Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our ongoing look at the best of the web! Today, we take a trip to a spooky school that’s become one of the most popular all-ages comics online.At Gunnerkrigg Court (www.gunnerkrigg.com), the skies are gray and the mysteries run deep, with gods, demons and the occasional robot intermingling with the student body. Young Antimony Carver has found herself drawn into the Court’s mysteries, and the strange and magical creatures exiting in the Gillitie Wood outside the school – while dealing with the everyday strangeness of dealing with friends and classes.
Sine 2005, Gunnerkrigg Court has received international acclaim from such fans as Neil Gaiman, and been reprinted by Titan Books in the UK and Archaia Studios (Mouse Guard) in the US. We spoke with the strip’s creator, Tom Siddell, who has just recently been able to make the Court his full-time job, about the strip’s origins and its future.
Newsarama: Tom, how did you initially conceive the idea for the strip?
Tom Siddell: Before I started the comic I wasn’t really doing much with my artwork. I’d fallen into the habit of drawing nothing more substantial than a character standing aimlessly in the middle of a blank canvas, so I wanted a way to draw something with a lot more range.I’d been reading webcomics as well, and I realized how easy it would be to put a comic of my own on-line, and what better way to force myself to keep at it than stick to an updating schedule? When I had the main character and setting in mind, I knew I wanted it to be about mythology and monsters and perhaps robots, but I started the first chapter without a solid idea of the story as a whole.
I used that time to see how the characters and setting felt, and wrote the main outline for the entire comic based on how I felt as I worked on the beginning. By the end of the first chapter, I had a much better grasp of what I wanted to do, what would happen and, hopefully, how it would all work together, so I just carried on from there.
Nrama: How did you develop the character of Antimony?
Siddell: Before I started the comic I was doodling one day, just drawing nothing in particular, sketches of characters and the like. I drew one that I felt looked interesting, and she later became Antimony Carver. I liked her stoic look and ridiculous makeup, and when I’d thought about the setting, I knew I wanted her to be sort of unflappable despite all the strange stuff that was happening around her.
As I worked on the story I knew I would have to explain just why she was as she was, and I liked that she had a lot of mystery to her as well. I still find her the most interesting character in the comic, which is a good thing, or I’d not enjoy drawing and writing her as much as I do.Nrama: Tell us a little bit about your process for writing and drawing the strip. Siddell: It’s pretty simple. I have an outline for the whole comic, but I only write it chapter at a time. This lets me keep things flexible while still hitting all the major points I need to get to along the way. The chapter scripts are very basic, just lines of dialogue or brief descriptions of the actions taking place page by page. Then I do the rough layout of the page, see how many panels I need, where the speech bubbles go and what’s happening in each panel.
Then I draw a tighter sketch to get the page all sorted out. Then I ink it and color it. Some pages go quicker than others, some don’t have text, some don’t have panels, some are big splash pages that I love working on.
Nrama: What have been some of the biggest advantages and difficulties of doing this as a webcomic?
Siddell: Well the biggest advantage is that people read it. If I didn’t have the internet, my comic would never have seen the light of day. I was able to put it online as I was working on it and improve as I went. I could never have pitched it to a publisher, or expected it to be printed and in peoples’ hands.
The internet removes the problem of distribution from the equation and makes it available to anyone in the world. All I had to do was write and draw a comic that people enjoyed; it wasn’t about being connected, or knowing how to get something published.
I feel I’ve been very lucky from the beginning, I had some good exposure and the audience grew from that. Never missing an update let readers know they can always expect to see the next page on time.
I suppose the downside is that it can be hard to get noticed on the internet. Someone starting out from scratch have a lot of competition to go up against and a times it might feel like you will never be noticed amidst all the noise. All you can do, really, is keep plugging away at it, do the best work you can, try to get the word out, and hopefully things will pick up.The main thing I tell anyone who asks for comic advice is that they should be working on a story that they enjoy making themselves. That way, even if it feels like nobody else is reading along, you will still be eager to work on it.
Nrama: What are some of the biggest challenges in writing a story from the perspective of younger characters?
Siddell: I don’t find it much of a challenge, but then again, my characters are pretty unrealistic compared to real-life kids. Luckily, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to have young characters that seem fine with the weird situations they find themselves in, at a stage in their life where they are still figuring things out.
While you and I had to spend our childhoods learning to deal with emotions, hormones and school, the kids in my comic also have to learn things like how to speak to giant, prehistoric crab monster, or how to deal with robots.
I still remember what it was like to be a kid, and I suppose a lo of the inspiration for the comic came from the distorted view young people have of the world at that age. I wanted to do a comic that looked at the world that way, but also make it accessible to people of all ages. Luckily, I’ve heard great feedback from readers young and old!
Nrama: For that matter, what are some of the biggest challenges in keeping the plotlines and mythology of the strip straight?
Siddell: First and foremost, I keep the story straight. The major events that I need to hit, what happens and why. The mythologies and inspiration I use along the way are there to aid me in the story I want to tell.
I love researching myths and legends, so I knew right from the start I had to put as many of them in the story, and it’s been great fun having them all mingle together as they are. Sometimes I’d like to go off on a tangent and perhaps explore how the different myths might conflict with each other, but if that doesn’t push the tory forward then I have to cut it out.Now that I have the time to work on more things, I’d like to do extra side comics about things like that.
Nrama: How do you feel you've evolved as a writer and an artist since starting the strip?
Siddell: My art and writing has improved since I started the strip, but I have a long way to go yet. I doubt I’ll ever get to the stage where I feel I’m totally happy with my work, but I’ll be using that as an incentive to push myself.
There is no better practice than work itself, and I think I have a better grasp of what makes an interesting story now. Gunnerkrigg was originally started as a means to practice and, even though it’s grown into something much bigger than that, I have lots of ideas for other stuff I’d like to work on and draw on the experience I’ve gained while working on it.
Nrama: You started working on the comic as a full-time thing a few months ago. What have you learned from this experience so far?
Siddell: The main thing I’ve learned is that going from having very little time to work on pages, to having as much time as I would like can be overwhelming. Before, I could only work on the comic at the weekend, so I had less than two days to do three pages. I was somehow able to keep it up, but at a number of sacrifices to personal life and other stuff.Now that I took the plunge and started working on the comic full time I feel like a have this giant ocean of time I need to put to good use. It’s been great so far, and the extra time to work on each page has really helped me maintain my sanity and improve the quality of the pages (I hope), but I’m still figuring out how to best use the time I have now. I can finally work on extra stuff, and I need to figure out where to start!
Nrama: Have the Titan/Archaia collections brought a new audience to the webcomic, and how do you feel the print/web versions of the strip affect each other (for example, do people who've been reading the webcomic for longer periods tend to buy the print collections, do people who've read just the print versions come in to catch up with the other stories, etc.)?
Siddell: The books have always been secondary, since the comic is primarily online and will always be. However, I love when I hear from someone who has discovered my work in a library or a book shop and then came to the site afterwards.
There has been some trouble with Volume 2 being sold out for years now, so it’s unrealistic to expect people will buy into a series that is missing an installment, so it’s a good thing the whole story is available online. I’ve been told the reprints of Volume 2 will be available any day now, by the way, and nobody has been waiting longer for them than me!
I’ve definitely found that people who read the comic online are willing to spend money on the printed collections. Reading on a screen and reading on paper will always be two distinct experiences that I hope will continue to be around and compliment each other.
The whole reason I’m able to make a living off the comic at all is thanks to the dedicated readers who see some value in my work and are prepared to send me some money in return for the entertainment I’m providing them, even though it’s all available for free.That’s the great thing about webcomics, or any sort of freely distributed content model on the Internet; you’re not forcing people to pay to enjoy your work, and it turns out that if you do good work, people are more than willing to keep coming back and even support you financially along the way. I really can’t thank my readers enough.
Nrama: Do you see an endpoint for the story, and if so, how far off in the future would it be?
Siddell: Oh, yeah, there is a definite end to the story in mind, but there is still a long way to go, and a lot of story events that I’m looking forward to getting to.
I can’t really say how far off the end is, but it will happen one day, and I know I’m going to be torn up about putting the whole comic to bed. I hope it continues to be a fun ride along the way!
Nrama: What's coming up in the Court?
Siddell: One word: Jones.
Nrama: Something I've been asking everyone in this series is what opportunities they feel have been opened up through such new delivery systems as iPads and smartphones, and what individual creators and larger companies can do to better take advantage of these possibilities.
Siddell: People are still figuring this stuff out, and I don’t think the current crop of smartphone/mobile aps give a good experience just yet. As with any new market, there are a lot of people coming out of the woodwork looking to make a quick buck and possibly stiff whoever they can long they way if it suits their own interests.Mobile devices are nothing more than a new content delivery system, but right now the market seems to be in some sort of limbo between the needlessly complex and unfair traditional publishing model, and the internet delivery system.
In an ideal world, I suppose there shouldn’t be a need for dedicated reader apps, and perhaps comic sites can be made in such a way that they give a seamless reading experience no matter if you are reading them on a phone, a tablet, or a computer screen, but this relies on a number of factors that can’t always be relied on; namely, constant internet access everywhere for a reasonable price and the technical expertise needed to create some kind of dynamically formatted site that enhances the reading experience, not hinder it.
Needless to say, it should be done in such a way that benefits the creator. The way things are right now, the creator is the last person to get paid unless they are doing everything themselves.
Nrama: What other comics and creators are you currently enjoying, online and off?
Siddell: My current favorites are Monster Pulse by Magnolia Porter and Bad Machinery by John Allison!Nrama: What's next for you?
Siddell: I’ll keep working on what I enjoy, and now I can finally get to do other things that I’ve been looking forward to. Things have been going well so far, now that I quit my day job, and I hope that’s a continuing trend after the first year is through.
I know I can’t just do the same thing forever, so I’m looking into working on stuff that is tangential to Gunnerkrigg, and even some new stuff later on down the line. In the meantime, I’ll be writing and drawing the main comic and updating as consistently as ever.
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?
Siddell: I hope people continue to read and enjoy my comic!
Get caught up in the strange goings-on at Gunnerkrigg Court at www.gunnerkrigg.com.
Next: Take a trip to the furthest reaches of the galaxy with Phineas & Ferb’s Eddie Pittman and Red’s Planet! Then, it’s time to solve some rockin’ mysteries with the King of the Unknown! And coming soon: Interviews with the creators of Serenity Rose, Ant Comic and many more!