I didn’t realize until after I got home from Emerald City Comicon that I had forgotten to mention the 4 year anniversary of The Experiment. I have officially been professionally unemployed making comics for 4 years as of March 31, 2012. People used to ask me all the time, ” How is the experiment going?” To which I would reply, “It’s going. I’m still doing it. There are ups and downs, but I haven’t given up.” The more and more I gave that answer, which I thought to be a bit an over simplified response seeing as how I didn’t want to get into the details of nearly missed mortgage payments, mounting credit card debt due to travel expenses and rest of the struggles that come with self employment with every person that asked, the more I realized it was actually the most honest answer I could give. There wasn’t actually an end goal for The Experiment. I never said, “If I can do this for 5 years, I have won.” The goal was to just keep doing it. To keep making comics for a living. To sustain myself and my family through following my passion and doing what I love. The unspecified addendum to that ideal was that in order for it to be a success, I had to keep doing it forever. So the actual and honest response to, “How’s The Experiment going?” is “As long as this is my job, I am winning.”
That said, so far 2012 and has been far more difficult financially than 2011 was. My readership is actually way down from the end of the last year. This directly affects every way that I make an income. Ad sales are down, merch sales are down, and donations are WAY down while expenses due to conventions and travel just keep going up and up. It’s been a tough few months and I’ve been constantly thinking about what I can do to turn things around. All of the way in which I can make money come down to simple numbers. The more people looking at my comics every day the less I will have to struggle to make a living. With that in mind I started evaluating why someone might enjoy my comic initially then stop reading it, or read it irregularly and eventually forget about it. I listened to what readers said at conventions, I talked with some of my peers and I studied what it was about comics in general that made people come back day after day.
At first, I thought the answer was “story.” Readers get hooked by story and can’t miss an update or they won’t know what’s happening. Well, HE doesn’t have a story, and I really never had any intention of working one in. The purpose of HE is to provide commentary on geek pop culture through the eyes of its characters… DING DING DING! Characters. That was the answer. The most popular story comics on the internet aren’t breaking any new ground. They primarily deal with relationships, jobs, emotional issues – sitcom stuff. These scenarios are NOT hard to come up with, and writing them has never held any real interest for me. So if it isn’t the amazing originality of the situations, it must be the characters and how they deal with the situations they are put into that people gravitate to so much. Now look, I KNOW this is common knowledge and had you asked me in ANY OTHER context than that of my own creative output, I would have been able to rattle off the answer instantly. I’d just never seen my comics that way.
Now here’s the rub. HE used to have a very strong character element along with the humor. I started looking back at old comics and thinking back to the comments I used to get an conventions and the emails I would receive and the number one positive remark I would get is that the “characters are just like me and my friends,” or “I love Josh because he reminds me of my friend,” etc. Then all of a sudden these comments stopped. What changed? I reread my old comics again and realized that as I started traveling more and my daughter got older (requiring more and more time for her extracurricular activities), I started seeing the real life Josh and Eli less and less. In fact, I probably haven’t seen either of them more than once or twice in 2012. Our social realities just don’t align that well any more. It’s a fact of life and a byproduct of having children. I don’t love them any less, and I don’t believe we have grown apart as friends. The time to just fuck around and be silly with each other just isn’t there nearly as often as it used to be.
The result of this decreased exposure to the inspiration for my characters was that I lost my crutch. I had never been forced to create personalities for the characters since I would just observe the real people behind them and exaggerate their actions and reactions. Sometime around the middle to end of 2011 I really started writing in a singular voice. Every character was interchangeable and while I think the joke writing got MUCH tighter as time went by, the character development essentially vanished. This was never more evident than in the fact that NO ONE ever seemed to know the names of the characters. As one of my peers, who I respect greatly, told me, “Your characters are interchangeable. People love our characters and that’s why they love the comic.” I used to say, “The characters in HE are just there to service the joke,” as if it was one of the selling points of the comic. If that was the case, why would I keep drawing the same guys over and over? I didn’t realize I was admitting a shortcoming of the strip and disguising it as a feature.
So where does that leave me? Well, this Friday May 11th is the 5 year anniversary of HijiNKS ENSUE. I think that’s as good a milestone as any to re-evaluate what I’m doing, what I should be doing and what direction I am heading in. To that end, I would like to announce a new experiment of sorts. I am going to start devoting more time in HijiNKS ENSUE to getting to know the characters. Not necessarily their jobs, relationship or other sitcom type stuff (which still doesn’t interest me), but more their characteristics, quirks and view points. I want to teach myself (by doing) how to write in a voice that is not my own. I want to recapture that individuality the HE characters had in the early years before they became prisoners of my own head and parrots for my own point of view. The best part of this new direction is, if I do it correctly you shouldn’t even notice the change. You might just find yourself more interested in checking the site more often and getting your friends interested in the comic as well.
The first step down this terrifying new path involves location. I am going to experiment with having the characters fixed at one location, setting or event for more than one comic at a time. Their conversations might carry over for several days before shifting to another topic. I believe the ancient Greeks called this con… continuity? Yes, I think that’s right. Again, these will not be stories per se, but rather little chunks of continuing subject matter (like the “Under The Bridge Downtown” comics). For starters all of the comics for this week, starting with THIS ONE, will take place at The Avengers (before, during and after the film). Depending on the response to this change, I may do this for a week or so at a time, and intersperse it with one off gags to break things up. Beyond that, I don’t really have a plan other than to try new things and see what feels right.
What do I need from you? Just to keep an open mind. If you are of the opinion that HE is perfect as is and should not change, all I can say is A) Thank you, and B) You are wrong. My audience plateaued over a year ago and hasn’t seen any sustained growth in that time. In order for me to reach my goals of financial stability, toiling in obscurity cannot be a part of the equation. Luckily for this fictional guy that loves the comic and fears change, I have no plans to change the actual humor of the strip. Just the context in which that humor is presented. For each 3 panel HE comic I usually write a page worth of dialog, then trim the fat. With this new format I should be able to write 3-4 pages of dialog on a few related subjects then actually craft that into a 3-4 comic arc. I would also appreciate it if you, after reading the comics this week, shared some feedback with me. I would rather that you email comics (at) hijinks ensue (dot) com with your thoughts than post them publicly, and I don’t necessarily want to know what you think until you’ve read all of this week’s comics, though I will never discourage honest communication (and you are certainly encouraged to comment on this post if you have questions or words of support). Then, if you dig the way things are going, how about telling EVERY SINGLE PERSON YOU KNOW? Post about HE on your Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc like an insane person who is extremely fixated on one particular geek comic and REALLY wants everyone else to read it. I would consider that a kindness.
I am extremely scared and pretty damn excited about trying something new. I hope you (and I) will be pleased with the results. I hope I will be making a somewhat similar post about the continuing future of HE in another 5 years. I hope people are still allowed to make fun of stuff on the Internet in 5 years. I hope the A.I. Arachno-drones that police our homes and monitor our thoughts will take favor with my offerings and allow me to continue to make a living through putting silly pixels on your computers.
Godspeed, You Fancy Bastards!