By Stephanie "Bobbi" Bergman
Dust Puppy, Stef (Iím not talking me here), and Pitr. Not to mention A.J., Miranda, and Erwin, among others. Sound familiar to you? If not, well, good god! And you call yourself a geek.
What Iím talking about is User Friendly, almost the Ďcomputer geeks answer to Dilbert.í We syndicate it here on loonygames, and itís also been going strong over at UserFriendly.org for over a year. Itís an ongoing, at times serialized comic strip about a goofy group of workers at an ISP, and has quickly become a Ďmust readí for geeks everywhere. We decided to sit down with the man behind the strange group at Columbia Internet and find out exactly where User Friendly came from.
Name/rank/serial number? Illiad, cartoon guy, can't read the bar code stamped on the back of my head.
Where did the idea for User Friendly come from? Real life. I work for a high-tech company, and one of its divisions is an ISP.
You surely don't have stormtroopers running into your ISP though...? Don't be surprised if I say I do. I think a lot of people who work in hi-tech can attest to seeing and participating in really strange but fun activities. Like dressing up as your favourite character and shocking people at work.
I have to ask...since one of your characters (MALE characters) has my name...are the names real? (I'm Stef too) The names aren't the same as the real life people's that I base the strip on, but they're reasonably close.
How difficult is it to get a comic done daily? Hmm. It varies. Some days I couldn't draw a single frame if my life depended on it. Other days I can polish off five entire weekday strips and a Sunday strip in ten hours. I think it depends on the mood I'm in. I remember my most productive day yet...I started at 1:00AM and kept drawing and writing until noon. The strips just wrote themselves. I didn't have to think about them at all.
So you print one a day, but do them as you can? Itís not a Ďdraw one, publish oneí kinda thing? Yup, I publish one a day come hell or high water, but I draw when I can. There have been times when midnight is about to roll around and I don't have a strip drawn for the following day. It gets scary then because my mailbox has a tendency to fill up even more than it usually does when I'm late with a strip. But for some reason, the muse (the rotten, miserable sod that he or she is, teasing me like that) visits me at the final hour whenever I'm in a real crunch. Makes me aware that I'm alive. :-)
How are the strips done? Do you draw them, and then scan them? I used to do that, really early on. Now I do everything digitally, with my handy digital tablet. That thing is a real time saver. I do draw everything in hi-res though, so that it's printworthy. I publish the lo-res, 72dpi versions on the web.
How long have you been doing the comic? Since November 1997. It's been more than a year now. The official birthday is November 17, but I had about a dozen strips drawn before I mounted any on the web. I'm not sure what the exact date was when I drew the first User Friendly strip, but it was definitely in early November 1997.
Have you been drawing for a long time? I've been *cartooning* for quite some time, ever since I was about 12. I don't consider myself much of an artist or illustrator in the traditional sense, but I can do some adequate caricatures. Not all cartoonists are artists (like myself), but there are some cartoonists who are artists to the core (such as Berkeley Breathed, the creator of Bloom County and my own personal cartoon god). I'm a better writer than artist.
What are your favorite comic books? Comic books? I prefer the alternate ones, like Moonshadow which only ran for 12 issues, and Preacher which is ongoing still. Bone is also a remarkable piece of work. Or did you mean cartoon strips?
I meant comics there... :) You seem, to me anyway, to be closer in style to a comic (to be collected in trade paperback kinda thing), than an actual strip. Do you agree? Yes and no. I understand why you feel that way because User Friendly is heavily serial in nature. But look at some other strips like Rex Morgan, or Prince Valiant or even For Better or Worse. I do the occasional one-offs (these usually involve Greg doing a tech support call) but I get a lot more satisfaction as a writer when I get involved in a serial story arc. So, there isn't a clear-cut black and white answer to your question. :)
That's true...I guess I've just always been a huge comics fan, but not one of strips...so I'm biasing myself there :) Everyone's biased in one way or another. I think just about anyone will forgive you for it. :)
Whose style do you think you resemble, if anyone? That's hard to answer. I'm certainly heavily influenced by Berke Breathed's writing and pacing style -- he was a master at those two elements as well as the visual one. I'm also influenced by Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury, which is in my mind one of the most courageously honest cartoon strips out there. To a lesser degree I'm influenced by Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes, a much beloved cartoon in my books.
Would you like to see User Friendly published in print? Are you referring to syndication?
Depends...which form would you like to see it in? I'd love to see it in book form, and I'm happy to say we have an offer on the table from a major book publisher. We're still in negotiations on that. As far as syndication goes -- I'm leery of it, simply because signing the dotted line with a major syndicate means that they own your ass for at least five years, and I do mean that. They literally own your creation, and you have to work to their schedule. Although I've tried very hard to make sure that there's always a new cartoon strip every day, I do it because I want to, not because I have a fifty page contract hanging over my head. Now given all of that, I'm not totally against the idea of syndication, provided that the deal was sweet enough, and I'm not just referring to monetary rewards here. It's a common misconception that getting syndicated means you'll be rich beyond your wildest dreams. In fact, most cartoonists make only a decent living. The few superstars like Scott Adams (Dilbert) and Jim Davis (Garfield) are the ones who make the millions.
I know that's true for comics as well, yet novelists can make a nice salary with one decent book. Do you think that's because of the public's view on comics? ( I remember a movement of sorts a few years back to bring comic art into the mainstream) I'm not sure why that is with regard to comics. I know that getting that "one decent book" published is also a tough grind. Sure, if you're a Danielle Steel or Stephen King, you'll draw a huge advance just by virtue of the power of your name on a book to sell copies, but most novelists need to keep writing to keep earning a decent royalty check. I've been down that road, and I've been published, but I still have a day job. :-) I think one of the reasons why comics don't receive the attention they deserve in North America is because it's been labeled as an item that belongs to children. Of course, I know a great many adults who collect Superman, and Batman, and you can't argue that brilliant comics written and drawn by people like Frank Miller (Dark Knight, Sin City) are for kids.
True. :) One other thing. It really is a cultural problem, because Anime comic books in Japan are read by all age groups and all across all occupations.
What do you think of the 'adult' comics? The Vertigo line, stuff like that? I love them, but I suspect they'll forever remain in the niche markets. I know that geeks love them. I certainly collect enough of them, and I don't see myself stopping any time soon.
Did you ever think User Friendly was going to take off the way it has? I didn't even dream it. I really had no idea that User Friendly would evolve into the phenomenon it has. I've learned a great deal in the last year, and one thing I've finally taken to heart is to stop trying to second guess the audience, especially the audience I have for the comic strip. In a lot of ways I have it really tough, because the typical UFie is someone who is intelligent, articulate, outspoken, and very intolerant of stupid mistakes. On the other hand, I'm lucky to have the audience I do for exactly the same reasons.
What do your co-workers think about being in a comic? At first I think they were mildly insulted, but after a while I could see that they were all really beginning to enjoy it. I do understand why they might have felt a little surprised or taken aback by being drawn into a comic strip, since the situations their alter egos get involved in aren't always flattering. :-) They all took it with remarkably good humour though. I'm sure none of them would ever admit they were ever offended. :-)
Are you a character in it? In a manner of speaking. The character closest to who I am would be A.J. I guess. He does what I do for a living, and he's a game freak like me.
What are your favorite games? That's dangerous territory, since I'm very opinionated when it comes to games and game design. :-) Where did you want to start, computer games, board games or role-playing games?
Computer games :) My all time favorite game would have to be Civilization by Sid Meier. He's a very rare person, a computer programmer with an understanding of good game design. I'm eagerly awaiting the arrival of Alpha Centauri, for obvious reasons. As far as first-person shooters go, it's a tie between Half-Life and Thief. Quake rocks, but it rocks because of its amazing technology, not because of the game play. Real-time strategy games don't turn my crank that much, but an exception would be Age of Empires. It has a good feel to it, and it's certainly beautiful.
Now...board games? Advanced Squad Leader, the definitive simulation of WWII squad-level combat. The rulebook is literally hundreds of pages long, and I still have to learn over 60% of it, but it's by and far the finest boardgame ever published. A very close second is Dune, by the now defunct Eon Pastimes, a truly excellent multi-player boardgame based on the book and not on that ridiculous movie. Third place would have to be Diplomacy. That game is an example of excellent design in its purest form. Minimal mechanics, so the game is simple to learn, but it is very difficult to master.
Do you still play them? I know games like Diplomacy can be played by e-mail...it seems most board games are on computer now. Yes, I play them whenever I get a chance. I understand that even Advanced Squad Leader has an online version now. Even so, playing by email or over the net in real time is a last resort for me. I play computer games to relax and escape, whether itís single player or multi player. I play boardgames to socialize, chat and have fun with my friends. As much as I love LAN parties and multi player tournaments, they can't hold a candle to a good interactive boardgame. I mean...think about it. Twelve people sitting in front of their workstations twitching various body parts as they play Quake II CTF doesn't make for much socialization. You might as well be at home.
Role playing games...there's definitely interaction there. Yes, and that's one of the main reasons why I play them. I started playing AD&D like most people, but moved on to other games after that. I even worked for a game design company at one point, I loved RPGs so much. It paid next to nothing, but I was doing what I loved. The same goes for computerized RPGs...they're mostly single person shooters that have a veneer of role-playing painted over the top. I have yet to see a single computer RPG that can capture the richness and depth of a human-run game. And don't even mention Diablo. I have an opinion about that game that would probably get me lynched by Diablo fans everywhere. :-)
Have you ever tried text-based MUDs? (My personal favorite) Ever since I had a modem I've been playing in MUDs and MUSHes, although I don't play much at all nowadays. I even had a go at building a MUD with lambdamoo. It was good fun. But it's still not role-playing like face-to-face role-playing can be.
Last question :) What are your favorite websites? Oooh. Toughie that one. I really prefer the non-commercial sites. I hit slashdot every day, and segfault. Blueís News of course, and halflife.net these days. loonygames of course :). I actually don't spend that much time surfing any more like I used to. Instead, if I need something, I investigate it on the web and then get out. My random surfing time is near zero these days, probably because of these cartoons I have to keep drawing. :-).
- Stephanie "Bobbi" Bergman is an associate editor for loonygames.
Credits: Community Profile logo illustrated by and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Community Profile is © 1998 Stephanie Bergman. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is just a bad idea. We have lawyers.