An Interview with Bruno's Chris Baldwin
Christopher Baldwin has been drawing Bruno since 1996, and Bruno has been one of the most consistently-updated comics online. Baldwin, who just announced he'll be moving to Washington State and likely taking Bruno with him, was working until recently for a data entry company. He's decided to take the opportunity to regroup and work on a new project that he'd like to see syndicated.
Comixpedia: How did you start out in comics?
Christopher Baldwin: You mean as a child or Bruno? I've always enjoyed drawing, even as a tiny tiny kid. There are drawings in boxes in my mom's attic from way way back when.
My parents worked for a tofu factory back in the late seventies, and in the company newsletter I began doing comic strips about the evils of tofu, because I loathed the stuff so much (and my parents could bring home as much as they'd like for free). The company got bought out and the new larger corporate policy was to not put down its products to its own employees, even in jest. And so I mostly just doodled until 6th grade.
In 6th grade, Mike Burke introduced me to Groo, The Wanderer by Sergio Aragonés. And that was my second big influence (early Garfield being my first, but hey, I was young, and it wasn't that bad a strip in the beginning).
CP: How did you start on the Internet?
CB: Comicking through the years, and I began drawing Bruno in college because a friend nudged me until I did (he did one, too, but only did about 3 strips). After college, I got picked up by a small starting syndicate that didn't really know what they were doing, and so I dropped them. Then my friend Tupshin had a web site, back in 1995 when nobody had one, and he wanted content. I figured "what the hell", and so for the first year and a half I would draw the strip and then photocopy it and mail it to California where he maintained the site, and he'd scan it in and post it.
CP: When did you get your own site?
CB: Hm. Well, after a year and a half, Tupshin disappeared for a couple of months, which was rather distressing, and since I actually had a job at that point, I got paid for my own web site and hosting. So that was summer/autumn of 1997. I hosted it and maintained it for a while. Tupshin began hosting it (although I continued to maintain it) briefly again in late 1998 to early 1999, at which point we decided it best not to work together (careful mixing work with friends), and so I received the gracious offer of being hosted by biz-fu, again with me maintaining it, [which I have] ever since. And I am extremely grateful to Corey and Danielle for making that happen.
CP: How do you find promoting yourself online?
CB: I'm not sure what you mean. I don't really promote myself. I mean, I've done a couple fill-in strips for Scary-Go-Round and PVP, and the occasional interview, which all bring in traffic, but I don't really do any promotion. On my own site, I try very hard to not miss any days of the strip, and on the rare instances I do, I try to make it up. I think that's important for keeping an audience, although my audience has often written me telling me to chill out, that it's okay.
I try to encourage buying the books of the strip, to support it and the time I put into it, although I try really hard not to make it a big deal. I mean, I'm currently working less hours in order to do art all the time, and so I'm a bit reliant on this income now, merely to pay rent and food, but at the same time, I don't want to put this burden on my readers. I'm happy if they simply enjoy it and if it moves them. And then, I try to do an okay job maintaining the rest of the site. People often want to see more of what I do, so I put up other comics I've done and such.
CP: So here's a big question – why do you put Bruno online?
CB: I could just put it on my wall, but nobody would see it except dinner guests.
CP: But what do you get out of putting it online?
CB: In creating Bruno I'm trying to create something beautiful. I am very moved by some works of art, and I find them few and far between with today's media corporate-driven art culture. I don't have a television and find few things I enjoy in television, comics, etc. Foreign films do pretty well for me. Iceland, France, Spain, Russia. Some books, too.
So I try to create something beautiful, something I would want to see. If it's not good enough for me, then it's not worth doing. Not that I'm the end-all-be-all, but to create something more watered down or easily consumed seems so pointless, there's already so much of that out there.
The web allows me to do this and have a potential audience of millions virtually free, which means that I have a fair number of readers. And I value the feedback I've recieved, people telling me that they hope their daughters grow up like Bruno, or that it helped them get out of a major depression, or that it's the one thing that gets them going in the morning, or that it made them cry. And I also value it for what it brings me. It helps me process my thoughts, and also to be moved by it. I often look at my own strip and am amazed, I can't figure out how I managed to create something like that. And so I want to share it with others who may feel the same way.
Also – it does generate some money, with book sales and donations, plus people volunteering to write cgi for me or hosting it for me. It allows me more time to explore the medium, to work with printers, to feel like I may have a chance to be finanically independent through art and comics. And I would like that.
And so yes, that's basically it. :)
CP: Do you think you could be financially independent based on Bruno and your other comics?
CB: Well, Bruno I believe will always be just be a subsidy for the rest of my income, I don't think it's that marketable (unless I get another movie option contract, one that actually got made into a movie this time). It's like Jazz – I get great reviews, but that doesn't sell records. But I think it will help me promote other comics I do. I am currently working on a second daily strip I plan to try and self-syndicate, with plans to send out info packages to newspapers this summer.
Um, so "yes". But not likely solely through Bruno.
CP: Do you think there's money to be in this kooky webcomics thing?
CB: Depends to what extent you mean. If you're really damn good, like Scott Kurtz or Pete Abrams, you can make a living off it. Peter Zale even got syndicated because of it. I had a movie deal which could have become really big (although I find it depressing that comics more and more seem to be gearing themselves to be made into movies, to hope for the moolah crossover. But if you're just doing a strip, going to try to experiment, or deal with more obscure topics or normal looking women rather than just babes, I don't think there's all that much).
I think there is a limit to how many can make all that much money off of it. There's gonna be a central circle of the ones that do well, and many do well due to crossovers, like PVP into comic books, or Helen into syndication. People just have limited funds and time.
But as well, like, every year my income has increased slightly, even with the down-turned economy. I do very much believe in the solidity of an audience for a good strip, or a good piece of any art.
That said, one of the reasons I think it's feasible that I try and self-syndicate my new strip, is because I can do it through the web. And therefore, again, crossovers where money can be made.
Oh, and merchandising, should I rant about how I don't care for it? I do it a little, but mostly because of the demand. I really like comics for comics sake. Maybe sell books or prints, but otherwise, it seems to detract. I still do it a little, and I don't think it's evil, I just try to do it for the audience, and not for me.
CP: I saw you're dumping Cafe Press. What do you think about the situation there?
CB: I've always thought they were way overpriced, and then I stopped using all their T-shirts because they use Hanes T-shirts which have a sketchy international labor policy. I mean, I'm poor and have to buy Hanes or other T-shirts because it's what I can afford. But I don't want to make money off of underage slave labor from other countries.
Oh, but their cute girlie-Ts are by a good company. :)
But yeah, I don't want them using my work to promote their business without compensation. I just don't go for that. And I think the extra 5% is a bit greedy, on top of the store fee and the high prices. Plus they said they'd be raising the poster prices, and yet didn't indicate anywhere by how much, and so it just seemed like it was time to leave permanently. They made that choice and I'm sure they are willing to accept the consequences. It was a business choice and I wish them luck.
On labor practices, the reason I haven't reprinted the mugs (aside from lack of capital and not [feeling] too [highly about] merchandising) is that, although I bought them from a company in New Jersey, they came in the mail and I found [they] were made in china. You gotta wonder, especially when the printing company says they have no clue about the labor practices.
Decent morals, maybe, but a lousy businessman I am.
CP: So have you looked at other kinds of merchandising - like selling art and that kind of stuff?
CB: Well, I sold originals for a while last year, until I saturated my market after a couple months (still a good number available off the Bruno site). I hope that someday I'll get some Mac nerd to help me convince my g3 to accept a system higher than OS8.1, so that the USB ports that Eric gave me will function, and thus I can buy a printer and sell Bruno prints at a reasonable price.
But yeah. I might do mugs again some day because it's a nice, subtle thing, and strongly tied to the strip. I've also looked into T-shirt places that use T-shirts with better practices, but currently, I don't have the capital for it. Didn't have enough to pay my taxes this year, I just got laid off today, and the marketing for this new strip is going to run my 1 to 2k.
CP: How about commissions? Do you like taking those on?
CB: Occasionally. A couple a year, maybe. I've drawn two projects for Mike Peterson, who approached me because of Bruno, the Perseus and Nellie Bly for newspapers. It's paid a good percentage of sales, and has been a very good thing this last year. Also, Mark Bernstein of Eastgate tried to get me on board of a new magazine, writing about comics. Eventually after months of us working together, refining and refining and him not being happy and me hating it by that point, I relaized I was into writing comics, not writing a column about them. But yeah, so I get a few things here and there.
Plus, in promoting a comic, you want to create goodwill, but in my taste and opinions, I can be a sweeping lash of pain. But that's part of why, I think, my comics are what they are. I think the strong opinions you have in art, as long as you don't let it keep you from trying new things, can really allow you to focus, to create something unique and lovely.
Now, if they'd go for "shep types" which was more a creative endeavor than 'commentarial'. Although, now you have me thinking about 'how it should work' with comics. It can be fairly simple. Humor being substitution, basic foils of characters, etc. but yeah, I know what you mean – interviewing probably seems simple and fun to you, and yet it's this enormous confusing beast to me.
CP: So, is Bruno your magnum opus?
CB: A big-nosed flightless waterfowl? Um. No. It may very well be the largest project I ever undertake, true. But it's just a project. I love it because I've come to love her character (and the other [characters]) so much. And it's amazing practice to have to write and draw every single day – keeps me in form.
But on the other hand, it's not just something to pass the time while I work on my opus. Maybe I just don't have an opus. I just like making things. And then I'll die and it'll all slip into obscurity. It's okay, I just like doing it.
CP: Is the project your working on next closer to being your magnum opus?
CB: Hm. Again, I just don't think I have an opus. I mean, if it's judged on its popularity and impact on the world, my next one very well may be it. If it's based on time and energy, maybe it's Bruno. Hm. Bruno may be it in that it may likely be the greatest achievement in the sense of creating something new. The other comic, Little Dee, carries a lot more over by tradition. But I don't know, I'm working on a graphic novel which may be huge, and may end up being it.
Well, let's put it this way, hm.... Bruno is and will be a huge and very impressive work, and only gets deeper and larger and more complex with age, and I feel it is a significant and good work. I am very happy with it.
CP: what do you think attracts people to Bruno? you said you feel it isn't marketable for syndication...
CB: Well, a lot of things, I suppose. A lot of people tell me they don't like comics but do like Bruno (I always point out that it is a comic, it's just harder to find comics that pull from a more literary or cinematic or what-have-you tradition). So I get the literary folk, and I do have a lot of characters who suffer depression, ennui, who question life, media, government. Philosophical folk, who also like to read a lot of text. I think a lot of people can identify with these issues, and are relieved not only to see them in the media where they are so often ignored, but also dealt with in a mature and not too heavy after-school-special sort of way.
And also a lot of people simply like it because the art is very intricate and skillfully (hopefully beautifully) done, and the characters make them believe and feel. People care about Bruno.
CP: Where did you grow up?
CB: I grew up in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Grew up in western Massachusetts until I was 27 when I headed west to Portland. Went to UMass for 2 years before leaving.
CP: What drew you to Portland?
CB: I was going to move to Berkeley, had a free place to live and everything, but for various reasons that didn't happen. So I wanted to move to a city, where I could do temp work, and I wanted it far from home, and I had a couple acquaintances in Portland, and had never been here, so I figured, what the hell. So yeah, no real good reason at all. But I'm ready to leave. I walk around thinking "christ, I've drawn this town".
CP: Where would you like to go?
CB: Well, my girlfirend is moving to Olympia, Washington, so that is high on the list, depending on how our relationship is going. But I don't know. Can't afford Europe or other countries yet. Maybe between DC and NYC, where most of my friends are (they're in one place or the other, not in between), or Atlanta sounds nice, although I've never been. Thinking of trying sunny places, San Diego or Tuscon. Both beautiful cities. I've thought about the coast, I've fallen in love a bit with the ocean. Or maybe a more rural place – the city has me a bit tired, although I am a bit dependent on the income of it.
Leah Fitzgerald is the Executive Editor for Interviews.