Bill Barnes interview

I’m an electronics engineer, and I’ve done business applications programming for 10 years. I still write small application scripts to make running this blog easier, so I can appreciate good computer humor when I see it. I’ve been following Bill Barnes’ Not Invented Here on GoComics since Dec. 28, 2015. The story focuses on Desmond, a developer at a software company, and his less than competent colleagues, including Owen, the product manager; Fang, the dark tester; Umesh, the antagonistic fellow developer; the executive, Art; and Meatloaf, Desmond’s pet hamster. It’s a fun strip.

(from Unshelved)

BC: Who are you? What personal details do you think are relevant to readers to know about you? How did you get your start as as a cartoonist? How long have you been at that, and what do you think your biggest breaks were?
BB: I’m Bill Barnes, a dad of two teenagers. I grew up in New York, Hong Kong, Lagos, and London, but I’ve been a naturalized citizen of Seattle for some time now. I grew up fascinated with comics and computers, and when I was applying to university I had to decide which way to go. I ended up studying computer science at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. Years later I swapped my job and my hobby and became a full-time cartoonist. In 2002 I started Unshelved with superlibrarian Gene Ambaum. Until recently we wrote it together and I drew it, and on November 11 we are shutting it down.

BB: Without question, we lucked out in choosing the subject matter for our strip. The library community embraced us and fed our children for many years.

BC: What was the motivating force behind the decision to end Unshelved?
BB: After 15 years we were both ready for something new. I have frequently mocked comic strips that dragged on beyond their sell-by date. I didn’t want to be in the situation where my grandchildren were recycling the same old jokes.

(from Not Invented Here)

BC: What led up to your starting Not Invented Here, and do you have any other pokers in the fire right now?
BB: Even though I had fun writing the Unshelved characters, it was obviously more about about Gene’s work life than mine. After some awkward attempts to tell some of my stories I decided to launch a second comic strip set in the software industry. So I created Not Invented Here in 2009. I was primarily the writer, working first with Paul Southworth and then Jeff Zugale, both much more talented artists than I. It ran six years, until I decided to swap my job and my hobby yet again and return to work at Microsoft, where I’m having a ton of fun working with developers around the world at companies big and small. NIH is currently on hiatus. I can imagine returning for another round, and I’ve got a couple of novels in me, but right now I’m pretty focused on writing code.

BC: How do you feel about the differences in doing collaborations versus producing your own works solo? That is, what do you go through when writing or drawing for someone else compared to having full control over your strip but having to do the extra work on it?
BB: I really enjoy working with a partner. My brain tends to freeze up when I work on my own, and sometimes I need someone to bounce my ideas off of. This was especially true earlier in my career, when I wasn’t sure how my jokes would land on someone who wasn’t, well, me. But about halfway through my run on NIH I became confident of my ability to get the jokes right. I think if I were starting a new strip today I’d probably write it myself. As for working with an artist, I’ve grown to love having someone else draw. I lose a little control, but I gain a whole brain’s worth of creativity, and that is a fantastic tradeoff.

(from Not Invented Here)

BC: How many of the gags or situations in NIH were drawn from real life, and how much was pure fantasy?
BB: The characters are a mix of lots of real people I worked with, but I dialed up the incompetence. Mostly. I’ve been told that the situations in NIH are painfully realistic.

BC: Actually, how HAS the company lasted that long?
BB: They make up for the sheer stupidity in volume.

BC: What kind of audience did you have for NIH, and did it include many non-programmers?
BB: NIH is mostly not about the actual technology. Usually when I use a buzzword it’s just a macguffin I can build a plot around. A lot of our readers are not software people but people who know software people, so they recognize and enjoy the characters even if they aren’t conversant with the technology.

BC: Which of your works are you most proud of?
BB: I’m very proud of both my strips, but NIH definitely stretched me as a storyteller.

BC: Do you have any collections on the market yet? Where can readers find them?
BB: Both strips ended up having significant merchandise operations, some the result of a number of successful Kickstarters. Unshelved has 11 books going on 12. NIH has two, and I’d love to make one more. They are generally available at the Unshelved Store.

(from Not Invented Here)

BC: How do you approach that blank sheet of white paper?
BB: If I’m just writing a strip I start a conversation between two characters. Usually they take it in a funny direction. I used to hate authors who said stuff like that, but it’s absolutely true.

BC: If your strip had a soundtrack, what would it be?
BB: Showtunes. Always showtunes.

BC: Who are your favorite artists/writers? Have you met any of them?
BB: I grew up reading Garry Trudeau, and got to spend an afternoon with him many years ago giving him a tour of the Microsoft campus.

(from Unshelved)

BC: What do you look for when you read someone else’s strips?
BB: I always look for writing. I’m a huge fan of Dave Kellett’s work, which is awkward because we’re friends and when we get together I just kind of drool and squee the whole time. He manages to combine a sweet nature, sharp writing, and fantastic art. I have also fallen in love with the way Ryan Q. North writes everything. Both are cases of “I could never do that, so I don’t have to feel jealous.” Most recently Lunarbaboon has spoken to my middle-aged-husband-and-father parts.

BC: Do you use Patreon or Kickstarter?
BB: Both Patreon and Kickstarter made several dreams come true for both my strips. Big fan.

BC: Do you have any appearances scheduled for conventions?
BB: In 14 years of nonstop conventioneering I burned out hard, it’ll be a while before that sounds like fun again.

(from Not Invented Here)

BC: In running NIH as a webcomic, if you just started it today, do you think there’s anything on the marketing or business side that you might do differently now, knowing what you do know about what works and what doesn’t to make it more financially successful?
BB: I have mixed feelings about that. What I learned is that, unlike the library community, software folk are already extremely well-served by a variety of media depicting and/or aimed at them. So it was a tough market to break into. On the other hand, I am extremely proud of my work on NIH. So I probably would have done it again, but lowered my expectations. And printed fewer books.

(All artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Copyright Overdue Media LLC © 2016 and/or
(This interview is the copyright © 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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