Warmoth on Webcomics: Randall Munroe

Posted by – January 5, 2009

[Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of some of my favorite webcomics creator interviews that previously ran on WizardUniverse.com and were a part of the site’s archives that are no longer hosted there. This was one of those chats that was almost intimidating to gear up for, being that xkcd’s Randall Munroe may be one of the smartest webcomickers out there. It was originally posted on July 27, 2007.]

It’s really easy to make a bad comic out of stick figures. I’ve been churning them out and handily irking authority figures with such images since preschool. Randall Munroe, by contrast, has elevated stick-figure diagrams to high and hilarious art. If there’s a genre in which to pigeonhole xkcd, the comic belongs atop the heap of nerdy jokes doodled every day during boring physics lectures around the world which, unsurprisingly enough, is how xkcd got its start.

It’s hard to imagine a cooler job than testing out cutting-edge robots for NASA, which Munroe freely admits, but imagining another job is exactly what he did, and now he has a fulltime gig as a webcomicker. Munroe took a break from work for a quick “Cursory Conversation” about which is cooler: making robots or making comics; as well as to talk about how xkcd got to where it is now and, thankfully for xkcd readers everywhere, how one is supposed to pronounce its title.

BRIAN WARMOTH: When you say your webcomic’s name in conversation how do you refer to it?

RANDALL MUNROE: I say “X-K-C-D” and I’ve noticed sometimes when I try to say it fast I often skip over the “C” and so it’s like “X-K-D” or something like that.

I read the description of the comic’s name on your site and you said it’s not supposed to be an acronym for anything. So how did you put those letters together?

MUNROE: I was sitting up very late one night. I was trying to pick a screen name on AOL or one of their related services and I was trying to come up with a text to represent me unambiguously. So I thought, “Okay, I want a short group of letters and nothing with meaning or nothing with any obvious interpretations,“ and so I just started picking letters that I kind of liked that couldn’t be confused with other letters and that looked good together without any pronunciation. I wanted the “L” in there, but “L” can be confused with “I,” like a lowercase “L” and a capital “I.” So I went through a number of them that were already registered screen names until I finally hit “xkcd.” The whole plan was to do it unambiguously representing me, and then I ruined that by making it into a comic, so now it’s not clear whether “xkcd” means me or my comic or what.

Did you have xkcd.com registered as a URL then?

MUNROE: That was my website. It sort of seemed natural to make that into a website and then I was putting the comics there and the whole readership thing started to happen unexpectedly. I got on a big blog and I got a whole bunch of traffic.

That was BoingBoing.net, right?

MUNROE: Yes, it was. This was well over a year ago. They linked to me. I was one of the very early comics, and I only had about 20 or 30 drawings up there total and they were all mostly scanned from my old notebooks.

How far back do your notebook comics go that you’ve put up there? What’s the first comic that you remember drawing?

MUNROE: Through most of school I drew things on the backs of assignments or in the margins, and I kept getting frustrated because I’d work out some important equation or something and then I’d lose the paper when I turned it in. I finally was like, “Okay, I just need to keep separate notebooks that are just personal stuff.” That’s what those notebooks are. I have this stack of graph-paper notebooks that I filled up during school, but before any of that I would make these elaborate stick-figure murals when I was just a very young kid. It was just adults, one team shooting the other team and a lot of movie crap and stuff like that. Really looking at those you can just see xkcd there.

I’ve seen on some of your earlier stuff that you do more elaborate sketching sometimes. Why have you stuck with the stick figures?

MUNROE: I think that the elaborate sketches are sort of interesting, but I don’t know – I’m not the sort of artist that can just sort of imagine something and then have it work out on paper. I will sketch and sketch and then suddenly get something that I like, but when I have an idea that I want to draw, a lot of the time I feel like I can’t get it right without just going with the really bare, representational stick figures and text. Sometimes I end up with drawings in-between that work really well-–I like those, so I keep them in.

I think that it’s related to this thing in science fiction that are short, short stories. They’re science fiction stories that are a couple of pages long at most. [Isaac] Asimov edited this really good collection of them and he says in the introduction that the interesting thing about them is that they distilled the essence of a science fiction story, which is to present an interesting idea about where the world might go. You have to whittle down that and cut off all of the characterization and everything else, but you’re left with just a point, and because of the austerity the point can hit you really hard. So with that observation I feel like it can sometimes work a lot better when you cut out all the surrounding stuff and you just get to the point. At the same time, when it’s presented in a little cartoon form where you can optimize timing and stuff like that, it works as well.

You said that you mostly did cartoons in classes and lectures?

MUNROE: Really, it wouldn’t be as much cartooning as much as I would do things like graphs or trying to work out diagrams of things and just looking at ideas like when you do prime numbers in hexagonal style and then color all of the primes and that kind of thing. So I would just fill up pages of that sort of stuff. Then I went back through it and I was like, “What are the drawings that I want to save that are a little more self-contained?” Those are what I scanned and eventually turned into xkcd, but they really weren’t very comic-like up until the very end of school, which is what the start of xkcd is. I really wasn’t trying to make them self-contained before that as something that you could just box up and present to someone.

Where along the line did you actually scan them and put them up on the Web? What were you doing when you originally first scanned them up for your Website?

MUNROE: That was around my senior year of college. It was really that I started to worry about losing these notebooks, which were falling apart and I was moving around a lot. I was still in class when I was doing the first xkcd and I was actually drawing it for the Internet. It was towards the end of when I was in class.

And how long had you had them up on the Web before you realized that you were starting to get an audience from elsewhere, aside from the people that you were telling about it?

MUNROE: It was, I think, October of 2005 when I first moved them over from my LiveJournal to just making xkcd.com dedicated to that. That was when there was the BoingBoing thing, and then that tapered off for a little bit. The site wasn’t very well designed for browsing and so forth, and then I actually went on hiatus for the winter. I came back in the spring of ’06 and it just sort of started this exponential climb that it’s been keeping at pretty steadily for quite a while.

It said on your website that you were working on robots for NASA?

MUNROE: Yeah. The spring of my last year of college I wasn’t actually taking any classes. It was just a fluke of the way that the required courses worked out that I ended up with almost no courses to take, just a senior project. The summer before that, I had interned at NASA, and I got in touch with one of the guys that I had worked with there, and then in January of ’06 I went to work there as an actual worker and not just an intern. So I worked there through half of my senior year through college and then through that summer afterwards.

What kinds of robots did you work on?

MUNROE: They were actually robots that had a really interesting set of wheels. They could move in any direction without turning and it was really designed just as a test bit to show off computing hardware. So it was just a project that was floating around for one reason or another. This group could say, “Oh, we could put some sensors on that and show off the sensors.” We would try to make the robot do something cool with the sensors, but it didn’t really have any real research purpose in mind. I was just working on making vision libraries work together and trying to get the robot to stop slamming into the walls every time we turned it on and that kind of thing.

And you run xkcd full-time now?

MUNROE: Yep, since the fall. I’m terrible with my own time management and keeping on task. It managed to take up all of my time, and I still don’t get around to everything like answering emails. But yeah, I’ve got the guy who did a lot of the system administration and it’s supporting both of us full-time now. He handles a lot of the store-related stuff.

Was doing comics full-time ever an ambition for you?

MUNROE: It’s really funny. I read a tremendous amount of humor as a kid. Like I would just go check out everything in the library… I always sort of assumed that being a cartoonist would be the perfect job. I remember thinking that when I was 10 or so because you get to draw stuff and have people read it and you’d set your own schedule and everything. But I assumed that to be a cartoonist, you’d need to be able to draw cartoons which I didn’t think I could do and you’d need to be able to come up with jokes, which I also didn’t think that I could do. So I thought that it would be a cool job if I could’ve done any of the stuff involved in it, and then I never really made the connection between reading tons and tons of humor and doing math and science. Then all of a sudden they came together. You never get to see that kind of thing ahead of time, I think.

That’s the way it seems. It seems like success in webcomics a lot of the time these days comes from just getting the exposure from the specific right place that breaks you out. That stuff seems to come on unexpectedly sometimes…

MUNROE: Yeah. There are a lot of people who start comics who sort of have an eye toward, “I want to do a comic, which has been my aspiration for a long time.” I think that really most of the comics that have done really well have come from people who are doing that, who have done a lot of illustration and who have done comics.

You said that you get a lot of emails. Who are the people that are emailing you?

MUNROE: About 50 percent, or maybe more than 50 percent, maybe 60 or 70 percent of them are just sort of people who just want to say how much they like the comic. They talk about one of them that they connect to. There’s a lot of stuff that’s requesting to use one of the comics in a magazine or that kind of thing. There are a lot of people who have questions behind the comics, or want to show me a link to something interesting. Then there’s a whole lot of stuff that’s sort of store related which I send off to my systems administrator. Then there’s the occasional very, very weird email.

Who are the weird people? I feel like with the audience that your comic has to attract that you have to get a few weird communities or something.

MUNROE: One thing is that I get people who assume that I’m an expert in everything which is interesting and then I get a few people who say, “Hey, your comic has chronicled my psychic journey over the last so many years.” Then I had one girl who wrote to me and said in all caps, “DO YOU KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THE MECHANICS OF TIME?” In the email she said, “Because a friend of mine and I saw the sun move really fast one day and a fist-sized ball of energy went past us.” She had all of these things that happened that she wanted me to explain in physics, and I said, “Unless we can turn that into something that you can document or if it happens again, there’s really no way to attack that kind of thing with science,” and she very politely said, “Okay, yeah. That’s what I’ve heard from most physicists. Thank you.”

Or maybe, chemically, there might be an answer there.

MUNROE: Perhaps. You know, actually, that was one of the first things she said. “No, no. We were not on any chemicals. We weren’t high at the time.” I don’t know. There are a lot of people who write in things like that.

Do you read any webcomics?

MUNROE: Yeah. The one thing is that I’m not too involved in gaming or anime, and those are really where webcomics got their biggest start. So what I read is more like the other comics because there’s so much of like Penny Arcade and derivatives of Penny Arcade. Mega-Tokyo and derivatives of Mega-Tokyo , I don’t really read a lot of those. I read Penny Arcade because it’s just fantastically written, but other than that not much. I’ve actually fallen behind on some of my reading in the same way that I’ve fallen behind on the email.

I read Dinosaur Comics and then A Softer World which is by Joey Comeau [and Emily Horne] and then things like Achewood. I’ve been reading Questionable Content for quite a while. There’s the Perry Bible Fellowship which most people know is brilliant. [Nicholas Gurewich] is definitely an interesting character.

One of my favorite comics that’s no longer running is Buttercup Festival. I think that if pressed I would say that’s my favorite webcomic of everything. It was whimsical in a way that I hope to do now and then with xkcd.

It sounds like having worked on robots with NASA and doing comics full-time now, you’ve had two dream occupations going on. Do you have anything else that you’d put ahead of those that you’d like to accomplish in the future in that vein?

MUNROE: I’m not sure. It’s interesting, because if you would’ve asked me before I was working at NASA what my dream job would be I would’ve described something like exactly what I had there, which was working on an interesting project with interesting people and not a lot of constraints, but when I was actually doing it, it took me a while to realize that I wasn’t having a whole lot of fun and when I left to do comics, which I had never imagined, it was a whole lot better. While I was there, and part of why I didn’t want to revisit the fact that I wasn’t having a lot of fun, was because I couldn’t imagine having a better job than that. So I felt that if I wasn’t satisfied by this I must not be satisfied by anything and so I thought that I just had to make myself be happy with it. So, I think that I’m not going to try and say what I think the perfect job would be now because I really think that it’s one of those things that you can really only tell in hindsight. So the trick is to try as much as you can. I’ve had fun doing this aerial photography stuff that I’ve just put up on my site, and before that I spent a lot of time working on ROV’s with my friend. We just built them in the garage, these underwater vehicles.

What does “ROV” stand for?

MUNROE: Remote Operated Vehicle. Sometimes there’s a “U” stuck in there for underwater, and I’ve always had this powerful urge to explore what’s underwater, to send out vehicles to see what’s on the bottom of all the big, clear lakes up in New England. So, I expect at some time or another I’ll wander back that way as a hobby or somehow as a job.

And you’re in Massachusetts now?

MUNROE: Yeah, I just moved up here a few weeks ago.

Where did you move from?

MUNROE: Southeast Virginia. It’s a huge change.

What sparked the decision to move up there?

MUNROE: Well, for one thing, where I was living, it wasn’t the best living for me. I’m wary of the whole teenage thing of like, “This town sucks. I need to get out of here.” So I tried to resist that because for the most part it’s probably just… Well, the problem is not the town. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that maybe this town did suck and I needed to get out. I mean, it was a sh-t building military town with probably a half dozen xkcd readers in the area, the sort who would like it. Then I would come up to Boston and every time that I came up to visit here, I’ve got a lot of relatives and friends in the area, and every time I came up here I would walk around on the street and be bowled over by the sort of interesting people and things going on and so I’d been planning to move up here now for a year or two, actually. Finally I did it.

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