An interview with famed comic artists Drew and Natalie Dee

Idling in the CrunchGear chatroom the other day, John says to me, that’s John Biggs, he says, “Why don’t you interview that guy from Toothpaste for Dinner?” I says to John “Why?” and John says “He seems like a nice guy.” Who am I to argue with John? Plus, the guy from Toothpaste for Dinner lives in Columbus, which is where I live, so I sent the guy an email. We had a little back and forth, and he introduced me to his wife, Natalie Dee, so I interviewed her, too. They are, in fact, nice people, and I really enjoyed interviewing them. I hope you enjoy reading my interview.

ME: Drew, you appear to be a man of many talents: you have a witty comic, you make music and music videos, you Tweet, make and sell merchandise… What was the impetus? Where did it all start?

DREW: I’ve been writing for fun as far back as I can remember. I set up my first website in 1996 while in high school, and in college, 1998 or so, I started putting short stories online. Later, I started posting little drawings, and eventually it all came together into Toothpaste For Dinner in 2002.

Natalie set her website up in 2002 as well, and we’ve been able to slowly build traffic ever since then. We’re hooked up with the biggest screenprinter in Ohio right now, but when we first started selling t-shirts, we had them hand-made by this basement guy out on the east coast. One time he printed a half-case of black shirts on navy blue because it was so dark in the basement he couldn’t tell they were navy blue. Needless to say, making t-shirts, or merchandise in general, is as much of a trial-and-error process as making an entertainment website.

ME: Is Toothpaste for dinner all you, or does Natalie help? What’s the dividing line on your collaborations?

DREW: Toothpaste For dinner is all me, and Natalie Dee is all Natalie. We’ve both made comics for I don’t think there’s anything where we’re both sitting in front of the same computer like kids doing a group project, but we do bounce ideas off each other.

NATALIE: Drew’s projects are 100% his projects. My projects are 100% mine. It’s not so much an “intentional bifurcation” as it is two separate people with their own shit going on. Drew had comics online similar to the Toothpaste ones online before we even met, and likewise, I had been drawing comics and making zines for years before I had any kind of website. Our respective artistic projects were something we had in common before we started dating, not something we just decided together that we would do. I think that the Married to the Sea comics I made created a grey area for people, and that one project we both had creative input in confused people over who did what.

There is no possessiveness over turf or whatever, because I have no interest in making Drew’s comics, and I don’t think he has any interest in doing mine. There is an exchange of ideas that happens — if I come up with an idea that I think is funny, but it doesn’t really fit the tone of my site, I will offer it to Drew, and vice versa. We help each other with non-comic related work, like Drew doing the programming on my site, but when it comes to making comics or videos or whatever, it’s one person’s creative idea, and one person working on it.

ME: So … is this a full-time gig for the both of you, or do you have day jobs?

NATALIE: This is our main gig. Drew has been doing his sites full-time since 2003, and I have been doing mine since 2005.

ME: Do you have a self-imposed schedule, or do you just post stuff when you feel like it? If you have a queue of work that is scheduled for publication, how long is it?

NATALIE: All of the sites update every day except Superpoop, which updates Monday through Friday. We keep a pretty decent backlog of comics waiting to go up, usually 4-6 weeks worth. Sometimes we have more, though, like when we had a kid last year. I knew I was going to be out of sorts for a bit, so I built up an extra backlog so I was able to take a nice hunk of time off, but my site still updated. It ended up working out for the best, because I got sick a month or two before my due date and was hospitalized for awhile, then the kid was born prematurely. Through all that, I didn’t miss a single update.

The tone of our sites might be irreverent, but we take our work deadly seriously because we are professionals. If people like my stuff enough that I get to do this full-time for a living, then I would be a dumbass to not take it seriously. My comic updates every day, because that is the expectation. I don’t like to involve readers in my personal life, so I don’t let my personal life interrupt the schedule of my site. I wouldn’t be able to not show up a few times a week at a regular job and still expect to get paid, and I don’t do the same on my site.

ME: Do you each act as muse for the other, or are your works mostly self-inspired?

NATALIE: I think drew and I both go about making comics in different ways, and most of the inspiration we draw from each other is just when one of us comes up with something that would work a lot better on the other’s site, or would better match the tone of the other’s site. When I think of an idea for a comic that is political or that I think Drew’s readers would appreciate more, i suggest he take the idea. Likewise, if he comes up with an idea that would be more illustration-based, or that my readers would appreciate more, then he offers it to me. If drew started inspiring my comics, i would be worried because my comics are usually inspired by pretty dark thoughts or ideas, and that wouldn’t bode well for our marriage.

DREW: I ask Natalie about a lot of the Tweets I write, because you can’t really delete them, and if something occurs to you, it’s really easy to just type it into Twitter and hit the button. There’s basically nothing that grosses me out so I like to make sure that 13,000 people aren’t going to simultaneously puke when their phone beeps and they look down and it’s something sick.

ME: Is that the only kind of self-censoring you do? Do you generally keep your audience in mind when you Tweet, or do you mostly just Tweet for your own amusement, and the fact that others enjoy it is a convenient byproduct?

DREW: Well, the point of what we do is to communicate with people, so if I think of something that’s too terrible to write or draw, I won’t make a comic of it either. It’s just that Twitter is so immediate that if you type it in as soon as you get the idea, you can hit “submit” before you realize that it’s maybe kind of gross or insensitive. It’s also pretty easy to post lame jokes on Twitter, as anyone who has used Twitter for any length of time can verify.

It’s easier to throw out comics that don’t work because we make them weeks ahead of time, and go through the pile every month to pick out which ones to post, and that’s a good way to reconsider the ones that are too gross, or just not funny.

ME: You don’t (appear to) allow comments on your comics or your blog. How do you engage with your audience? How do you know you’re on the right track, or do you not care?

See, I had this whole line of questions about how you stay witty and up-beat in light of John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. It’s something we deal with all the time at CrunchGear: we post something reasonably interesting or informative, and the comments can get overrun by fuckwads. If you’re not allowing comments, you neatly sidestep that problem. What other hidden benefits are there from not permitting comments? Are there any drawbacks?

DREW: I totally appreciate feedback. We publish our email addresses, and people can Twitter at us or post on our Facebook fan pages. Having people leave comments directly on the sites just seems counterproductive. Anyone who wants to write about our work is welcome to embed our comics into their blog and talk about them, or link to them from Twitter/Facebook and
post their opinion, etc. But nobody’s going to put one of my comics on their own blog and write “First” underneath it.

The idea behind comments is that you learn what your readers think of your work. A more effective way for us to measure this is to see what people are linking to on Twitter, which images get passed around blogs, what shows up on Digg/Reddit, and so on. I have no doubt that a lot of our readers are funny and write well, but like you mentioned, these people get chased out when the signal-to-noise ratio drops.

NATALIE: There’s never a space under paintings in a gallery where someone writes their opinion. When you get to the end of a book, you don’t have to see what everyone else thought of it.

ME: As communication and networking gets easier and easier online (Facebook, Twitter, blogging, etc), I think your point makes a lot of sense: you don’t need to provide the mechanism for interaction with people who like your work. They can find one another easy enough now.

But that wasn’t always the case. Twitter and Facebook are relatively new phenomena, and it’s only in the last couple years that setting up a blog became sufficiently easy for laypeople. To extend on your gallery metaphor, people at the gallery could discuss a piece together, and potentially engage the creator of the work at the gallery. Has the nature of your fanbase changed at all in the last couple years? Did (or do) you want to encourage your fans to interact with one another as much they might interact with yourself?

NATALIE: I think my fanbase has remained pretty consistant, obviously there has been immense growth in the number of readers, but the demographics of my readers has remained essentially the same. I would want to encourage my readers to engage each other MORE than they try in interact with me. I think they would get more out of interacting with each other, they could discuss what they like and don’t and bond with each other or whatever people do in fan groups. Frankly, I prefer to keep my interactions with readers to a minimum, because I think that when writers or artists get too involved in what their fans think about what they’ve done or what they think they should do, it spoils the project. It becomes less about the artist expressing themselves, and more about them trying to do backbends to make all their readers happy and make art that is dictated by the reader. I think an artist should be able to trust their own instincts and realize that sticking to their original vision will work better at attracting more fans. I mean, that’s how you got your original fans to begin with, and if your fans were so great at making comics, they would be doing just that instead of trying to be the ghost writer for yours. I don’t know ANYTHING about the people who write to me to tell me what they want me to do, so i can’t put too much credence in what they a demanding I do, and usually their ideas make me cringe.

ME: Looking at several other creative properties online, some very much strive to cultivate a community around the works. I guess the fundamental question I’m asking is: do you create for your own satisfaction, or do you create because you want others to enjoy it?

NATALIE: I create what i want to create, and there is no other option for me. I don’t do spec work unless someone is paying me directly for it. By staying true to what i want from my comics, my original idea is not diluted by what other people (who, incidentally, don’t have the insight into what *i* am working towards) want my comic to be. My comic is what it is, and it attracts people who are happy with it the way it is. If they want to read a comic by someone who will jump through hoops making comics about in-jokes they have with their comic buds, and put up polls and ask their readers if it is OK every time they need to take a shit, then they can pick from about a million other webcomics. That is not what is happening on my site, and i think my readers understand that and appreciate my comics as something that isn’t created by committee.

DREW: is, the last time I checked, the 5th-most-popular online comic. (Our other comics are less popular, Toothpaste For Dinner is somewhere in the top-20 and the others below that.) We’re not driving traffic in by hosting forums on the site, so that’s a pretty good clip, and I think it underscores Natalie’s point that our work stands on its own.

ME: If you weren’t creating for the web, do you think you’d still be doing this? That is, when the zombie apocalypse comes and the Interent goes away, will you still be creating stuff? How will you distribute it?

NATALIE: We were both creating art and comics and writing before anyone had the internet, so i think it is safe to assume that if there were no internet we would still do artistic projects, only distribute them in the same ways we did prior to having access to the web. If there was an apocalypse, i hope i would be among the dead, because watching the destruction on civilization and humanity, and then having to either wait to die alone or rebuild civilization myself would be a bummer, and i probably wouldn’t make comics as i would have no audience.

ME: Natalie: you said that if you couldn’t use the Internet, you’d still create. Do you think it would still be economically feasible for you to do so as a full-time gig, or would the costs of physical production and distribution change things?

NATALIE: I would still make stuff, but if the internet wasn’t around, I would probably work doing graphics work for a company rather than making my art as my main gig. I don’t necessarily think that everyone who makes art is 100% entitled to making a living making art that is completely self-serving like mine is. I don’t think that i am entitled to it, which is why I take it seriously and work as hard as I can, so I can take advantage of an opportunity that most people don’t have. I like creating stuff, and it is not necessary that I be the one who dictates what I make, I was perfectly happy doing design for other people, when I worked for graphics places and print shops prior to all this.

I think that businesses such as mine and Drew’s are a unique beast that exists on the internet alone. The comics are what we do, but we give those to our readers for free. We would never be able to have the reach, or be able to give our work to anyone who was interested in viewing it if the situation was different. By working on the internet, we can cast the net wide in terms of the people we bring in, because of the medium as well as us offering entertainment for free. We bring in so many people, and then a small percentage purchase merchandise, which is relatively inexpensive to manufacture and distribute in comparison to distributing daily content for free by traditional means. Perhaps I wasn’t totally clear when you asked before if I still would make stuff if there wasn’t an internet– of course I would, that’s what I do, but I don’t get my satisfaction from people looking at what I’ve made, I get my satisfaction from making what I want. So, yes, I would make stuff, but it is hard to say if anyone would see what I made, because when you are forced to distribute through traditional means you have to make a lot of concessions so none of your channels of distribution are interrupted due to conflicts of interest. I am more interested in making what I want, and potentially having nobody see it, than I am in capitulating for some publishing house or syndicate and making a name for myself making something that is cack.

ME: The Internet makes all markets local, in many senses. Specifically, it allows people to self-select what content they consume, which is great for unique content like yours. If you had to distribute without the Internet, how might that affect your audience? I’m thinking of other unique content, like, for example: the audience that appreciates that kind of humor is way too specific to allow xkcd to get distribution in most print publications (or at least newspapers). But the Internet makes it trivially easy for xkcd to reach people who appreciate it. I imagine the Internet has the same advantages for you. Would you change your work at all, or would you be willing to live with a smaller audience if the Internet went away tomorrow?

NATALIE: I think our sites are anything BUT local, and I believe the main benefit of the internet is that you can go from zero to global immediately. We get traffic from every country with internet access, and have shipped merchandise to every country with mail delivery. On the internet, you have a chance to showcase your work to absolutely everyone, all at once. In more traditional distribution models, you have to work from a local level, to a regional level, to a national level, and beyond. Every level is punctuated by some distribution point that doesn’t particularly care about what you are doing. On the internet, you can offer your unadulterated vision to everybody everywhere, without the input of people who are only concerned about numbers and cutting you out of your hard-earned profits. So, where someone using traditional means can reach 30 million people, they might only be making 1/4 of what i make with only a million readers, because everybody has their fingers stuck in traditional media’s pie. I am the only one who makes any money off my work, aside from the people we employ to manufacture goods and fulfill orders. I am not paying anyone 90% of my money to tell me I can’t do what I want.

The reason for my comics has never been to cater to a specific audience. I make comics every day with hundreds of thousands of readers and I made my comics every day when I had a thousand readers. I don’t pander to my audience, because it makes me hate my job, and I think it insults the intelligence of my readers, so, no, I wouldn’t change my comic to attract readers or have a larger audience. If i was unable to publish online, I would probably not pursue traditional publishing. All this talk of internet vs. other print options always sounds like an inferiority complex on the part of internet folks. Traditional media is shaking in its boots thinking about what we can do online that they could never compete with. The internet has dealt damaging blows to newspapers, book publishers, news outlets, retail establishments, and has changed the way we do almost everything. I
think that talking about the internet disappearing is about as fanciful as talking about what would happen if there were no radios, if not more so since the internet has changed things more than the radio or any other tech development ever has. We’re not going back. If some hell-pony galloped to Server Beach and laid waste to the entire internet, then oh well, I guess. I would still make art, but I would probably not make it as widely available because I hate dealing with people, and talking to them.

ME: What one thing do you wish people could better understand about your work or your process? For example, I’d like CrunchGear readers to know that I don’t always get to pick the stories about which I write. Most of them are assigned to me. Most readers don’t understand our process, so they feel no compunction against calling me an idiot or a poor journalist when I’m writing about something I’ve only just learned about. Of course, I’m sure some of them would continue to insult me even if they did know this. :( What are the frustrating aspects of your work?

NATALIE: I wish people more people would notice how much work i actually put into my comics. The overall style is childlike, but a lot of the comics are very detailed and take me a long time. I recently drew a nesting doll that took 2 or 3 days of sketching and planning and drawing. A lot of time, when people talk about my stuff, they are like OH SHE IS SO RANDOM WITH HER MS PAINT DRAWINGS, but nothing on my site is random, nothing is made on MS paint, and a lot of it took a lot of work. It is kind of insulting to work as hard as we do, then have people imply that it is just word salad because they don’t get what’s going on. It can be appreciated on the superficial layer, but also has more to it. If you think about what i present, you will see that most of my site is not about hotdogs or whatever, and is really just me holding a mirror up to society, and showing how disappointing it really is. That’s where my comics come from a lot of the time, and i think people’s expectations of what a comic is supposed to be stops them from reading more into what i’m doing.

Aside from that, i just wish people would be able to appreciate my work, and drew’s work on it’s own merit, instead of having to frame everything in our personal relationship. When drew has a new album, i don’t think people should want to interview me, because i had nothing to do with it. Likewise, i don’t think drew has any more insight into my thought processes as any of my other readers, because i make my comics and write alone, without his input. I realize it is a point of interest for people, but the way our sites are linked up, and our stores are linked up, is just a convenience thing since we file taxes together, not a suggestion that none of the sites stand alone on their own strengths.

DREW: Neither of us are programmers in any capacity. I can poke my way around a PHP file, but that’s about it. We have a part-time developer who codes new features for the site and fixes things when they break, but we don’t have the budget or time to jump into every new format of delivering comics. I appreciate the sentiment, which at its heart is just people wanting to look at our comics (albeit in a very specific way) but it’s impossible for us to code new platform-specific applications every few months. Thankfully, almost every new computer or phone coming out now has a web browser, which means that if people can read any other website, they can continue to read ours.

ME: What do you do to relax?

DREW: I like to cook, hang out with my daughter, make music… pretty regular stuff. I do not relax by doing yardwork. My neighborhood is all about yardwork. I’m allergic to everything so yardwork is always me out in the yard, covered in poison-oak welts, wearing a dust-mask and trying to breathe. There’s actually a picture of this exact thing somewhere. I won’t include it out of self-respect.

NATALIE: Hahaha i work. I spend most of my time taking care of the kid, so my comic-making time is the most pure, uninterrupted chill-out time i get.

ME: What are your favorite online diversions? What websites do you frequent?

NATALIE: I just read jezebel, and talk to my friends on facebook. I am not really the cutting-edge of web-surfing.

DREW: I mostly just read the news and flip thru image aggregators / synthesizer websites. Nothing too unusual. Once you get through the actual news it’s a long slog through Top Ten Ways Ninjas Are Better Than Pirates.

ME: Who is cooler, Macguyver or Thomas Magnum?

NATALIE: Francis Bacon

DREW: Hopeton Brown

ME: Are you each a Mac or a PC?

NATALIE: Straight Macs. I never even had a computer of my own until 2002 or 2003, and that one and every one since has been a Mac, and the only computers I used in school and doing graphics/design work were Macs. I am not computery and can’t program or anything, and PCs are just terrible. I get on one and I feel like an 80 year old woman, or like I am trying to find a place to enter type on the menu at McDonalds or something.

DREW: My dad brought home an Apple II and showed me BASIC and LOGO in 1983, and I started calling BBSes in 1989. It’s been Apples & Macs from then to now. At some point they changed the apple key to a command key.