Interview: Wes Molebash on Zuda Comics and ‘You’ll Have That’
Ask any longtime comics fan what they give someone "on the outside" to turn them on to the comics world, and they usually have a stock answer ready. Some go the Watchmen route, others go with Art Spiegelman’s Maus or, quite possibly, something more akin to Craig Thompson’s Blankets. Lately, Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man has been popping up quite often in these types of conversations.
Sometimes, though, your best bet in converting someone into a comics fan isn’t in proving the ability of comics to provide a window into serious emotional or political issues, or in giving them what amounts to a sneak peek at the next big comic-to-film adaptation. Sometimes, your best bet simply lies in showing someone that comics can still be fun — that a few panels of cartoon art can connect a reader with the more light-hearted moments in life without requiring any heavy, emotional investment.
That’s why Wes Molebash’s You’ll Have That has found its way into my list of first-time reader recommendations. The strip follows the life of a young, married couple as they work through the inherent trials and tribulations of starting a family, navigating a complicated social circle and learning their way around co-habitation. Molebash has been publishing YHT as a webcomic for more than four years now, and doing so on a five-days-a-week schedule for much of that time. The series is hosted by Viper Comics, who also publishes print collections of the series at regular intervals.
Recently, Molebash decided to try his hand with Zuda Comics, the new webcomics initiative by DC Comics. Creators submit sample strips to Zuda, and each month, editors select a set number to to host on the Zuda Comics site. Winners are chosen monthly based upon the strips’ popularity among readers, and the winning creators receive a year-long contract to continue their series. However, the program has been the focus of widespread criticism in the online world, especially among webcomic creators, due to the restrictions imposed by DC/Zuda on ownership of the strips and creators’ rights.
Molebash’s current submission to Zuda, The Litterbox Chronicles, about a pair of mischevious house cats, marks the first occasion in which an already well-established webcomic creator has participated in the Zuda competition. In this interview, he shares some thoughst on the Zuda experience thus far and discusses the future of You’ll Have That and the implications of the strip on his life.
COMICMIX: So, let’s get to it. You already have a very successful webcomic in You’ll Have That — so why go the Zuda route?
WES MOLEBASH: Well, the Zuda thing has been quite a hot topic with creators for a while…
CMix: … to put it lightly…
WM: I really struggled with the decision. I’ve been keeping my eye on Zuda ever since I first heard about DC doing this kind of thing, so I’ve read any article that I found on the Internet about it. I’ve read everyone’s opinion. And it seems like the majority of cartoonists seem to be against it.
CMix: So why throw your hat into the ring?
WM: I know a guy who used to be an editor at DC for one of the Batman series. I met him through Viper, and I would bounce stuff off him occasionally. In the end, after talking with him and doing my research, I decided that if Zuda ends up taking all of the rights — because I’m not a good businessman, that’s for sure — if something happens like that it would be best to give them a project that I’m not totally married to. After all, I have lots of ideas.
I was listening to an interview with Kevin Grevioux, the guy who wrote the film Underworld, and they’re interviewing him when the sequel came out, Underworld: Evolution. They asked him how much involvement he had in the sequel and he said he had no involvement in that movie. For the first movie, he didn’t even have an agent. He basically threw it away. And they were like, "Wow. Why did you do that?" And he told them something like, "Well, the first project you have to throw away. You have to do it and you’re probably going to get screwed, but at least you get your name out there."
And this did end up opening a lot of doors for him. Now he’s writing comic books and he has a pretty good career screenwriting, even though he’s probably not making the money off Underworld that he should have with that project. But because he didn’t have a name before that project, he kind of got the shaft. That’s how i’m feeling about this.
CMix: Fair enough. So why The Litterbox Chronicles? Is this an idea you created specifically for Zuda or something you’ve had kicking around for a while?
WM: I went with The Litterbox Chronicles because, well… I had several ideas i’ve been knocking around inside my head, and Litterbox Chronicles is the only gag strip among them. The other ideas I had were more like graphic-novel things — more of the long-form style. They’re fun to do, but it’s also frustrating, because I’ve always been a comic strip artist and cartoonist and writer, and that’s how my mind’s already wired. So it was easy for me to write a gag strip.
What happened with LBC is that I came up with the idea for the comic last September. I was just doodling around and i decided to draw my cats. I have two little cats, and I hate sounding like a total cat nerd, but…
CMix: You’re in good company, Wes, I have two cats of my own…
WM: Okay, so you know what I’m talking about here. So, I’m drawing my cats and I start laughing because I thought, "I could draw a comic strip about these guys. I really could." And I realize there’s a bajillion cat strips out there, and I’m not exactly reinventing the wheel here, but whatever…
So I drew six comic strips, and they were black-and-white strips that I posted on the YHT message boards. I asked my readers what they thought of it, and man, it was awesome. They were telling me what they liked, what they didn’t like, and helping me with the strip. They even helped me with the character designs. When I first had the comic up there, the cats had round ears, and someone pointed out that cats actually have triangular ears. I hadn’t paid attention to that when I was designing them, so I changed that and it made the cats look so much better. The readers helped me with the title, too. I asked people what they thought of a title for the comic, and I received a couple of messages and emails saying that I should name it "The Litterbox." In the end, I added the "Chronicles" part to give it a little epic, fantasy-style twist. The strip is nothing like that, but that’s part of the joke.
In November, I went to the Mid-Ohio Comic Convention. Zuda was just starting up in November, and I was keeping my eye on it. I was thinking about submitting to it, but I didn’t know what project to submit. I had a bunch of those cat comic strips that I was trying to sell at the convention, and i had a couple of people come up and read those strips and ask me if there were any more. I told them that was all I had at the moment, and they said they’d like to see more. I ended up having a handful of people say the same thing, so I turned to wife and said, "I think we need to do LBC for Zuda."
So, that’s the first thing I did when i got home. And that’s how LBC got out there. There’s a long answer to your question.
CMix: So what is the Zuda experience like? What is the interaction like between you and DC? You really have a unique perspective here, having already established a successful webcomic independent of Zuda…
WM: I can tell you now that it’s a much more corporate environment than Viper. Of course, Viper is a lot smaller, so when I send Viper an email, I usually get a response back pretty quickly. With DC, I don’t want to say it’s more frustrating, but you don’t always get your questions answered right away or get an answer in a way that’s phrased how you expect. There are still a couple things I’m not clear on, but as far as what’s been expected of me, you have to draw eight "screens," as they call them. You draw the eight screens and you submit them, and along with that you give them a synopsis and stuff like that. It’s a typical submission. Oh, and you have to agree that, during the submission process, once you hit "enter" to submit you can’t post the comic anywhere else for three months. There are some stipulations like that.
About a month after I submitted, I received an email back, saying that they’d accepted my submission for the competition. So, for the entire month of March, the eight screens I submitted will be viewable on the main Zuda comics site along with nine other strips that are all vying to win this thing. If you win, you have to draw 52 additional screens, for a total of 60 screens. When you win, there’s another contract you have to go over with DC, and then you can decide what the frequency of publication for the remaining screens will be. Most of them are published once a week.
CMix: Well, between the Zuda submission process, working on LBC, working on your long-form projects, going to school and publishing what was, until recently, a daily webcomic, how do you balance your time?
WM: To be honest with you, I honestly contemplated ending YHT. It was heartbreaking. I went to San Diego Comic-Con last year, and I really started feeling like I had to work on another project. I needed to get something else out there. All through winter I was struggling with this. At the end of 2007, I’m struggling with what i want to do, thinking, "I want to do another project, but I really like YHT and I have a built-in fanbase there already. I’ve been doing this for so long, but do I end YHT to work on something else?"
I was talking to that guy from DC who I’m friends with, and he told me not to end it. He said, ‘If you need to lessen the frequency of updates, do that, but don’t end it." And he was right. I went from five days a week to three days a week. so that helps me out time-wise, so i can work on other projects as I’m able to squeeze them in. If i win Zuda — and that’s a big if, because it’s still early and there is some really great competition there — I’ll do YHT three times a week and probably LBC once a week. I’m just basing that off how the other Zuda strips update. I don’t mean to sound like I’m counting my chickens before they hatch, but I need to play with the idea so I can mentally prepare myself for this type of workload.
CMix: Not to be a downer, but what if you don’t win? Would you be able to continue LBC on your own, or does Zuda own the rights to that strip?
WM: If I don’t win, I can do whatever I want. They don’t own the rights. So if I don’t win, I can certainly continue it. But I don’t know if I would. I have LBC written out farther already, just in case, but if I don’t win, I’m going to have to go back to the drawing board and think about what I’m going to do next.
CMix: Switching gears a bit, let’s talka bout You’ll Have That. In the current storyline, Andy recently became a published cartoonist. Being a published cartoonist yourself, this seems like a storyline you could have scripted a long time ago. Why the wait?
WM: For me, it was a major life event to become a published cartoonist — that was a big step forward for me. But I wanted to make sure when I started writing about it in the comic that I had enough experience under my belt to look at it in a humorous way. Instead of writing about my experience as I go, I wanted to be able to be a couple of years into it, and be able to look back and say, "Well, that experience was funny" or "That’s what was really interesting about that experience." Some people ask me if Andy and Katie will have kids, and I tell them they will, but my wife and I don’t have kids yet, so I can safely say that Andy and Katie probably won’t have kids until a couple of years after I’ve been a parent. I feel like I’m not going to know how to truly write about that kind of thing until I have enough experience under my belt to write about it in a humourous or whimsical way.
In comics, when you get a letter in your email that’s mean-spirited, it’s not funny in the beginning. But two years later, looking back on it, it’s funny. You can look back at how you felt about it and laugh about it. You get to where you get these letters every now and then, and they don’t bother you anymore because you can see them for what they are. But when you get that first one, it’s not funny — it tears your world apart.
CMix: Another storyline that’s been developing in conjunction with andy becoming a published cartoonist is Katie’s uncertainty about their personal life finding its way into his work. I take it that this is a conversation you probably had with your wife a long time ago, given the personal nature of YHT. What’s it like to revisit this discussion?
WM: Yeah, definitely… It’s kind of funny, because Tricia, my wife, has always encouraged me to write a comic about a young, married couple. Some people wonder if I censor the comic for lewdness… In fact, I think one of the biggest complaints I get about YHT, and that I’m starting to get about LBC, is that it’s not edgy enough, or it’s too sweet or too saccharine. But that’s not a result of filtering. I don’t edit myself in that regard. I’ve never felt when I’m writing a comic that I shouldn’t put this word in because it’s not clean or it will tick somebody off. I write the type of humor I want to write. What I do have to filter, however, is the question of whether I’m getting too close and this might hurt one of my friends feelings. My comic is fiction, but a lot of the humor comes from the interactions I have with friends and my family. There have been some cases where feelings have been hurt, so now I really try to watch myself. My wife is not so bad, though — she’s pretty thick-skinned. There have been a couple of strips when she’s been like, "I really wish you wouldn’t talk about this," but not very often.
With my wife, she knows Katie is based on her. People reading the comic don’t know my wife, they might know Katie is based on her, but I think people can tell when it’s over the top. I feel like people can tell in the comics when Katie is more over-the-top, more prudish or more stubborn than she probably is in real life, and I think most people know that I’ve taken something and totally embellished it for comedic effect. Sometimes she’s worried that people are going to come up to her at conventions and think she’s some kind of mean hag, though. But that’s never the case. In fact, when we are were at the Mid-Ohio Con, people were more interested in talking to her than me, which i thought was pretty cool.
CMix: I noticed via the Facebook-osphere that you’ve been designing some fliers for a local youth group or something of that sort. I ask because I keep seeing your art pop up on these fliers that are being sent around, so what’s going on there?
WM: Well, it’s not exactly a youth group. When I was in high school, there was the youth group, and then you go to college and there’s nothing until you’re like 50 — nothing with the church, that is. So, my church started this ministry for people who are not in high school and not quite geriatric, so I got involved and drew up that advertisement you’ve been seeing around. We’re playing music there and it’s really great. When they asked me about it, I had just bought a new pen, so I was eager to try it out. Everyone seems to really like the fliers, too.
CMix: Glad to hear it, Wes. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, and best of luck with the Zuda competition!
Wes Molebash’s You’ll Have That webcomic updates thrice-weekly on the Viper Comics website, where you can also purchase print collections of the series. The first eight "screens" of The Litterbox Chronicles are available on Zuda Comics, where readers who sign up for a Zuda account can vote for their favorite webcomics.
Want more interviews with webcomic creators? Check out the ComicMix Webcomic Interview Archive, and feel free to send your suggestions for interview subjects to: rick [at] comicmix [dot] com!