Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Accidental Cartoonist: The Bitstrips Factor

In my last post I talked about how I became, at least in my own mind, a ‘real’ cartoonist. 
I even mentioned some comic projects I’d done that led up to those moments of discovery and self identification. One of those projects was Major Spoilers Adventures.

In March 2008, I was reading and stumbled across an article detailing an odd little Web 2.0 startup called Bitstrips. It was a set of simple tools that allowed you to design characters and easily plug them into comic strips.  As someone who’d always liked comics I thought this might be a fun little distraction, and maybe a way to add content to my recently launched Otter Disaster Blog where I commented on comics, pop culture and politics. I was a fairly early adopter of Bitstrips, and enjoyed being a part of the early wave of users, innovating, giving feedback to the developers, and generally having fun making comics. I designed characters based on friends and started doing strips about my misspent youth, and being a husband and father.  I also used Bitstrips to do 24 Hour Comics in 2008, 2009 and 2010 that were immensely satisfying from a creative standpoint. I believe I still stand as the only Bitstripper to ever use it for the 24 Hour Comics Challenge.

I eventually did a strip based on an episode of the Major Spoilers Podcast, hosted by a couple of friends from my college years and posted it in the forums on their site.  It got a really great response, and so I posted a couple more, and the next thing I knew Stephen Schleicher, the owner of Major Spoilers, asked me if I wanted to make it a regular feature, appearing on the main site.  I thought this was a pretty cool opportunity, so almost by accident I was doing a weekly comic strip for a fairly high profile web site.

Bitstrips feature set continued to grow allowing me to do more and more, and I ended up doing 120 episodes of Major Spoilers Adventures for the site for over two years. Major Spoilers Adventures ran from May, 2009 to November 2011. I did a lot of pop culture related gags, inside jokes from the site and its podcasts as well as a few long form continuity stories.

It was a lot of fun for a long time, but Bitstrips began to frustrate me.  New features aside, I grew annoyed with the limitations of the site tools, the homogeneous art and the site’s intermittent bugginess. In June of 2011 I started a more personal side project as a secondary creative outlet, drawn by hand without the aid of Bitstrips. I took a lot of joy out of that project, Discordian Quote Comix, designed as an education in doing my own art with self imposed deadlines and release schedule.  That project helped me decide to end Major Spoilers Adventures in November of 2011 and Stephen was kind enough to allow me to spin a hand drawn gag panel strip out of the end of the weekly comic strip. That strip was called ‘SPOILED!’ and ran for another 33 weeks. It didn't feature any of the main characters (most based on actual people) from Major Spoilers Adventures but it did have similar pop-culture themed gags. It did have a few new recurring characters designed for jabs at superhero and comic book tropes, and pop culture fandom.  SPOILED! did not get as much positive response as Major Spoilers Adventures (and a fair amount of vocal, negative response). Half a year into SPOILED! my work schedule changed, I went back to working swing shifts, and the desire to develop my (doomed) continuity strip converged into a decision to end SPOILED! as well. Stephen was very understanding, and said I was welcome to contribute to the site in any wanted I wanted at any time in the future.

I have been asked and have considered bringing back Major Spoilers Adventures on a number of occasions and was actually poised to do so, when Bitstrips went viral. They released a mobile app, shifted to a social media strategy and they were everywhere for a while, becoming both extremely popular and equally reviled all at once. The explosion in mobile/social Bitstrips users also took down their servers, screwed up many features on the main site and made it harder to use for an extended period of time. To bring back the strip would also mean the homogeneous Bitstrips ‘look’ which was fine before everyone’s Facebook timeline was littered with that style of comic, but now seemed off putting and commonplace.  I've tinkered with a few potential solutions outside Bitstrips, but the one thing it offered that my current solutions don’t is time. When it worked, Bitstrips was a pretty fast solution. These days I’m producing two Brain Teaser Comics a week, doing the Media Montage Podcast, and I have returned to Major Spoilers every other week with a second podcast. I am producing, Top 5 Express, a short supplemental show to the longer Top Five Podcast that features the main Major Spoilers Crew.

What does all this have to do with anything? I guess it is an exploration of how I got deeply involved in making comics largely through a series of happy accidents.  Bitstrips, and similar sites like Pixton and Chogger get slammed as devaluing comic making by many artists, but without it, I might never have explored making comics with my own art.  Every artist has a journey and every journey begins with a single step. Bitstrips was mine. It led me to a regular gig with Major Spoilers which in turn inspired me to rediscover and better my own art, explore my own creations, and find a voice for the work I’m doing.

No comments:

Post a Comment