Webcomics Community Spotlight: Thomas Overbeck

Started by amanda, April 23, 2010, 07:27:21 AM

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For our second installment of the Webcomics Community Spotlight, amanda interviews Thomas Overbeck, artist and writer behind Times Like This and one of three minds responsible for the Dallas Webcomics Expo.  (As a heads up, Times Like This can get a little NSFW at times, but there is a link to a family-friendly version on the main page.)

Let's start off simply - tell us a little bit about yourself and your current projects.
I'm a 38-year-old guy from Galveston, Texas, currently living in the Dallas area with Kristi, my wife of seven years. I draw two webcomics: one is my time-travel-humor comic Times Like This that updates twice a week, and the other is a monthly commission for my father-in-law's church, a Christian-superhero series called SouthCybers.

What is your artistic and/or writing background (formal training, inspirations, etc)?
HAH! Formal training, that's a good one! ... well, I did take a one-year graphic arts program at a community college after I graduated from high school. That certainly helps out the appearance of my comics. As for inspirations, there's quite a few... from Charles Schulz, Jim Davis and Berkeley Breathed in my youth, to Stephan Pastis, Dave Kellett, Jeph Jacques and David Willis in more recent years. I've been drawing cartoons since elementary school, and I've always wanted to entertain people with my drawings... and ever since I found out people make money off of drawing stuff like that, cartooning has been one of my dream careers.

What prompted you to choose webcomics as your creative outlet?
Well, although I wanted to start a comic strip since I was a kid, I've also been cursed with a short attention span and a lack of motivation. And in the olden days of comic marketing, to get started in the syndicated-strip world you had to draw up several weeks' worth of strips, send them out to all the syndicates and hope one of them makes you a deal. I didn't feel like wasting all that time, effort and money on doing all that just to get rejected by everyone. But once I discovered that comic strips can flourish on the web - without the necessity (or standards and guidelines) of a major syndicate distributing it - I finally jumped at the opportunity.

You've been publishing pages of Times Like This (www.timeslikethis.com) since 2007.  What inspired the creation of this story?
It was a combination of a love for satirical humor (such as Monty Python, Saturday Night Live and Mel Brooks) and time travel stories (like Back To The Future and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure). I had some other comic ideas knocking around in my head - like a Gen-X Doonesbury or a wrestling-federation spoof or a comic centered around a bunch of tropical fish - but I realized that with a time-travel premise, I could do gags on numerous targets like ancient history, 20th-century pop culture, futuristic society and the general advantages and disadvantages to possessing a time machine, all rolled into one series.

When I came up with Times Like This back in 1995, there weren't a lot of comics (and certainly not a lot of time-travel stories) with female leads, so I decided to make my time traveler a young lady in her twenties. And once I had the premise down, the gag ideas started coming faster than any other premise I thought up, so I knew I had a good concept here, one that I thought would work in the papers. However, as I mentioned earlier, I wasn't up to churning out dozens of professional-looking strips by hand, especially with other real-life problems getting in the way, so TLT went by the wayside until mid-2007, when I decided to seriously give it a try on the web.

Many of your main character Cassie's time-traveling adventures are interconnected.  What is the writing process behind such a complicated story line?
Mostly I make it up as I go along. Usually I first think up a premise, then I get the basic plot points down, then I divide everything up into gags that fit into the space I use, then I hammer out the details in the dialogue, and finally I set it up in Photoshop. It's not a rare occasion that I'll come up with an extra gag while a storyline is going on (no, I don't have a buffer, but that would be nice to have) and shoehorn it into the arc soon after.

I am in the process of assembling a "master plan" for all my TLT characters. I've got a basic idea of what Cassie will be doing a few years down the road, and I want to draw up similar trajectories for Matt, Bethany and maybe even Agent Scott. The comic progresses in real time, so everyone ages at a normal pace. That's kind of unavoidable since real-life incidents, past and present, are involved.

Where would you go if you had access to Cassie's time machine?
Oh man, there's so many possibilities to choose from. Woodstock would be a top choice of mine (and a destination that Cassie and the gang went to last year). I would also like to visit Manchester, England in 1987, at the height of their "Madchester" club scene. I'd also like to go to my ancestral estate in Germany and trace my family heritage back as far as possible. I like to drive around and travel a lot, so I'd also just go back to the 50s and 60s and cruise around the Dallas and Houston areas to see what they were like before I was born.

If you were going to craft a replica (just for aesthetic purposes, of course) of Cassie's iconic time travel device, what would you use?
Well, it just so happens that I recently made a mockup of what the time machine would look like in real life. It's basically a huge cameo or Southwestern medallion necklace, with a giant onyx stone in the middle and a small flip phone attached to it in the back.

You keep both a NSFW and family-friendly version of your comic.  What prompted you to create the family-friendly version, and what benefits have you noticed in keeping up with both versions?
I just wanted something my mother would be able to read without having to go through the more racy gags. I wanted to have as much creative freedom as I desired, and at the same time avoid awkward moments with some family members. I generally produce TLT the way I would produce an R-rated movie, complete with the rampant vulgarities, mature subject matter and situational (but not blatant or graphic) nudity. And from time to time I'll do a "clean" version of a certain gag if I feel I don't want to keep it to the mature-audience crowd.

You host your comic on your own independent URL as well as update mirror sites such as DrunkDuck. What benefits do you see to hosting a comic on your own URL versus on a community site or vice versa?
I do commend the inebriated-waterfowl community for creating an adult-content division, it certainly takes away the worry of censorship by whoever's providing the webspace. While you have the feeling of greater autonomy and control over your own online destiny when you put your comic on your own independent website, there's always the concern that the folks who own the webspace that you're leasing from might get a complaint from someone offended by something in your comic, ultimately leading to the complete deletion of your website. It's a matter of reading the fine print very carefully in the web host's Terms Of Use page to make sure you're in the clear.

What kind of promotional tools or social networking sites are you using to spread the word about your projects?  What method have you found to be the most successful?
Well, back when MySpace was still a popular social-networking site, I set up a MySpace page for Cassie. I've since also set up a Facebook fan page for TLT and gave Cassie her own Twitter account. Most of the website referrals came from the links I put on Twitter, according to Google Analytics. I haven't advertised much, mostly because of financial priorities.

In 2009, you and Michael Moreno decided to create and host the Dallas Webcomics Expo (DWEX) with the help of Jonathan Caustrita.  What prompted this endeavor?
I was reading about how everyone involved with the New England Webcomics Weekend had a good time there, and I wished I could have made it there. (An impossible mission at the time, since it was thrown together in a span of two months, and at the time I had just lost my full-time job and was working fast food.) I did remember reading from one of the NEWW attendees that they hope this spawns other similar events around the country... so I decided, what the hell, I'll set something off. I discussed doing a Dallas webcomics weekend-ish event with Michael, and he was enthusiastic about it as well, so we committed to doing a webcomic gathering right there and then. Jonathan had more convention and marketing experience than both of us, and he worked at a hotel with ample convention space, so bringing him on board was a good move.

Tell us a little story about the 2009 convention!
Towards the end of DWEX '09, one of the guests stopped to compliment me on putting on a good show and thanking me for organizing something that was geared toward cartoonists. I found out later that I had spoken with Bill Hinds, the guy behind Tank McNamara. I had no idea who he was at the time, so I was like "cool, thanks, I appreciate that" instead of "oh wow, thanks, I love 'Tank' and 'Cleats'" or words to that effect. At any rate, it was great knowing he stopped by and thought highly of the event.

You're having the second annual DWEX in August this year.  What did you learn from last year's convention that you will apply to the planning of the 2010 version?
Two words: More Promotion. We consider ourselves lucky to have paid all our bills and gotten the attendance we had in 2009. We have some plans in the works to get the word out better about DWEX '10.

How do you feel comic creators/artists/writers benefit from attending conventions?
Online praise and fandom is all nice and stuff, but nothing really beats meeting your artistic idols face to face and having them sketch or sign something for you. Things like conventions and other in-person appearances certainly help in getting those kinds of interactions. And judging from other cartoonists' accounts of how they were treated at other conventions geared towards graphic novels or sci-fi/fantasy subjects, a webcomic-specific convention event would be most beneficial to our kind.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a webcomicker and/or up-and-coming convention host?
Funding stuff. I know I need to do more advertising for my webcomic, and I know we should be helping big names with travel expenses. The money to get that done is pretty hard to come by, though, especially in this economy.

And finally, what do you think the future holds for you?
I'm hoping to get Times Like This into printed form in the near future, and eventually make a decent living off of my drawings. I'd like to think my DWEX organizing could lead to a nice full-time job in the graphics or illustration field, but I'm not holding my breath. At any rate, there's a bunch of stuff I could accomplish if I could just find the time to get them started. Yep, I sure could use that time machine right about now.

amanda is responsible for But Not Really and Salt the Holly.