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The Friendliest Little Webcomic Around: Leah Fitzgerald Interviews Illiad

Illiad started User Friendly, a webcomic about a small Internet Service Provider and its friendly staff in November, 1997. User Friendly grew to be one of the first truly popular webcomics garnering a large audience and allowing its creator to quit his day job. In fact, Illiad took User Friendly Media, Inc., public on the CDNX in 1999. Today, User Friendly is still one of the most widely-read webcomics.

Comixpedia: How did you first get started in comics?
Iliad: I started doodling when I was 11 or 12. I began voraciously reading newspaper comic strips at the same age. I loved Garfield and Peanuts. I really began 'tooning regularly in high school, when I did a strip named Class Action that was photocopied by people and circulated by hand around school.

CP: Who (or what) has been the biggest influence on your art and writing?
I: Easily it's Garry Trudeau and Berke Breathed for my writing. The artwork really sprung out of constant doodling, and then paying attention to the way others did their work when it mattered. I'd name Don Martin for some influence there for sure.

CP: Why did you start User Friendly?
I: A lark, pure and simple. Cartooning can be a huge stress reliever for me. I'd done cartoons in just about every career I'd ever had, and working at an ISP just begged for some kind of snide commentary. :)

CP: Do you think the subject of your comic has limited it? What do you think about the mass of industry-related comics out there?
I: I don't think it's limited it at all -- the sector is incredibly target-rich for jokes and humor. And industry-related comics are a good thing. Each one is, after all, a journal of one particular person's perspective on the same subject.

CP: How do you like being online?
I: I love it. My start in the online world began with a 1200 baud modem and my own BBS. That was...what, several epochs ago?

CP: How do you measure success for an online comic?
I: Partly by the quantity and quality of its audience, and partly by how happy it makes you as the creator. If you love what you do and there are people out there who love what you do, it's all good!

CP: Do you consider your comic successful? Why?
I: I do, because I really enjoy doing it and I've found a lot of great friends in the audience. That's aside from the normal metrics of success. And it's still a struggle making a living solely as a webtoonist.

CP: How do you make your living?
I: These days it's mostly advertising and a little on the membership side. Advertising money is scarce, but UF has the good fortune of having a very specific and very well-defined (and valuable) market vertical. Advertisers like that.

CP: What do you think of the various support structures (Keenspot, Modern Tales, etc.) for comics? Have you ever considered joining up?
I: I think support structures are great, although the only one I've ever considered joining (and actually did join) was Fleen. Support structures are really good for (a) getting your work out there and (b) sharing notes with your peers. Thing is, you can do option (b) just by firing off an e-mail to another 'toonist you like. Support structures are still awfully valuable for strips that are in the pre-million page views per month audience-building stage. When you break about a million or so pages a month of traffic, you've obviously picked up enough momentum that your growth should take care of itself.

CP: How many readers does UF have?
I: It's a moving target. Market research and web metrics peg it upwards of 1.5 million, and a case could be made for 2 million. Part of the vagueness is due to a particular behavior amongst a significant percentage of the readership: one person sucks it down from the site and passes it around to others. There's also a whole heck of a lot of "content theft" going on, where people have written scripts that pull down the cartoon automagically to their desktop. It's not surprising, really, given that the majority of my readers are deep computer geeks. They can build it, so they do.

CP: What do you think is the best way to make money with an online comic?
I: If the market wasn't so tanked, I'd say advertising, and I mean the non-intrusive sort. Barring that, a blended revenue stream of memberships, donations and advertising.

CP: How do you feel about merchandising?
I: It's fine, but you absolutely positively have to keep a tight rein on it. There's a tendency for a lot of merchandisers to go gangbusters with your IP and slap your art on everything under the sun. One day they'll come out with Hello Kitty catheters, mark my words.

CP: Have you considered going with BitPass?
I: I have, but I'm not 100% sold on the whole micropayments idea yet. I don't mean I think it's a bad idea, I mean I think that the mental climate on the 'Net is still pretty resistant to anything that takes time to set up, especially if it means it'll cost a reader money. I know Scott McCloud is trying to push micropayments, and I wish him the best of luck on it. It'll be a tough fight, I have no doubt.

CP: How do you like dealing with a membership system?
I: It's a mixed blessing. It's heartening to see that there are people out there willing to pay for content, especially content that I've devoted my life to for the past six years, but again it's going to be some time before the majority hops on that bandwagon.

People are too accustomed to getting everything for "free." I put the word "free" in quotation marks because *nothing* on the 'Net is free -- at best, it's been subsidized. The downside to memberships is very minor: when someone pays for a membership, I feel I have an obligation to them for the duration of that membership. I know I do contractually, but I feel I do ethically as well. But given that I already feel thankful to have the kind of readership I do and therefore feel obligated to them, the extra isn't a big deal.

Final words: love your readers and pay attention to the ones who take the time to write you. The audience is really the only group that matters.


Leah Fitzgerald is the Executive Editor for Interviews.


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