The world of webcomics is a huge Petri dish of experiments taking place all over the Internet, and sometimes the best results come from someone who figures out how to do something different with just few common elements that everyone has access to. Rosscott’s “The System” is one of those comics.
Presented a quick series of symbols that would look appropriate on bathroom doors and roadside warning signs, “The System” is its own breed of webcomic. As Rosscott explains, sometimes getting a rhythm down takes trial and error. The designer turned webcomics creator had a lot to say to CBR News about how the strip developed and what working on multiple webcomics has taught him.
CBR: Producing a webcomic with a super stripped-down style like “The System”, or “xkcd,” or “Cyanide & Happiness,” has to bring an added pressure of coming up with a really good gag. Is that really the case? Or does your chosen style make it easier?
Rosscott: Wow, what company! The super stripped-down style is actually pretty helpful for making jokes better. I'm a designer during the day, and I hate staring at a blank canvas. All the rules of the way I do the comic help me a whole lot more than when I drew comics (which I used to do, yes I know how to draw). My rule is to take out as much as possible. I would say "Less is more,” but I shortened it to "less.”
I had some pretty strict rules in place when I started, and I still try to keep to them. If anything, I've put more rules on things. You should see the files. I have so many little guides for lining things up. It's like a blue jungle.
What rules did you start with?
The style demands a lot of unwritten rules, just to make sure that the symbols feel "real” and not like I made them. Text is always the same size. Only one person talks in each panel. All that really limits the amount of text. No color (I broke that once, and I've hated myself for it ever since). It started as always being four panels, but I broke out of that one. Finally, never spend too long on it. I have been doing lots of them at work during my down time, and thinking too much just hurts the output.
Are there any strips in “The System’s” history that have generated a particularly large amount of interest?
Normally, I have a pretty good sense of when a comic will gain interest while I'm putting it together, but sometimes I never see it coming. The biggest surprise was from the one with four blank panels. I didn't think people would let me get away with it, but it got tons of comments, and was the highest commented one for a while.
The ones that surprise me are when I do a matter-of-fact one, and it gets comments that people find it really funny or really relate to it. Little ones like “Hey Buddy,” "I Love Coffee," “Rain Sucks," and “I Like Kids and Hate Babies."
Do you have a personal favorite so far?
The one that I think was the best written so far has got to be “’Fancy’ Ketchup.” It's three words and almost no movement. I talked that one over with Marty for like half an hour, all circling around how fancy ketchup isn't fancy in tons of different ways. Finally, I took out 90% of the text and it was done.
What is your main resource or reference for figures?
The original set is copyright-free and universally available (I'd tell you where, but I don't want to make it too easy to copy me). The basic set has most of them, but every once in a while I draw a new one using what I know about some other object. Like, I made a couch based on what I knew about how a bed and a chair looked. That's always a great day, because then I think "Hey! Think of all those couch jokes I could tell now!" Then I realize couches aren't as funny as I thought.
Do you have a favorite street or warning sign design that you've seen out in the wild?
My favorite has to be the dangerous electricity cloud. I was with my friend -- and amazing photographer -- Rachel and she snapped a pic. I loved it so much, I put it on a shirt that read "ENGRISH FOR PANTS" just because I thought it sounded funny. This was before I started the comic, and I think it was one of the first inklings of what was to come. The shirts are still for sale, by the way.
Are there any comics creators that you look to for inspiration as far as visual mechanics and panel transitions?
I have a huge, huge love of webcomics, but there are two that have actually played into “The System” the most -- “Ugly Hill,” because he has a way of jumping right into a storyline. He'll skip over the intro that you didn't really need, almost to the point where you feel like you missed something, but then you think about it and realize you have everything you need. Also, “Garfield Minus Garfield.” It can get away with having one odd panel, and just a ton of empty panels because you know they used to have Garfield in it. I try and do that, only there didn't used to be Garfield in it.
Have you ever given up at trying to depict a certain object in your comic? Is there anything you've wrestled with that just didn't work?
Yes! There are angles and poses that I just haven't gotten down yet. The style is so particular, there are lots of things I won't do unless I get it just right. I didn't have a side view of a car for the longest time, and when I got it I was a little too excited about it. If I didn't nail it perfectly, most people probably wouldn't care, but it would bother me until the end of time. I also put it together in full zoom mode in Adobe Illustrator. I clearly have something seriously wrong with me.
What kinds of comics did you make before “The System?”
I did a webcomic for a while called “Not Quite Wrong," about two craaazy guys in college. Then I realized that it was totally trite and tried to steer it away from that at the end with some actual story and substance, but didn't get too far before I decided it just wasn't that unique. I would like to bring back some day and pick up the story, I think I could do some really cool things with it now. Then I worked on a superhero rock band comic called The Rockets. We posted the band's music with the comics, which I think was pretty awesome. Sadly, with that, my friend and I just couldn't keep up.
With both, it was hard for me to keep to a schedule since it took so long to draw them, and with all the other things going on in my life. I miss it, because it was great practice and going through the archives of those comics I see an improvement in almost every strip. “The System” keeps me involved and has obviously done much better than the others (since clearly you or most people have never heard of them) but I miss drawing and improving like that.