It's Willis! A chat with the creator of It's Walky & Roomies by Yolanda Janiga
Four years ago, however, David M. Willis helped thin out school-based comic strips when he ended his three-year run of the popular, well-loved Roomies! – a Web comic about two best friends who discover that college life is nothing like what they imagined. But instead of starting from scratch and giving the Web comic-loving community fresh new characters in a totally different atmosphere, Willis started up a Roomies! sequel called It's Walky!
"It's Walky!," says Willis, is about "five twenty-somethings who discover that life is nothing like what they imagined – it's full of change, despair, death, tiny purple aliens, falling corpses, evil duplicates, giant omnipotent cheese-robots, interdimensional travelers and X-Treem Mugs."
So don't expect to find much college talk from Willis anymore. You may learn to prefer It's Walky! more than Roomies!, too, if you are to believe Wills' own words. "People seem to like It's Walky! more than Roomies! these days. I mean, I should hope so, because I hate to think I'm getting worse at this."
Sci-fi, angst and evil – Willis' reputation
Willis, born in 1979 in Indianapolis, Indiana, has been drawing since he could. "I was always the kid in elementary school who was 'too good for stick-figures.' When I was in fourth grade, I decided I wanted to be a science fiction writer. It wasn't until junior high that I really realized I could draw my stories in comic-strip style instead of prose. I was the kid who drew stories. In a small town, you don't even have to write very good ones to get known for that. Ah-heh.
"I'm a total melodramatic dork, so I'm always about going over the top, pulling out all the stops and going entirely too far. That's why I think science fiction entices me compared to normal school antics."
Willis, now a known professional cartoonist and freelance graphic artist in Columbus, Ohio, has accomplished his sci-fi feat – both Web comics are full of tiny purple aliens – and more. The main difference between the two comics is the clean change from "college-angst" to "sci-fi angst," and perhaps a few different characters.
He says he changed from one angst to the next because "working within the realm of 'real life' was always mundane" to him.
"If I had to choose between making a point with vanilla old school or using an evil clone, I'll go for the evil clone. I really am a ham. That, and aliens are great. They're short, they're stupid, they like television entirely too much, and they're expendable, meaning you can kill as many as you want and they'll still be around. [Plus,] angst is awesome!"
When angst is present, evil is just around the corner. Willis has been known to give his audience character death and cliffhangers through evil plots. As well, some consider him a master of the plot twist and a pioneer amongst evil cartoonists.
"I'm an evil sadist, I like people feeling terrible," he says. "And then happy. And then terrible again. And then sometimes happy and terrible at the same time. And, if I can make people cry over the supernatural adventures of a team of young adults hired by the government to fight aliens, that's even better."
Where Roomies! all started
Willis went to Indiana University for three semesters, and it was there that Roomies! actually originated. "When I was a freshman in college, the college newspaper had an advertisement soliciting for comic strip applications," says Willis. "Since it was a college newspaper, I thought the strip should be about college. So I submitted Roomies!. And, they liked me. They really, really liked me."
In high school, in La Porte, Indiana, Willis was the managing editor for his school's newspaper where he wrote a comic strip that involved Roomies! characters Danny, Joe and Sal. "Evolving them into college was an easy step to take. And, at the time, it was an empty space in the 'story' I had in my head. I knew what happened to Danny, Joe and Sal after college, but I hadn't dealt with the before, [that is, the college years.] And, being in college helped write them being in college, I'd imagine.
"My bike was stolen late freshman year. That made it into the strip. And, I poked fun at myself for being so upset about it. That always seems to be a central theme of the two comics [It's Walky! and Roomies!] – poking fun at myself through my characters.
"Most of them [characters] are based on me in some aspect. I was a very repressed child, so that's where Joyce came in. Joe was my anti-me. Walky is my id and my rejection of responsibility. Dina is my anti-social side. Mike is me … entirely too often. I'm also entirely too much like the Head Alien, but that's good in that it's what drives me to be so mean to all my characters."
After a year and a half at Indiana U., Willis moved to the Illinois Institute of Art (Schaumburg) for three years to get his bachelor in fine arts. And, somewhere in that time Roomies! evolved from a newspaper comic strip into a Web comic. For three years, from 1997 to the end of 1999, Roomies! became one of the most powerful dramas in comic form.
But, like all good dramas, they eventually come to an end. Fortunately for Roomies! fanatics, Willis wasn't ready to put an end to the story line completely.
The ongoing saga continues
"It's Walky! was always considered the 'destination' of Roomies! to me," says Willis, who didn't want to start a whole new comic after Roomies!. "It's much more satisfying to me when everything all fits together. I like when stories pile on top of each other to create a whole. The total should always be more than a sum of its parts."
From the start, Willis had it all planned: an ongoing saga with sequential parts, like human life, with adolescents, college life and adulthood. For all we know, he may continue it even further. But, Willis has had the "story" in mind from the get go.
"I knew there were aliens out there, I knew Sal would disappear and join the alien-fighting team of former abductees known as SEMME, and I knew Joyce would disappear eventually, too. Most of what I started in Roomies! was set up specifically to culminate in big dramatic resolutions years down the road."
As far as Willis knows, It's Walky! will continue until the summer of 2004. "It will probably end there," he says, unless, of course, he comes up with new ideas, which is possible since most of the time he's plotting out the strip in his mind.
"I'm lost in thought a lot, which has earned me a reputation of being a dumbass. Which I am, really, but I'm a dumbass that can write comics."
And, if writer's block comes around: "I take a shower. I always think of cool things while I'm in the shower and I can't draw anything. [But,] I usually have enough of a lead-time on strips that I can afford a few days here and there to be totally writer's-blocked."
But for now, Willis is sticking to next summer as It's Walky!'s end date – producing a comic a day, plus a special colored comic on Sundays.
Willis says: "I'm not a very consistently good gag writer, so I['ve] got to have a strong story to support me. I'd rather go out on a bang rather than a whimper."
We say: "When the end comes, take a shower."
Yolanda Yvonned Janiga is a staff contributor for Comixpedia. More Details.