Return to the Angst: An Interview with Inktank's Barry T. Smith
In the early half of the "naughts" Barry T. Smith appeared in webcomics with Angst Technology, a funny webcomic about a small videogame company. He also created a webcomic about paintball called Weakend Warriors and one about a comic book shop called Sorry, We're Open. All were pretty solid efforts and he certainly had a decent-sized audience for the time (for example, Angst Technology showed up at #9 on the initial "Most Read" list we did in 2003). He took a pretty big break from comics and only recently returned with his comic called InkTank. I've been enjoying the new comic and was happy to get a chance to interview Smith about his return.
I've been happily reading InkTank since you launched your new autobiographical comic there. I'm sure I'm not alone in really getting a kick out of your return (especially the "Civil War" storyline). You had been fairly active in webcomics with the popular Angst Technology strip and a few other projects before essentially dropping out of comics. What got you interested in making comics again?
I started my comics years ago to satisfy a creative itch I had. It was great fun to do, but as most full time cartoonists know it's a fairly solitary life. There came a point in my life where I realized I wanted to work around other creative people, so I stopped cartooning and decided to pursue a 3-D animation degree. I dreamed of working in a company with like minded, creative individuals. Plus, my daughter was on the way so it seemed a good time to focus on family and school. I graduated, but realized that I really shone when I was writing for my assignments and focused a bit more on storyboard work and possible writing jobs.
Eventually though I started getting the itch to cartoon again. Having a daughter and being a geek dad seemed perfect fodder for a humor strip. So I set myself a deadline (April 1st) and started the process of dusting off the old drawing pad and jumping headfirst into the world of webcomics again.
What was the main reason for starting a new autobiographical strip as opposed to picking up or rebooting Angst Technology or one of your other strips?
I had done some "geek dad" jokes with Dante in the old Angst strip, but those were second hand stories or machinations of my own mind. This time around I had real life inspiration running around, not to mention all the great geeky stuff I am typically involved in. In addition, the URL has always been inktank.com and I have almost always gone by "InkTank" as an online handle on forums and websites. My license place even says INKTANK. So in addition to bringing the subject matter home, it was a bit of a branding decision as well.
I had good success with Angst Technology and Sorry, We're Open was starting to take off before I closed my doors. I wanted to see if I could do it all again, from scratch, and felt a fresh start was the way to go. I want to establish InkTank and his world before moving into other territory. Luckily though I have a ton of ideas (I jot them down on index cards) and have some significant storylines in mind, some of which I have already started (with InkTank's job search being the first main one).
Having the perspective of someone in the midst of webcomics at the beginning of the decade and now coming back to it again what are you biggest impressions of the differences between now and then?
You mean aside from the plethora of highly skilled and talented individuals? Seriously, from the old timers who kept at it and improved to new creators on the scene who are coming to the table with an arsenal of skills already established, it seems the webcomics field has had its bar raised overall. I'm just glad I don't have to compete with all these folks for newspaper space. ;)
Aside from the wealth of skill, it seems the webcomic field has matured slightly as well. There seems to be less infighting (from what I can see on the surface) and more tutorials, honest critiques and resources to help webcomicers improve their craft. Not to mention a certain legitimacy to webcomics now, from the Penny Arcade juggernaut to "Digital Comics" being a category in the ‘Eisners', webcomics seem to be going mainstream. Plus, there seems to be a tighter sense of overall community and that really is a great thing to see.
Are you reading any comics, online or off, these days? What's at the top of your list this year?
As odd as it may sound, I read less webcomics these days and more comic books and webcomic collections. There are soooo many webcomics to keep track of that the ones I do get a chance to read I tend to read in bursts, waiting a bit and taking the archives in chunks at a time. Seeing as how a good portion of my day is spent at a computer (web developing, cartooning, etc.) it's pretty easy for me to get distracted with reading webcomics and following recommended links and archives and ad banners and what not. I try to avoid going down the rabbit hole unless I have some "guilt free" time to spend reading. I guess that's why webcomics collected as books and comic books in general have been a focus for me since I can just kick back, away from the computer, and read.
Online I am still enjoying the old war horses like Penny Arcade, PvP, Starslip Crisis, Wapsi Square and the rest as well as some great newcomers such as Dr. McNinja and The Abominable Charles Christopher. As for comic books, I've gotten back into the Avengers in a big way, with all the teams including the Ultimates. I gathered up the trades of the Civil War saga as well as Planet Hulk. I get the trade paperback editions of The Walking Dead, Invincible and Y:The Last Man. I guess my penchant for reading in big story chunks has rubbed off on my comic book reading as well, eh? Plus, on my monthly pull list are any Atomic Robo comics (written by webcomic creator Brian Clevinger) and the 12 issue limited series The Twelve. Plus I tend to grab any comics that look like they have interesting art.
Where are you these days and what do you do during the day? Is the webcomic part of your "making-a-living" strategy?
I work a full time job as web designer in the Bay Area. Being a contractor I tend to bounce from company to company, but I prefer full time, on site work. Luckily, the skills used in my day to day job have really helped me create my own personal cartooning site in a way that I am very happy with.
Right now InkTank as a business is more of a tax shelter than a real job. Lots of money going into building it, no profit coming out. But hopefully, if I make the right decisions, keep at it and get lucky I'll be able to support myself and my family as a full time cartoonist. At the very least, I look forward to making InkTank a comfortable second income, but the big goal is going full time. It's an uphill battle, but one I am ready to face and so far I am very happy with the growth of InkTank Studios.
I get the impression from the strip that you get to juggle hobbies like gaming and comics with job, family and life not unlike my own life. Is it a struggle to find time to do everything? I used to just not sleep but that really doesn't work for me anymore :)
My wife and I have this never-ending struggle with my bed time. She'd prefer me to go to bed with her, but she's in bed by 9:00 typically as she has to get to work early. I tend to stay up until 1:00 to 2:00 in the morning if I am left to my own sleeping patterns. With a full time job, the little one, wife time and a general "things 2 do" list, my creative day typically starts around 9:00pm, after everyone is in bed and the house is quiet. Unfortunately part of the contention between me and my wife is that when I am doing InkTank related stuff (cartooning, working on the site, etc.) she counts it towards "fun and games" time for me, where as I see it as my second job. Yes, it's enjoyable, but there is a sense of obligation to the work that supersedes the fun and whimsy my wife perceives.
It's important for me to maintain some sort of schedule and each night I have a list of things that NEED to get done and the rest of the stuff I'd LIKE to get done. Sometimes I have awesomely productive nights, others night I get caught up in youTube, iTunes store, Hulu or reading webcomics (see, there's that rabbit hole again). My gaming has declined significantly as all my free time now is generally geared towards InkTank stuff. But I make sure to set time aside to enjoy my Wii or keep my WoW or CoH characters from gathering dust. In general though, small online games like Star Pirates are good for getting my gaming fix. I can play with friends (the InkTank Navy has a mighty presence) and can just hop on, do some trading or raiding, fight in a war, rescue some poor sap and then hop off. And then do a comic or two about it.
So overall I tend to mix business with pleasure in that any time spent playing or reading I can view as research or inspiration towards doing another strip. It's always there, in the back of my mind.
Do you have any goals or longer-term plans for comics with InkTank? Are you hoping to publish anything in print at some point?
Oh, I definitely have grander plans for InkTank. I didn't capitalize on my previous comics as much as I should have and spent my time divided between projects (the three different strips). I had the fan base, I just didn't monetize off of the situation, mostly out of fear and self doubt. But this time around I've tried to set the groundwork for continued growth and success and to face any business fears I have head on. I will be attending cons this year, I am testing different advertising models (both buying and selling ads), trying to build the audience and most definitely I will be publishing this year. Everything in baby steps though. I'll start at small conventions to get a feel for setting up a table and to learn proper con etiquette. Plus I'll be printing a collection of my shortest run strip (Sorry, We're Open') to test the waters of the print world. From there I hope to move on to bigger printing jobs like a Weak-end Warriors bound edition and a series of Angst Technology volumes.
Overall I am very excited about the direction of my cartooning career and look forward to the future. I hope to bring everything together under the InkTank umbrella and transition to being a full time cartoonist someday.