The Face behind the comics – Joel Watson
1. How did you first come up with Hijinks ensue?In 2007 I was working at a high paying sales job that I really didn’t care about. I was good at it, but it didn’t provide me with any sort of fulfillment or pride in what I was doing. My daughter was born that year and I quickly realized that if she had been old enough to ask what I did for a living, I would have been ashamed of the answer. I felt like I was wasting my limited amount of time doing something that didn’t make me happy and didn’t matter. I started the comic when she was 3 months old, hoping it would someday lead to a career I could be proud to tell her about. A year and a half later it was my only job. The comic itself came from a quickly abandoned idea that I would draw IM conversations between my two friends (Josh and Eli) and myself. Some of the very early comics were inspired by funny IM exchanges, but I quickly ran out of material and had to start coming up with stuff on my own. Still the original concept of commenting on geek pop culture with my friends stuck and became the crux of the comics. The name came from a suggestion from a friend that I start a comic called “Hijinks N’ Sue” about a little girl named Sue and Hijinks who was either a giant robot or a monster of some kind.
2. Years since the first strip, can you tell me what changes you’ve had to make to the comic in order to keep it going?I’ve tried to never let tradition or fear dictate what I’m willing to try with my comics. If I think the art would look better if I changed something, I change it. I’ve always made a habit of actively experimenting sort of in front of a live audience. I’ve never had a buffer and I’ve hardly every planned beyond the next comic. So every single strip I upload has some element of spontaneity to it. Since I’ve been constantly trying to improve the art and tighten up the writing/format since day one, no one seems to care or notice when I make big changes. About a year into it I decided to stop talking about video games. Video game comics had become a bit of a cliche and I felt I didn’t have anything original to say on the topic. Earlier this year I started working continuity and storylines into my (previously 100% one off gag) comics. After talking to a few respected peers and listening to feedback from my readers I felt the only way to grow the comic and challenge myself was to step outside of my gag-a-day comfort zone. It’s been difficult trying to maintain what the readers and I loved about the older comic while injecting a new creative direction and to keep it all in balance without scaring people away. So far the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
3. What about the creative process behind the comic, did you have to make any major changes to that?Since the characters are based on my real life friends, I used to not have to think very hard about character development. As my daughter got older and I saw less and less of the friends that inspired the comic characters, I began to realize that I was writing everyone with the same voice. Mine. The characters were getting interchangeable because I was too far removed from my, for lack of a less pretentious word, muse. Muses. Musi? I didn’t realize how much I was using the real life alter ego’s of my characters as a writing crutch. Since then I’ve had to work harder to flesh out the characters and give them their own voices.From the technical side, all of my comics have always been 100% digital. I started drawing on a Wacom Tablet, then a larger one, then a Cintiq (a monitor that you draw directly on with a digital stylus), then a larger one of those. Paper and pen has never entered into the equation. When i first started doing conventions I realized I was completely unable to draw my characters on paper. I had simply never done it before. I tested at least 100 pens and markers to find something that felt like drawing digitally then trained myself to relearn how to draw on paper. Now I feel pretty comfortable in either medium. The only thing that ever changes about my actual comic making process is learning new tricks in Photoshop to save time or make things look nicer.
4. I know that deadlines can be an issue no matter what field you’re in, but webcomics especially have a lot of them. Do you ever find yourself falling behind because life just gets in the way, or what measures do you take to prevent this?This is my number one struggle with being self employed. When you procrastinate, there’s no one to yell at you when the work doesn’t get done. At least not immediately. Twitter comments and emails aren’t nearly as persuasive as an actual boss. I struggle with lack of motivation every day, and I often lose the battle. My comics have never had a set update schedule and I know it’s something that has always held me back in terms of reaching a larger audience. It’s especially hard when you have a young child. She wants to play, and have fun and doesn’t fully understand why I need to work. When I can hear my wife and my daughter in the other room playing or getting ready to go the park, it’s hard to decide not to join them. Larger deadlines like traveling to cons or finishing big projects like books or commissions are another brain killer for me. The more important the looming task the more I go into a sort of mental paralysis. Thinking about how important the thing I’m supposed to be doing is makes be dread actually doing the thing itself. So yeah… if you figure out this procrastination/motivation thing, let me know.
5. ”we learn from our mistakes” – this probably applies to you as much as the rest of us, but can you tell me what mistakes you’ve had to learn from while working in comics?I spent the first few years of my comics career trying to be accepted to the “cool kids club.” After much heartbreak I learned two very important lessons. 1) There is no “cool kids club.” There is no secret meeting of the powerful individuals in your chosen creative field. There isn’t actually any power at all. There are cliques and groups of friends and there is some overlap, but there is no one unifying body that can welcome you into the fold. Be nice, be honest, do good work, make friends and eventually you will be the center of your own cool club. And 2) You do not need permission from anyone to be the thing you want to be. You have to give someone that power over you, and no one actually deserves it.
6. ”the experiment” is a huge (but clearly happy) risk you’ve taken in your life, how’s it working out for you right now and what made you decide to record something so personal online for all to see?I realized years after starting The Experiment (www.hijinksensue.com/experiment), the chronicling of my attempt to make a living from my online comic, that I didn’t really know what the end goal was. Was it financial? If I replaced my old salary, had it succeeded? After struggling to define “success” in my chosen field, I finally realized that The Experiment was already a success and would continue to be as long as I was still doing this job. The day I go back to doing a job I hate for more money or out of desperation is the day it fails. Or it’s at least the day it ends. The work is the reward. The lifestyle it affords me and my family and the happiness and fulfillment it provides are the only goals.
7. If you could give one piece of advice to someone trying to break into webcomics, what would it be?There is no “breaking in.” You’re either making a comic or you aren’t. You’re either making a living from it or you aren’t. Those are the only two “ins” you should be focused on. Start with the first and move on to the second. If you really WANT to make a comic, make one. Make it tonight. Stop reading this and start drawing right now. Put it up on the Internet, then make another one. The first thing you make will probably be terrible anyway. Get it out of the way and just keep going until you’re consistently happy with your work. Learn to take criticism and learn the difference between feedback and “general internet douchebaggery.” Don’t be so married to an idea or a concept that you aren’t willing to completely change or even throw it away if it’s not getting the results creatively or otherwise that you are looking for. The good news is that once you’ve figured all that out, once you’ve put the hours in you’ve probably already figured out how to make a living from it. Everyone’s path to financial independence through art is difference. Some sell originals, some sell T-shirts, some have a million readers and a couple of google ads pay their bills. Figure out where you fit into that equation and don’t be afraid to fail.The most important piece of advice I would give with regards to making a living from comics would be to try to have at least a year’s worth of income set aside before you take the plunge and quit your day job. You need to be prepared to earn NOTHING for at least a year (if not two) when starting a new business. And make no mistake, you are starting a small business. All of the hurdles and trials that go with that apply to comics just like anything else.8. if you could have any artist (dead or alive) come and have a drawing session with you, who would it be, and why?It’s probably cliche to say so, but no other artist had as big of an impact on me a child than Bill Watterson. Calvin and Hobbes was the first time I remember being astounded by the art as well as the jokes or the writing in a comic strip. That said, I probably wouldn’t actually want to hang out with him. I’m sure he’s barricaded in his curmudgeonly Hobbit hole, painting dinosaurs and probably wouldn’t have much use for me. It would be one of those “never meet your heroes” scenarios.
9. what is the best piece of advice that anyone has ever given you?Stop worrying what other people think about you. As much as that seems like a no brainer, and as much as I might have told it to others, I really didn’t learn to live by those words until a couple of years ago. I would try to attribute the advice giver in this scenario but it seems like that’s all I was hearing from everyone I talked to about making comics. It was obvious that I had a problem.
10. if you had to pick one word to describe your experience in webcomics so far, what would it be?Unlikely.