Josh Way is the creator of Chronicle, which details the tribulations of Chuck Burke, a hotshot big-city newspaper editor who is sent to the sticks to revitalize a small-town paper. Chronicle is gently funny, mining the classic smug city slicker/wily country folk theme for some fresh new laughs. Much of the humor stems from the quirky cast of characters that Way has imagined into being.
I told Josh that I would only ask five questions, but I liked the Comic Book Mode feature on his site so much that I slipped in a sixth question about that. I have seen other sites group old comics on a single page, but Way’s versions was more polished and made reading the archives a snap.
Digital Strips: Updating daily is quite a commitment. How do you find the time to do it?
Josh Way: There are three major factors that allow me to maintain my commitment to a daily comic strip.
First, since I still work a full-time day job in addition to creating my strip, I had to develop the underrated skill of saying “no.” I worked in web design and there were always offers for extra work that I felt I couldn’t turn down, either for need of money or the fear of letting someone down. It dawned on me that I could accomplish a great deal more creatively if I took control of my resources, especially my time. So eventually I got really good at turning down freelance offers and leaving work at the office at 4:30 every day, even if it meant missing some extra checks and disappointing someone now and then. The rewards have been many.
Second, I maintain a month-long buffer of completed strips at all times. It was difficult to get there, but it’s been fairly easy to keep it going. It’s something I would highly recommend to new creators,
particularly those who struggle with procrastination. Knowing that tomorrow’s strip is already finished, I can work on the strip in front of me with less pressure. It never feels like homework. It may require a greater level of planning and some discipline, but it’s more than worth it.
The third and most important thing I can point to is the support of a loving spouse. My wife Shereen is totally on board with me creating comics, and that fuels me. She gets excited about new subscribers and readers, she reads the strip every day, and she’s honest with me when she loves it and when she doesn’t “get” it. It’s priceless.
In my view, keeping my promise to my readers to post a quality comic on time every day is THE most important part of my job. All the other important things, like an attractive website or merchandise, are secondary to that priority.
DS: What were your inspirations for the strip?
JW: As I say in the FAQ on the site, Chronicle is not autobiographical. I did work as an illustrator and designer at a small-town paper for a year after graduating from college, but that’s only a small part of the inspiration for the strip.
I was raised in a small town in the middle of New York called Pleasant Valley. It wasn’t exactly Green Acres, but it was small and fairly rural and full of wonderful small-town people. For the last fifteen years of my life, I’ve worked and lived near and around New York City, and enjoyed all the benefits of access to the greatest city in the world. I have strong feelings about both city life and country life. I don’t prefer one over the other, though I suppose I would choose to physically dwell in a small town given the choice. But Chronicle is an ode to all the things I love about the city and the country, all the things that are frustrating about both, and what happens with it’s all brought together in one office.
At the same time, Chronicle is a rumination on the changes taking place in media in the so-called “digital age.” Newspapers are dying, music and movies are being digitized and beamed into our homes, and yet people still seem to prefer some sort of hard copy of a thing to hold in their hands and “own.” I deal with the irony of this every day. I’m creating a digital comic strip with a process that involves no paper or pencils, yet I can’t wait to produce my first print collection. It’s like it won’t be real until I can flip through the pages and examine it with my eyes instead of the Zoom tool.
DS: Which character is your favorite one to write, and why?
JW: I’m very fond of Gene Hendershot, the staff reporter of the Riverbed Chronicle. He’s a family man and an excruciatingly nice guy. He’s always positive, not the slightest bit cynical, and completely transparent. Wonderful traits for a human being, not so typical for a newspaper reporter. Gene’s my favorite character to write because that deliberate positivity is one of things I love so much about the type of town that I imagine Riverbed to be. He’s based in part on a youth pastor I knew as a kid, who remains one of the sweetest and most true people I’ve ever met.
Some upcoming storylines will delve a little deeper into Gene’s life and family. He’s not brooding underneath his niceness, the way Ned Flanders seems to be sometimes. It’s the real deal. But we will get a chance to see what things are capable of raising his ire.
My favorite Gene strip: http://www.chroniclecomic.com/?comic=20080109
DS: In the forum, you talk about the challenge of balancing the daily gag with the continuity of the story. How are you doing that?
JW: I’m still struggling with it. It’s a fun creative struggle, though, and I’m learning a lot. I knew from the get-go that I didn’t want to draw a gag-a-day strip. I enjoy reading gag strips a great deal, but what appealed to me was the idea of a semi-dramatic story being told in the format of a daily humor strip. Chronicle is telling a story with a single narrative. There was a beginning, and there will be an ending. But in between, I get to play with my characters and explore details and detours I wouldn’t get to in a graphic novel or some other format.
So the struggle is this: how can I tell my story, complete with dramatic impact as needed, and still entertain readers for a few moments every weekday? I don’t have an answer, but I have observed a few things. First and foremost, the strip works best when it’s funny. The storyteller in me might not want to admit that, but it’s true. A dramatic cliffhanger on a Friday doesn’t get a whole lot of response. But funny strips (like the Gene strip I linked to above) prompt a surprising amount of feedback.
The lesson I take from that is that I should always err on the side of humor. That doesn’t mean I stop telling my story, but it may change the way I tell it. Usually, that means focusing less on things happening and more on characters reacting to things happening, since the best humor seems to come from humans reacting to things. Things they like, things they don’t like, things they don’t understand, things they think they understand… Human nature is really the best source of comedy.
DS: This is always the key question for webcomics artists: How are you making money from this?
JW: The very brief and honest answer is that I’m not.
I make enough from ad revenue and donations to pay for my hosting and some advertising, but it’s not putting any food on the table. And that’s OK, for now. I’ve only been at this for a few months, and I’m still working on finding my audience. In a year I’ll have a few hundred strips under my belt, a book, and hopefully a solid readership. If I’m still not making any money, I’ll know it’s time for a new strategy. At the very beginning I thought I could plan how the strip would find success. It didn’t take too long to discover this is not the case. You can and should make a business plan, but there always has to be room for happenstance. I can’t point to a single advertising campaign and say “that’s the one got me all those new readers!” But unplanned things like blog mentions, forum links, and word of mouth have yielded amazing and unexpected results.
DS: One of the things I liked about your site was that Comic Book Mode, which puts five of the daily strips on a single page, made reading the archives much quicker. Did you invent that?
I haven’t seen anything exactly like Comic Book Mode on other sites, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was something similar out there. It addresses the common problem of how to present an archive of strips to what is hopefully a constant stream of new readers. One popular method I’ve seen is the storyline jumper, which is something I may add someday. But in my case, story and continuity are fairly important, so I wanted to make it as easy as possible for new fans to catch up. Before committing myself to drawing comics every day I was a web programmer and designer. Those skills have allowed me to build custom tools and features on chroniclecomic.com. I try not to take that advantage for granted.