Getting webcomics done: a talk with Trevor Halligan

 

Webcomics don’t draw themselves. They take effort, commitment, and sometimes a support network. I had the chance to chat with webcomic artist Trevor Halligan about he works to publish his story on the web.

Who are you and what do you do?

My name’s Trevor Halligan. I’m a freelance illustrator from Portland, OR. You can find my portfolio at trevorthegreat.com.

Where can we find your webcomic?

My comic is titled Unmentionably Fresh, and can be found conveniently enough at unmentionablyfresh.com.

Elevator pitch: what’s it about?

7th grade at West Hamlet Middle School means navigating cliques, dealing with adversaries, and avoiding the wrath of teachers. Three loners band together and pledge to do more than just survive; they’ll take on all comers.

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Creating a webcomic

Where do you get your ideas?

The setting and stories for UF draw heavily from my own experiences at a white suburban middle school, but I try and look at it with the perspective of a dude in his 30s. I’m also inspired by the people in my life, especially my wife and my youngest sister, who are big inspirations for me.

How often do you throw away ideas that don’t work?

Pretty often. It’s easy to fall into the trap of rehashing tropes that have been done to death. If I can’t do something at least somewhat fresh with it, I don’t want to waste time on it. I’m also not the strongest writer, so I find myself going down paths that I realize aren’t particularly interesting and scrapping them.

Sounds kinda discouraging. Where do you find inspiration to keep going?

I’m completely self-driven, which means motivation can be hard to come by at times. Especially when the real world rears its ugly head (like last November, cough), it can be difficult to force myself to sit down and write.

My inspiration comes from wanting to better myself. I’ve wanted to be a working artist since I was young, and this is my way to show what I can do. Working a boring office job pays the bills, but at the expense of your soul. I want to do better than that. Part of my job is remembering that when things get tough.

How do you plan a webcomic?

This is my first solo webcomic, so I’m not doing this optimally yet. That said, when I was planning Unmentionably Fresh I made sure to have strong character designs in place for the three main characters and the 7–8 supporting characters I knew would feature in the first chapter. I made sure to have designs for the exterior and interior of their middle school so I could refer back to them as the story progressed.

When I started writing Chapter 1, I didn’t have the ending of the chapter in mind, but I knew how I wanted to introduce characters, the literary beats I wanted to hit, and the kind of jokes I wanted to tell. So I started by writing those to see where they took me.

“With Chapter 2 I’m going to sit down and map out the entire story before I draw anything, because knowing how your story ends is a key to good writing, kids!”

When the ending didn’t magically write itself (curses!) I sat down and had to figure out exactly how the rest of the story would end. It was incredibly helpful to have my wife to bounce ideas off of, and to help me map out how the main conflicts would play out (there’s a big convoluted prank the kids pull off, and I needed to make sure the order of events made some sense).

With Chapter 2 I’m going to sit down and map out the entire story before I draw anything, because knowing how your story ends is a key to good writing, kids! I’m the first person to ever say that, so nobody steal it!

What’s your work environment like?

My home studio is my desktop PC which resides on a big heavy desk in my living room. I keep it in the common area so I can still hang out with my wife while she watches TV and works on craft stuff. The desk hurts when you bang your knee on it.

How did you get started in comics?

My first official foray into “comics” was a webcomic I produced with my best friend Brad Halverson, called Shyeah!, from 2009–2010. It wasn’t a very good comic, but I learned an absolute ton by doing it — experience you can’t get any other way.

How do you improve your work?

“The fact is you’re never done improving as an artist — as long as you’re drawing, you’re getting better.”

I still take time to study to improve my art, whether it’s watching YouTube tutorials, reading art books, or just absorbing media from artists whose work I like. The fact is you’re never done improving as an artist — as long as you’re drawing, you’re getting better. That’s why the tired old adage “draw every day” is so important. I’m bad at following it, but when I’m drawing consistently I can always find small but tangible improvements in my work.

Stan Prokopenko runs a phenomenal channel where he demonstrates techniques from classic artists like Andrew Loomis. I was not familiar with his techniques before this (which I now realize is borderline sacrilege), but reading art books was never super helpful for me. Getting it in video form was phenomenal.

Producing Unmentionably Fresh

How far in advance do you make pages?

When I started UF, I gave myself a two-month backlog. Then we elected a white nationalist to rule our country and I slipped into a deep depression for two months and that backlog evaporated. I’m taking the comic on hiatus now that Chapter 1 is complete and I’d like to get at least a one-month backlog back in place.

How many pages do you make at once?

I always go one at a time, from layout to pencils to inks to flats to backgrounds to dialog to finishing. I know some artists will produce several pages at a time in each stage, but thus far I’ve enjoyed being able to break up the work that way. Maybe I’ll take a different approach with Chapter 2.

Do you draw digitally or with pen & paper?

All but one page of UF to this point has been done completely digitally. Strip 19, the final strip in Chapter 1, was laid out and penciled analog and scanned in for finishing. My day job is slow, so I may stick to that process moving forward to make use of the huge swaths of downtime I have.

Tell us about your production process.

I always draw in stages to try and maintain structural integrity and keep characters on-model (with varying degrees of success). So I’ll do loose layouts in blue line, come back and tighten them up with red line on another layer, then finish with a digital ink brush on yet another layer.

I use Manga Studio 5EX’s vector layers for inking so I can easily erase intersecting lines and quickly clean up the ink layer. MS also has great tools for speech balloons, so I use it to lay out all my dialog. If there’s a particular text effect I need, I may move the file over to Photoshop, just because its text effects are better than MS’s.

“I’ll do loose layouts in blue line, come back and tighten them up with red line on another layer, then finish with a digital ink brush on yet another layer.”

My scripts are all saved in two text files in my Google Drive: “Strips To Do” and “Finished Strips.” That way I can move the strip I just finished over to an archived document and keep the “To Do” file small and up to date.

I back up all my finished strips (all of the .lip, .psd, and .jpg files) to my Dropbox, which I pay a monthly subscription fee for 1TB of cloud storage. I like knowing that if my PC blows up in a fiery explosion, hundreds of hours of work won’t be lost in the blaze.

After you scan an image, what happens next?

If I draw any part of the strip analog, my scans are always just my pencils, so I’ll drop the scanned image into the already-laid-out Manga Studio file and resize and adjust to fit the border constraints I’ve given myself. Then I’ll ink in a separate layer and hide the scanned image.

How does your comic react to different screen and browser sizes?

This is a puzzle I’ve yet to completely solve. I designed the strip with mobile in mind, and it looks crisp and clean on any smart phone I’ve viewed it on. Similarly it looks great on PC browsers. But on tablets, I’ve found I get some image artifacts. I’m guessing that’s because I’m not saving in ideal image resolutions, but like I said, I haven’t quite cracked that nut yet.

Running a webcomic

How do you promote your webcomic?

Barely at all right now. I have an Unmentionably Fresh Facebook group, which is mainly comprised of friends and family at the moment, and I have like 400ish Twitter followers — that’s where I post comic updates. I’ve posted a couple strips to Reddit, but haven’t gotten any traction there.

I upload the strip to LINE Webtoons and Tapastic, where they’ve both managed to gain a miniscule following; right now I’m pretty much an unknown.

Now that Chapter 1 has wrapped up I’m thinking about doing a paid ad campaign, but I haven’t researched the best way to go about it — with the preponderance of ad blockers I’m not sure if that’s even a smart thing to do anymore. Used to be you could just run a Project Wonderful campaign and see traffic directly from that, but not anymore.

How do you react to negative reader comments?

I haven’t gotten any yet! LOL. I want to get some, because it means someone other than my mom and best friends are reading!

I do know that as a creator’s work gains more popularity and reach, negative feedback is inevitable. I tell myself I won’t let it influence how I work, because if you start trying to cater to fan desires you’ll stop producing work that’s actually yours. However, I could also see myself Googling myself if anybody was writing about me, so who knows how well I’ll follow that mantra if I gain any readers.

How do you monetize your webcomic?

I’m not! Stop yelling at me!

I should, because I invest countless hours into it, I’m just not keen on putting work into a Patreon then getting no support. Let’s try and get an audience first, OK hotshot?

What software do you use to host and run your webcomic online?

My comic’s site is built on a Grawlix CMS framework (of course!), and according to my cheap webhost, the server runs software called cPanel.

I’ll freely admit this is not my area of expertise — the website is a blunt object I clumsily wield to hit people in the face with my comic. I couldn’t code my way out of a wet paper bag.

Going forward

Any plans for a printed book?

Like I mentioned, I designed the layout of the comic specifically with mobile in mind, so it’s a vertical-scrolling format and I try to pace and layout the strip accordingly.

I don’t anticipate I’ll ever be popular enough that merchandise of any kind is even an option, but if it happens I’d be far more likely to offer t-shirts or some other product. I’d rather consume content like this on a mobile device, and I suspect a lot of readers feel the same.

What advice would you give an artist just getting started?

This response has two parts.

For part one, I’m gonna parrot the best advice I’ve ever heard, from Benjamin Dewey, a Portland artist whose work I absolutely love: Done is beautiful.

But Trev, I hear you saying, what the heckity crap does that mean?

It means if you’re an artist waiting to start a comic “until your art gets good,” or if you’re spending a crazy amount of time on a single piece of art because it “isn’t perfect,” knock that shit off. Finish it. Move on to the next piece.

For every piece of art I’ve ever produced, I’ve wound up absolutely hating it six months later, almost without exception. That phenomenon is true regardless of how many hours I spent on the piece or how fanatically I tried to get the shading on the girl’s upper lip just right.

“Done is beautiful.”

But for all the art I’ve produced that I’ve come to hate, when I put them in chronological order, I can see a clear progression of skill just by virtue of greater experience. That’s never been more true than in the year’s worth of comics I did when I was drawing Shyeah!.

That year represented the single greatest leap forward my art has ever taken, and it’s because I was cranking out an incredibly high volume of art — three strips per week. My art couldn’t help but get better. And it’s because I forced myself to finish the pieces, put them out in the world, and move on.

Done is beautiful.

Part two: Make some artist friends.

When I was doing Shyeah!, I joined webcomics.com for their bevy of resources (still a great site), and from there I helped form a weekly meeting called Webcomics Study Group, where 10–12 artists would get together for a scheduled video conference where we would share the art we’re working on and get targeted feedback from other active, working artists. We had people at all level of skill and experience, and the tips and tricks I learned from those artists was nothing short of invaluable. They were a huge help in pushing my art forward.

Reach out to artists whose work you admire, or who you know are doing similar stuff, and see if you can get a scheduled time together to help each other out. You can hold each other accountable to meeting times, and the feedback will only help. And as long as personal drama doesn’t destroy the group from the inside (it probably will), you’ll see a lot of benefit from it!

Would you mind if artists reach out to you for that?

No, not at all! I love networking with folks. I don't have all the answers, but I love to share my experience with people. Twitter and email are the best ways of getting a hold of me. Please don't come to my house.

Thanks for sharing your insight, Trevor. We look forward to seeing more at Unmentionably Fresh soon!

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