Cartoonist Bill Amend and FoxTrot occupy some rare territory.
The comic strip just turned 22 years old – for historical perspective, it debuted seven months before the NES Action Set – and its 39th collection, FoxTrot Sundaes, was released this month. And yet despite being a newspaper comic by a self-described “dinosaur,” FoxTrot holds a special place in geekdom: Amend has guest-drawn Penny Arcade, celebrated that strip (along with xkcd, Player vs. Player and The Joy of Tech) in his own creation, and hosted jam-packed panels at PAX in Seattle and last month’s PAX East.
The appeal goes all the way back to the strip’s roots: Two weeks in, back in 1988, Amend had already worked in Star Wars, Star Trek, Transformers, and 10-year-old Jason Fox’s computer nerd-dom. And while the rest of the Fox family – mom and dad (Andy and Roger Fox, respectively) and older siblings Peter and Paige – are all fully-developed characters in their own rights, it’s always been Jason proudly flying the geek flag. In some ways, he – and by extension, FoxTrot as a whole – can be seen as the direct comic ancestors of creations like the Penny Arcade guys and the gang at PvP.
Amend recently took some time for an email interview with GeekDad about his comic, geek culture, and the age of pixels replacing print.
GD: FoxTrot began running in 1988, and early on you established Jason as a full-on geek, from his Darth Vader bedsheets to his love of mathematics and gaming. What inspired the character and his loves?
BA: Jason is largely an exaggerated representation of my own geeky nature. Most of his interests are things I cared about as a kid, or are things that interest me now. In school I was a math nerd, played D&D, obsessed over Star Wars, built haunted mansion recreations in our basement, etc., so it’s not like his character is a huge stretch for me to write.
GD: You set FoxTrot in the real world in terms of pop culture references and events, and at the time of FoxTrot‘s debut, I think only Bloom County compared in this manner. (Doonesbury was in the “real-world,” too, but that’s a different category of strip). Can you talk a little about this aspect of your work, and whether, for instance, you ever worried that it would date the strip or have other unintended consqeuences?
BA: The two strips that made me think cartooning could be an interesting career were Doonesbury and Bloom County, largely because they felt so rooted in modern reality. In hindsight, it seems only natural that I would try to bring a similar feeling to FoxTrot. There’s definitely a shelf life to some of the references I’ve included in my work over the years, but my hope is the extra relevance at the time of publication makes up for it. My “I have no floppy drive” iMac strip probably makes no sense to a younger reader now, but I can’t imagine not doing it back in 1998 or whenever it was out of some long-term concern. (GD note: Jason dressed up as an iMac one Halloween figuring that people would be terrified by the computer’s lack of that form of data storage. It’s still funny.)
GD: While the Fox family characters have grown and evolved over their story arcs, they haven’t aged. Jason sometimes seems a bit older than his 10 years, but he’s still young enough to be wrapped up in the things he’s always loved without having outgrown them. As a result, you’ve got a character who played with original Star Wars toys but was still a kid when the prequels came out; who donned a costume for The Lord of the Rings movies; and who recently fell in love with Avatar, all without ever having had to grow up. Frankly, I’m a little jealous. Did you ever wonder if it was time to age the characters to reflect the real world?
BA: Jason has also gotten to see every movie for the past 22 years at the child’s ticket price. We cartoonists have to watch our budgets, you know. One of the advantages comic strip kids have over, say, kids in TV sitcoms, is the actors don’t age and mess everything up. When I created FoxTrot, I picked the kids’ ages for specific reasons and to create specific dynamics between them. Aging the characters wouldn’t necessarily be “bad,” but it would change everything, and I’m not inclined to do that. Besides, on a selfish level, I like getting to view the world through the excitable eyes of a nerdy 10-year-old as part of my job.
GD: There’s also a sort of nerd maturity to Jason that his parents seem to support, if not fully encourage: Back in 1991, Jason saw Terminator 2 repeatedly, and he was similarly engrossed in The Matrix at the decade’s end. Do you ever get notes from people wondering what you’re thinking, sending a 10-year-old – albeit one who’s not real – to see rated R movies? (Yes, this is a blatantly silly idea, but I can’t help but think there are such people out there.)
BA: That’s more a function of my needs as a writer than anything else. If I want to talk about a movie like The Matrix, Jason’s really the best personality for that, even if he¹s too young. So I cross my fingers that no one cares. Fortunately, the sorts of readers who would get overly mad about that probably don’t read FoxTrot.
GD: I love that the only themed FoxTrot collection to date is wholly focused on Jason’s geek side: Math, Science, and Unix Underpants, released last year. Talk about putting that collection together and why it works, as opposed to, say, compiling a book of Peter’s sports mishaps or Roger’s family vacations gone awry.
BA: We may yet do a sports or vacation themed book, but for this first one I definitely wanted to do something collecting all the mathy strips I’ve done. I’d gotten lots of requests for something akin to this for years every time a teacher saw a math or science FoxTrot strip in the paper and would e-mail asking where they could find more. Initially I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough to fill a whole book, but it turned out I’d done so many that we had to bump up the page count.
GD: You took FoxTrot to a Sunday-only format in 2007 and just released the first resulting collection, FoxTrot Sundaes. Has that made it any more or less difficult to tap into current touchstones like the recent Avatar strip, for example?
BA: It’s a lot more difficult to be timely. The Sundays need to be turned in about a month in advance, which means I have to do a lot more guessing about things than I did with the dailies (which were done about 10 days in advance). Webcomics have a big advantage over print comics in this regard.
GD: Let’s talk about your own geek tendencies: You’re well-known as a World of WarCraft fan, you’ve got a degree in physics, and you clearly put effort into things like Jason’s numerical word search. What influenced this side of you when you were growing up, and what are your favorite sides of geek culture nowadays?
BA: I’m not sure I ever had any specific geek influences, per se. My closest friends tended to be geeky and smart, and it was through friends that I discovered Tolkien and gaming and computer programming. One of the things I love about modern geek culture is that with the interconnectedness of the Internet, it’s as if my circle of nerdy friends is hundreds of thousands of people in size. I can discover and learn new things orders of magnitude faster than before. And I love, love, love seeing geeky stuff like The Guild or xkcd having huge success without having to worry about how a mainstream audience will react.
GD: On the subject of video games, you’ve attended the Penny Arcade Expos on both coasts and drawn a guest Penny Arcade strip, while within the FoxTrot world, Jason has progressed from playing the original NES to the likes of WoW. How does your own video gaming history compare?
BA: Well, I’ve always been a Mac user, so my computer gaming has been somewhat limited. For a while Myth2 and Starcraft owned my soul. Now WoW is in control. But I can quit anytime I want to. Really. My console gaming has largely dried up. I think it has more to do with losing every game I play against my 13-year-old son than anything else.
GD: In terms of pop culture and science fiction, the last decade or so really brought into focus the fact that the generations who grew up on the original Star Trek and, a little later, Star Wars and Atari, have had kids of their own. As a father, did you consciously try to pass on your enthusiasm for the geekier side of life? Do you and your kids have shared interests in things like video gaming or science fiction or science and mathematics?
BA: My daughter is on her high school robotics team and listens to Jonathan Coulton. My son spends every spare moment watching game trailers on YouTube and begs me to play D&D with him. I don’t think I consciously geekified them, but at least for now it looks like I did something.
GD: Talk a little about being involved with the Penny Arcade guys. Your PAX East panel was packed, and you’ve been openly enthusiastic about attending and speaking.
BA: I met Mike (Krahulik) and Jerry (Holkins) at the San Diego Comic-Con years ago and we’ve kept in touch and now I occasionally play WoW with them and their circle of friends. I think their work is phenomenal. I finally got around to attending PAX in Seattle last fall and had a great time. With PAX East, I gave basically the same talk I gave in Seattle … a slide show of some of my strips and a little discussion of my approach to introducing geeky stuff to a newspaper audience. The turnout for both talks was mind-blowing.
GD: I’d like to close with some of your thoughts on your somewhat unique position as a comic strip artist who has bridged a significant media gap: FoxTrot was born in the newspaper industry and still lives there, but online, it feels much more like a webcomic presence than a print comic simply slapped on a web page.
BA: One of the great ironies of FoxTrot for the last decade or so was that here I was doing this rather tech-savvy strip while at the same time having a completely lame web presence. This wasn’t always the case. Back in 1996 or thereabouts we launched foxtrot.com and we were doing some fun things for fans with message boards and Shockwave games. But it was owned and operated by my syndicate and as their web priorities shifted, the site sort of atrophied and I was largely powerless to do much about it. Eventually my zillion-year rookie contract ended and I was able to recently take ownership of the URL and the necessary rights and begin playing catch-up with what my webcomics friends are doing. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.