Zap! is a science fiction webcomic hosted on Keenspot. Written by Chris Layfield and drawn by Pascalle Lepas since 2003, the webcomic has continued to improve, particularly on the visual side. (Don't despair the lengthy archives, there is a great overview of the storylines for new readers who want to quickly get up to speed).
I got a chance to interview Chris and Pascalle by email this month.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Chris: My name is Chris and I write Zap! and Everybody Loves Robot. Born in Jersey, livin' in Oklahoma. Married with 2 kids.
Pascalle: I'm 24 years old. I draw Zap! and maintain the site among other real life things.
What's a typical day for you like recently?
Chris: Well, I work the graveyard shift, then come home and help with the baby. Then I try to unwind for a bit and maybe work on some webcomic stuff.
Pascalle: A typical weekday is generally me waking up, going to work building the Internet, coming home and then working on the site or comics, unless I go to hang out with friends or House is on the teevee.
Where are you located these days?
Pascalle: We're both in the Tulsa area. I just bought a house outside of Tulsa, and its big enough that I have my own office space. For the past few years I've been making comics from a small bedroom crammed with my computer desk. So I'm very excited to have an official bit of studio space. Here's hoping it helps me work faster.
Do you have another job besides working on comics?
Chris: Yep, Security Guard at a local hospital.
Pascalle: My work business cards say I'm a "Design Technologist," but that's just something fancy for 'a person who makes websites.' The other web-types at the office call it 'building the Internets.'
Do you read other comics? What are you reading online or in print?
Chris: Not as many as I'd like to. I used to read a lot more but lately I've had to cut back due to time constraints, and pretty much all of them are online. A few of my favorites: Starslip Crisis, Indavo, Penny Arcade, and No Need for Bushido.
Pascalle: Yeah, I love comics! Right now, like as of five minutes ago, in print, I'm reading Watchmen, since Amazon had it on sale and I didn't have my own copy. Then, there's manga, Bleach being my favorite right now just because I'm enamored of the stylish artwork and I love action comics. I'm also about nine volumes into Ruroni Kenshin, at Alex Kolesar of noneedforbushido.com's behest. And it's another great action manga. Online, of course there's the obvious, and I can't list them all because that would be boring, but my favorites are No Need for Bushido, Starslip Crisis and lately Sinfest has gone political and it's been very sharp. But I read and look at a lot of webcomics. Tons of good stuff online.
Did you read comics as a kid? Which ones? What are your influences from comics today?
Chris: I sure did. Spiderman mostly, but I've read others like Batman, Xmen, one shot specials like Fight-man, Scud, and tons more. Today my influences are mostly online and way too many to list.
Pascalle: One of the first comics I can remember reading as a kid was Bucky O'hare, which is of course a space story, um, about a green alien rabbit with a ray gun. My brother and I were very into Nintendo, and I read a lot of Nintendo comics in my younger days. I didn't ever really read girls comics, and I still don't.
Lately I've been drawing from Bleach a lot, because it has some really great panel composition. It's a total page turner, so I spent several months dissecting what it is about the panel placement that makes you fly through the pages like that. See what a comic nerd I am? Oh well. I got way into Elfquest when I was a bit younger too.
When you create Zap!, how do you appproach it? Do you start with the words and then think about the scene that should go with it or do you start with more of purely visual approach or none of the above?
Pascalle: Basically our process is that Chris writes out a loose script that I set to a scene. We wrote the story together, so everything follows a timeline of events we agreed upon. There's a lot of editing on my part, mostly because the original script was written years ago and needs a little work to make sure all the pieces fit together properly and remain consistent with any little story edits we've made along the way.
How much of the story have you plotted out — I see you're on your fifth volume in the archives. There must have been lots of changes as you made the actual comics and got to know your characters better.
Pascalle: We've plotted out the entire story already. As we go, little here and there details get tweaked, but the overall large plot points are already written and I'm just plugging away at drawing the pages. A lot of the character growth has been organic. A good example is the upcoming pirate story line where Reona learns to rely on her own strengths instead of the strengths of the people around her. She finally comes in to her own, which is good because she's sort of an emotional wimp right now.
Chris: Yeah the characters almost write for themselves at some points. Since the plot is already pretty much written, the biggest challenge is if one of us gets a great idea that we want to work in or think of some fluff we want to take out and make sure it all still fits together in the grand scheme of things.
More specifically, how does the collaborative process work for the two of you? Do you physically meet up or do you have a lot of contact at all?
Pascalle: When plotting everything out we met a lot, and chatted late on Instant Messengers, but now we don't have to talk much about it. Chris gives me a lot of liberties with how I put things together. Mostly his scripts contain a basic scene like 'at the casino' and then dialogue. But I have a lot of freedom to move lines around, edit them, or omit them completely if it will work with what I want to draw better, or if I can tighten a joke by shifting things around. Chris and I have a common idea for the feel of the story, so whatever little things I end up changing are generally things that he would have told me to include if he had thought of it.
How did the two of you meet and decide to do a comic together?
Pascalle: We met in high school. We had algebra II together. I think I was either a sophomore and Chris was a senior, or maybe I was a freshmen and he was a Junior. It was some spread like that. I was a mega band nerd and Chris was friends with the band kids in his grade, so we had mutual friends through band. A couple years later he got me into webcomics by recommending Ian J's RPGWorld to me. Shortly after that I started making my own comics for fun and that's when he approached me about doing Zap!.
Chris: Also, at the time I was creating my own webcomic called EvolBara and asked Calle to do a few guest comics that turned out great! Then she was going to make some chibi version side story for that comic, I think we called it E.B. Chibi or something, and I decided we should just work on a whole new IP.
Pascalle: Oh, I forgot about E.B. Chibi. I was thinking of that generic elf comic I was doing, which it's actually a really good thing we started Zap! cause the Internet already has plenty of elf comics.
What tools do you use to make comics? Can you give us a brief walkthrough of your process?
Pascalle: I use photoshop, paintshop pro and a cintiq to ink. It's pretty much, scan, ink, then color. Nothing too fancy.
And I feel bad saying that because people ask me about it a lot. I use the paint bucket tool?
How has the strip evolved over time?
Pascalle: It has for sure moved from the standard shallow comedy into something a little more dramatic and complicated. It's actually very complicated. I think the fans will be very excited with where the story is going. Especially since it's about to get funny again. It's been very heavy for the past year. I've drawn a lot of scowling and unhappy faces.
You know, and it looks a lot better now than it used to. That's the thing everybody brings up after they finish the archives. I've also sort of fallen in love with it, since I first started drawing it as more of a favor to Chris. Now it's a very important part of my life.
Chris: I'd like to say the writing, but I think we all know its the art.
Do you have any long term goals or ambition for the future of the comic?
Chris: I'd like it to become even more popular.
Pascalle: Yeah, that's a webcomic standard: always trying to grow the fanbase. It would be great if we could wrangle (I can use wrangle as a verb. I'm from Oklahoma, after all) enough revenue to live off so that I could do it full time and update more pages a week to give the fans the experience they're after. Fans are not happy with the once-a-week updates, even though I've never missed an update! Even so, effective monetization is kind of one of our most pressing current goals. Maybe expanding merch markets in the next year as a part of that, but that's a lot of work and I'm kind of over my head with my day job and just keeping up to date with new comics and the site. We're for sure in a position where I have to figure out how to add another ball to my juggling act to take the comic to the next level.
But, beyond that it's pretty easy to say that the greatest ambition with a project of this scope is finishing it. I'm in it for the long haul, so unless something really awful happens, fans don't need to worry about me jumping ship on them. We're at the halfway point, too. So, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
How do you go about promoting your work? What seems to be most effective at pulling in new readers?
Pascalle: We're lucky that we're on Keenspot because the Keenspot newsbox continues to be an amazing source of new readers. Other than that, we do some Project Wonderful advertising and a few other ads around, and encourage word of mouth. I try to do a good job of reaching out to other creators with work I really admire and try to establish connections that way. There's a lot of really cool people in webcomics.
For people looking for advice on gaining new readers, I'd point them to Project Wonderful and also encourage them to do fan art for their favorite comics.
Zap! is part of the Keenspot network. Any other collectives you're working with? How do you benefit from it?
Chris: Well we are a member of both Keenspot and Brainstorm Limited, a collective we created back in the day. Just basically somewhere for a few like minded webcomics can get together and share ideas.
Pascalle: Yeah, we've been with Keenspot, I don't know, for at least three years now and it's actually better than ever, and I say that knowing full well how cheesy it sounds. But earlier this year Keenspot switched its ad model and now we're able to manage our own ads and ad revenue, but still reap the benefits of Keenspot's collective networking power. Several great comics have joined Keenspot since that switch, and there really hasn't been a better time to be a part of Keenspot. We're really enjoying it lately.
Give me the 30 second "convention pitch" for your comic.
Pascalle: Zap! is a sci-fi adventure with action, aliens, and angry robots. If you like reading space comics on the Internets, boy have we got a deal for you. There, I did it in many less than thirty seconds.
What conventions are your favorites to exhibit at? What advice do you have for others just starting to show their work at conventions?
Pascalle: I feel we're still in the 'just starting' the con circuit business. We haven't had a lot of merch before this year, and I was in school, working, making the comic, and attempting to be a human being, so it didn't leave a lot of time for con going, but in 2009 I have big plans for hitting up cons. We went to comic con a couple years ago and it was fantastic.
Do you have a favorite convention story?
Chris: There was one girl, sorry I can't remember her name, that came and volunteered to work the convention just so she could get in there and meet us. I thought that was really great.
Pascalle: That was Sylvia! She made us feel fairly fancy.
Do your fans bring you cool things at shows?
Chris: I don't think I got anything from a fan yet. Maybe Calle has.
Pascalle: They bring love! Which is the best thing. But I haven't gotten anything in particular. Do other people's fans bring them things? I'm disappointed in our fans now, I guess. What's up with just bringing love, you guys?
How would you describe your relationship with your fans? Do you engage in a lot of online interaction with your readers?
Chris: We love our fans. They are seriously the reason why I do this. We try to answer every email from our fans and have recently implemented a new comment system so our fans can tell us what they think of the comics easier.
Pascalle: I almost hesitate to call them fans, too. So many of them are long time regulars that I seriously feel like I know them and enjoy their forum posts, comments and emails as if they were people I knew in my everyday life.
We're very lucky to have the fan atmosphere we have. I'm not sure how we got where we are with them. A lot of sites our size seem to deal with the snarky jerks being passive aggressive about their comic, and we just don't have a lot of that. People come to our site to have a good time.
It's always been about answering every email, being active on the forums and reaching out to people however we could. It's more fun that way. In webcomics, you can have 20,000 fans, or you can have 20,000 friends. And friends take care of you. So, we've always gone the friend route.
Do you have a favorite strip or storyline from the comic? Which ones do fans seem to bring up the most
Pascalle: Yeah, I'm getting ready to get to draw pirates, in space. So, I think that's going to be a fan favorite for sure. Reona's about to learn how to not be an insufferable wimp, and I think everyone who reads the comic will appreciate that.
Chris: My favorite storyline so far is, hands down, the one where Gunner is trying to "re-train" Zap in his psychic powers. It always makes me laugh. I usually don't hear fans point out specific storylines that they like, maybe Calle has gotten something about that.
Pascalle: They like anything with Kasey in it. Fans don't bring up past storyarcs that much, but they seem to clamor a lot towards what's getting ready to happen. Mostly because I can't seem to draw it fast enough.
Are there any of your characters you're really fond of? Any that are particularly difficult to use?
Chris: I'm very fond of Robot, Zap, and Gunner. But my wife requires that I answer Kasey the Stickle. As for difficulty, I find it difficult to make the Jason/Justin stories work. People seem to not like those guys.
Pascalle: They don't like them because you always throw them in right in the middle of something exciting, so they just get annoyed with the detour. Lately, I've been truncating less important scenes down to keep things moving along. The last Justin/Jason scene was supposed to be about four pages long, which would have been released over the course of a month. I chopped it down to one page and nobody complained! I guess you just have to know your audience. And I guess for people who don't know, Kasey the Stickle in the comic is based off Chris's wife, who was named Kasey Stickles before she married him.
Any plans for a print collection?
Chris: Well we already have Volume #1 out and we're working on Volume #2 which will hopefully be ready by next year's SDCC.
Pascalle: Yeah, when he says 'we' — he means me. I'm working on volume two in between keeping the site up to date and drawing comics. It'll be out in time for Comic Con 09 if I have to take time off work to get it there. The problem with the first two books is I have to remaster the art for print. Not fun. But, later volumes won't be quite so bad. We'll eventually get the whole series out, I suspect. It should be like 7 or 8 volumes in all.
Did you do your own website? What software are you using on it?
Pascalle: Our current site I built, it's nothing too fancy, and it's running Keenspot's Autokeen backend. If I was starting a comic today, I'd prolly go a php/istrip route just for increased flexibility and lots of include files for easy updates.
I recently installed the disqus comment system on the site, and I can't recommend it enough to people.
What is it about comics that leads you to pour your creative impulses into that form as opposed to writing or some other art form?
Chris: I've tried to write straight fiction or screenplays, but there is something about the comic that gets me excited. I honestly dont know what it is.
Pascalle: HA HA! I'm pretty sure that 'what it is' is that you get to scribble up something fun and then hand it to me to do all the dirty work. Before taking up comics, I actually wrote a lot. One short story I did actually brought me $10,000 in scholarships for school. But comics are just a combination of stories and art that's really wonderful. Mostly, though, I just enjoy drawing and coloring them.
Anything else you wished I'd asked you about?
Chris: How about my guns? *flex*
Pascalle: Yeah… Goodnight everybody! Please recycle and donate to your local no-kill animal shelters if you can!
See you on the Intertubes!