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Taking Their Lumps: Eric Burns Interviews J. Grant and Mel Hynes

Mel Hynes and James Grant do a comic together called Two Lumps, which is the self-proclaimed anti-Garfield. Grant is also (in)famous for his prior webcomic FLEM. Eric Burns interviewed both of them about working together on Two Lumps, collaboration in general and Grant's secret plan to get on Keenspot.

The obvious first question to any set of collaborators is "what made you decide to collaborate?" Did you know you wanted to work together before coming up with Two Lumps? Or did one of you say "hey -- let's do a comic about cats?"

MEL: I'd call it more of a gradual process than a decision. When James relaunched FLEM 2.0 back in 2003, I was helping out here and there with random ideas. The idea for Two Lumps actually came about when we flew out to Reno to visit my parents, and we started discussing what my cats would be like as gamblers. That conversation pretty much spawned the entire casino story arc, and James started up Two Lumps from there. When it started out, it was the same situation as FLEM -- he was mainly doing the strip on his own, I was providing periodic strip ideas, punchlines, etc. Around May of 2004, James was noting that while he was having fun drawing the comic, he was feeling very burned out on writing them. So at that point I shifted from part-time to full-time writing on the comic.

JAMES: That's pretty much it. I've been busy doing various projects and such, and although I like cartooning, writing the strips is something I don't feel like spending a lot of time doing.

Obviously, the webcomics world knew about James Grant from FLEM Comics. How different is producing Two Lumps from producing FLEM (both Angry Patriot Boy style and the Jay Storyline)?

JAMES: I'd say it's comparing apples and oranges, but even that's not accurate. It's comparing apples to a slightly off-key saxophone note. FLEM was mostly done by the seat of my pants for five years - updating whenever I wanted, however I wanted, cracking jokes about anything I wanted. With that kind of freedom comes a great amount of struggling to figure out where the heck to go. I killed the Jay storyline after two and a half years because I just plain got tired of writing it. APB has always been nothing more than a caricature that I use as my sounding board on current politics, and right now I find the political climate too frightening to really joke about. It all boils down to this: cartooning stopped being fun for a little while there. Two Lumps brought back the fun for me. I don't have to write it. I don't have to steer. I'm the guy on the second seat of a tandem bicycle, and Mel's got the handlebars - I just pedal. I love it. Although I may bring back FLEM full force someday far in the future, right now it's something I spend close to zero time on. Two Lumps is the most fulfilling project I've worked on in a long time, and there are only so many hours in the day.

Does Hynes plot the arcs as well as script them, or do you plot them together? What's the care and feeding of each Two Lumps strip?

MEL: I do both the plotting and scripting. The average life-cycle of a strip would be: I email James the script while at work, he draws them while on break. Once he gets home, I scan the artwork in and he assembles & shades everything on his computer. We'll occasionally debate over a line or two he's got a lot more webcomic experience than I do, so sometimes I'll overestimate just how much dialogue can fit in a 3-panel strip. After the dialogue's nailed down and added, it goes up in the site queue. If I've got a full story arc planned out, sometimes we'll get the whole thing done in advance, but most of the time we're working day by day. I'm trying to change that as soon as our lives calm down a bit.

JAMES: The most I ever do to change a strip Mel's written is edit dialogue a bit to fit it to the panels. I also tend to drink a lot and sing along to Slayer while doing the strip. This should confirm lots of rumors for many of our readers.

Given your well-deserved reputations as seekers of the edge (both in FLEM Comics and in your comic book Timmy Kat, among others), what led you to somewhat softer fare with Two Lumps? Will there reach a point where Snooch disembowels someone for their Gooshyfood while Ebenezer does a line of cocaine off a Siamese's back?

MEL: I seriously doubt it. While we're not deliberately striving for "family-friendly", by any means, the Lumps tend to lend themselves towards more intellectual and sardonic jokes than visceral ones. The boys have decidedly got their own personalities, and when I try to force a joke that isn't "them", it just rings wrong in fifteen different directions and it ends up not being funny, even though it should be. Kind of like making a joke about someone's grandmother doing donkey shows in Tijuana, versus actually having to watch it. James and I both have very viscerally-twisted senses of humor, but we tend to have other creative outlets for that than Two Lumps.

JAMES: World of Warcraft for her, Far Cry for me.

What are your ambitions for Two Lumps? Would you want to move up to Keenspot with it? Alternately, would you want to pull it from Keenspace and develop a solo site for it?

MEL: We'd certainly like to move up to Keenspot with it, but after applying about 6 months ago and watching two rounds of additions go by with nary a word, I've basically accepted that we're not what they're looking for (at least right now). As far as ambitions go, I'd love for us to be able to make a living off of Two Lumps and our other works. Not planning on giving tours to Robin Leach or anything, but being able to give up our stressed-out tech jobs someday would be great. As for a solo site, maybe if we got large enough to where getting 'spotted would no longer be an advantage, or some such. We've already got the twolumps.net domain that redirects to the comic site, so there's really no benefit I can think of in going solo right at the moment.

JAMES: I, on the other hand, will give free blowjobs to get us on Keenspot.

Your partnership is obviously growing (as Timmy Kat shows us). What other joint projects are the two of you pursuing?

MEL: Well, we're definitely planning on doing some more TK-type one- shots. I'm actually planning on trying my hand at an "alternative children's book" that's actually for kids (like Jill Thompson's "Scary Godmother"), with James doing the illustrations. And there's always a chance I can twist his arm into starting up "Bad Dog City" parody again, given the success of the recent movie.

JAMES: I'd really like to do more TK style work with Mel. She's able to write some really awesome stuff, and I think we make a perfect team. Kinda like Stan and Jan Berenstein. Most people only know them for the famous Bears, but I found some books when I was a kid of their OLD stuff - racy, messed up humor.

Obviously, James has also written his first novel (Pedestrian Wolves, which I greatly enjoyed.) Do the two of you plan on writing straight fiction together as well? Or individually, for that matter?

MEL: We both write straight fiction and have done so since before we met. I think it's one of the main reasons we actually got together to begin with; since we both write horror and twisted humor, that fact that we each come up with ideas that makes the other one go "AAGH!" is pretty impressive. But I'm really not sure if we'll ever actively collaborate on anything non-graphical, because we tend to be on opposite ends of the spectrum. James is great at novels, I'm better at short stories. He's excellent at rich, visceral descriptions, I tend to lean towards themes that are more mentally and/or emotionally shaking. We both edit each other's fiction, but our writing voices are decidedly different enough that we've never tried working together on anything purely text. I'd actually be interested in trying when things calm down a bit, we'd either end up with something great or a story that sounds like it was written by Sybil on crystal meth. Which might not be a bad thing in itself...

JAMES: I'm not sure if we could collaborate on fiction, but I'd be interested and willing to try. Although we both have written horror, it's not really what I want to focus on. Mel is much better at scaring the living crap out of the reader. If we were to ever collaborate, it would probably end with her tossing me in a lake with cement shoes after one too many edits.

What's your take on the general growth of webcomics? Give us the Grant/Hynes take on the state of the webcomics world.

MEL: In my view, they've gone from a few syndicated comic strips also available online, to a large horde of online comics only known to self-professed geeks (I include myself in this), and finally on to what's rapidly becoming a decently-known and respected medium. I know I still get a lot of blank looks and comments like "they have comic strips on the COMPUTER?" when I try to explain Two Lumps to coworkers or the like, but it's a lot less often than it used to be. I think the slow move in that direction will eventually make webcomics more of a means of possible support for their creators.

JAMES: In my humble opinion, webcomics are still a medium that haven't hit the perfect stride yet. You have a handful that have made it financially (such as Sluggy, PVP, Penny Arcade and Something Positive), a few hundred who've sort of made it, and thousands that never have, and most of those never will. The problem is that webcomics are a popular hobby for any artist who has a net connection and a little free time. They throw a site up, get a little readership, and then discover that doing this is far from easy. They expect to make scads of dough off Paypal donations, to gain a huge readership, etc. and the reality is that for most, you'll make some beer money and plateau out at a hundred readers a day. A lot of people quit because the payoff on a webcomic isn't what they expected at all.

Is there a model that you prefer, at least conceptually, for making a living from comics?

MEL: I can't really say I know of a workable model that I prefer. I feel like asking people to donate regularly or subscribe isn't as fair to the readers as selling merchandise, because with merchandise they're getting something extra for their money. Then again, there're only so many shirts, toys, sketches etc. a person can really use, so it also doesn't feel fair to ask people to support you that way. I really liked Randy Milholland's funding... thing. I wouldn't feel right calling it a drive, since that implies actively requesting, and his was more simple and straightforward: when there are enough people reading, even a tiny donation adds up, and I think most people don't realize that. If we got fifty cents from every regular reader once a month, we'd both be able to quit our jobs, or darned close. Not that I'm desperately looking to quit my job or anything, but I don't think readers actually realize how much they can help with very little. They tend to be under the impression that unless they save up and buy a piece of merchandise twice a year, or win the lottery and send a hundred bucks at a time, that it won't make a difference, when exactly the opposite is true.

And on that note, I'd like to thank the people who randomly donate to us, even a dollar. It's helped us fund getting plush toys created, which will be available in late summer (and available for pre-order at A-Kon). It's helped us go to a Con to begin with. It's helped us keep our sanity. You guys rock all our socks. And trust me, James has more socks than is truly imaginable.

JAMES: Lay off my socks, woman. THEY ARE MIGHTY.

I've always enjoyed the model where fans send you a buck once a month. A buck. One dollar. If they would do that right now, neither of us would have to work full time.

The problem is that most people read webcomics BECAUSE they're free. Banner ads don't make nearly enough money to support a comic stripper until they reach, say, the one hundred thousand readers daily mark. Merchandise is about all you can count on, and even that is best-guess most of the time.

The only model I've had is that in order to succeed financially in comics, you have to do it for free for a bit. It sounded absurd for a while, but if you look at the big guys: PVP, Penny Arcade, Sluggy... they all started out as guys just doing it for the love of comics. Then they came up with ways to use their massive readership for financial support. As always, if you're in it for the cash, don't bother. Do it for the love of art, and go from there.

As collaborators, you share an investment in the work you produce. How do you resolve questions of ownership of the material? Have you worked out a plan for the material should you part ways creatively?

MEL: I consider the art to be solely James's, because I currently can't draw well enough to pull off a comic (although I am learning). I think the fact that we've been in a relationship for two and a half years (give or take) and are currently planning a wedding has made us actively NOT think about the possibility of parting ways in any sense. We love each other, and love our parts in doing the comic, so I think they're pretty integral to one another. I think if we ever decided to stop doing it, it would be a wholly mutual decision. If we ever stopped being partners in an overall sense... I try not to speak for anyone else on general principle, but I don't think I'd really have the heart to continue doing TL on my own. I can only really see us making a plan for that contingency when we're in our seventies and actually in danger of one of us keeling over from a lifetime of heavy living.

JAMES: I'm not sure there have ever been any conflicts of ownership, to date. Come to think of it, that's goddamned weird. I just draw what Mel sends me. The one exception would be the time she wanted me to do a couple panels that were HEAVILY art intensive while I had a nasty head cold - it was the one time I told her to send me something else, please, for the love of God.

As for parting ways creatively... heck, if Mel ever wants to stop doing it, I'll think long and hard before stopping it. If it comes down to a Megatokyo style split, tho, we'll have bigger problems to worry about than a strip about cats.

In ways, Two Lumps is the anti-Garfield (as you made most clear in the second strip). Was that intentional? And do you think there's a place for Garfield, artistically, in the modern cartoon scene?

MEL: It is intentional and it isn't. I grew up on Garfield, and I loved it because it was one of the first comics I ever experienced that wasn't afraid to be sarcastic. Unfortunately, as Davis has publicly admitted, Garfield was designed to be profitable, not funny. While it pulled off both for a good long while, I felt that they eventually ran out of jokes that fell into the "snarky yet family-friendly" category and never moved on. Hates Mondays, loves lasagna, Jon's love interest with the vet, yadda yadda. I can't fault them for sticking with their major plan, I just wished it wasn't so, Joe. We didn't start Two Lumps with any idea of it being profitable or mass-market appealing, we started it because we thought it was sharply funny. So in that regard I consider it to both be an homage to the Garfield that was, and the anti-comic of the strip that now is.

Do I think that there's a place for Garfield as it is now? Certainly. I also think there's a place for Chick tracts and Hummel figurines. There is always going to be a place for the safe and the recognized, because there are a lot of people who want that and only that. Then there's everyone else, and I think that's where we come in.

JAMES: I loved Garfield as a kid. When I was about 11 or 12, I realized that Jim Davis was doing nothing new creatively. Nothing. He's not the only offender in the sunday comics, not by a long shot. I suggest we have a bloody fucking revolution, take out the comics that were already old when we were kids and topple their thrones. Hang Garfield from a tree. Line up Marmaduke, Heathcliff, Dennis the Menace and every caveperson in B.C. - Stand them against the wall and just pop pop pop, blow their fucking cartoon brains all over the sunday funnies, one bullet to each overused and homogenized skull. Let the newsprint run red with the unfunny.

Anything else you'd like to add?

MEL: Everyone who reads us: you rock. You amaze me. James has got the years of experience and confidence that doing a successful comic inspires, but this is my first attempt at doing comedy for the public at large. Every time I see a link to the comic, or a TL icon, or someone cracking up on the feed, I just about split my face grinning. I got into this because I wanted to bring the funny, and you guys let us know that we do. Thank you.

JAMES: Come to A-Kon or be damned. We'll continue to love you for it and not howl outside your back door.

Eric Alfred Burns is a staff columnist for Comixpedia. He writes the monthly "Feeding Snarky," as well as occasionally doing other bits and sundries.

By day an information technologist and systems administrator, Eric becomes a writer and critic at night. He is the founder of Websnark.com, a blog devoted to whatever he or his cohort feels like writing at the time. Often, that's webcomics. He has also written for Steve Jackson Games, Decipher Games, and was a co-author of the ENnie nominated Sidewinder: Wild West Adventures for Citizen Games. He is listed as a "Contributing Author" for the Gold ENnie award winning Sidewinder: Recoiled, but one shouldn't read too much into that.

A particularly bad artist, Burns was 'noted' for his rather poor webcomic Unfettered by Talent, which justly died after 12 strips. He is now the writer for the much better -- and acclaimed -- Gossamer Commons, which is drawn by the vastly better Greg Holkan.