During my week at LinuxWorld NY, I was fortunate enough to cross paths with Illiad who was signing copies of Evil Geniuses in a Nutshell at the O'Reilly booth. I didn't have a copy of either of his books, but I really wanted to get his signature for my wife who draws Source Wars, a BSD online comic strip that features characters from the open source community. User Friendly was one of the key inspirations for the Daemon News strip.
So I pulled out a copy of Daemon News Magazine and had Illiad sign it for her. He was more than happy to do so, even though it wasn't one of his books. I took the opportunity to ask if I could interview him. Aside from being Open Source Editor for the O'Reilly Network, I am a big BSD fan and actively involved with Daemon News. Illiad has featured the BSD daemons in his comic several times, and I figured this was the perfect time to get an interview from the BSD perspective.
I met Illiad a few hours later at the User Friendly booth, and we started walking in search of a quiet place to talk. While we were searching, I asked him how he was handling all the fame. He said he wasn't. Basically he pretends he isn't famous in order to keep his life normal. He seemed to be handling things pretty well. He seemed very down to earth and easy to get along with. Not bad for a guy who writes for an audience 42% the size of Dilbert's online following.
Once we were situated, we began discussing the journey that brought him to a book signing for O'Reilly at Linuxworld and fame on the Web.
Chris: How did you get started drawing User Friendly?
Illiad: By accident. I have been cartooning since I was 12. One day while working at an ISP, I drew a few cartoons and my co-workers enjoyed them. I drew one month's worth of cartoons and posted them online. After that I quit; it was all I had planned to do. Apparently people had been following the cartoon online, because I quickly got e-mail from readers, one who said that if I didn't keep drawing, he would hunt me down and kill me. I took it as a jest (I hope it was one...), but went back to drawing anyway.
I had actually tried to get into cartooning before that. I started drawing a cartoon, Dust Puppies, and sent it in to the six major syndicates and received six rejection letters. I didn't think I would ever be a cartoonist.
Chris: What is your inspiration?
Illiad: The most rewarding part of this is when I get e-mail from people saying that the cartoon changed their whole day. I like making people happy.
Chris: How much e-mail do you get?
Illiad: About 200 a day or so. I got about 450 messages on the busiest day so far. Most people just read the comic and enjoy; they don't e-mail.
Chris: What do people write about when they send you e-mail?
Illiad: Things like "Could you put this cartoon on a T-shirt or Desktop image" or "Can I do this with a specific cartoon?" A lot of people will just drop me a note to tell me that they liked a specific cartoon, or occasionally I get hate mail about cartoons that didn't agree with their personal agenda.
When you make fun of something, you really want to push things to the absurd. And occasionally, you will step on toes. You can't please everyone all the time.
I get a lot of suggestions for the comic strip as well. Probably 40% of what I draw comes from reader submissions. Most of them I have to rewrite into something usable, but mostly it's just things like comedic timing. Occasionally I will get a few that I can use unmodified.
Chris: How do you draw the cartoons?
Illiad: I used to pencil, ink, and scan them. But then I found the Wacom Table. It took me about three weeks to get the hang of it, and now it's all digital.
With the daily strips, I'm usually a week or two ahead. But with the Sunday strips, I don't usually draw them until the Saturday before. If there is something topical, I will do that.
Chris: Tell me about your use of the BSD Daemon in User Friendly.
Illiad: First, I educated myself on BSD. The biggest mistake you can make is to write about something that you don't understand. I don't pretend to be an expert, but I can write comedy about it.
I checked with Kirk McKusick, who holds the copyright on the BSD Daemon, because I don't like using other people's stuff with out permission. He said it was fine as long as it included the copyright information.
I wanted the Daemons to appear as delusions to Greg, the kind that show up in cartoons, one on each shoulder, usually an angel and a devil telling you what to do or not to do. But here they are both Daemons. I wanted to show the extremes that some people go to when evangelizing an OS.
Chris: How do you make your money?
Illiad: Sponsorships and some advertising. We have some money coming in from print royalties, e.g., the O'Reilly books.
Judging from the size of my audience, I knew that I could go one of two ways. I could do it all on my own, and not get very far, or I could turn it into a business and actually get paid for what I like to do.
Chris: Do you have a long range vision?
Illiad: The big thing I would like people to get out of this is that the traditional middleman way of business is not the only way to be successful. You don't need to do it through a syndicate. I would love to create a foundation for independent creators. We are sort of entering the new era where independent creators can reach the audience in the same level of magnitude that the syndicates do.
Evil Geniuses in a Nutshell
I firmly believe that it only takes one large splash before people will see that this is possible.
There has always been a prejudice against online cartoons. User Friendly has been in newspapers for almost a year. It's all possible. You shouldn't have to give up creative control to be successful.
There are layers between the creator and the audience. The middlemen use the strength of distribution to dictate to the audience what it is that's popular. You may go to a store and you will see what the middleman has dictated will be available to you. They choose for you, and I want to see that pulled away from them and given back to the audience.
It could be that I am just bitter, but I know I'm not. When I got the six rejection letters, I felt the syndicates told me that I was not good enough to be a cartoonist, but the audience has told me that yes, I am good enough to be a cartoonist. Which begs that the question be asked, whose opinion is more valid?
We talked at length after that about the real comic strip masters, such as Watterson and Trudeau, who carry enough clout in the comic world to turn the syndicates on their ear occasionally. User Friendly has really vindicated the online cartooning community, and in many ways, the open source community.
Chris Coleman is the Open Source Editor for the O'Reilly Network and is actively involved with community projects such as OpenPackages.org and Daemon News.
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