ex machina.
Given the conservative nature of syndications, do you think some of the adult the humor in SOAR might scare them away? Is this something that you consider when doing the strip? Do you find yourself editing out jokes that might be really funny but could hurt your chances at syndication?
I never edit them out because I'm worried about my chances at syndication; I just figure I won't submit those strips to syndicates. But I do sometimes come up with a funny joke and decide not to use it because it's over the edge. My self-imposed rule is that I won't do anything in SOAR that you couldn't reasonable expect to see a cable sitcom. Also, in most situations, it's funnier to use #$@%! instead of a real swear word. So I go with #$@%!.
When most people start out, they are emulating (knowingly or unknowingly) other artists. Was this the case with SOAR? If so, who inspired your artistic style?
More Matt Groening than anybody else, I guess, so far as the drawing goes. But I think it
would be a bit vainglorious for me to describe my drawing as "art". When I was starting out, especially, it was a struggle for me to just draw a straight line, so I didn't even bother to try to emulate anyone's drawing. I *did*, however, get a lot of useful *technical* info from a web page Scott Adams had on how he produced Dilbert. I learned a great deal about materials, scanning, and so on.
What advice would you give someone just starting out in the comics gig?
Keep a steady update schedule when starting out. That's the way to get people into the habit of reading your comic. If you just post whenever, you're probably going to have a hard time building a base of readers. Also, if you're a beginner and you're going to be putting your comics on the web, learn everything you can about how to scan and process the image properly. For example, if you letter on the computer (as I do), try not to make it look artificial and tacked-on. Unless that's the look you want, of course.
Many artists have donation buttons, yet you don't. How does one go about helping SOAR?
Hey, I don't even have a copyright notice, for the simple reason that I cannot imagine in a million years that anybody would want to steal my work. Similarly, I don't have a donation button because, with my tiny readership, I'm fairly sure it would fester unused and have a negative effect on my morale. As for how to help SOAR, people should send me email or post on my forum or SOMETHING, for crying out loud, to let me know someone out there is enjoying my work. And to financially help, try clicking on an ad once it a while. I almost certainly won't kill you. And even if it does kill you, I can guarantee that it will only happen once.
Many artists toy around with ideas for other strips, have you worked on anything other than SOAR?
I have a few ideas but I'm still enjoying doing SOAR. Since there's zero chance of my being able to put out more than one strip at a time, anything else will have to wait till SOAR ends, if it ever does. I've been drawing SOAR for seven years now and to most web cartoonists (who are younger than me) I'm sure that sounds like a long time. But when you get to be my age seven years is nothing. I'm pretty sure the box of baking soda in my fridge is older than that.
What are your plans for SOAR? Are you submitting it to papers?
I submitted SOAR to about a billion papers last summer and heard diddly squat back. But I'll keep trying.