This is Part One of an interview with Chris Watkins, who has been publishing Odori Park since 2009. On his comic’s “About” page, he assures readers that “Odori Park is total fiction, and in no way autobiographical. Except for the part about being married to a Japanese woman, and having multi-racial children. And having taught English in Japan. And running a small business. And at least half the gags. Other than that, really, it’s woven out of whole cloth.” Recently, Watkins deliberately went through a series of “artsperiments” with his webcomic to see how he could improve the strip, and I caught up with him to talk about those changes, how he got to making them and what he came away from them with.
MTV Geek: Let’s start with some background. What are some of your earliest and/or strongest memories of being interested in comics? Was there any one creator or story that really gave you the idea that you might like to do that yourself one day?
Chris Watkins: It’s so hard for me to recall a time when I wasn’t aware of and attracted to comics. I suppose I was probably exposed to comics through comic characters on TV and in toys, but it must not have been long before I made the connections from Snoopy and Spider-Man back to the printed page. I devoured newspaper comics from before I could read–I’d have my dad read them to me (even Doonesbury)–and I’d get superhero and funny animal comics on family trips and from my aunt and uncle at Halloween. These things filled up my world so much, I wonder if I ever had any other idea than that I’d want to make comics and cartoons myself one day. And comics are unique in that they’re so accessible to kids as a creative medium. What’s got a lower point of entry than drawing pictures and adding word balloons? I still have a few old old comics I drew on lined paper of Spider-Man and Hulk when I was probably five.
Geek: Are you still reading those comics now? Spider-Man, Hulk, Peanuts…?
Watkins: To a certain extent. I have book collections of my favorite strips, like Peanuts, that I go back to from time to time for a smile or for inspiration. I have some Marvel collections, too, like the old Secret Wars, that I like to flip through.
Every once in a while, I get the itch and pick up a new issue of Spider-Man, but I’m almost always disappointed. Aside from not having a self-contained story, which is a bummer for someone not following the serials anymore, they also seem to just rehash the same old points, just with less agility and grace each time.
Some of it is ham-handedly trying to keep or make the characters”relevant” (like, do we really need so many clumsy attempts to undo Peter Parker’s marriage? I read him as a newlywed in high school and only enjoyed it; kids and readers in general are capable of relating to so much more than some people think), and some is about trying to make the things look more grown-up. Obviously, I’m all for comics for every age range, but most of what you see in these books is just wearing the trappings of adulthood to seem more “serious.”
That’s why I can’t share much of my childhood comics experience with my kids in the same way.
Geek: I understand you went to a small college and focused primarily on writing. While that would certainly be useful in creating comics, I gather that you weren’t looking at cartooning as a career path at that time? What were your goals at that time?
Watkins: I toyed with the idea for a couple years of being purely a writer, but it wasn’t long before I was pulled back to comics. The gravitational pull was just too strong. It’s all in the service of storytelling, though, which is what I’ve always been after (aside from drawing cool stuff). I could still see myself writing stories and novels (or writing a comic and letting someone else tackle the art). It’s in the cards somewhere down the road.
Geek: As a full-time career, or as another dimension to your creative output?
Watkins: Both. Either. Whichever comes first. I’ll always be making comics, but I see writing and comicking as all part of the same career.
Geek: You got into the “real world” with a regular day job, and then, in 2009, launched Odori Park. What prompted you to give webcomics a shot?
Watkins: I was actually part of the first larger “wave” of webcomics, although I don’t think I made a significant splash; I launched a comic anthology site back in 2000, before “webcomics” was a term. I burned myself out, though, and wasn’t getting where I wanted to go with it, so I put it on indefinite hiatus in 2005. Odori Park started life as a newspaper syndicate submission; my wife and other family members had encouraged me to try a different approach. When I got good responses, but no bites from the syndicates, I decided to head back online.
To give you a bit more background: I’d started building web pages in college as a hobby–in the days when the Web was young–and that turned into my first job out of school. I saw my first online comic while I was teaching English in Japan. It was a print comic the artist had posted on the Web, and I would slowly download each page over the dismal dial-up connection and borrowed PC I had there. I think it was called Utter Confusion. The same year, I started putting some English educational strips up on my school’s website. The planets just aligned; putting my comics on the Web became the natural choice.
Geek: Well, I’ll have to cop a plea of ignorance when it comes to your previous efforts. The school strips would have been done in the mid-to-late 1990s, then, right? You wouldn’t have had many precedents to follow then! What sort of reaction did you get to it?
Watkins: Oh, I meant the school where I taught English in Japan. That was 98 to 99. (I did the college newspaper cartoonist thing, too, but that never hit the Web.) There was no reaction. I hardly think anyone knew the school even had a site. I was pretty much the only one who cared about that comic, really.
Geek: And your anthology? Who all was involved in that?
Watkins: As for the anthology, you can still see that at BorderWalker.com. I tend not to talk about it much, because one lesson it taught me was that focus is important, and I don’t want to muddy the message about Odori Park. Plus, some of my old work is kind of embarrassing.
At its peak, I had about twelve different comics running on the site, two of which were mine. I worked with a bunch of other great creators. Some of the guys who had the biggest impact on the site were Jack Pendleton, Craig Schaffer, Peter Delgado Jr., and Neal VonFlue. I miss working with those guys.
Geek: Going back through the strip, it seems as if the concept of Odori Park was pretty fully formed when you launched it. Though you’ve changed up the art (which I’d like to get to in a bit) the characters and storylines are pretty defined from the start. Obviously, you’ve used your family for inspiration, but how long had you been putting thought into portraying them as characters in an ongoing story form?
Watkins: I created that newspaper syndicate submission in 2007, so I had a good couple years to play with ideas and develop concepts before anything hit the Web. Still, it’s funny–and flattering–that you say the characters are pretty well defined from the start. I’ve long feared that I don’t have stable solid characterizations for these people. I’ve never sat down and done a character study of any of them, for example. I just haven’t had the time, even though I’ve wanted to. In retrospect, I do give a lot of thought every time I write a gag to what’s “in character” for each of them.
The storylines were somewhat easier. I started with a bunch of different ideas drawn from my own life that I wanted to put into comic form. Even some of the later and more off the wall storylines have roots in experiences I’ve had. With this “pseudo-autobiographical” approach, I get to cherry pick out of my memory and my imagination.
Geek: Another thing that strikes me about your early strips is that you started with a clear Monday/Wednesday/Friday update schedule and have maintained that pretty consistently since then. Why did you initially choose that schedule (as opposed to daily or weekly or what-have-you) and what about it has been working for you so well these past few years?
Watkins: I don’t tend to think a gag strip can hold onto much of a readership without regular new updates to keep people coming back. In my own experience, even with comics that update three days a week, I’ve had times where I’ve sort of forgotten they exist, only to be reminded sometime later, when I’ll go back and dig through all the installments I missed. People get busy, and there’s so much out there ping ponging your attention around from day to day.
Lately, I’ve seen more and more webcomickers question this model, though, and explore other approaches. I’ve considered them, too. There’s a lot to be said, for example, for building up content at your own pace offline, then releasing it in a book or digital package of some kind. Still, I think folks would forget about Odori Park if there wasn’t something new on a consistent and regular basis to remind them. Maybe it doesn’t have to be a new strip every time, though.
Geek: You know, while you refer to it as a gag strip, you’ve also done a few extended storylines. Were those done, then, to flex your artistic muscles or to examine changes in reader traction/retention?
Watkins: Mostly it’s because I like telling stories, and gag-a-day alone doesn’t satisfy that. I always liked the rhythm of story arc and stand-alone some of the classic newspaper strips have had, so I try to emulate that. On the Web, I sometimes wonder if the average reader might not prefer gag-a-day all the time. I don’t think gag-a-day is even really my “default setting.”
Check in next Friday for the second part of our interview with Chris!