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In the Doghouse with Dog Complex's Dave Johnson

This year, Dave Johnson of Dog Complex was offered a deal with Ucomics Mycomics page, a step further in the quest to a syndication deal. Certainly it would have meant more exposure and some revenue, which means he was making a move several webcomics have done over the past year, for greater exposure and reaching into the non-Internet world. And for many webcomic creators such an opportunity would be considered the highlight of a successful year.

Only Johnson was next presented with an interesting choice. He was offered a full-time job, with a major company, in a job he loved doing---a video games programmer. It meant security, stock options, and a chance to truly start a family. But he felt he couldn't do both. Like many who pursue comic without much in the way of monetary reward, Johnson was torn between his responsibilities and his webcomic, and he had to make a choice.

So Dog Complex, for now, is ending. You can read about the whole rather bittersweet experience here in this interview.

You must feel you're going through a serious case of "this is the best of times, this is the worst of times". Would you first describe how you felt when you got the offer from Universal comics?

Oh I was ecstatic. I felt I had taken another huge step towards my goal of getting syndicated. I remember the day I got the call from Ucomics and I was at work. I didn’t want my coworkers to overhear the conversation, so I stepped out into the rain and stood there getting soaked, yet grinning from ear to ear. That was a great day.

However, in the 30 days leading up to my launch on the Ucomics.com website, a lot of things changed. I landed a new position with my company, Microsoft, and had to make the painful decision to put the comic on an indefinite hiatus. At least that’s what I’m calling it, so that I don’t have to actually say the strip has ended.

It was a strange feeling to know I had made such a big step and then to just have to end it all. I think my readers were shocked as much as I was, and for that I feel really bad. They’re a great bunch of people, and I never meant to let them down, but sometimes life sort of gets in the way.

Let's start from the beginning. How long have you been interested in being a cartoonist? Who were your greatest influences---I can tell a lot of BLOOM COUNTY, but a lot of cartoonists have been influenced by Opus and company. Who else influenced you?

What’s this Bloom County you speak of? I’ve never heard of it.

Yeah… Breathed was a HUGE influence on my work, but I’ve tried to get away from that a bit. Hell I even had Lionel Richie show up in one of my storylines, and then like two months later I’m reading an old Bloom County book and he’s in one of the strips. I think this happens a lot, in that an artist or author doesn’t mean to rip someone off, but does it subconsciously because they grew up reading him or her. It becomes in engrained in your psyche. Towards the end I was trying to make it a bit more me… who knows if it worked or not.

I can of course go to the ol’ standby influences that everyone says… the Larsons, the Wattersons, the Schultzs. They are all just amazing. When it comes to contemporary influences, I’d have to say O’Hare’s Citizen Dog was huge, and I didn’t even know about it until about 7 months ago. I had a reader email me and say, “Your stuff reminds me of Citzen Dog. Well I had no idea what they meant, so I went out and bought O’Hare’s books. He was awesome. I love his art style, and wish I had half the talent he does. I think he’s working in animation now, which is another dream of mine. That bastard has now had a syndicated comic strip and worked in the animation field. I loathe that man… LOATHE HIM!!!

I’m also a huge fan of Jim Meddick’s Monty, which is one of the few strips that makes me laugh out loud each day. Oh… and I just recently discovered Rose Is Rose by Pat Brady. His artwork just makes me drool. Of the youngblood out there, those who haven’t quite hit print, but are on their way, I love Lost Sheep by Dan Thompson, Hubert and Abby by Mel Henze, and about a billion others. I could go on and on all day about this.

I’m also a huge fan of animation, though I’ve never been much into the Anime side of things. I’m a Computer Animation grad, so give me anything by Pixar and I’m happy. I think it’s written somewhere that those of us who hold computer animation degrees HAVE to love everything Pixar does, otherwise they’ll take our diplomas away. I’m also big into Spongebob, Ren N’ Stimpy, Invader Zim, and the Family Guy.

So my influences are broad and ever-changing to say the least.

What's your background otherwise?

Well, as I said, I’ve got a degree in Computer Animation that I got from the Art Institute of Seattle. It’s a long way from the farm I grew up on in Central Washington, to say that I have that degree and work at Microsoft. That cow manure and feed bucket are a distant memory, and I plan to keep it that way. That being said, I totally believe that growing up on that farm shaped my work ethic and gave me the drive I have today, so don’t think I’m putting that experience down for a second. To any kid growing up on a farm and reading this, don’t ever let anyone treat that as an insult. There are much worse places to grow up.

Where did the characters come from? Especially Dale and the dog Sid, who eventually took over the strip? Did you ever work in radio, the way Dale originally did, back when the strip was called DEAD AIR, back before Sid was introduced?

You know, I did work in radio, back in my hometown. It was a horrible experience, and probably the reason I never pursued a career in it. Little did I know there are much better stations out there than the 3-man horse barn that I worked in.

I think that probably did have something to do with Dale being a DJ, though I don’t remember consciously picking that as a profession for him based on my experience. I just wanted him to have a unique profession, but once I got him in that DJ booth, I realized it wasn’t going to work. Comic strips are such a visual medium, and the characters in the panels need to play off of each other. When you have some dork talking to a microphone for four panels, the jokes get tired real quick.

As for Sid, I have two Daschunds myself, and that’s sort of what he was based on. Of course he’d be a huge freakin’ Daschund scale-wise, but that’s where his concept came from. I’ll walk around the house (this is going to make me sound nuts) talking for my dogs and saying things like, “Oh yeah… turn up the Eddie Money!” so it was pretty easy to just translate that to paper.

Why did Dale keep on changing? Was it just the evolution of your own style or was there some other reason?

I’ll say it for you… Dale’s head has been like a lump of warm clay that has been left in a windowsill: Every time you turn around, that sucker is a different shape. Right up to the end I was making changes, and in the last month I changed his eyes. I swear that was going to be the final change though… I swear.

As to why… well… that’s totally my fault. I listened to too many outside people who would say, “I don’t like this about his head” or “His head would look so much better if you just…” and after a while, it became a joke (I actually used his shape-shifting head in a couple of storylines). I should have just left it alone.

Why the shift from talk radio DJ to a pet shop owner for Dale? More characters to interact with as opposed to topical humor, or was there another reason?

Well, as I said it was a real pain to write radio jokes, and I wanted to move away from the Man/Dog strip a bit. I always had more fun with animals as opposed to humans, so it was a natural move to get Dale and Sid into an environment with as many animals as possible.

Who's your favorite character? Towards the end the pet shop had a wide array of characters, and even Sid seemed to be losing ground to, say, Angus.

I’ve said this before, but Dale is a good friend of mine, and Sid is my dog. Not in the literal sense, but that’s how I felt when writing this strip. I felt like these guys were a part of my family. I loved Sid just for his happy-go-lucky attitude, yet Dale’s cynical side always appealed to me as well. Angus was just dumb, but you had to love him. Listen to me… I sound like I’m worried about offending them if I pick a favorite. Okay, I’d have to say it was Sid… please don’t tell Dale.

What do you like, and dislike, about webcomics as a medium? Where do you see webcomics as a genre going?

As far as what I like about webcomics, I like the ease of plopping down in front of my computer and reading my favorite comics without getting newsprint all over my hands. I like the fact that I can read a family-oriented strip and turn around and read something crude in a matter of seconds, should I choose to do so. Webcomics are great for those of us who need something to read when we’re supposed to be working.

What I don’t like are the people who don’t take the art form seriously. Those who have an update schedule they never stick to, write a joke in five seconds and post it, and generally waste the time of those trying to find quality comics to read. That may sound harsh, but it’s the truth. If you’re going to do this “for your friends,” or you’re doing it “just for fun,” keep the damn thing on a private website and only send the links out to friends and family members. Not giving it 110% is just making a bad name for the really good webcomics out there. I didn’t feel I had the time to give 110% to Dog Complex anymore, so I ended it. I’m not saying I always do the right thing or that I’m the smartest SOB on the planet, heck on most days I barely get my pants on, but I know that there are tons of people out there who work hard at making their strips successful, only to get stuck in the giant murky green pool that is “webcomics” right now.

As far as where webcomics are going, I’m not sure. I love seeing things like Keenspot offering up print comic pages to the newspapers, and things of that nature. Whether they fail or not, it’s good for the community, because all it takes is for one of those ideas to take off and it’s going to positively impact a ton of other authors.

How did you feel when you got the offer from Microsoft? More money, more security, more benefits, a job you really enjoy, the chance to really raise a family...no one can blame you for choosing as you did. Still---weren't there some mixed feelings?

Yeah… I had mixed feelings. Still do. It was one of the single-most bittersweet experiences I’ve ever come across. However, as I said when I made the announcement, I got to choose between a career in videogames and a career in comic strips. I don’t expect anyone to feel bad for me, because that’s a pretty cool choice if you ask me.

The comic strips will always be there. Who knows if I can make it back to the level of having a syndicate like Ucomics offer me a contract again, but I can always revisit that area of my life, should time permit. I haven’t given it up, but I didn’t want to run into a situation where I had to choose between the comic, my full-time job, and my family, because it would have been family, job, comic, in that order, and the readers would have suffered.

Do you think you'll ever return to Dog Complex? If not---what will you miss the most?

I’ll say this… I have every intention of returning to comics. Whether that is Dog Complex or not, I’m not sure. It was a good strip, and it had a good run, but I think it might be time to move on. Dan Thompson (Lost Sheep) and I are kicking around the idea of collaborating on a strip together after the first of the year, so we’ll see where that goes. Plus I haven’t fully severed ties with Ucomics, or its parent company, and they’ve have been amazing to me through this whole thing. I’ve also been working on another strip for about the past two months that I may consider releasing.

I’m also working on a possible Dog Complex book. I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, but I have been talking with people… you know… people.

So I haven’t given up on comics altogether, but I need to take a nice, long break from them and make sure I get adjusted to my new schedule. If, at that time, I decide I can juggle the family, the house, the job and the strip, I plan on returning in one form or another. I had too much fun creating Dog Complex not to.

Which brings me to what I’ll miss most about creating Dog Complex: The fun I had. Call me an egomaniac, but I really got a kick out of some of my strips, and I loved showing them to people as a (in my best Stewart from MadTV voice), “Look what I can do!” sort of thing. I was excited each time I sat down at my table to see what Sid was going to say, and each day he surprised me. I’ll miss that for sure.

A close second to that is hearing from all of the readers and fellow artists. I’ve met some truly amazing, funny and gifted people doing this, and forged some friendships I’ll have for some time to come. So if I woke up tomorrow and my arms fell off, I could at least say I’ve made some great friends, and that was worth it.

Not saying that I would want my arms to fall off…. I just… well… you understand what I meant

Al Schroeder is an Executive Editor for Comixpedia. His own webcomic Mindmistress will continue in 2005.

Re: In the Doghouse with Dog Complex's Dave Johnson

Hope you get a chance to come back to webcomics Dave -- we gotta try at least one panel together, yeh? ^_^

~Liriel