Q&A: Joel Watson, Creator of Hijinks Ensue
First panel: Picture Joel Watson, stuck in a dead-end sales job in Dallas, Texas. He’s abandoned his dream of being an illustrator/artist after realizing there was virtually no chance for his cartooning skills to get picked up by a major syndicate. But – cross into the next panel and see the birth of his daughter, and the rebirth of his ambition. In 2007, he launched Hijinks Enuse, a three-times-a-week Internet comic strip. It was an experiment in trying to gain full-time employment off of his art then, and it remains that way today – though slowly, he’s making it work. Panel Three: Watson’s super-topical, goofy look at TV and film happenings (among other firings of his synapses), done up in cells bursting with color and sometimes even a special effect or two, draws fans. What’s in store for the last panel? That’s yet to be written (or drawn) but PopTen pulled Watson away from his pen for a few minutes to get a rough outline.
PopTen: So how is the “experiment” to make this your full time job going? Are you making any money yet?
Joel Watson: Readers donate on average about $800 monthly, and they get access to premium content information, which I call the Vault. A big chunk of my income comes from T-shirt sales, which I sell through my store and Topatoco.com; two-thirds of the people who make a living from Web comics are selling through them. I sell prints of my own comics, and I’m working on a book right now. The comic itself doesn’t pull it all in, so I supplement my income with freelance and worry.
PT: You say you get about 400,000 page views each month and you have about 12,000 regular readers. What was the turning point for you with this – when you realized you actually had an audience?
Watson: I started the comic almost specifically just for my friends, thinking it was unlikely anyone was going to read it – so most of the early comics were just inside jokes I knew would make five or ten people laugh. I posted a lot on the Penny Arcade forums to get feedback on the art, and the majority of my audience came from there, and really quickly this ad hoc community sprang up around the comic. I spent a lot of time aggressively trying to grow the audience, and then I realized that no amount of my effort was equal to the 2000 people doing it for me – there’s nothing I can say about my own comic that will ring as true as one of your friends telling you about it.
PT: How much time do you spend on each comic?
Watson: The problem with Hijinks Ensue as opposed to almost every other comic I know of is it’s commentary, and topical to almost a daily point. A friend pointed out that it’s not just a comic, it’s an editorial comic. So literally the day before and sometimes the day of I’m drawing a comic that has to go up in a couple of hours. The writing takes anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 hours; my writing process is four hours of frustration and then it all comes to me in a split second.
PT: And what are your tools?
Watson: I use a Wacom tablet that I draw directly on. I do all my pencils on that and then do ink and colors. I do the comic on Apple computers – I have a MacBook Pro – and I use PhotoShop CS3, and other than your typical FTP that’s the whole thing. I briefly flirted with doing original artwork, because I know a lot of artists are selling their original artwork for a hefty sum and I want a piece of that tasty money pie, but I’m just terrible. I’m so used to the digital process it takes twice as long to do it on paper and pen.
PT: Have you ever been approached about taking the comic wider, or getting it into a print format? What about animating it?
Watson: I’m not actively pursuing those things, but I wouldn’t turn them down if I was approached. A lot of people say “this would make a great cartoon.” Maybe, but cartoons take hundreds of thousands of dollars and months to make – and it would probably lose its soul if I couldn’t make fun of stuff topically. The Simpsons has been the worst show on television for ten years – they’ll make references that are six months to a year old, and that’s terrible. That just speaks to the watered-down comedy the majority of America is happy with after they get home from work. It’s so the opposite of cutting-edge to me that it might as well not be there at all. I’ve no interest in having a mainstream audience – it would detract from what I’m trying to accomplish. That said, if Cartoon Network wants to make it into a comic, give me a call.
PT: One of my favorite strips of yours has Fox executives choosing between saving Dollhouse or Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Which would you have preferred to stay on the air?
Watson: (Thus ensues a 25 minute conversation, happily engaged upon with his interviewer, about the joys of Joss Whedon. Summed up: Sarah Connor should have lived, but Dollhouse has gotten shinier.)
PT: What if the Internet had not come along? Where would you be today?
Watson: Probably still in sales. I gave up drawing for about seven years around 2000. Then I used to sell Web sites to dentists, and I got to the point where I said I don’t care if another dentist has another Web site. I wanted to do something that mattered just a little bit. And making people laugh matters. So what I’ve done is only possible because of the Internet – there’s no way over 10,000 people in the world would be reading my comics if the only avenue to have it published in was in newspapers. The biggest thing that kept me going early on when I had two full-time jobs was I’d get an e-mail from a random stranger telling me how much they liked my comic.