5 Year Experimentiversary

Today is the 5 year anniversary of The Experiment. That means HijiNKS ENSUE has been my full time job for the last 5 years. That also means it’s the longest job I’ve ever held. What I’d like to say is, “Thanks for sticking with me and making it possible for me to do what I love for a living. Without your support I would still be in some soul-sucking, creatively bankrupt job, but instead I get to do exactly what I want to for a living. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done and I’m humbled and honored that I get to share it with you.” And while those statements are EXACTLY true, they are not the whole truth.

I started The Experiment with the goal of  being extremely transparent about the successes and failures of trying to turn my passion into my job in the hopes that someone else would read about my experiences, be inspired to do their own thing and hopefully not have to make all of the same mistakes I’ve made. Over the last 5 years I’ve heard from at least a dozen people that started “experimenting” for themselves after following along with my adventure in self employment/ dream fulfillment. Other than being a father, I think that is probably the most important thing I will ever do. If even one person allows themselves to lead a full life of risk and passion and reward and danger and all of the things that are the antithesis of punching the clock, being miserable and constantly waiting for things to get better because of something I wrote or said or did, then I’ve left the world a little bit better than I found it.

If you are a fan of The Experiment and would like to see it continue, please consider making a donation, buying something from the HE Store or Sharksplode or checking out my Amazon Wishlist. I am quite literally 100% dependent on the kindness of strangers. It’s a weird job, I know.

If you want a ZERO DOLLAR way to support HijiNKS ENSUE, please post a few of your favorite HE comics to your site, blog or social media outlet of choice with a few words as to why you think your friends might enjoy reading HE as well.

Hearing from other “experimenters” is certainly one of the most positive outcomes of this whole ordeal. But transparency isn’t just about sharing the positivity. It’s also about sharing the hardships, and the uncertainty. Partly so other experimenters know they aren’t alone if they are having similar feelings and partly just to get it off my chest. When I wrote about the 4 year Experimentiversary a year ago, I also wrote about how I was feeling creatively stifled and that I had done all I felt I could with one-off pop culture references as my only subject matter. I expressed my desire to grow as a writer and take the comic in a different direction utilizing more continuity and story lines and character development. I thought it would be fair to share my feelings on that aspect of The Experiment one year later.

Sometimes I feel like I’m getting a better handle on what I want to do with this comic. The writing is certainly easier whenI get to dance around the same topic for 4 or 5 consecutive strips. Other times I feel like I really have no idea what I’m doing and HE is just too unfocused and the subject matter is too specific to really reach a wider audience. I wrestle with the desire to get more into my characters’ heads and develop their personalities versus my total lack of desire to write anything about jobs or relationships. I’ve always been the kind of artist that second guesses my every decision. I often spend more time worrying about what kind of comics I should be making than I do actually making comics. Of course this is a terrible plan of (in)action, because the types of comics I REALLY need to be making is MORE comics.

It’s hard to gauge the reaction (or lack their of) to changes in the comic’s direction or art style since I rarely get any kind of feedback. My audience (if statistics are to be trusted) plateaued a few years ago and has declined slowly ever since. It’s holding steady at roughly 2/3 to 1/2 of what it was at its peak. It’s still a sizable group (nothing to scoff at), but it’s difficult not to get disheartened when you feel like the quality of your art and writing is improving steadily, yet your reach isn’t. I’ve been more excited about making comics over the last couple of weeks (with this HBO story line) than I have in at least a year. I feel like my art has leveled up since I changed up the panel layout, and my writing has improved along with it. I think an art career isn’t measured in minute improvement over time, but rather a series of unexpected jumps in output, talent or some combination of the two. I honestly feel like the comics I’ve been making recently will count as one of those jumps when I look back on this period of my career. The most complicated part of this feeling of accomplishment is the idea that I’m totally alone in feeling this way. It’s hard not to take pride in your work when you enjoy the entire process of creating and smile at it when it’s finished. But, as with any art that is intended to be appreciated by others, there is a fear in releasing it into the world and finding out that it’s nowhere near as good as you thought.

I’m not fishing for compliments and I’m certainly not depressed or upset about the state of my art or my career. I guess I’m sharing these feelings because I know there are some of you that wish you were doing what I was doing. I know there are some of you that are actively working towards having exactly what I have. And I KNOW there are those of you who already feel these same insecurities about your art, your audience and your place in your perceived community of peers. I suppose my point, or my message (if there is one) is if the demons and fears and insecurities don’t just magically go away after 5 years (or 10 or 20) of putting your all into your work… they probably never will. So fuck ’em. Just don’t worry about it. Just keep making/doing/sharing/going/going/going. Fear will keep you in the job you hate and fear will make you hate doing the thing you love the most. Fear is a thief. It steals time and happiness and almost everyone doesn’t have enough of either to spare.

I often worry about whether or not I am making the right choices. And I am always concerned about where the money for next month’s mortgage is going to come from. I even spend a fair amount of time wondering what I’m going to do if the way I make my living (online ads, t-shirts and comic conventions) just isn’t a thing any more in a few years. Despite those nagging concerns and insecurities, after 5 years of living this impossible dream I can honestly say I am not afraid. Cautious? Sure. Trepidatious? Probably. Uncertain about… almost every aspect of this job? Almost definitely. But, afraid? No. Not any more. Five years of making the best thing I know how to make and sharing it with kind and generous people has taught me the worthlessness of fear. Five years of traveling around America (and beyond) with my chosen family of artists, writers, actors, comedians and other talented, compassionate weirdos has taught me the pointlessness of fear. Thirteen years with my wife and 6 years with our daughter has taught me the complete and total irrelevance of fear. My readers, my friends and my family have been my safety net, my support group, and my reason to not give up more times than I can recall since this experiment started.

I don’t regret a single moment, mistake or hard lesson learned of the last five years, I do not fear the next five and neither should you. Whatever your thing is; that thing that you love doing that you wish was your job, MAKE THAT THING YOUR JOB. Stop whatever you’re doing and go figure out what the very next step is that you need to take in order to make your thing your job, then TAKE THAT STEP. When that step is complete, do the next one and keep taking steps and making progress every single day until your passion, your art, your whatever is your job. You don’t need permission (if you feel like you do, then I’m giving it to you), you don’t have much time and every day that you aren’t totally happy is a wasted one. Chase happiness, forget the fear and DO YOUR THING.

Unless your thing is murder, or genocide or destroying the legacy of a beloved sci-fi franchise. Then, maybe find a different thing.

Godspeed, You Fancy Bastards!

~Joel

Quick Links: 
The Experiment Overview |  The Whole HE Story |  The “Digital Age” Artist’s Manifesto  |
4 Year Experimentiversary, 5 Year Anniversary And More Experimenting

 

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22 Comments

  1. Fantastic entry. Congrats to you for an even more fantastic five years, and here's to fivetillion more! Thank you for doing your thing, and inspiring others to do the same. FEAR IS A THIEF!

  2. A friend pointed me to this article. I didn't know about your work at all before, but this post on your 5th anniversary really resonated with me. All I can say is: Whoaaaa! I'm so stoked to read that you were able to make a career out of doing something you love.

    I've started my own journey down that road of doing what you love, but both my own fear and the fear of those around me (worrying that I'll fail, darn them, I wish I knew more positive people, lol!) keeps making me second-guess if it's the right course of action. But I don't want that fear to hold me back and I'm sick of doing work that I'm simply no longer interested in.

    So I know that the next few years are going to be hard, and a long road, but I'll be darned if I don't at least try. Thank you for sharing your story, you've given me something to aim for.

    • Matt, Im glad my experience could help you out a bit. I think you'd really get a lot out of watching this panel I led on JoCo Cruise Crazy 3 called "The Quitting Panel: Keep Calm And Quit Your Job" http://hijinksensue.tumblr.com/post/45744498530/u

      Lots of "quitters" from various industries give insight into their quitting process. It's good stuff.

  3. I love HE and I think it's consistently got better in the last year (which is about as long as I've been reading). I love the updates and it's one of the few "geek" comics that I really-REALLY love (there are several that I tend to read mostly out of habit and being too freaking lazy to take them out of my reader – ridiculous, I know). It regularly makes me laugh out loud and I share it with everyone that I think has even the remotest of chances of enjoying it. Thanks for creating something that clearly has a lot of love and time put it into it, that brightens my day.

    I also love that you regularly talk about the behind the scenes of self employment; I'm in an ENTIRELY different field but I also run a business/work for myself and there are not a lot of people who are willing to talk about the shitty side of things that comes along with the awesome side of things. I LOVE what I do and I wouldn't do anything else but it's definitely not all roses and butterflies all the time. There's a lot of "rah rah entrepreneurship, everything about it is wonderful" material out there IMO, and not a lot of "sometimes this actually sucks hairy donkey balls but I STILL wouldn't give it up".

    Anyways, all around, thanks for being awesome!

  4. Congrats on 5 years! As a point of feedback: one-off pop culture references are the best strips I can forward to friends to get them hooked – don't be afraid to sprinkle in a few more here and there.

    • It's a delicate balance to try and strike. I know the one-off's are more "shareable" but they aren't great for retaining readers. I've noticed over the years that after any significant traffic spike due to a popular Doctor Who strip being shared on Reddit or whatever, there is no noticeable increase in traffic in the days and weeks later. Reddit culture is based on wanting to see 1000 different things every day and not really caring what the source is. It's not for people seeking out long term "relationships" with websites. It's more about 30 second hook ups. The only real way to take advantage of that kind of traffic is to do something easily shareable every single day. It seems like my choices are all pop culture for the short term reader or all character driven stuff for the long term reader. My preference lies squarely in the middle, but so far the readership doesnt seem to share in that goal. Thanks for the feedback. I really do appreciate your perspective.

      • For what it's worth, I come by the site every day happy to read either kind: pop-culturey or story-archified. 🙂 Even when I'm not in the loop on a specific topic (e.g. Walking Dead) you still find a way to make it a topic that engages and interests me.

  5. Thanks for this. I just wanted to share a bit. I took a tiny step in that direction recently (like last week). I told my manager that one thing I had done recently was rewarding and I wanted to do more with a side of something more imaginative. I tried previously about 5 years ago and my then-manager practically laughed at me, but this time, I think I presented it better and more in-line with corporate goals and stuff. It was very well received and she even pushed me to do a specific task for my first project. I had a good time doing it, got some nice recognition from the management team and several more ideas to do more and do it better.

    • Good on you! Doing what you love for a living doesnt always mean "quit your job." When I used to manage graphic designers (my least favorite thing to do), I would always get lost in the projects that allowed me to do the design work myself. If you can find the bits and pieces of your job that make you the happiest and mold those into your full time gig, then you've achieved the same success that I am talking about.

  6. Congrats Joel! Your four-year experimentiversary post seems so fresh in my mind that I can't believe it's been a year already! I like the mini-arcs, and have said so before, I think. The evil Fox executive and your latest HBO arc (each strip of which make me laugh till there were tears in my eyes) are some of my favorite strips you've ever done. I'm sorry to hear that readership has declined. I wonder what the cause of that could be.

    Here's to five more awesome years of hijinks!

    • Thanks for the kind words and support. I have a lot of theories about why the type of humor I do doesnt reach a wider audience. See my reply to @swingler above. The internet today is less about visiting websites that create content you like and more about reading aggregated content on a central source like Reddit. It's great for people that dont know where to look for things they might like and it's pretty detrimental to creators that are trying to cultivate a specific audience. It's GREAT for creators that produce content that is easily accepted by a majority of potential readers or even the majority of a particular sub-group.

      If I made comics about coffee, and cats, and dating and problems with printers (stuff everyone can relate to) every single day I would have a much more popular strip. I dont have anything against those types of comics but HE has always been about specificity because it's always been about geeks that geek on VERY SPECIFIC things. I learned a while back that this doesnt leave a lot of room for the average semi-geek. The realistic answer that I will probably keep doing HE like I am for those that enjoy it and eventually start a second comic for the reddit/facebook/etc crowd that takes far less time and gets far more recognition. My heart wouldnt be in it as much, but it wouldnt effect HE so it wouldnt really matter. If it provided more financial support and allowed me to continue HE without being worried about reaching 100,000 readers then it would be a positive thing.

  7. Congratulations on your anniversary, from one crazy-artist-dad to another. I made the jump to the light side 10 years ago. It's been a struggle, with some years easy and some very hard, but in the end it has been… satisfying… in a way no other job has been. I really hope that my kids see me doing this crazy career and get inspired to never settle. To always look for that space that perfectly fits you, even if it means you have to build it yourself.

    Hey, thinking about your traffic issue, where you're down from the peak you reached a few years back. Have you determined if this is an individual thing, or a more general trend? i.e. have other cartoonists you know experienced the same pattern? I've experienced a similar downward trend in one of my businesses, and after beating myself up for a while for failing, finally realized that it was a market-wide trend — that things had just changed significantly (more competition, customers using the internet in different ways).

  8. Your experiment has led me to try a bit of experimenting on my own… It's partly because of you that I turned a bit of my science knowledge and time towards doing food science consulting on the side.

    Because of you… I was able to help several small businesses start up lines of salsas, cookies, and even flavored vodkas. It's been worth it to me to start up a side job when I was too scared to even think of any other way of taking care of myself except through a corporate job.

    Thank you, Joel, for showing that it can be done…

    • That's super great to hear, Mike. PS the Chocolate mint vodka was the hit of the party. Everyone tried the Thai Curry vodka and marveled at it's complexity… then didn't try it again. Im thinking straight up wasnt the way to go with that one. Perhaps in a mixed drink. I'd love to get some more of that choco-mint if it's available in TX.

  9. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Joel. I have always LOVED your art, and even though I strayed (possibly because of language; I have re-evaluated my own family-friendliness in favor of the reality of cuss words in 2013) .
    I am taken with your philosophy and experiment and am back for more. Will do what I can to support the strip.

  10. Is it helpful to know that I read HE regularly even though about 30 to 50% of your comics reference things that I don't know anything about? They're usually funny anyway. And then if I really want to understand what's going on I'll look it up.

    For me, the appeal of HE is the ridiculous wordiness and the outrageous reactions of the characters, whatever it is they may be talking about. And I have noticed the improvement in your art over the last while, and the increase in variety of perspective, and character poses, and more nuanced colouring, and really hilarious facial expressions. So it's not lost on the world entirely!

    I appreciate that of the webcomics I read regularly, you keep trying to make your art more… professional, I guess I would say. And it keeps getting better, but you do it without being all "Hey guys look at my ARTZ" after every comic and I respect that.

    • Your feedback IS super helpful and extremely kind. Ive been trying over the last year to do basically what you described. If I know a topic is pretty specific to a certain show or thing that not everyone knows about, I try to offer enough context in the dialog to bring the uninitiated along, and enough funny dialog to make it entertaining regardless. I guess the idea is, "If you over heard people having this conversation, would you laugh even if you didnt know what they were talking about?" It's very reassuring to know that this concept is coming through in the comics. Thanks!

  11. Hi Joel. I visit regularly, enjoy the strips, occasionally share them, and have bought some merch.

    Since you did ask for feedback, I'll be direct and hopefully constructive about what stops me from doing more of the above.

    First, HE isn't on my daily visit list simply because the updates are so irregular. Put baldly, I'm here for the comics, not the story of them. I do enjoy reading about your meatspace hijinks here and on Twitter, but that's not what keeps me returning.

    And I actually prefer the one off strips because despite reading for years, I couldn't put names or stories to the characters, and nor do I care about them. Drunk beardy guy, gay drunk beardy guy, and some-kind-of-Spanish drunk beardy guy. It doesn't get in the way of the humour, but honestly, the names are just filling up the speech bubbles. You could switch to Larry, Moe and Curly and I doubt I'd notice.

    I guess the constructive part is that I'm suggesting that I'd just love to just read more comics, even if they're not all cubicle wall keepers, or stretching your artistic boundaries. Never mind the depth, feel the breadth.

    I'm now in some considerable danger of veering into "give me more free stuff or else!" ungrateful dick territory, so will close with some soft shoe, jazz hands and a rimshot.

    • I mentioned not getting a lot of feedback, but I didnt actually ask for any in this post. Regardless, there's not much I can do with feedback like this. "I like it better when you only do the thing I like and NOT the thing you wrote about how hard you are working on getting better at," isn't all that helpful. Im not asking if I should keep going in the direction that Im headed. Im just filling you guys in on how Im feeling about it after a year of working intently towards a goal. Abandoning that goal is not yet an option I am interested in.

      "Drunk beardy guy, gay drunk beardy guy, and some-kind-of-Spanish drunk beardy guy"

      Some kind of Spanish? Yikes. I've been working on differentiating the characters (Joel, Josh and Eli by your ordering above) by character and personality over the last year. Maybe I haven't succeeded as well as I'd hoped but your comments seem to indicate more your lack of paying attention than they do my lack of effort. I rarely use the characters' names in the comics because people just don't talk that way. To say the names are taking up space is silly since (see above) I rarely use them. I know this doesnt help you learn them, but I can't stand comics where every person walking into frame is greeted by name. It's a pet peeve of mine.

      "I guess the constructive part is that I'm suggesting "

      In the future, when you decide to offer feedback, I'd suggest starting with this part. The rest, regardless of your intention, just reads like insults. Yes, the main thing I have always had a problem with is schedule and consistency. I want to make the comics that make me proudest, but that isn't always possible every single day due to lack of inspiration/ideas/time/whatever. The choice that has always been before me is to post the comics when they're done, or post a comic every day, even if I'm not happy with it. Perhaps in choosing the former, I have always made the wrong choice. I know I would have a larger audience if I'd posted 4 or 5 comics a week for the last 5 years, but I dont know if Id be as proud of my work. And, at least for now, that seems like the measuring stick I should be using.

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