the 1st "Ellie"Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our continuing look at the best comics on the web. Today, we take a journey into the depths of outer space for one of the cutest comics for all ages to launch in the past year.
Decades ago, we sent an adorable kitty-like robot named “Ellie” to a newly-discovered planet we called “Planet X.” Now, we have gotten transmissions back from Ellie, tales of her strange journeys and encounters with creatures with names like “Muffin” and “Jeff.”
Every Monday and Thursday, James Anderson chronicles her adventures with the gorgeous, full-color all-ages strip Ellie On Planet X (www.ellieonplanetx.com), one of the most fun and visually unique new comics online. We talked with Anderson about his trip to Planet X as the first anniversary of Ellie’s transmissions approaches.
Newsarama: James, you’ve got the first anniversary of the strip coming up. What’s the experience been like so far?
James Anderson: I’ve been kind of fascinated and surprised at the amount of praise the strip has gotten. To be fair and to put the record straight, even though I posted the first strip in June of last year, there were a lot of weeks where I didn’t post anything at all. I probably would’ve continued to quietly plod along in stealth mode like that had it not been for the insistence of my girlfriend to really put myself out there.
Then Tom Dell’Aringa asked me to do a guest strip for his wonderful comic Marooned, and threatened to send a bunch of people over to Ellie on Planet X from there. I figured I’d better have something for them to look at. I threw my hat over the wall and have kept a pretty consistent schedule since December. So, I don’t know if you can really call it an anniversary just yet. Regardless, it’s been a lot of fun exploring this little world so far.
Nrama: How did you initially come up with Ellie and her world?
Anderson: About fifteen years ago I had done some Star Wars comics, one taking place on an odd little planet I created. That inspired me to create an odd little planet where my own stories could take place. I started doodling all kinds of different fauna that might inhabit it. I just didn’t know what the story was supposed to be. I was fawning over James Gurney’s Dinotopia at the time and it prompted me to ask, “What if someone from Earth came to explore this planet?”
Ellie was going to be a little girl who gets left on Planet X by her space faring parents, but that scenario proved too incredulous for me. Eventually she’d run out of oxygen or her parents would come back for her or she’d be unable to cope because she’s this lost little kid. Meanwhile, in the real world, the Sojourner rover was rolling across the surface of Mars, and that’s where the idea to make Ellie a little robot from Earth came from.
Then the project just sat there for years, occasionally taken out and fiddled with, until I decided to quit waiting for lightning to strike and just did something with it.
Nrama: I’m strangely curious about how you came up with all those different types of caterslinks..
Anderson: That chart was sort of a cross between those curio cabinets full of beetles with pins stuck in them and a Life in Hell comic. And if five caterslinks was funny, twenty-one surely must be funnier. The names are what I thought a little robot with a child’s experience might name things. I drew variations to match the descriptions.
I wish I knew Latin though. I would have given them really goofy Latin names. I want to do some more charts like that with some of the other animals in the future.
Nrama: Why did you want to do Ellie as a web strip?
Anderson: I didn’t at first. It was going to be a kind of hybrid guide book/graphic novel/children’s picture book thing. I just wasn’t getting anywhere with it. I’d draw all of these ideas for it but there was no story to hang it on.
That, and I changed my mind about things a lot. After four pages into a story I’d get bored, take a six-month break and by the time I returned I’d have new ideas and the artwork would look completely different.
What I like about doing Ellie as a web strip is that it builds as I go. It’s almost stream of consciousness and there doesn’t really have to be a plot. Because I’ve put it out there for people to see, I’m less likely to go back and fiddle with it. I’m forced to keep going due to time constraints. If I’m less than happy with the results I just make a mental note for next time and move on (even though I continue to fret about it).
The big bonus of having a web strip, or any publication on the web, is that I don’t answer to anybody but myself and the readers. I can take my time developing the characters and people get to watch it all happen. The readers then develop a relationship with Ellie and her friends over time. They’ve gotten to spend the last several months with them as opposed to a few hours that then gets put up on a book shelf.
And because the readers can’t just turn the page to see what happens next, anticipation is built while waiting for the next installment, which I think adds to the affinity they have for the characters.
Nrama: What’s your process of creating the strip like, and what are the biggest challenges in doing a color strip in the newspaper-type format?
Anderson: I work digitally because I’m a fussy artist that likes to be able to tweak and click undo a lot. I write and arrange the panels using Adobe InDesign on my laptop.
I transfer the files to my tablet PC, sketch and “ink” in Alias Sketchbook Pro, color using Corel Painter, then back to Sketchbook Pro to add highlights, text, and word balloons. It usually takes three or four hours to completion, depending on the strip.
I can’t imagine not using color. It’s become an integral part of the artwork. It would probably take me just as much time to do the strip in black and white since the color I apply takes the place of any fancy crosshatching or black fills. It marks the boundaries of the panels.
I really love the textures I get with the brushes in Painter and the brown color for the line work imparts a warmth that I don’t think you get with black. I know because it’s digital that it’s all fakery, but it at least gives the appearance that the strip could be hand painted.
Nrama: What’s been your favorite alien to create for the strip so far?
Anderson: I have to say it’s Jeff the Quadrapus, without a doubt. His character has been around in some form or other from the beginning, predating even Ellie. I just find him likable. I’m still figuring out how to best draw him though. He’s just got this strange anatomy that I can squish into different positions, but it poses problems when I need his short legs to act as arms and stretch up to his head. I like that he can be four-legged or two-legged, or even stand on one leg while holding things in his other three tentacle-flippers.
I like Muffin too, but I don’t quite know who he is yet. He’s supposed to resemble a little puppy with arms that look like long Snoopy ears. I don’t know that anyone’s picked up on that though.
Nrama: How long do you see doing Ellie’s story?
Anderson: I can’t pretend that I’ve found the one thing that I want to draw forever and ever, because I have ideas for other things I’d like to do as well. But if it came to it I’d be happy telling her story until such time I foresaw it jumping the shark. I hope I’d notice before that happens.
Nrama: Do you see doing any extended storylines in the future?
Anderson: I’m not sure. I’m kind of torn between just doing little vignettes about character relationships and moving them off into the wider world. Clearly Ellie is a robot built to explore so that would imply the latter. But I don’t think I’m interested in doing big, long running epic stories.
I like that the story is centered in a sort of small surreal version of the 100-Acre Wood. There may be travels to other lands - there is a whole planet to explore after all - but I’d like to think they’d always return home.
Nrama: Has there been any interest in turning Ellie into an animated series or picture book series?
Anderson: What? Have you heard something I need to know about? If someone wanted to turn her into an animated series I’d be thrilled! As long as I had some creative input, that is. I’d have to retain the rights to the characters so I could continue creating the comic too. And I’d love to do a series of picture books in the vein of the old three-color books from my youth.
Nrama: I’m counting Scott Morse, Jay Stephens and Frank Espinosa among your influences. Am I right, and who else played a big role?
a more recent "Ellie"Anderson: Scott Morse and Frank Espinosa for sure. I had been working really hard improving my style when a friend, who saw some similarity between Scott Morse’s and my stuff, showed me some of his books. I remember actually saying, “That’s what I’m trying to do!” I just love all those bold confident lines and colors. It’s very alive.
Frank Espinosa’s work does the same for me. There’s maybe some John K in there, and I watched a lot of Warner Brothers cartoons as a kid too. Lots of animation influences. I wasn’t familiar with Jay Stephens. That’s some great work worth a further look. Thanks for that one!
There’s a long list of other big influences including Dr. Seuss, Dave Sim, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, John Singer Sargent, George Herriman, Bill Watterson, Charles Schulz, - but mostly Berke Breathed. I devoured Bloom County as a kid and the humor and art inspire what I do in Ellie. I was able to finally meet him just a few months ago for the first time and suddenly found myself becoming a babbling idiot in his presence.
Nrama: What do you feel is important about doing an all-ages comic?
Anderson: There are lots of comics out on the web - something for everyone. I think it’s great when there’s something that both adults and kids can share.
Nrama: What do you feel creators can do to take advantage of the increasing opportunities provided by such new delivery systems as the iPad and cell phones?
Anderson: I might be the last person to ask when it comes to this. I have an iPhone but I certainly don’t use it a fraction of its fullest potential. I don’t own an iPad either. However, this is clearly where books are headed. I understand the sentiment of people who insist that physical books will never go away, that people just love that feeling of holding one and flipping through the pages.
But I’m convinced that in the very near future there will be kids who will have never owned a physical book. Much like music. I can’t remember when the last time was that I bought an actual CD at an actual store. I think it’s an eventuality that what creators have done in the past will naturally migrate to digital, whether they purposely move that way or not. It will happen.
It’s hard to say what they can do now to take advantage of it. I have my comic available on the web and someone can see it on their iPad and phones right now. For free. But there are some great ideas when it comes to digital books. They can do things physical books cannot.
I’d love to be able to read through a comic artist’s collection and then pull up another layer that shows the rough pencil drawings, or have all the kinds of extras you’d find on a DVD.
Nrama: What are some of your other favorite comics, print or web?
Anderson: I think my favorite print comic right now is Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac. I love his scratchy pen lines and the character Petey, with all his neuroses, is inspired. I didn’t follow web comics much until I started my own, and now I keep finding all of these little gems.
There’s so many to list and I’d hate to leave anyone out, but a couple are (in no particular order) Bug, The Abominable Charles Christopher, Happletea, Tiny Kitten Teeth, The Adventures of Superhero Girl, the aforementioned Marooned, as well as Tales of a Checkered Man, Moon Town, and Hark! A Vagrant. There’s many, many, many more.
Nrama: What’s next for you?
Anderson: It’s still early in the life of Ellie on Planet X. I’d like to do some merchandise at some point. I have some ideas for patches and a few other things. I haven’t done any conventions yet, so that might be something to consider as well for “year two.”
There are a few children’s book manuscripts I’ve written that I’ve been sitting on for far too long. That’s something I always say I’d like to be involved in and I think now’s the time that needs to start happening. I also have some laundry to do and a dog to walk, so I’d best get started!
Visit Ellie on Planet X every Monday and Thursday at www.ellieonplanetx.com. Next at Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, Dorothy Gambrell takes us to the world ofCat and Girl And stay tuned for more interviews with Kate Beaton, John Allison, Phil Foglio and many more, or check out our archive of previous interviews below!And check out our previous Wide World of Webcomics entries at this all-new Topic Page!