Peachy Keen: An Interview with Donna Barr
Donna Barr was born in the mill town of Everett, WA. She is a prolific cartoonist and writer who embraced the web relatively early on as a means to further expose the public to her creative work. She is probably best known for her comic series, The Desert Peach, about Pfirsich Rommel, the fictional homosexual younger brother of Erwin "The Desert Fox" Rommel -- it has been in publication since 1988. Another comic series from Barr is titled Stinz -- it is about Steinheld Löwhard, a centaur in an imaginary land called Gieselthal where humans and centaurs live.
I got a chance to interview her via email over the last couple of months and really enjoyed our exchange.
Where are you located these days?
Can you tell us a little about yourself? What's a typical day for you like recently?
Struggle out of bed. (Dan feeds cat, cleans catbox). Make coffee. Start fire. Sit down to email and biz. Around 10:00 take bath. Process files, fulfill part-time job as freelance journalist, do errands, cover accounts, yada yada. Tues, Thurs, Sun, no computer -- everything but. About 4:00, whatever's not done, I quit. Sit down and start doing art and writing until about midnight. Pretty much 7 days a week.
Once a day, try to get to the beach (5 minute walk away) for a long walk or to go fishing (but only when I'm really hungry for fish. The Girls -- the greenling I fish for -- sent me a really nasty dream the other day that they do NOT want to be caught or cooked right now!. Artists and writers listen to their dreams.
Oh, hell, T. wants me to help excercise her rescue horses on the trail. I WILL do that this Sunday! I promise!!!!
You are known for being particularly prolific in your comics output -- is that the result of you working longer than the average creator or do you think you're more efficient?
Well, if you've been working in comics since 1986, you're going to pile up a LOT of pages. And the German part of my mutt background serves me well; I'm very methodical. Every evening, when the day's work is done, I sit down and start writing and drawing. Only if I'm very tired, or sick, will I not turn out a page, sometimes two. I stay ahead of scheduling curves. In my entire career, I have never missed a deadline. Since I've picked up a position as a freelance stringer out here on the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula, the ability to hit deadline serves me well. (I'm like Hemingway – I hate journalism – but it's some cash on the side).
Where's Donna Barr HQ on the web these days to find out about what you're doing?
Dave Baxter will be helping me with a Wordpress site, bless his heart, and you'll be able to link to the blogspot site from there.
You've worked on several comics projects -- what do you have available online and in print right now.
Okay, best place to go: donnabarr.blogspot.com, follow links. Look for "The Little Store."
And then -- hoo boy -- more all the time:
- Home site -- donnabarr.com (soon to be replaced with blog)
- Aftterdead. Go buy a 3 cent ad!
- www.dimestoreproductions.com Teasers at www.clickwheel.com
- POD: www.lulu.com/desertpeach.
- POD Booksurge discounts: firstname.lastname@example.org
- That's just a few. And Amazon, of course.
- Journalism stories I didn't sell otherwise: http://www.associatedcontent.com/user/112562/donna_barr.html It earns a few cents! Income stream.
- Honorary Illegal Marriage t-shirts: www.cafepress.com/stinz
What do you have planned for 2009?
Have an agent flogging the FULL Desert Peach collection. Finish AFTERDEAD 1.4 and get it up at Lulu, in preparation for b&w Diamond order. Scan ALL the Stinz files to start process of collection (through publisher or Lulu). That's the short list.
I'll be at Emerald City Comicon (.com) and Norwescon (org) as well as speaking at the annual Toonie Banquet for Cartoonists Northwest (.com)
I'm working with a midwest comic shop owner to do the first virtual shop appearance and virtual tour. If we figure out how to do it, we'll share.
Lulu offers both print and download versions of your comics -- how is the mix of sales there between the two formats?
I don't know. I don't keep track of income streams – that's what the computer does. Lulu automatically turns a print version into a download version. I set a very low price, and every month Lulu dumps money into my paypal account. I'm not going to do unnecessary work, especially when it doesn't matter whether I track it or not. Lulu's a Naked Peacock, and I'm not adding feathers that aren't my books. I have enough little crap complicating my head. Lulu helps sweep some of it away.
You were on Modern Tales pretty early on. Did you have any reservations about putting your comics up on the web? How was your experience with the site?
Nope. It gets me new readers, and then they can all hook up at Lulu. Those who want paper can get paper – and the webcomics people can download the whole story. It all works together.
Given how much of comics has moved online and all of the changes in the print publishing industry, let alone the rise of P.O.D. as a serious option for self-publishing - for a new creator interested in publishing their comic what kind of strategy would you recommend they pursue? Web? Print? Both? When and how?
Okay (cracking fingers) – basic model: Webcomics to POD (Lulu version and Booksurge versions using same ISBN number with SLIGHT change in cover art, with link on back of book back to order sites). Then: Diamond, Haven (and may I say they both pay on time!) Then Facebook, Twitter, DeviantArt Gallery, Email lists.
IndieBound with caveat: Look at my Little Store at www.donnbarr.blogspot.com Even if you don't have an ISBN series, you can do this to put up a link to finding stores: buy ONE ISBN number, then add XXX for the book number at the end. You can use the fake ISBN to hook up to the bookstore search method. (I have lots of ISBN's, but I bought 200 of them for $200.00 about 10 years ago and I still have plenty left). I'm hoping bookstores will cooperate and help them find books, because the traditional print and bookselling industry is in trouble.
Do you have a lot of contact with young comic creators coming up now? Do you see them repeating any mistakes you might have made along the way or are people learning to avoid past pitfalls now?
I run into a lot of the younger folk, and I don't see a lot of stupid mistakes. They talk to each other and they take advantage of experience and mistakes. And they share. They all seem to believe “The More Bees, The More Flowers.” I highly respect them – and I think they are blowing the doors off books in general. Poetry and prose are completely behind these amazing young authors.
What tools do you use to make comics? Can you give us a brief walk-through of your process?
- Rough out plot (art and story) on junk paper (I strip junk mail, use fan mail, etc -- your letters could end up in a sketch manuscript and then go to the San Diego Collection: http://infodome.sdsu.edu/about/depts/spcollections/collections/donna_bar...), with cheap sharpie or fountain pen.
- Tape onto back of Manga bristol. Slap front-side-up on light-table, do lettering and touch up figures, using a dip pen (whichever one I pick up at the rummage store).
- Un-tape, freehand remaining inks, color with whatever (markers, color pencil, inks).
- Scan, clean up, shift here and there, use.
It's pretty simple.... I create and publish books while I'm watching videos at night. We don't have television.
I saw in another interview an answer you gave to a question regarding your "thought processes" for The Desert Peach:
Thought? You think THOUGHT was involved in this? I'm not in charge here -- my characters have a union. I'm just management. Ideas float by me and I pop them into the books. Stories pop into my head, and I float 'em past my readers. It's completely organic. And the characters are based on human beings. What can you expect? You can't out-weird reality.
I think that's a fantastic way to describe how your ideas come to and through you. Going with your answer though -- how early in your life did this union start and how do you know when a new idea or a new character has managed to work their way into the union?
I began drawing around 1954. I began writing and drawing at the same time around 1962. My early stories were all one-shots, so characters could only develop within that one story. It wasn't until the Siebkron character, who appeared in the “Black Manuscripts” that I wrote a series of stories for one character. (see San Diego Infodome: http://infodome.sdsu.edu/about/depts/spcollections/collections/donna_bar... )
A character that worked her way into the story was Siebkron's orderly, Uwe (I forget her last name), which is actually a male name. She became Siebkron's confidante, guardian, sidekick and – even once, when Siebkron was very miserable and they were both drunk – lover. With the usual after-morning apologies in an up-tight society. In the “If” stories (“What-If?”) she was involved in tracking down and punishing Siebkron's murderers.
Do you read other comics? What are you reading online or in print?
Only if people send them to me. I wish Roberta Gregory and Colin Upton were more on-line, but it's a lot of work. I'm a reference nut. I LOVE "Instructables.com"
I'm sorry, but my favorite comics are MINE -- I'm the only one writing the plots complicated and multi-faceted enough to rivet my attention. Roberta said, "We make these books because we couldn't get them anywhere else." Okay, so that's mean, but it's true. We really love our own stuff the best. Anybody who says s/he doesn't is LYING.
Did you read comics as a kid? Which ones? What are your influences from comics today? Other non-comic influences on your art and/or writing?
Had a couple copies of that butt-silly Enemy Ace thing as a kid (but LOVELY airplane work -- Dad was a pilot and we both thought those were fantastic).
Used to read my brother's only copy of the "Hulk" with him -- we did it out loud, using silly voices. I think that was the only other comic I ever saw.
A comic STRIP would be closest to an influence -- because of the beautiful line-work and use of Non-American mileau: "Gordo." But only for that.
Oh, please. Like comics are our only influences. They're a very minor part of it -- thanks Gods comics are leaving the whole goofball cramped-in world behind. We read EVERYTHING -- I read all the Russians, Kipling, Twain, Chekhov by the time I was 19. Our art is influenced by EVERYTHING. I adore folk and tomb art -- and cave art.
My fav art: Egyptian tomb art. Of ANY kind. Oh, just elegant, sharp line-work. Such delicate colors. Such expression. Nothing like it.
Okay, the finest piece of art ever done is that cave bison. But I think that guy was a shaman. Or maybe it was a self-portrait....
NOTHING is safe from us. And if we can't find it, WE MAKE IT UP (Ooooh.... did I just make some comics heads explode)?
And most of what I write is based on silly human tricks. I've SEEN this crap -- and heard most of the dialogue. Never open your mouth around an author (who is also a journalist): you're fair game! And never piss us off.....we always need good villains.
Tho' if we're not careful they take over the series. So pissing off an author could be a chance for immortality. Who WAS that guy who made Dickens so mad? The one he based all his money-snatching nasties on?
A bit of a random question but I saw that the San Diego State University library has an official Donna Barr collection - how did that come about?
One of my readers was a volunteer at the library and helped set it up. In return, I've willed them all my original art and books. They have a LOT of material from me, and are getting more. If one is going to have a legacy, one has to WORK at it.
I will say that one talent I have – as a linguist – is to help translate between industries. I taught university libraries to speak to the comics industry. I am able to quickly hear confusion and define terms. I swear, the money I save people in confusion and lawsuits, I should be paid like one of those useless CEO's.
I wish somebody would hire me to do that. Ten minutes work on my part saved Yahoo's butt when they were butting heads with the Graphic Artists' Guild over the use and ownership of images on the sites. An hour after I sent the email, “Look, just add FOR ADVERTISING PURPOSES ONLY” to the customer agreement,” the fight was over. They should have BOTH paid me. Sigh.
Oh, I should put in a kudo here: Ian Shires at http://www.Dimestoreproductions.com is the ONLY person I know who can get his head around hooking up web, print, POD (public and private distributor), distributor/retailer (those who know the warehousing and large backstock belong to the 18th century). He and I are working something that is going to blast through the ice that is freezing up the publishing industry. Not sharing yet – but he understands that it's all three steps forward and two steps back before final release. And so few do.
How do you go about promoting your work? What seems to be most effective at pulling in new readers?
See links, above. Email lists. www.projectwonderful.com. blogs. Whatever works. I'm a small-d democrat -- I talk to everybody. I burn no bridges (I don't have the MEMORY to burn a bridge). I'm not proud. I'm Jewish and Rom by relation, and we will sell anything to anybody, and the latter bunch knows that Countries Are Imaginary.
Here's a good trick: put your name and books on Google Notification (or whatever it's called) so you know when somebody on the net is complaining because they can't find your books. Then drop in, say hi, and help 'em out. Most people love to talk to their fav. author. I've made some lovely friendships/biz relationships that way.
A nice way to pick up reviews for blurbs, too!
I noticed you've posted some at Associated Content -- what kind of material are you posting there and what kind of business model (if any) is that site using?
More “mainstream” content. Book reviews, travel, articles the papers didn't pick up. My own site, donnabarr.blogspot.com, covers my writing life (sadly enough, a lot of that lately is talking about publishing). My freewheeling political views are at: http://wolffood.wordpress.com/
What conventions are your favorites to exhibit at? What advice do you have for others just starting to show their work at conventions? Do you have a favorite convention story?
I don't go to conventions any more -- they wrecked my health. I can't get on those planes, not after the abcess in my skull opening up due to bad air pressure (tho' that did lead to a needed root canal and my skull will always be identifiable). If anybody wants me at a convention, they can stop messing around and claiming they can't figure out how to do it virtually. Please. This is the 21st century.
Starting work? Before going anywhere, read this:
Share rooms with a nice group of friends. SLOW DOWN AND EAT A GOOD BREAKFAST!!! If you can't eat the rest of the day, breakfast will save you. Have gatorade at your table and good snacks (nuts, fruits, vegetables). Drink LOTS OF WATER. So many thanks to the readers who have made sure I eat and rest, and to Kathy Li, for always bringing me gatorade.
If you take care of your body you can get on with the work: Take a cellphone to find people on the floor. Get a tracfone: works everywhere, and cheap.
Be polite, business-like -- and if you want somebody to draw your script, catch them at a break (NOT WHILE THEY'RE HAVING LUNCH) and OFFER THEM MONEY. Better that $800.00 goes to ONE good flash page or cover from a top artist, than 20 yucks from a slob friend.
Don't lie to yourself. About anything.
And write notes on the back of any business-cards you get. There is nothing more frustrating than getting home and finding out you don't know what those were about. This drives everybody crazy -- we're all dumb enough to do it, and we regret it.
Did you do your own website? What software are you using on it?
I use godaddy.com -- it's cheap, but it's clunky, poorly designed, and has the Nascar chicks the wanna-be Hugh Hefner owner wants to bang on the front page.
I own my own domain names and I'm not going to sell them. Took me enough to get one away from an restaurant owner, and wait for the jeweler (or wa it a hooker?) to stop using the other.
Don't bother with a website. Get a blog and use CCNow.
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?
"Because I can write and I can draw."