The webcomics blog about webcomics

Fleen Guest Column: David Hamilton In, “A Talk With Jeff Knooren”

Editor’s note: David Hamilton wrote to me last week; he’d done an interview with Jeff Knooren of A Murder of Crows and Out In The Morning, and wanted to know if we wanted to run it. See that, people? That’s initiative, and we like it. Without further ado, David Hamilton and Jeff Knooren.

Jeff Knooren is multi-talented. In addition to drawing and writing “A Murder of Crows� and “Out in the Morning,� Knooren is programming a simulation game (think the money-hungry greed of monopoly, but instead of dice rolls you have to make cutthroat management decisions.) He also designs and sells cat furniture.

He’s not afraid to share his opinion, and he makes it clear that he is not going to be intimidated by the “webcomics community.� I had the chance to ask him some questions about how and why he creates webcomics, and the artistic and commercial direction of webcomics in general.

David Hamilton: How does one get started drawing comics on the web?

Jeff Knooren: Everyone starts out with inspiration. They’ll see what someone else has done, and so the journey begins. It’s no secret that anyone can draw a comic. I mean, a comic is not much more than a few sketched lines, and some text bubbles. Just like anyone can direct a movie, or be an actor. But how many are actually good at it? What separates the good comics, from bad ones, is the refinement and mastery of storytelling.

It’s much more than just text boxes and sketches. There are lots of limitations placed on the author. You might think it isn’t limiting, because you can draw anything you want, and make each panel any size. But each panel must probably fit within a page. Also, the text bubbles cover up much of each panel. When I started, those things hadn’t occurred to me. You have to balance these things while conveying essential elements of a story.

It’s difficult to pick “the reason” the web is spawning hundreds of new comics a week. Probably the perception it’s easy, and the limitations of print comics don’t apply. Printed comics are more of a business, and therefore have Editors and deadlines to follow. The most important thing in print comics is doing the work on time, every time. These things really don’t matter on the web, and there is no-one to stop you from poisoning society, with whatever spills out of your head. But, creating a comic for the web has it’s own technical challenges. People who aren’t that computer savvy, usually draw their comics by hand, and scan them in.

Myself, I can’t draw much more than stick figures without a mouse.

Hamilton: What advantages and disadvantages are there to web publishing as opposed to print?

Knooren: The perception is that web publishing is “free”. Every computer comes with all the basic tools, and all you really need is a place to upload pictures. Essentially, you’re in business. But it’s much more expensive than ink/paper method. Costs to consider are the computer itself, the software, possibly a drawing tablet? All that could easily be thousands.

If you’re serious about creating comics, you’ll quickly realize the “basic” setup you have just won’t do for long. Do you need a website, hosting, a blog, and what about javascript?? So not only does it become expensive in the hardware, but also expensive in the time it takes you to learn how to do all the ancillary stuff, just to sketch out a few lines on a computer screen.

Hamilton: Is a webcomic is a job or a hobby?

Knooren: Writing a webcomic is definitely a job. If you want to get paid for making comics, it’s harder than doing it as a hobby. If you’re spending time promoting yourself, then you’re not drawing. If you’re upgrading software, you’re not drawing. I recommend you “pay yourself” $20/hr and then see how long it takes to create just one comic. Depending how many hours you spend, it might take a full day, a week, or more…How long will it take you to make 100 of these comics?

The question you need to ask is whether a rejection (a personal rejection) is enough to hold you back. If it is, then you would never have survived in comics anyway, and that’s okay. You’ll be amazed at the gumption of total strangers emailing you suggestions, like they know any better. I think what ultimately kills the dreams of most people in comics: If you really don’t care about upgrading your RAM to get the latest gizmo working, it isn’t worth the effort.

Once you’ve finished the first one, how many people would pay you enough to recover the cost? Probably zero. That isn’t to say there is no money in making webcomics. DJ Coffman has a blog with tips on how to do it. On my blog, I posted about “Treasure Trooper” and it works as advertised. But I’m lucky enough to make way more in consulting. If you really want to be an artist, or a writer, or both, create your own comic for your resume. That is what you should really be focused on.

Hamilton: How were you introduced to webcomics?

Knooren: I started drawing 2001. With How To Draw Manga. In a nutshell, the tutorials said you need three shapes, and three colors. For shapes, you need a circle, a square and a triangle. For colors, you need a base, a highlight, and a shade. I found that formula so simple, it was almost unbelievable.

I didn’t specifically draw comics until October of 2005, at a previous job. There were numerous meetings, which never started on time, and went on way too long. So, while I was waiting, I would draw something. This was the first time since I started drawing that anyone else had seen what I had done. At these meetings, people would stand behind me as I drew. They seemed interested in the process, but mostly I suspect, they also had nothing better to do.

Around the 4th comic, I noticed it was a great conversation piece. People would stop me in the hallways, and want to talk about the comic. About the 10th comic, in December, someone said “Hey, that’s pretty good, it’s a lot like PC Weenies“. That’s when I found out there were comics on the web. From there, I started researching other webcomics, in order to improve upon what I was making.

Hamilton: What made you want to try your hand at writing them yourself?

Knooren: I’m a control freak, and over the last 10 years, almost everything I’ve created is really the property of someone else. I can’t tell you how many times a job has ended, and I have nothing to put in my portfolio, because someone else owns the “intellectual property” to it. This is very frustrating, because when you go and interview for the next job, the first thing they ask is to see samples of your previous work. Then, you’re stuck trying to explain why you don’t have anything to show.

I’m not trying to be a “webcomic creator” specifically. My motivation to create anything, is to stick it in my portfolio. A stepping stone to something bigger. What you learn about drawing could be applied to web design, illustration, publishing. A potential employer probably thinks comics are for kids, and doesn’t give two figs about them.

But, what they will care about is your ability to communicate the process by which you’ve learned how to draw, or tell a story, and the research it took you to gain that knowledge, and the tools used to produce the final result. For me, the medium of comics, is merely the demonstration of ability. Not only does it have the benefit of being fun to make. But, during an interview, you’re discussing the depth of your knowledge using entertaining examples.

Hamilton: How would you define a “webcomic”? What is unique about this form and what borrows from other art forms?

Knooren: If it’s a comic, and it’s on the web, it’s a webcomic. There are purists in the community who will try and attach requirements to it. But, if you do that, then by extraction, the person who creates it is a “webcomic creator”. In my opinion, that probably doesn’t do justice to the person who created the comic. Now that I think about it, being called a “webcomic creator” might just be considered an insult.
To borrow from other art forms is a staple of comics. I found that the combination of two pop culture references makes for comedy gold.

This comic borrows lyrics from the musical group “Black Eyed Peas” and the movie “The Shining” by Stephen King. What I strive to create in all my comics, is even if you don’t get the humor, hopefully you can find the artwork interesting.

Hamilton: When did webcomics really take off? What were the most influential ones?

Knooren: I don’t think webcomics really has taken off yet. True, there are more than ever, and it’s getting attention. I believe webcomics are in an infant stage, because it’s 99% do-it- yourself. I can think of only ten people who do this for a living.

It will take large amounts of money to make it take off. Marvel Comics has already tried and failed once. This corporate money bodes well for the future of ALL webcomics. There will be more opportunities, for others to produce complete lines of webcomic work through some big publishers. But it will probably take 20 years. Video games used to be considered just for kids, but almost every game made to day is marketed toward adults.

I’ve already seen a few TV shows, based on comics from the web. Happy Tree Friends and Twisted Kaiju Theater both started out as comics/animation on the web, and are now on TV. I’m sure there are more comics that have made it, but have better things to do than watch cartoons all day.

I think the most influential comics, are those where you find a personal meaning. I like to talk about this particular comic. I heard a quote on an episode of Star Trek. I’m paraphrasing, but Spock said “However improbable, the only remaining explanation, must be the truth”. I had been looking for a wrench for an hour. The only “logical conclusion” I could come to, was my cat had run off with my wrench. If you can relate to a situation, that makes a comic influential.

Hamilton: Why do you think people are so attracted by webcomics when there are so many media vying for our attention? What type of person is the typical reader?

Knooren: There are only so many channels to flip too. How much Paris Hilton can anyone take? Oh boy, another Lion King rip off, complete with Happy Meal product tie-ins. They’re probably attracted to comics, because it sounds simple, and anyone can get started. If I had a camera 8 years ago, I might have taken up photography, just to get away from all those media outlets vying for my attention.

I actually don’t know what a typical reader is. Out of all the comics I’ve made, and the comments I’ve received, none have said they liked/disliked the same thing, for the same reasons. Well, I did receive 1000+ emails from a religious group saying I would burn in hell. However, it was obviously a form letter response, so I count that as one. If I could extract any information from this mini-demographic study, it would be: the typical reader, would have a browser, and the potential readership is huge. That’s a very scientific study by the way.

Hamilton: Can someone make enough money to write a webcomic full-time?

Knooren: I believe one must have attainable goals. There is a high coolness factor into having your own characters die horribly for the enjoyment of others on national TV, while McDonalds sells toys that you’ve designed, and you get paid millions to have Brad Pitt play you in a movie about your life. You know, realistic expectations.

Hamilton: How has writing a webcomic affected your life? What have you gained from writing on the web? How do you make time for it? Is it worth all the effort?

Knooren: Each comic takes anywhere from 15 minutes to 12 hours to complete. Six hours on average (or a full days work.) I think that’s fast considering the quality. If no one is paying you, that’s a lot of time to spend working for free.

It is worth the effort, only if you realize the larger goal for world domination isn’t going to happen. What is likely to happen, is that I will learn a lot about the creative process, and comics are probably a stepping stone to something else. And, people like you will ask questions about what I do, and I get to blather on about myself.

So what I’ve gained from webcomics, is experience that others find valuable, and are willing to pay me to talk about, or do for them. I make time for creating comics, because it’s “training”. What I learn will be incorporated into the comics. You have to learn the tools, and get that knowledge somehow. The only way, is by doing it.

Hamilton: Is the goal of many webcomic authors, as you see it, to break into the publishing industry with their own book? What are the goals you make for yourself?

Knooren: Hmm, getting published? If you created cartoons worth printing, some editor somewhere will eventually discover your talent. And when they do, it would be in your best interest to have a back catalog for them to print. If they’re a good outfit to work with, they will offer good suggestions past “Can you make this bright blue instead?” The shade of blue is irrelevant. Most of comics are black and white.

Hamilton: Is it possible to trace some sort of history of webcomics?

Knooren: Yes, T. Campbell wrote a book, [A] History Of Webcomics early in 2006, which seems to have stirred up some controversy. Not so much for what he said, but what he didn’t say about the people in the industry, and the time of it’s release. I’m not saying he didn’t do research, or knows a lot about the topic. I’ve talked to him before, he’s a nice guy. But nothing about the history of this medium really matters to anyone, except for self-congratulation and book sales.

I think all his detractors were simply jealous they didn’t think of doing this book first. Because, as the history of comics moves forward, he will be cited as an “Expert Historian” or some such thing. Publishing a history that’s just begun is smart thinking on his part.

Hamilton: Is there a webcomics “community,” where people meet and interact, and gain from online and offline involvement?

Knooren: Yeah, but I feel there is little to gain by being part of it. Reading the community buzz about T Campbell’s History Of Comics book in February 2006, prompted me to simply ignore, and separate myself from the community. Have you ever heard someone wax on about Jedi Knights, or have some arcane knowledge of fictional events in Star Trek and think to yourself that this person is an idiot?
Well, that is the webcomics community.

I got sick of discussions, and comics, about Ninjas, Pirates, Chuck Norris, and other topics that don’t matter. I realized I didn’t need to participate in their community to make a comic, because I was making them before I knew they existed.

The people who know what they’re doing create the community for others to endlessly debate which outfit looks best on Princess Leia. They aren’t part of the community, they created it.

Editor’s note: David Hamilton is a graduate student and freelance journalist in Toronto, Canada. Fleen thanks him for his contribution.

I must be the Antiknooren. I started my webcomic with, yes, some misguided notion of becoming famous one day, preferably while still alive; but with no intention of ever making a career of it, and because (among other reasons) I knew I’d like hanging out on the internet with other people who think in panels.

I tripped into it sideways. But that was back when the Internet was youngish and nobody gave a damn what you did.

Interesting, this interview ended up on fleen. I just came to say, good investigative journalism by mentioning the Simulation game, the Joey Manley rant, finding the comic archives, and the cat furniture. Someone must’ve been pulling their hair out rewriting things. Davi interviewed me a few months ago, and as of two days ago, the cat furniture is a brand spankin new expansion of my comic empire.

The ‘Murder Of Crows’ and ‘Out In The Morning’ comics have really taken off for me! In just over a year, I’ve gone from 10 people reading the comic, to making a real product! I didn’t want to go the plush-doll-made-in-China, or those ‘munys’, that everyone else does. I’ve read about too many horror stories dealing with overseas production. So, I build cat furniture, called ‘SuperUnit 5000′. I take all the pictures, built the eCommerce website, do live demonstrations, draw the characters, and I’m now making some entertaining movies/commercials using the characters I created… It’s turned into quite a little business!

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