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Sunday January 18, 2009 10:50 pm

Q&A: Zach Weiner and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

Posted by Tom Mason Categories: Interviews,

Snow White

Zach Weiner has been aware of all internet traditions since the late 1990s, and his website, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is one of the most popular webcomics around. There are dozens of adjectives to describe the (mostly) single-panel daily strip, but the best one is this: funny. Zach brings it. SMBC is a hilarious mix of cartoons based on pop culture, science, relationships, and nerd humor, making it a must-read for thousands of fans.

In addition to his solo work on SMBC, Zach has also written Captain Excelsior a 96-page graphic novel illustrated by Chris Jones. Captain Excelsior reads like a mash-up of NBC’s The Office and Ben Edlund’s The Tick. Zach and Chris finished it at the end of 2008 and the whole full-color thing is available for a free read over at their site. Start here and work your way through – you’ll want to keep clicking to the next page. More work from Zach is promised in the future and eagerly awaited. Now grab a bowl and a spoon and have some Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal with Zach.

TOM: When did you launch “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal”?

ZACH: I’ve been doing strips by the name “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal” since I was in high school (roughly mid-1998) after a friend suggested working on a comic together. I started putting together a website and basically commandeered the whole thing. Back then it was a 3-panel strip about my friends and me. Around 2002, I switched to a single panel format and haven’t looked back. This was a lucky decision, since the 3-panel roommates strip has become a webcomics cliché, while decent single panel strips are practically non-existent.

TOM: Where did the name come from?

ZACH: The name comes from the name of a painting made by the aforementioned friend. It was a black and white oil painting that he spray-painted neon orange due to artistic disagreements with the teacher.

TOM: What’s your daily readership?

ZACH: I think my manager would shoot me if I answered that. But, speaking broadly, I would say there are no more than, say, two dozen webcomics with bigger readership than SMBC is carrying right now.

TOM: How fast did SMBC grow?

ZACH: Growth has been very good for SMBC. I benchmark my comicking year with Comic Con International in San Diego, and for the last two years I’ve more than doubled my traffic during each comicking year.

TOM: Aside from word of mouth and the occasional link from other sites, how do you build your web audience?

ZACH: SMBC has probably had a somewhat weird route. Most bigger webcomics are aimed toward a certain community. I think the reason for this is that there are a lot of blogs and communities out there who will give you more support if your comic pertains to their area of interest. Look at any top 100 webcomic sites, and you’ll see that 80-90% are either gamer, manga, or sci-fi/fantasy. This has begun to change in the last couple years, but I think it’s still tougher for people who don’t fit in those fields.

TOM: And SMBC is more general…

ZACH: SMBC has had a lot of advantages. Because I do one-offs that are more broad than some comics, I get a huge amount of traffic from small blogs and community sites. About 20% of my new traffic every month comes from reddit, digg, and stumbleupon. I’ve never been the darling of a large blog (though, I cherish the occasional links I get from scienceblogs.com people like Sean Carroll), but I’ve had an unusually large amount of traffic from regular Internet geeks.

TOM: Do you splurge on advertising as well?

ZACH: I’ve done some advertising. I’d like to do more, but paying rent and tuition in California hasn’t made it easy. But, whenever I do run ads, I tend to do pretty well. I ran an ad about six months or so ago with explosm.net, and probably got 3-6,000 new regular readers out of it. For any artist looking to grow her website, I very much encourage buying ads on similar sites to yours. A lot of creative types oppose ads as selling out, but that’s just silly. All the ads I’ve bought have benefited me with audience growth, and benefited other artists financially. Marketing yourself is NOT selling out unless you do something that violates your own principles, like having a character talk about how delicious Pepsi is.

TOM: But it IS delicious! Do you have any advice for the aspiring webcartoonist?

ZACH: I could really talk about this for ages, but if you’re a cartoonist, the best advice is simple: 1) Make a good strip, 2) Update on schedule, 3) Don’t be afraid to market yourself and your product, 4) Be very, very patient.

TOM: What kind of feedback do you get on SMBC?

ZACH: A lot of my feedback comes in the form of comments on my website. I have a unique chat program my brother built so that SMBC has a sort of real-time bulletin board. I also talk a good bit with other webcomics people, but that’s not always the best place for good critique. The best critics I have are a small circle of good friends who’ve known me for ages. In the past few years, I’ve been very lucky with traffic, and the volume of accolades from strangers has increased. So, it’s more important than ever to chat with the people who’ve loathed me since high school.

TOM: The Scotts – Scott Kurtz and Scott McCloud – are practically evangelical about the web. Are you of the same mindset?

ZACH: To be honest, not really. I think Scott McCloud wrote the finest work I’ve ever read on comics when he made “Understanding Comics.” I have a BA in Literature, and that book was orders of magnitude more engaging and informative than any other literary critique I read. That said, I don’t personally feel hugely bound to the web. As a writer, my main goal is to have as many eyes on my work as possible. If that’s by web, great! If not, it’s not a big deal to me. I’d like to think at least one or two of my strips contain jokes people 100 years from now might still feel are funny. I don’t imagine they’ll care whether I distributed by web or by paper. I know a lot of the folks in webcomics, and I love the tightly-knit groups a lot of us share, but I think it’s important for anyone working in a creative field to have more allegiance to what they’re making than where they’re making it.

TOM: What tools are you using to create SMBC – is it paper and ink or is it all digital or half-and-half?

ZACH: I use a blue pencil and a cheap black pen. I then scan the line art into my computer and do the coloring digitally in Photoshop. I used to buy fancy pens and nice paper, but my art almost never calls for delicate line work, and since everything is backed up digitally there’s no reason to use expensive paper. Basically, I’m a cheapskate when it comes to drawing stuff.

TOM: What’s your typical day like – do you follow any set routine to keep all your projects going?

ZACH: Right now I’m putting myself through college again, so most of my day is spent learning math. On a good day, I go to the library early to study, then get in 2-3 hours of reading thanks to audio books, then spend my evenings on SMBC. If I’m lucky, by the time I get home I’ve got an idea ready to draw. If not, well, sometimes it’s a late night.

TOM: Math? Really? Is the cartooning world in danger of losing you to counting?

ZACH: No. I have somewhat complex reasons for being here, but the short version goes like this:

Thanks to a surprise bit of income in 2006, I was able to take time off from working a day job. Although I got a lot of reading and writing done, I (and many of my friends) felt that the work had suffered a bit. Mind you, some of the best jokes in SMBC happened during that window, but overall I wasn’t at peak performance. I think the lack of stress created two problems: First, not having pressure in life and lots of interaction with weird humans (my last job had been at an LA talent agency), the comics became less raw and unusual and unpredictable. Second, having more time to think meant that I would sometimes overthink jokes. In trying to cram a lot of humor into one panel, some of the strips just became hard to follow.

After my funds dried up, I got a job doing closed captioning, and I felt the work improved quite a bit. I was sitting in a cube, working for nice (but odd) people, and watching bizarre TV shows and movies 8 hours a day. After a while, the website income had improved to the point where I had the ability to do comics full time, conceivably forever.

Although working the job helped produce better comics, I also lost 8 hours a day that could’ve spent doing something more useful. I decided that going back to college for a science degree would be a nice way to bring together my need for stress/stimulation, and my love of knowledge. I had initially planned to study biochemistry, but I ended up really enjoying physics. It’s easily as stressful as work, but at the end of the day I’ve gained a lot of knowledge. This is a lot more satisfying than sitting in a cubicle, and has resulted in a lot of new directions in my comics.

Of course, on top of those loftier things, it’s also the case that SMBC pays the bills for me. So, even if I hated every moment of it, there’d still be a new panel every day.

TOM: There are over 1200 SMBC cartoons archived on your site. Are you tired yet?

ZACH: Sometimes I worry I’m treading on old ground. To some degree this is unavoidable, but I try to think up jokes I’ve really never looked at before. Over time, the search for novelty has led to some weird formats here and there. My audience has been very supportive, so I’ve generally felt encouraged to experiment.

Writing gag strips daily can be pretty exhausting, but I think it’s also a good exercise for the brain. A big part of editing jokes is trying to envision the same idea in new ways, and being persistent when you think you’re going in a good direction. That way of thinking has been very useful in pursuing a science degree.

TOM: What’s up with the Sarah Silverman thing? She’s single again I think, if you’re interested.

ZACH: I don’t think I could look her in the face knowing that she stole my joke. So, I’m interested, but with that lone caveat.

TOM: Where do you envision your strips going? They seem like naturals for a book collection along the same lines as “Perry Bible Fellowship.” Something like Captain Excelsior could easily be on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim and at the very least needs to be a graphic novel (I’m looking at you, IDW).

ZACH: I like the way you think! Personally, I never start a project without thinking I could take it to the highest level. For SMBC, that’d probably be a popular book and website. For Captain Excelsior, that’d probably be animation or a big honkin’ graphic novel. I have some very good managers who are working hard to grow these projects with me. Mostly, I handle the web stuff. So, in that regard, really my major goal is to just keep building up the audience online. Hopefully in 2009 we’ll have more stuff readers can actually hold in their hands.

TOM: Are you a comic book and comic strip fan?

ZACH: Unlike a lot of cartoonists, I wasn’t a huge comic strip/book reader growing up. This may be part of why SMBC is stylistically dissimilar from a lot of people out there.

TOM: Then who were your major influences?

ZACH: The two major comics that inspired me to do single panels were the sadly discontinued “The Parking Lot is Full,” and the work of Glen Baxter. The former inspired a lot of the comics that really directly address the audience or are more experimental in captioning style. The latter was behind a lot of the strips that have a droller, more British tone of understatement. I think if you read a hundred strips by each author, you’ll quickly realize SMBC is, on the whole, just a rip-off of their ideas.

TOM: “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal” you do all by yourself, but on “Captain Excelsior” you write and Chris Jones draws – how did that come about?

ZACH: Occasionally, I get the bug to work on other projects and put out a bulletin. Usually the people who respond are too amateurish to be proper collaborators or too flaky to help ever get the project off the ground. Chris Jones, however, is a god.

TOM: Is it easier or harder to write for someone else to draw?

ZACH: Anyone who’s collaborated on an artistic project knows it can be tough at times, but working with Chris has never been anything but a pleasure. There was a complete script since day 1. We spent about 4 months in preproduction, with Chris working out character art and me working out the script. Most of the time, when he’d send me the initial sketch for the next page, I wouldn’t have anything to say but compliments. In fact, it’s quite often the case that he’s improved on a joke that’s already there. If you see a brilliant detail in the background that really pulls a moment together, it’s because of Chris. Really, I should stop now before I heap a novel worth of praise on him. It’s the greatest scandal in comics that he isn’t paid a thousand dollars a page!

TOM: Now that Captain Excelsior is completed, will there be a sequel or something completely different to follow up?

ZACH: We’re currently looking at future developments, but for the moment I’m sworn to secrecy!

Great, Zach and good luck with the science and the physics and all that smart guy stuff. Please don’t let it interfere with what’s really important: comics! And if you’re headed over to Zach’s site, please make sure you’re not drinking anything in the vicinity of your keyboard.

Artwork © 2009 Zach Weiner



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