Kleefeld On Webcomics #41: Frank Page Interview

By Sean Kleefeld

Frank Page has been a staple of the webcomics scene for nearly a decade, having launched Bob the Squirrel in early 2002. Though it superficially has a similar set-up to Garfield (a guy, a sarcastic talking animal, and their friends and family) Page distinguished his strip by putting every bit of himself in it, tackling the real-world problems he deals with. Through his strip, Page has shared both the highs and the lows of his life with readers. In a recent strip, Page announced that he was giving serious consideration to ending the strip, much to the surprise of his fans. I had a chance to chat with Page in the midst of his decision-making and tried to get some insights into what types of issues he’s weighing right now.

MTV Geek: I'd like to start with some history, Frank. I know you went for your undergraduate degree in illustration, so you clearly had an early interest and talent for drawing. What were some of your early influences as a teenager? Were you looking at comics specifically back then, or were you more interested in art generally?

Frank Page: I know this sounds very cliche, but I was almost-literally born with a pencil in my hand. I was an only child raised by a very hardworking single mother... drawing was always there for me. I realized, without really knowing I realized, that the possibilities in that simple number 2 pencil and paper were boundless. I was a very good student, honor roll and all that... but I also had this itch to draw. Of course I had a thing for comic books... Superman and Spider-Man mostly. But, the comic strip is what spoke to me more... all the biggies: Watterson, Schulz, Peters, MacNelly. A comic book came once every few weeks... comic strips were there everyday... that alone appealed to me. Eventually, I did comic strips for the high school newspaper in my junior and senior years.

When freshman year of college came, I was a little lost. Strike that, I was A LOT lost. If you can believe it, I went in as a philosophy major. All total, I had 5 different majors before transferring to study illustration. I didn't look back after that.

Geek: You've noted elsewhere that you were quite struck with Robert Crumb when you saw Terry Zwigoff's documentary about him. I believe that would have been early in your college career, so how did that change your approach to your academic studies, since Crumb -- at least as he's portrayed in the film -- seems to favor life experience over formal education? Or was your interest primarily in his artistic abilities?

Page: My mother knew that I was going to be a cartoonist, even if it wasn't outwardly implied. She took me aside that freshman year and said, "Frankie, you can do whatever you want, but get your degree first. Have something to fall back on." Education is very important to my family, so that was heavily stressed to me. I've always loved to learn, so that was no problem at all. When "Crumb" came along, it as as if a door that I didn't know existed was opened for me. I'd never even heard of him until my sophomore year (either late 1994 or early 1995). Once his work got into my brain, all bets were off. His lines were alive... and there were so many of them! He drew his women the way I wanted to draw mine. I saw style, specificity and talent in those black and white drawings. More importantly, he was unafraid and unapologetic with his honest portrayal of himself and his subject matter. I knew that if was going to do anything with cartooning, I had to be honest... ugly warts and all. He was flawed. So is everyone else... and that's okay too.

Geek: On your site, you relay the origin of Bob the Squirrel as an instance when you happened to see a real squirrel leaping around outside your window. You allude to a Batman-style revelation, so was the notion of doing a webcomic already something you wanted to try and just needed a main character? Or did the idea of the comic come more gradually as you watched this real squirrel start a family in the column of your porch?

Page: Hand to sky... the whole thing happened that day. It continues to amaze me how one little moment can drastically alter all the moments that follow. Just like I say, got the sketchbook out right then and there and boom... I just committed a decade of my life to something. I went the webcomic route because: A. The submissions I was sending to the syndicates were getting rejected faster than I could send them and B. The webcomic thing seemed to be where the artform was going... so, it'd be better to have a toe in both pools than to dive into just one. I saw the website as a way for me to tweak the strip in real time... so when I was ready to formally submit samples they'd be the best they possibly could be.

Geek: So you were clearly aware that webcomics were a thing back then. Were there any particular strips at the time that really influenced your decision, or were you looking more at the field as a whole?

Page: I can't say that one strip or artist influenced me one way or another. I just looked out my window and saw that the wind was blowing in that direction.

Geek: Bob the Squirrel launched in 2002 and, like I suspect most webcomic creators, you were holding a full-time job at the time. After nearly ten years working on the strip, it's clear that you managed to balance the two, but in that regard, what were some of the initial hurdles you personally faced doing the strip? It's essentially a second job, isn't it?

Page: It is a second job, but funny enough I never viewed that way. In the beginning, it was never "work" for me... it was something that I did after work to fill the hours. Did I choose drawing over maybe doing something with my then-girlfriend? Sure. Did I maybe miss out on concerts or events because of the strip? Probably. When I started, I did Bob as a weekly panel... so the time constraints weren't that burdensome. When I moved to a 6 day and eventually daily, that's when the juggling began. I remember doing the next day's strip the NIGHT BEFORE it was running... that's teetering on the edge. After a couple of lost weekends, I was able to build up a buffer... thankfully.

Geek: By the time I discovered the strip, it was being syndicated by Uclick and I have to admit some initial confusion over whether Bob was a true webcomic or simply a newspaper strip being displayed online, as it's being displayed right alongside the likes of Cul de Sac, Doonesbury and Foxtrot. First, I'm curious how that relationship came about. Second, I'm wondering about the level of response you got from those new readers; was there a noticeable impact on things like your site traffic or book sales?

Page: My association with Uclick began in late 2003. Universal had just launched COMICS SHERPA... billing it as a way to get your strip out there to more viewers and maybe more. It was that maybe more that intrigued me. It was $9.95 a month, and there was a chance that one comic could get a contract with Uclick. Of course I hoped my strip would get picked up. It didn't... at first. The first one to get a chance at the show was Dan Thompson's Lost Sheep. I was happy for Dan, but sad for me. A few months later I got the call. So I was the second cartoonist to "graduate". Being with Uclick definitely increased my number of readers, but because I was picked up relatively early in the life of Bob, sales didn't get a boost because I didn't have anything to sell. Nevertheless, I am proud of my association with Uclick/GoComics. The day I got that call was a very good day.

Geek: Speaking of sales, that strikes me as a surprisingly ancillary part of your work as a webcomic artist. You do have books and t-shirts and such available on the site, but your online plugs are relatively infrequent it seems (at least relative to other webcomics I follow) and I don't know that I've ever seen you mention trying to sell books at a comic convention. I know you still hold a full-time job, so making money from Bob isn't your primary concern, so I'd like you to speak to your motivations for working on the strip for as long as you have.

Page: I suppose I'm just a glutton for punishment. Seriously... I do make some money off of the comic strip... and I'm confident that if I were to commit myself to making Bob my full time gig, that I would do well. Your question is one that I've asked myself time and time again. For me, it's all about the story and the art... and a little bit of fear. I appreciate the security of a steady paycheck. Anything that I make from the strip is icing n the cake. Would I like Bob to be my only job? Absolutely... but because I've managed to juggle so much for so long, I'd probably get another gig anyway... just because I'm so used to being so busy.

Geek: Your latest collection of strips is entitled it doesn't matter because you're not going to buy this book anyway... It's certainly reflective of the strip's tone, but it also suggests some frustration on your part. Hoping that more people would buy your books. If you did sell enough books, would becoming a full-time comic strip artist be something you want to do? Or does having a variety of outlets for your creativity more mentally/emotionally rewarding?

Page: As I mentioned in the last answer, I've done so much for so long it would almost be a requirement that I have two or three different gigs on my plate. I went to graduate school and got my MFA in 2010 because A) I've always wanted a terminal fine arts degree and B) so I could have the credentials to teach at the college/university level. After I graduated, I managed to snag an adjunct position teaching a freshman drawing class. So, in addition to my day job and my comic strip, I was also teaching. It was crazy insane, but it didn't kill me. The title of the book this time around was just me being a wiseguy. I wrote that title down on paper and I immediately started laughing. Either I would get credit for having the nerve to call a book that or it would blow up in my face. I would be a liar if I said there wasn't a touch of frustration in my decision, but it's mostly me trying to entertain myself.

Geek: I have to admit that I'd be pretty amused if it didn't sell any copies as a kind of Andy Kauffman style self-fulfilling joke. But how have sales been relative to your previous books so far?

Page: Sales of this collection are surpassing any of my other books. I do think the title choice may have played a small role in increased sales. However, I have promoted this book much more than any of the others so that might be a bigger factor in the sales bump.

Geek: In one of your recent strips, you revealed that you're considering ending the comic. Folks like Bill Watterson and Gary Larson certainly have set a precedent for ending a long-running strip, and plenty of other webcomics have fallen by the wayside, but it seems that your reasoning is different from theirs. You don't seem to be concerned (at least not yet) about the strip going stale like Watterson or Larson and, after ten years, you've gotten well past the webcomics hump of keeping up a strip alongside everything else in your life. (Including a Masters degree!) You mention on your site that you still love working on the strip, but you're trying to figure out "the rest." Could you expand on that?

Page: I love drawing. Any cartoonist worth his or her salt would see life as meaningless without drawing; creating. If I don't draw something everyday, I get agitated, antsy and on occasion downright mean. I specifically get up every single day (even weekends) between 3:30am-4am just to draw. I know at that time the chances of my being disturbed are slim. I am willing to deprive myself of sleep in order to draw -- anything... I've been doing this morning ritual so long that I literally can't remember when I started doing it. I want to find out, from within myself, if this is indeed love or addiction. To me, there is a fine line between the two... I want to know which side I'm on. Am I doing it for the love of creation? Or am I doing it for the buzz I get from the act? Is there a difference?

Geek: Let me clarify something first: are you talking about drawing Bob, drawing in general, or making art/creating more broadly? I know you also take commissions and do painting; does that agitation you mentioned occur only when you haven't drawn Bob in a while or when you haven't created anything? Or has the latter never happened without the former?

Page: I guess that it would be creating in general. I mean, Bob has a set deadline... a certain amount of work has to be done in a certain amount of time. If I know that I'm skating that edge, I'll get even more agitated. While I do use my morning time to draw, I also use it to write... be it for the strips or an occasional side project.

Geek: For that matter, what's the longest you've gone without drawing Bob (once you took the strip daily)?

Page: Occasionally, I'll put out a call for guest strips or re-run old strips to get a breather. I'll run two weeks worth of old stuff and take a week off in real time. But just because I'm not producing anything Bob related, it doesn’t mean I'm not working on something.

Geek: What influenced the timing on your thinking here? You noted that you've been considering this in some fashion since last year, which seems a little early to have been thinking about Bob's tenth anniversary in 2012. You're generally pretty up-front about what's going on it your own life through your strip and I don't recall seeing anything earth-shattering show up in the strip. Certainly nothing larger than that hairball in the bathtub incident! So, what prompted you to start thinking about cancelling Bob?

Page: This would be difficult to apply one answer to. I think it was a combination of everything... the early mornings, the volume of work, my looking back on 3000+ strips and wondering what the next 3000+ would look like... I've made it very clear that I haven't decided one way or another if the strip will end. Bob has become my best friend, he's very real to me. And, after reading the considerable amount of emails I've received, he's real to a lot of other people as well. How do you say goodbye to your best friend? Would you be any better off doing something else?

Geek: One thing that's long struck me about Bob is that he seems very much a part of you as an individual. It's common, of course, for creators to put some of themselves in many of their characters, but Bob has always seemed to me like a second manifestation of yourself in the strip. As such, the strip as a whole comes across as not only a window into your life, but a means by which you think through life's issues as you (as cartoon Frank) debate with yourself (as Bob). And if I might take that armchair psychology one step further, what other venues might you consider for working out those issues if you ultimately decide to end Bob?

Page: Bob says what I want to say but can't. He uses the cuteness factor to shield himself from any real retribution his words may dish out. When I was working on my master's thesis, what my program called a "process paper", I wrote it as a comic book. We were given free reign to present it in any way we saw fit provided that the finished paper could fit in a standard binder. So, not only did I write it as a comic book, I MADE it into a comic book... taking a huge risk of time and effort in the process. I used Bob in the book as that voice... the "I'm gonna say what he's thinking because he won't say it... " voice. It proved to be the perfect counterpoint to what I was writing about. So if I were to end the strip, I think I'd use the graphic novel form to play around with those issues you spoke of. Hell, even if I don't end the strip that could be an avenue I'd explore.

Geek: By drawing this decision into the strip itself, you're graciously allowing readers into your thoughts behind this. But since you draw the strip several weeks in advance of when it gets posted, whatever arguments readers see in Bob for and against ending the strip have long-since played out in your own head. Have you then encountered a disconnect when fans are responding to what you debated internally a month earlier?

Page: The enormity of this does not dull with the passage of time... if anything, time has made me think more. Any disconnect I may have had was gone as soon as that first email hit my inbox.

Geek: What has the response been like so far? On your site, it seems be primarily one of supporting whatever decision you make, but has that been the norm? What have you been seeing in through email, Twitter, etc.?

Page: The response has been resoundingly one-sided. They don't want to see Bob go, but will be completely supportive and understanding if he does. I didn't expect the wave of support to be a tsunami. Ultimately, it's me who has to decide... but I would be a liar if I said all this wonderful support wasn't swaying me.

Geek: One last, two-part question on the subject of timing. Since you create the strip well in advance of posting it, you've got everything done for the rest of 2011, right now. But, as of this interview, you haven't reached a final decision yet. So, first, are you going to make an announcement outside of the strip, or is everyone going to have to wait to see how things play out in the strip? Second, how are you handling the December 31 strip -- are you just going to stage that somewhat ambiguously until you make a decision, or have you drawn up alternate endings, or are you just holding off on that one until you've made your final decision?

Page: In order to maintain my time buffer, the decision to continue creating the strip HAS to be made the week of December 5-10. I'm only telling a select few of my decision, preferring everyone else watch it play out in the strip. I have a handful of options sketched out for either decision. When that decision is made, I will proceed accordingly. On the one hand, I feel like I may be stringing people along ultimately to be potentially let down. On the other hand, it could be like watching a wonderful Greek tragedy suddenly turn into a comedy... with a happy ending and infinite beginnings. I want readers to get emotional... when you're emotional, be it sad, happy, angry, you're invested in whatever is sending you there. Doing that transforms three boxes on a page or screen into a sensory experience. Invest in me and you will double your returns.

Geek: Well, I don't doubt that Bob's fans are emotionally invested enough that they'll appreciate following you and Bob to the strip's conclusion -- whenever that might be -- regardless if it winds up being a tragedy or a comedy!

Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts on this, Frank. Both here and in the strip itself!

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