Interview: Jeffrey Rowland on TopatoCo and ‘Overcompensating’
Jeffrey Rowland, the creator behind popular webcomics Wigu and OverCompensating, has a new, full-time job these days — and it just might make him one of the most important people to watch in the world of webcomics.
Late last year, Rowland officially expanded TopatoCo, the online store where he sold shirts, stickers and other merchandise related to his webcomics, bringing several other popular webcomics’ stores under the TopatoCo banner and consolidating their merchandise operations. By doing so, fans of many of the most popular webcomics are now able to mix and match their orders among different creators’ designs, and TopatoCo has evolved from a basement business to a staffed, international operation Rowland runs out of an office building in Easthampton, MA.
According to Wikipedia, Rowland "can be considered one of the small number of professional webcartoonists, as running Overcompensating and Wigu, in addition to his merchandise company TopatoCo, is his full time job and source of income."
I spoke with Rowland about the growth of TopatoCo and the first few months of becoming a webcomic merchandising hub, as well as the status of his own webcomics, OverCompensating and Wigu. From the lure of running off to Mexico on a motorcycle to the Snakes on A Plane experience, Rowland shares his thoughts on making a living in the world of webcomics.
COMICMIX: You sound busy, Jeff. What’s going on at TopatoCo HQ today?
JEFFREY ROWLAND: Well, I’m just trying to get a handle on this whole business arrangement here.
CMix: Yeah, it sounds like you’re pretty deep into it these days…
JR: Well, the way we were doing it before was, everyone had their own individual sites up. Dinosaur Comics would have its little store, and then [Dinosaur creator Ryan North] would collect the orders throughout the week and send them to us in a file once a week or so. It wasn’t that bad, because everyone was doing a pretty good amount of business, but when I put them all together… Well, all of a sudden, it just exploded. It was bigger than I thought it was going to be. I think we’ve been up for about a month now, and we’re over 2000 products sold. Over 1000 transactions. Basically, it’s just two of us here working – sometimes three. I have one full-time employee — she’s "Tallahassee" in OverCompensating.
CMix: How is everything going now, though? What have been some of the problems you’ve encountered with doing something this ambitious?
JR: Before, everyone was running through Paypal, but a lot of people don’t like Paypal – which is another reason why I think we’ve picked up so many more people now. People don’t like to be forced to use Paypal. But the thing with Paypal is that they deal with things I didn’t really anticipate handling, like people not being able to figure out how it works to pay over the Internet and not understanding things like the idea that their billing address on the order needs to be the same as the billing address on the credit card.
Without Paypal, people are just emailing me their credit card information and writing me notes that say, "I want to buy this, so can you run this through for me, because I can’t figure out how to pay."
CMix: Wow. That’s ridiculous. I mean, who does that these days??…
JR: I know! I’m glad I have this tiny little fragment of ethics, otherwise I’d be in Mexico right now on a motorocycle.
CMix: So what is TopatoCo HQ like? You’re still based in Easthampton, MA, right?
JR: Yeah, I moved here about three years ago and it started out with just Rich Stevens and Diesel Sweeties and I, and we had a 600-square-foot office in this building that used to be a button factory in Easthampton. Within three months, we outgrew that space in the basement, so we moved to an 1800 square-foot room on the second floor. We have big windows that look out on the mountains.
But then we outgrew this space, too. So Rich moved out a few months ago and moved into another space down the hall. We do the same thing. Rich ships for Scary Go Round, and his comic, Diesel Sweeties, and Goats. I ship for all my other people — everyone who’s under the big flag right now. I’m still figuring out a lot of the logistics, though, because i have Canadian, British and Swedish designers now, too.
CMix: It probably doesn’t help that you’re treading unfamiliar waters here. As far as I know, you’re the first person to try and consolidate the merchandising end of so many independent, online-based creative properties like this…
JR: People have done stuff sort of like this before, but as far as webcomics go, this is… Well, I don’t know anyone to ask for advice, because no one’s ever really done this type of thing with webcomics before. I’m finding that i have to keep figuring out what type of category each thing I need to do fits into, because I’m kind of a hybrid between online retail and specialty design.
CMix: What have been some of the highs and lows? What type of things do you wish you knew when you started setting this up?
JR: Everything is about 1000-times harder than it’s supposed to be. It’s come to the point when I celebrate and jump up and down every time something works the first time I try it. Everything seems to take a dozen tries lately. We do a lot of cussing. A lot of cussing.
Even with the store software, I had to buy the one that was most like what I needed it to do — because there isn’t any "Webcomics Store 2008" program. We have 80-100 t-shirt designs — and I’m not counting the books and everything else — and each one of those t-shirts has dozens of attributes, like colors and sizes, so I’m trying to keep inventory on 1500 specific products in here.
CMix: On that note, what have been some of the most popular designs? Are there any designs that, whenever you see them pass across your desk, still crack you up?
Our big guys are, of course, Dinosaur Comics and Dr. McNinja, because they have a really big following. But when people come to the store, I notice that they also like the Bohda Te stuff. This guy named Jamie Smart from England, he makes this little Bohda Te comic and so many other titles, and he’s actually putting together an anthology that Dark Horse is putting out called Fat Chunk. I think it’s coming out in May. He’s kind of a design guy, and his stuff didn’t really sell that well at first, but they’re really good designs. Now with the store, people are able to look at his stuff that normally might have missed it [when it was independent of TopatoCo], and they’re adding one of his shirts to their orders.
I like everything in here. I’ve developed a pretty good eye for it. People are always asking me whether something will work and sometimes I’m like, "I don’t know if a shirt with the word ‘pussy’ on it will sell that well."
CMix: With everything else going on, how do you find time to keep up with Overcompensating? It’s a daily strip about your life, so I would imagine you can’t work too far ahead…
JR: I don’t watch TV. I think the time that most people would spend watching Grey’s Anatomy or American Idol, that’s the time to do comics.
CMix: What’s going on with some of your other projects, like Wigu? It seems like you kick-start Wigu every now and then, and after a while it fades into the background again. What’s happening with that these days?
JR: I think I’m at a point where I want to scale back Overcompensating and start doing Wigu again proper. Proper — as in actually drawing an entire storyline that I’m satisfied with before putting it out again. A few times I’ve tried to re-launch when I actually didn’t have the time to do it, but the new company configuration has a budget for a bit more help, which means I can free up a few hours a day to fully concentrate on comics instead of having that be the last thing I do at the end of a very traumatic day.
CMix: A lot has changed since you first started Overcompensating, and it’s interesting to look back on the strip as a very public diary of sorts. What role does Overcompensating play in your life these days?
JR: I’m not even sure how I identify with the Jeffrey Rowland in Overcompensating these days. He’s sort of a dickass, and he’s douchier in different ways than I am in real life. For example, every time I go to Wal-Mart, I end up getting in a fight with someone, but nobody wants to read comics about a guy who gets beaten up for telling a guy he shouldn’t wear a tank top that says "female body inspector" when it isn’t Spring Break and his hairy belly is sticking out.
Remember when they used to let people smoke cigarettes in Wal-Mart? I remember being a little kid and people in Wal-Mart were walking around, shopping and smoking cigarettes. Did you know there are people who are still mad that they can’t smoke cigarettes in Wal-Mart?
CMix: Jeff, I can honestly say that I don’t remember that… and I think I’m happier now because of it. And I can also say that I now have no idea how to segue into my next question for you. So, here it is: It’s a few years now since your big Snakes on a Plane experience. You were flown out for the premiere of the film, you hung around with Sam Jackson, you chronicled the experience on Overcompensating. Now that you can look back on it a bit, what was that experience like?
JR: I don’t really want that to happen again. When it was all said and done and I got back from the premiere, I was like, "I don’t like what just happened."
It was something that wasn’t based on anything I was personally responsible for. It was like riding the coattails of something that was already happening, and people would buy the merchandise and shorts and have no idea that I made comics. It felt kind of like I was a sham or a fraud, really. It was a neat experience and I’m glad it happened, but, well… It was a learning experience, more than anything else.
When I was out there for the premiere, it was weird to see the movie and look around and see the people who were in the movie sitting around me and laughing at themselves on the screen. I saw Samuel Jackson in the audience, laughing at his jokes on the screen.
CMix: You’ve had some fun with this year’s presidential campaign on Overcompensating. How do you feel about putting real-world politics into the strip?
JR: I think it’s more fun to make comics about elections when there’s not an election happening. It’s so ubiquitous now, and it’s all anyone is talking about. It’s getting beaten to death, it seems. It’s not as fun when it’s not fiction.
CMix: So what are you reading these days? Anything you recommend?
CMix: Ahh, Warren Ellis… otherwise known as "The Bird Flu" in Overcompensating…
JR: Yeah, he’s "The Bird Flu." I met him last year at San Diego, actually. He’s intimidating.
I guess the thing about meeting Warren Ellis is, you’re expecting him to be this lecherous, toothless degenerate clutching a whiskey bottle full of saliva with a cigarette butt stuck in his beard and one eye barely open and wires sticking out of his brain who’ll call you a twat, push you aside, and grope your girlfriend. But he isn’t like that at all. And it’s confusing that he isn’t.
CMix: Well, now that we’ve called down the wrath of Internet Jesus, that seems like a good place to wrap things up. Thanks for talking with me, Jeff, and best of luck with TopatoCo!
Jeffrey Rowland’s home on the InterWebs can be found at Wigu.com, where you can find his webcomics Overcompensating and Wigu, as well as links to TopatoCo, the online store that offers merchandise from a variety of popular webcomics in addition to his own. Overcompensating is part of the Dumbrella network of 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!