Interview: Michael Firman of “Moe”
Moe got started around April 2008 and has been going posting, with varying frequencies, ever since. Featuring the antics of pun-spewing awkward Moe (and his little brother Bo), it’s a comic I found after Ryan North linked to it and I quickly knew this was a great comic. It hasn’t gotten super popular yet, but it’s stayed very high quality over 300+ installments. I talked with creator Michael Firman by e-mail, in what was his very first interview. So that’s cool. The parts of our conversation got sort of intertwined and I had to break them up to make the interview readable, so if you see anything that doesn’t quite make sense, it’s for that reason.
Carl: Could you talk about how you got started making a webcomic? How did you decide to put comics online and how did you first start getting attention?
Michael Firman: It wasn’t until high school that I started making comic strips as a serious effort. Discovering Penny Arcade yielded some pivotal inspiration. I saw two people generating income by doing what they love, and entertaining a massive audience. So that became one of the two goals of my comic endeavours. The second was impressing a girl I liked.
Neither goal was achieved!
But the important element there was my fandom of Penny Arcade. I joined its art forum and started making friends with a lot of cool and encouraging artists (you can see many of them on my link list), including Andrew Hussie of MSPA. Putting my comics online was a natural decision influenced by the forums and a fascination with webcomics in general. Hussie was particularly crucial in the history of my website as he provided the first code I used for Moe’s comic management, though I had started some embarrassing strips prior on Geocities-type services. He would later play a significant role in boosting my fanbase as his own projects blew up, which is when he turned Ryan North onto my shit as well. I like to think Moe had enough quality to attract its own audience, and it did manage to pull in a couple hundred people a day, but the popularity I have now is by the grace of supernifty webcomic giants.
CW: The more I read about comics, the more it seems like Andrew Hussie is the secret power behind every webcomic ever. Would you agree with that? I suspect that in a few years Gabe and Tycho will take off their masks and reveal that they are both, in fact, Andrew Hussie.
MF: Andrew Hussie is a fascinating creature. While he might not be behind every webcomic ever, his tentacles have certainly slithered up their skirts and writhed around erotically. So he’s been up the behind of every webcomic ever.
Recently, Moe has been updating a lot less frequently. Do you wish you could update more often, or are you happy with the pace you have? Has it slowed down because it takes a lot of work to draw, or because it’s hard to write jokes, or what? I think the quality of the writing is just as good as ever, and the art has gotten better.
I definitely am disappointed in Moe’s current sparsity. There was a period of about eight months when I updated Moe every weekday, forcing myself to come up with whatever joke I could each day. It was a tad less stressful worrying about a comic’s reception when I knew that it was going to be pushed off the front page in 24 hours. Now I’m caught in a terrible cycle where the more time passes between updates, the better I feel the joke has to be to compensate, and then more time passes as I try to think of it, and eventually the compensatory goal becomes ridiculously unachievable and I settle. Drawing is the easy part really, but I think strip 155 is a good representation of where I would prefer the strip to be visually, with detailed backgrounds and slightly cleaner presentation, but that style grew too time consuming. I would love to uphold that standard and work on Moe full time, but it would have to generate income and I don’t seem to be capable in that department.
Have you tried selling shirts yet? Do you have ideas for designs?
I’ve never tried, but came pretty close once. This was the design I thought up because it’s always been one of my favourite Moe quotations. I’m sure I could produce some pretty rad artwork for any eventual Moe apparel, but the problem is my lack of confidence in the potential market. Shirts require an up front investment, and I’m not sure I’d have enough customers to justify it. I guess that’s what smaller test runs or preorders are for, but I haven’t mustered the courage to try such.
I like the shirt design – it has a good look to it. The only thing I don’t like is that it sort of looks like Moe is naked, and Moe, while a great character, is a not a dude I want to be naked on my shirt. I think in the comic he is usually seen from like the waist up or something? Anyway. Perhaps you could try selling prints/posters first. I think that’s what Nedroid did; they just recently started selling T Shirts with TopatoCo but were selling prints before that. I really don’t know the business of this but you could at least try it. You could always sell sketches to people, that would have a low investment, you wouldn’t have to work on it until you got an order, and if you made money you could invest it in shirts. but look at me, pretending to be a business man. That’s not what I even wanted to talk about.
I’ve had a few ideas for relatively simple products and services to try selling, but haven’t gone forward with any. I guess I’m still in a place mentally where I’m not even sure that Moe is something that could attract monetary attention, and I’m worried putting things up for sale and having no one want it would just reinforce my low opinion of my own work.
It’s interesting that you say publishing every day made you less worried about each comic’s reception – I would assume that publishing every day would make it really hard to keep quality up, and would make me (if I wrote a comic, which I do not) way more worried, not less. But I guess if the comics are part of a larger story, as Moe generally is, it also makes it easier, because you can say “Well, this might not be crazy hilarious but it’s serving to push the story forward, and there are other jokes later in the story that we just have to get to.”
That sort of incessant schedule did run the risk of drying the well, but I came up with some of my favourite jokes in that period also. It was daily practice, basically. You mention governing stories in Moe and a lot of fans praise me for them, but I always considered Moe antithetical to the concept of storytelling. Moe was born from a lunchbreak doodle, and I’ve never felt like he would be the strip to garner attention for myself. I set the series up to be a vehicle for the unconnected gags I thought of during the day. There are some shallow plotlines and characters I introduce to vary the environment and situations, but my writing was pretty much always just searching for the next joke instead of planning elaborate narratives. I am certainly interested in telling stories, but I always thought I would do that in different comics and projects. I have too many ideas and not enough discipline right now to actually create them, though.
The art on comic 155 is pretty distinct from what you have now – it reminds me of Overcompensating in some ways. To pick a truly random example, this one. I actually have to say I like your current style more. I’m not good at talking about the art in webcomics, but I think the more solid backgrounds go better with your art style. That said, I think the art you did for your dinosaur comics guest comic was TERRIFYING.
Ha ha, the dino comic was fun to do! I think I reveled in the opportunity to use saturated colours, and to make T-Rex look like he was from that scene in Total Recall where everyone’s eyes were inflating. There’s been a natural improvement in my ability over the years so I would assume my most current style reflects that. I can go pretty quick when making these comics, and I think the visuals indicate as much, but it seems to serve Moe’s character well enough.
Is it bad for me to admit that I don’t read Overcompensating? I am terrible at keeping up with comics. I love so many, and yet have barely scraped the archives of only a handful of them.
Let’s talk a little about the writing of each comic. How do you think of jokes? Do you wait for them to come to you, or do you have a process where you actively think about how to make a joke? How much tinkering with an idea do you generally do before you think it’s good enough?
In the daily days, I was forcing myself to come up with a joke every night. It happened sometimes that I would think of something great during the day, but for the most part it was me stressing for something passable in the final hours of the evening. It’s not that I don’t search for jokes all the time, it just requires some refinement beyond the cursory brainstorming and observation to actually become comic-viable, and my attention is usually too divided to concentrate on the strip. Writing the jokes is usually the most time consuming portion of production, but there aren’t distinct steps in the process I can think of to describe. I guess a lot of the time I just try to think of a random situation or premise, and then construct a gag within it. It’s similar to the thought process I employed in high school drama to make my classmates laugh at my skits. Was that too vague? I feel like I just said, “The way I write jokes is to think of something funny and then turn it into a comic.” I suppose there’s a lot of conceptualizing and cultivating that happens automatically and rapidly in my mind. But basically the way I write jokes is to think of something funny and then turn it into a comic.
I guess it can be hard to describe how one comes up with something funny. I rarely have occasions where I sit down and try to think of something funny to write from scratch, usually you just wait until something comes into your head. But then, I never have a situation where I have to come up with a joke. My only other question on the matter is which you think is “better,” which you can define however you want: updating on a regular basis or sporadically? (if you are stuck on what to define as “better,” I guess I’m thinking of which leads to a better/funnier/more satisfying comic)
In terms of generating business, there is no doubt that a regular schedule is best. In terms of quality, it feels pretty natural to assume that if you are forcing the creative process the work must be suffering. But this isn’t actually the case. For some people, adhering to a strict routine demands that they surrender their self doubt which might have otherwise blocked some unique and entertaining ideas. And like I said, the more you’re doing something, the more it serves as practice. But if your interest in the work is waning, I’m sure that is reflected in the quality of the strip, so probably the most important thing is to have your heart in the project. Actually more important would be to have your heart in your chest.
I guess I don’t have anything else to add except gratitude for this interview!
OK last question: What three webcomics besides your own should everyone be reading?
Webcomic recommendations, hm. Ignoring the temptation to plug my friends’ work, I’d still have a tough time choosing. Of your mentions, Nedroid and Kate Beaton are great. I’m sure Achewood is too since everyone seems to love it; I simply haven’t taken the time myself to ingest its archives. Did I already mention this? I’m pretty bad at reading webcomics, or comics in general. I like to think it’s because I’m being so productive that I have less time to monitor other series with any fervor, but really it’s just daunting given all of the great stuff that exists.
Three webcomics I’d suggest based on general awesomeness as well as influence over my own work: Scott Campbell’s Double Fine Action Comics (if you read through those you’ll probably detect where much of the Moe style came from), Kazu Kibuishi’s Bolt City (the Copper series is particularly beautiful), and of course Penny Arcade, which is more esoteric but the respect is due. It was PA that lured me into the webcomics world in the first place.
I made a few attempts at this current paragraph where I was going to disobey the question’s rules and just continue recommending great shit, but it seriously was too long a list. Any complainer who says there aren’t enough great webcomics out there is a huge wiener. A big fat huge wiener with wiener-breath!