In 2008, comic creator Joel Watson was let go from his sales day job, which gave him the push to put ‘The Experiment’ into action: to see if he could make a living from his popular geek webcomic, HijiNKS Ensue. HE covers topics from genre TV, to superheroes, Apple products, the occasional video game, scientific breakthroughs and whatever’s trending on Twitter, as expressed by the three main characters: Joel, Josh, and Eli, who are based on the creator and his real life friends.
Watson details The Experiment on his site, but like Jonathan Coulton before him, he credits the birth of his daughter with the impetus to make his passion his work, so that on the inevitable day when she asks Daddy what he does for a living, he’s not too embarrassed to tell her.
He recently sat down with me via Skype to chat about his geek origins, life as a full-time webcomic artist, whether HijiNKS Ensue should be adapted for TV, and how he intends to expose his daughter to the geek life.
Watson says he originally thought up the comic as a way to illustrate funny IM conversations he was having with his friends, but tossed those jokes out when it came time to draw, after realizing that the six-month-old humor didn’t suit the immediacy of the form. With the whole of the internet to mine, as well as the buzz from Twitter, Watson prides himself on taking stories the geek community is aware of as a collective, and tying them to something they know on a deeper level – though he admits it wasn’t always like that.
“Early on there was a lot of that lazy, Kevin Smith-type dialogue,” Watson says. “I do like a lot of his work, but if you get three panels and the word ‘fuck’ appears fourteen times, that’s lazy. Having everyone insult each other all of the time is lazy.”
Gratuitous violence is also lazy, says Watson, though there’s an entire tag on his site devoted to the comics in which the much beloved character of Josh dies in messy and frequently gruesome ways. Fortunately for fans of Josh (who are the new Friends of Dorothy), HijiNKS Ensue doesn’t worry about a little thing like continuity. As far as Watson’s concerned, for this project at least, plot just gets in the way of the humor.
“I don’t want to just ‘tell a story, tell a story, tell a story, and then you laugh at the end,'” he says. “I want Big Laugh, Medium Laugh, Small Laugh, Medium Laugh, and then maybe another big one at the end.”
Watson thinks he’d like to write for television one day, but don’t expect to see the HijiNKS Ensue: the Sitcom any time soon. He concedes that the plot-less comic could work as an 11-minute cartoon on something like Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, but he’d prefer to work on a show like Leverage, which is just pure heist fun, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. For the time being, anyway, he’s content with ‘webcomic artist’ as his full-time job.
Aside from a certain amount of freedom, and the fact that he gets to enjoy what he does, Watson says that committing to the comic full time has provided him with a “living resume” which allows him to approach people to whom he might not otherwise have access. Or, as in the case of Eureka executive producer Amy Berg, they approach him as fans of his.
“Through making the comic I’ve become friends with people that previously I was only fans of,” says Watson. “It’s almost difficult to wrap your mind around – you can’t think about it too much. I’m actually friends with Wil Wheaton. That’s weird. I don’t really comprehend that I can fly into Seattle, text Wil Wheaton, and we can take a car to the hotel and have sushi. That’s not a world I ever would have imagined I’d be a part of.”
Certainly not as a boy from south-east Texas whose first geek love was Star Trek: The Next Generation, which CBS only aired in his area at midnight on Saturday nights. “It was the first sci-fi that I found myself caring about, more so than just a stand-alone experience,” Watson explains. “I enjoyed Terminator, and Predator, and Aliens and all that, but to me they seemed like singular experiences, whereas Star Trek felt like revisiting this much better world and very idealized way of being that I was really intrigued by.”
Though these days his fan focus is seeing some competition from Doctor Who and Fringe, TNG remains one of Watson’s favorite programs, one he would like to share with his young daughter some day, though he does worry that by the time she’s old enough to see it, she won’t have the frame of reference to enjoy it.
“We talk about that, my wife and I,” says Watson, “and I wonder what’s going to happen when she’s eleven, and I try to show her Monty Python. Is it going to be so far removed from what is relevant to her, that it isn’t funny? When I saw Holy Grail, it was already 20 years old, and I only got a third of it. It was all funny, but I didn’t know why. As I got older, with repeated viewings, I got more of it. If Ghostbusters is 40 years old when she sees it, is any of it going to be relevant? Is she even going to be able to understand that media used to have bad effects, and things were funny without being outrageous?”
What about a ‘Take Your Daughter to Work Day’? Watson’s all for introducing his daughter to the convention scene in the future – as long as he’s not actually working it. Working the convention puts him in a mindset his family never sees: Con Mode. He calls it a “rock star lifestyle” but without the fame and fortune. Still, regardless of how exhausting one can be, Watson enjoys the opportunity for fan interaction, and appreciates the sense of camaraderie that infuses the space.
Now available: HijiNKS Ensue Vol. II: My Heart is a Hate-filled Pineapple, the collected comics from 2009 with artist’s commentary, a foreword from Eureka producer Amy Berg, and more.