Are you a UFie? Want to become one? User Friendly's creator tells the story of his phenomenally successful comic strip.
“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come…”
Act 1, Scene 1, The Merchant of Venice
Since time immemorial, humans have sought ways to share their humor and make each other laugh. Laughter has been called an elixir of youth, the best medicine, the language of joy, nature’s cure for stress, and a couple of dozen other honorifics. Shakespeare understood its power. He wrote the above line to celebrate humor and laughter and the blessing that it is to have mirth as a companion in old age, a sentiment that rings true to most people. It certainly does to me.
It’s obvious to anyone who takes the time to check that a preoccupation with laughter is particularly strong in the geek community. Geeks have a penchant for humor of all kinds, from acerbic wit to double entendres, and from hilarious British comedy to the twisted and subversive
jokes of Matt Groening’s
universe. We like to poke fun at pretty much everything, even at ourselves, and this very trait is what prompted me to pull a pen out and start scrawling funny pictures on blank paper when I was 12 years old.
If you ask 20 people what User Friendly is about, you’ll get 20 subtly different answers. Some say it’s a Linux cartoon; some say it’s a cartoon about open source; some say it’s about the rift between technical and nontechnical staff; others say it’s about the pain that technical people suffer when dealing with the stubbornly unintelligent; some even say that User Friendly is a cartoon about Internet workers. User Friendly addresses all of these issues, but I don’t think that’s what it’s about, strictly speaking. User Friendly’s universe revolves around the simple idea that technology brings out both the best and worst in people, no matter who they are.
Call it technopolitics, call it the geek condition, call it whatever, it amounts to the same thing, and poking fun at that balloon with pointy barbs is my job every day of the year. The very first cartoon I drew on a regular basis was called Class Action. Based on my friends at school, it was absurd, quite rude, and therefore successful amongst my peers. We had a teacher at school who was considered to be the most attractive female this side of Cheryl Ladd (yes, I’m a child of the ’80s), and I took painstaking care to represent her in a manner befitting her stature. She was sacred and never suffered at the hands of profanity in the cartoon. Not only was she considered easy on the eyes, but she was really smart, and had a great deal of patience for a crowd of teenagers wrung out on hormonal storms. In many ways she was the first Miranda I ever drew.
It was around that time that I discovered the wonderful world of computers. I had always been a science fiction fan, and I devoured anything to do with science and technology. A common theme that separates me from the mentally intensive individuals who become coders is that I’ve always been more inclined to observe how computers interact with people and society, rather than with one another. The deep dark art of programming is fascinating to me, but it is not something I was born to do.
Most of the other characters in my high school comic strip were not memorable. Jimbo, the unimposing nice guy who became every girl’s friend, and Brett, the whiney frustrated pothead with delusions of adequacy, never really made it out of Class Action.
But there were two characters who did: Cheryl Ladd (the aforementioned Miranda prototype) and the Dust Puppy. I didn’t know what he was when I first drew him, but I did know that I liked the way he looked. I had been scrawling, as usual, over my history notes, and I drew a very rough ancestor of the little guy that is probably the most popular character in the frames of User Friendly.
|The Face Behind the Funnies:J.D. “Illiad” Frazer|
I decided to keep him, and I introduced him as the most visible absurdity in my cartoon strip. My guy friends thought he was kind of freaky and liked him for that reason. The girls thought he was cute. For me, the main attraction was that he was really easy to draw.
Class Action didn’t really lead anywhere; it was more of a journal of high school life from my perspective. It did, however, plant the seed in my mind, and led to an attempt at the glory that is cartoon syndication when I was in my early 20s. At that time I drew a couple of weeks’
worth of a brand-new cartoon called, of all things, Dust Puppies. It featured a young boy named Timmy, who befriended a small ball of lint that spontaneously came to life from the dust balls under his bed. I sent the cartoons off to eight different syndicates, and every one of them told me what 99.9 percent of aspiring cartoonists hear.
So, disheartened, I shelved cartooning and carried on with life. Of course, this didn’t stop me from doodling little pictures based on my various jobs — most of them involving a mix of technology and creative work. This continued over the years into my job at Vancouver, BC’s Paralynx Internet, the ISP where I first started drawing User Friendly.
One day, in late 1997, I drew two cartoon strips and passed them around the office. Since the cartoons were based on experiences that actually took place among my co-workers, they were an instant hit. After I scribbled a few more cartoons, I was asked to put the results up on the Web, and that is where the cartoons went for a period of about a month.
After a four-week run, I let the cartoon lapse, thinking that not many people were actually reading them. A couple of days passed, and then I saw about a dozen letters in my mailbox from complete strangers.
The e-mails ranged from “Please don’t stop drawing User Friendly!” to “I will hunt you down and maim you if you don’t post the next cartoon!” Always one to take a hint, I feverishly drew four or five more cartoons to make up for the missed days and to give myself a little time margin to think about everything that had just happened.
From that point, the traffic on the site grew exponentially. I obtained the userfriendly.org domain and moved the site over to it, taking advantage of the move to redesign and reorganize everything.
By the time the summer of 1998 rolled around, userfriendly.org was getting a quarter of a million page views per month. By fall, it was a couple of million. The summer of 1999 saw the site pass the nine million mark, and the growth continues.
To say that I was astonished is a gross understatement. I continue to be amazed by the popularity of this office lark I started just two years ago.
A lot of people want to know who were my greatest influences and heroes in the cartooning world. It’s not hard to answer. Without a doubt, Berke Breathed, the creator of Bloom County, is my number one influence. Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury and Bill Watterson of Calvin & Hobbes have also been big influences.
Breathed taught me pacing and irreverence. Trudeau still guides me with his mastery of dialogue, and Watterson inspired me with the gentleness of his humor.
The characters in the strip are indeed based on real people. Every single one of the “core” human characters has a real-life analog, with the exception of Miranda, who was created from an amalgamation of a few of my female friends and my 12-year-old imagination. Erwin’s smarmy attitude and acerbic wit come from the Abyssal Plains I’m sure.
The Dust Puppy’s personality is styled partly after Berke Breathed’s kind-hearted Opus and partly from what I thought I and many others may have had at one point, but don’t anymore: innocence. It’s also been observed by some that the Dust Puppy can be seen as distilled essence of true hacker, innocence and a well-meaning nature coupled with unbridled curiosity and an intuitive sense of ethics.
Most of the stories and jokes in the cartoon strip do actually carry a grain of truth within them; this, I think, is the essence of User Friendly’s success as a vehicle for humor. As is usually the case, the most outrageous stories are the ones that most closely mirror real life.
The cartoon series where Greg is “picked up” over the phone by a female customer who was just dumped by her boyfriend primarily due to her love of Quake, rapport with the Internet, and sexual fearlessness was based on a true story. The reader who sent that story in was just relating an occurrence in his life and didn’t expect to see it turn into a cartoon. I think he forgave me, especially given that, unlike Greg, he actually did end up dating the lady in question.
I always view drastic changes in the strip with trepidation, but only two have really reared their heads, and I pulled one off simply by making it a mystery: Pitr’s fake Slavic accent. I really wanted Pitr to be dramatically different from Mike, so I quietly transformed Mike into a network engineer and hardware geek (which is also true of Mike’s real-life analog) and gave Pitr a bad accent and a matching bad attitude.
This had to come from somewhere, and hence were born books such as Evil Geniuses for Dummies and Evil Geniuses in a Nutshell. Of course, this all had to be explained, and it finally came to a head when Pitr went down the checklist of “Things to Do to Become an Evil Genius.”
The other major change was one I was loath to do, but it came to pass because of another real-life influence: Pfeiffer, the accounts-receivable clerk who appeared in some very early strips, was based on a woman named Pauline who also worked at Paralynx. When she left the company, I lost touch with the dynamic that she brought to the fray and had to simply drop the character.
This has since made me very careful about adding new “core” characters to the cartoon. Generally, I won’t do it unless I have a very clear understanding of how the character fits in the overall picture.
Today, User Friendly’s characters are pretty solidly established. The Chief remains the fatherly CEO of a small company, highly skilled in matters of management and strategy, though suffering from being a technical peasant.
The Smiling Man, who really does have a name, is the avatar of dread that all employees see in the one who writes the paychecks and reviews expense reports.
Stef is the marketing whiz of the company, unquestioningly able to sell anything that doesn’t quite exist yet, even if he doesn’t really know how it works.
Pitr is the epitome of the coder with a misanthropic, almost sociopathic attitude, and Mike is a fine example of a mildly dysfunctional network engineer with a good heart.
AJ has proven his poor grasp of reality but his talents as a creative worker have grown from his neglect of the line between what is fantasy and what is real. Greg is the typically stressed and frustrated technical-support representative — the company’s sacrificial lamb.
Miranda’s technical competence is ignored by most because of her gender and physical attractiveness, which is a common (hopefully becoming less common) problem in the IT field today.
Hillary, Tanya, and Cobb each require a great deal more cartoon time and character development, something I intend to remedy by the time this article sees print.
And that leaves us with the two most popular characters in the Columbia Internet universe; not surprisingly, neither is human: Erwin is the artificial intelligence that was in turn created by the Dust Puppy, a lintball with eyes and feet who has gratifyingly become an unofficial mascot for IT workers everywhere. The two characters have a very vague familial relationship and act more as best friends than father-son or creator-creation.
The greatest surprise associated with User Friendly to date has less to do with the volume of Web traffic and more to do with the character of the comic strip’s audience. An entire community of IT professionals, from front-line service representatives up to senior VPs of engineering has sprung up around the universe of Columbia Internet. They use userfriendly.org to connect with one another and to do what the Internet lets them do best: share information.
User Friendly attracts quite a few nontechnical readers who seem to enjoy the social aspects of the strip and the community, but the core readership is firmly entrenched in the technical camp. I learned very quickly that this audience is both motivated and outspoken, and they made it clear to me in a very nice way that they would really appreciate it if I would help them become a little more cohesive on the Web site.
The site became a central focus of the community (affectionately termed “UFies” [YOO-feez] by the audience members themselves) and Net-community elements began springing up like wildfire: mailing lists, a Web ring, an IRC channel or two, supporting Web fan sites, even a BBS and face-to-face meetings between UFies all over the world. All of this has come to pass not from my promptings, but from the grassroots of the community itself.
And it’s that community that has given me the greatest rewards on my path from unknown Webtoonist to fairly well-known Webtoonist. Every day I get letters that run the gamut from “I miss Erwin! Bring him back!” to “Make Money Quick!” but the ones that make everything worthwhile go along the lines of, “I was having a crappy day until I read User Friendly. You made me smile. Thank you.”
Nothing’s better than actually managing to cause someone to crack a smile or to burst out laughing. The best reactions involve the reader actually spewing some kind of soda on a keyboard or screen because the strip caught them unawares. (To set the record straight, I no longer accept responsibility for cleaning bills.)
I’ve noticed an interesting and gratifying phenomenon form around the cartoon and the community, something that might be best described as Open Source Cartooning. Although the cartoon and the characters within are intellectual property, I’ve noticed a sense of ownership and protectiveness for the comic evolve within the audience.
Many of the storylines and jokes in User Friendly are based on incidents that are e-mailed to me, so in some ways the open source model applies here. An individual sends in the seed of a joke, and I develop it and release it for public consumption. I’ll receive feedback on the cartoon and modify the future storyline based on what people suggest. It’s not code, but it is in many ways community-based and community-influenced development.
Of course, there have to be some negative aspects to the whole community thing, and one does affect me daily. There are many hundreds of thousands of people who read the strip, and only one of me. In and of itself that isn’t a bad thing, but when it comes to interaction between myself and the UFie community there’s a slight disparity in numbers.
I try very hard to answer everyone who mails me a question, and when I go to trade shows and conferences I make myself as available as I possibly can. I have the community to thank for the success of User Friendly, which is something that I’ll never forget. Ivory towers are rather expensive, and they make a pretty poor fit in the community that has evolved around the cartoon.
User Friendly has had the good fortune to grow into a success and — dare I say it? — a phenomenon that has a solid future thanks to the community that supports it so well. The cartoon just celebrated its second birthday, and from the way events are unfolding, I see many successful years ahead for the gang at Columbia Internet.
I have to confess that when I look back and consider the way everything has developed around the comic strip, I still feel compelled to fatten my reserve of advance cartoon strips, just so I can stop for a second and give myself a little time to think about what just happened.
J.D. “Illiad” Frazer is the creator and author of User Friendlythe Comic Strip. He has a real life Dust Puppy that he won’t show anyone because he’s afraid it might get stolen. The strip can be found each day at http://www.userfriendly.org, and Illiad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.