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Adis says:So, here's my chat with the one and only Dave Wright of Todd Penguin. Cuteness abounds, but proceed with caution nonetheless. Enjoy!
Please, introduce yourself, Mr. David Wright of Todd and Penguin.
I'm Dave, I draw comics, I write books, I'm married, and I live in Florida, but long to be somewhere with seasons. I have 2 cats and 3 guinea pigs, which are more than I can handle.
What's the story behind the creation of Todd and Penguin?
I started drawing Todd and Penguin on a whim. I didn't know of any comics out there on the web. I had just gotten a computer (the year 2000, a bit later than most) and I always liked to draw, so I figured I would start a comic. I was VERY heartbroken over the retirement of Calvin and Hobbes, and I wanted to fill that void, to make people feel the way that comic made me feel. Lofty goals, sure, but what did I know?
So when I first started, I found KeenSpot and the Melonpool website, and posted an invitation to check out my comic on there. I didn't realize I was spamming, as I said I was new to the site. Someone there blasted me, and got my message deleted. When I asked what happened, they were very rude to me, and I was pretty shocked by that. I had also posted in the Dave Barry forum at the Miami Herald newspaper, and someone blasted me there, and said my comic was unfunny and a waste of time to even look at. Then tons of people jumped on the thread and it was ugly. I never responded, of course.
Did that discourage you?
Oh yeah. I was tempted to quit. I certainly didn't post anywhere after that. Part of me wanted to show them, though. Anger can be a good motivator, but can't be the sole reason. Some friends, and eventually some readers who I didn't know responded and that carried me through the first year. The fact I was making something that people actually cared about, was what did it. Funny thing is, the people in the begining were right. The comic WAS horrible, but I didn't realize it.
Did you ever had the intention of drawing a comic strip before? did you learn the mechanics of it as you went along?
I hadn't leanred anything prior to making Todd and Penguin. When I was a kid, though, I used to always draw super hero comic books.I loved comic books, and thought for sure I would do one some day. I may still, it just won't be the kind I had planned to make.Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts showed me the good things you could do with comics. Bloom County showed me the sarcastic fun you could have.
So, drawing inspiration from the Calvin & Hobbes grand concept was premeditated? Didn't you worry a little about treading old territory?
Strike the "so". I don't think the comic was like Calvin and Hobbes. It was my inspiration, but not the blueprint. The comic was just supposed to be a guy and a penguin, and just evolved. I did try a few times to make Mr. Bear more Hobbes like, in that he interacted with Penguin, but I stopped myself, as it just seemed to obvious. I don't want to think I took someone else's idea, I need to be original for my own sake. However, someday, someone will use the idea again, and they won't be ripped to shreds for it, and I would LOVE to do that, but I think too many people would give me hell for it. I think imaginary friends are public property, and it's a shame you can't really do it in comics anymore without that comparison.
I have done one other comic, which got published in the Stanford Daily called Taking Up Space, from where Jessika originates, and I am currently working on another feature now.
What's the new one about? Why do more than one?
Well I have lots of ideas, and this comic would allow me to give voice to my more adult humor. It's about a guy who wins his own TV talk show. It has a wide scope and lots of great characters.
On to the comic then. It does seem like a concern of yours, less so now, but it's still there a bit, are you worried or were you at any point, that the characters could get too "cute"? Seen as a bad thing, I mean.
Yes, too cute was a huge worry. I'm sure some people think it is too cute. There needs to be some balance for me. Cute is not me. Cute is only one side of the comic. That is why Jessika and Oscar the cat came in. It needed balance, and I really needed to get those parts of me in there.
There is a connection you make through your art, and I think that some part of me, that has lots of problems with the world needs to connect on some level with the people who read my stuff. I'm not sure why.
Penguin is kind of like me as a child, naive, goofy, and carefree. Jessika is the darkest part of me. Todd is the in between, the searching for balance and meaning.
Wow, I never really thought this out before now.
Looks like Barbara Walters got herself some competition... But back to that balance you talked about, is that why you wrote Sally off the strip? Because she was simply cute?
No, she had some angst, too. I wanted to bring in Jessika, and Sally was kind of like Jessika, but not really her. I also wanted show the loss of a friend. I probably didn't explore it as much as I should have, but I wanted to show the pain Penguin feels. The strip will not be without heartache. It will be honest, and sometimes painfully so. I know that most people say you shouldn't kill of or change characters too much, but I have no such plans to keep anyone safe in the comic.
Originally, at least in the first strips, Penguin is a pest! He's needy and obnoxious. And still cute, yes, but a bit annoying and slowly, he mellows down and he completes his transformation after 9/11 actually. Care to comment on that?
My first Todd and Penguin had Penguin being a cynical jerky penguin. I NEED to express my dark thoughts. Todd and Penguin is not dark at all, and I have no need to make it so. It is pure, and I like that (other than Jessika).
9-11 was no conscious point or anything for that or anything. Penguin started out annoying, but some people I knew really responded to the cute side of Penguin, and hisnice side, and as I got to know him, he moved towards what he now is.
Ok, you mentioned penguin being a bit like you when you were younger, how much do you draw from personal experience to...um, draw?
Much of the comic is from personal experience. Not all of it literally, but some things. Like Penguin calling the crusts of pizza Pizza Bones, was something I did as a child. I miss that part of me, that wonder and innocense, and Penguin allows me to live it again. Some of Todd's thoughts and confusions are mine past and present, but not all of them. I try not to make it too autobiographical. My wife does read it, after all, and I don't wanna get in trouble!
That's clever. Also, pop culture plays a considerable role in Todd and Penguin's interactions, with each other and with the world, how important it is these days to have a good grip on pop culture?
I don't know how important it is. It could date your comic a few years from now, but for the web, it helps. The web is immediate, and pop culture references that are topical are cool. The danger is, when you do a reference, you might do it at the start of some fad or joke, but if it that fad gets huge, there is an eventual despising of that, and the joke will seem lame at that point. Like a Britney Spears Or Christina Aguillera joke that played a year ago, wouldn't now, because people are pretty much over the obvious jokes.
And how do you avoid that?
I try not to do the obvious ones. I try to be a wee bit less obvious. Go after things people might not notice so much.
Like your anger at corporations. I noticed that.
Yeah, I have a lot of issues with greedy corporations. I try not to let the comic get too political, though.
And don't you feel the need to, sometimes?
Yeah, that's when I let Jessika speak up, or I post some angry rant on my blog. Today's was blast against homophobic ultra right wing religious types.
Tell me, why did Dave change jobs? I liked the idea of the gas station.
You mean, Todd? Originally Todd worked in a gas station, as did I, I changed it because I was going to do some corporate type humor, but it just didn't mesh with the comic, so I didn't really get too into it.
I said Dave, didn't I?
People call me Todd all the time in emails. Or email, that is the correct plural of email.
Do you get a lot of email?
I tend to get more when I have less time. The times I actually am waiting for email, I don't get as much.
When do you expect to get more letters? what kind of strips, and does it come?
Well, now that's the weird part. When I think I did a strip that is really cool, and I think, man, that will resonate with people, I don't hear a peep. Then I do some comic I thought of last minute, and didn't think much of, and I'll get lots of response. I can't figure readers out.
I don't really put myself out there as much as I should in the forums and stuff, so I can't expect too much. I would love to have the time to really network, make some cool comic friends to talk with, but I work so much, I never get around to it.
I think readers take it for granted that we are used to getting email. Most email I do get from first time writers starts out "You probably get letters like this all the time..." and the fact is, no we don't! Please, feel free to write! If people stopped responding, I don't think I would continue.
And yet, you seem to have lots of friends within the webcomic community.
I have a few friends I've picked up along the way, people who I respect, and some who I have worked with, or have given or asked for advice. But I'm hardly a socialite. There are some people who are just really out there, talking to everyone, collaborating with tons of people. I suspect most of them aren't married, and have all kinds of free time. I know before I was with my wife, I spent a lot more time on the comic and talking to other artists.
On that topic. What do you think about online personas? do you think you need to be a Gabe, a Tycho or a Piro to succeed?
I think it helps if you have a persona to sell to people. I've thought about that a lot, actually. Part of being a success at this usually means putting yourself out there, or some form of yourself, or what you think people want to see. Like any entertainer, you sell people on an idea of what you are all about. Charisma really works to sell your product, and some people are better at it than others. It's interesting, and if I were more calculated, I would've done that, but I don't know if people really know my personality from my site. I could probably write a lot of funny angry rants, but it doesn't really go with Todd and Penguin. I think in my case, it might get in the way of them enjoying the comic, so I don't really do too much in that area.
By the way, your personality really flows in your newsposts beneath your comics, which is how I feel I kinda' got to know you. I think it helps tremendously if people feel like they are getting to know and care about you. I'm pretty private, and I don't wanna' talk about my wife and stuff too much, because I respect her right to have privacy. If she wanted to be known, she would make a website herself, or something, I don't like to infringe, and since she is so much of my life, I don't talk much about myself, other than little things here and there. I know one time I made reference to something, and her friend at work mentioned having seen it, and she was horrified. Since then, I don't encroach.
How supportive is she? Is it meaningful to her that you are Mr. Todd and Penguin?
Oh yeah, she is my second biggest fan. She loves the comic, and when I was going to quit, she talked me out of it. However, there is fine line between support and letting it take everything. She doesn't like much the time it takes from us. Four hour blocks I could be spending with her, or doing things more productive are sometimes hard to justify when we are both working long hours and don't see each other too much. For the record, my number one fan is my mom.
But since you do have a nice network of people helping you, where do you want to take your comic?
I want what I always wanted, to be doing this at the level of Calvin and Hobbes. I don't know that it will or CAN happen. Things like that only happen once in a blue moon, and who knows if I even have that kind of talent in me, but I would like to make a living doing what I like, and make people feel like C&H made me feel, all warm and happy.
I feel the same way. Do tell, how far or close are you from that goal?
Very very far, I think. The market for comics is not what it once was. There are lots of good people out there who have failed, so the odds are stacked, for certain. I have gotten some support from the people at Universal Press Syndicate, who have given me reason to think I am on the right path, and have said some good things about the comic. The fact that someone there is following the comic is a good feeling.
Do you think that traditional syndication is the way to go, then?
At the moment, I don't see another alternative to making money at this. Very few webcomickers are making a living at this. I have some other plans on an artistic level, that might work for me, but I don't want to announce them until I know if I am able to do them.
as of now, there are two ways to make money off the web, ads, or subscription...or three, selling to your audience.
How many coffe mugs and shirts can you sell, enough to make a living off of it ? how long can you continue to sell? You would need HUGE numbers to pull that off, and I know I'm nowhere near that number, and I don't want people to have to pay for the comic. I already turned down a syndicate who wanted me to join, that was pay only.
There doesn't seem to be a formula, does it?
Not that I see, but who knows what the future holds? I'm sure someone will come up with a way that makes more money for more people, but I don't think it's happening too soon.
Ok, back to less heady subjects. Favorite webcomics?
Soap on a Rope is my favorite. It is witty, and Bob is the funniest person I know. After that, in no particular order, Skinny Panda, Boxjam's Doodle, Greystone Inn, Chopping Block, CYS, Bob the Squirel, Hubert and Abby, C'est la Vie, Yirmumah, Martin's Misdirection, Man-Man, the Necronomicon, and a ton more. The guy that draws Copper is also just amazing!!
Do you have any favorite strips of your own?
I like where Penguin finds the puppy, and any where Penguin is waiting for cookies. A lot of those were lost in the archive loss at KeenSpace. Penguin always waited at the bus stop for Sally to bring him a cookie. It was sad to see him standing there waiting for her to come home. I keep meaning to bring that back with Jessika, but get sidetracked.
You are very adept at your recurring jokes, how do you keep those fresh?
I dunno. I feel I don't do them enough. It helps to go through your archives and read them again, and you can remember what you wanted to do. Like I mean for the ducks to be more recurring than they have been. (Writes down note to do more cookie and duck comics.)
Todd's 'death' was also a favorite, but not for half the readers. I think it was scary to do a comic for almost a month with no laughs. It was some serious stuff, and some people questioned a comic that should be cute and fun tackling such an issue.
I try to come up with a clever way to link the comic I'm talking about with my own to end the interview, but I'll leave that to you this time.
I hate selling my own comic... Um, if you like CYS, you would probably like Todd and Penguin. The themes are similar, Adrian has admitted that he loves my comic more than life itself (even though it's not on his links page), so you should too, um... and we both feature a cute animal who spends more time than he should being naked.
Ship wears gloves, my friend.
Thanks to the excellent and amicable Dave Wright, and remember to check out Todd and Penguin!
Now go to bed!