Courtesy Winston Rowntree/Subnormality
Webcomics Spotlight: Winston Rowntree of Subnormality
Mar 07, 2011 Web Exclusive
Subnormality is one of my favorite webcomics. Well, let me restate that: it's one of my favorite comics, period, and it's one of my favorite things to check out on the Internet.
Winston Rowntree, the pseudonymous creator of Subnormality, has really captured something that is more than the sum of the comic's wholly enjoyable parts. The art is vibrant and busy and pretty tightly rendered, which really emphasizes the goofiness, scariness, attractiveness, or awkwardness of the various characters and situations. The characters are tempered in personality and originality, both artwise and wordwise. Perhaps some of the humor—and philosophy—can be gleaned from the home page's tag phrase of "Comix with too many words since 2007." Many of Rowntree's comics demand a time commitment; many demand a reader put some of his or her grey matter to use. In my book, these are good things. An artist with a voice and vision that makes a supposedly limited medium (the web) work for him, against conventional wisdom.
Under the Radar caught up with Rowntree to talk about his web property. We tackled webcomics versus print in terms of consumption, coverage, and criticism, as well as his origins as a creator and more.
(And special thanks to Rowntree for the original Subnormality art running with this interview.)
Jeremy Nisen: You mentioned something pretty interesting to me the other day —that the review I wrote about another one of your works for The Daily Crosshatch was "one of the few times my work was actually mentioned on a comix site." This kind of blew my mind—my perception of Subnormality is that it's pretty damned popular (lots of votes on Reddit + conversations about favorite recurring characters and such on that huge online community, for instance). Do you have an opinion on the disconnect between webcomics and traditional comics in terms of coverage, analysis, and consumption?
Winston Rowntree: Well, there's certainly a disconnect between what people are actually reading and what's being covered by relevant media sources, such as they are—the few blogs and awards and so on that acknowledge webcomics to begin with. And compared with print comics there's definitely a huge gulf in terms of coverage and analysis, and when you talk about the respective audience numbers of both I'd be very surprised indeed if that's justified. I think there a lot of people who only read comics online —the kind of people who would never go into a physical comic book store. They're exactly the kind of readers the sequential art medium as a whole needs, in other words—the kind that will help the medium grow from a niche (yes, I would argue that it's still a niche) to something that can perhaps one day, as a whole, rival other mediums in terms of artistic impact. People are reading comics, lots of people! Non-fanboy people! That's a news story, but it's one you never read about. You just read about print comics, and it's because print comics cost money and webcomics don't. If it's free then it's not important, even if it has 10 times the readership of a given print comic. That's an attitude I guess you have to expect in a capitalist society, but it'll never stop bothering me. Readership is the story. What the nature of a particular comic says about the audience that's reading it is the story. People are the story, not best-seller lists. Obviously I sound just cartoonishly idealistic here, but I don't care.
I really felt like things were going in the right direction a few years ago—objectively the best two online comic strips were Achewood and The Perry Bible Fellowship, and the former was in Time Magazine and the latter was everywhere else, I mean here were the medium's finest (one of them with an especially vast audience) getting a lot of press, but then the PBF was retired and people stopped talking about Achewood for some reason. There's still nothing else as well written [as Achewood], even if he's slowed down a bit. I mean he'll do something wild and exciting and progressive with the medium, just totally invent some new visual language, and nobody in the media will talk about it. Nobody will discuss or analyze it. It really gets me down sometimes. Like here is the friggin' future, why aren't we celebrating this?! The guy has seriously raised the bar but so many people just dumbly shuffle underneath it. And it's just been one step back in the last couple of years I think. We need more good online comics, for one thing, but we need people to talk about and celebrate the good comics and say, "Hey, look, comics don't have to be inessential little three-panel gags, they can be way more and they can give you something that film and TV can't." To rephrase: the context we're living in is that webcomics as a medium needs to grow as much as possible right now to strongly transition from the diminishing newspaper era and establish the medium as something viable for both audiences and new artists, and it would just be nice if the media as a whole was as excited about the evolving landscape as those of us who are part of it.
So, I know Winston Rowntree is a pseudonym, and I'll assume that's for a reason. Are you comfortable with revealing anything about your past history as an artist and how you developed your interest in comics/comics strips?
The pseudonym I just made up in high school as a pen name for no particularly compelling reason, though I kind of want to retcon the origin story to say the name is a deliberate tribute to James Tiptree Jr. who has become one of my artistic heroes in recent years (the fake names with "tree" in them is a coincidence I'm pretty happy about, I have to say).
As for my past history, there's really nothing super-exciting to tell. I've just always been the kid who liked to draw, and my dad shared his love of comics with me starting when I was young (thanks again, Dad), and I've wanted to make comix as a profession since I was old enough to speculate about the future (and I'm not just saying that). I lost sight of that goal when I was in school, but it all worked out in the end. I moved to a new city (for unrelated reasons) and I started making zines and selling them at comic conventions, which was pointless financially but good in terms of practicing one's craft, etc. This random nice old lady at the copy shop saw me photocopying my zines and was like, "hang in there," which was a surprisingly influential event in my artistic life. And after like three years of the whole zines thing I decided to take my sketchy little operation online instead, and that was pretty much the best decision I've ever ever made ever.
What was the impetus for creating Subnormality in 2007? How have you changed your style and/or methodology in that time? How has your output changed?
The impetus was really just a whim, which is frankly kind of terrifying in hindsight. "Oh, lots of people are doing webcomics now, maybe I'll try that just for kicks." But then again, that's the beautiful thing about the medium —with negligible startup costs anyone can on a whim launch into something that could potentially get them tons of readers all around the world a few years later. One afternoon you're like "heck, let's try this," and then four years later you're semi-deservedly giving an interview about it. I think that's just one more reason more artists should be interested in entering the field (artists with modest financial expectations, that is).
In terms of how I've changed in terms of style etc., I guess I'd say I've just tried to improve and specifically be less lazy than in the past. The first year of the comic I had drastically lower standards of quality than I do now, that is, I mean just look at the lettering (I did have a full-time job during most of the first three years of the comic, I should mention, so the lower standards were partly out of necessity). One should perpetually be working towards something higher, I think, so any way in which I've changed has been in that context. In terms of output this has meant less comix, unfortunately, just because it's harder to think of ideas where you aren't repeating yourself as time goes on, plus the time it takes to actually make a comic has like tripled since three or four years ago. That's a pitfall in itself of course, so I'm trying to strike a balance between regular output and increasing standards while trying not to feel perilously guilty for not having something new finished every week.
What are some of the webcomics you enjoy, if any? Any print comics? Other media (books, mags, whatever)?
Ten years ago I might have said "EVERYTHING!!," but I'm one of those artists who stopped partaking of the medium once I started participating in it, which is pretty much as fun as it sounds. Part of enjoying a medium is the alien magic of it, I think, so, for some people at least, once you're behind the curtain the magic is pretty much gone. That doesn't mean there's nothing I enjoy, but it does mean what I enjoy is limited to the stuff that still has some magic for me because it does something way better than I could ever do-because I look at it and go "How did he/she do that?!" I love looking at Ma vie est Tout à Fait Fascinante, for instance —that's the blog of a French comicker named Pénélope Bagieu. I don't speak French, so I have no idea what's going on, I just like looking at the drawings and the facial expressions/body language and thinking "goddamnit, how does she do that?" and wishing I could draw that expressively. It's just so much fun to look at.
The online comics I can get the most excited about are those by a guy named Oyvind Thorsby: there's the epic length Hitmen For Destiny, the shorter piece Lies, Sisters and Wives, and there's a new series that's just started called The Accidental Space Spy. That's the one author where I just can't wait for the next update, and that's a great feeling. You can tell that just tons of thought have been put into everything he does, every detail has been considered, plus he's just unbeatably funny. He does these just amazing, intricate, farcical set-pieces a la Fawlty Towers, like there's this chase scene in an invisible castle and it's just so funny, everything's so logically thought out at every turn and I really do have no idea how he does it. It's just hilariously unpredictable too —basically any character could be killed off at the drop of a hat, and once you've set that precedent then you're forever gonna be one step or more ahead of the audience, which is a very good thing indeed. I wanna say I don't know why more people aren't reading his stuff, but I do know why —it's because he draws everything in MS Paint (or some equivalent), so people take one look at the comic and just run in the other direction (myself included, I mean I probably knew about Hitmen For Destiny for a year before I finally sat down and read it). Huge mistake to judge by appearances though. I really do feel it's an amazing body of work. I keep track of most/all of the well-read online comics (I try to maintain an accurate picture of the landscape), and I enjoy a handful (Akimbo Comics is increasingly great), but Thorsby's stuff is probably what I look forward to more than anything else. He's one of the few creators I've emailed an embarrassingly gushing fan letter to.
One of the things you do that's pretty unusual is your comics can be very text heavy and pretty large (and require scrolling, etc). This goes against what I guess I'd call "conventional web wisdom", where we assume everybody has gnat-like attention spans. Personally, I think it (and the fact that you can do shorter comics very well as well, like Sand Witch) is part of gives Subnormality a unique flavor and feel. Are you very conscious of such during the creation process?
In terms of the arts I'd consider "conventional wisdom" to be a fairly obvious oxymoron, and I think so would anyone who has the intention of creating something genuine as opposed to something that nobody will make fun of. So in terms of ignoring any claims that there are somehow rules governing what does and doesn't work in a given medium, yeah I'm completely conscious of that at all stages of the process. I don't specifically set out to use huge walls of text, I just give myself complete license to do what comes naturally, and sometimes it's walls of text and sometimes it isn't. There are no rules when it comes to what works in a comic strip, there are only arbitrary traditions that have been inflicted on the medium by a fairly damaging half-century-plus of newspapers dictating the format of the entire medium according to how much space they wanted to allocate for comics and how much they wanted to allocate to advertisements for furniture sales and fluff pieces about the mayor's toupee getting caught by a gust of wind and god knows what else. That's literally what happened to the medium, I mean it is actually that ridiculous. And now we have the freedom of the Internet and lots of people are reflexively still making little three-panel black and white gag comics like the editor of the Podunk Valley Dispatch was leaning over their shoulder as they work, I mean it's just frustrating.
Comic strips are now and in the future going to be shaped by the online format—that is to say no format. Total freedom of content and size and color and however many words you want to put inside each panel, so hopefully that will increasingly attract a class of artist that's actually willing to take advantage of that freedom. And again with regard to walls of text, people don't have short attention spans—they have perfectly fine attention spans that are seldom tested by many forms of media, particularly comics. But that's the conventional wisdom for you. "People are mindless, you have to talk down to them or risk losing audience and thus market share" and so on and so on. What people are is whatever we become when we're challenged, and I know I ask a lot of the audience sometimes but they're way more than up to it. What I believe is that People Who Enjoy Having Their Intelligence Respected is a big audience, and that's the audience I personally wish to appeal to if at all possible.
The recurring characters —there are a few, notably Sphynx, that green devil lady, the lady with the pink hoop earrings (and often pink hair)...sorry if I'm off base, but I don't think there are many recurring men, are there? And the recurring women are really well defined. Do you feel a certain affinity for women characters that you haven't experienced with male ones?
There's a lot of philosophizing going on in the characters' conversations. Did you formally study philosophy? Are these conversations taken from your life, or do you have your characters hash this stuff out to figure it out for yourself...or make a point? (Dammit, man, stop making me think!)
No, I certainly haven't studied philosophy, other than that of Bill Hicks (and I only discovered him like a couple of years ago). That's one of my failings, frankly —that I insist on working out everything for myself as opposed to reading what's been said already, but I just kind of have to operate that way unfortunately.
I don't typically adapt any real-life conversations, more just my own inner ones, and then I'll hand them off to an appropriate character where appropriate. Either that or the opposite: place a character in a specific situation and then see what they'd say, and see if it's interesting (that's the trick —not the figuring out what the characters would say, but finding a situation in which what they'd say would make for a good comic; taking a snapshot at the right time, I guess). I don't know which avenue is more important, probably the former, but I don't want to take away from the characters having little lives of their own, or insinuate that they're just interchangeable puppets to hang my opinions on or whatever. Any writer's characters are going to be at least 50% similar to themselves I think, give or take —that's just the limitations of the human imagination. But they absolutely take on their own identities too, and I can't just hand off any scenario to any character because you gradually learn what they'd do or think in a given situation and so it obviously has to fit with that. And if a particular idea doesn't fit with any existing characters then you have to invent some new ones. So hurrah!