Visiting Awesome Con, I had the pleasure of running into Rob Balder, creator of Erfworld. It's a snarky, trope-subverting webcomic about Parson Gotti (anagram of 'protagonist'), who's transported into Erfworld— a magical land where Parson's expertise as a war game strategist makes him extremely valuable... and dangerous.
The webcomic has enjoyed great success online, and is currently wrapping up a kickstarter campaign to print Volume Two of the collected series, and pay for the illustration of Volume Three.
The role of artist has passed hands a few times: Jamie Noguchi left the series after Vol. 1, and Xin Ye stayed with the comic through Vol. 2, despite a personal family tragedy. The job has now been taken over by David Hahn, of Periscope Studio.
Q: What do you like most about working with them?
A: With Jamie, it was his fun imagination. We used to meet every week at a Noodles & Company and talk about the comic as he drew. I miss those days. With Xin, it was her attention to detail and absolute dedication to telling the story right. She believes in Erfworld as much as I do. I am pretty sure I will never get to work with someone that passionate about my story again. With David, it's his straightforward professionalism. There is a lot to be said for finding an artist without a day job, someone who is in the middle of his illustration career and has the skills, experience, and work ethic to get the pages done and keep to a schedule. Also, we had a great time with him at GenCon last year. It was so good to fly him out to Indianapolis and ride in the Chicken Limo and have him see how much this comic means to the Erfworld fans.
Q: When did you realize you'd hit something big?
A: With our start on GitP, we had a big readership out of the gate because of Rich Burlew's existing audience. But we had no idea whether anyone would follow us from there to our own site. I think I knew we were going to be okay on our own when I saw the numbers on our own server, and when about 300 people signed up for our subscription program (the Toolbox) in that first month. The moment when I felt we might have "made it" was when someone pointed me to the Rule 34 artwork of Erfworld characters. And that wasn't just because there was Erfworld porn out there, but because in the comments of the picture I was looking at, people were arguing about whether or not the sexual act depicted was possible within the mechanics of the Erfworld universe.
Q: What's it like recruiting fans to do wiki-research?
A: The fans do so much for us! The people who write the Erfwiki pages and those in the IRC channel who help me do research on my own canon contribute a lot. They help me make this story as good as I possibly can. I'll go to #Erfworld and ask if anyone wants to do a research mission, asking them to find me a particular page or a paragraph about such-and-such magical concept or game mechanic. Keeping this complex fictional universe internally consistent is extremely important to the story we're telling. So it's great to be able to ask for feedback. We have a rule in the channel that nobody quotes what I say in there outside the channel. So there's a certain freedom in there. It's kind of a creative sanctuary, although I still have to be very careful with plot spoilers.
Q: Any memorable fan mail you want to give a shout-out to?
A: The fan mail that has always meant the most to me has been from active duty US military. I mean, I'm sitting on a sofa in an air conditioned room and writing a war story about fantasy troops swinging swords at giant teddy bears. Yet here's a soldier on the other side of the world, fighting in an actual war, and he's taking the time to email me how much they enjoy what I create? It's mind-blowing.
Q: A lot of creatives are asking for donations these days, in exchange for the work they give away. How have fans responded to you asking for donations?
A: Our relationship with the fans is one of reciprocal generosity. I think that if you give something of value to people and then you ask for their support in return, they'll generally respond pretty well. I work as hard as I can to entertain our readers with the best, truest story I can tell. I pay to put it up online for free, in its entirety. I want people to enjoy it, and they do. When we've asked for their help, they've always come through for us.
Crowdfunding is a beautiful innovation, but I know a few people who are in tough positions and need to raise money for more dire reasons than we do.
Society for the Preservation of CJ Henderson (CJ is a beloved author I've been enjoying conventions with for over a decade. He is facing a tough cancer fight.)
Barb's Medical Bills (Barb Fischer of the webcomics Fragile Gravity and Sledgebunny has been a good friend of mine since 1988. I am giving away signed Erfworld books to donors there.)
Lee Garvin's Medical Bills (Lee is the creator of the Tales From the Floating Vagabond RPG system, and he is a great friend to Erfworld.)
Q: How have fans responded to the kickstarter page?
A: It's been beyond anything we dared to hope for. This is our fourth Kickstarter and by far the biggest and most important one we've done. How the readers responded to it was going to make or break us. So not only have we funded the printing of Book 2 and full comic page illustrations throughout Book 3, we took care of an emergency medical bill situation for Xin, we funded the travel for both Xin and David to come to GenCon this year, we've got the Parson figurines paid for, the voice-over work of our narrator (Jeopardy! champion Arthur Chu), our legal and other expenses covered, and now we're adding bonus pages of art to the next book. The excitement around this project has been like nothing we've ever seen before. A lot of creators look to win awards and gain professional recognition, as a way to validate their work. Awards are nice things, but there isn't anything that anyone could give Erfworld—not a Hugo or an Eisner or anything like that—that would mean as much to me as what the fans have done with their support of this project. This kind of massive show of faith keeps us going spiritually, not just financially.
Q: What's next for Erfworld?
A: The website, the website, the new website! We've been trying for two years to get this thing built, and it will be amazing. It'll work like nothing you've ever seen before. It should launch for testing in June and be stable by July. After that, we've been talking with someone at Patreon about moving the Toolbox over there.
What do you think, folks?