Between Failures is an up and coming webcomic about a group of retail employees. It’s filled with references to movies, music and video games and is reminiscent of movies like Clerks and Empire Records. It’s writer and artist J.T. is a talented artist who puts a lot of work into the webcomic. I asked him some questions about his experience working retail, his success as a webcomic artist and the music and art that inspires him.
Between Failures is based in a retail store. What has your experience been in the retail industry?
I worked retail for many years. My assumption is that my experience was typical. Whether it was or not I really can’t say. They tell me I have a unique reaction to the world, so maybe my experience was atypical, and I’ve been operating under a false pretense this whole time. I guess it doesn’t matter either way really. The long and the short of it was that people were angry all the time over what amounts to nothing. The companies I worked for were controlled by faceless people who govern in a way that seems arbitrary. It made me sick of humanity. Eventually I came to a point where I couldn’t tolerate it anymore, so I walked away. It all must have tainted me in some way though, since I’ve spent so much time essentially working through how I felt about all of it; through various forms of creative expression.
Since you started the comic you have been able to post a new page at a fairly consistent pace. You were even able to post daily for a while there. How do you manage the time so that you can write, draw, and still have a life?
I don’t have a life. Certainly not what most people would consider a life anyway. I sink the best part of my time into making the comic, or creating something. I live quite far from any kind of cultural center. That being the case I don’t add new people to my circle anymore. All of the friends I already have live at least 2 hours away, so I only make the trip to see them once a month or so. As you can imagine that leaves me with a good portion of time to chase what dreams I still have. Even without as much distraction, once I changed the pages to color I simply couldn’t keep up with everything anymore. My skill, sadly, does not match my vision. In order to maintain a consistent posting schedule I had to cut back. Everyone was very kind about it though. For the most part, as long as you try hard, and keep producing consistently, people will give you a lot of slack.
Your audience has grown at a moderate pace since you started but you said recently that you got it to the point where the comic is paying for its own webpage. How did you promote your comic to get enough people reading it to be able to get the word around?
I really didn’t do much promotion apart from making it and putting it up on a few free websites. Once people became invested in the characters they just sort of stuck around. I think the bulk of them came on when I got featured on Drunk Duck. That site has changed somewhat since then and I’m not sure that other people would get the same benefit that I did at the time. Of course you can never be sure that a free service will be around forever, so I decided to consolidate it all onto a single site that I was ultimately responsible for. I tried to give people enough warning so that they would slowly get into the habit of coming to the real site before it stood on its own. I still use Drunk Duck as a lagging archive in case of emergency. The lag gives new readers an incentive to go to the home site.
Getting a webcomic to pay for its own space isn’t much of an accomplishment. Webspace is relatively cheap and there are a lot of ways to monetize, even for someone as tech illiterate as me. That said, it took at least a year to build up enough money for the next. It’s really kind of pathetic. The comic is still a substantial loss of time and money for the return. It just managed to get enough back so that I didn’t have to find new money to keep it online. I sincerely hope it does well enough this year to pay for the next. New people are finding it all the time, so I’m optimistic.
The characters in your comic are very pop culturally literate and your comic is reference heavy. What role did pop culture play in forming your worldview?
I’m not really sure how to answer that. I mean, at what point does pop culture deviate from culture? Culture is the sum of our shared experiences. I watched the same television as the rest of America; saw the same movies. For whatever reason I remember all sorts of random things. As a kid I was incredibly shy, but found that life was easier if there was some kind of common ground to reach people with. When you take your first steps into an unfamiliar social situation how do you gauge what sort of crowd you’re dealing with? You talk about movies, television, or what have you, until you figure out how to fit in, or if you even can. Everyone wants to find other people they can relate to. I’m not sure what role pop culture played in shaping my worldview, but I do know that it helped me relate to the world, which is still difficult for me to do.
Who are your pop culture heroes? How have they inspired your writing?
Pop culture hero… I don’t know if that’s a label I’d willingly attach to someone I had any kind of respect for. Hero isn’t even a word I like to throw around casually. I’ve been influenced by legions of people, but I wouldn’t necessarily characterize them as heroes, pop culture or otherwise.
I loved Sesame Street when I was little, and The Muppet Show. No one has even come close to the kind of genius Jim Henson exhibited in recent years. His shows could be entertaining for kids without being condescending.
I read everything written by John Bellairs as a kid. His work combined with Edward Gorey’s illustrations, left a pretty deep mark on me. Douglas Addams is another author that I think my style tends to emulate, especially comically. Tolkien, Pieres Anthony, and C.S. Lewis took care of a lot of the fantasy portion of my reading list. I didn’t do much reading once I got into my teens.
During the comic book years it was almost always manga, so Katsuhiro Otomo, Hayao Miyazaki, Johji Manabe, Rumiko Takahashi, & Yukito Kishiro bear a lot of the blame for the way I am. I read a lot of typical American comics too, but I never cared enough about them to learn many names. J. Scott Campbell, and Joe Madureira, are the only two that spring to mind I really liked Johnen Vasquez’s stuff, and list him separately because I doubt he’d want to be mentioned in the same breath as most other American comic artists, or other humans generally. Jim Mafood was another guy who’s stuff I liked. Though I have no idea what he’s done recently. The last thing I remember seeing was a Gen X one shot. Jolly Blackburn’s Knight’s Of The Dinner Table showed me that you can make a fantastic comic even if you can’t draw. Very important to remember every time I sit down to draw…
I’m a child of 80s television, so everyone involved in that bare some blame for who I am and how I write.
Honestly I could list so many people no one would have the time or inclination to read it all. Steven Speilberg, Kevin Smith, John Hughes, Harold Ramis, the list for movies would just go on and on.
In the blog for the end of the first part you mention three songs that you imagine playing during that emotional scene. Was that a holdover from when you imagined your script as a television show or movie? Do you always score your scenes in your head? Is it in anyway related to the music (if any) you might be listening to while writing or drawing it?
The real beginning of that habit is a little nebulous, but there is a reason why I articulate it. Years ago, when my circle of friends was just discovering the magic that is blogging, (A word I hate, but that’s a different topic entirely.) I came up with the idea of making a soundtrack for your life. So we all posted these soundtracks and explained why we picked what we did, and all that. Now, I’m not anywhere near as into music as my friends Justin and Joey. I kind of did it once in a while and that was an end of it. They took it to a whole other level. Justin made these epic theme mixes for every month. Sort of chronicling the events of his life in series. Joey started compiling these collections that laid out the event of his life in song. Each track having a deep personal meaning and significance that only he could truly understand. I haven’t spoken to Justin in ages, but I expect, as much as music means to him, that he probably maintains some sort of musical convention similar in some way to the soundtrack for his life. I know for a fact that Joey still makes music collections for all manner of life events. He’s even working on a definitive soundtrack for my comic, which is very flattering. It won’t have a practical use, but it’s still neat to see how he would score it.
Anyway, it’s just sort of a habit to make up soundtracks for things that don’t necessarily need them. Music means a lot to people in general, so if you talk about it in a post it generates comments. I think most everyone must have some idea of what the soundtrack for their work would be like. Even if they’ve never put it to paper it exists inside them, just waiting for someone to ask them about it. Experiencing music is very personal, so you can learn a lot about someone by asking them what the soundtrack to their life would be like.
I have at least a vague idea of what sort of music I would want for any given scene. Incidental music, like sitcoms have, and that sort of thing. I prefer to let the scene dictate the music rather than the reverse. I avoid listening to music when writing because of that. Music tends to influence the tone of what I write, so it’s important to be aware of that. Taking it out of the equation simplifies things.
What kind of music do you listen to? Has it always been this type of music or has it changed as you have matured?
Soundtracks have always been what I’ve been drawn to the most. Obviously they parallel my taste in film. You’re going to find a lot of John Williams and Danny Elfman on my CD rack. There’s also a lot of Nobuo Uematsu kicking around. He did the music for the Final Fantasy games when I was growing up. Video games occupy about the same amount of space in my brain as movies, so their soundtracks get equal time. Getting actual physical copies of game soundtracks is an expensive chore, but they still have a decent showing on my shelves. After you take away the soundtracks you’re left with a smattering of other music. Everything else is quite random. Compared to most people I own very little music.
My taste in music hasn’t evolved all that much as I’ve matured, but that may well be because I haven’t achieved a very advanced level of maturity.
What are your top 5 (or 4 or 6 or whatever) favorite musical artists?
If you cut it down to artists other than composers I’d probably go with: They Might Be Giants, The Beastie Boys. Gorillaz, Reel Big Fish, and Weird Al.
Are there any artists you feel are underrated or completely ignored that you’d like to give a shout out to now?
I would say that Al Yankovic’s original material is underrated because the subject matter is comedic. I think if he chose to make an album of “serious” music, for lack of a better word, it would do well. If he put his own name on it that probably wouldn’t work. Kind of like Stephen King. Would you think he could write Shawshank Redemption if you didn’t know it was his?
Look for more of J.T. in the future as his comic increases in popularity on the internet. Thanks, J.T., for taking the time to chat with us. Check out Between Failures, which updates M-W-F at http://betweenfailures.com/.