To Hilarity and Beyond: an interview with Melonpool's Steve Troop
Steve Troop has been zipping across the webcomic cosmos since 1996, making a name for himself online and across the convention circuit with a unique panache and sincere friendliness all his own. Creator of the hilariously funny, 'sci-fi but not quite sci-fi' humor strip Melonpool, Troop is a Genuine Nice GuyTM in addition to being a highly talented cartoonist who dabbles in both animation and puppetry, among other interests. While he considers himself still pretty low-key in the webcomic popularity circles, he is one of those rare cartoonists who has managed to sell his work in print with moderate to decent success.
Prior to heading out to this year's San Diego ComicCon (where he will be sharing a booth with Futurama star voice Billy West, among others!), Troop took the time to sit back and talk with Comixpedia about his work, his puppets, his unique convention booths and marketing tactics, as well as why the comic ended at the end of June... or has it???
Steve, you've been around so long that some people may have gotten used to your presence while forgetting you had to have come from somewhere... so give us a bit of background on yourself.
Well, let's see -- I grew up in Poway, California -- a small town on the outskirts of San Diego. There wasn't much to do in Poway, so my friends and I used to make really lame "Star Trek" movies to pass the time - oh yeah, and when I was five, I started drawing Melonpool. I never had much art training - a couple of classes here and there growing up. Probably the most formal art training I had was during a ten-month stint as an animator on Attack of the Killer Tomatoes in 1991.
Your first strip is dated April 24 1996. Is this actually when Melonpool first appeared on the web?
You know, for a long time, I thought so, but then I remembered that I actually started a website with a couple of my friends (Greg Skinner and Chris Gleason) in late 1994. It was basically a site with about 40 strips from syndicate packets and bios of all the characters. I think we only updated it once or twice as long as it was up. Up until mid-1997, Melonpool ran in a couple of college papers and advertised the site in hopes of attracting other college papers. Needless to say it didn't really work, so when I had a new batch of strips I started posting them one-a-day on April 28, 1996. I still have a lot of my old college papers, and the first mention I could find of the website was from a June 12, 1994 strip.
In those first years on the web, what were the biggest challenges to getting your name out there?
Getting through Yahoo's red tape was kind of hard. When I started, there wasn't even a webcomic section! Yahoo wouldn't even list me with the syndicated strips, so they lumped Melonpool in with a couple of portfolio sites at first. I can't remember when they actually started a category, but it was years before I discovered Kevin and Kell online, so I know we never came up in the same searches.
Any memorable moments from those early years? Any significant accomplishments?
When I was making the transition to a daily update, I didn't really have a way to code the archives. I barely knew HTML and to this day know nothing about scripting, so the way I used to update was by changing the name of the strips from today.gif to [DAY_OF_THE_WEEK].gif, so at any given time there were only 8 current strips up there.
I was worried that people wouldn't be able to keep track of the stories, so I offered a free subscription service which basically amounted to me e-mailing out the day's strip at 9PM every night as I uploaded that night's installment. I still remember the first person that subscribed â€“ a student named Felix Hammann from Switzerland! As a kid from a small town I was amazed that I had a fan in another country â€“ let alone a non-Engish speaking one!
I continued the manual update and e-mailing for the first three years of the strip when Keenspot finally convinced me to join up. At that point, I had to e-mail out in 3 batches otherwise it'd time out my modem!
Keenspot invited you to join up with them in early 2000. Why didn't you take them up on their initial offer? And why did you finally join?
Early in the strips run, I signed with a Swedish company to do Melonpool translations. From the moment I signed that contract, I regretted it. Back in those days, there was no way to send hi-res files short of snail-mailing them, and the way the deal was structured, I had to pay the shipping and they'd pay me if they were able to sell the translation. The deal was for five years and in 2002 when it finally expired, I breathed a sigh of relief, even though I hadn't heard a peep out of them after the first year.
This experience was the reason I never joined Big Pandaâ€¦ and as it turns out, that wasn't such a bad thing. When Chris Crosby initially contacted me for Keenspot, I told him that I was interested, but only if it was around after a year. At about the same time I became friends with Thomas K. Dye (of Newshounds) and asked him to keep me up-to-date on how it was going on the inside of Keenspot throughout that year.
Anyway, a year later, Crosby contacted me, and Dye confirmed that it was going well, so I said that I'd join as soon as the 2001 Comic-Con was over. Also, I wanted to start a backlog of strips before joining Keenspot, so I'd come back when I had six weeks of strips.
I think the first Keenspot strips were in August and I came back with a two-week buffer. I've come to realize without deadlines, I'm terrible at being disciplined.
Oh, I have plenty of regretsâ€¦ but none about joining Keenspot.
What was the best and the worst thing about becoming affiliated with Keenspot?
The moment I joined Keenspot, Melonpool showed a profit. And not because of the additional hits or the ad revenue (which helped) but in all of Melonpool's run, I'd always paid for it myself. It started before the Geocities and other free hostings were all the rage, so I'd always had to pay for the domain and webspace myself. Now, my hits were never all that high those first few years, but it was still several hundred dollars a month out of my own pocket that was basically a loss. The sales from the first two books helped, but they were never big sellers, either.
You say in your third Melonpool book that you almost stopped completely in 2001. Can you comment on that?
Well, it's easiest to track my life from the books. In 1999, the first book came out and basically covers my life from the creation of the alien stickman in 1978 to the middle of 1997. Book II, which came out in 2000 covers 1997 to 2000. In August 1999, I got married. There wasn't a book again until Book III in 2002. There also weren't a whole lot of strips. A divorce after 18 months kinda affects the creative process more than you might thinkâ€¦ especially since at one point Sandy and I had an argument that amounted to "Either choose me or the strip." Guess which one I chose.
When I wrote that the strip almost stopped completely in 2001, it was mainly due to blaming the strip for the bum marriage, but really it was a lot of other things, too. Sandy and I are still friends though. I'm sure we would have killed one another if things had worked out differently.
You've been publishing your own books for a while now. How has that worked for you so far?
They always pay for themselves. I really write the books with the liner notes to help me keep track of my own storylines. I like the professional binding, too. Apparently enough readers like them too.
Any advice to give to readers who are considering putting their own work in print?
Have it proofread by someone that knows what they're doing. Don't trust spell-checkers (though do use them) and don't rely on you reading them so many times that you know it's correct. I'll tell you, after five books, I can't really keep some of the strips straight, but I know where every typo is.
When you go to conventions and such, you have your own very unique booth. Tell us a little about it â€“ how it came to be, why you made it, the public reaction?
I mentioned earlier that I used to make Star Trek movies when I was in college. I used to take sheets of Plexiglas, paint them on the back with black model paint, slap on a light diffuser and light them from underneath for all the consoles. It looks great on video â€“ and even looked pretty cool in person.
Just about all of my friends from college (and even before college) have helped me work the booth at Comic-Con every year. One year, one of them remembered the old displays and thought I should do one up about Melonpool. Thankfully, duratrans â€“ the printing process behind the lighted panels on soda machines â€“ is affordable enough that I didn't have to hand paint the display!
About that same time, the Star Trek Experience had opened up in Las Vegas, and in the line going into the attraction, they have a long backlit timeline with props from the various shows and such.
That was the basic inspiration for the booth, which won't be at San Diego this year. I get tired of doing the same old thing, so there will be an all-new display this year.
Oooh! A new booth? Can you give us any details or hints about it? How different will it be from the "Classic Melonpool" booth?
Very different. I really don't know how to tell you anything about it without giving too much away. Let's just say it involves the space-time continuum and leave it at that.
You also have a very original way of walking in the crowds and attracting people to your booth. Would you like to tell our readers a little about this peculiar marketing technique of yours?
I assume you mean the puppets. The puppets came about because we had them. I think I went to one San Diego Comic-Con when I was 13 and really wasn't that impressed. I wasn't in to superheroes or gore so I didn't buy much. By 1995, I was working at In Color (a comic book coloring company) and they decided to publish some of my comics as a kid's comic (1996's one-of-one-part miniseries, "The Melonpool Chronicles"), and they decided that I should get a booth to get some buzz generated about the project.
The first day of con I was amazed by all the booths. Everybody seemed to have some sort of TV or mascot in a suit running around, and I was sitting behind a table giving away bookmarks.
But unlike a lot of people in my position (and tax bracket) I had huge Muppet-style puppets at home. In 1994, I had made a Melonpool student film in college, so Chris Gleason and I grabbed the Sammy the Hammy and Mayberry puppets and started heckling the crowd on Day 2 of the con. I met a couple of puppeteers that day and mentioned that I'd also built a replica of MST3K's Crow T. Robot, which I brought on Day 3. By Day 4, people were coming by just to take pictures of the puppets.
After that, just about every year I make some new puppets or just fix up the old ones. The original cast from the 1994 movie come out of retirement to work the puppets for four days. We're all spread out across the country, now, but I think we all look forward to it. It's good to have friends that are as crazy as you are.
2003's Keenspot panel started off with a very memorable introduction. Want to tell us about it?
Are you talking about me dressed as Gilligan or the Flash cartoon?
About six weeks before the panel, I asked Chris Crosby if I could do a Flash intro to the panel. Every year, all the Keen artists go back and forth about putting together a music video or a slideshow presentation, but it always gets talked about but never done.
I had recently read a book about how to make cartoons in Flash (The Art of Cartooning in Flash: the Twinkle Method) and was aching for a project. I knew if I got any of the Keen artists involved that it'd never happen, so after I got the go-ahead, I just did it. Nobody saw it until a couple days before the con â€“ and some of the other artists didn't like it. The fans seemed to, though.
Without giving names, can you tell us why some Keen artists weren't crazy about your Flash cartoon? What were their reasons? Did you agree with them at all?
Some of the artists thought that the humor was too low-brow (one objected to the "Keenspot: almost better that Porn" tagline). A few of the objections I think amounted to other artists feeling that they could have come up with better gags â€“ and maybe that would have been true, but as I said, I was more intent on actually getting something ready in time than trying to appease the 50-something-headed monster that is Keenspot. ;)
There was also some criticism about the voice work in it being a little flat. I was really paranoid about everyone enunciating and being understood, so maybe that carried over a little. If I took any criticism into account while working on the new shorts, it was to make sure that the voices sounded spontaneous and energetic.
Was that a fun one-shot project, or are you planning/doing any other work in Flash?
Immediately after the con, the puppeteers and I started talking about doing more Flash projects. I wanted them to be good and also as funny as I could, so I decided not to write all of them. After about three months, we had four completed scripts â€“ one of which I wrote and the rest were edited and doctored by me, Then the puppeteers and I recorded all the voices.
But that's about as far as it went. The comic takes up way too much of my time, and I was bound and determined not to go on hiatus. That's the main reason I'm taking the next year off. I want to do four 4-6 minute cartoons and then release them as a DVD (along with about an hour of supplemental material).
Back to the puppets: according to your site, you actually had the puppets made two years before you starting publishing Melonpool as a comic in 1996. Unless this is another Melonpool-esque time travel situation, care to give us an explanation as to how old the Melonpool crew really are? And how did they come about, anyway? What inspired them?
1978 â€“ Mayberry created.
1983 â€“ Ralph, Sam Sammy added for a weekly newsletter "The Weekly Melonpool" that I made while I was in the fifth grade.
1984-1986 â€“ Melonpool runs in my middle school paper, The Meadowbrook Magazine
1988-1990 â€“ 286 daily Melonpool strips were drawn while I was in high school, but aside from about ten people, hardly anyone ever saw them. I was getting a backlog ready for when I was syndicated ten minutes after I graduated from high school.
1992-1997 â€“ Melonpool runs in The Palomar College Telescope newspaper.
1994 â€“ The puppets were built for a college student film, The Melonpool Movie
1994 â€“ The Melonpool Website goes online
1996 â€“ The daily Melonpool strip starts updating.
Why "Melonpool"? What is the significance of the unusual names you chose for your characters?
I was a very shy 3-year-old. My dad used to try to get me to speak by saying. "Where's Stephen? Is that him? No â€“ that's that kid up the street, Mayberry Melonpool!"
You've told me that you don't see Melonpool as a Sci-fi comic. Why is that? If you had to give it a label, what would it be?
It's a family strip, sort of based on my family. Ralph's the dad. Sam's the mom. Mayberry's the awkward teenager. Sammy's the selfish younger brother.
The problem is, that I hate drawing family strips. I also love pop culture and sci fi. In high school, I was pretty much exactly like Mayberry, It's twisted and distorted, but if you really look at the strip, you can see that I really don't do alien fish out of water comics or space battles. It's all about the relationships between the characters.
In your comic, you've always had a knack for parody and homage references. Why do you include such references, and do you have any favorites?
I loved Roger Rabbit. I think that was my downfall. Seeing Mickey and Bugs interacting was a defining moment in my artistic life, and when I started doing strips in high school, I loved pulling in other elements for gags. I love time travel so most of those stand out in my mind. The most fulfilling, though, was finally answering the age-old question of whatever happened to Lyman?
You once confessed that you read few webcomics, so I have to ask â€“ any particular reason why don't you read webcomics (aside from being a busy Troop, that is)?
That's pretty much it. I'm too busy with the strip. Most people don't realize this, but when I'm drawing the strip, each daily takes me 2-4 hours to produce and each Sunday takes 5-7 hours. If I work 40 hours a week and have anything planned on a weekend, I have no time to read the archives. If more webcomics were enjoyable without having to read years and years worth of archives, I would read them.
One of the things I did with Melonpool was give recaps in just about every strip of whatever storyline was going on (it's usually the close up panel with all the dialogue). That way, new readers could get up to speed by reading 10-20 strips rather than 1000 or so.
You DO read two in particular â€“ why do these two interest you so?
Krazy Larry and It's Walky. The only reason I got into those two was because I did crossovers with them both at one time or another. When I draw other people's characters, I often try to mimic their art styles, so I had to read through their entire archives and do sketches of poses. After that I was hooked. I also keep up to speed with GPF, but I don't read it every day. I sort of pop my head in every once in awhile and look around.
So if you want to get me to read your comic, folks, convince me to do a crossover with you.
You definitely seem to have developed a solid relationship with David Willis. Any other webcartoonists you have a strong bond with?
I had a strong relationship with Amber "Glych" Greenlee, but I don't think that's the question you were asking. ;) Naw, we're still friends.
Okay â€“ now a big question. Why are you stopping Melonpool this time? Is it forever, or will you be coming back like you always have in the past?
To quote my governor, I'll be back. Mainly it's just to regroup. I need a vacation. Other than my honeymoon in 1999, all my time off from work has been spent hocking the comic for the last decade or so.
The Flash movies should start trickling onto the site a couple of months after Con and depending on how they're received or how much work I've bitten off for myself, the comic could come back as soon as September or as late as May of 2005. But it'll be back, I have about a year-and-a-half's worth of comics already outlined.
For all the fans that you have, and the popularity that you enjoy at conventions, do you sometimes feel a little ignored or left by the wayside? Why is that?
Oh yeah. Do a search of Comixpedia's forums for "Melonpool" sometime. And truth be told, I feel like I have given so much of my life into this strip and only a handful of people know about it or even acknowledge it, I don't expect people to like it. I just want them to know about it or at least give it a chance.
Do you have any opinion on the webcomic "community"? What would you say are the best and worst aspects of webcartoonists out there?
I hate the webcartoonists (or cartoonists in general) that speak about their creations as if they live in their second bedrooms. I mean, I don't even do that, and the puppets are in my living room for all but four days out of the year!
Finally, what myriad projects do you have in the works as we speak?
Ever seen a site called "Homestar Runner?"
Sort of like that.
Damonk is the Editor-in-Chief and the Executive Editor for Reviews and Columns.