Jennie Breeden, online comic strip pioneer and general road warrior, recently sat down with SBC. After returning from San Diego Comic Con, dealing with a rampant lawn and gigantic rats, she was kind enough to spare some time. We discuss her autobiographical work, the The Devil’s Panties (it’s not satanic porn) and her future now that she’s quit her day job.
Jennie Breeden (JB): Well, I started off in Savannah College of Art Design and I majored in comic books. Yes, there is a major in comic books – called sequential art. When I was in the dorms, whenever something funny would happen I would draw a little cartoon about it. Instead of keeping a journal, I had a sketch book. In my second year…
MM: When was the first year?
JB: I started going to college in ’98. So the summer of 2001, I was interning in Atlanta, Georgia and drawing a lot of cartoons. I had three jobs and living in the closet of a friend’s house – you know, lots of crazy stuff. One of the guys I was staying with said that he would setup a web comic for me. Well, he never did but it got me thinking about format and putting them up online, copyrights and stuff like that. So my third year of college in 2001, I was living with a bunch of friends. One of them was Chris Daily who does the web comic Striptease, and he talked about having fan mail. And I was like, “How do you get fan mail? I want to get fan mail.” So he showed me how to set up a web comic on Keenspot. Well, then it was Keenspace now it’s Comic Genesis. So that’s the progression of the Devil’s Panties.
MM: So it’s been in existence in some form or another since ’98, but you’ve been posting it since 2000.
MM: You recently quit your day job in order to do DP full time. How did you get to that point? How’s it working out for you?
JB: Well, I think a lot of different people approach it different ways. I know that some people make a lot of their money through advertising on their web site. A lot of people do hosting type things. I’m not very internet savvy. I’m surprisingly low tech for somebody who has a web comic, so I’m much more hands-on. I draw the comic on paper and letterer it on paper, I’m really into the idea of merchandising. Some girls buy shoes, I put my logo on things. And so in September I was putting together a “Men in Kilts” with leaf blower calendar after Dragon Con. Then I realized that the only way I was going to have enough time to make enough money to quit my day job was if I quit my day job. So I put in my notice because I had been doing a lot of conventions and so the only way that I’d have time to make more merchandise was if I didn’t go straight to work after a convention. I don’t really know how I’ve got enough money to live, but somehow the bills are still being paid. It helps that a couple of years ago I bought a house and I filled it up with computer programmers, geek tech boys…
MM: Like a collection?
JB: Well, they have LAN parties, but other than that they’re real quiet, only make a mess around their computers and that’s about it. So we get along really great – and it let me fill the house with renters. That’s helped a lot as far as expenses and making a living at something that has sporadic payments.
MM: This isn’t on my list of prepared questions, but I’ve got to ask: “Men in Kilts”? What?
JB: Years and years ago I would sit around the conventions with all the girlfriends, or the crew of – conventions are kind of like carnivals, you see a lot of the same people at them. So you get this kind of, hanging out with these kind of people who are kind of vagabond, that have this gypsy life style, living out of hotel rooms. We were sitting around a hotel lobby at one point and we were talking about wanting to do a Men of Comics calendar. It would be just all hot, half-naked guys who do comic books – David Mac and Andy Lee – a friend of mine had a huge long list of them.
MM: That pretty much breaks every stereotype that I know.
JB: [Laughter] I think this latest generation of comic book people, comic book artists, realized they have to be much more well rounded. Higher education, a wider field of art – the Luna brothers were actually going to school with me – and they have an insane amount of discipline. Towards their art and maintaining their health – uhmm…yes, “Men in Kilts”…
MM: Your friend had this list…
JB: My friend at Dragon Con was the one who came up with the idea. At Dragon Con, there’s about 20,000 or 30,000 people that show up to this science fiction convention in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s mostly people in costume getting drunk and laid all weekend – it’s a weekend long party more than an actual convention. And one in four guys is in a kilt, so we talked about chasing them with a leaf blower and having a calendar that would be “Men in Kilts”. I did a couple of cartoons about it – last year was the first year that I actually got a leaf blower. The technical definition for it is a ‘hard surface blower’ because it’s battery operated and you can work it indoors.
MM: That almost sounds dirty.
JB: Oh yes. Oh it’s dirty in so many different ways. The look on the guys’ face when you ask to take their picture and then you pull out the leaf-blower – because if you’re wearing underwear then it’s a skirt – so you can always tell who’s wearing a kilt by the look on their face – “Uhm, wait, no…NO!” But I’ve heard that it’s actually quite refreshing. I’ve actually had it turned on myself at one point – it’s actually quite refreshing.
MM: I’ll have to take your word for that one, I can’t say as I’ve ever tried it. But putting that aside for a moment – so what has it been like being out there on your own as an independent producer, without a publishing company, for 6 years?
JB: Yes, Silent Devil picked me up last year at Dragon Con. My friend who had the idea of the “Men of Comics” calendar also hooked me up with Silent Devil – she’s my fairy godmother in all the senses of the word.
Going solo is pretty much the only way if you’re going to get it done. Unless you draw super-hero work beautifully, unless you are one in a million people who has that talent and that drive and you’ve got Marvel or DC at your door saying, “Please let us give you bags of money.” Ironically, I knew a guy in college and he showed me its not so much talent as drive. He had talent out his ears and sure enough he had Marvel and DC coming to his door saying, “Please draw for us”. And he said, “You know, that sounds like a lot of work.” He had the talent, just not
the drive. He didn’t have the desire to sit down and do it all day, every day. I found the talent can be learned as long as you have the drive – then you can learn how to do anything well. If you have the drive to sit down and do it hours a day for…oh, I don’t know…six years. So to sit down and do the web comic is the hard part.
After that, if you update it every day then you start build the following. My brother came to me two years ago and said that he didn’t really like my web comic – and that’s understandable; he’s not a stompy, little red-headed feminist. I do recognize my comic has a niche – unless you identify with it, it’s not necessarily funny. But last year he turned to me and said, “I don’t necessarily think it’s funny, but it’s there everyday.”
Eventually, you figure out shortcuts and tricks to make it faster. It’s just sitting down and doing it. Getting it done.
MM: I guess that kind of speaks to my next question, but I want to expand on what you just said a little bit. Between drawing, cons and creating merchandise, and without really any support mechanism, what’s your schedule like with all that these days?
JB: Somebody had asked me when the off season of the comic conventions are. And that’s a really great question because I have no idea when the off season is. I think the summer time has the most conventions. This is the first weekend I’ve had off in a month or two, so I’ve been catching up on sleep. But I had to admit that having a social life gets in the way. I don’t recommend having a social life. I got my boyfriend to move in with me so I could see him – at all. There are nights when he’s like, “Honey, come to bed.” And I’m like, “No, no, I have to update.” He said that the world won’t end if you don’t update. But yes, yes it will.
So, as for the schedule with the comic conventions it got to the point that I was home for about 24 hours a week for about two or three months. That’s definitely when I make sure to get a full night’s sleep. In the comic strip I’ve gone out to clubs, but lately I haven’t been doing that at all because I know that if I get sick at one of these conventions, I know I won’t get my feet under me because I don’t have the down time to get better. But then winter comes and I go months at a time without stepping outside my house.
The comic conventions is a balancing act because when you’re drawing comic books, you’re just sitting in your basement drawing. A lot of comic book artists draw for 15 hours a day, seven days a week. So the comic book conventions are a way to get out of your hole. You at least see sunlight from your hotel room on the way to the convention center.
But you see the fans and that’s what you feed off of, where the energy is. I look on my web site and I see a number on the screen that says how many people are reading my comic but that doesn’t really click until I go to these conventions and somebody comes up to me and says they read my comic or they buy it in the comic shops. Then it seems real. That’s what keeps me drawing it. I know when my boyfriend says the world won’t end, I know there are faces, there are people behind those numbers. And they’ll come find me.
JB: When I meet my own fans, I’m always a little amazed and scared. They’ll show up with baskets of candy. I’ve gotten two sets of LARPing swords – these big padded sticks that I run around the woods and hit people with.
And the people next to me [at the booth] say, “You’re friends kind of scare me. Have you had any crazies?” With an autobiographical strip, the people who read it are gonna be like you. Since I do cartoons that are about me, people who identify with it are like myself. It’s a bit surreal to go to a convention and see a clone of myself come stomping up in the big boots and a GIR t-shirt. It makes you think someone raided your luggage.
So I do like it. The schedule is a little grueling but the fact that I feed off of them, it’s more food for spirit that it is for the body. So when I’m physically exhausted it gives me a bit of a drive to keep going.
[Laughter] I don’t know if that answered your question.
MM: Well, it certainly spoke to aspects of it. It sounds like you’re very busy, particularly in the summer time.
JB: Oh yes.
MM: To switch targets here, this is a tangential question, more for my curiosity: How did end up with a Wikipedia page? Most independent creators don’t have one of those.
JB: I am so low tech – I don’t even know – it’s like the online encyclopedia?
MM: So you had nothing to do with. A fan of yours went out and created a Wikipedia page. Are you aware of that?
JB: I never know what are the big things. Whenever I’m mentioned on something I don’t know which are the big things and which are the people in their basements.
The fans are amazing. If it weren’t for the fans, I wouldn’t have a forum, I wouldn’t be able to quit my day job. They’ve set up the forum, they’ve set up the Wikipedia, the Ohnorobot. My fans are incredible, and like I said, a little bit scary, so I make sure not to miss an update. That kind of devotion – you don’t want to piss them off.
MM: I can understand why you wouldn’t want to deal with, at the very least, a deluge of emails. Speaking of your fans and that you’ve mentioned they’re a little scary from time-to-time: Running what is, for the most part, an autobiographical comic, do you ever feel uncomfortable with what people know about you?
JB: Dragon Con, about three years ago or so, I was sitting under the stairs, selling my stuff out of my backpack, which was a lot of fun. I had some people find me, sit down next to me and we hung out. I started to tell them a story when they turned to me and said, “Oh yea, we know about that one.” There was this very bizarre moment when I realized they already knew all my good stories.
But my aunt pointed out, after she read my book, that she recognized it wasn’t necessarily me. It was an aspect of my life, but it wasn’t really me. She had met my boyfriend – most of my friends haven’t met my boyfriend and just think I’m paying someone to call them every once in awhile – but in the comic strip, that’s the side of him that I see. That’s not necessarily who he is. That’s my version of him. He actually said in the past that he almost didn’t go on our first date because he said I was a very angry person online, in the web comic. But I don’t yell nearly as much in person as I do in the comic strip. I’ve also been told I’m not as perky in person. So the web comic is very much a hyper-stylized version of myself. I don’t see it as me exactly. It’s more of an idealized version.
MM: Do appearances of your associates in the comic ever cause problems for you in real life?
JB: [Laughter] Yes. [Laughter]
MM: Would you like to elaborate on that answer?
JB: I’ve had a roommate or two who were not happy with how they were portrayed in the web comic. So now, my friend,
Nigel the pirate, actually helped me write up a release form. It’s a very bizarre experience to go up to a friend and loved one and ask them to sign a release form. Because they’re your friend. The pirate signed it. But you have to get them to sign the release form when you are still friends, because it doesn’t work after you’ve had an argument and told each other to go to Hell. That did come back to bite me in the ass a little bit.
MM: Are you referring to just in general or something specific?
JB: I did have a best friend that, uh – I picked a fight with her and we had some very nasty parting words. So I’ve adjusted characters in the comic, and in the book I’ve merged a lot of the characters. Poor Chris [Daily], I came up to him and said, “Yeah for the book, I’ve made all of my roommates into one person, so the part of Daily will be played by DJ, my big lesbian friend.” And I do have a friend that is a big ol’ lesbian, but her name’s not DJ. She’s in law enforcement, so I don’t use her real name.
So there is a certain amount of tact that has to be used. But I’m not necessarily good at tact.
MM: Well in addition to a lot of people who are perhaps based off of real life people you’ve got some fantastic characters such as Jesus and Satan. How did they come into your work? Doesn’t seem they’ve been around for awhile; any reason for that?
JB: No, the not seeing them in awhile is just that they usually come out when I have something political to say. Recently I’ve been very careful not to put anything political in my comic strip. I have a lot of soldiers and a lot of people overseas who read it. A lot of Republicans read it. So I try to keep my political views out of the comic strip. It also keeps it fun – a lot of soldiers read it for brain candy, for escapism from what’s going on. And I’ve done the same thing. When my life was not too great – I had the worst year of my life a year ago – and I found web comics were vital for getting that junk food for the brain, that you need that little bit of escapism.
But the Jesus and Devil cartoons are some of my mom’s favorites. She is upset that I don’t have more of them showing up. I really do need to make an effort to have them swing by every once in awhile. It’s just fun.
I have had a lot of people respond to the Pretty Princess character, though. When I was doing sketches in San Diego everybody wanted the Pretty Princess. In combat boots.
JB: There’s the Geebas on Parade but I don’t update that nearly as much as I should. And that’s LARPing – running around the woods and hitting people with padded sticks, which is thoroughly therapeutic.
There’s merchandise online, of course, and…uhmmm…stuff?
Mostly it’s the graphic novel that’s out now. It’s 288 pages of Panty goodness.
Be sure to visit Matthew McLean’s website here.