Sunday, January 25, 2004

Adis says: Today we have Dave Johnson, author of the great Dead Air. My artwork tried to recapture the feel of radio days of yesterday, and I hope both you and Dave enjoy it. Here's what Dave had to say:

What's your strip about, Dave?
"Dead Air" chronicles the life of a Radio DJ from the Northwest named Dale, and his pet dog, Sid. The cast of characters is rounded out by their Janitor (Bob), Dale's Producer (Danny), Dale's Mom, their landlord (Ms. Treadbottom), and a few other odd characters here and there. It is a humor strip, and I try to keep it as close to a traditional newspaper strip, in terms of style, as I possibly can.

Reading the strips themselves, it looks as if the concept developed as you went. Not a bad thing, but even the developments seemed to surprise the characters. Was this planned?
I had never done a comic strip before, so I was VERY naïve when I started (and I ain't much better now.) I just sat down and drew 4 boxes and started drawing within them. I didn't take the time to develop characters or make model sheets or anything, because I really didn't think the strip would last long or get any kind of readership. It was just for fun, and to see if I could do it.
As the strip progressed, I started to realize that certain things weren't working, while other things were working very well. So I started to incorporate those changes on the fly, and when something happened like a character redesign (Dale losing his chin), I had fun with it and had the characters not only notice it, but also comment on it. I've been told that breaking the 4th wall in such a manner is a big "no no", but I've gotten some of my most positive responses from those strips.
If "Dead Air" ever comes to an end and I decide to move on, you can bet dollars to donuts that I'm going to do things different the second time around.

Speaking of which, your strip and its characters seem very aware they are part of a comic strip. Why?
I grew up reading "Bloom County" and a handful of other strips. Breathed was constantly breaking the 4th wall, and it worked really well. When Opus turned to the "camera" and said something, I felt as a reader that he was talking to me. That drew me in and made me feel like part of the strip. So I think about that a lot when I'm drawing my comic. I want readers to feel like they're a part of this little world that I've created.
As I've said, breaking the 4th wall is considered taboo in the comic (more specifically "webcomic") community, but I think if done correctly and not overused, it can be a fun and useful way to communicate with the readers.

What made you want to start your own webcomic?
I honestly didn't want to start a "webcomic" per se, I actually wanted to start a newspaper comic and simply showcase it on the web. I've always enjoyed comic strips, and when I was young, I even drew a crude little comic strip about a pet snake. It lasted about 3 months. About a year ago, I discovered some webcomics such as PVP and a few others, and I thought, "Man, if I could do this and showcase it on the web, that would be really fun." So I started drawing it, and some people really liked it. So I put it up on the site, and that sparked even more interest. It just kind of snowballed, and continues to do so.
I've never been a person who thinks I'm overly talented by any stretch of the imagination. I could rattle off 50 webcomics off the top of my head that I think are FAR superior to mine. So the thought of posting this stuff on the web honestly mortified me at first, because I didn't think (and still don't) that it was up to the quality of those comics. However it has been very positive, and I am really glad I made the decision to do it in the first place.

Who'd you rather be, Scott Kurtz or Scott Adams?
I don't envy either of them.
To begin with, anybody who has done a comic strip for more than 3 months knows what a pain 3 updates a week is. These guys do it 7 times a week. Now I'm sure that people are going to say, "Well yeah, but they get paid for it." This is true, but just imagine trying to be funny 7 days a week and coming up with something new and fresh that your characters you've never done before, after 2000 comic strips. Not only that, but just think of how life can get in the way of that. Your Mom died today, but you still have to write a funny joke. Your stocks crashed and you lost 20K today. Write a funny joke.
In Kurtz's case, you have a guy who built his webcomic off of a certain "geek factor," which he is fully aware of and plays to again and again. That being said, he now has a ton of people who say that he's a "hack" (something he has mentioned a few times on his site) because he uses templates and such, and another group saying that he just writes a comic that caters to geeks and that's why he's popular. When you reach that level, people are always looking to knock you down.
In Adams case, I can tell you that if I drew Dilbert for a living, I'd already be retired or dead. I could not take the pressure of carrying a strip 7 days a week that has ties to a cartoon series, calendars, greeting cards, jock straps and beer cozies. I would go nuts. I think it's hard enough to sit in my office and come up with a joke that some people on the internet read for free. I can't imagine writing a joke and thinking that 40,000,000 people are going to read it.

You could perhaps make the ultimate "insider" videogame comic, and yet you don't. Why?
Ah... you have done your homework. I try not to mention what I do for a living too much, as I don't want anyone to feel like I'm rubbing it in. I work for Microsoft in the Xbox group, for those of you who don't know.
That being said, everyone and their dog has a videogame comic. It would be like me making a comic strip involving a talking animal. Like that hasn't already been done to death... oh wait... I do make a comic strip with a talking animal.
Seriously though, I just think there is only so much you can do with two guys on a couch talking about games. Plus you have to look at the audience that will appeal to. While the average age of game players is getting older, you're still targeting a pretty young demographic. I wanted a strip that can be molded into anything and that young and old alike could relate to in certain ways. I mean, I've had a dog make a friend out of meatloaf, find aliens in his basement, horribly disfigure his owner with a massive collection of Eddie Money CDs, and whack said owner's mom in the face with a frying pan. Granted that could all be done in a videogame comic, but people go to those comics to read jokes about videogames, and so the author is pretty much forced to stick with that genre. I like that I can branch out and do whatever I want.

What about promotion? What can the rest of us webcartoonists do to make sure we reach a large audience?
Well, I'm not sure that I can really tell you, as I don't have what I would call a "large" audience. I would call them a mid-size audience, but the numbers seem to be on a steady incline.
What I've said before on forums is that people tend to jump the gun and buy advertisements a month into their strip. Why do that when your strip is changing so much in those early months? Wait until you established your characters, nailed down an art style, and built up a decent archive. Then go drop your hard-earned cash on ads. I've been doing my comic for 8 or 9 months now, and I've got close to a 150 strips in my archive. I have yet to buy a single ad. I may do so in the future, but I still don't think my strip is ready.
My readership has been built on word of mouth, much in the way that I think CYS has been. If you make a quality product, people will find you, it may just take a bit of time.
I would also suggest that when you go to advertise, research what site is best for you. If I advertised on Mega Tokyo, I would get a TON of initial hits from it, but I would lose them all just as fast. Why? Because the people that read Mega Tokyo don't share the interests that my characters have… for the most part. I'm sure a handful would continue to come back and read, but most of them wouldn't. So if I do go advertise, not only am I going to be looking at comic strips that have some stuff in common with mine, but I'm also going to look into pet sites, and radio disc jockey sites, and other sites not found in the webcomic realm.
It is somewhat easy to get readers who make webcomics as well, but the key is to figure out a way to break out of that "clique" and reach a broader audience. When you've got a mom with AOL reading your comic strip before she heads off to work, and at the same time you've got a software engineer reading your comic on his Linux as he sips his morning coffee, then you've nailed it.

In your opinion, what makes a great strip?
I could go on for days about this, but I'll make it short.
Unique art and good writing.
Of those two, writing is much more important, in my opinion. "White Ninja" is a perfect example of why. I mean the comic looks like it was drawn by a third grader (I hope they don't get mad at me for that), but makes me laugh every time I read it. Writing can make up for crappy artwork, but amazing artwork will almost never make up for dry and boring writing.
Of course if you nail a combination of the two, like with Lost Sheep, Citizen Dog, Bloom County, or Monty… well then you've struck gold. CYS is another fine example of this, because of its overall beautiful style, and warm and funny writing. That's why it has such a strong and loyal fanbase.

Your strip does something I don't see a lot of in webcomics, at least done well, have a balance between credible characters and their relationships, and on the other hand, topical, editorial humor. It sometimes seems it's one or the other. What's the secret?
Well, I appreciate you saying that. I crack jokes for just about anything I read, see or watch. One of my favorite things to do is to get a couple of friends together and watch a movie or TV show, just because we spend more time cracking jokes than we do watching it. I think that bleeds into my writing. I love pop culture references, and I love poking fun at current headlines. The character relationships just sort of "happened." I didn't really plan (as I've said) anything with my characters, so in a way they've gotten to know each other as I've gotten to know them.
I think with this strip though, I've tried really hard not to pigeonhole myself. I don't want it to be a political strip, but I want a political joke now and then. I don't want it to be a gag strip, yet I have a ton of gags (which is also what some people do when they read my strip). I want to have the freedom to do all of those things, and that's why the comic touches on the various styles/topics you mentioned.

In your humble opinion, what future awaits CYS?
To be honest, I think the sky is the limit. I've told you in the past what a fan of CYS I am, and that still holds true. I mean, who wouldn't want an official Ship plush doll? You've managed to create characters that will appeal to young and old alike, and it's paying off for you.
I'd love to see you try your hand at a traditional black and white strip, because I think syndicates may be really interested, but that has to be your decision.
Like I said, I think CYS has a very bright and long future ahead of it.

Thanks to Dave for the excellent interview. "Dead Air" is great, so be sure to check it out!
Now go to bed!

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