Friday, September 19, 2008

"Chasing the Sunset" Interview

Chasing the Sunset
(Click to enlarge and read)

I'm fascinated by comics done by married couples, since I work with my wife on our two strips. When I heard that Chasing the Sunset was reaching its 500th strip, it seemed like a good occasion to learn more.

Some people have asked about my degree of interest in fantasy, because I don't talk about it much. I spent some intense times playing D&D with my friends, and having to walk home through the forest at five a.m., scared out of my skull. Ultimately the quality of the games gradually seemed to drop, or maybe we got tired of it. Maybe it was because I was always stuck being the Dungeon Master. We moved on to BB gun wars, until the day my friend Chalky passed a BB in study hall. Then came paint ball, and the Atari 5200...

Well, here's some reassurance that the old traditions are not forgotten. Five hundred graceful installments of original stories is an amazing treat for fantasy readers, and I congratulate Alien and Mithandir for their accomplishment, and for the frequent beauty of their words and pictures.

This is an amazing interview. It may give you some things to think about.

Q: Who and where are you?

Mithandir: Lessee now ... I go by the online name of Mithandir (a deliberate misspelling of Gandalf's elven name) and my wife (who is looking over my shoulder as I type) goes by Alien. I'm from Belgium and she's from Norway, so we're an international couple. We met online about 10 years ago and met up in person in 2002 to smuggle a cat from Denmark to Norway and fell in love. I moved up to the cold north for a year and a few months later we started the comic (on February 17, 2003 to be exact), partly as something to do together and partly to showcase her art. We're currently living in Belgium where I'm a programmer and Alien stays at home. Alien sadly suffers from Asperger's syndrome and depression, which makes it hard for her to hold down a job (and which is why I'll be doing most of the talking).

Q: I'm Russian and my wife is Norwegian, but we have nothing to match the cat smuggling story. Five hundred episodes by a married team is a notable accomplishment. We are eager to hear your story, as you are about 360 posts ahead of us. Tell us how you started.

Mithandir: There were two starts. The first one was when Alien showed me a dragon she'd drawn in MSPaint - this was before we met in real life - and I said that it would make a great character for a comic. We tossed some ideas around for a bit, but didn't get it off the ground at that point. Then years later, after I'd moved up to Norway to be with her, we took it up again. The dragon became Myhrad, one of our regular cast members, but little of the rest of our plotting survived.

Alien: Leaf (the main character)'s appearance was also thought up back then (I recall using the university library to scan comic ideas), and fittingly Mith had to double check if he was male (many people still aren't sure).

Q: When do you update?

Mithandir: At first we did 3 strips a week and for the first year we held up quite well. After the third year things went downhill (as the comic became gradually more work to make after adding colour and shading). Most of this year we've only managed one per week but we recently moved up to 3/week again (Monday, Wednesday and Friday) and are so far keeping it up. Of course, had we kept up the 3/week, we'd have reached the 500 milestone after about 3.5 years instead of 5.5 :)

Q: Tell us the story of your comic in a paragraph or two.

Mithandir: Leaf, an elven boy of a scant 143 years old (about 15 in human years), is looking for his father who went missing in a flash flood a hundred years previously. He's heard a tale from a bard that an elf like that lives in the dwarven lands on the other side of the sea and while he realizes the chances are slim that it's his father, he has to hope. With him are a young drageling called Myhrad (who does not fly yet and is in fact afraid of heights), his female friend Ayne (who ran away from home to find adventure) and a pixie named Feiht who they have given up trying to lose. The comic follows Leaf around on his journey and the many adventures that are unavoidable with such a bizarre group.

Q: I have to tell you, your comic is new to me, despite its history, and I am dogged about tracking and recording the names of every comic I see. How has Chasing the Sunset managed to stay off my radar?

Mithandir: We are off everybody's radar! We are so far below the radar that you might have better luck with sonar. We have a faithful readership of about a thousand, but it has remained at that for the past 3-4 years.

Alien: We would love to be a bigger blip, but don't know how to show up.

Mithandir: Yeah... we've even bought advertising on sites but I think being a rather long story-based comic it's getting difficult for people to get into it. Fantasy comics are also a rather overcrowded market these days (though it wasn't when we started :)) Also, 500 strips is a bit much for review sites, the only time we ever gotten reviewed was when we snared Tangent by adding a collective of kittens to one strip.

Q: It seems you've made decisions about actively or passively promoting your comic. Tell me your thoughts.

Mithandir: We've tried both active and passive but have had a hard time getting any traction. Both Alien and I have rather low self esteem and we're reluctant to push ourselves onto people. However, for the 500th update we wanted to be noticed.

Q: I'd like to here about your work pattern: The flow of ideas and actions, the steps toward a completed page or story.

Mithandir: I have the big story roughly worked out in my head all the way to the end of the comic. Based on that, I make event storylines which I talk over with Alien and we bounce some ideas off each other after which I write the script for a single strip. While the big story is already decided to the end, much of what lies in between is only decided at the last minute, this allows us to incorporate new ideas and even adjust the stories based on what the readers are saying. My scripts tend towards the minimalistic, giving just the dialogue and maybe one line to describe a frame. This leaves room for Alien to be creative in. What she draws isn't always what I had in mind, which is great. After she sketches and inks it on A3 paper (which takes about 4 hours) I colour and shade it in photoshop. The whole process for one strip takes between 7 and 9 hours these days.

Q; If the enjoyment wasn't there, you wouldn't do it, but do you have a goal for your comic besides the pleasure of doing it?

Mithandir: Oh, we have many! It's our way to conquer the world by creating an army of fanatical reade er ... I should not type this out loud. The cackling scares the cats. Seriously, the main goals are: 1) To give alien confidence in her drawing abilities and give her a chance to improve by getting feedback (one reason why we have commenting on every strip). 2) To make people smile and make their day a bit better and thus make the world a slightly better place.  3) To have something we can do together and be proud of.

Alien: Mith is a good writer, and adorable.

Q: What has been most helpful in keeping the comic going?

Mithandir: Reader feedback. We allow commenting on every strip and it's just great to see people speculating about the story, working out our plot ahead of time and simply enjoying what we made. Occasionally somebody will say how we made them smile or made their day a bit better and that's just the greatest feeling there is.

Alien: Reader feedback. Seriously. Seeing new comments pop in makes me very happy.

Q: Have any readers contacted you with words or comments that left a lasting impression?

Mithandir: All the time. If you read through the comments on our strips there's many more stories in there than there's in the comic itself. I remember a female reader missing her husband when we did a strip about Leaf missing his father. I remember a young girl who was over the world when we put her in the comic as a cameo. Many of our readers have been with us for years and though we've never met them, we feel we know some of them well.

Q: All my interviews ask these questions. I hope you'll both reply. What are your favorite comics? Do you have a favorite comic by someone you know?

Mithandir:: I have too little time to read comics these days and the ones I do read are the big ones like Sinfest, xkcd, Freefall etc. I enjoy Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan written and drawn by our good friend Reinder Dijkhuis (who we've met in real life). Alien will have a bigger list :

Alien: I read a fair few comics. Several big ones, like xkcd, Girl Genius and Order of the Stick, but also smaller but no less awesome strips like the Prime of Ambition, Outsider, Lint, Malakh and True Magic.

Q: Is there a comic you like that you feel deserves more exposure?

Mithandir: Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan. Reinder has been doing this comic since 1992 (though with a big gap prior to 2000) and has even fewer readers than us! He definitely deserves some more.

Alien: I don't know how much exposure anything gets, but see the ones above? and check Beastling, made by one of our regular readers.

Q: I also have another question. You have obviously considered the challenges for a reader to catch up with a 500 page story. What ideas do you have for facing this issue? (I do recall seeing one comic, possibly Achewood, that offered a number of entry points to new readers. I ask on behalf of those who will face it and might benefit from planning.)

Mithandir: I'm glad you ask that, as it allows me to boast a bit about the website (as opposed to the comic).
First, we set up a story summary page which summarizes up to the latest chapter and links to all the other chapters.
Second, we're sort of episodic. You don't need to know all that's gone before and can usually follow quite well if you start at the beginning of any chapter.
Third, every strip has a question mark icon below it. If you hover over this, it shows all the primary and secondary cast members in that strip, with links to their cast pages.
Fourth, every secondary cast page has a list of storylines that cast member has been in. Clicking the storyline icon takes you to its beginning. This way you can easily find out about recurring characters.
Fifth, you can quickread the strip on a storyline-per-storyline basis by using the archives e.g.: is the latest storyline.
Sixth, the entire site is searchable, which includes the dialogue. Encounter a reference you don't get and the search might find it for you (and usually somebody in the comments will explain).

We also have a flash map of the world and several other background information pages for people who want to understand our pixies or how our magic works without reading the entire archive.

We've got a bunch of other handy things in the site (like dogears, etc.) but those are the most relevant, I think. I'm quite proud of the site (which I made myself) which I believe to be the most feature rich webcomic site there is.

A question for readers: Do you prefer the size of the font in this post or the next one? Only difference is size.