TopatoCo’s Jeffrey Rowland On ‘Overcompensating’ and the Wild West of Webcomics
Jeffrey Rowland is a busy man with a webcomic plan: "Do quality work that's weird."
Rowland is one of a growing number of webcomic success stories, establishing his financial independence through the online presence of webcomics like "Wigu" and his company TopatoCo, perhaps the largest and most recognizable E-tailer of webcomic merchandise.
Even after a decade of self-publishing and vending online, Rowland says that webcomics remain the "wild west" of cartooning, a world where he continues to hone his craft as an artist and writer despite the demands of his day job.
Between illustrating new strips of his semi-autobiographical comic "Overcompensating" and running his growing corner of the webcomic world, Rowland shared some of his philosophies as a creator, and his advice on how to make a living in the wild, wild west,
ComicsAlliance: Despite commanding healthy audiences, not every webcomic creator can achieve financial independence through their work. As someone who works both as a creator and a merchant for other creators, how do you think more creators can get to that point?
Jeffrey Rowland: I guess that depends on what market you're talking about. Historically it seems like only a few comic titles (I'm talking ALL comics, not just webcomics) have been real moneymakers. I mean, how many kids in the 1980s wanted to make a living in comics versus those who actually got to do it? I think with the quickness that webcomics went from "weirdo hobby" to "legitimate business career" we're doing pretty okay! This is still a pretty young market since it was ever granted any sort of widely-believed sense of legitimacy, five or so years ago. I think the best thing creators can do is just continue to be talented but don't be afraid to be weird. Just do quality work that's weird. It's still the friggin' wild west out here; if you can get 20,000 people to read your comic about a dog that huffs paint, there is a way to make a living from that.
CA: You've been cartooning for more than a decade and have worked on several strips with regular publishing schedules. How have your experiences shaped your current creative process/style on "Overcompensating?"
JR: I've always made comics at night, and done mundane work in the daytime. That's basically what TopatoCo is -- something kinda mundane to do in the daytime that I'm okay at, so that I can have mental background processes running that develop comics... The thing with TopatoCo work is that it has become most of my life, frequently intruding into times I would normally do comics, but that's okay. Now that the company is making a little money I don't have as much pressure for my own personal comic to be successful, so I have a bit more freedom, but a lot less time to work on comics. Is that a Catch-22? I forgot. Anyway, I just really like making jokes. Sometimes they come fully-formed, but they're rarely a struggle, because most of the time making comics is what I do to wind down. I do think it is very important for me to put at least something out there five days a week, but I know that if I don't people will understand. Artistically I still draw on paper with Microns and (sometimes) a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen, scan and color in Photoshop. I get a bit of grief for still using paper but to be honest, when I'm drawing on paper I'm not looking at a dang monitor, and rare is the time when I'm not looking at a dang monitor.
CA: As far as TopataCo goes, you understandably have to retain some kind of standard in terms of what kind of webcomic partners you'll take on. Given the growing webcomic market, do you feel like the party is bump'n? Have you had to turn down a lot of creators?
JR: The party has gotten off the hook, to the point where I'm not sure it knows what the hook looks like anymore. We picked up a lot of clients this year, and in the summer we just had to say "STOP" because it was all growing too fast and we need to figure out some things logistically to be able to enable such quick growth. We've had to say "no" to some people I'd have loved to say "yes, right away" to, which is unfortunate. One of the biggest problems is the left-hand navigation bar. It's gotten too tall. We're working on that. We're also working with a couple of non-webcomics creators in the future; people who create original content on the Internet that aren't necessarily "comics" but do share in our approach to making money (give digital stuff away for free, sell real stuff). I want to widen the scope of people browsing TopatoCo, not just for my own greedy reasons, but to get more people into the comics we put out, which is obviously still our main focus. What's important is to make sure we're not simply servicing a niche, which is what a lot of people still believe webcomics to be. We got to rise up.
CA: "Overcompensating" regularly touches on social/political issues, often resulting in T-shirt designs -- August's "Keep your bullets out of my body" strip being a prime example. How do you balance the sometimes-symbiotic relationship between your art and your work?
JR: I don't dwell on balancing as much as I used to! One of the benefits/curses to not only being the owner of a fairly large company but also the IT department, accountant, electrician, plumber, Human Resources department, and on-site sorcerer is that I don't really have time to ponder those things nowadays. Holly said "Keep your bullets out of my body," I thought it was hilarious, made a comic, made a shirt that sold underwhelmingly (but I am grateful for each sale), and commence to truckin'. It's kinda nice from a mental health standpoint.
CA: Webcomics typically allow full creator control over content, meaning you're ultimately responsible for 100% of what's published. Do you ever censor yourself to avoid controversy or second-guess your work the way a third party might, or do you just kick it casual style and follow your heart from strip to strip?
JR: Simultaneously the worst and best thing about webcomics is creator-editors. You got to be kind of an idiot-savant to be able to pull that off; I am not even kidding. Anybody with a successful webcomic will agree with me. That said, I used to censor myself a lot more, back when I was still thinking that getting into newspapers was a "Thing." With "Overcompensating," I just kinda go buck wild with whatever I'm feeling. But with "Wigu", I want to keep that whole side more youth-friendly... I still have plans for more Wigu stuff because I adore that whole universe I created, and am frequently saddened that I am not able to tend to it as often as I should. I kind of just "fire and forget" comics now. Back in the day I used to have a message board/comments, but as things at TopatoCo started getting heavy, I realized those things were some of the first things I had to nix -- not only to free up an hour or more of waking life everyday, but to try to salvage the whole whole sanity thing.
CA: In partnering with so many fellow creators at TopatoCo, you've had to mix business with pleasure to an extent. Was "Overcompensating" conceived as a reaction to the reality of fusing friendship with numbers? Or am I prying too hard into a fancy-free fun house?
JR: Here's what happened. I lost my job in September 2004 and decided to try to do comics and sell shirts and stuff online for a living, before trying to find another day job. I think someone e-mailed me something like "Hey jerk now that you don't have a job anymore maybe you can make more comics." So I made this journal comic, "Overcompensating," out of spite basically. I was already friends with a bunch of cartoonists (Jon Rosenberg, R Stevens, John Allison, Meredith Gran, to name a few). Also I had all these weird political opinions and I was living in Oklahoma, the reddest state there is. In November 2004 Bush somehow got re-elected, and I made a shirt with a picture of a flabbergasted eagle with the words "November 4, 2009. OMG. WTF." on it. I sold about a thousand of them in a month. Online postage got a lot easier to use right around the same time.
CA: Can you give us a hint as to what's next for "Overcompensating" and TopatoCo? Any new developments we should know about in your world?
JR: There's like 50,000 different plans for what's coming up next. I do know we have deals with some pretty well-known book publishers and podcasters lined up, as well as expanding our own book-publishing line. I got David Malki running promotions and propaganda and that dude is an idea dude to the marrow. Most days I just spin him around on this big board and decide what to do from what thing his feet point at. I should make a comic about that. What's next for "Overcompensating" is just gonna be whatever happens to me. If I win a hundred dollars on a scratch ticket I'll make comics about that. If a fighter jet crashes into my bicycle, I'll write about that. Personally I'm a big fan of just not really knowing what's going on and stumbling in what turns out in hindsight to be the correct direction.