Welcome back True Believers to another entry into our world famous segment: 20 Questions with comic artists. Today we have flown in Erin Gillespie and we sit perched over the flowing fields of sassafras, fennel and vanilla sipping on a vintage 2015 root beer from our emblazoned Root Beer Party frosted mugs. As August comes to an end, the Root Beer Monks are silently toiling away in the fields harvesting this years crop for the elixir of life that is root beer. I can see the look of wonder on my guests face as he takes in the wonders of the Root Beer Party estates. Very few are privy to these sights, secluded away in a hidden valley in a timeless, yet undisclosed location.
But we have come here today for Erin Gillespie and to learn of our newest member and not to extoll on the many splendors of the Root Beer Party estate. So let’s get to business and greet our most esteemed guest. You can locate and find him on many social media sites and learn more about this amazing talent here:
Question 1: What got you started in doing a comic series?
Well, in my case I’m in my 40’s and I just made my first “serious” attempt at a regular comic back in late March of this year (2017). So we’re not going back very far in time. Ha! But getting to the point of taking a run at this has been a long time coming.
I’m a full time insurance professional and so all this is done completely in my spare time. For years, I wanted to do a comic, start a website, and so on, but it all seemed so impractical and time consuming, when my schedule was already so busy but eventually over time it seemed doable. I started finding guys and gals more and more often that were doing comics as a sideline and not only finding the time to do it, but really THRIVING. At some point, I felt like I didn’t have an excuse any more. Technology has made it much easier to manage. About ten to twelve years ago, I made a pretty good run at a Christian comic called EZG Toons. I was only managing one update per week, at times every two weeks. I had to do everything after work, which eventually wasn’t sustainable for our family. Now people pass cartoons around through social media like crazy at all hours of the day and update their blogs and social media accounts from their smart phones as they’re walking down the street. It’s crazy the technology we have access to.
Question 2: Who was your greatest influence?
But if I had to name one, I’d probably go with Dan Piraro, just because the guy does everything so dang well. The ideas are there, the humor is spot on, and the drawings are brilliant. He also does coloring and lettering at a level that I don’t see people achieving very often. The lettering style adds a lot of strength to the look and brand also. Piraro is the consummate single panel guy.
Another big recent influence is Doug Savage, but I’ll speak to that a little later.
Since people are often interested in other influences, I’ll list a few more: Hilary Price, Oliver Christianson, Bernard Kliban, Glen Baxter, Mark Parisi, John McPherson, Dave Coverly, and a lot of New Yorker cartoonists, especially Matthew Diffee, Charlie Hankin, Zach Kanin, Tom Chaney, Leo Cullum, Drew Dernavitch, Liza Donnelly, and so on… I also enjoy Liz Climo’s stuff, but she’s more of a “2-panel” cartoonist.
Aside from cartoons though, I love humor in any form. I love stand-up comedy and funny movies and humorous writings. I’m far more concerned with the story-telling and humor in my comics than I am in how good or bad my drawings are.
Question 3: What is your favorite root beer and why?
I like A&W or Barq’s, but I wouldn’t call myself a root beer connoisseur, so I’m sure there’s better stuff out there. Maybe you can provide some recommendations!
Question 4: What do you hope to accomplish with your comic?
-Lift people’s spirits in a bizarre but “family friendly” way
-Make friends throughout the industry
-Inspire others to follow their creative passions
-Inspire my kids to never give up on their dreams
-Build a family legacy of creativity
-Provide additional income for my family
Question 5: Do you have any other artistic interests outside of comics?
I love all kinds of music and I can play around 8 instruments with varying levels of competence. By far my favorite and best instrument is the guitar. I’m about an intermediate level guitar player when I practice. I love a host of guitar-driven bands and acoustic solo guitarists. For a long time I wanted to be a musician, but was never really able to make the sacrifices necessary to be a professional. I’ve come to realize that there is something wired into me that makes it difficult to keep playing the same songs over and over again. The memorization requirement in music is just excruciating. In order to be a musician, this is the price and I could never pay it. To be a musician, you’ve got to not only have the guts to do it, but you’ve got to enjoy (or maybe put up with) the incredible amounts of repetition. In short, you’ve got to really love it, and eventually I figured out that I really didn’t, at least not enough.
The beauty of drawing comics is that you do one and then you’re on to the next one before the ink dries on the other, before you have a chance to get bored. It’s always somewhat fresh. Plus nobody is going to make me stand up in front of a bunch of people and draw these things over and over again to shouts of “draw that one that I like,” or “draw me a pony,” or whatever. This thing lives or dies at my decision. That’s the level of control that I enjoy.
Other than that, I love a good unique TV show or movie with my wife and/or family. TV and movies have obviously become so much better than they were 20 years ago.
Question 6: Do you see yourself as a professional cartoonist, or is this just something you do for yourself?
I think of myself as a professional cartoonist who supplements his income as an insurance professional. That may seem laughable to the people that know me well enough to know that most if not all the income I presently produce typically comes from the insurance industry, but the reality on a very real and deep level is that I was designed by God to create things in a unique and often bizarre way. That’s who I am, what I’m wired to do, what energizes me. Once I’ve done the things I’m blessed to do, if the world decides that’s not worthy of any money, or recognition or I get my tires slit, well then I don’t have much control over that—as long as I’m doing everything I can do on the business side of things to remain viable.
For me it’s also important to think of myself as a career cartoonist, since it helps my confidence. If I thought of this as a “side gig” or whatever, then mentally it would seem “less important” to me.
I read a very interesting book once called The Artist in the Office and the author tells the story of how one day she realized that regardless of how much time she spent or how much money she made in her artistic endeavors, it didn’t change the reality of who she was. This story really resonated with me and that’s a big part of why I’ve begun to think of myself as a professional, no matter what. Thinking this way has brought me tremendous peace.
Question 7: What type of subject or humor do you consider out of bounds for your strips and why?
I try not to do anything excessively mean-spirited, profane, or blasphemous. I don’t do anything political. Also, I would never draw a donkey ruining a garden while riding an all-terrain vehicle. Wait, actually I did do that one. Scratch that.
Question 8: What kind of equipment or style of drawing do you use?
More often than not, I complete the cartoons – start to finish – on my hour long lunch break at my day job.
I sketch out the idea on regular old typing paper, using a mechanical pencil and big pink eraser. There is lots and lots of erasing. Then, using a laptop for power and a USB light pad, I trace over the pencil in ink, on a new piece of paper. This is usually done with a number 5 Pigma Micron technical pen. I also have a Tombow paint marker, and some sort of Shutake Asian lettering pan that I use occasionally. The comic frame is drawn by hand with a Pigma Micron number 8. Then I scan the inked drawing using a USB scanner. I use an old version of Paint Shop Pro to clean up mistakes, and do some retouching. I then do several things to the black lines including running a series of filters. I save raw, print, and optimized web versions of the cartoons, and then email them to myself so that I can send them out to various sites using my phone, whenever I have time.
The style is a single panel, in a minimal style, with a premium placed on simple line work with very little tones or crosshatching. Basically, whatever is reasonable for me to complete in an hour, start to finish. In today’s world, everyone wants information quickly and easily and so I’m trying to create something that can be “digested” instantly.
Question 9: What sort of training or academic program did you pursue to become a cartoonist?
I’m entirely self-taught. I have a pretty good eye for finding educational materials on whatever topic I happen to become interested in. And I feel like I’ve read some of the best books out there on drawing, cartooning, and so on. But really, there’s no substitute for just working it out, through trial and error and finding your own process. The process has never really changed much. I just attempt to draw something and if it doesn’t look right, I erase it and change something about it. Then lather, rinse, repeat, until it looks right or I run out of time and make whatever compromise necessary to get the cartoon finished.
Question 10: What has been the highlight of your cartooning career?
The implication with this question is usually that I’m going to give you a big success story, but I’ll tell you a story that on the surface seems much smaller, but in its own way was a big success for me. A big highlight was around March 27th of this past year, when I sat in my car on a lunch break and drew a couple of squirrels in a single panel cartoon, scanned them, touched them up in a paint program, and then uploaded them to a blog, all in less than about 45 minutes. This was my first attempt at creating a cartoon start to finish in a short amount of time. That day I realized that it was really possible, that I could do a cartoon every day if I wanted to. 100 weekdays later, I had drawn 100 cartoons. It’s crazy.
Other big highlights have been the many amazing creative people that I’ve met on this journey and all the conversation opportunities that have opened up since I’ve put this “nuttier” side of myself out into the world.
Question 11: What has been the lowest point in your cartooning career?
The many years I spent not drawing cartoons were the low points to an extent. But I wasn’t living on the streets or anything. And I wasn’t necessarily unhappy. It just didn’t seem like the right move at the time and maybe I should have started doing this sooner. Hard to say for sure. It was never 100% clear to me what if any artistic endeavor was right.
Question 12: Are collections of your work available beyond the web? If so, where?
I’m way too early in the process on this particular project to already have collections of my stuff out in the world. But I’ve been blessed to be able to create far more content at this point than I thought possible. So we will see what happens. At the rate I’m going, it’s not completely unreasonable to think that in a few more years I could be looking at book deals, or regular and varied exposure in print media. Not to get ahead of myself or to think too highly of the effort, but there are fairly well established business models for cartoonists, that work well enough, as long as you put in the time, and find your audience.
Question 13: Are there any other web comic artists that you really admire?
There are many. A few big standouts would be John Sutton (The Petri Dish), Sarah Andersen (Sarah’s Scribbles), Aaron Caycedo-Kimura (Aka INFJoe), Koen Saelemaekers (Zainy Island) and Sarah Cooper (The Cooper Review).
I’m ravenous about finding new inspiration, even though it’s hard to find the time to just read comics. I’ve had a great time meeting people on Instagram. Instagram is tailor made for finding good artwork, meeting cool people, and getting your stuff out there in front of a lot of eyeballs quickly.
But by far, my biggest inspiration in the past couple of years has been Doug Savage (Savage Chickens). Doug was one of the first guys I encountered in many years that made me think, “Hey, wait a second… His stuff is excellent, he’s doing varied and really hilarious material, he’s successful in terms of exposure and income, and I’ll bet it’s not taking him tons and tons of time out of every day to accomplish this either.” I’ve read interviews he’s done in which he mentions that he could quit his day job, but doesn’t because he likes working both gigs. I’m not sure if that is still true or not. I love his stuff. He gets across this brilliant humor out of such a minimal style; he’s massively prolific, and has consistently kept his material at that same high level for years.
Question 14: What kind of impact has cartooning had on your life and could you ever see yourself not doing it?
Drawing cartoons has made me feel more mentally engaged and peaceful, more authentic, and more balanced than I have felt in a long time. I’ve had some confusion in my life, admittedly, about what creative outlets are the best for me and for the people who experience the results of the work. At this particular time, this is what makes a lot of sense to me to do. I can’t imagine doing it any other way. But as I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve gone for years without doing an organized cartoon project. If circumstances change significantly, I can imagine I’ll find some other creative outlet. I’m not really the guy that grew up obsessed with comic books. I do have a fair share of cartoon collections, for sure, but it was never the solitary obsession that I notice a lot of cartoonists have.
Question 15: Do you have any advice for the Trolls out there who harass content creators? (No need to keep this answer clean.)
Wow, this is where my inexperience shows itself. I don’t think I’ve encountered these trolls much yet. But they sound like pesky little creatures. All I can do is my absolute best to create great content. I have nearly zero control over what people do with or say about what I do. Maybe I could offer to buy them a root beer? 🙂
Question 16: Do you set yourself any deadlines or other tricks to keep yourself motivated?
I’m trying to build a significant amount of content, and I already feel like I’m way behind a lot of guys who’ve been doing this for years. So that’s part of what motivates me, the feeling that I’m behind. It doesn’t happen overnight, but I have to be consistent if it’s going to ever get done.
I suppose I just keep coming back to the reasons (see above) that I started this endeavor in the first place and that helps me to stay focused.
Then there’s “streak mentality” or the notion that I’ve got a streak going (of drawing one cartoon every weekday) and I absolutely can’t break streak. Nobody likes to break a streak.
In general though, I typically draw these at lunch. I have one hour to complete a cartoon. That’s the deadline. When one hour is over, I stop messing with the drawing. For me, since I like a more minimal style, and I don’t have a lot of spare time, one hour is the right amount of time. It’s rewarding to complete something quickly and move on to the next idea. I can also easily overwork an idea if I’m given unlimited time.
Question 17: Apart from root beer, what is your favorite drink?
I like a little green tea in the morning. And I like a drink called Triple Berry Oat at Tropical Smoothie Cafe.
Question 18: Are you already a member of the root beer party and if not, what is the matter with you?
At this point I’ve been a member for about a week or two and I’m so thrilled to continue to get to know everybody! Thanks for facilitating such a great group.
Question 19: What is the most challenging aspect of cartooning for you?
By far the most difficult part is coming up with the ideas, keeping it fresh, and keeping it interesting. I’ve heard so many cartoonists admit this. Matthew Diffee says drawing the cartoons is like the “end zone dance” of cartooning. The difficult part is the ideas. I go entire days or even a week sometimes without coming up with a single idea. Then, the next thing I know I’m coming up with 10 a day. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. No matter how many times I think I’ve come up with the absolute perfect formula for how to keep getting the ideas, it never works and it remains a mystery, and I think it’s supposed to be that way.
It’s also very challenging to get noticed in the “sea of information” we live in. It can be challenging to drive traffic to the website. Tons of people draw comics these days, from guys who’ve been doing it for years and years to guys that started posting them in their spare time. It’s hard to get noticed.
Question 20: What are your future plans involving web comics or anything else going on in your life?
At this point, since I’m still in the early stages, my plan is to keep doing what I’m doing, draw five cartoons a week, make a few updates to the website here and there, keep building an audience and meeting people, keep improving the craft, keep learning the industry, and just keep having fun with it. I’m excited about the future and just grateful to be doing this at all!
So there you have it True Believers, as we finish off our frosty mugs of root beer, the sun ebbs it’s way down the western sky, casting a golden hue over the fields as the Root Beer Monks return to the mansion for their evening meal. The helicopter pilot makes his way to the launching pad to return Erin Gillespie back into the real world. I signal to The Official Root Beer Sommelier for two more frosty mugs of the elixir of life. One more for the road before Erin Gillespie makes his way back home. I encourage you to join us and raise a frosty mug to the two things that matter most in life: Comics and Root Beer, and as always True Believers, may your mug always be frosted and your root beer always foamy.