Kleefeld On Webcomics #56: Brad Guigar Interview

By Sean Kleefeld

Brad Guigar has been been working on webcomics for over a decade now, starting with Greystone Inn and eventually spinning that off into Evil Inc in 2005. He’s been a very active voice in webcomics, working as the editor-in-chief for Webcomics.com, a co-writer of How to Make Webcomics and one of the hosts for the Webcomics Weekly podcast among other things. He’s also been a graphic artist in the newspaper industry for much of the same time, giving him a unique perspective on both print and digital realms. Recently, however, his paper instituted a round of cost-cutting measures and Guigar accepted a voluntary layoff. He’s taken the opportunity to dive head-first in his webcomics, having already well-positioned himself for just such a transition. We caught up with Guigar to discuss the long road he’s taken to get to where he is today.

MTV Geek: Let’s start with some background. I get the impression that you’re an old school DC fan from years back. Were your earliest comic influences actually DC books? What were your favorite books as a kid?

Brad Guigar: Actually, when I first got into comics, I was a die-hard Marvel fan, and my younger brother collected DC exclusively. I had read “How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way,” and I was convinced that the offerings from the Distinguished Competition were inferior. So my first collection was weighted strongly towards Spider-Man, the Avengers and Fantastic Four. But I would constantly peek at the books in my brother’s collection when he wasn’t around. After I left comics-reading for a few years, I came back with a different set of eyes, and I found myself gravitating towards Batman, JLA and Green Lantern. Today, I still lean heavily towards DC. I remember reading that DC was written for kids that tied towels around their necks and “flew” around the backyard, while Marvel was written for teens to read in their mom’s basement. I don’t think that distinction is nearly as distinct today, but I always preferred the kind of story-telling that made be want to tie a terrycloth “cape” around my neck. Still do.

Geek: You went to school to obtain a MFA, so you were clearly interested in pursuing art as a profession, but I daresay “webcomic artist” wasn’t really a viable option at that time. Can you talk to what your professional plans were both as you started your degree, and as you came closer to graduating?

Your started your career working in newspapers as the resident graphic artist slash cartoonist. Am I right in presuming that you were hired primarily as a graphic artist and only began the cartooning portion of your job after they discovered you could draw funny pictures as well? How did that play out? Was that something you actively pushed for, or just an opportunity that happened to fall your way?

Guigar: Actually, I only have a BFA. And, no, in 1991, “webcartoonist” wasn’t an option. My senior thesis was a huge collection of editorial cartoons that I had created for the student newspaper — and three weeks of a comic strip that I had worked on for my thesis (but hadn’t shown anywhere before the senior show). The Art Department brought in Bill Day, who was the editorial cartoonist during that time for the Detroit Free Press.

After the show, I told him that I wanted to become an editorial cartoonist, and he (patiently) explained to me that there are only about 190 jobs in the country that fit that description (this was 1991). He told me that all of the editorial cartoonists were waiting for someone at a better newspaper to die so they could move up. This would leave a hole at lesser newspaper, which would be filled by a cartoonist from an even worse newspaper. And so on down the line until the only opening was at the worst newspaper at the chain. And I could compete with a couple thousand other wannabes for that position. And then wait again for sweet death. Not necessarily someone else’s.

But, he said, I could do an end run around *all* of that and get a job at a newspaper as a newsroom graphic artist — doing charts, infographics, layouts and illustrations. And I could submit editorial cartoons on the side. And that’s exactly what I did later that year at The (Canton, Ohio) Repository. I worked there for about five years, and I submitted editorial cartoons on the side for the first two. And then I started to find out that I was *really good* at newspaper graphics. I gradually became less of a cartoonist and more of a newspaper graphic artist. And until about 1999, that was where I put most of my energies.

Being a newspaper graphic artist brought me to the Philadelphia Daily News, where I was on track to take my career even further. When I suffered a career setback, I got so pissed off that I dusted off a comic-strip submission to the syndicates that I had worked on sporadically over the past several years. It was based on that comic I had developed during my senior year in college. I re-worked it again, giving it a new twist, and sent it off, again, to the newspaper syndicates. When they unanimously passed, I built a Web site, and started posting the nine-week submission of “Greystone Inn.” After the ninth week had posted, I started working on a tenth, and then an 11th, and I’ve been posting a Monday-through-Saturday comic strip ever since.

Geek: At what point, then, did you start to think, “Hey, I could make money from this?” At the time, I don’t think there were very many (if any) real guides to making money from webcomics, so what types of things were you doing back then?

Guigar: When I was selected to join Keenspot in 2001, I started to think that webcomics might grow into a viable source of income. Of course, back then, my mental framework of what that was going to look like was way off the mark. But it was clear that one could make money doing this.

At that time, my business plan was tied directly to Keenspot and Plan 9 Publishing, a company that was developed to publish book collections of webcomics. My vision for success back then was to sign with those two companies, do good work, let them publish that work online and in print, and cash the checks when they came.

Geek: Now one of the things I find fascinating about your personal story is that, for the past decade-plus, you’ve had one foot squarely in the newspaper world and one foot squarely in webcomics. Looking back to the late 1990s, can you relay what you were seeing in the newspaper industry relative to online news and entertainment? Was there a “writing on the wall” moment for you, or just a series of trends guiding you to post Greystone Inn online?

Guigar: It was always so frustrating to me. I remember being at The Repository — this would have been around 1997 — as AOL was defining the online experience, and newspapers were just starting to notice how it was effecting their bottom line. And I was in a discussion about it with some upper-level editors who, with a reassuring pat on my head, explained to me that “people would always prefer holding a newspaper in their hands.” This online thing was a craze. Like a pet rock. Sooner or later, people would come back to newspapers.

And then eBay came along, and newspapers saw their classified advertising begin to drop eeeeeeever so slowly. And instead of taking the fight to their competitors, newspaper management continued to sit back, confident that it would go away. Everything else that came along to take a piece of what had been traditionally newspaper-dominated territory was treated with the same blind eye — Craigslist, blogs, etc.

I’d say I saw the writing clearly on the wall in 1999. The Web was getting stronger. Better. It was expanding beyond what AOL was presenting us with. And it held mountains of opportunity for people like me. It was clear to see that it wasn’t going away. And I wasn’t going to allow myself to be dragged down by people who couldn’t see that. It’s not as if I knew that the idea of a “full-time web cartoonist” was a possibility back then, but I knew the Web was going *somewhere*… and I wanted to see where that somewhere was.

You wanna know the crazy thing? I was talking about digital tablets with a newspaper employee a few weeks ago. And I was talking about how these tablets were exploding with possibilities for news-gathering institutions. Know what she said? “I dunno… I think people are always going to want to hold the newspaper in their hands.” But there was a much different look in her eyes than there was in the eyes of the guy who first shared that sentiment with me in the mid-90s.

Geek: Seriously? Wow. What would you attribute that mindset to? It seems to me some level of willful blindness, certainly, but are they just THAT ingrained in the status quo?

Guigar: That thing I saw in her eyes? Desperation.

I think she believed it because she didn’t have any other choice.

Geek: Greystone Inn also ran in several print papers as well. I presume that came about, at least in part, because you already had some connections in the industry. At the time, were you actively pursuing a traditional syndication model or was that just an opportunity that came up?

Guigar: Greystone Inn has run in numerous newspapers and magazines — same with Evil Inc. But the only paper to run it continuously was the Philadelphia Daily News, where I was employed as a graphic artist. It started like this. I was getting ready to release my first book, a collection of “Greystone Inn” books, to be published by Plan 9 Publishing, in 2001. I wanted to make sure that there was no perceived conflict of interest between my work online and my work at the newspaper, so I sat down with my supervisor and told him about the comic strip and the book. He ran it through the appropriate channels, and the reply came back that, not only was there no conflict, but the paper would like to run the strip. To avoid any direct connection between the strip and my employment, I suggested that we handle it under a completely separate contract — and they agreed. So the strip has always run separately from my employment. I invoice them separately, and the payment has always been separate from my paycheck. I’m very happy to report that the Evil Inc comic strip that will run in the April 16, 2012, edition of the Daily News will mark 11 years of my comic strip being in daily print.

Geek: Congratulations! That’s nearly (if not completely) unique in webcomics, I think. If you don’t mind my asking, does that constitute a significant revenue stream for Evil Inc or just one small part among many?

Guigar: It’s not a major income stream. It’s way behind advertising and profits from self-publishing books.

But my game plan has always been to find as many different ways as possible to get paid for doing each thing I do.

Geek: Your comics, Courting Disaster and Phables, were also posted online as well as showing up in the Philadelphia Daily News, your then-employer. Were those projects you pitched to them, or ones that grew out of the paper’s desire for new content?

Guigar: Both were originally Daily News projects. Phables ran full-page in the tabloid-sized Daily News on Mondays, and Courting Disaster accompanied a sex-advice column that ran Fridays. For a year-or-so, my comics appeared in the Daily News eight times a week… and the paper only published six times a week. At its peak, Phables was awarded best local newspaper column in Philadelphia by the SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists). As you might imagine, an awful lot of “real” newspaper columnists were more than a little tweaked.

Phables ended when it was clear that the newspaper needed me to be a graphic artist more than it needed me to be a cartoonist — and I couldn’t continue to do both. Courting Disaster will definitely continue, but it is unclear whether its future will include the Daily News.

Geek: Your current, and I’m guessing most widely-read, comic is Evil Inc. But it’s hardly your only form of expression on the subject of comics. You’re also the editor of Webcomics.com, and joined with Dave Kellett, Scott Kurtz and Kris Straub to not only write a book about making webcomics, but you also talk with them in a weekly podcast. Plus, you and Chris Giarrusso have been doing special “Tales from the Con” comics for the Emerald City Comic Con site, and you go around doing speaking engagements about the web and cartooning. You’ve been at all of this for a while, so I gather you’ve worked out the logistical challenges with all that, but I’m curious about your motivations behind pursuing so many different avenues to look at and talk about comics. Clearly it’s something you’re passionate about, but how might you compare/contrast your interest against someone who, say, has a good, daily webcomic and is making a living at it, but doesn’t work on anything else.

Guigar: I don’t know that I could be happy “just” doing a webcomic. We’re living in a comics renaissance — possibly the most important time for the craft since W.R. Hearst started publishing comics in newspapers over 100 years ago. It’s an amazing, amazing time to be a cartoonist. And I find myself getting swept up in many different directions. Take “Tales from the Con” for example. That’s something I had been insisting in a separate interview that Marvel and DC should be doing with their sites. When Emerald City Comicon’s Jim Demonakos approached me (having never seen the interview) with exactly the same concept — using a webcomic to generate traffic that would be exposed to that site’s message — I couldn’t *not* be involved in something like that. This year, ECCC had record-breaking attendance. It wasn’t *completely* due to having a weekly comic there to keep people coming back to the site (where they’d also be remind of dates and guests and scheduled events), but I’m convinced that the comic was a key part of it. I got to see my theory backed up with real-life results. That’s pretty astounding stuff.

Geek: It seems to me that it’s hardly even a theory, since it’s essentially the same economic model that many webcomics in general use, isn’t it?

Guigar: Give content away for free in exchange for a overt return-on-investment, whether it’s an overt one (buying a book / buying a ticket to a convention) or a covert one (exposure to advertising / exposure to promotional messages)? You bet. :)

Geek: What strikes me about all the work that you’re doing is that it’s essentially set you up in about as prime a position as possible for the recent news that staffing cuts at the Daily News led to your being laid off. In your case, I understand, there was a voluntary buyout, which I’m sure made the decision more palatable. But I’m curious if leaving the newspaper industry was an idea that you had already given some serious consideration to, given your workload in webcomics?

Guigar: Leaving newspapers has always been part of my plan. But I have a wife and two boys. For the better part of the past 12 years, the newspaper job provided exemplary health insurance — a load that is now being shouldered by my wife in her new job. Beyond that, my attitude was that I was honor-bound to keep earning that regular paycheck for as long as it was being offered. I was confident of making my transition to a full-time webcomics career, but when you have a family, you’re less inclined to take risks. When the newspaper announced layoffs — and it looked as if I was an easy target — and went on to restructure their scheduling in a way that would have the potential to make my life very difficult, I knew it was a good time to bow out.

Geek: How much of a concern was health insurance specifically for you? Obviously, you had something of a safety net in that regard with your newspaper job, but in exploring options over the years, were you also looking at independent options should you have been forced to leave a “regular” job earlier?

Guigar: I wouldn’t have left the newspaper if health insurance hadn’t been covered. That would have been a deal-breaker. If I had been laid-off, I would have had to have found another day job that carried the benefit. It’s just too big a risk to take when you have small children. Luckily, my wife got a job a couple years ago, after finishing her Master’s degree, and that job comes with health benefits.

Geek: Obviously, having one less job to worry about will free up your schedule considerably, but right after your last day at the paper, you jumped on a plane for Emerald City. And you’ve alluded to having several side projects already lined up. Any intentions of slowing down long enough to catch your breath?

Guigar: Yes and no. I took a little time to decompress last week, after returning from Seattle. To be honest, while I was in Seattle, my body insisted that I slow down a bit. And I have pretty reachable goals for myself this week. But here’s the deal. I’ve had projects and ideas pinned to the corners of my drawing board for years. And now I have the opportunity to put a little steam behind them. I’m absolutely champing at the bit to bring as many of them as I can into reality. I’ve already unveiled the first — the digital download that allows my readers to read the entire month of Evil Inc strips in advance. That’s a webcomics innovation that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and it’s a completely new way of presenting my work to my readers. Evil Inc is a storyline-based comic, so it reads exceptionally well in a continuous narrative. This is a fantastic way to enjoy the strip. But that core engine is always going to be the daily webcomic. And I work very hard to make sure it’s a compelling read in that format as well. Throw in the newspaper version of the strip and the Evil Inc books I publish based on the strips — that use the individual panels of the daily strips, along with additional narration and original panels to form a graphic novel — and you can see what I’m up to … pushing the idea of a comic strip as far as it can go. And I’m far from done.

Geek: I know it’s early yet, but what’s been the initial response on this from your fans?

Guigar: Overwhelmingly positive.

I had a number in mind when I launched. If I cleared the number, I’d consider the launch a success, and I’d continue offering the downloads. I hit that number early the first day. And surprisingly, I’m still seeing people ordering the download.

Incidentally, the people who were probably least surprised to see the digital-download project launched were the members of my subscription site, Webcomics.com. I’ve been adamant in my discussions there about re-thinking how you’re presenting your work to your readers. I’m constantly chastising longform creators for posting pages on their sites. Pages are for books. Sites require updates. And updates are defined as significant, engaging content that will bring a new reader back tomorrow. If the takes less than a page, then that’s the update. If it takes more than a page, then *that’s* the update. I look at longform comics creators updating their sites in terms of pages with the same disappointment I had for editors trying to pass off “a newspaper… but on the Web.” That is, unless each of those pages are significant and compelling.

Geek: I suspect a lot of that stems from some old status quo thinking. Like the only way they can make money is to sell print comics that look like something you might pick up in a comic shop. Do you hear from webcomic artists who provide that argument, or are there other rationales for that thinking?

Guigar: Absolutely! When I post an opinion on Webcomics.com, it’s far from me preaching and the members nodding. It’s often a spirited, passionate debate, and there are many members who make very good counter-points to my thinking on longform comics. It’s one of the biggest strengths of the site.

And, in a way, all of these things charge each other. The more I wrote about these subjects at Webcomics.com, the more I was looking for ways to put them into action them in my own work. And the more things I tried in my own work, the more I had to write about. (And as any member can tell you, some of my best posts are the result of my mistakes, errors and failures.) The “How to Make Webcomics” book, the Webcomics Weekly podcast, “Tales from the Con”… all of these things charge me up for the next thing, which feeds back into another.

Geek: So you’re using some avenues to noodle around theories, and other avenues to actually experiment? Do you find those different outlets gives you an advantage over other webcomic creators? That because you’ve got an express outlet to talk about webcomics that isn’t directly related to, for example, Evil Inc, you’re able to look at both the strategy and tactics of the medium?

Guigar: Well, “advantage” would imply that it’s something available to me that’s not available to anyone. I disagree with that. Anyone can participate in a podcast. Anyone could write a book about what they’ve learned about a certain topic, and so on.

Geek: That’s excellent, Brad! Thanks very much!

Related Posts:
Kleefeld On Webcomics #55: Taxonomy
Kleefeld On Webcomics #54: Just Like Me

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