Tallying Up a Sheep's Accolades: An Interview with Adrian Ramos
If popularity were sheep, Adrian Ramos would be counting to infinity.
Count Your Sheep surfaced very recently on the sequential dream scene, only to leap over the hurdles of obscurity and into the greener grass on the popular side. Now part of Keenspot, Ramos' webcomic is winning awards and gaining new readers faster than you can knit one or pearl two.
In the ensuing interview, a non-sheepish David Wright lets Ramos spin a few yarns about CYS's amazing success, its beginnings, and its inspiration. Some Moo-ish wisdom is shared, and perhaps a tear or two shed in the process.
One thing is certain: Ramos' recountings will NOT put you to sleep.
Ok, I'll begin with the most obvious question...
Have you ever killed a man to just watch him die? Actually I just throw that one out there just in case someone says YES one day, and then I will have the most amazing confession!
I don't think I have an answer that's flippant enough. I was going to say that maybe you had been watching me TOO closely.
Seriously, though, what is Adis short for?
Adrian. Which in Spanish would be shortened as Adri which became Adi, which became Adis. It's a Latin-American cartoonist thing to do.
Congratulations are in order, as you were a big winner at the recent Cartoonist's Choice Awards. How did it feel to win so much so quickly in your comic's life?
I'm still waiting for the champagne. I think that that sort of thing is important for a young comic like mine. It helps increase awareness of it, and new readers might be more inclined to give it a try. It helps build pedigree.
Did you have a feeling you would win so many?
Well, being nominated for a bunch of them does build up your inner expectations, but I really had no idea. It was the top category that surprised me.
What is the inspiration behind Count Your Sheep?
I remember the day I read Calvin and Hobbes for the first time. I was 11, and it changed my life. I started making my own strips the next day, they were quite good, actually.
You were good that quickly?
I even laugh at them now. This means that either my sense of humor didn't evolve, or I was brilliant. I don't know, but I've always been a big fan of my own work. It has always made sense to me. So, anyway, last year, after getting yet another rejection slip from the syndicates (that ageless story), a friend of mine suggested I put my comic on Keenspot and that's when I discovered webcomics.
Shortly after, I discovered that you just don't get into Keenspot so, I discovered Keenspace, and how you could just put your comic there. but, I didn't want to turn my precious baby into a mere webcomic, so I decided I'd do something else â€“ an experiment, an exercise in style, but I had no idea what it would be. But when you register, Keenspace (at least back then) asks you to give your comic a title and a descriptionâ€¦
So, on the spot, I remembered my favorite cartoon panel I'd ever done, involving a hitchhiking sheep. That idea led to the concept of counting sheep, and there it was. Count your Sheep. Once I had the site and an account, I needed an actual strip, so I got to creating. Originally, I wanted to do something like Mutts. Something that inexplicably likeable.
Mutts does have that immediate charm to it.
Yes, and it's very simple.
So, how did the strip turn into what it is?
I've always liked "high concepts", so once I had mine, I felt comfortable. Well, the paper I was drawing it in was really small, about the size it appears on the screen for the first four strips or so. What [was] supposed to be a bigger cast was reduced to a girl and her imaginary sheep. As I progressed, I found myself pouring more and more of what I myself into it, which culminated with the appearance of Laurie, Katie's mom. It was then that my simple gag strip became the story of a trans-generational imaginary friend and how it touches their lives and how they count him when they can't sleep, but there's never been much of that, actually.
At what point did you create the back-story of Ship's origins? And where did you get his name from?
The name came from my desire to keep things simple. I've always been proud of my character naming skills, but originally the strip was supposed to be this quirky little experiment, so I said,
"Ok, here's the sheep, so I'll call him...Sheep= Ship!"
It was just something to get it out of the way, but I don't see him being called anything else now. Like Penguin. Had it been me, his name would be Peen-Ween.
Actually Phil Cho of Skinny Panda did a guest strip for me where Todd and Penguin are yelling at each other in French accents, and Todd calls Penguin Pen-Gweeen!
There you go; maybe Ship has some transatlantic origins.
So, the back-story. Was it something you made up as you went along, or had all planned in the early months?
There was no backstory when I began. The first few details came to me when I decided to introduce Laurie, and took a firmer hold when I made the first few strips about how Ship was around when she was a kid, too.
Great idea, by the way.
Thanks. And it came about quite randomly, but I like to pretend I planned it all along.
Did you plan the almost exclusively blue palette early on? Do you ever find it limiting? I know you've broken the rules a few times.
I knew that if I was going to make a comic that took place entirely at night, and wanted it to be in color, I had two options: either draw it normally and shade it accordingly, or draw it in a color palette that reflected nighttime. I'm a fan of how The Norm comics are colored, with shades of purple, and thought that the same trick would work to convey the notion of nighttime. What I didn't expect was how much it would set the mood for it and how much I was putting myself into it. I'm a fairly melancholic guy, so making a "blue" comic, makes perfect sense now.
That subconscious. It really sneaks up on you.
I find it very relaxing. Much in tune with your exit tag, "now go to sleep"
I like sign-offs. I'd say "Excelsior" but it was taken.
Going back to the subject of Keenspot â€“ you said you don't just get onto Keenspot, but in fact, you did rather quickly! The quickest I've seen, actually, other than those who started on there. To what do you attribute that remarkable feat?
Well, there was a campaign of sorts in the Keenspace forums, something like that, and it was brought up constantly, as for why... well, being on Keenspace helped and because the strip has something for everyone, I believe. I'm not the one who should say how good it is or isn't, but i do work hard, and I make it as honestly as I can. It's my most personal work ever.
Speaking of your other work, how are your other comic projects going?
Well, there's The Wisdom of Moo on Girlamatic, which was the comic I didn't want to turn into a webcomic. Other than that, nothing's really solid. Well, there was one, but I kind of put it on hold.
The Magic one?
The Magic one. I like that one, a lot, actually, and people keep asking me when I'll start doing it again. I'm not sure, I had a fanbase, and an artist (the very nice Reed Hawker of culture shock on Drunk Duck) but I just don't have the time right now. I think it deserves the best ideas, and I just can't do it right now. However, there's an all new magic story in the new Drunk Duck collection!
Why didn't you want to use Moo as a webcomic?
Because I thought webcomics were, like, inferior. =-O
Still, it led to creating CYS, so it's a lapse I've long forgiven myself for. The proof is that Moo IS a webcomic now.
So you thought more of Moo than CYS? What were you going to do with Moo? Save it for syndicate submissions?
I sent it around for two years, actually. It was quite frustrating.
What were the responses like and have you sent CYS yet?
The best one I got was from the Washington Post, who had a few nice things to say and yes, I've sent CYS twice no response yet.
I hear it takes time. Did the Post ask you to re-send it, any plans to do so?
They asked me to submit it to this program they have, where they select three or four cartoonists. I sent it and I didn't get it. So, I put Moo to rest for a while, until the Girlamatic open call came about.
I'd say too bad, but had you succeeded, we might not have CYS now. Given that CYS is a 'nice' comic, do you ever find yourself struggling with that label, or wanting to do something to shock people?
I don't do anything I would dislike to see myself. I'm my first audience. Well, me and my girlfriend, anyway. And I didn't set out to do a "nice" comic.
Does she read every comic?
She is the first editor, and has inspired quite a few, which have been essentially, messages meant for her.
Have you ever disagreed over a comic, and if so, has she changed the outcome of any of the strips or stories?
Not really. I've had a few where I have two or more options for the punch line, and I always try to select the one I think she will like best.
What is your process of creating each strip?
Well, I try to think of the next strip when I go to bed. It sounds too much like "method acting" but it's true and in that state of mind, I let the ideas flow so by the next morning, I'm pretty sure of how the strip is going to be like.
I sit down, scribble it if it's unclear, or if the English is a bit more complex, and then I draw it. I then transfer the pencils on to the bristol board using my light box, then it goes to the computer, where I add the color and the letters not too exciting.
How long does the drawing to finished color process generally take?
Between two to four hours, for the really complex ones but never less than two â€“ and you read it in four seconds!
But those are the breaks.
What have been your best and worst experiences in the year or so you've been doing CYS?
I haven't had a single bad experience. I really haven't. If anything, I've seen people who dislike the strip, but that was to be expected. The best part has been how people have reacted to it and how much I care about it now. The comic IS me. If you want to know who I am, or what worries me, it's right there.
Also, it became the backdrop for a very nice love story. A story for another day.
The aforementioned girlfriend? Was she a reader first?
The aforementioned girlfriend was a friend, then the very first reader, the first fan, and the first believer. I wouldn't have kept it up for long had it not been for her. Also, our mutual longing inspired me the love story behind the strip which I've been hinting at for many strips. You know how it ends, but it'll be interesting to see it develop.
Which character most represents you?
Laurie and Ship, probably. Ship is my logical, dry side, while Laurie has all my fears, foibles and hopes.
If you could draw any 4 comics other than your own, web or print, which would you love to take a shot at?
Mafalda. Mafalda was the best. Mafalda was Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes and Pogo, all at the same time.
I'm not familiar with that. Is it in Spanish only?
Yes, by the Argentinan artist Quino. A lot of his work is available on the web, and it's silent, so there's no language barrier there.
Well, [then] Calvin and Hobbes of course. Who wouldn't? I'm a big fan, and it's more than evident.
Me, too. I think most of the new crop of comickers cite Watterson as their inspiration.
Well, Spider-Man, of course. Deep down, I'm a superhero geek.
The last one, well, I wouldn't mind doing Derek Kirk Kim's work. He's Will Eisner, that one, but, I'm very happy with my sheep and the girls.
What are the differences between the comics that appear in Latin papers and American ones (other than the languages?)
Well, Latin American comic strips aren't tame. They're wild, they're smart, and they're hip.
There's not much room for a sad/funny comic about a girl and her sheep.
When you think up the comics, do you think of the dialogue in English first, or Spanish?
English, definitely. You work in the language the strip or the script or whatever is going to appear in. I've never even stopped to think about how any of the comics might sound in Spanish.
Living where you do and with the bad economy, have you considered moving out of the country? What is your profession?
I went to film school. But, I'm more of an illustrator, really. And, I'd be willing to move out of the country, can I crash on your couch? :P
Yes, but I must warn you, my kitten might not be to kind to Ship's plush self.
You are a cat person? I never would have guessed.
Yeah, I like dogs, but from afar. They are bit too licky and needy of constant walks for my lifestyle. Speaking of plush things, any plans to do a plush of Ship?
Stay tuned. *makes shifty eyes*
Well, if you were doing so (not to say you are), would Keenspot be doing it? Would you be in charge of design?
Wait, Hollywood people know how to dodge these questions wonderfully, how do they do it?
They bring in their security teams to rough up the interviewer. Name your favorite 5 webcomics and the reasons you like them?
Sinfest. The first time you read it, it's like discovering Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes for the first time. It's revolutionary.
Anything by Derek Kirk Kim. That fella is our Will Eisner. Plus, I'd love to see him draw Katie and Ship.
Amanda Hardy's What I Learned Today. It was the only other cutesy comic I knew for a while, but it has a subversive edge to it that's very true to the way children are.
On the other hand, there's Catherine Harrell's Jen Comics, so buried in its own cuteness that I think it's very brave. It has no edge, it's just purely soft and sweet and pastel. Plus, Catherine is a truly decent person, and it reflects in her comic.
Finally, Penny Arcade and PvP. I enjoy Scott's characters and his approach, and Penny Arcade is always enjoyable, if anything to look at that great Gabe art. I love that style he uses. I enjoy it even if I've never ever played with an X-Box and only used my own Playstation about 10 times.
What are your non-comic interests?
Movies. Music. Pop Culture. The pursuit of happiness. Pizza. But not cars.
How far ahead do you have CYS scripted? Are the characters going to age?
As far as the overall story, I have it all in my head. As for the strips themselves, I'm a couple of days ahead. The semi strips I do a day before they are scheduled to go up though.
Will the characters age?
Oh, right. Eventually, you'll see li'l Laurie grow into modern age Laurie, but that'll take a long long loooong time.
What are the future plans for CYS?
If it's at all possible, I wouldn't mind doing it everyday for the rest of my life. Everything else will come in time. What I want is the comic to support itself and the time I spend on it.
Is that close to happening yet?
I'm getting there. It's funny it was just supposed to be a thing on the side but it's permeated every aspect of my life now.
What business model do you have in mind to make that happen? That seems to be the hard part for most webcomic creators â€“ actually making their work pay.
Well, so far I've used it to help me get jobs, you know, illustrating and the like. I have ideas also for merchandise and products, like books which won't necessarily be collections of strips. Keenspot can help with that. And a few more ideas. I should write this down... oh, and people donating, which while hasn't gotten to enormous, Something-Positive levels, it's been going nicely.
And patience. I have all the time in the world.
Well it's good to see someone doing such a sweet comic do well!
Thanks. Of course, I'm still a struggling artist, but it adds to my street cred.
Do you have any plans to print the strip in book form? If so, would it translate well in black and white.
There'll be a book eventually, yes. When I sent the strip to the syndicates, I sent some B&W versions of them I have. They work, but the effect of the blue is so overwhelming.
Many of the popular comics out there seem almost the opposite of CYS.
They do, yes.
There aren't many strips out there that do what we do. Probably because of what you said. The "Watterson effect." Lately, I have noticed some more comics now that are doing what we do. Some people have even emailed me to say that I inspired them, which is flattering.
Have you seen anything that is a bit TOO much like what you are doing? If so, would a flat out imitation bother you?
No, I think that authors have mostly seen that doing a cute comic about children is ok, but no, I haven't seen anything too much like CYS yet. Although, I did get a fan, about a year ago when the comic was still young, sent me a sample of his comic, that took place at nighttime and was all-yellow. I think he meant well, though, but he never made it, that I know of.
Or he signed a deal with some movie company, and will make a killing.
Oh, but wait, in my logs, I did come across someone's blog who was planning to write a short play based on a girl and her sheep. That was strange.
Where do you see the future of webcomics leading?
Well, I wouldn't mind if it was easier to live off your strip. ;-)
I think that pretty soon, we'll break the glass ceiling and little by little, some or plenty of us will break through and become more mainstream. Mainstream is such a nasty word.
What do you see happening with the comics once they are mainstream?
Staying there. I don't necessarily mean "Spider-Man" mainstream, but more like certain products, like...say, Turtle Wax. Something that's easily available and always in the public eye, not necessarily a fad, just a sustainable product that remains.
What do you feel are the negatives of the form becoming so mainstream?
Turning corporate, I suppose. But that's looking too far ahead. I'm certainly no visionary; I only have positive flights of fancy.
Have you given much thought to what if your comic REALLY takes off. How much control are you willing to sign over in order to get a contract? Are you going to go the Peanuts route and plaster your creation all over everything or the Watterson route of not allowing any merchandising at all?
Good question. I always say I draw the line at underwear. The way I see it, I would like my comic to be like the comics I loved when I was a kid. I had three Peanuts pajamas and a big Snoopy. But I certainly wouldn't want people to think of CYS as nothing but an excuse to sell stuff. I am trying to tell a story and make a good strip. But I don't think there's anything wrong with toys. Pogo had little figurines, sculpted by Walt Kelly himself, or so legend has it.
Do you think it's tougher for comics like CYS to get attention on the web? (Not that you aren't getting any, you DID just receive 6 webcomics awards!) But in general?
It's hard to say, because the only other comic close to what CYS does is yours, and you seem to have quite a following yourself, so...
And, it's tough for any webcomic to get attention now. Isn't it?
I suppose so, with the sheer number. But I think the ones that are edgier have an advantage in that they can shock their way into being noticed, and while it shouldn't work long term, in many cases, it does.
Hmmm, that makes sense. I just set out to do a comic I would enjoy. I am not a poster boy for cuteness or sweetness, I enjoy edgy stuff as much as the next guy. if it's good, of course.
There are comics out there that seem to have not a shred of substance pulling in major amounts of readers. I just think quieter comics have a harder time being heard, which is why your success is such a wonderful thing.
Why, thank you. Maybe it was something that was needed. This echoes some of the response I get.
Most of my own taste is in darker things. I just happen to do a nice comic. Maybe the guys doing the crudest, darkest stuff are secretly nice, sweet, cartoonists sitting at home on Friday night and petting their puppies as they draw.
And maybe we are the ones with the bigger demons. I do make a funny comic about being sad...
Are you generally a sad person?
Not that much anymore, but I used to. I've always been the funny guy with a twinkle of sadness in my eye. But, I'm an optimist and idealist. This is strange, because you wouldn't think they get sad. I went to therapy for about three years.
I used to have problems with, you know, people. Not being able to make connections.
What sorts of problems? Why are you unable to connect?
Good question. Fear, probably.
I've never been able to keep a friend, for instance.
Less so now, but still. Which is why the girlfriend angle is such a triumph.
Is she your longest relationship?
Not so much that, although it is, but also that I'm more equipped now to be with someone.
What is the fear of?
Fear of others. I never had problems fitting in, I just never cared to.
And this girl, the behind the scenes of the past year, the comic, well, they saved me.
Hmmm, I think I've been wanting to let this out for a while!
I'm the Barbara Walters of comic interviews.
Yes, you are!
Say hello to John Stossel for me.
Please tell me you are in tears! Waterworks galore.
I'm crying a river. Wait till I show the conversation to my girlfriend.
So what did you learn in therapy that helped you?
I learned who I was. That what I wanted or needed was ok.
To what do you attribute your earlier views on yourself and your needs?
Upbringing. I trained myself, from an early age, to think that I was the only one who could see what was worth in me. So, I kept to myself. Drawing, and analyzing comics obsessively.
Did your parents not see the good in you?
They did, yes. I was their youngest and their genius. The one who spoke perfect English.
So where was the problem?
I guess it had something to do with growing up among rich kids. They mess with your head.
I know this all too well. How did they affect you?
Well, many have a knack for making you feel less. Others are nice, but still can go to say, San Antonio for the weekend, just to shop, and as a 6, 7 year old, you wonder why you can't. You even blame yourself. Which is silly, really.
Without these experiences, who knows what sort of comic you would be producing. So, I guess good can come from bad.
That's the conclusion that the three of us reached.
Me, the girlfriend, and my therapist.
I thought maybe you had a Ship of your own.
Don't I wish. Also, I have no children of my own. People have asked. Nor am I a widower.
I didn't think the comic was THAT autobiographical, but I can see that. Heck, people email me as "Todd" all the time.
Exactly, but in my case people can't see which one I am, but I am all three.
So is the therapy over?
Yeah, it is. I felt strong enough, when there was even a time where picking up the phone was a struggle.
What would go through your mind when picking up the phone?
It's pretty irrational, really. It goes from believing the phone will eat you alive, or that the person on the other end will yell at you. When has fear been rational?
Eat you alive? Literally? What was your Dr. prescribing you and where can I get some?
Nothing, actually. I didn't want to. Who knows what sort of comic my mind on Zoloft would have produced.
Do you think that drugs can open the gateway for further creativity?
Honestly, I have no idea.
I've never even been drunk.
So I guess black tar heroin is out of the question? I know people say that LSD and the such enhance your creativity, but I'm too afraid to go there.
I wouldn't even know where to get it. Especially with the work that we do. It does change your ethics or enhances them. I try not to do anything now that would be a bad example for Katie, for instance.
I think that something like Zoloft or other drugs might dampen your creative spirits.
I think so too, and I didn't want that. Also, I have nephews. Ultimately, I'm the healthiest I've ever been. I truly feel great. The future looks promising.
Right now the pessimist in me would be wondering What Will Happen Next? But I guess you really are an optimist.
Happiness within reach. All that.
I am. That's why I make the comic that I make.
To make other people happy? Judging from the responses in your forums and elsewhere, you have been successful!
Yeah. For a loner, if people enjoy what I do, it means a lot to me. It really, truly affects me how they can relate to it. I try to make it universal, as much as I can. Because, I am from a different country, after all.
That is not even noticeable in the strip.
I know. Most people don't even know. I think.
In the past I have found that I do my best stuff when I was depressed. Do you think that this has helped you in your art? Do you think you would be as good had you been a happy, well adjusted young man?
Probably not. Doesn't good art come from a deep inner sadness? Maybe that's what young artists tell themselves to justify their crappy moods, but I like to think it's true.
Well look at some of the best artists and philosophers of the past. They were mostly sad people. Sad and mentally disturbed. Hypothetical question: Would you take a life of happiness, but never be able to do your art again?
That's a tough question. I used to think that I wouldn't, but now that I've experienced what a life of happiness looks like, I wouldn't be so sure. Happiness is all they say it is. Love is.
So it is love that inspires you now?
It is, yes. When that aspect of your life is covered so fully and so completely, it makes everything else easier, more bearable. I'm even thinking about driving now. I'm gushing now, aren't I?
Like a schoolgirl. You have a fear of driving?
It wasn't really fear, I took lessons once. I just used to feel it was useless. I don't mean to gush, it comes out naturally.
Which has been your favorite strip? Mine would be the one where Ship pushes the cookie bubble to Katie's head. I wish I had thought up that one for my own strip!
As for my own personal favorite...
It's hard to say.
People loved the "beat the day" strip, which I made for my girlfriend, who wasn't so at the time. Also, the one where Laurie visits Marty at the cemetery. Those two are the ones I got the most reactions for.
That one was drawn marvelously.
I love them for it, because they conveyed exactly what I wanted.
It's great when idea and execution meet in harmony!
It certainly is---the one with the soccer ball. I always think of that one.
Laurie expects to play the usual "ball", and Katie kicks a soccer ball at her. I love that one. I love all of them, really.
Any you didn't like or would do over?
It sounds self-serving, but like I said, it never made sense to me not to be fan of your own work. hmmmm...there's a "lost strip", that I never used that I always felt could do more work.
I can't stand my own stuff sometimes. I am frustrated by my lack of talent.
I know, and its ok, almost everyone is like that. I'm the deluded one.
I always compare myself to other comics.
I do, too. I always come to the conclusion that we all put the same amount of heart into it. That I do the best I can do, to the best of my abilities.
That's a good point. Guess it's all we can do.
No, you wouldn't. I guess you have a good balance in you. Well, I will end with one last question, one that is begging to be asked: What do you do, when you can't fall asleep?
Actually, that's the problem: I've never had that problem. I HATE going to bed. Always have.
I don't mind sleeping, I just dislike the day ending.
Feel you are missing out on something if you go to sleep?
When I was little, I'd get up at night to watch TV, because I felt the day ending and you going to bed was like dying a little, and I'd much rather watch cartoons. Then my grades started slipping.
Sadly, I don't watch much TV anymore, something my old self would kick me for. But yeah, if I could, I would skip sleeping entirely. I'm mature enough to know I *need* to sleep, but as I put myself to bed, the 8-year old in me panics at the prospect of another day ending. But I know I have to, and I have a CYS strip to think of, and that distracts me.
Well, on that note, I am off to count some sheep myself. Thanks for the interview! It's been fun.
David Wright is a guest contributor for the Comixpedia. You can read his own cute animal comic here.