A Man In Many Hats: Aaron Farber is interviewed by Xaviar Xerexes
Aaron Farber is the creator of the Keenspot-hosted Men In Hats webcomic. Starting his comics career at the tender young age of 15, he also is the demented creative force behind the now-ended Pentasmal, which was also hosted on Keenspot. Farber describes Men In Hats as "the gripping story of 6 guys who stand around in the desert... talking... sometimes they have breakfast." It is a satirical, sometimes nonsensical comic strip that would be right at home on your daily newspaper funny pages... except that it’s consistently fresh and funny.
How long have you been putting comics on the web? How many webcomics have you created?
Let's see… over 4 years now, since January 2000. It feels a lot longer, to be honest. This whole scene has become a pretty large part of my life. It's weird to think that it wasn't always there.
I've created, primarily, two comics: Pentasmal and now, Men in Hats.
How long have you been interested in comics? What influences from comics do you have in your work?
I actually can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in comics. I think I started collecting Garfield books in 1st or 2nd grade.
My main influences are the usual clichés: Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side primarily, and Garfield from my earlier years. There's probably a bit of influence from Penny Arcade too.
How old are you? (I ask at least in part because I seem to remember people commenting on your youth when you started Pentasmal?)
I'm 19 years old, turning 20 in August. I was 15 when I started Pentasmal, which, yes, shocked a lot of people. I think most folk underestimate the talent kids have. My mom claims that she created her best writing at 16, and I would wager it's true of a lot of people. As an aside, Ian J started RPG World when he was 15 too, so it isn't completely unheard of.
When you started Men in Hats what was your "plan" for this webcomic? Can you tell us a little about each of the main characters? And where do you of in terms of where Men in Hats takes place? The desert backgrounds for me create a sense of "not really here but somewhere else" if that makes sense.
I'm not sure I had much of a plan, honestly. I'm not very good at planning ahead. I had quit Pentasmal a few months before, and I wanted to create something with a bit more widespread appeal and a larger set of personalities. I also wanted to do something with less random-style humor. It had really become a crutch for me, and I wanted to challenge myself. Of course, within weeks of MiH, I had a whole new set of crutches, but one step at a time.
The characters... let's see, real quickly: Aram is an asshole, Beriah is an idiot, Gamal is fairly normal, Jeriah is really sad, Sam is an evangelical asshole who uses religion solely as a means to his own ends, and Mayor Jeb is... barely in the comic.
I never really thought of MiH as even having a setting, really. The background is just there to give the comic something of an atmosphere. My idea at the time was that more context = less possibilities. I'm not sure I agree with that anymore, but that's how things go, I guess.
Men In Hats somehow seems to touch on life, religion and politics and still keep a pretty zany, almost slapstick approach to humor. How would you describe what you try to do in any one strip for the series? Do you feel like you try to make some kind of point in the strip or is that secondary to making it funny?
In theory, the only goal of MiH is to be funny. If any commentary seeps in, it's because I think I've found something funny about a particular issue. In practice, however, MiH is as much an exercise in catharsis as it is a vehicle for humor. Like most people, I'm often filled with outrage over issues that I haven't bothered to research and don't really care to fully understand. Since creating a MiH comic generally consists of starting with a concept and then creating a conversation around it, these concepts often end up being what bothers me at the moment.
I do recognize, however, that the probability of one of those strips actually saying something original or meaningful is pretty small, so I try to make sure they don't take themselves too seriously. There's nothing worse than a comic that's under the delusion that it's brilliant and/or groundbreaking. It's really a sad sight.
Your first strip Pentasmal ran from 2000-2002. The strong appeal of that strip, to me anyhow, seemed to be in part because it tapped into that classic cartoon relationship between "smart, mean guy" and "slower, nicer guy". Were you consciously thinking of other characters or other comics in part when you created Pentasmal?
Jeez, I can't even remember. I don't think I was really thinking of anything. I just wanted to make something funny. I guess that was what was funny to me at the time.
Though, I can be a pretty mean guy when the situation calls for it, so maybe this was me getting my aggressive tendencies out in a somewhat healthy manner.
Of course, Pentasmal was also often laugh-out-loud funny. Are you pretty funny in person or does your sense of humor work better through putting it down in comic form?
I've been told I'm funny. I can make people laugh, at least. I'm probably a lot funnier in person than I am as a cartoonist, just by virtue of conversation being such a more natural medium for comedy. I'd take a good conversation over the whole wealth of comics in existence any day.
Looking back at Pentasmal what parts of it are you happy with and what parts do you chalk up to a learning experience?
I'm happy with Pentasmal as a whole, but most of the individual strips seem pretty stupid to me. I didn't really enjoy Pentasmal when I was making it, and, while I enjoy it more now, I still don't think it was particularly good. To be honest I'm not that big a fan of MiH either. I probably have some self-confidence issues to work out.
I ended up learning a lot through Pentasmal, especially as far as aesthetics go. MiH is hardly a work of art, but I certainly took more care in its looks than I did in Pentasmal. The sad fact is, if your comic is ugly, most people won't read it.
How long have you been published on the Keenspot network? What are the positives and negatives of being on Keenspot for you? What has been the result of moving the Pentasmal archives to Keenspot Premium-only access? Why did you decide to do that?
I've been on Keenspot since… May of 2000? Sometime around there. The same month as Sinfest, whenever that was. Keenspot has really been a godsend for me. I know it's popular these days to think of Keenspot in less than positive terms, but I'm really impressed with the organization.
Obviously it's had its share of problems, especially as far as server issues are concerned. There was a time when slow speeds and long downtimes were an accepted byproduct of being a Keenspot member. Those have both cleared up though, and now only the message boards seem to be having issues.
The rest of the common issues people throw at KS, the "elitist attitude" and whatnot, aren't entirely baseless, but aren't isolated to the 'Spot either. Let's face it, artists are, by and large, a bunch of assholes. I don't know a single webcartoonist who hasn't privately trashed the crap out of another comic. To imply that it's primarily, or solely, a Keenspot problem is incredibly inaccurate. I'm kind of annoyed that the idea is so widely spread. Even Comixpedia has mentioned it a few times!
As far as positives, there's almost too many to say. Men in Hats probably wouldn't exist without Keenspot. I'm not the sort of person who still claims to do my comic "for the love of the art." If I wanted to entertain myself, I would play the guitar or watch a movie or something. I do MiH because I like making people laugh, and because it's nice to know I've contributed to someone's happiness. If that makes me a poor excuse for an artist, that's fine, I don't consider myself an artist anyway.
Anyway, after 8 months of no comics, I was worried that I would never be able to gain an audience back. But thanks to the wonder that is the newsbox, I essentially gained it all back within a week. It's a very powerful tool, that newsbox. In addition to promotion, Keenspot also prints my t-shirts, hosts my comic, sends me ad revenue, and allows me to meet some really cool (and some really pretentious) cartoonists. So yeah, I'm very happy with the 'Spot.
I made Pentasmal premium-only because I'm pretty embarrassed by the comic, and I don't want my friends reading it. I don't think it's contributed significantly to my revenue.
Do you have any hopes of making a living through making comics? Have you ever been interested in syndication in print form of Men In Hats or any other projects? Although Men In Hats is not entirely "G"-rated it seems to me that there is nothing about it that would inherently preclude it from appearing in my newspaper. Other than Men In Hats is funny and a lot of the strips in my newspaper just aren't.
I'm not actively pursuing MiH as a means of living. Even if I did somehow achieve it, I'd probably continue working another job anyway. I need some small amount of security in my life, and webcomics don't provide it. The thought of needing to be consistently clever for the next 50 years of my life is very intimidating. Fortunately, MiH tends to take a small enough amount of time that I could easily continue making it while working another job.
I am, however, very interested in making the most profit out of MiH possible. I may not want to rely on the money, but I'm certainly not averse to getting it.
I think a vast potential for profit is there too. When you consider the fact that there are already people making a living off webcomics (and a considerable amount more within one power of 10 of making a living), and then consider the fact that the vast majority of people haven't even heard of comics existing on the web, it's hard not to be optimistic.
I really have no interest in syndication, or newspaper comics in general these days.
Any new projects in the works? Any print editions of your work anytime soon?
No new projects coming up; I'm currently pursuing a double major in Mathematics and Electrical Engineering, so I'm not exactly overflowing with extra time. I certainly couldn't handle another project.
The first printed collection of Men in Hats strips is coming out in June. I actually just sent the final pages to Chris [Crosby] the other day. It includes the first 150 strips as well as 20 pages of original material. You can find it on amazon.com now, but if you buy it direct from the MiH website in June, I make more profit. So do that!
I also have to mention I think you have some of the best t-shirts this side of Diesel Sweeties. How do you decide to make a t-shirt out of something from one of your webcomics?
Do I? Thanks. Usually people will tell me what they want. If enough people ask for something, I'll make a design, and ask some friends what they think of it. If they approve, I sell it. It's all a very cold, corporate process, but it makes people happy.
What do you think about the future of the medium of comics? Do you think the web will supplant newspapers as the primary place to read comic strips or will some other relationship evolve?
This is really more about the business of comics than the medium, but I think we'll start seeing a lot more cartoonists taking advantage of the audience they have. There are a lot of comics out there with thousands (hell, tens of thousands) of readers that still aren't making much money at all.
It's not as though the potential isn't there either. Ads, merchandise, premium-style content, and donations are all very impressive sources of revenue. I can personally account for merchandise especially. Even when MiH only had about 3k readers, I was still able to sell hundreds of shirts. I know donations are looked down upon by a lot of people, as though they're not a legitimate form of revenue, but the fact is some people like donating to their favorite comic. If you want to deny the money, that's your business, but there's nothing wrong with accepting it.
I also think the current popular ideas of subscription and micropayments will start to fade out somewhat. It's a beautiful dream, but I honestly don't think most people are willing to pay for webcomics. The Internet is a very different world than print or cinema. The standard there is pay; the standard here is free. For every pay comic out there, there are a hundred free ones. How people honestly think they provide an immediate and obvious quality difference over free comics, I really don't know. Maybe that's why [Modern Tales] has approached primarily cartoonists that already have a strong reputation in the print market.
There's an apparent discrepancy there, that I'm sure is obvious, in that I just mentioned how willing people are to buy merchandise and give donations, and then claim most people won't pay for comics. But the key difference is that in the former, people get the main Internet aspect for free, and then pay for the things they're used to paying for (t-shirts, books, extras). Thus they stay within the standards of both mediums.
As far as donations go, I would imagine they come from the same subset of people that are willing to actually pay for their online comics: the very generous. That's not to say I think pay models are completely hopeless. Just that, in general, free models will prove to be much more successful.
I'm willing to bet the Internet is already the main place to find comics for teenage demographics, and that the gap is constantly growing.