When I started my first website, it was a personal site
dedicated solely to the things I liked. Since I was a
big fan of comic strips, I had a page called "AstroNerdBoy's
Comic Strips". It contained maybe a dozen or so of my
favorite syndicated comic strips and I used it to visit them
all daily. Then, on November 10, 1997, I got this
e-mail telling me of a fairly new comic strip called Sluggy
Freelance and that it was getting "rave reviews."
Well, I was skeptical. I mean this comic strip
obviously wasn't syndicated so how good could it be?
Well, here was the first strip I saw:
I didn't laugh but I knew that to be fair,
I'd have to read more than one comic strip. So, I
started back at the beginning of the archives and read the
roughly 2 1/2 month archive. Pete's jokes on Windows
95 went over well as did his Star Trek/Aliens
parody. By the time I got back to the above strip, I
was hooked. A few days later, another web cartoonist
asked me to add his strip to my page and then one of the
editors at Creator's Syndicate asked if I'd included ALL of
their strips (he even included the HTML so I wouldn't have
to do anything but copy-and-paste). Thus this site was
born but I digress...
This phone interview with Pete is the
longest one I've done to date. In part 1, Pete
discusses how he got started in comics, some influences on
him, why he went the web-route rather than syndication, and
we discuss some aspects of story writing and characters.
AstroNerdBoy: Why did you decide to become a cartoonist?
Pete Abrams: Iíve always loved
narrative art of comic strips Ė comic books mainly. I was
actually schooled in comic books at the Joe Kubert School of
Graphic Design. So comic books have always been a big
part of my life. After school, I found it impossible to
break into the comic book business, but I had some lucky
opportunities to work with some software companies and get
involved with the web early on. I was eventually doing web design for a
marketing company which was a fun, but I wanted some type of creative outlet. I always
enjoyed story telling.
I knew what the attention span on the Internet was because I
was going on the Internet with a very low attention span. So
I realized that there was no way I could do a comic book
format online and maintain that type of readership. So I
wanted to do something I could do all on my own from start
to finish in a short amount of time and thatís when I
realized that the comic strip format really lent itself more
to that. So with about a dayís worth of planning and
fleshing out the characters, I started Sluggy. Itís been
getting bigger ever since.
By the way,
I actually did have a very polished comic book style at the
time. The stuff
you see early in Sluggy was basically me sketching it out as
fast as I could. At this point, I donít even think I
could even do that serious vertigo comic style
anymore. I've been doing Sluggy too long.
ANB: So you wanted to do comic books, but you never actually
got into a comic book company (even a small company) as far
as doing artwork for them, right?
Pete: I almost did something in Negative Burn.
The editor was a man who was working at Topps Comics,
although I believe Negative Burn wan an independent. I got the
pencils done on a story but as far as I know, I never saw
the print. So no, Iíve never had anything done on a comic
ANB: Which cartoonists have inspired you as far as artwork,
Pete: There have been a lot of people who have inspired me
all over the place. It is difficult for me to remember them
all. You list some but you forget others. But some off the
top of my head Ė when I was reading comics, Jim Leeís
artwork was absolutely awe-inspiring. As far as
black-and-white balance, when it comes to narrative arts and story
telling, Rumiko Takahashi (Ramna 1/2).
As far as comic strips go, Bloom County -- and that went
miles beyond anything else as far as my appreciation for
what Berkley Breathed did. What he was best at was the
rhythm of delivering the joke. Thatís something Iíve tried
ANB: Do you have a favorite current syndicated comic strip?
A favorite past syndicated comic strip?
Pete: Well, like I said, Bloom County is the best in my
book. I havenít been keeping up with the Sunday (current)
strips. I do remember going, ďHey! Thatís pretty cool,Ē to a
strip called Mutts. That style really caught me but Iíve
only read a few of them.
you ever get a chance to read any web strips (besides your
Pete: Iím sort of in the same dilemma with web strips as I
am with newspaper strips. I just donít have a lot of free
time. I try to keep aware of other comics. Iíll nose around
a couple of them to get a sense of where they are and what
they are. Itís next to impossible for me to keep up with any
of them. Plus, it is also good in that it gives me plausible
ANB: That reminds me, you recently did a guest-artist strip
ANB: How did that come about?
Pete: Well, I was familiar with Goats. Jonathanís strip
preceded mine by a few months. I had no idea who he was
until two years ago. I remember when I checked out his
stuff, I thought it was interesting; it was different in a
lot of ways but it had a lot that was similar about it Ė at
least at that two-year mark. Since then, he and I have gone
in completely different directions. But that was a strip
that I always checked up on and I finally got a chance to
meet Jonathan (Rosenburg) when I went to I-Con. It was
really cool to hang out with him.
Normally I donít have time to do fill-in strips. So when he
approached me to do a fill-in strip, the strip jumped
into my brain in ten minutes. Thatís something I could do
since the writing was that easy. So I went ahead and did it
and he loved it. He failed to tell me that I misspelled
Toothgnip (the goat of Goats). What a weenie.
ANB: So why go the web route for a comic strip rather than
attempt to get syndicated?
Pete: Well, keep in mind what I said
earlier. I was never into comic strips. I mean, Iím into
comic strips but not as a career option. The comic strip
format proved useful for telling the story that I wanted to
tell. I guess it is the bottom line. Above anything else, I
like to tell stories with the visual components Ė in other
words, narrative art. Since I never came at it from the
point of view of a professional comic strip artist, the
question of syndication never came into play. Thatís
probably one of the reasons my strip is as successful and
popular is because it wasnít a stepping-stone to reach
syndication. It has always been exactly what it is Ė free,
fun, and daily.
ANB: Does Sluggy pay the bills?
ANB: You are one of the very few web cartoonists whose strip
pays the bills. Why do you think that is?
Pete: Itís tough for me to say. Itís not like I had some
master plan behind what I was doing. Iíve heard other
cartoonist talk about their business model and I donít
really have one. I just do what I want to do and have fun
with it. I just think that I am very lucky I happened to hit
the right place at the right time. It would probably be
easier for other people to analyze why I am as successful
because from my point of view, Iím just doing what Iím
doing. If I were to analyze myself, Iíd probably get it
ANB: What all did you do to promote Sluggy in the
Pete: I e-mailed everybody I knew. I also posted on
newsgroups, which would probably be considered spam at this
point although I never mass-mailed them. They were always
posts to individual groups who I thought would enjoy the
strip for individual reasons. I think at this time
thatís a major no-no.
That was how I started the ball rolling and everything
started off really slowly. After the first year or so, I
pretty much didnít like doing that newsgroup thing, so I
just pulled back. But whatís been happening ever since is
that people have been promoting it. Theyíve been telling
their friends to read it. Itís kind of interesting they have
been because basically, anyone who goes to Sluggy Freelance
and checks out the site and sees the comic thatís displayed
there, there is a 90% chance theyíll go, ďWhat the ^%!@ is
going on? I donít have time for this!Ē And theyíll go, ďFive
years of archives?! Screw that!Ē Even if I had TV
commercials, it probably wouldnít hold everyone coming
through it. However, if you have a friend saying, ďYouíve
GOT to read this. Itís hysterical. Itís worth it. Trust meĒ,
then they read it.
Word of mouth has been the main form of promotion for the
strip. Probably at this point, it is the only form of
promotion. Although those belly girls at DragonCon werenít
too shabby either.
ANB: Letís go to characters. Which characters did you draw
up in that day of planning?
Pete: Torg, Riff, ZoŽ, and Bun-bun. In the original
sketches, ZoŽ is actually smoking. I decided to lose that
before doing the actual strip. I have that original sketch
somewhere with ZoŽ with a cigarette in her mouth. Now that
just seems wrong! The original Riff had a goat. The way I
drew him is based on my friend Paul who has a goatee. I
actually left the goat off and was planning some future
strip where Riff was going to start cloning goats. Then
everyone would have goatees and theyíd get rid of them but
heíd leave his. That storyline never came into play so Riff
never got his goat.
ANB: One of the interesting things I noticed about Sluggy
when I first became aware of the strip was how you went into
a spoof storyline. One of the first ones you did was the
ďAliensĒ/ĒStar TrekĒ spoof. Talk about that.
Pete: I love doing a good parody. I find it is really
challenging to pull it off. You want to poke fun at the
thing everyone knows that youíre poking fun at but at the
same time you have to do it in such a way that people who
arenít familiar with the genre can still enjoy the strip.
And, if you are parodying something specific, you have to
make sure that you donít spoil it for people who havenít
seen it yet. Iím currently doing the ďHarry PotterĒ parody
and Iím really walking that tightrope of not ticking off the
hoards of ďHarry PotterĒ fans, keeping it funny for people
who have read the stuff, making it funny for people who
havenít read the stuff, and not spoiling it for people who
havenít read the stuff but will. So it is quite the mental
tightrope walking. But I find it is really enjoyable. I
think I pull it off pretty well.
ANB: Yeah, I would agree with that. That brings me to the
character of Aylee (which is a short take on alien).
Initially when you brought her into the world, she was just
an alien from your Aliens/Star Trek parody. Did you know she
was would be this long-term character back then or was she
just supposed to be a one-time character that just ended up
Pete: Itís tough for me to remember exactly. In general when
I started off Sluggy it was just a day-to-day thing, but
very quickly I saw what it could be. So I started planning
out further and further Ė the more general Iíd get, the
further out Iíd plan. I think I had the joke about her
saying, ďYou canít do jack around here without a driverís
licenseĒ, so I think I had that (her coming back) planned.
After I let Aylee come through the portal into our world, I
knew she was coming back at that point.
Hereís an interesting thing -- because I was new at all of
this, I wasnít sure what was legal as far as parody laws and
that sort of thing. My publisher advised me that because
Aylee resembled the Geiger alien so much, I couldnít keep
her as a reoccurring character in that form. So thatís when
I inserted her form-changing abilities. I had to do that or
get rid of her and I didnít want to get rid of her. So that
shape-shifting ability came about for that very reason.
ANB: Wow! I find that amazing because I always wonder what
brings about certain things Ė the real reason for changes to
characters. You have to walk a real tight-rope when it comes
to parodying stuff without having people say, ďHey! Wait a
minute! Thatís copyright infringement!Ē
Pete: Well, thatís why from that first parody on, I made
sure that anytime I parodied something, it doesnít become a
reoccurring thing. The only exception being Doctor Laura,
who is a public character and I can parody her up and down
as long as I want.
ANB: You havenít done her in a while.
Pete: The Sluggy universe is so rich that there is just so
much there Ė so many characters Ė that certain things just
fall by the wayside because I just havenít had to much else
to say about Doctor Laura and the (Sluggy) character Dr.
Lorna nor have I had any to bring in Riffís family. Sheís
Which reminds me of another interesting side-story. Along
those lines, Iíd always intended Dex and ZoŽís other friends
from college to play a more important role Ė a side-story
exploring ZoŽís college life. And again, it was one of those
situations where there just wasnít enough time or room as
there were to many characters. So ďKittenĒ actually came
about as a result of me saying, ďHey! What am I going to do
with these characters? I know. Iíll kill them all in a
crappy B-movie slasher parody.Ē
ANB: (laughter) And the whole concept of a kitten being ďThe
EvilĒ was just (IMO) brilliant! I mean, who would think of a
kitten as evil?
ANB: Speaking of other characters, letís talk about
Sam. When he first came into play, it felt like you wanted
him to be a bigger player. Is this true?
Pete: Yeah. I think in the long run,
he was going to be a steady member of the cast and
fulfilling the role of someone whoís even stupider than Torg
Ė which you need every now and then. Torgís not really
stupid; heís just oblivious. Sam is stupid. There are
certain things you can do with his character that you canít
do with Torg. I always intended Sam to play a more major
But, with the way things move around, Sam WILL be coming
back very soon I believe.
ANB: When you created Sam and brought in Valerie, were you
already doing the long-term planning that Sam would be a
ANB: I remember when I found out they were vampires, I
was surprised until I went back and re-read the strips from
when they were introduced. Youíd left little subtle clues
here and there. So I wonder if you took any classes for
story telling or writing?
Pete: I've been coming up with ideas
and stories all my life, so I haven't had any formal
training. But I can explain, to a certain extent, how I
write. The first thing I work on after concept is the
ending. If a story doesnít have a good ending, everyone is
going to feel ripped off along the way. Of course characters
do tend to go off in their own directions sometimes out of
my control and I try to curb them back towards it (the
The bottom line is, the way I write with everything going
wrong and bending and twisting around, if I donít have an
end goal, Iíd write myself into a corner every single story.
So itís important that I have a goal Iím heading for. But a
lot of times a character will change what the direction of
the story is and, a lot of times it will change the
relationships (of the characters) which will affect future
ANB: How long does it take you to write a story once
youíve come up with the concept and the ending before you
start doing the daily strips?
Pete: Itís difficult to say because it
varies all of the time. Sometimes the stories flow easy but
most of the time they are kind of tricky. The trickiest
element is when Iím doing the comic for the next day where
Iíve got to work in the joke every three steps that I might
not have planned out as well. Iíve got to keep it
entertaining on a strip-by-strip basis, keep the story
moving forward, and everything else. Thatís why I never get
a lead-time -- Iím always doing the comics for the next day
on that day. In fact, Iím looking at the comic for
tomorrowís layout as we speak.
All I can tell you is that the artwork doesnít take that
long except for the Sundayís, which takes up a huge amount
of time. Every other minute of my life is spent working on
the stripsÖor so it feels. *grin*
ANB: Youíre married with one child. How does working on the
strip affect your personal life since this is a full time
Pete: Itís tough in that both my wife
and I have careers and they take up more time than just a
job. But, I also have the luxury of working from home and
having flexible, but fully packed hours. This means if I
need to pick up Leah (my daughter) or if Leahís home sick,
Iím there for her. We always make some amount of time to sit
back and spend time together as a family over dinner or that
type of thing. It takes planning though because Sluggy will
balloon up to fill every amount of time I give it. So yeah,
itís a juggling act but I canít complain too much, though I
Part 2 of the Pete Abrams interview (coming
soon), otherwise please
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Sluggy Freelance © 2002 Pete Abrams.