Part of my mission here at Doctor Magnifico is to share my creative process with you. Things I discover, reasons I do things. In that spirit – and not in the spirit of soliciting advice from anyone, which I am not doing here – I present the following: an essay on what I have learned from my first year of development on Doctor Magnifico.
PLAY THAT FUNKY COMIC
I create comics partially because I like to draw, but more than that, as a professional artist who has never drawn comics professionally, I do it to learn. What do I hope to learn? I hope to learn what material resonates with people, what characters are likable, what jokes are funny. Honestly, there is a treasure trove of information available to an artist who puts his work out in a public forum. Everyone has an opinion.
In that, this is like playing music live. It’s all well and good to hole up in your basement recording perfect little pop tunes and only sharing them with 5 or 10 close friends who will tell you everything you do is perfect. But when you take that act on the road, put those songs out and see what people think, it is an education. You find out what works, yeah, but moreover, you find out what doesn’t work. In the case of Doctor Magnifico, I have a host of analytics that tell me exactly which strips are popular, and which ones are not. And one of the main reasons I take these occasional hiatuses (hiatii?) is to reflect on my work, think about what I’m doing compared to what I set out to do.
I set out to entertain people. Have I done that? Yes.
I set out to create likable characters. Have I done that? Yes.
I set out to see if I could make a consistently funny comic strip. Have I done that? Absolutely.
I set out to create a popular comic. Have I done that? Partially. The numbers have not been impressive. Most of the time, Doctor Magnifico’s readership hovers around 100 people. Don’t get me wrong, I love all my 100 dedicated readers, but 100 readers isn’t what I set out to capture. I was hoping for thousands. Maybe hundreds of thousands. Yes, I know that if I wanted to consider this thing a SMASH, I’d be looking for millions, but let’s just be realistic. I’m after thousands, and I’m getting hundreds. Why? For that, we can look to the analytics.
POPULAR ≠ GOOD but POPULAR > OBSCURE
This is the most popular strip I ever drew here at Doctor Magnifico:
7000 people came to look at that one. Why? I think it’s because it had the word “Zombie” in the title. Also, it hit some “cute” button with people. I had someone accuse me of stealing the joke from Calvin and Hobbes (I didn’t, but there was one that dealt with trying to gross Calvin out to make him eat stuff. Common theme, I guess.)
This was the second-most popular strip from the site:
In fact, if you look at the peaks of visitation and fan engagement, it’s almost always one of the strips dealing with the cats. Conversely, if you look at the dips in visitation, and the lack of fan engagement, you find strips that are centered around Max, the human, Max the artist, talking about his career, or trying to get a date.
This is the least popular strip here at the site:
And, in fact, I think that strip is a great metaphor for this strip’s relationship to the audience. The blonde girl represents the thousands of readers I’d like to have. The artist blathering on obliviously about things she doesn’t want to hear is, well, me. Or the strip. The audience sees what you’re about, doesn’t like it, and walks away without saying a word. If there is a better metaphor for the way Doctor Magnifico has performed in the marketplace, I don’t know what it is. Even the book I just released? I sold only 10 copies. And I was ecstatic for every single sale, but a book that sells 10 copies is trying to tell you something.
THAT LITTLE ITCH SHOULD BE TELLING YOU SOMETHING
The problem with taking a lesson from The Most Unpopular Strip at Doctor Magnifico is this: that strip was one of my all-time favorite strips, and I was thinking I wouldn’t be alone in that. Turns out, I was alone in that. That shows you how you can misjudge the audience for your own work. But beyond the analytics, the unsolicited feedback I’ve received about the strip and its characters has been from people asking to see more of the cats, and, curiously, someone close to me telling me they didn’t care much for strips featuring “that guy”. I think I know enough to draw a conclusion: most people don’t want to come here and see Max wrestle with his career, or see him failing to get the pretty girl to notice him. They like the cats doing funny things. Duh.
And it would be one thing if I actively disagreed. But aside from disagreeing about the least popular strip at the site, I think the analytics and feedback I’ve received is spot on. The internet do love it some cats. The thing is, I don’t want to do Yet Another Cat Comic. There are too many out there, and the most popular ones are not funny to me. But that’s OK. I don’t have to do Yet Another Cat Strip. The heart of this strip is a conversation about the usefulness of art in light of the ubiquity of science and technology in our society. It’s about imagination in the midst of the mundane. I can have that conversation and flights of imagination without Max. In fact, in some strips, I have inexplicably turned Sam into an artist and had the artist/non-artist dynamic entirely without Max. This really shows that the strip works at its core:
I see that strip and I think, “Yes. Like that. That is the strip.” The conflict between the round, happy, naive, artistic cat and the pointy, sarcastic, skeptical, non-artistic cat is natural and I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. Well, I guess I did, but subconsciously. Sometimes I think you only see these things after you get 50 strips under your belt and then get some distance from what you’ve created. A pity, because 50 strips doesn’t come easy or quickly.
BE SIMPLE, BE WHAT YOU ARE AND SAY IT FROM THE START
Here’s the other thing: I don’t think people knew exactly what to make of this strip. As an artist, it appealed to me to be able to tell all sorts of stories, all sorts of jokes, and that meant letting my world be as big as the universe. An artist with lofty aspirations, with dating woes, with insecurities about his work. Cats who give him advice and can discuss the values and drawbacks of art and science, who can comment on all aspects of pop culture. It was wide open, and I knew I would never get bored with it because there was more than enough to chew on. But as a reader, I think it made it hard to understand and impossible to categorize. This wasn’t a cat strip per se, so that classification felt too narrow. So, how do you sum it up to your friends? There’s this artist, and he’s got these two cats who talk to him, and sometimes he pretends to be a superhero, and… ah, you’ve already lost ‘em. Who is Doctor Magnifico? Oh, he’s an artist? Yikes, what I had done. If I don’t make it easy to explain to your friends, you won’t. And people didn’t. I need to fix that.
I’m not sure exactly what changes I’ll make to this strip going forward but in the renewal, I guarantee the first thing out of a character’s mouth in Strip #1 will be the words, “I’m Doctor Magnifico” and we will understand who they are and why the strip is named like this. It’s a step forward.
When I set out do draw this comic, I wanted to see if I could get 25 strips done. And when I got there, I thought, let’s go for 50, and when I got there, I set my goal at 100. But I don’t think I need to get to 100 to learn what I needed to learn. I think I got the point right here. So, armed with the lessons I’ve learned from my first 62 strips, I am going to go back into the strip and see what I can do to make it better. God willing and the creek don’t rise, and I like what I come up with, I will show a new, improved Doctor Magnifico here in spring 2015.
Stay tuned, and thanks for all the support!