Saturday, July 28, 2012

City dwellers with snarky humor

Interview with Robert Tritthardt, the artist behind Writhe & Shine and Overcast with a Chance of Doom

Writhe and Shine was a web comic that started out in the late 90s, featuring the life of a DJ and his friends at the 'Bastille', a Goth club in New Orleans. The strips evolved along with the characters, but after over 100 of them, made an abrupt stop. Where is the artist now? He's moved onto brand new projects and, in addition to this, began reposting his old work on Yep, that's right! Robert Tritthardt is back. Read all about his journey and future aspirations below:

Stick Men Creation:  When you started out with Writhe and Shine, did you expect to attract such a large fan base?

Robert Tritthardt: I had no expectations at all when I started Writhe and Shine. It was the summer of 1998, and I had just graduated college and moved to New Orleans. The comic strip I had done for the school newspaper was quite fun, and I missed doing it. I created Writhe and Shine for the sole purpose of enjoying the process and seeing the results. In April 1999, we hosted a Gothic convention called Convergence. I had several strips by then, so I made a few hundred ashcan sized books and placed them in the goodie bags for the attendees; that went over pretty well. People like free stuff. At the time, Goth kids only had a few comics made specifically for them like Johnny The Homicidal Maniac. When I received positive feedback from a lot of people, I decided to make more strips. It was a win-win situation. I liked doing them and people liked reading them. I started small and expected nothing. Eventually, people started getting Uber Skull tattoos!

SMC:  In the event that  you decide to publish your work in print, would you ever consider being bought out by a major company, or would you prefer to remain independent?

RT: I have printed my work before and plan to print more, especially for conventions. Being bought out by a major company is not an option. I don't think my comics resonate with enough of the population and therefore wouldn't make enough money to be worth it. Well, now that I said that, watch some big company try to scoop me up and prove me wrong!

SMC: What are the perks of being a webcomic artist?

RT: The ability to waste away in my tiny, dark apartment, drawing crazy things that no one will ever see...
Heh, seriously? Complete freedom. I can do and say whatever I want in my very own comics. Working for other people [having them tell you what to do] is not that fun for me. I also get to give my comics away for free and not have to pay to have them printed. Best of all, if I don't like a particular comic, I can go in at any time and change it to make it better.

SMC:  Is this what you'd planned on in college? What were your "post-graduation expectations"?

It is definitely not what I planned to do while going to school. I got a degree in Illustration so that I could draw for Dungeons & Dragons. That didn't happen basically because I didn't know how to make it happen. What I did know how to do [sort of] was make comics and even though it made me no money, that's what I ended up doing, but only as a hobby. I had to get a regular job and pay off those Student Loans. After a while, I saw that I wasn't making much of my life and decided to give up on the comic and pursue the RPG illustration thing. I did a few assignments [and continue to do some], but it really made me crazy. I attribute that to just being a novice. I went back in to comics because I would be drawing stuff for me. When I managed to pay off all of my loans, I continued with the regular job thing because I had no idea how to become a freelance artist. But that's all changing. Currently, I'm unemployed and about to take a year long Digital Art Program so that I can learn a lot of the things professional illustrators use, like Photoshop and Flash. Hopefully, I can make something of my life after this point.

SMC: Music seems to be a big part of your life. What bands/groups/composers inspire you most?

RT: Music was not a big thing in my family. Growing up, I listened to the classic rock station because that's what my older brother was into. I had no other influences. There were no friends telling me I should check this out or give that a try. [Well, maybe one time someone had me listen to a Cure song, but I absolutely hated it.] So I remained ignorant of the vast array of sounds that were available. It wasn't until college that I started going to shows and hearing what everyone else was listening to. For some reason I was drawn to Goth and Industrial music. I fully immersed myself in that scene and found a place where I was accepted. As I get older I still wear black but do not consider myself a Goth. I listen to a larger variety of music. I like some rap and hip hop, some alternative country, electronic dance music, etc. We have a great station out here in Seattle called KEXP that plays a lot of really great independent music. Whenever I'm working, though, I need to listen to either electronic dance music with no lyrics or classical. Baroque in particular.

SMC: Can you give us a quick rundown as to how "Overcast with a Chance of Doom" got started? (After realizing the domain "doomies" had been taken, what sparked your imagination for this new setting?)

RT: OCD was actually an idea I thought about while taking my break from Writhe and Shine. I went as far as to buy the domain, but didn't have anything up on the site. I had no idea how to make websites and had relied heavily on friends to help me with I must have been quite depressed because I decided to scrap the project. I let go of the domain and almost let go of too, but held on to it. A year later I decided to pick it all up again, but found the doomies domain had been taken. I needed a new name and came up with Overcast With A Chance Of DOOM! I chose that because it still had the word 'doom' in it which refers to the main character. The 'overcast' part refers to Seattle and the whole thing is just a clever twist on a familiar phrase.

SMC:  Does inspiration for new strips strike at random moments, or do you usually go looking for ideas?

RT: Both. Inspiration can strike at the least likely of times and especially when you're not actually looking for it. That's why I try to carry a moleskin notebook with me wherever I go. I know that if I were ever without it, something great would occur and I wouldn't have a way of jotting it down. That and my memory is terrible. I also have to make time to concentrate on writing. Inspiration and other funny stuff comes randomly and you cannot count on it at all. The comic is not going to get done unless I make it happen. 

SMC: What is the usual response you receive from people upon telling them you write webcomics? Have you ever been encouraged or discouraged from doing so?

RT: Most people say, "Oh, neat" and leave it at that. I don't make it a habit going around telling everyone that I draw comics. It's not that I'm embarrassed by it, I just don't usually talk about it. People I usually talk to already know and either read it or don't really care... On the other hand, I do go around and hand people flyers every so often. That's like telling people they should read my comic but I don't have to actually talk to them at length. I think I'm bad with verbal communication.
I have never been discouraged from doing webcomics. I would find that both amusing and disheartening. I'd think to myself, "who the heck are you telling me what I should and shouldn't do?" I'd also lament the fact that this person goes around trying to discourage people from doing something artistic and fun. Artists need encouragement, not someone telling them that what they do is worthless or because drawing comics isn't a "real" job. It is a real job! I'm sure this sort of thing happens more often with younger people. So yeah, if you're reading this and you're young and your classmates are telling you that you're stupid for wanting to draw comics [or wear black and listen to "creepy" music or whatever], don't take what they have to say to heart. There are other people out here in the real world that are willing to be your friend and give you encouragement in whatever you feel like doing.
My parents probably wonder why I draw comics, but when they see that it makes me happy, they're fine with it.

SMC: Like most artists, you've probably questioned your work before. Bringing a close to all of this, would you mind explaining how you've dealt (or continue dealing) with those difficult moments?

RT: I constantly question my work. Any artist that says they have never done so is not a true artist. You have to continually question yourself in order to grow. I am never truly happy with my work because I know that it can always be better. I am always trying to increase my knowledge and abilities.
For the longest time I worked on my drawings, but I've gotten to the point where various professionals tell me that the art is great, but it's the writing that I should be working on. So that's what I'm doing now. Instead of buying anatomy books, or books on how to draw this way or that, I've been finding instructions on How to Write. I'll never stop trying to be a better artist but I have to bring my writing abilities up to the same level.
As I mentioned before, I stopped doing Writhe and Shine in 2007 because I got really depressed. That was the one of the biggest mistakes in my life. I lost a lot when I did that. I lost my audience, I lost my momentum, I lost the will to continue to do something I loved. I also lost my keys, but I found those pretty quick. Now I have to get all those things back and in order to do that I had to start from scratch. I have to regain the trust in my audience and I have to regain the trust in myself. I had to convince myself that I can do this. I am reading all these other webcomics that started after mine that have so many more followers, so many more strips, and so much more experience than I have. I would be as popular as some of them if I had only just stuck with it. I shouldn't have quit for such a long time. *sigh*
The thing now that helps me get through tough times is the fact that I have a deadline. I told my audience that they can expect to see a new strip every week. I know that if I were to ever miss an update, I would lose some of my audience permanently. I lost them once already, if I lose them again it's for good. I don't want to make that happen. When I doubt myself or have a difficult day drawing, I take a break and come back at it the next day. When I can't seem to draw a figure correctly, I erase and try another way. When I can't find the right punchline for a joke, I ask my girlfriend. I have her edit every single one of my strips to make sure it will pass. I know that I can't make them really funny every time, but I don't want any clunkers. I'd like to establish a "support group" of sorts, people I can talk to in person about making comics. Right now I rely on online forums for that.
In any case, my break was both good and bad. I shouldn't have been gone for so long but I was able to come back at it with a better attitude. Now we'll see where it gets me!

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