The Code to Opening Up God Mode: An Interview with Ryan Kerns
God Mode is a relative newcomer to the field of gaming webcomics and one would think that a person would have to be crazy to start yet another one, but there is something inherently different about God Mode. I was lucky enough to catch up with the man behind the madness, Ryan Kerns, just days before he left for Japan (lucky sod!) to get his reflections on why God Mode, why now and what his nefarious ends are in this gambit for your reading time.
George Curtis: Ryan is there anything you would like Comixpedia's readers to know about you before we get into the interview?
Ryan Kerns: I would like to clear up one major misconception that I hear a lot. Most people believe that I'm the creator of God Mode, but it's actually the brain child of Chris Crosby, the CEO of Keenspot, that most people are familiar with. While I do pull double duty as the writer and artist, it was Chris who named the characters and came up with the plot. As for myself, although I live in Hawaii, I'm in no way Hawaiian or Polynesian. I grew up in Virginia and moved to Hawaii after I finished high school. I grew up with video games around me, so it's just become a part of who I am.
Artistically my early influences were comic strips like Garfield and some of the Marvel comics artists like Jim Lee. At the same time I was also very influenced by the styles of some of my favorite games... I absolutely loved the Ninja Gaiden art style in the cut scenes and I was a sucker for the artwork in the Zelda and Dragon Warrior manuals. Back then anime really hadn't made much of an influence in America yet, it wasn't really until video stores were carrying stuff like Dominion Tank Police and Vampire Hunter D that I decided to take my own style into that direction.
Over the last 9 years I've had an online presence, whether at the Fanart HQ with other artists like Josh Lesnick, or entering art contests here and there. I had my own website going for a couple years called Shoshinsha Studios which had an irregular webcomic about a catgirl named Tabby, it was mostly just a reflection of my life at the time... come to think of it... Tory from God Mode looks a lot like Tabby.
G.C.: As you're no doubt aware, there are a number of "game related" comics out there, and I'm sure you're familiar with all the heavy hitters; C-A-D, Penny Arcade, PvP and Little Gamers... Even the "sprite" comics are considered by some to be "gaming comics". So what led you to the conclusion that the time was right for God Mode?
Ryan Kerns: It really started about a year ago. I was on my summer break from college and I was looking to take on a project over the summer. I had often found work posted at digital webbing, mostly writers looking for an artist to flesh out their scripts in order to submit a proposal to a publisher. There was one particular ad looking for an artist and vaguely mentioning that it was a great opportunity for creative people. I responded to the ad and shortly after that Chris contacted me. I really didn't know much about Keenspot and I had no idea at the time the comic was going to be gaming related. By some incredible stroke of luck, Chris hired me as the artist... maybe it was because I really kept bugging him about it. I think that Chris originally wanted to write the comic, but was just too busy. The writer he did find had an ok script... but it just wasn't quite right. That's when it sort of clicked with me... that hey I've been a gamer my whole life, maybe I should just write and draw the comic. I did some new samples for Chris, he loved them... and that's when production began.
So really the timing and place on Keenspot was all because of Chris. I was aware of the other gaming comics out there, but I felt God Mode had enough unique elements to have it's own voice in the crowd. There's the office aspect, the gaming website aspect, and my own personal oddball taste in games. The comics I was reading really only were touching on the mainstream hit games of that month... but really nobody was talking about the quirky Japanese games or 2d fighters which I personally love. Of course those games have a very niche following and how many of those people would actually be reading my comic. I think over the last 100 comics it's really been about finding that balance between the casual gamers, the hardcore Japanophile freaks, and people who like violent and sadistic comics... the kind of stuff I would want to read.
G.C.: What has been the reaction of readers to God Mode and what is the traffic like?
Ryan Kerns: Well obviously being on Keenspot has been a huge advantage. We already have so many readers on the network and if they like another gaming related comic like Sore Thumbs, they might come over and start reading my comics as well. There's also the magic Keenspot newsbox... whenever I get a God Mode newsbox that's displayed over the whole network we get a gigantic spike in readers. I think on the last newsbox we had over 27,000 readers that day. The average readership has been steadily growing every month, we're getting about 5-6,000 readers a day right now.
Reader reaction has been entirely mixed though. There's people who love the comic, there's people who absolutely hate it, and there are some who think it's middle of the road but nothing too great. The people who do like it seem to be gamers from my generation... in their mid 20's. Teenagers seem to like it for the women and the fact I had a comic with Cheetara from the Thundercats topless. Pre-teens seem to be the ones who don't like it much... probably because Moru, the youngest character that perhaps kids could connect with... really seems to be the most grown up character... I dunno maybe kids like Kraig... nobody likes Broderick though. I've gotten a lot of flack about Broderick being a rip off of Mort Goldman from Family Guy. So overall the response has been nice, I get email from actual gaming sites that enjoy the comic and say they can relate to it.
G.C.: You're a student, and students are notorious in the webcomic world for having a limited amount of time for webcomic projects. It can be really difficult. So, how do you cope between God Mode and course load?
Ryan Kerns: If there's been one goal I've set for the comic, it's that it always be in color. I guess 8 years of photoshop experience goes a long way... I could really color the comic in my sleep. It is pretty rough though when you're an art major... because I'll be in these studios drawing for hours or spending hours working on an animation project and then I have to do a comic for the next day. I have found one key secret though... forget Jamba Juice and their "boosts" and forget coffee... just eat the coffee beans! I just pop some chocolate covered espresso beans and I'm like Popeye... although you have to watch out for the shakes, sometimes beer helps steady the hands.
I wasn't sure how I would handle the writing, since really I'm used to only working as an artist, but I think it's my genuine love for video games that helps me come up with ideas. That and there's just something always interesting or funny going on in the gaming industry, especially now on the brink of next gen gaming. After a month or so I found a shortcut to doing backgrounds as well, I've been using mostly vectorized photography rather than drawing backgrounds from scratch.
G.C.: What are the "nuts and bolts" of God Mode. You are the only creative force behind God Mode, so how do you prepare each installment and what hardware/software do you utilize?
Ryan Kerns: I've been extremely fortunate that Chris gives me complete creative freedom when it comes to the comic. I keep a notepad full of ideas lying around... but at the same time I like to do comics about current news in the gaming industry. With the craziness of Metal Gear Solid 4 and anything Nintendo is doing, you don't have to dig very deep to find something to joke about. I never write scripts though, I just have a concept for a joke and I fill in the dialogue after the comic is completely colored.
Even though I color with a Wacom tablet, I'm still most comfortable drawing traditionally on paper. I stick to the same 4 panel layout to save time, so I always keep a stack of templates printed out. I start by sketching in the comic in non-photo blue pencil, then going back over the lines with a softer dark pencil. Rather than inking, I use Adobe Illustrator to vectorize the linework to give it a smoother look, import it into Photoshop, and then color. Word balloons and lettering are then done in Photoshop as well. There are exceptions to this sometimes... like when I make a spoof of a game's visual style. I've done comics to mimic the styles of Animal Crossing and Ookami, those were done entirely in photoshop utilizing different brushes and tools. Every once in a while I like to break the 4 panel style as well if I have the time... it's usually for the reoccurring character of Marceline's father and these crazy fights they have. Now that I'm free over the summer I'd like to add in more variety in style spoofs and panelling.
G.C.: Is any of your personal life reflected in God Mode? Do you identify with any particular cast member?
Ryan Kerns: When I "auditioned" to be the artist for God Mode, Chris already had character descriptions and names. Barrett and Kraig were pretty much focused as the main characters and they're very true to how Chris originally wrote them.
Some of the characters I have changed quite a bit though. Marceline is loosely based around my mother. My mother was the type of woman who would just jump into our room as kids and yell "I know what you've been hiding!" and then watch to see what our reaction was. Needless to say I became a little paranoid as a kid... but I can look back at it and laugh now. The original script really had Marceline as more of a depressed person... and she just sort of evolved into this tough boss from hell that always has a cigarette in her mouth... and her "I don't take crap from anyone" attitude is definitely borrowed from my mother.
There's also a lot of myself in Moru, I know a lot of very strange facts about video games... I could probably name you most of the artists on both the Capcom and SNK design teams. Just like Moru I'm still very much a sucker for 2d fighters... even third rate games like the Rumblefish and Spectral vs Generation. Other things like Alec's obsession with cute things just came out of my own twisted imagination.... although the killer coffee machine is partially based on reality. For a couple months I did have this cheap ass crazy coffee machine that would spew scalding water and I swear was trying to kill me.
G.C.: Have any other interesting opportunities or situations arisen due to you creating God Mode and putting it out there? Do people identify you personally when they see you with God Mode?
Ryan Kerns: I do get a offers from gaming sites that wish to host or mirror God Mode, but those decisions are really up to Chris. I'm also surprised how many people I've reconnected with since the comic has been running. I've had old friends I went to high school with read the comic and contact me, I've had old visitors to Shoshinsha Studios recognize my art and contact me. For a couple years I was a writer, reviewer, moderator, etc. on a gaming site called Phuck-IGN. With a name like that... yeah we were pretty outspoken. I'm surprised that even though I went by the name of Fuchikoma on that site, many people have recognized me as the author of God Mode.
I think our April Fools joke really caused quite a stir as well. Back when I was on pign I had proposed the SF4 joke and shown off the Mel Masters and Ryu sprites I had done. Some people even accused me of ripping off those sprites because they were not aware I was the same person. I'm actually surprised how many people took that April Fools joke seriously... I wasn't trying to make it look very legitimate, I mean if you read the first line to the left it talks about how Master Chief is going to cook his dead enemies in Halo 3 and become a Master Chef.
I was also very surprised to be included as part of Keenspot's Free Comic Book Day 2006 project. I wasn't a part of the Keenspot book though... I actually landed up being the flip side of the Comic Genesis: Generations 2006 book. I had my own cover and 32 pages from God Mode included in the book. I also did an original strip for the book where Moru creates his own comic about a pirate-ninja and gets it hosted on Comic Genesis. It was an awesome experience for me to walk into a comic shop and to see my own book on the shelf... even if it was the back cover flip side (I snuck and flipped around the books on one rack so people would see my cover). Even though I have worldwide readership with the online comic, there's just something special about knowing it was on store shelves in comic shops across the nation.
As for an actual God Mode collection and merchandise, nothing is planned at the moment. After strip 100 runs though we will be running some guest comics by some known and some completely unknown artists.
G.C.: How long do you see yourself doing God Mode for? Do you have any plans for any other side projects?
Ryan Kerns: Even though God Mode does have a bit of a back story to the characters, it's generally a gag-a-day comic... so really it could go on forever. I'll keep doing the comic as long as Chris Crosby wants me to. I'm lucky to say I actually enjoy my job. I have an absolute blast doing these comics and really there's so much more room for improvement. I want to continue to push myself as both an artist and a writer until God Mode is up to the quality I feel it should be.
As for side projects, I am an animation student and I'm in the process of learning 3d modeling. Most likely there will be 3d models of the God Mode characters coming up down the line, how that will relate to the actual comic remains to be seen. I've also been offered the character designer position for a game, although I can't divulge the company, platform, or genre. All I can say is that they're currently working on another game right now, so the game I'll be working on is still quite a way down the road.
G,C.: Looking at the webcomic community, what do you see in the future of webcomics from your perspective? Do you have any tips for those possibly looking to create their own comics?
Ryan Kerns: There's really 2 types of webcomics... the ones that benefit the artist as a chance to get their work out and to practice and grow... and the other types that are genuinely funny and really are becoming a part of the fabric of pop culture. I think it's fantastic that you have networks like Keenspot and Comic Genesis to host the comics.
Although I do see where flash animations have a pretty distinct advantage. The average A.D.D. kid these days would much rather watch a flash 'toon than have to read a bunch of dialogue. Still it's an art form that will never die, but in terms of the webcomic community right now it's completely oversaturated. I don't fault anyone for putting bad comics out there... it's vital to your growth as an artist... but it also just makes it that much harder to find an audience when there's so much to choose from.
I think the comics that are the most successful are the ones that have a genuine voice. It's easy to just mimic what others are doing... but when you find something that comes truly from you, that's when things become interesting. Learning to color is also a very big advantage... color is definitely something that's more eye catching than something sketched out in pencil. Although at the same time I've seen beautiful black and white work that would not work in color at all... it's all a matter of finding your voice. Even after 100 God Mode strips I'm just scratching the surface... as the archive grows, so do the characters, and really I'm growing as an artist as well. I can't wait to see what things will look like when I'm breaking strip number 200.