NOW, FOR EVERYONE: Here's a scary thought for Halloween: We reached a Patreon goal! Hooray! Thank you all for being such good friends and cool people.
The goal was for a monthly retrospective, looking back at Wondermark. So let's try it! I should say that this sort of navel-gazing is of interest to me, because it's my own very attractive and interesting navel being gazed into, but please let me know if you have thoughts of your own, or would like to see more or less of this type of thing.
I started making Wondermark comics in 2003. Luckily, virtually nothing about the world has changed between then and now – not me, not the world, not the Internet, and certainly not what we all find funny.
I'm now being told that is incorrect. Fine! In that case, and in case you haven't been around for the whole lifespan of Wondermark, or haven't been paying attention if you were, I think let's spend some time on an...ARCHIVE DEEP DIVE™®©!!!
Since it's the first post of this type, I thought we should look back at...
Five Notable Wondermark Firsts
FIRST COMIC // #001; In which Murder is confessed (Apr 25, 2003)
This comic is...the first Wondermark.
More fairly, it's one of the first batch. I think the first day I sat down to see if – you know what – I wonder if you could make comic strips from these old images? – I made the first ten all in a row.
The penultimate silent panel is a comic strip staple. The characters look like they're from slightly different worlds (one's shaded, one's lineart) and they're sorta floating in space. But this is recognizably a Wondermark.
The image posted here is actually about the third iteration of this particular strip. For the first couple years of making comics, I knew nothing was ever going to become of them, so I saved the files at web resolution (I know!) in all their lettered-with-Comic-Sans glory (I know!!!)
When I did decide, after two years and 100 strips, to put together a book collection (the now-out-of-print-after-six-editions Annotated Wondermark, pictured in this similarly retrospective blog post), I went back and re-lettered every episode at proper resolution, using the font you see above, DigitalStrip by Blambot.
But the images were still low-res, so I used a fractal scaling algorithm to upsample them for print. It...looked terrible. So for the next printing, I went back AGAIN and re-scanned ALL the original source images and re-built EVERY comic strip image, again, from scratch.
It was a nightmare! HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!
But I'm glad I did it then, early enough that I was able to correct my workflow from #101 going forward... And, you know, I believed the material worth that level of work. As I'm going back now and revisiting the first couple years of Wondermark for its re-syndication on GoComics, I'm finding myself being a little harsher on 2003-era Malki's sense of humor.
I'm making some tiny changes as I submit the re-runs to GoComics, and with this first comic in particular, I played with the wording in order to remove "genital warts" (such a crude phrase) in favor of a slightly more artful replacement.
So the version at GoComics (here) is actually a further remastering of this solidly C+ strip, which is now older than my nephew who's in high school.
But it's history!!!!!
FIRST COMIC SOMEBODY LAUGHED AT // #013; In which an Interruption occurs (July 22, 2003)
I have a huge soft spot for this comic, and I'll tell you why.
It didn't take me long to figure out that in order for this type of found-art comic to stay interesting, I would want to manipulate the images. In #009 I realized that I could put the same head on different bodies, to convey character movement. In #010 I realized I could use different images (such as a man and a skeleton) to represent a change occurring in time.
In the strip above, #013, I recall there being something very revelatory about finding the image of the window, then realizing I could intersect the elephant through the window...Then, I drew the shards of glass freehand with the lasso tool. It was an important stepping stone in terms of figuring out how I could convey a narrative by making design choices.
But what I recall most about this strip is the day I went to the movies with a bunch of college friends. Included in that group was my good buddy Stephen, with whom I'd spent the years of middle school through college (inclusive) making up stories and drawing characters and wanting to do comics. We'd graduated college by this time, and lived in different cities, and didn't see each other that often.
But we were back together tonight, and I'd brought my laptop into the movie theater, and while we waited for the lights to dim, I showed him the twenty or so comic strips I'd made so far. He flipped through them, amused enough I guess, but this is the one made him laugh, long and hard.
That's when I knew I was on the right track with this thing.
This strip ran in my aforementioned first collection, The Annotated Wondermark. Then, when Dark Horse asked if I wanted to do a hardcover Wondermark collection, I knew we couldn't start at the very beginning – we should pick up after the first book, starting with strip #101.
I decided that for the people who'd never see the (self-published) first book, we should include some of my favorites from the first 100. BUT, for the people who DID have the first book, we should add value so it wasn't just repeated content...
The solution was that this strip, and nine others from the first hundred, got newly colored, and they ran in color in my second book, Beards of our Forefathers. (The colored version of this one was also the version that ran on GoComics.)
The idea of interspersing colored strips in that book spawned the idea of adding bonus content generally – full pages that further explored weird concepts from each strip, usually as added text. This particular page in Beards introduced the concept of an elephant actor, who would go on to play the role of every elephant seen in every Wondermark comic.
When people ask if they can read the Wondermark books out of order, I say they can, but there is exactly one running gag that threads from book to book. It is the requisite check-in with Norbert the Elephant, as seen through the eyes of a stern theater critic, as his career as an elephant actor rises and falls with the fates and the tastes of the comic strip viewing public.
FIRST PURELY VISUAL PUNCHLINE // #027; In which Trouble becomes Double (Nov 4, 2003)
One of the limitations of found-art-style storytelling is that you're limited to the art you can, well, find. As we saw above, I'm not at all opposed to changing or manipulating the art... But it's always been true with Wondermark that if I have an idea that has to be sold visually, either in staging or with a specific character or action, then I have to either find exactly what I need or build it from pieces of other art, rather than just, you know, draw the scene like a normal cartoonist would.
This has sometimes been a limitation (there are some strips I've conceived of but never done because I never found just the right pieces), but more often than not it's led to interesting and surprising things, the way constraints often tend to do... It's hard to start with a scary "blank page" when you can just bring in some weird art from wherever, and try typing out what the people look like they might be saying to each other.
Especially early on, the "plop down some weird things and let 'em talk" principle of joke writing was the prevailing voice of the comic. These days it's usually more scripted and driven by specific ideas I want to explore, but I try not to forget the spontaneity and weirdness that can emerge from the "listening in" way of writing.
I was fond enough of this strip to promote it, like the elephant strip, to a color version in Beards, and on GoComics. The added content relating to this strip was a page full of fictional "reader mail" complaining about various elements of the strip, from the plausibility, to the disgusting premise, to the use of the name "Crabtree."
Because I don't draw the original art that's used in Wondermark, I sometimes look back and realize I skated by in one strip or another by just coming up with text, without bothering to tap into the power of the visual dimension in comics. There are strips I've written that contain five times as much text as this, but don't make whatever point they're making as clearly as this one does. It's something I have to remind myself of periodically.
FIRST FOCUS PULL // #133; In which Awkwardness ensues (Nov 15, 2005)
The very earliest comics, like #001 up at the top, usually featured people floating in a void. Occasionally, I would create comics out of art that "came with" scenic elements included, such as #054. But over time I found I wanted to visually "ground" the characters more, so I began to add more backgrounds and elements of setting – really, more and more, until I felt it looked bare without them.
Because my formal education is in film production, I know that when you push in for a close-up, quite often you use a longer lens, making the depth of field more shallow. So, in this strip, it seemed natural to start with a wide establishing shot, then push in for a medium two-shot, with the background softening as we did.
It's not necessarily a standard comic-strip trope to treat backgrounds this way, but I played around with this technique for quite a while. Over time, as my scenes tended to become more complex/cluttered, I came to believe it also didn't respect the verisimilitude (such as there ever was) of the Victorian artwork... I like working toward the goal that each comic could plausibly be an authentic (if weird) Victorian image. So with any additions I throw in, or changes I make to the art, I've always tried to keep that as a sort of generalized aesthetic goal.
So if you went plowing through the archive, you might go from an extreme example of the "comic panel as camera lens" treatment in #287, to an attempt at getting back to a lineart-only treatment of distance in #307, to a "fog" effect in #351, to, in the classic desert island strip #389, a somewhat more sophisticated treatment of depth and environment.
Here's a dramatic timelapse version of the creation of #389. This particular strip needs the environment; its joke depends on a clear sense of place. And I think the revelation I made with that strip came with the water.
In the video you can see that the sea is made from two different source illustrations: the far-off, horizon water is from one, and the closer, choppier-looking water is from another. The two fade together as the distance recedes.
That's when I realized that if I was trying to work within the artistic style I had wedded myself to, instead of against it, I should look to see how they treated distance.
I found success using two different illustrations of water in that strip because they were illustrations of water at different distances. I didn't use an illustration of close-up water and try to fade it out, or blur it, or something. The level of detail in the drawing diminished as the distance increased, and that (and atmospheric perspective, or the way the sky lightens at the horizon) is what's selling the effect.
This is a lot of brain-crunchin' on a pretty simple comic strip. And 95% of the time, this level of subtlety is lost on Wondermark, which is mostly medium-shots of people talking. But the integration of environments and settings as a regular part of the visual puzzle was something I began to think about, and considering the environment as a whole became more and more important to me as a storyteller – even if it was to make a choice not to worry too much about it for a particular strip.
FIRST “GOING VIRAL” // #119; In which a Cat has a Blog (Aug 9, 2005)
In the days before Twitter and Facebook, people used to load up bookmarks in their browser and visit actual webpages. They even used to email things they liked to their friends. Those two things were the backbones of 2000s webcomics growth: reliability and forwardability.
Before push notifications, and even through the RSS era, reliability was super important. The scary received wisdom in webcomics was that if people checked their bookmark and you hadn't updated when you said you would, they'd never come back. (HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!)
By this point I was doing Wondermark twice a week, and had just launched a website with an actual navigable archive. (Two years in!) I had just learned the word "webcomics" from a panel at Comic-Con. I was just starting to meet other people who were doing what I was doing.
Let me repeat that: Two years and over a hundred strips in is when I learned there was a word for what I was doing.
I had a precious, lucky gift that I don't know actually exists anymore: a lack of expectations for my own success. I didn't know any (or very few) comic creators personally; I didn't know their audience metrics or see how many Twitter followers they had or how much they made on Patreon. My comics weren't being liked or retweeted (or not liked, or not retweeted) within minutes of being posted.
I had been able to just sit down and write a bunch of comics without anyone really paying attention, and I didn't have much of a sense of impatience about it. That was a precious gift that allowed me to start finding my footing as a creator by the time anyone did notice me – when people did start to come to my site, there was already a lot of content there and some of it was pretty decent.
This particular comic was one of the first that I began to see people pass around a lot – mainly on blogs, naturally, since it was about blogs. I had a little personal blog of my own back then, and I remember wondering if the notion of "leaving a comment" was too arcane or jargon-y for people to get? I think it worked out OK.
My basic metric for engagement back then was: did anyone new sign up for the email list? After this comic posted, I saw a little uptick, which was really exciting. (I made a big deal about my email list, especially back then, because you didn't have to rely on people remembering to come back.) And I started to see strangers send nice little comments saying they liked the strip, and I started to get really really excited about where this whole thing could lead.
In other words, if I knew how unpopular I was for as long as I was, I probably would have given up. So I'm ultimately glad I didn't know any better!
Then I did a strip about Batman (#178) and things really started to gain momentum. That was at the three-year point. Three years before anyone really paid much attention: that sort of patience (albeit through ignorance) is the gift I was given, and frankly, I wish that for anyone who's creating work of their own.
OK that's plenty from me! Thanks so much for reading; we'll do something similar again soon, if you think this is interesting!
Best wishes to my best pals,
- Malki !