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An Interview with J Thomas of Between Failures

J Thomas is the creator of Between Failures, a funny webcomic about life working in retail.  It's been running since 2007 and I think it's shown tremendous growth over that time, with big improvements in the artwork and just general "staging" of the composition of the comics.

I talked to Thomas via email this month about his webcomic.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I am approximately 32 years old at the time of this writing.  I am incredibly hard to get along with.  Also fat.  Random television viewing
usually consists of whatever National Geographic, History Channel, A&E, or  PBS throw up.  I love trivia, so those channels appeal to me.  I love shows about the paranormal too.  I try to avoid watching TV though, because I’m so busy, but I always watch Doctor Who, Torchwood, The Venture Brothers, and Transformers Animated.

 

What's a typical day for you like recently?

Like when I’m making the comic?  Uh, I respond to any emails I have, so they don’t build up, then work on the comic till 2 or 3 in the morning.

 

Where are you located these days?

Colorado, far from civilization.  Even if I tried to tell you where it is you couldn’t find it.

Do you have another job besides working on comics?

I’m a janitor.

 

Give me the 30 second "convention pitch" for your comic.

Between Failures is a sitcom that takes place in a retail store.  It’s often compared to the films of Kevin Smith.  Sometimes favorably.  The girls in it are all hot.

 

How has the strip evolved over time?

When I first started I was learning to draw with a Wacom, and was trying to be all artsy with it.  As time went by I started to slide into a more natural style.  Something more like what I’d draw on paper.  Then it went full color sometime before page 300.

The story was originally a movie script I had.  I kept having to change it because I couldn’t draw stuff, or whatever.  Plus I didn’t really know how to write comics.  Honestly I still don’t, but now it flows a little better from page to page, while each page still stands alone pretty well.

 

Do you have a favorite strip or storyline from the comic?  Which ones do fans seem to bring up the most?

The transition from black & white to color is probably the thing that people have commented on the most.  I think it wins me the most loyal readers if they make it that far.  I’m not sure what my favorite part would be, but that transition was certainly an emotional, and memorable, point for a lot of reasons.  If nothing else, it’s my best moment of brilliance.

 

Are there any of your characters you're really fond of?  Any that are particularly difficult to use?

Well, if nothing else, Ed is the character I’ve been drawing the longest. I guess I must really be attached to him since I just can’t seem to let the little bastard go.  I’ve been drawing him, in one form or another, for almost as long as I could hold a crayon.  I haven’t had any problem using any character in particular.  Mostly I struggle with figuring out how to get them all equal time.

 

Any plans for a print collection?

I’m trying to make the first book even now, but I don’t really know what I’m doing, so it’s been frustrating.

 

How do you go about promoting your work?  What seems to be most effective at pulling in new readers?

I didn’t do a lot of promotion at first.  I just put the comic up on a few free hosting sites and tried to do a good job.  I gained the bulk of my readers when I got featured on Drunk Duck, back when that site was easier to tolerate.  I still get a fair amount of traffic from the archive there. 

Once I got betweenfailures.com I started doing some advertising on Project Wonderful & The Webcomics List.  They’ve worked pretty well for me so far.  I’m always looking for new things to try.

Some of my most vocal, and fun, fans came from Deviant Art and Smackjeeves though.  I like using art collective sites, like Deviant Art, to capture new viewers.  A lot of artists get stuck working jobs that they hate, so they’re kinda my target audience.  I mean, lots of people can relate to getting trapped in a dead end job, but I don’t know where they all hang out online…

 

When you create a comic, how do you approach it? Do you start with the words and then think about the scene that should go with it or do you start with more of purely visual approach or none of the above?

It kind of depends.  Usually I lay out the text then work the art in around it.  That seems to work the best.  When I started out I had to have everything in front of me, but now I can do it in my head during the day. I try to have things scripted out far in advance of needing them, but sometimes I get an idea and just drop it right into what I’m doing.  Those tend to take longer because I don’t have my regular planning time to work things out in my mind.

 

What is it about comics that leads you to pour your creative impulses into that form as opposed to writing or some other art form?

For whatever reason I always loved comics and animation.  There’s just something I love about taking the world, stylizing it, then presenting it to people again.

 

What tools do you use to make comics?  Can you give us a brief walkthrough of your process?

I make everything in Photoshop Elements 3, and use a Wacom Graphire tablet.  The tablet is an older model and I don’t think they make that kind anymore.  Once in a while I import a really nice sketch, but almost everything is done directly on my PC.  I’ve tried to do everything for the comic on the computer so I’ll have enough time to make it.  Anyway, I lay out the text, then draw the characters.  After that I set up the background, then paint the characters.  The last step is usually painting the speech bubbles.

 

Did you do your own website?  What software are you using on it?

Betweenfailures.com is mine.  I’m using Wordpress with the Comicpress theme to build it.  Well, actually my Magic Web Fairy does pretty much everything.  For the record, Comicpress was presented to us as being much easier to use than it has proven to be.  If it truly is the easiest way to set up a site for a webcomic then I’m glad I never had to muddle through whatever people used in the before times…

 

How would you describe your relationship with your fans?  Do you engage in a lot of online interaction with your readers?

My fans are awesome.  I’m pretty small time, so I actually get to be friends with a lot of them.  I try to answer every email I get, and
everybody has been really cool so far.  If I ask questions about stuff someone will appear and tell me what I want to know.  When the internet fails me my fans have been there to pick up the slack.

 

Did you read comics as a kid?  Which ones?  What are your influences from comics today?

When I was little I used to get every one of those oddly shaped Garfield books.  I have them up into the late teens at least.  I also read the Madballs comic.  It was the first comic I had a subscription to.  It’s weird because I just saw them relaunch the toyline in stores.  They didn’t have any of my favorite guys though.  After that I collected The Real Ghostbusters series that Now Comics did. I still have all of them in the basement, slowly deteriorating…

As a teenager it was all Marvel, and Manga.   Mostly Spider-Man and X-Men for the Marvel stuff.  I loved Joe Madureira’s run on X-Men.

It was right about then that Japanese comics started appearing in greater numbers in America, and I was all over that.  I read all the stuff you could get; Rumiko Takahasi (Ranma ½), Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira), Johji Manabe (Caravan Kidd, Outlanders), Hayao Miyazaki (Nausicaa Of The Valley Of Wind), Yukito Kishiro (Gunnm), and several other random Japanese artists’ work.  Johji Manabe probably had the strongest influence on my style that carries through to today.

Gold Digger by Fred Perry was another series I was into for years.  That would have been right after the first gulf war, if I remember correctly. His stuff was so different at the time.  Now, of course, it’s practically a culture unto itself.

Knights Of The Dinner Table is also an old favorite.  It’s one of those fantastic comics that gets by on story, and character development, alone. I’m still trying to get a complete collection of KOTDT, but I’m not sure what I have versus what I need…

I also tried to get as much of Johnen Vasquez’s and Jim Mahfood’s work as I could lay my hands on.

 

Do you read other comics now?  What are you reading online or in print?

I read lots of comics.  Starslip Crisis, PVP, Octopus Pie, Questionable Content, Shortpacked!, Sabrina Online, Las Lindas, Newgirl, The Wrong Hero, and The Girl Next Door, are as many webcomics as I can think of off the top of my head.

Most of the print stuff I read is manga like Bleach, Naruto, SGT Frog, and One Piece.  I used to read American stuff, but after the boom in the 90s it got harder and harder to get them out here, so I quit.

 

Do you have any long term goals or ambition for the future of the comic?

I’d like to be able to tell the complete story of each character to a satisfactory conclusion.  I’d also like the comic to be able to support
itself at the very least.  Ideally I’d like to make a living with Between Failures.  When I started it that seemed like a fairly crazy idea, but
it’s done so well that it’s given me hope.

 

Any other creative endeavors you're working on?

I’m always working on several things at once.  Right now Between Failures is my priority, but there are other comics, books, scripts, and assorted randomness perpetually trying to escape my brain.  I’ve been trying to adapt a short film an old friend and I made years ago into a comic.  It’s coming along slowly, but I’d like to have it done by next year.