Zach Weinersmith is a geek captain of industry. He’s the force behind the popular webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, author of numerous books, including his first children’s book Augie and the Green Knight, hosts the exceptionally ridiculous BAHFest, the festival of bad ad hoc hypotheses, and has even made successful forays into online video with SMBC Theater. But most importantly, he’s a new dad. We chatted about managing a myriad of projects, where he gets inspiration, and how his content is changing now that he’s a parent.
GD: How’d you get started as a web comic artist?
ZW: I started drawing comics in high school; I had a Geocities website. It was even called Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal – it was really terrible. I stopped doing the comics in college, because college. After college, I had a literature degree, which is worthless in a job way. You’d think with a literature degree, I could think of a nice way to say worthless. I went to L.A. and did the movie/entertainment thing for a while, which was miserable and horrible. I started doing comics again as a hope to get out of L.A.
GD: What were you doing in LA?
ZW: I started as a PA for Asylum Studios, which is now famous as they make Sharknado. Back then they weren’t on purpose a shlock movie company. They set out to do good movies and the inevitable happened. From there, I kept getting better and better jobs before ending up working with a talent agent. That was the last real job I had in entertainment, which was THE most miserable of all of them.
GD: What was the transition like to full-time artist?
ZW: For me, it was very gradual. I was living in an apartment at Hollywood and Vine. And the building I was in got bought out and they were going to demolish it. Apparently, by law, they have to pay you off to leave, which was terrible for everyone but me, because I was 23 and like “Oh I get to leave my terrible apartment but they give me money.” Suddenly, I had a little more savings, which was literally five or six thousand dollars in my bank account, but that was enough to live for six months. So I quit my job and said I’ll do this comics thing.
GD: Where did all the science/economics/all the nerdy content that we associate with SMBC come from?
ZW: I decided to go back to college [a 2nd time] to get a Physics degree, so I moved to San Jose State, which is one of the few colleges that will take someone who already has a degree in California. I started learning and then had the opportunity to drop out of college because the comics business was taking off. But I still read a lot of science for pleasure.
GD: After eight years of doing a comic a day how is it? Are you energized to keep going?
ZW:It’s different. It’s like asking if you’re as excited about your relationship when you were first dating. When you’re first dating, each date is distinct – this is the date where this happened. That’s how it is when you’re working on a new creative endeavor – each comic is different from each other and special. But after a while, you’ve done 3,000 comics and there’s no chance of that.
But I still really enjoy it; it’s hard for me to imagine not doing it. The nice thing to is that it spawns other ideas and projects. The two big side projects I have now are BAHFest and the Monocle Kickstarter, which both spawned from stupid ideas in comics. There is some ancillary utility in coming up with stupid ideas every day.
GD: What is a day in the life like for you?
ZW: It has changed quite a bit since the baby. Roughly speaking, I have a list of stuff that must be done every day.
- Write 6 jokes
- Read 3-5 books a week
- Exercise every day
- Try to write for side projects
Mostly, I spend the day reading. The offering I have through comic is mostly geeky stuff on a diverse range of topics. When I’m not reading a lot, I’m probably going to appear more like an impostor than I already am.
GD: You’ve made a remarkable transition from a comic artist/joke writer to author. Can you tell us about that transition and the project you have in the works?
ZW: The next book I have out is Augie and the Green Knight [a children’s book]. I really want to get to writing science fiction. I have a lot of requests from fans to do it and something new I’ll try out soon.
Writing [books] is nice compared to comics. I consider the main appeal of comics from a creator standpoint is that you control everything. The nice thing about writing text is that you don’t have to draw it. I’m more of a writing cartoonist than a drawing cartoonist. I enjoy drawing but I couldn’t draw for 12 hours and be happy. The book writing is exciting in that regard – I can be more copious. Some stuff is hard in comics – It’s hard to convey the passage of time or certain emotion in a non-clumsy manner.
GD: Tell us about Augie and the Green Knight.
ZW: Augie is a kid’s book for 7-10 year olds. It’s a little adventure story about a girl who is a science geek, though I don’t want to oversell that. She’s a protagonist in what I hope is a generally funny way and maybe has a little bit of depth.
I tried to write it as a good book and keep the science part secondary, but there is plenty of it. In fact, there is a mathematical appendix at the end related to a key plot point in the book. Augie was a joy to write, though editing it was hell. Seeing our artist, Boulet, come up with ridiculous illustrations was a lot of fun.
GD: This is just one of a myriad of side projects. There was the choose your own adventure book Trial of the Clone, SMBC Theater, and Astronomically Correct Twinkle Twinkle. What’s the driving force behind these projects? It doesn’t seem to be driven by money, but by intellectual interest.
ZW: I was thinking the other day that I should stick to books because that’s where the money is [joke]. It’s more fun to do weird stuff. Doing the same thing over and over gets dull. I think I’m only happy still doing the comics because they’ve changed so much over time. I always have a couple of side projects because I would go crazy if I didn’t. I just really enjoy my work, not that everyone enjoys their work all the time, but it’s not like I have to convince myself to do it.
GD: Are we going to see more collaborations and weird projects from you in the future?
ZW: Definitely. I can’t say [much], but I’m working on at least one more kid’s book project. I have a kid and most kid’s literature is awful, so if I can just write all of it, it will be fine. I need like three books a year for the rest of her life.
GD: Let’s talk about parenthood. Your daughter is now 1. How has being a parent impacted your work?
ZW: The main thing, kind of ironically, before I had a kid I would do these nice, contemplative comics on parenthood. Like “Aren’t kids neat?” I don’t do that anymore. It’s not because I think I was wrong, but I literally don’t have the time. I used to be able to go on walks and contemplate how best to express childhood, now I have to sit down and be clever. In general, I think the comics are more terse now, which is probably good from a reader standpoint. In the past year, I think it’s been more tight in terms of comedy. Fewer of those long contemplative comics and certainly no nice comics. Which is in a way ironic, because you’d think having a kid would make you more sentimental, but there is no time.
Neither of us is full-time stay-at-home. More importantly, we both have jobs we are married to – she’s a scientific researcher and I’m a writer. Both of us like what we do, so we don’t want to avoid our work, but we both want to spend time with the kid. So what we do right now is my wife takes her for the morning, then I take over for the afternoon, and she takes back over at night. It’s not just that I need to use that time, but if I’m not, I should be doing family time. Time has become very efficiently used, which is something I’ve heard from pretty much every parent.
I was surprised, but I thought I would literally have NO time. It’s not quite like that. When she was a newborn, I had what felt like infinite time, because she slept all day. I technically have half as much work time, but I get substantially more done. It’s very crammed.
I was just reading the other day about the problem with women in academia having kids and the system flushing them out. There is very good evidence that the best cohort in terms of productivity is women with school-aged children. Having been a parent for a little while, I understand why that could be.
GD: Earlier, you mentioned being dissatisfied with current kids’ literature. I’m curious about your take on kids’ products in general.
ZW: I have a common complaint. I don’t have a problem with gendered toys per se, but I’ve found the girl ones are usually crappier. It can be a lower-powered, dumber version of the boy version – which kinda stinks.
I have a geeky enjoyment of Victorian era adventure novels. You cannot give them to children without a lecture on racism, colonialism, etc. Even the Three Musketeers is rough by modern standards. But there are good things in those books, Victorian style of narration and a systems of ethics that you just don’t see in modern kids’ books. I feel like a lot of the popular kids books are “John Grisham for 9-year-olds” and to go back to that richness of Victorian novels seems fun to me.
GD: It seems like you want to add depth to the kids’ book experience. Which is not what I first thought about when becoming a parent, but I’m reading this book too.
ZW: Right. If I enjoy it, it’s probably more enjoyable for the kid. And honestly, they probably get what’s going on. There’s a tendency to say – well a 7-year-old might not catch everything in a complex book, but really, do you catch everything when reading as an adult? It should be a little hard. The tendency that every age has an exact level enrichment to it is absurd.
My favorite all time children’s book author was T.H. White, but it’s hard to imagine him getting published now. The books were difficult, emotionally hard, and he was a medievalist and there are all the specific terms for parts of a castle that adults would have to look up. It doesn’t matter – kids can handle it just fine.
By the way, Sesame Street got weird. Elmo took over!
GD: I have not watched it the whole way through since becoming a parent. But I’ll catch snippets and it’s all Elmo. When I was a kid, he wasn’t even a main character. All kids now know Elmo, but they don’t know the joys of Oscar the Grouch.
ZW: It’s because Sesame Street gentrified. You can see it. It looks like a nice part of New York now. It’s weird. [laughter]
GD: You have an amazing Kickstarter track record, with 6 successfully funded projects. What do you think of the platform?
ZW: Kickstarter is great. It’s mainly great because lots of people go to it, so you make more money per product if you’re being smart and it’s really good software. You lose 8-9% in fees, but worth it in the long run. It’s been huge in terms of sales, especially for books.
If I could just finish a book and someone would give me an equivalent check, I would do that because Kickstarter really is a campaign. For example, Augie was written in 2012 and we’re finally shipping books now, with many stressful points in between. But the book is much better because of the connection to the audience. The book has gold inlay and appendices that would have been too risky in a traditional publishing model.
GD: You’ve also become the poster child for a quality Patreon campaign. What do you think of this new/old style of patronage coming back to support artists?
ZW: I think it’s great. I’m not a good businessman. I’m only good in contrast to everyone else doing what I do. What’s good about it is for the people just in a cave drawing pictures all day – providing infrastructure and support. It’s almost a social innovation, a way that is acceptable for someone to give you $3. It’s about trust between people that can sustain you over time. I’ve had people ask “How can I give you $5?” – before Patreon, I didn’t really know. You could Paypal me, but I’d feel weird about it. A guy came up to me at a con and handed me $5 bill and said “I use AdBlock.” Patreon allows you to be that guy. I don’t want to buy any of your merchandise, I don’t to watch your ads, I just want to read your comics. It’s an appropriate protocol to do it. I’m surprised at how well it went.
GD: Any current projects?
ZW: I’m releasing the world’s first single-use monocle. It was a really dumb joke in a comic 5 years ago. An engineer, Josh Greenhouse, got it touch about a year ago saying he could streamline the production process. I’ve had people complain to me that it’s the dumbest thing they’ve ever heard, but I just see it as a joke you get to carry around.
My next actual project will be a book, otherwise my business manager will punch me in the face.