[Editor’s Note: This is the sixth 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. Kit Roebuck’s Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life isn’t only one of my favorite webcomics of all time. It’s also one of my favorite comics. As a lover of Kerouac, Beat literature, and sci-fi, this comic snagged me from the moment I read it for its craftsmanship, technically innovative format, and its simplicity. This interview was originally posted on September 7, 2007.]
If Jack Kerouac had been manufactured in the future as a metal robot, his classic hipster novel On the Road might have resembled Kit Roebuck’s webcomic opus Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life. The planet-by-planet voyage now spans a half-decade since the webcomic launched in 2003. While he has since taken several sabbaticals during the run, Roebuck shrugs off those who complain that he doesn’t maintain a weekly release schedule. The pseudonym-toting Georgian behind George and Ben—two unemployed robots in search of their purpose in the solar system—has a day job.
Thankfully, I was able to reach Roebuck after hours to casually slide in a few questions about when new chapters might be on their way. (Roebuck winked my way that a new episode could be on its way by the time this interview gets posted, so click over to Nine Planets posthaste and see if he made good.) The artist, who dabbles in painting in addition to his comics work, was obliged—though adamant that he is not a comic professional—to converse about his intentions and aspirations for his webcomic. He told me about his brother’s role in putting his site together and his love for the infinite canvas of webcomics, which far too few creators take advantage of. Over the course of the late afternoon chat, I got to step behind the perspective of a webcomicker who unabashedly is not in his craft for the money, and relishes everything that that entails.
BRIAN WARMOTH: I liked the description you used of Nine Planets when you referred to it as a sandcastle you find along the seashore. For the purposes of Cursory Conversation, I wanted to get a feel for what you’ve been building there from time to time and how it’s coming along, since new strips do pop up sometimes. When do you think new episodes might be appearing?
ROEBUCK: I think it’s just going to be whenever I get back to it. The reason I haven’t ever said this is on hiatus is because I’m not really on hiatus. I just haven’t done it in six months.
I’m assuming with the whole “nine planets” concept you have an endpoint you’d eventually like to hit. Is there a goal at the end of the road for the story?
ROEBUCK: Oh yeah. It may change, but it’s going to go out to Pluto. We’ll be following the nine-planet structure from before these smaller-planets-rearrangement things started to happen.
It’s a unique part of making a story as a webcomic that you can change it as people are reading it.
ROEBUCK: [Laughs] Yeah, and because of the flow I can change my mind.
Has that happened much so far in the story?
ROEBUCK: Yeah, I change my mind all of the time.
Nine Planets is also a different kind of webcomic because it’s an ongoing story. It’s very much an online graphic novel. How did you originally envision your publishing options when you made it a webcomic?
ROEBUCK: I never really conceived of it any other way. I knew that it was a travel narrative, so it’s logically going from planet to planet, which means there’s a logical endpoint. It also gives me something to work towards, whereas if it was just a thing that was ongoing I’d probably go nuts.
So the Web was your first plan when you came up with the story?
ROEBUCK: No, actually. It’s something that I was kicking around ever since I was in art school. In fact, the first time I ever put it down on paper was when I was taking a bookmaking course at school and I made a book of etchings with these characters. At that point it was the beginning of some sort of planned series. I only did one, though. It was a little different. They were starting out on Earth and were going to travel to other places
ROEBUCK: No, I can’t take credit for the Web design. That’s my little brother Alec. In fact, it was his idea to do a webcomic at all. This was a long time ago—around 2003. I was just having lunch with him and he said, “Do you want to do a webcomic?” I said “All right,” and he said, “Do you have any ideas?” I was like, “Well, I did this thing back in school.”
So 2003 was when you posted the first installment?
ROEBUCK: I think it was fall 2003. It’s been forever, and there’s been several of these long breaks. The funny thing about the long breaks, though, is that the traffic never goes down.
I don’t know if other people have my same reading style, but I tend to come back about 2 to 3 months. It will just pop into my head one day: “Oh, I wonder if he’s done another strip lately.” It’s always a pleasant surprise when there’s more rather than less that’s been posted since my last visit.
ROEBUCK: People will start getting upset with me as well.
What sorts of reader reactions do you tend to get to your erratic posting schedule?
ROEBUCK: I don’t feel a tremendous obligation. I do feel bad when people get impatient with me, but…[Short pause] I don’t know how best to phrase it.
It isn’t like you’re being paid on deadline.
ROEBUCK: Nobody’s paying me. We’re not making any money off of ads or anything, so if I don’t have the time or have things that I really need to be doing, there’s not really anything drawing me back towards it.
Is it your work schedule that mainly decides when you produce new chapters?
ROEBUCK: It’s really my work schedule. It’s stuff I have going on besides work. I keep a studio, and I paint. Sometimes I have something going on with that. The webcomic is always there, but sometimes I feel like I need to refocus on other parts of my life.
Have you done any other work with comics?
ROEBUCK: I have done a couple of projects with other people. But I’ve done just enough to realize it’s not my calling. Long-form comics, which I’ve loved since I was a little kid, are really hard. It’s a heck of a lot of work. I’d be more interested in writing than illustrating. When somebody approaches me, it’s always for something that they’ve written. I tried a couple of things and bowed out of them in the most shameful way possible when I realized it was something that I couldn’t even fit into my schedule.
ROEBUCK: I read comics, but I’m really far behind the times. I’ve just been catching up with things that have been around for ages.
What do you read? Do you lean toward sci-fi?
ROEBUCK: Yeah, I like sci-fi stuff. Alec got me into Metabarons. I like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s films also, so reading his comics is really interesting to me. I also like Moebius’ stuff. When I was young I really liked Cerebus until he went nuts. [Laughs] I still liked it after he went nuts; it created more of a character study than a narrative.
Did you look at many webcomics before you started doing Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life?
ROEBUCK: When the idea came up, I tried to read a bunch of them. I looked at that list by Scott McCloud of his favorite webcomics. There were a couple of those that I really liked. Nine Planets got sort of adopted by Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics. I think we share similar tastes, a lot of the comics he’s produced I’m really into.
Do you still keep up with webcomics now?
ROEBUCK: I keep up with webomics in the same way that I think a lot of people keep up with webcomics—when I’m bored at work. I was looking at stuff today, and it made me realize that ever since I’ve let Nine Planets go, I’ve also let the links on the site go. They’ve all gone on hiatus or something. But Perfect Stars is good.
I like that Koala Wallop group. They’ve got a great selection of strips.
ROEBUCK: I had some contact with them. There was some talk of me joining them. What kept me from it was I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep up the same schedule as all of those other guys.
What other kinds of artwork do you do at your studio?
ROEBUCK: I paint. I’ve been pretty diverse over the years, and it took me a really long time to realize that what I wanted to do was just paint. That’s what I do. I have a full-time job. I work at an international charity. I barely make enough art to even call myself an artist.
Where do you live?
ROEBUCK: I’m in Atlanta.
ROEBUCK: I thought it would take me two, maybe three years at most. It’s been what, five years now? The first time I took five months off I remember putting up a post that said, “I want everyone to know that not making this comic has been the best thing that ever happened to me.”
ROEBUCK: It is. I don’t think I ever realized what I was getting into.
Did it just strike you one day after that five months was over, “Hey I think I’d like to do that story now”?
ROEBUCK: It’s always some sort of idea that can’t really not do. I get an idea and want to get on with it. As far as where [the comic] is now, I know what’s going to happen for a little while yet.
Is it you or your brother who decides how that scrolling is going to move when you post a strip? I really liked that one during the Saturn episodes when you had to grab the comic and move it around in circles to read the nine-panel block—mainly because it came out of nowhere and was so different from the left-right or top-down strips you usually do.
ROEBUCK: He wrote a back end for it that I can do about whatever I want. Every now and then I try something different, but I’ve found I like it most when it goes across the screen. I think most people don’t like that. It’s the main criticism I get about the comic, that it doesn’t all fit on the screen or it doesn’t go up and down: “I’ve got to drag” or “I’ve got to scroll.” I like it that way. It makes sense to me that if you’re going to have comics with the so-called “infinite canvas” you’re going to want to read the way you read it, and I don’t see why it should have to zigzag back and forth if I can keep going to one side. But that’s just me.
Do you ever come back to your boards and have to edit particularly vehement or inflammatory complaints?
ROEBUCK: Never. We don’t edit the comments at all. But I guess if I say that and you publish it then I’m asking for trouble. I mean, we will edit the comments if we have to. Nobody has ever had any sort of major objection with any of the content of the comic. Their objection is always “I don’t like the way it scrolls, but other than that, it’s great,” which I thought was funny because a lot of it could be seen as divisive. I have viewpoints sometimes.
There was one person out there on the Internet who didn’t like it, who was sort of discouraging. But I don’t want to call them out.