Rants, reviews, and ramblings of "t3h intrawebs" and other technology.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
The Man, the Amorph, and the Mercenaries.
Do a Barrel Roll Blog: Today I have a real treat for you. Howard Tayler, a "rising figure in the webcomics world", has been drawing Schlock Mercenary for the better part of 9 years. He has been kind enough to "sit down" to do an interview with me. How are you Howard?
Howard: I'm fine.
DABRB: So, tell us about the man behind the mercenaries. Who are you exactly?
Howard: I'm a 40-year old father of four with a penchant for fantastic stories and twisted laughter. Fortunately the mother of those four shares most of my tastes.
DABRB: Spoken for eh? I'm sure your female fans are devastated.
Howard: Crushed to the last woman and girl. So sad.
DABRB: You’ve been drawing Schlock Mercenary for 9 years. That's quite the haul, and with no missed days to boot. Two words come to mind: “Why?” and “How?”
Howard: Why? Because it seemed like a fun way to tell a story, and because once I started I realized I needed to set high standards for myself. How? By working ahead, and doing careful failure analysis of the process.
DABRB: A webcomic artist that plans ahead and doesn't procrastinate? That's a first.
Howard: Bear in mind I started this job when I was 31 years old, and had a failed record production company under my belt. Most webcomics are started by teenagers who have no idea what a "decade" looks like. Most successful webcomics are not, however. Or at least that's my read on it. Somebody needs to go check birthdates now, I guess.
DABRB: Speaking of jobs, do you make a living off of Schlock and the gang or do you moonlight as something else?
Howard: 100% of our family income is derived from the Schlock Mercenary business. DABRB: That's quite the accomplishment.
Howard: Well... 99.9%. Sandra sold a couple of short stories last year.
DABRB: I seem to recall that she is a children's author, correct?
Howard: She's a lot of things. She's written and self-published a children's book, illustrated by Angela Call. She's also written numerous short stories in a couple of genres, and she's an extraordinary blogger, focusing mostly on issues specific to being a Mom.
DABRB: Well back to the comic. How does your day to day comic making process go?
Howard: Monday -- script in the morning, pencil in the afternoon. Tuesday, color last week, pencil and ink in the afternoon. Wednesday. Business tasks, maybe coloring, maybe book tasks. Thursday, ink the whole week of comics. Friday and Saturday, business stuff. Conventions. Work on books. Whatever. The strip itself takes three days out of a six-day work week.
DABRB: fatum asks- How do you find time for the daily updates and other aspects of your life like your family?
Howard: Ummm... I work about 60 hours per week, and make time for family with the rest of it. It's not hard now that I don't have a day job.
DABRB: What did you do before Schlock? Draw other comics?
Howard: Nope. Schlock Mercenary was my very first comic strip. I majored in music composition and sound recording, I started a record production company with a friend, I spent a decade-point-one at Novell doing tech support, then consulting, then product management and marketing. I've done lots of stuff. But not much drawing before March of 2000. I was a SF reviewer for The Internet Mining Company, which became "About.com" sometime after they decided I was too whiney.
DABRB: About.com? That's quite the resume.
Howard: Well... they replaced me, combining the Fantasy and Sci-Fi domains. Nothing impressive there. Bear in mind this was 1996 or thereabouts.
DABRB: When the boy bands roamed wild and free.....
Howard: I considered starting a webcomic in 1995, but I thought I'd need to hire an artist, and I had no idea how images could be made small enough to work over dial-up.
DABRB: Thank God for high speed connections. So how exactly did Schlock start and how would you recommend that aspiring WCAs (Webcomic artists) get their start?
Howard: It started with me thinking that a webcomic looked like a fun way to tell a story. I picked "mercenaries" because that allowed for rapid movement between disparate plot devices. Recommendations? Plan to work really, really hard, and fail a LOT. I've got close to $200,000 in "failures" under my belt. I still owe money on some of that, too. Rolled into the mortgage, though. WHAT'S THE WORST THING THAT COULD HAPPEN?
DABRB: In this economy? Nothing comes to mind. I've noticed you publish under Blank Label Comics. What can you tell us about that?
Howard: Blank Label Comics is a collective, incorporated as an LLC, that allows several of us like-minded cartoonists to streamline some of our business operations and do things we wouldn't be able to do individually. These people are all friends of mine. That's how it got its start.
Howard: Limited Liability Corporation.
DABRB: Sort of a web equivalent of a comics syndicate?
Howard: It's not really a syndicate. We don't do the distribution thing as a group. We've considered it, but the model doesn't seem to fit.
DABRB: Would you recommend this sort of thing to others?
Howard: Yes and no.
DABRB: Do tell.
Howard: I do recommend that cartoonists (and artists of ANY ilk) get together with like-minded artists, including some more senior folks in their field. Learn from each other. Learn at the feet of your betters. Practice what you're bad at, and let them tell you what you're worst at.
DABRB: Speaking of distribution, have you ever fantasized about SM going into the printed [newspaper] format.
Howard: Yes. Like most fantasies of mine, once I start contemplating the details required to make it a profitable reality I discovered some gaping problems with it. First: I don't want to work in b/w or greyscale. Second: I don't want an editor. Third: Peers of mine have done it, and the newspaper business was not good for their bottom line.
DABRB: I suppose we should talk about the actual comic at some point. In the latest/current story arc, politics play an important role in the story. Is this commentary on the Obama or Bush administrations?
Howard: HAH. No. My satire is a bit broader than that. I strongly disapprove of "entitlement," the thought that somehow the world (or the gummint) "owes" you something. But that sentiment is going to get exactly ONE strip of screaming theming, and then we'll move on. Mostly I'm just in it to tell a good story, and conflicts of political ideal make for especially good ones.
DABRB: In the past you have had a tendency to kill off characters. Aside from some convent time travel and a certain bear, these characters have remained dead. Does this present any obstacles in writing?
Howard: No. It presents obstacles in franchising. "Superman" is a franchise. So is "Tony the Tiger." They'll never die, and the comic book companies will continue to milk them. My characters have life-spans, though. It makes them more interesting. It makes them EASIER to write.
DABRB: It makes the fans rage.
Howard: Meh. They're in this for the story, too. I got nothing but positive email when Tagon died. I saved all of it just to be sure. There was some negative commentary when I brought him back, but since I knew I'd always planned to bring him back the "you chickened out" criticism fell kind of flat on me.
DABRB: You don't mean to say that everyone's favorite carbosilicate amorph (Schlock for my readers) might bite the big one?
Howard: Probably not. But he'll have character development. You've seen some of it in the current story.
DABRB: It has been noted that all your characters are dynamic rather than the standard static comic character. No wonder that you have as many readers as you do. How many do you have exactly?
Howard: 200,000 monthly uniques, maybe 40,000 daily readers. Not sure how many loyal irregulars there are.
DABRB: That's astounding. I have somewhere around....... 5, and I’m one of them.
Howard: You're probably off by at least two orders of magnitude for this interview.
DABRB: We can only hope. 40,000 a day, geez. How do you rely on "getting the word out" and buffing reader numbers?
Howard: Word of mouth. It's the most powerful form of marketing, and for my work it's also the most effective.
DABRB: The viral method. A tried and true means of advertising on the internet.
Howard: My loyal, zealous readers are my greatest asset. I worship them. (From afar.)
DABRB: I saw some fans discussing their favorite lines from the comic on the Schlock Facebook group. What are your favorite lines?
Howard: Any time I can work the title of the book or a Pirate Rule into a punchline I'm particularly pleased with myself. Those may not be fan favorites, but I sure like 'em.
DABRB: I'm glad you mentioned that. Amanda Doerr wants to know if you ever intend to make an actual book of rules.
Howard: Yup. Not before Spring of 2010, though.
DABRB: You heard it here first folks, a Do A Barrel Roll Blog exclusive! You can expect The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Pirates around 2010!
DABRB: So, what webcomics do you like? Other than Schlock that is.
Howard: I don't read all that many anymore. I read all the BLC titles, The Whiteboard, Order of the Stick, Atland... several others. Mostly I've run out of time to sit in front of the computer and trawl entertainment. And now you know WTASF.
DABRB: Alright, just a few more. Amanda would also like to know if you intend to release a Box Set of your work for Schlock's 10th anniversary.
Howard: You won't have to wait that long.
DABRB: So is that a yes?
Howard: There will be a five-book box-set available with the release of book five, "The Scrapyard of Insufferable Arrogance." The slipcase box will also be available separately, for those who already have the books.
DABRB: And you will naturally be giving signed copies to your friendly neighborhood bloggers I assume.
Howard: There are a few gift copies set aside with each release. I'm not completely sure who Sandra has on the list. She maintains it. Not me.
DABRB: Have I told you how much I love her work?
Howard: Your butter needs more butter. Maybe with a side of butter. We'll see.
DABRB: You can’t blame me for trying. Amanda would also (also) like to know where you get your sources for the science implemented in your comic.
Howard: Science journalism, and of course I raid the vast piles of science fiction books in my own home. As John Cage said, "Well stolen is half-composed."
DABRB: The motto of the national media from what I understand.
Howard: No, theirs is more like "Well stolen is 90% composed. 95% if you have stock photos to add."
DABRB: I expect to see a bastardized version of this on CNN tomorrow morning. Cynicism aside, I have just a couple of questions left.
DABRB: Amanda would also (she's persistent) like to know who you would like to act in the Schlock Mercenary movie.
Howard: I want a walk-on part. It's okay if my character dies. Tagon would be best played by a Stargate (the motion picture)-era Kurt Russell. Kevyn would be well served by a young, Jaws-era Richard Dreyfuss. Ennesby could be played by a just-finished Anne Boleyn.
DABRB: And Schlock?
Howard: Roseanne Barr. No, wait. John Goodman. Hang on... Oprah Winfrey.
Howard: Rosie O'Donnell. It's like shooting fish in a barrel.
DABRB: With plasma.
Howard: Seriously? The guy who voiced Skull the Troll for the PvP animations... Dino Andrade. He'd do a great job. There are lots of really, really talented voice actors out there who could probably pull it off. Or maybe the guy who voiced Gollum. Andy Serkis.
DABRB: That would make for an interesting movie.
Howard: That's just actors, and one gorey dead ex-royal. An interesting movie would require a good writer. And a good director, who shares the vision of the writer. And a good producer, willing to fund that vision appropriately, without excess or cutting corners.
DABRB: I'd pay to see that. (Remember kids, illegally downloading movies is bad.) fatum would like to know- Do you feel like you need to improve the world (or your readers) or do you just go along with the ride?
Howard: Like any self-respecting person I try to improve the world around me. I'm not an activist, though. That's too much work. Also, annoying.
DABRB: A good philosophy if I ever heard one. And one more question from fatum. Did you ever fell (or almost) in the soap trap ? With soap I mean when you deviate from the origin of the strip to solely focus on character development and human interactions (as in: no more thooomp in the strip).
Howard: Discovering that character development is interesting is not a trap. Doing it wrong, or at the exclusion of other, equally interesting things might be. I think World-Builder's Disease is much more dangerous in my line of work. I think I've struck the right balance by creating the strip I want to read. Check out www.writingexcuses.com for hours upon hours of discussion with me and others on this subject.
DABRB: Well Howard, it's been great having you (and your 200,000 fans) here. I hope we can do it again sometime. There is one last question though.
DABRB: do you leik mudkipz?
Howard: Love 'em. But only if they're on fire, thanks.
DABRB: Talented and a sense of humor. How about that?
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Nathan Gibson is a freshman majoring in electrical engineering. He enjoys candlelit dinners, long walks on the beach, and other cliches. He works on his blog when he isn't busy being broke, unemployed and single.