Interview: Wil Wheaton on Webcomics, Publishing and Tech (Part 2)
Previously on ComicMix, I brought you the first part of my interview with writer, actor and publisher Wil Wheaton. In that part, we discussed topics including his feelings about modern comics and comic-book movies, his acting career, his love of writing and, most importantly, what he likes to order for lunch.
In the second part of my interview, we spend a bit more time discussing the craft of writing, personal publishing, his preferences in technology and the sometimes unpredictable nature of an Internet audience.
COMICMIX: Let’s change gears for a minute, Wil. You’re a pretty well-respected technology guy, and I know you’re a Mac user. How long has that been going on?
WIL WHEATON: I was one of the earliest Mac adopters. I had a Mac 128K in the first few months of its release. I loved it. I wish I could find, I key-noted at Mac World a few years ago, and both my notes and my address are gone. I don’t know where they went.
Ironically, I wrote them on a Linux machine and I think that I may have just inadvertently lost them. But I loved that computer. It was portable, which is funny to say now, because it only weighed like, 20-30 pounds. It had a handle on the top, so clearly, it was portable.
CMix: Did you ever have a clone?
WW: No. I wouldn’t consider myself a Mac cultist or an Apple cultist. There’s still stuff they do that I don’t like and I don’t really have brand loyalty. I have brand anti-loyalty, though. I’ll never buy a Sony product… ever.
CMix: You don’t get into "Mac vs. Windows" fights with people?
WW: No, I don’t care. Whatever works best for you. I’d much rather get into it with people who irresponsibly drive gigantic, gas-guzzling cars, just because they want one. If you have a huge family, you have to lug them around somehow — but if you’re just some dude that needs to have a giant fucking Hummer to show everybody how big your dick is, that annoys me.
CMix: You mentioned the word "cultist" — what do you think inspires people to take these types of things so personally and get into heated debates about computers or, possibly, Star Trek disagreements? You’ve mentioned dealing with angry message board users and commenters before, and it’s come up in your Twitter Feed at various points, too.
WW: It’s like "internet tough guy syndrome." I think it comes down to a sense of impotency and a sense of dissatisfaction and unhappiness in real life. That’s how it manifests itself.
I mean, I used to really take these types of things personally and it really bothered me. These days, I either just completely ignore it or I’ve become comfortable telling people to, well… There comes a point when people will not listen to reason. They have so much invested in what they’ve gotten themselves worked up about that they are incapable of hearing anything which might lead them out of that darkness.
This is actually happening a bit more right now. I’ve received a lot of attention lately because of my books and doing more appearances, and it’s weird.
CMix: … as part of "Geek Tour 2008?"
WW: Yes. I was on i09 and Lifehacker and it brought a lot of attention. All of these people who I may have been casually interactive with over the years and maybe didn’t give a satisfactory answer to a question were like, "Well, I know the truth."
You sure do, buddy. Keep talking to your stuffed animals. I’m sure they’ll tell you.
CMix: You’re not alone, either — similar situations developed with this weekly interview series we’ve been doing on ComicMix with Mark Verheiden answering questions about Battlestar Galactica…
WW: … which I can’t read because I’m only in Season Three.
CMix: Let’s talk a bit about technology as it relates to comics. Do you think there will ever be a time when we don’t have printed comics anymore? Will they all be online?
WW: No. I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I don’t think e-books are going to replace dead tree books… ever. Profit margin on digital stuff is massively higher than profit margin on physical media, but I’m speaking as a consumer.
I don’t ever want to lose the experience of going to the comic shop on Wednesday and walking around — even if I’m only there to get two books. Spending 40 minutes looking at everything and talking to the other geeks that are there and having the owner of the comic shop say, "I know you normally don’t read this, but based on the years of you coming here I think you’d like it," I really like that.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t comics online that are amazing. FreakAngels is phenomenal. Absolutely phenomenal. Warren [Ellis] and Paul [Duffield] are super smart and have deliberately paced it so that it works in six-page installments every week. And I love that.
There’s a pacing for a comic book, a trade and a webcomic, and they’re all different. That’s why there are some shows that if I watch them episodically I don’t like them. But if I watch them a season at a time, that’s the way to do it — because clearly, the creator was thinking "big arc."
This is why I dislike Lost so much. I was so into its first season and through most of the second season. But as soon as they split the party, to use old D&D terminology, it became clear to me that the short-term pacing of the show was like: nothing… nothing… nothing… and then some big revelation in the last three minutes of the show. Repeat that for the next week with commercials every six minutes, like clockwork.
CMix: You mentioned you go to the comic shop every week. What are you reading?
WW: Doktor Sleepless, Casanova, Criminal, Batman… I’ve been reading Batman since Grant Morrison started working on it, because there are a few guys in the world that I’ll read anything by. Grant Morrison does Teletubbies, I’m there. I’m reading Secret Invasion, too — which is silly, I know. I don’t like Marvel books usually. There hasn’t been a lot of Marvel stuff that I really liked. So by all rights I shouldn’t be reading Secret Invasion, but it’s just so much goddamn fun. It’s just ridiculous.
Basically, as long as the book does not end with a cameo from Patrick Duffy, then I’m totally cool. But only six issues. I’m not going to go read other stuff, the crossover stuff. I don’t care about that. I’m just going to read the six issues of Secret Invasion as well as Final Crisis, of course. I’ll read the two big, apocalyptic things.
I’m sure that there are other books that I’m reading, but I couldn’t tell you what they are off the top of my head, because I go in and pull them out and I’m two months behind on issues that are on the floor of my office right now. Those days when I would go to the comic book shop on Wednesday, buy all my books, go to my friend’s house, put on the radio, then sit down and just read comic books for just six hours, well… I can’t do that anymore. I have kids that expect me to do things like make dinner for them.
CMix: Man, that’s demanding…
WW: I know, it’s ridiculous. But out of respect for my wife and the care and feeding of my marriage, I try to keep my comic book mania and all my geek mania to a reasonably dull roar.
CMix: What about webcomics? What’s on your daily reading list?
Penny Arcade and xkcd are the ones that I’m on top of all the time. I can’t consider FreakAngels a webcomic. It’s something more than a web comic. It’s a comic that happens to be published online.
CMix: So you’re about two months behind with print comics, but you still go to the store every week and buy stuff? Why not just buy the trades?
WW: I wait for trades, but… Well, I blame Matt Fraction for this. Matt and I were talking about that and he said, "I read the weeklies because I work in the industry and it’s professional courtesy to know what all my peers are working on."
And I said, "Matt, that’s the best scam ever. That’s what I’m telling my wife."
CMix: Do you read any of the Star Trek comics at all?
CMix: No desire to or you just don’t care?
WW: It’s not that I have no desire. It’s not that I don’t care. It’s that I have a limited amount of time and I have to choose really carefully where I invest that time. If I’m forced to choose between a Star Trek comic or Criminal, I just enjoy Criminal more, so…
CMix: What made you decide to start a publishing company, Wil?
WW: When I thought about publishing my first book, I looked at the traffic to my website. I looked at the number of people saying, "Write a book. Write a book." Then I did some math. It looked like I could probably break even and maybe even make a little money if I did it myself.
Then I thought about all of those things about the entertainment industry, and I did not want to endure those as a writer. I didn’t want to go through all of that bullshit. I’ve also always thought that it’s kind of unfair to creative people that business people make a lot of decisions that affect our lives, because we approach the world from totally different points of view.
So I believed there were enough people who read my blog and I had an opportunity via internet direct sales to reach them, so why would I give away what’s already a very small profit margin to a publisher? If I did it on my own I could have complete creative control. Not only would I get final cut on the book, but I would get complete control over the marketing and the distribution and, if it was a success, I could claim the credit for it. If it was a failure, then I could learn from it — and I embraced that. It was wonderful.
I made mistakes and I learned a lot and it was just a great process. The whole thing was fantastic. Then I had an experience with a traditional, big publishing house on my second book that was really negative and really disappointing. So those two experiences together reaffirmed what my instincts were about the whole thing.
CMix: So doing it on your own was better?
WW: Doing it on my own was better, which is why I’m doing Happiest Days on my own.
CMix: Are you planning to publish anything written by anyone else or is it just going to be your work?
WW: I’ve thought about publishing other people. I’ve read some things that I absolutely love. If I’m going to do that, I need to hire somebody full time and I don’t want to be responsible for an employee right now — especially with the economy fucked by Bush as it is .
I don’t want to be responsible for promoting someone’s stuff because what you want from a publisher is a powerhouse marketing partner. You want someone with great relationships with book stores and great relationships with book buyers and the ability to get reviews and the ability to promote. And not just promote loudly but to promote intelligently.
I can’t do any of that stuff. I told Robert when I saw him up in Seattle, "Wil Wheaton dot Net needs a Robert Khoo." Like Penny Arcade got Robert Khoo and blew up, I need my own Robert. That’s something I’m going to have to do in the next two years, I think, if I’m going to grow.
CMix: Do you get excited about going on the road? You’ve been touring up and down the West Coast lately, but I haven’t seen any East Coast dates…
WW: If I go across the country on a five-hour flight and it sucks, that’s awful. I did that a lot when I was younger. I did that "fly all over the country thing" for different conventions every weekend and I don’t have a lot to show for it. It was fun but it was a lot of hard work.
The story of The Happiest Days of our Lives is all about this. Doing conventions and stuff. It can be fun. It can be miserable, too. I don’t know if I want to commit to doing that again. I’m doing more traveling this year than I ever have, or since I’ve been married.
CMix: Discussion of your favorite "geek moments" is a big part of your website and your Q&As at various shows. What are some of your favorite "geek memories" in life?
WW: Playing with Star Wars figures when I was a kid kind of fertilized that part of my brain where science fiction could grow, but I also remember being uncomfortable in my own skin and being nerdy and being picked on mercilessly in school.
In elementary school, a child’s worth in the social structure, at least in my town, was directly related to their physical abilities. And I sucked at dodge ball. I sucked at kick ball. I liked four square, but apparently it was only for girls so you weren’t supposed to play that.
Tether ball was great until the one time I got hit in the face with a ball. So I found a lot of comfort and safety in fantasy and science fiction when I was younger. I guess the most significant event was, without knowing it at the time, doing a voice in The Secret Of Nimh, based on Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O’Brien.
I still can’t go to bed without reading before I go to sleep — which means, if I’m reading something that’s really intense like a Charlie Strosser or Neil Stevensen novel or something like that, I often start up the next day five pages back from where I stopped because I’ve gotten so tired that I started to lose it.
WW: I still remember, there’s this book called Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien and it’s a post-apocalyptic story about a girl who lives in a valley that is protected by nuclear fallout after a war. I probably read this in 1980 or 1981. Her father and brothers leave to see what’s going on and they never come back. Then, smoke appears on the horizon and gets closer and closer and eventually it’s this dude in a radiation suit pulling a little radiation wagon with him. The guy’s got radiation sickness and is hallucinating. She tries to nurse him back to health and then finds out what happened to this guy.
It’s this very intense young adult post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel. And that created my love of post-apocalyptic science fiction. That led me to a lot of the movies that I love and a lot of the books that I love.
CMix: You’ve referenced Dungeons & Dragons quite a bit. I’m sure you had some strong feelings when Gary Gygax passed away.
WW: Yeah, that hit me hard. He created a lot of worlds for us. I found out from Monty Cooke that something I wrote about him was used by his family in his eulogy.
CMix: That’s nice.
WW: It’s another one of those things that makes my hands feel cold because I’m used to being that kid that people make fun of, and the last few weeks have been different — and I’m having a really hard time wrapping my head around it. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I’ll never stop worrying about it, though. That’s who I am. All I want to do as a writer is make stuff that people care about — stuff that matters. When a family decides to use something I wrote in a eulogy, that’s… wow.
This wraps up the second part of my interview with Wil Wheaton. Be sure to check back next week for the third (and final) part of my Wil Wheaton interview here at ComicMix.
You can find out more about Wil Wheaton, his writing and his books, Just A Geek and Dancing Barefoot, at www.wilwheaton.net. Wheaton can be found at San Diego Comic-Con this year at the booth for the Dumbrella webcomics collective.