Dorothy Gambrell is the creator of the long running and overly educated webcomic “Cat and Girl” that successfully straddles the line between knock-knock joke and philosophical dialogue. Gambrell also produces humorous/sad infographics at Very Small Array, keeps an ongoing document of how she spends other people’s money at Donation Derby and drew another strip (now dead) called “The New Adventures of Death.” One of her bands, The Basement Apartments, has a song about Jacques Cousteau. Another one is called Jenny and the Holzers. They sound like Barbara and the Krugers. What follows below is a Gmail Chat/interview from February 23rd, 2010.
James Payne: Okay, to be as general as possible at first, why webcomics?
Dorothy Gambrell: It wasn’t a conscious decision. I drew some Cat and Girl cartoons. A friend of mine liked reading comics online and in 1999 there weren’t a whole lot of comics online, so he suggested I put mine up. I did.
JP: Do you have interest in publishing where comic strips have been traditionally seen? Like alternative weeklies?
DG: I grew up reading the cartoons in the newspaper every morning – all of them, even Apartment 3-G. I do feel a warmth towards the idea of my cartoons in print, but it’s a nostalgic warmth. In my limited experience with print as it exists now, you get the editorial limitations of a family-friendly venue with the miniscule financial returns of the panicky newspaper world.
JP: How does the economic model of your webcomic compare or contrast with that experience?
DG: It’s decentralized. I use this quote in the beginning of the first Donation Derby book:
“As long as I live under the capitalistic system I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.”- William Faulkner
I would rather be at the beck and call of tens of thousands of people with two cents than a singular paying entity.
JP: Yeah, a lot of my friends who are “punk” because they don’t like capitalism ended up starting businesses – are webcomics sort of like that?
DG: Yeah, at a certain point self-created enterprise presents itself as the alternative to working for other people. As opposed to the alternative to some vaguely defined notion of integrity.
JP: So even though you are making products/brand/etc you still “feel better” than the alternative?
DG: No, not at all.
JP: Just a dilemma then?
DG: I’m willing to sell people stuff they don’t need if it means I can get by on a day to day basis. I can hope that I’m substituting my stuff for someone else’s stuff and not increasing the sum total of stuff in the world, but I don’t know.
JP: Were you surprised by the demand for “stuff” besides your book?
DG: There’s not a huge demand, and what there is had been growing very slowly. (At least until the economic collapse of the world, when that stopped.)
JP: I say surprised because Cat and Girl has a strong feel of capitalist critique to it, so maybe someone who liked it a lot would not necessarily want to buy it. Are you able to live off of that demand even though it is not huge? Or do you have to supplement it?
DG: I wash my clothes in the sink, but I do make a living from comics.
DG: The few times I’ve read about people determined to make a living making their webcomic, they usually have a goal in mind – an amount of money per year that will allow them to leave their job. This amount is always more than I have ever made.
(These aren’t people with unrealistic notions – they are people who have accomplished their goal.)
JP: Sort of off topic: Were you doing zines before your friend suggested webcomics?
DG: I was printing comics out at a computer lab and pasting them up around town.
JP: Did you feel connected to “zine culture.”
DG: The first two Cat and Girl publications were little zines, and I liked many aspects of that culture – the handmade artifact, the personal communication – but I never felt like a part of it.
JP: It seems like webcomics shares a lot with zines – trite observation I guess – but they both engender niche topics and concerns.
DG: Gamers versus vegans with bicycles.
JP: Have you tried to push the strip into those venues at all?
DG: I’ve had very little success at trying to push my way in anywhere. I’d rather spend that time working on the comics.
JP: What is intriguing about the comic strip as a format?
DG: No one takes it seriously.
JP: Because all anyone can see is the traditional grammar of it?
JP: Why do you think that is?
DG: I don’t know, but I like it.
JP: Is that akin to the type of music your band The Basement Apartments plays?
DG: The same is true with everything I make.
JP: Could you get away with saying the same things in Cat and Girl without having a humorous veneer to it?
DG: I had an English teacher in High School who told me my writing would be better if I wasn’t trying to be funny. But the funny parts were the point, and are the point – the rest of the content is just the chewing gum that holds it together.
JP: Who has, I guess, “informed” your humor?
JP: Do you hang out with other people who make comics?
DG: I have a friend who makes comics. We see each other because our bands play together. I don’t really hang out with other people who make comics just because they make comics.
JP: Are there people you consider to be peers?
DG: Other people who draw comics on the Internet, I guess. People associated with the Topatoco website, though I consider all of those people full degrees more successful than I am (and deservedly so).
JP: What do you have to deal with technically in publishing a comic strip on the Internet? Are there bandwidth concerns or updating concerns? Or are there problems with the service provider?
DG: The few times bandwidth has become an issue Dreamhost has been very kind to me. Most of the technical issues I have are just – technical issues. Last month a WordPress update ended in an error, and suddenly a database was missing. I know enough about technical issues to make myself responsible for them, but not enough that it doesn’t take me entirely too long.
JP: Were you already accustomed to that type of computering (I have no idea what I am talking about) – or did you learn as needed by the site?
DG: I learned HTML for fun very long ago and I’ve added everything else as I’ve needed it.
JP: Topatoco distributes your books but you published them yourself?
JP: What was that process like?
DG: Long, but I’m a perfectionist.
JP: Has the distribution been solely through online sales?
DG: I initially made an effort to get them out to a few independent bookstores that offered them on commission. But keeping tabs on the dozen tiny checks owed me was a pain, and trying to keep the final cost of the book decent while making only 40 or 50% of the sales price was hard to do without losing money.
JP: Did you make a point of not putting it on Amazon or was that not an option?
DG: I never looked into it. I think you need an ISBN number for that kind of thing. Cat and Girl are smaller than that.
JP: Are The Basement Apartments still a band?
DG: It’s at least on hiatus. Mister Chen and I moved back to New York and the other guy is still in Tucson. I think we’re all doing different musical things now.
JP: Have you been in bands throughout your time making Cat and Girl?
DG: Cat and Girl started in 1999. I began my membership in a series of forgettable bands in 2002 or so.
JP: Is there anything beyond “creative people” to explain why so many people making comics are musicians?*
DG: I used to think that people who made pictures must be naturally good at also making music. Or that people making music must be naturally good at writing. Now I don’t think nature has anything to do with it. If you’re driven to make things you’re going to make things, regardless of talent. And if you’re talented but you’re not driven in that way you’re never going to make anything.
JP: Do you ever have issues maintaining the amount of drive it takes to do multiple comics and the band and Very Small Array, etc?
DG: I don’t know what else I would do. You can only spend so much time reading.
JP: Even when it’s on the Internet?
DG: That’s even worse.
* Comic creators who play music: James Kochalka, Ben Snakepit, Ron Rege Jr., Lauren Weinstein, Nate Powell, Robert Crumb, Phonzie Davis, Chris Ware, Lucy Knisley, Jeph Jacques, Alan Moore, Mary Fleener, etc. Comic creators obsessed with/writing about music: Harvey Pekar, Chris Ware, Mitch Clem, etc.