Killing Time with Kristofer Straub, Part 1

Thu, February 28th, 2008 at 12:00am PST | Updated: April 5th, 2008 at 11:21am

Digital Comics
Jonathan Callan, Contributing Writer

Cover art for "Starslip Crisis: Vol. 1"
If Kristofer Straub is not a web-comics name you're familiar with, it should be. He's the critically acclaimed creator of first "Checkerboard Nightmare" and then "Starslip Crisis" and if you've never seen either, then you should know he's considered one of the best creators out there by well known names in the web-comics game like Mike Krahulik ("Penny Arcade"), Scott Kurtz ("PVP") and Brad Guigar ("Evil Inc.") Straub has been slowly building a dedicated fan base for years with his unique brand of humor and multi-media forays including, pod-casting, videos and songs. He's also a busy guy these days between keeping "Starslip" daily and his other projects. He's writing the web cartoon "PVP: The Series" with Scott Kurtz and he and Kurtz just started a new web-comic label called Halfpixel along with Brad Guigar and Dave Kellet. Kris, along with his Half-Pixel cohorts, is also coming out with a new book How To Make Web-Comics published by Image Comics.

Straub spoke with CBR News about his strips, new and old, his career and the new label.

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Kris, how long have you been working in web-comics?

I've been doing web-comics since November of 2000 " that was the first one I did. "Checkerboard Nightmare." The impetus behind it was pretty much reading other web-comics (of which "PVP" was one) and thinking "Oh, I like to draw, I've always been drawing " I'm gonna just do that."

So were you doing cartooning before "Checkerboard Nightmare?"

Yeah, I'd always been drawing. I'd drawn in notebooks and stuff like that. I just had no idea what I wanted to do with any of it. The only thing I can really point to of substance, and even that's questionable, is in High School I used to draw twenty two page comics and photo-copy them and then sell them to my classmates. But I had been drawing since I was three or four. Only in the last six months have I felt any of it was any good. It's been a long road.

Your style has certainly evolved since your humble beginnings

I can't stand to look at my old work. I think any reasonable person feels that way about their art. Not even like, "Oh, it has charm." Nu-uh. No charm. The old stuff is irredeemable. [Laughs] But we forge ahead.

So what was the basic idea behind "Checkerboard Nightmare?"

I always had this thing about meta-humor. I had read a lot of web-comics to get the feel of what that world was about and rather then come up with my own idea, I said, "Alright, I'm going to come up with a web-comic that's a satire of web-comic culture." It's about the idea that on the internet anyone can become famous, at least in their own head. So here's Chex " just an egomaniac, trying to make it as a web-comics star. He's just really a miserable person, but he has to pretend to be up all the time because he's trying to present this image. And his quest for fame is just the most miserable idea possible. I had a lot of fun with that, and I did it for five years " Monday, Wednesday, Friday.

But after that I was kind of running out of steam. I thought I had said everything there was to say about web-comics, the different short-comings, the potential of the, well, I don't want to call it art-form, that sounds so lofty. So what I wanted to do next was a strip that had its own continuity and its own storyline and make it a little broader.

It's interesting to me that the premise of "Checkerboard Nightmare" was so ingrained in meta-humor. Didn't you say in a recent pod-cast you'd kill any creator that resorted to meta-humor five strips into their web-comic?

Yes, I did. And that was one of the problems with "Checkerboard Nightmare." To me, the problems with those kinds of strips are they're the ones that are like, "Hey, let's do a webcomic. Ha! We're in one." The problem is they use meta-humor as the end and I wanted to use meta-humor as the device, the conduit. That's not sufficient. Like, "I wrote them into a corner, now what are we gonna do? It's just a comic strip, who cares? Buh-duh! See you next week." That is awful.

The one I think I might be most proud of in Chex is I had a really awful strip. I did just a terrible strip about Chex getting a bad haircut. I just needed something for that day and I put it up. Well, I was ashamed of it. So the next day I said, "Well, the strip we did last update is gone. It's on the lam. It's run off." And then if readers went back to that day, the strip was missing. It was actually there as a really faint outline but it was missing. So the storyline became about trying to track down this strip and bring it to justice for being as bad as it was. And that was a good storyline that I got out of it.

So when you made the decision to launch "Starslip Crisis," what were you looking to do differently?

"Checkerboard Nightmare" became very bitter. It became less about trying to figure out the conventions of comics, what problems I had and what were good about them, and it just turned into me being bitter that "Checkerboard Nightmare" wasn't successful. And it was helpful that the character of Chex had that built-in jealousy. But then I think it became kind of ugly. I didn't have anything else to say with the built-in satire of the strip. I had run out of steam. I wanted to create something that could stand on its own two feet. Because it's easy enough to break everybody else down and say, "You can't break me down because I've already broken myself down, so I'm immune to your criticism of my work." I wanted to do something that other people could satire and be critical of.

"Starslip" was different from Chex. You didn't have to understand web-comics to get it. It was daily. "Starslip" is set in the future and it's about a warship that became decommissioned and is turned into an art-museum and placed into the hands of Curator Vanderbeam. But then the war returns, and Vanderbeam has to kind of play Captain, which he is not good at. He has a complex about being in control and being seen as competent. His pilot is a drunk, alcoholic pirate who really is the competent one. Then we also have a spineless, boot-lick alien insect named Mr. Jinx, who has an impossible physiology. He saves the day with his Deus Ex Machina biological processes which I wanted to be forever inconsistent, but some people are starting to nail me on it. That's the problem with continuity.

Would you say the premise has kind of a "Battlestar Galactica" thing going on?

The strip started in May of 2005 and it was my girlfriend Erica who about five months in said, "You've got to watch Battlestar Galactica because it's awesome." And I was not interested. I knew nothing about the original series " I always thought Battlestar Galactica looked corny. But I watched the mini-series and I was enthralled. It was a great show. And then I became paranoid. I was like, "Oh my God, the themes are so similar. It's a decommissioned ship and then it's the only one that can fight a war? And here I've got my decommissioned museum ship that fights a war." But after that, I tried very hard to consciously avoid any of those ideas [that "Battlestar" was doing].

In my strip, the reason that this decommissioned ship could come back to fight a war is that they don't make ships that big anymore. The Fuseli is classified as a luxury warship. It was a sociological experiment in the military, [the idea of which was] if we surround soldiers in comfort then they'll be rested and ready to fight. But then all the soldiers just got lazy so it was decommissioned.

That always seemed to me like it was making fun of "Star Trek: Next Generation" a bit.

Yeah, the idea that the Enterprise-D had schools and amphitheaters and a bar.

And sky ceilings and leather command chairs.

Right! And enemies would say, "Picard, why do you have families and schools on your ship that's exploring dangerous regions of space?" And his answer was always, "Well, we think it's a strength to have our family with us." But that's nonsense! Keep them off there.

So, I don't think the idea that the Fuseli, which was an art museum, and then has to go to war with all the fragile pieces of art still onboard, is anymore ridiculous. On the Enterprise, I could put in a day as an engineer, almost die from a drive-coolant leak, an energy distortion and a Klingon attack and then I go home and my wife is there cooking dinner.

It's probably exactly as ridiculous, which is what makes it funny.

Can you imagine a kid on the Enterprise growing up? You can't do your homework. There's no regular school day. Every other week the ship is shaking and there are alerts and you're ferried off to some safe area. And there is no "safe area" when you're headed into the event horizon of a black hole, you know? Why would you have a kid there? That struck me as ridiculousness. It was a bureaucracy. You're allowed to explore the universe, but you have to keep valuables and families onboard. Just so we can say that it's not a warship.

That is something really great about "Starslip Crisis." The breadth of topics it can cover: science fiction clich�s, academia, pompous historians and just about everything in between. Was that on purpose or did it develop organically?

I think it develops organically. I tend to write storylines kind of piece-meal. I have an ending in mind, but I don't always know how I'm going to get there. But I try to look through the lense of art criticism, as ridiculous as that sounds: hidden meaning, message, etc. I try to cram it in there for Vanderbeam because that's the only handle he has on what's going on. If somebody declares war on the ship and begins firing, his immediate reaction is, "Well, that's not fair. He shouldn't be allowed to do that. He didn't go through proper channels. And what kind of statement is he trying to make? What does he mean by declaring war on us by opening fire rather than communicating? Is there a message hidden within that? Can we learn something from this?"

And then Cutter, his pirate pilot will fly and fight and drink and save the day. But I think it's fun to play with that. A character who's incapable of exiting that box of art criticism.

A good example being the strip where Vanderbeam is looking at an old earth cell-phone text and thinks it's poetry. That feels to me very academic " somebody who sees art everywhere in the past, when sometimes it was just everyday crap.

It's hard though. When I do the strip I don't want it to come across that I don't believe in that because I do. The idea that you would find some PDA [and it would say], "Hey, let's meet later. Lol. Rofl. G2g. C ya." I think that's called found poetry " where you have something that's the format of a poem, but not meant to be a poem. But I believe in the validity of stuff like that too. Still, through the lense of time, no wonder Vanderbeam is going to exult this booty call on a cell phone.

What other science fiction influenced Starslip?

I love Star Trek. Mostly "Next Generation" and "Deep Space Nine." Cutter is intended to be like a Han Solo type.

But I'm also big fan of conventions in sci-fi that are completely needless. Like the idea of three names in a list. Where they're listing great culture and they'll go, "The works of Chaucer, Shakespeare or [indecipherable alien name]." They've gotta throw in that third guy, because it's in the future and there would be another great author who's not from our planet! But he's always the last guy on the list.

Zillian is a great character. You have a real sense of the absurdities of "Whedon-speak" in the way you write him. Do you think overly stylistic dialogue interferes with story-telling?

I think sci-fi is maybe the most guilty of having that problem. This tends to happen more in hard sci-fi because they're trying to create a more self-contained, believable universe so they give them slang. But it's hard to understand, not believable and just so rare that it feels right. The thing that really inspired that was Mal's speech at the end of "Serenity." It practically was Zillion's dialogue already with all the dashes and left off words. I'm not a fan of dialogue that seems like it couldn't be spoken.

The worst example of that is "Gilmore Girls." In the range of simple to complex dialogue, with 1 being Hemmingway and 10 being "Gilmore Girls," Firefly scores about a 7.

Check back tomorrow for part two of our interview with Kristofer Straub.

Discuss this story here on CBR's Independent Comics forum.

 
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