10 years

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Shit, I don’t know what to say.

I hate when people say that, by the way. I hate it when webcomics make their first strip about how they can’t come up with a joke. If you can’t come up with a joke, don’t bother telling me.  I mean, obviously I have something to say, and it’s going to follow this introductory paragraph. There’s a message implicit in “I don’t know what to” that there’s a specific thing that ought to be said, a right thing that ought to be said. Hell, anything I say about my webcomic is right. Even if it contradicts what my co-writers think of it, even if it contradicts what you think of it. I decided it wouldn’t be mine alone when I wrote it with them, and when I gave it to you. We’re all right. I just have more to say about it.

And there it is, I can revise my first statement: I don’t know what all to say.  What do I want to say about it? What do you want to read about it? Will I be completely honest?

Who fucking cares, let’s just ramble for a little while.

Jimmy Jone started as a nine-tenths boy: some visual pun on the national nuclear family averages that have been parroted to my generation for years. That whole 2.3 kids thing, the origin of which I’m too lazy to track down right now.

It came together from a bunch of disparate pieces. I had tried doing a comic strip for my college’s newspaper. I was turned down initially, but something like a month later, I got a call–I think late on a Wednesday night; the paper came out on Thursdays–if I could provide them a strip. It wasn’t funny. If you want to see it, ask me, there’s no reason for you to waste your time tracking it down.  Anyway, there was a proto-version of Stuart in there.  I’d been drawing a Wendell (almost exactly as he is now) for a while as well.  Matt (the main co-writer) suggested I throw those in there, too.  One of the gags you see in issue 42–the mad scientist messing up his hair–preceded the writing of the first issue completely.

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The first four issues are fairly directionless–I take that back, they were completely directionless. I didn’t even start thinking long-term that much until issue 11/12 or so, when I started planning out some Future Stuart arcs. I think our initial burst of creativity for those first few issues may have come from the excitement of having made fake instructions to a fake game called “Steinpoker”–the excitement of having seen something through, making a joke real.  The writing has (so far) always been by me, Matt, and Dan beginning with issues 12/13.  Matt at one point suggested bringing someone in that we worked with at the language-immersion summer camp, but I nixed it.  I didn’t know the guy very well, I didn’t trust his sense of humor yet. But I trust Matt’s, so maybe I should have let things go that way.

And I’ve been thinking about that a lot the past few months: how I saw the whole story back then at the beginning.  How it was going to end, what different characters would do; particular jokes and storylines I could see clearly in my head. Fun fact: Matt commented once during our early writing sessions that he wished some long-running show like Frasier would have the balls to kill off its main character in the season finale; as a result, for a long time I wanted to kill Jimmy off at the end. Reality catches up with everyone, right?

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At the very least, it caught up with me.  Jimmy Jone will never be a realization of my initial dreams. In many ways I’m happy about this: you’d never have met the Reasoner, or Tatsuo, or the hobo gang, or the Psi Pi students.  In other ways I mourn what never was.  There are plenty of jokes and stories that may now never make it into the comic.  In some cases they’d feel shoehorned in; in other cases they’d be that much more I’d have to draw. This thing’s going to go at least another 80 issues, more likely another 100. You’ll probably never see Jimmy and Chloe traverse the underground tunnels between the women’s dorm and the math computer lab in the middle of the night (the only place on campus with a particular software program that Jimmy needs to finish an assignment), and along the way they run into the second generation of a lost group of students who have built up their own mythology about the upworld (think, like, the kids in Mad Max 3).

An aside about lost stories and petard-hoisting: having time-travel as a plot element itself bars you from doing particular time-travel stories.  Matt and I had planned out most of a story where one of the eternally-ill-fated school dances is transported back in time to a day in the 1950s when absolutely nothing of import happened, as a measure to prevent monsters/aliens/wormholes from ruining the fun.  There was even a really good and stupid prank war joke where the Twins change the course of history by calling people “neds” instead of “nerds”, resulting in Ned’s ridicule in the present day, as well as the movie series Revenge of the Neds.

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Where was I? Oh yeah, 80 comics, 100 more. Comics takes time, and while I was working through all the stories Matt and/or I had come up with, new ideas came along and felt right. Characters bounced off each other and created new possibilities. Professor creates crayon child; other professor steals crayon child; crayon child ends up in the possession of a mad science student who happens to have created a simulation of Chester A. Arthur. So I proceeded to write babysitting stories. Meanwhile, I felt I needed to explain why the first professor even created the kid, which was a result of one of those tail-wagging-the-dog things that I had planned for the very end of the comic. And meanwhile, I’m publishing the story serially, meaning that with every advance in any of the stories, there are fewer options for what you can do later on, lest they disturb the timeline.

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A, B, C, but then M demands D be changed, E and F start begetting P, Q, R, and S, and then Y and Z say, um, no, fuck M, Q, D, and you’re going to need some new letters soon.Like humans in middle age, expanding in their middles.  A two-way erosion, like characters on a long-running TV drama losing their defined edges, or a Rubik’s cube, multiple paths blocking each other until you find the ones that finally agree. Or maybe knitting. I’ve never knitted, but I bet knitting can be hard too.

And on top of all that, hell, it’s been 10 years. It’s been the last one-third of my life. I’ve grown, I’ve diminished, I’ve changed, I’ve stymied. There’s a potentially tone-deaf rape joke in issue 8.  The TV-show issue “Garage Barrage” is me and Matt borrowing language patterns from our pop-culture understanding of Latinos. I have no idea how offensive that issue is, because despite living in Texas for 5 years now, I have damnably few Latin@ friends. In an issue I posted in just the past week, I have a older white male character (who is eternally half-clueless to boot) tell a younger black girl–one of two black characters in my comic–how she’s going about her intimate relationships wrong.  Shit, we named the feminist character Sappho. And I’m having to deal with that as I go. Another metaphor I think of when I deal with these things is that I’m fixing a car as I drive it. As I said above, whatever is in the comic now is there–is canon–forever.

So I try to fix those problematic things, those brainchilds from a younger, less enlightened me. And let’s keep talking about Sappho. For all you know right now, based on what’s explicit in the comic, Sappho’s the only gay character.  That’s not the case, but I’m also not sure when you’re going to find out who the other ones are. But Sappho’s a villain. She’s a nasty character drawn, again, from understanding of others through pop culture. And once I realized that my inner thinking about her (she’s a lesbian who happens to have some fucked-up thoughts about herself and what her relationship to the world should be) wasn’t obvious, I tried to change that. Issue 43 was a start, and there will be more to address Sappho, and what she is, right up through the end of the comic. She’s not going away. Everything she is, everything she’s done, is there–is canon–forever.

But here’s another thing that’s happened in the past 10 years: I’ve come to love my characters, every single one of them.  I put them through hell, I watch them struggle, I watch them lose, I watch them hurt. I want them to be as real as the limitations (mine, the format, the fact that I want to finish this thing before I die) allow.

A few years ago, I read all of the first forty years of Doonesbury.  Garry Trudeau has never been divorced, but he sure did seem to unequivocally hate the character of Mike Doonesbury’s ex-wife, J.J. Caucus. She was always wrong, always self-centered, nary a redeemable quality in sight. And maybe Sappho’s not redeemable either. But I love her, and she deserves better than what I’ve made her into.

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Sure, I want good things for my characters, but I want them to fight for them. Or not fight for them. Or die. Or kill. I want to throw in as much as I possibly can. I want to learn more, I want to better myself and my writing and my art, I want some damn diversity in my comic.  I mean, seriously, who wears just jeans and t-shirts all the time? For those of you who watched Parks & Recreation, here’s my main beef with the show starting with maybe season 5: everybody got everything they wanted all of the time. Sure, there was struggle, but no storyline really had what you could call an unhappy ending.  The show was lousy with it by its final season. So I don’t want (all) my characters to be horrible and miserable and cursing their own existence (forever); but I also don’t want them (all) to get everything they want (or need). I want some reality in here…

…here, in my webcomic about superheroes, mad scientists, and a guy missing the top of his skull. I set up table at the Small Press Expo once, and one attendee criticised my comic for feeling like it was just a mish-mash of tropes and stock “funny” stuff. She admitted hers was that way too, and, yeah, what isn’t when it comes to webcomics?  Yes, The Simpsons Did It (and what they haven’t, South Park Has). At least I’m not doing two guys on a couch. At least I’m not aping the CalArts Style/Steven Universe/Pendleton Ward/whatever the fuck you call that constellation of styles in the Superjail! or Matt Furie or Alex Schubert vein. Or doing that damn thing where everyone’s nose is red. Yes, that’s how they look in real life. But red noses have too long been cartoon shorthand for a cold or alcoholism that it’s just unsettling to me. Also, like the teeth on the new McDonald’s mascot, it breaks the cartoony style too much for me. Whatever. Different discussion for a different day.  What I meant to say is that Matt and Dan and I have gone far deeper down our rabbit holes. We blew through the four or five basic time travel jokes in no time flat. Where else will you find a joke about someone using their past self as a mirror to fix their hair? (And what’s more, the number of people who read that issue and got the cover’s reference is 1: me.)

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So, yeah, if you just want to look at the component parts of my webcomic, it doesn’t sound like anything special. But like the alphabet stuff from before, these things all bounce off of each other. Events, reactions, characteristics, thoughts, motivations, goals, and my long-term plans make new things out of the mish-mash.

Or, they’re supposed to.  I guess I have to talk about Jimmy, huh? Jimmy’s been a fucking nobody for so much of the comic.  There’s shades of what many of us gifted kids go through when we get to college, or when we enter our adult life: we’re not special anymore. And that theme lasted all of, what, the first couple of years of the comic? Up until issues 73 & 74, Jimmy’s behavior was almost entirely in reaction to what was going on around him.  You can make a broader, bigger statement about that–and I’ve tried to. Even though he likely hasn’t been able to articulate it to himself, he knew that he wasn’t bringing much to the table in his relationship with Diana. (Go re-read issue 38 with this in mind.)  He was a follower, until, you know, 8 or 9 years into the comic, when he decided he wanted to take some control over his life and his emotional state.

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By the way, yes, Jimmy is me.  I try to keep Ron based on Matt. Dan’s in there, but I’m going to let you guess who he is.  Also the Brueckner twins are me–the way my family in Northeastern Georgia talk (fun fact: “buddy-ro” comes from the same uncle whose LPs I’m digitizing for Dumpster Vinyl). Also Stuart is some pastiche of me and Matt and the fandoms we aren’t a part of.  Jimmy’s music taste is mine. Priscilla’s music taste is what I wish mine was. Chloe is made up of equal parts of things I hate about myself (addiction) and what I wish I was (more confident in myself sexually). (And since Jimmy is me, go re-read issue 38 again with this in mind.) Lastly, College State University mirrors many aspects of the college I attended as an undergrad, and many of the buildings in the backgrounds are from there or University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I got my library science degree. In many ways, I want this webcomic to be a repository of everything I’ve ever been, liked, or wanted to make sure isn’t forgotten.

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Anyway, I was Jimmy. He’s a predominantly reactive follower, someone who avoids/avoided social interaction for the same reasons I did when I was in college. In a way, not writing much personality into Jimmy paid off over time. Once I saw my blind spot, it let me write him as me in a more complete way. I look forward to when I finally get to use him to tell my personal experience of getting sand and gum wrappers stuck in my cortical sulci.

At this point I’m not sure what else to say. Matt and Dan and I have written through issue 102 at the moment, with things kind of stalled because Matt’s got two kids now, and I’m doing the Perfect Strangers Reviewed blog. And because I’ve been doubting myself and getting more and more anxious about the comic over time. And because the issues are longer. And because I’m trying to write them better, and because I’m trying to draw them better, and because I’m making more forays into throwing in some tiny motif-building symbols here and there. And because I have a girlfriend now (this is the best reason for getting less done, by the way).

I have some complex stuff planned out for the second half of the comic (the first “half” will end with issue 88).  I wrote a fifteen-page Google Doc for the endgame of the whole thing–everything that has to happen in the second half of Jimmy’s senior year. I’m all wrapped up in this big mess, and it will take me another 10 years to finish it if I’m supremely lucky and diligent. But it’s in the forefront of my mind now that I really oughtn’t screw around and take too many unnecessary detours from now on, even though doing so gives you new characters, situations, and even dialogue lines you can repeat in different situations and pretend you’re as funny as the Arrested Development writers.

I think that’s all I have on my mind about the past 10 years. Thanks Matt and Dan for helping me bring this to life, and for hundreds of hours of laughs, for all the jokes that never made it in, and for helping me keep the website up. Thanks Tracy for explaining my female characters to me; thanks Lance and Becky for reading and buying the books and getting the in-jokes that I wrote specifically for the both of you; thanks Sarah and Chris for pointing out my shortsightedness in terms of jokes about rape and homosexuality; thanks Adam and a different Sarah and Lisa (and I bet even Vivian) for stopping by my livestreams; thanks Resi and Phil and Dan again for commissioning art because sometimes I need a break from this thing; thanks person whose name I won’t say that I used to have a crush on that was the partial inspiration for Diana; thanks to everyone who bought any of the books; thanks everybody I forgot that contributed to this in some way; and thanks to the ISSN International Centre for making me the only webcomic with an ISSN. I’m sure I forgot some people; thank you for forgiving me.

I could go on about my influences (Firesign Theatre, Arrested Development, the webcomic Goats, Rat Fink, JR by William Gaddis, etc., etc., etc.). But that’s for another milestone, maybe 15 years?

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Until then, I’m going to keep on making this webcomic; in fact I’m working on issues 81 through 84 right now. And then I’ll work on issues 85-357.

I hope you enjoy it.

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