Greg Cravens Interview

One of the nice things about the GoComics site is that they display other strips at random on the entry page. Occasionally, I’ll see a strip that I hadn’t been following, click on it, and get completely swept up by it. That’s what happened to me with Hubris. Suddenly, I’d found a comic whose main character likes a lot of the things I do – going outdoors, hiking, cycling, and rock climbing. Plus, he has his own equipment store, which I’m jealous about. The artwork is clean, the characters are easily recognizable, and the jokes are funny, and often downright hilarious. On the other hand, Hubris, his half-brother Paste, and his girl-friend Kara Biner, are all clumsy in their own ways, and when they take a spill, you have to cringe and say, “ooooh, that’s GOTTA sting.” Later on, I discovered that the artist, Greg Cravens, also draws and writes The Buckets (having taken the strip over from Scott Stantis). Since I live in Japan, and the English papers don’t run many of the American newspaper comics, I wasn’t able to read The Buckets until I found them on GoComics. I read them now, though. (Oh, and a Disclaimer: I show up in the pages of the Great Stanky Creek Snake Oil Outdoorfest. I’m the guy that never gets to climb the rock wall. See below.)

BC: Please introduce yourself.
GC: My phone answering message used to (and should again) start with “Hello, I’m Greg your cartoonist.” That says it all, really.

BC: What personal details do you think are relevant to readers to know about you?
GC: Eergh. Probably nothing that can’t be immediately understood after reading a couple of weeks of both my cartoons.  Husband, Father, Mortgage Payer, who would really, really like to be riding a bike or skating instead of most things that I actually do.  I’m from Tennessee, which doesn’t help because the image people have of Tennessee isn’t usually any more accurate than the image people have of any other time or place.  I might take a leaf out of Frank Buckets’ book and just say, “I’m from the 70’s”.  That’s probably more helpful.  My background is that I grew up comic-book and comic-strip obsessed.  It’s what I wanted to do for a living, and I had no idea I was staring down the barrel of a cartooning world that was about to break down and reassemble itself.

BC: What do you consider yourself as?
GC: Cartoonist. All the way.  When I first graduated, I entered a work environment where other freelancers in my area were actively denying they were cartoonists.  They insisted on being called ‘Illustrators’, because that was how things worked then.  So I had cards (and rolodex cards – remember those) made up with “Cartoonist” all over them.  I wanted the ad agencies to think of me first when cartoons came up.

BC: But…?
GC: Comic strips were a dear love of mine, and I didn’t want to spend my career not having broken into that field somehow.  Also, advertising cartoons don’t belong to you.  I’d been doing good work for years that all belonged  to companies here and there.  None of it was ‘mine’ to reproduce or carry on with or build on.  Unfortunately, I got into The Buckets as the field was faltering.  I got into Hubris because the Web seemed to be where the field was going and I didn’t want to miss out on that.  Having done both projects for years now, I miss the money and the constantly changing challenges of advertising cartoons – bright, shiny new projects every few days is very engaging, and the business part of it isn’t MY part, really.  Hubris is probably a better business than I’ve made it, and I think Webcomics are just waiting for our William Randolph Hearst – the guy who turned newspaper comics into a powerhouse industry a century ago.

BC: How did you get your start then?
GC: I moved to Memphis to go to school (Graphic Design Degree), without a lot of plans on where to go next.  To pay for school, I started airbrushing Tshirts, which was a big deal in 1983.  They sold well back then, and University didn’t cost actual body parts back then.  By the time I graduated, the folks that owned the stores where I airbrushed shirts had opened a screen print operation to supply the shirt stores, and I was doing their artwork.  Upon graduating, everyone I had been to school with went off to become art directors at the various ad agencies around town, and I started getting phone calls from them. Also, a new tabloid/free press paper started up and a friend landed me some freelance work with them.  So, suddenly, I’m a cartoonist doing advertising cartoons, which I hadn’t known existed before.  The alternative involved Hallmark Cards and a move to Kansas City.  I still wonder how that would have turned out.

BC: What do you think your biggest breaks were?
GC: It was in 1991 that I finally took all the money I had in the bank, bought enough equipment for a PMT darkroom (people still wanted ‘camera ready’ art back then. Computers weren’t ubiquitous yet) and quit my day job to go draw advertising work every day all day.  That was a good break.  I landed a couple of good gigs – a series of posters got me enough money to ditch the darkroom and buy my first computer (back when a decent setup was $10,000 or more), and I started doing Shoney Bear (restaurant character) activity book/menus.  That was tremendous.  Lotta good stuff going on back then.

BC: What do you see as the future of The Buckets and Hubris, and do you have anything else going on now?
GC: The Buckets is primarily a ‘newspaper’ comic, so its future isn’t entirely in my hands.  Hubris has another four years planned out in general, at which point I have a spectacular final story laid out.  Honestly, the final story arc will probably take so long to spell out cartoon by cartoon that I should either start on it now and take four years to tell it, or assume that I’ll be doing Hubris for another ten years.  The only other pokers in the fire now are to shift a little back toward ad agency work.  The money is better and the day-to-day challenges of totally different, shifting, styles and messages are really exciting to me.  I love me some advertising cartoons.

BC: What are you most happy/proud of?
GC: I’m proud that I’ve made a career out of cartooning.  It’s encompassed a lot of jobs, like any career will.  I think right now I’m most pleased with what Hubris has become.  I’ve discovered a facility for stringing stories out that I like, but I’m least proud of how I’ve handled the business side of my comic strips. 

BC: I know you have books out. Where can readers find them?
GC: There are two Hubris books (I Meant To Do That and Stanky Creek) and one Buckets book available.  I have the cartoons for another Buckets book ready to go, but I don’t like the cover design I have, and I can’t manage to make time to fix it and get the book out.  Soon, though.

BC: How do start your next strip or panel?
GC: Wooo, don’t start with a blank sheet of paper.  I have, literally, boxes of notes that I jot down on all kinds of things – Post-It notes, legal pads, Moleskine notebooks, sketchbooks, my kids’ music lesson notes.  Grab up double-handfuls of those notes, re-arrange them, and let your mind wander over them. 90% of them are trash, but once you stumble onto that theme that you like the sound of or that one gag that suddenly lends itself to two or three strips, things gather momentum.  Then the characters voices pop into your head, saying lines that you don’t feel like you wrote.  It really is like hearing people having a discussion and you’re transcribing.  Then you edit and draw.

BC: Could you talk some more about your comics? I know you took over The Buckets from Scott Stantis, and that he also made the suggestion that resulted in the creation of Hubris. What else would you like to add about both comics?
GC: Yep, I was hired by Scott Stantis to do the art chores on The Buckets.  I think that was 2001.  It was on a trip to Birmingham to meet with him that he saw my Suburban stuffed with camping stuff, a bike, a kayak, a cruiser skateboard and a few other toys.  He told me that one of the syndicates was looking for an ‘Outdoors’ strip, and so I created Hubris with stars in my eyes.  I thought, “Not only will I be drawing The Buckets, but I’ll land this other syndicated strip!” Turns out the “Outdoors” strip the syndicate wanted was more hunting and fishing than kayaking and rock climbing. So Hubris was not syndicated.  Seeing where the writing and characters are now, and then seeing the original sales pitch, it’s easy to see how the syndicate wouldn’t draw a straight line between the two.  Of course, even if I offered Hubris as it is now, if the newspaper market hadn’t faltered, they still might not have wanted to syndicate it.  Who can say?  Syndication was King when I was younger – people used to devote endless hours of speculation and strategy to meticulously working out “What the syndicates will want, and how to get the editors to take a chance on it.”  Imagine a million comic book kids working out how they’re going to break into the ranks of Marvel and DC to become superstar artists.  Same thing.

BC: Have they changed much over the years? Do you feel that Buckets is “your” strip now?
GC: Oh, yes. They’ve both changed.  Scott and I agreed when I took on the art chores that I’d start off drawing as close to his style as possible and try to keep it there, with the understanding that the artwork would evolve. It has, and of course, now that I’m writing and drawing it, it’s changed even more.  Not dramatically, I think.  But if I went back and read some of the things I did ten years and more ago, I might say differently. The Buckets is definitely MY strip now.  I’ve said and done things with it that Scott wouldn’t have, and that I’m proud of.     Hubris has changed, too.  Not just the storytelling, or the format, or the character descriptions… well, I’ve been the sole creator from ‘go’ on that one.  Believe me, things have changed.

BC: Do you identify with the characters? Do the characters identify with anyone else?
GC: I think any writer has to identify with the characters he or she is writing.  It’s easy to say that all the characters in The Buckets are me – some aspect of my head fits neatly in each of their personalities.  Some of the Hubris characters, however, are drawn from farther afield. The people you meet on the trail or on the river or in a campground are easily seen in the peripheral characters in Hubris.  I’ve got to have a handle on the little stuff – their motivations and their quirks – those things are the bits that are me. But other aspects are drawn from chance acquaintances, friends, family, and random people I’ve happened across over the years.

BC: Is it difficult maintaining two different drawing styles? Do you expect that someone else will take over Buckets some time in the future?
GC: No, the two different styles are part and parcel of their own things.  I tried drawing The Buckets with a brush, which is my preferred tool to work with.  This was after I’d learned to draw like Scott, and hopefully no one noticed the transition.  That was the plan.  Anyway, having learned what The Buckets was, and what style it was in… I couldn’t make the characters look like themselves with a brush.  Everyone looked and felt wrong. So, back to the pens and everyone was themselves again.

GC: I doubt anyone will take over The Buckets, or could afford to. The Buckets is tied to the newspaper industry, I think. If the Decline of the Newspapers suddenly becomes the Resurrection of the Newspaper Industry in some unforeseen fashion, it’s generally possible that someone would want to step into that place. More likely, though, young creators with family would rather create their own family strips than take over another one that’s 25 years and more old.

BC: If you were to start cartooning today, from scratch, what advice would you give yourself?
GC: That’s a hard one to answer.  I’d have been financially wiser to avoid steering my career toward comic strips, but the joy and fascination with them would still be here.  If I hadn’t turned toward newspaper, and then web, comics, I’d have been miserable for not having given it a shot.  My advice might have been to do more, business-wise, with both – though I don’t know where the time would have come from.  The advertising cartoons, though?  My advice would have been to do it the way I did it.

BC: If they were to start cartooning today, what advice would you give someone else?
GC: Be a business professional about it.  I’ve been complimented that I see my cartooning as a career and a small business.  It’s probably the reason I’ve had the career I’ve had so far.  A young cartoonist can’t treat cartooning as a hobby or obsession that you’ll dabble at until someone comes along and makes you famous, and they make you more money than your ‘day job’… that’s not likely to happen.  You’ve got to fight to make cartooning your job, and look for the opportunities and education that’ll get you to leaving that paycheck from another business behind.  YOU’RE the person who’s going to come along and make you a cartoonist.  And if you “don’t like all that business stuff, and going to meetings and accounting”? Tough.  It’s part of business.  Knuckle down and learn it.  Do it.  You’ll be proud and profitable when you do.

BC: You have the Hubris website, and the Gocomics site. Why do you think people prefer to stick with one site over the other, and which would you prefer people to visit?
GC: I’d much prefer that folks visit the Hubris site because that one makes me more money, but I’m perfectly happy to have the page views at GoComics rise, too.  Ideally, everyone should obsessively visit www.hubriscomics.com and click on all the ads, and read all the backlog of comics and funny stories and photos, and then all those people should tell all their friends and family to visit Hubris comics at the main site and again at www.gocomics.com/hubris, and www.gocomics.com/thebuckets, and share links to all their acquaintances on social media.  And buy the books.

BC: Has switching from a horizontal to a vertical panel format affected your storytelling process for Hubris?
GC: Yes, but it’s up to somebody else to say if it’s affected it for the better or worse.  The art seems to take longer, the conversation seems to flow better, the reveal of the story seems to work better, and I haven’t yet discovered how editing the panels for a book will affect anything.

BC: Have you gotten any push-back from readers on the change? Are there times you wished you still worked in a traditional 4-panel horizontal strip for Hubris? Why the change, and why did Hubris turn into a long-form story strip when The Buckets hasn’t?
GC: Mostly I seemed to hear good stuff about the change of format.  People said it’s easier to read.  Of course, I may have only remembered reading the ones that supported my decision to change and forgotten the ones who had points against it.  Hard to be objective, isn’t it?  Sometimes, when I’m running late, I wish I still worked in the smaller, horizontal format. It’s faster, and lends itself to quicker, less wordy gags.  The change came from me hearing a talk that Wiley Miller gave at the National Cartoonist Society’s SouthEast Chapter meeting a couple of years ago.  It’s the format his Sunday cartoons are in, and he said it lent itself to the web better than traditional comics, which is true.  Hubris turned into a long-form story strip when a singularly outraged young reader posted a rant in the comment section of the website.  After the apoplectic language was removed, what he was saying was, “I don’t like you doing gags, I like story arcs.” and my wife said she did, too.  So… The Great Stanky Creek OutdoorFest story arc kicked off, and I’ve enjoyed doing stories, so I continued.  There are gag strips sprinkled throughout, though.  I mean, it’s still a comic strip.

BC: If your strips had soundtracks, what would they be/sound like?
GC: If there are any sound editors reading this, and they know the answer, and they’d like to soundtrack Hubris, I’m all ears.

BC: Who are your favorite artists/writers?
GC: Artists… woo, well, that’s probably got more to do with when I grew up and my own nostalgia than anything.  I like old John Byrne, Michael Golden and Mike Mignola comic books.  I like Alphonse Mucha’s advertising and theater posters.  I like Masamune Shirow’s manga.  I like Hirshfeld’s caricatures.  I like some of Walter Anderson’s earlier stuff that looked Minoan or Etruscan, but not enough to pursue prints.  I like Peter De Seve’s advertising cartoon art.  I like Chris Sanders’ character drawings.

GC: I haven’t met any of those guys, but I’ve met some people I respect like crazy.  Mike Ramirez, Sergio Aragones, Nick Meglin, Hy Eisman, Roy Doty, Jeff McNelly, Will Eisner… I could name a huge number of people in the NCS (and nearly did) and not have any dirt on any of them.  Though I did hear a good one about Mike Peters in the Middle East.

BC: Do you follow any other comic strips right now?
GC: Lots. Nearly forty on GoComics.com, and maybe twenty-five more that are all on their own sites on the web.  For the same reason anyone follows them.  I love reading comic strips and they make me laugh, or think, or both.

BC: What do you look for when you read someone else’s strips?
GC: The ideas behind the gags, mostly.  The deeper meanings.  Jimmy Johnson’s Arlo N’ Janis is great for that.  There’s a little thought you have to put in, sometimes, in order to see where the humor came from and what it leads to.  In a harder, snarkier way, Nick Galifianakis’s panels are like that – you almost have to stop for a second and let the situation gel before the familiarity of the humor snaps into place.  I like that a lot.  Plus, it leads me to the notepad because seeing which direction one or two cartoonists go with an idea just highlights for you how you would have handled it differently.  Suddenly, you go from reading a comic strip someone else did about how hot it is outside to writing your own comic strip about a kid covered in red popsicle, looking like an accident victim.

BC: What do you think makes for a good comic?
GC: Creativity in Point of View.  I’d have a better answer if I was the originator of The Buckets – the characters were there and their voices were provided to me when I was hired onto that one.  I think if I’d started it, there’d have been a different creativity to the situation … possibly one the syndicates would never have accepted.  Hubris is the strip where my own sense of what’s supposed to be there is cleanest.  If you see anything lacking or anything stupid or anything admirable in that strip, you can blame me and what I think makes for a good comic.

BC: Do you use Patreon or Kickstarter?
GC: Yes, Patreon!  They’re changing the face of web cartooning by supporting it, or at least giving the creators and readers the means to support it.  We don’t yet have the William Randolph Hearst of the Web, suddenly turning web cartooning into a powerhouse industry.  Patreon allows people like me to get a few bucks every month and say, “Yeah, okay… my comic strip can continue for a while longer under these conditions, and maybe next month, it’ll be even better!”  Everyone please, please, please go to www.hubriscomics.com and peruse the cartoons there! You might want to click the big ‘back’ arrow and start at the beginning.  I understand that jumping into the strip now is more difficult because characters talk about and react to other characters by name without them even being in-panel, and it takes reading several strips to get a handle on things.  Sorry about that.  Biggest disadvantage of doing long-form comics.  Also, rush over to www.gocomics.com/thebuckets and check out my family comic.  There’s a new comic there every day of the year!  Yes!  Every Single Day!  Weird, huh?

BC: Do you have any projects coming up? Appearances scheduled for conventions?
GC: I need to find the time to do the next Beta test for the Hubris board game.  I got spectacular notes this last test, and the fixes will take a few days that I don’t have to give right now, but I’m looking forward to that.  I’ve only got local conventions on the list right now. The farthest afield I’ve traveled with my over-the-top Hubris booth is Charlotte NC’s HeroesCon.  It’s a good show, but comic strips are kinda tough in a comic book show, y’know?  I’d love to do more, but it’d take a re-tooling of the booth. (It’s actually TOO elaborate, and I’ve gotten great suggestions about it from nice people at cons who stop and chat about Hubris.  Apparently it needs MY name on it, too, which somehow I hadn’t realized when I designed it.)  I’d love to do some neat-looking Cons – Salt Like City, Emerald City… half a dozen more, but selling books doesn’t quite pay for the trips, and the bumps in readership aren’t as high as they need to be.  Doing caricatures helps, but I need to put more effort and time in to put it past the tipping point and into a money-making prospect.  Doing it as an advertising expense is okay for a Con or two, but the numbers aren’t supportable.  Hey, anyone want to set up and pretend to be me at your local Con?


(The Hubris cast.)

BC: Do you have new plans for Team Us in the future?
GC: Not yet, but I should start building that in.  And when I do, I’ll have to be much more organized about using them (us) effectively in the comic strip, so I don’t have to do all the extra content for the book collection.  That last one really got bogged down.

BC: When do you work on each strip?
GC: They each have their own time/space.  The Buckets goes on all the time with note-making, and script writing and all.  Also, I tend to write The Buckets in two and three week blocks.  Hubris is much more an evening project that tends to get plotted waaaay out in advance, then written in tiny bites, may be three or four days ahead.  Both systems have their benefits and detriments.

BC: How do you research stuff for Hubris? (climbing gear, cycling parts in the store, outdoor locations for camping or hiking, skylights?) You have a lot of really detailed artwork in Hubris. How do you keep making it come out looking realistic and convincing?
GC: Does it look realistic and convincing?  Oh, good.  It all comes out of me buying or trying out stuff over the years.  I’d probably be better at drawing a complete whitewater get-up from the nineties than a current set up, but there you go.  The tennis shoes I draw are probably from the late seventies.  I hung out in a bike shop for nearly a month once, doing a mural.  That probably shaped a lot of background elements.  I’ve watched a local outdoors store go from one location to five over the years of spending money with them.  I’m sure I’m still putting things in the strip that fell into my head while there.  I’ve outfitted boats and dis-assembled bikes and all the usual stuff you do.  Camped well and camped poorly.  All of it becomes shapes and ideas in your head.  It’s a pleasure to let them fall from there onto a page.

BC: Where do all the ideas for Hubris’ and Paste’s crazy stunts come from?
GC: My head. And from other people’s ideas, actions, and suggestions. For example: I used to ride either bikes or unicycles all over a great urban park we have here with a buddy.  Some days, the buddy’s fifteen or sixteen year old son would join us.  And once, the buddy’s son’s buddy comes along.  The two guys have a child’s bike that a neighbor was throwing out.  They resurrected it, patched the tires, got the chain moving again – little sixteen inch wheel thing for an elementary school age kid.  Aaaaand they took turns riding these mountain bike trails in the park with us.  It was hilarious – these guys were doing something so dumb.  Fun, but dumb.  The average person wouldn’t consider it.  You’d be exhausted, your knees would be banged up, you couldn’t keep up, which would piss off your riding partners… it’s just one of those ideas that you’d either have to be oblivious and stupid to do – or a sixteen year old boy who’s willing to give it a shot and see what happens.  They did, and we two adults egged them on.  “Hey!  Ride off that embankment into the lake!” and the kids didn’t say, “Oh, no, I wouldn’t want to ride the rest of the way with wet shoes and socks.  My feet would blister.”  They rode into the lake.  And they stayed wet after jumping into the lake over and over.  And they got blisters.  Why not? Everyone who spends any kind of time outside has stories like that, and they lend themselves to other stories or reinterpretation for variations on the stories. There’s always material for Hubris and Paste and stupid stunts. Years and years worth of good stories.

BC: What can we expect in the next year or so for either strip? Is Hubris ever going to go wildernessesing (it is a word, and it gets triple word score in Scrabble) outside the U.S.?
GC: I keep thinking Toby is going to be the main character for more stuff in The Buckets.  He’s at that age.  And so are my kids, more to the point.  I want to send Hubris far out into the crazy, but it’s going to be tricky – the more I try to write outdoors strips, the more I seem to spiral back indoors for the story lines.  Nekkid bicycling coming up, though.

(The guy that never gets to climb the wall.)

(All artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Copyright Greg Cravens (c) 2016.)
(This interview is the copyright (c) of Curtis H. Hoffmann 2016. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.)

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