Hey everybody! Today’s Creator Spotlight interview is with Joseph Kleinman, creator of the supervillain-turned-hero webcomic Wootlabs.
D: Hey Joe! Let’s start off by you telling me about yourself.
J: My standard joke is that I’m actually 5 cats in a human suit, but that’s a lie. It’s actually four cats and a particularly grouchy goat. This amalgamation of mammals is named Joe, and I’ve been living in the beautiful Austin, TX for the last two years, which I absolutely love. I’m a longtime member of the glorious nerd community, as well as a gamer since before I can really remember. (Strawberry Shortcake on the Atari 2600, the World of Warcraft of its day.) When I’m not working on the comic or video gamin’ I’m either playing HeroClix at one of the local game stores nearby, or spending time with my awesome roommate Chris or my equally awesome cats Dorothy and Rusty.
D: Nerd power! And even a tabletop gaming level nerd like me! But beyond with those miniatures! ;) I’m part of a online pathfinder playing group with some twitter friends, it’s good fun. Care to share your best nerd/gaming story?
J: I think my favorite one was when we were playing an evil campaign, I was an archer that also happened to be a five foot tall toad. When they were higher level we started running into a lot of good aligned dragons, and one of them justifiably ate Hopper. (He deserved it.) While Hopper was getting swallowed my DM let me have a reflex save, and with a natural 20 I managed to use my toad tongue to latch onto the thing that hangs in the back of the dragon’s throat. For a glorious few seconds Hopper started shooting arrows at the dragon from inside its own throat, all while dangling from his tongue…and then the dragon used his breath weapon. One of the best things you can have in a campaign is a DM that’ll let you get away with almost anything with a natural 20.
D: Is it hard for an amalgamation of non-humanoid animals to get a job? If not, what do you do to feed your many mouths and stomachs?
J: I do art commissions, mostly for local businesses. I worked for six years as a graphic artist at a screenprint company, and most of what we did was simple logo design made for T-shirts. I’m self-employed now but doing very similar work. Though until the end of the year I’ve limited myself to just one or two of my best clients, since working on the card game is going to take up the majority of my schedule for the next few months.
D: Speaking of that card game, tell me about your creative projects.
J: I’ve been working on Wootlabs for a little over four years now, and the story’s recently hit one of its big milestones seeing the two leads Amy and Penny getting married. It’s been a long road for the two characters and I’ve wanted to depict their union for a while now, so I’m pretty excited about it finally coming around. Once the current chapter is complete I’ll be letting some of the supporting characters steal the scene for a few months while our main heroes go on their honeymoon.
Aside from the comic itself, my primary focus right now is the card game Heroic Hustle. The game was kickstarted a few months ago and is headed for a December release, and there’s a lot of work to do between now and then since I’m the only artist working on it. The game itself is designed to be an entirely cooperative experience for players, as up to 4 people work together assuming the roles of superheroes trying to protect the city. Every round they need to decide which heroes to send into battle to round up bad guys, and anyone they don’t arrest will do damage to the city. It operates a lot like a puzzle game, but with a heavy emphasis on working together. It’s also a family friendly game, both in terms of content and difficulty rating, as it can easily be scaled up and down in challenge depending on your group. Heroic Hustle takes place in Wootlabs’ universe and has a lot of characters from the comic, as well as introducing a few new ones for people to enjoy. It’s been a lot of fun to work on so far!
Finally I’m currently working on two novels, which while I’m not sure if they’ll ever go anywhere, I’m enjoying the process. One of them is focused around Lynn Tresh, a supporting character in Wootlabs, detailing her origins, her condition, and her resolution. It’s a bit more mature than Wootlabs usually is, but I’d place it around the early to mid teens level. My other project isn’t associated with that world at all, and is a fantasy story. (Since everyone has to write one eventually, right?) The story of a clumsy mage, an oversized cricket, and a chef so bad that she’s wanted by an entire kingdom for culinary crimes. It’s pretty lighthearted both in tone and characters, and would probably qualify as half-comedy, half-adventure. It’s family friendly as well.
D: Can you give any readers a nice little summary of what Wootlabs is about?
J: Robot cats, penguins, and magical ants! At least, those seem to be the things that stand out the most!
There was a time when Penny Colt was a supervillain, a notorious mad scientist known as Square Woot. But she was never a solo act; from the very beginning Square Woot had built herself a family to help her control the city and to keep her company. Her mechanical son Rusty, her mutant lizard daughter Wendy, her sidekick penguin Pengi, and the family pet: the military grade Catbot 9000. They wreaked havoc in Cascade City for years, doing battle with the literally giant-sized hero Riot Girl. And for years, Penny never realized what was missing from her life.
Until she met Actions per Minute. A dashing new hero to Cascade City, APM made a splash by dropping in out of nowhere and getting Penny Colt’s attention. Once APM, or Amy for short, managed to catch Penny’s eye everything changed. A romance grew between the two women that ultimately led to Square Woot and her family putting aside the villainous mantle and becoming heroes…while still keeping their supervillain style. Catbot 9000 still persists that hitting a bank robber with a bus full of orphans is a heroic action. (Though his claims that the orphans’ fear makes the bus hit harder has yet to be scientifically proven.)
Wootlabs is mostly about the growth of the Woot family, as well as dealing with some of Penny’s ghosts from her past. Throughout the course of the story they’ve made friends, made amends with old rivals, and become a family that Cascade City can rely on when there’s danger afoot!
D:What was your inspiration for Wootlabs?
J: This one’s easy! Wootlabs is inspired by my old supergroup in City of Heroes. Before the servers went down for good we had a group called They Might Be Heroes (which eventually was folded into the title of a chapter,) and the core members of that group were the main members of the Woot Family. When I first started drawing it Wootlabs was meant to be a fun little thing to show my friends in that group, which is why early pages are pretty episodic and don’t follow a narrative. Pengi, Amy, Wendy, and Catbot are all characters that my ingame friends played, and their relationships to Penny and to each other are all pretty similar to the story we had written ingame. Penny and Rusty were both my characters, as well as a lot of the ancillary cast like Mitch, Lynn, Christina, and Dorothy. Because of City of Heroes, the groundwork characters for Wootlabs were already there, and it was just a matter of putting it to a narrative that could stand alone outside of Paragon City’s lore.
Most of the villains come from outside of City of Heroes, though. Riot Girl, Wizard Ant, and Dr. Saucer are all tributes to various comic or video game tropes. The oldest characters in the entire comic are Lovagon, Booth, and Judamaru, all of which were a part of a comic I wrote around 2001. (And now I feel old.)
D: Do you have an “end” in mind for Wootlabs, or will it be ongoing?
J: There’s a definite end in mind for the story, but I don’t think I’m near there yet. Maybe in two to three years, depending on how things go. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it’ll have a happy ending. After working on these characters for so long, I don’t think I could stand to give them anything short of smiles and fun for the rest of their fictional days. I will say that the end of the franchise will delve into a few more comic tropes, like alternate dimensional versions of the characters. A lot of the characters that will be appearing in the card game aren’t new; they’re just people I’ve been waiting to introduce in the later chapters of Wootlabs. So in a way the game is a glimpse into what the comic will look like in a few years.
D: I love cooperative gaming, so Heroic Hustle sounds fun! One of the best ones I’ve played was Pandemic, if you’ve ever played that. Although we die more often than we win :D Will non Kickstarter supporters be able to order it?
J: Pandemic was definitely something that was in mind during the design phase! Specifically its crushing difficulty. I can only win by pretending halfway through the game to be an evil genius that was working to spread the plague all along, immediately betraying the other players and leaving the game board to die.
With Heroic Hustle one of the goals was to make it accessible; so many cooperative games are extremely hard even for a full group of adults, and since HH skews towards families that was definitely a concern. Balancing the difficulty so that it could be challenging for kids and adults, but not TOO challenging was definitely tricky, and evolved into the game’s customizable difficulty tiers. And if things aren’t hard enough even with it ramped up to max, there’s going to be a list of achievements to try for in the game. A little bit like trophies or achievements on current gen consoles, these will be little feats for the players to try to achieve, like beating a certain villain with certain superheroes, or restricting usage of some cards. Some of them are even set up like scenarios that have the players re-enact scenes from the comic itself.
As far as ordering, that’s definitely going to be possible. Mothership Books and Games and Dragon’s Lair, both in Austin, TX are going to be carrying the game, and we’re going to have an online ordering system set up hopefully not too long after the game gets published.
D: Ever thought of turning your other novels into comic pages? Or is there not enough time with Wootlabs at the present?
J: I’ve thought of the opposite! I’ve always felt like I was a better writer than I was an artist, and a few times I thought about converting Wootlabs into a young adult/teen miniseries. This eventually led into the idea to give Lynn Tresh her own novel, since it felt like a good middle ground. Lynn’s background isn’t one that I can easily go into in Wootlabs, and the rest of the cast isn’t quite as fun to read about as they are to see. Though I would enjoy WRITING ALL OF CATBOT’S DIALOGUE BOLD AND IN CAPS. MAYBE THEN PEOPLE WOULD KNOW HOW STRONG AND HANDSOME CATBOT REALLY IS.
D: What’s the future hold in store for you and Wootlabs?
J: My hope is to keep expanding on the world through various means. The card game is an example of one of the ways that I’m bringing these characters to people in a format that’s accessible whether or not they’ve previously read the comic, and I’d like to keep finding more avenues for that. There’s a lot more stories in this setting than I’ll ever be able to tell in comic format, and I think it’d be kind of neat to have an expansive lore that stretches across a few mediums. Instead of saying “I played that game, it had nothing to do with what it based on” like most game tie-ins, I think it’d be neat if people could say “In the game, it’s established that this character did this.” The idea of something that’s so cross-canon with itself over multiple formats really appeals to me.
D: What’s something about webcomic production you don’t think enough people are aware of? Here! Have a soapbox!
J: To readers, I think something a lot of people hear but not really take to heart is how important it is to help spread the word about comics you enjoy. Most people that spend any amount of time online can name one or two of the biggest webcomics, but if you’re smaller it’s an almost insurmountable task to get the word out there. So if you enjoy a comic, don’t be shy about linking it on your social media or telling a friend about it, because those recommendations can go a long way towards creators building a base. (Especially if they’re still trying to make a name for themselves.) Word of mouth will do more for a new comic than weeks of banner ads ever could.
And to creators, one thing that took me a while to get used to was how disproportionate your views can be to your feedback. Comments are always great to see whether they’re people telling you they enjoy the story or constructive criticism on how you can make it better, but they’re not really an indication of how many people are enjoying your work. For that, look at your numbers over the course of a month, and focus instead on steady growth rather than immediate responses. This took me a while to get in my head, as especially early on I felt like some pages were outright failures if they didn’t get much feedback. But eventually you’ll notice an upswing of a hundred more people that read your comic that week, then a hundred more, etc. There’s a lot of ways to gauge the success of your work, and comments are just one part of a much larger equation.
D: Any other lessons you’ve learned from working on Wootlabs you’d like to share?
J: When I first started the comic, I went with a very minimalist coloring scheme. Everything was shades of blue and black to coincide with the Woot Family’s signature colors. Going back on that idea is one of the bigger regrets I have in regards to the comic, and when I look back at old panels I can’t help but feel that while my drawing has gotten better, it still looked far more distinct back in the early pages. I’m not entirely sure why I went for a more generalized and inclusive color scheme, which makes it even worse! (If you can’t remember your reasons, chances are they weren’t good ones.) So if you’re ever thinking about making large scale, dynamic changes to your style it never hurts to put an extra week’s thought into it. Ask some friends, ask some people that like webcomics and some people that don’t. In my case, I should’ve shown people the same page colored in two different ways. Basically it never hurts to be a little more patient.
But I think the biggest lesson I learned is that if you’re interested in doing a comic, or story, or really anything creatively driven, one of the biggest injustices you can do yourself is to compare your work to other people. Sure, you can learn from other people’s tutorials, and you can take away lessons from what you see and observe, but the second you say “I could never draw ____ as well as ____,” you’re setting yourself up for an impossible task. Learn to appreciate what’s strong about your own work, and embrace what’s unique about it. Especially online, comics are a source of endlessly talented creators, but none of them can tell the stories that are inside your head. No matter your skill level or your experience, you have something to bring to the table that nobody else can, and acknowledging that goes a long way towards being happy with your work. All that sounded corny, but it’s true.
D: Thanks so much, Joe, for answering my questions!
And to all you reading this, I really enjoyed Wootlabs and will be writing a review on it one of these weeks when I have time, so I heartily recommend that you check it out :)