This is the second in a new series of cartoonist profiles; for the first, check out Jose San Mateo's conversation with Alexis Fajardo.
Ian McConville isn’t known for the thing he is most passionate for, which is a testament to how far reaching a hobby can be, especially when that hobby is cartooning.
McConville is building a career making video games, having worked for Three Rings Design Inc. based in San Francisco and leading art direction for the SEGA published MMORPG Spiral Knights. Yet, for the past twelve years, he’s been half of the duo responsible for two well respected and popular webcomics: Mac Hall and Three Panel Soul.
"My true passion is making video games and such. The problem with video games is that they have a very long turn around time," McConville said. "You can have an idea, and someone won't get to see the true result of that idea until, at minimum, three months."
Since the year 2000, McConville and friend Matt Boyd have worked together on two self referential, humorous, and surprisingly enduring web comics. Their first series, Mac Hall (archives at www.machall.com), started in McConville’s dorm room at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. While living in the dorms he would put panels from another somewhat popular web comic up on his door. You might even see influences from Penny Arcade in some of those early strips.
When fellow students started crowding around his door looking at the comics, McConville decided to try his hand at it. "I had some of their comics printed up and put up on my wall and my dorm mates at the time asked me if I had drawn those. I said 'No. Those are from another webcomic.' Then they asked 'Can you even draw something like that?' I was like, 'Well sure!'" McConville said. "So I started drawing little comics like that in that same style and we’d post them on my doorway for the other people in the dorm to see. They were about the people in the hall."
In the beginning, Mac Hall productions was, according to McConville, a series of "really really dumb in-jokes." It wasn't until he teamed with Matt Boyd that the series really took off. Mac Hall became a two-man operation because of the video game Marathon. Boyd ran a website that catalogued mods for the game and McConville was a huge fan.
"So we were talking quite a bit and he noticed the comics I was making. He heavily suggested 'You know, I have a lot of ideas but can’t draw.' and I was all like 'Well I don’t have a whole lot of ideas, but I can draw,'” McConville said. "We basically agreed that every time I used one of his scripts, I’d put his name on the comic. And if you’ll probably notice over the last twelve years or so pretty much all of them had his name on them.”
The pair have become close after working together on web comics for so long; Boyd was the best man at McConville's wedding. They've also developed a good synergy and a long lasting friendship.
"We’ve always been good, I think, at staying off each others back as far as the creative process goes. I don’t know if that’s for the good or the bad, but I mean we don’t challenge each other a lot," McConville said. "I mean often times we don’t talk for weeks at a time, and I’ll just get a script in my inbox and I’ll just start drawing it. Other times we’ll be chatting online and bang out a couple ideas."
Sometimes collaboration can be a struggle when two sides can grapple over creative direction, but McConville said that having Boyd do the writing really frees him up. "Having someone spend the mental energy to think of the ideas is a lot less taxing than having to do that and spend even more energy trying to draw," he said. "You have to stay in a good mood, you have to stay focused, you can’t just burn yourself out or else you’ll produce crap work. So when you can split that workload it’s smoother all around."
It's usually on a Sunday night when Boyd sends over several scripts to McConville. He'll chose the one that sounds the most fun to draw then he'll open up photoshop and go. "I’ve been posting my work flow online and letting people watch and listen to music while I’ve been doing it. Sure it’s pretty boring, but I know that I like to load up stuff like that while I’m working because it feels like you’re not the only one toiling with it at the moment," McConville said. "It’s got that camaraderie of the work force. It’s been fun getting to share what I’ve been doing online. Not only after the fact, but during.
McConville learned a lot about his own process while doing the webcomic throughout the years. Mac Hall started out as three panel strip, then expanded to a full-page, full-color comic, but the size and scope was scaled down (though not before taking advantage of the infinite canvas, parodying the famous Fatboy Slim video for “Weapon of Choice”). His goal was to always get more efficient, which helped to standardize his style and pointing out that he figured out how to skip a step he particularly hated: inking.
"It started because I was working on a video game and I needed to color hundreds of character sprites in a week. I needed a fast way of doing it, so over the course of a week I developed a method of coloring these sprites lickety-split," McConville said. "I just expanded on that, enhanced it and sort of went the extra mile on those sprites and turned it into comic panels. That’s where the lineless, vectorized style that Mac Hall had in the later half of it’s lifetime came from.”
It’s easy to draw parallels between the characters and situations in Mac Hall and their real life counterparts. The comic is about a group of college students that are the slacker type and the lead characters are named Ian and Matt. When Mac Hall finally ran its course and the pair started to work exclusively on Three Panel Soul, the reasons were evident:
The transition was a growing up of sorts for both art and artist. "When we finished Mac Hall, we were both pretty tired. As a friend of Matt’s said, 'We were grown ass men' and so doing a comic about school kids kind of felt hollow and dishonest," McConville said. "Honestly it was taking a pretty big toll on me because each comic was an eight hour day minimum. So I had a full time job at that point, I was done with college. I had to move on."
Three Panel Soul has a distinct art style of its own. McConville said that he did a 180 doing it in black and white. "I wanted to expand my horizons a bit and do something else,” he said. "Three Panel Soul’s only rule is that it has to be only three panels. So I do the art style any way I feel like each week."
McConville called Three Panel Soul a "palette cleanser" in some ways because each panel could stand on its own. "You have a rough week at work, or you’re just very sick of trying to meet deadlines and such. You can just do this, throw it out, there’s no consequences," he said. "No one to approve it. It just get’s posted, we share it, they’ll enjoy it or they won’t."
Despite doing a webcomic consistently for 12 years, there will always be doubts. McConville said he went through that sometimes with Mac Hall, feeling the pressure from fans that expect to see the comic every week.
"As soon as you stop updating, people stop checking your site. Then your bookmark disappears off their daily check, and then they’re gone forever," McConville said. "So there’s the pressure that if you don’t update people stop caring. But that was only the worst of days. The majority of the time it was just because it was fun."
The comics scene has been good to both of them. At its height, Mac Hall made both McConville and Boyd popular speakers at conventions; a year after the comic began, they could find themselves hitting at least a convention a month over the summers.
"We only did conventions that would invite us and pay for the whole trip because we were broke ass college kids. We can’t afford to be traveling all over the country,” McConville said. “So if they wanted to pay for a hotel room and a flight, hell yeah we’ll come speak at your convention."
McConville said that doing the convention circuit was an exciting experience in the beginning. "The first convention I did, Otakon, I hadn’t ever been on a plane before so that was exciting," he said. "It was gratifying to think that someone is willing to drop the money on bringing me out to speak to people, and that there’s people that want to listen to me."
The popularity of both comics among fans and convention goers is that the characters are relatable. "(Fans) would talk about it being a really tough part of their life and that there’s just a whole lot of negative emotions getting built up from some event in their life," McConville said. "They’ll say our comic helped them. That’s really nice."
As the pair have grown older and busier, their convention visits dwindled. This year they only went to Animation on Display in San Francisco. "We still get invites, and we don’t have the energy anymore. I got a lot to do and a lot to take care of, and it’s just that burning your whole weekend is a tougher sell these days," McConville said. "I mean it’s not that I’m trying to devalue what I can get from these comics, or meeting people."
Yet, even as their presence on the convention circuit dwindles, the comics have endured. The first 19 months of Mac Hall and a collection of strips from Three Panel Soul are both available in a single volume books.
McConville loves video games and he has found a place for himself in the industry, but he also has a love for comics. Just visit Three Panel Soul, and you'll see it for yourself. Like clockwork, a new comic shows up every single week; it’s been like that for 12 years running now.