The year was 2006, and Ideal Comics had just made the leap into the wild world of webcomics. We chose Comicgenesis as our host. I actually have no idea why, but for one thing or another, there we were. In hopes to connect with other creators, I started perusing about the other titles and their message boards hosted on the site. It was around then I first heard of the Cornstalkers. The Cornstalkers were a group of webcomickers, mostly from Middle America, who hosted their own message boards at www.cornstalker.com. That site had been started by Matt Johnson, the creator behind a little webcomic named ‘Cortland’.
Now, when I first ran across ‘Cortland‘, I read a few pages and then decided to give it a pass. For no particular reason, it just failed to grab me. Maybe it was the Mac in-jokes or the fact I had recently left the corporate world for the world of private-non-profits—I really can’t say. Robert Frost once said some stuff about a fork in the road—brother, I think I took the wrong fork.
I recently stumbled upon ‘Cortland’ again, and I was blown away by what I found there. What Matt did with his story was nothing short of remarkable–a blending of subtle nerd humor and a mundane slice-of-life comedy, all folded into a tapestry of a post-modern tech-epic. It is a wild, rolling Nerd fantasy that is grounded in a way that makes the characters even more than believable. And all of this wrapped in the dressing of a tangible and authentic Nebraska– from the sites and scenery of Lincoln, to the beauty of our prairie sunsets, and even to our obsession with a restaurant called Runza.
By the way, you read that right. The Godfather of Millennial Hipsters and Baby-Boomer execs alike is, in the pages of ‘Cortland’, a certifiable super-villain.
The comic itself begins as the story of 20-something graphic designer and Macintosh-o-phile Terry Cortland. Terry’s tale begins as an office comedy, but before long, we are introduced to the Dark Lord, I.T., and his minion, The Consultant, whose goal is to confound Mac users everywhere, starting with Cortland and his pals from Wieser Graphics. And this is just the beginning, as we discover that the Dark Lord is just one spoke of a much grander scheme to rule the world through all manner of technological mischief, all overseen by the mysterious, maleficent Lord Fate and the Council of Supervillains. What is a graphic designer to do?
Cortland’s journey was a crazy one that ended in 2008 when Johnson closed out the story, transferring most of the cast to another comic, ‘Out at Five’, another workplace comedy–but this time without the sci-fi adventuring. Over all, the stories center around workplace relationships, and how these acquaintances change into something more without us even knowing. Something that can shape our world, and sometimes give us something worth fighting for.
I had the pleasure over that last several weeks to spend some time emailing with Matt Johnston and discussing Cortland and his other work. We’ve split this interview into two parts, so be sure to check back in tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion!
R: What was it that drew you into cartooning (no pun intended)?
J: …I would have to say that my main inspiration came from Bruce Blitz and his series of videos and kits for drawing cartoons and comic strips. In the late 1980s, my dad owned an art supply store in the local mall, which meant every Christmas was filled with art supplies, sketch books, and gifts like these. I had been reading the funny pages of the local newspaper for many years already, and the how-to materials from Bruce Blitz made it sound like drawing a comic strip for a living was something just about anybody could learn how to do, so I immediately grabbed onto the possibility as my dream job. I filled sketchbooks full of cartoon characters and little comic strips of what I anticipated could one day be regular three or four panel gag strips in our own newspaper and never really stopped after that.
J: [T]he main reason Cortland stuck was that it was “drawn” mostly from my own real-life experiences. At the time I started drawing the strip regularly, I was working at a little print shop not unlike Wieser Graphics, and most of the story-lines and gags came from the frustrations I experienced on the job. I found this to be a great source of comic material, and I would tell people that if I ever “made it big” in the comic world, I’d have to keep my day job just to get new material every day. A good portion of the comics I draw both in Cortland and Out at Five are inspired by actual events (practically everything that’s not directly Apple-related or sci-fi parody).
R: When you started Cortland, did you intend the epic scope of the story, or did that scope just sort of blossom?
J: I’d originally started Cortland as a full-color comic, but when I discovered how much more quickly I could whip out comics in a black and white format, I began experimenting with a few more complex story arcs. Doing longer stories like this was also much easier than coming up with dozens and dozens of “daily gag” comics, each with independent one-shot jokes. I was doing my best to update every weekday at the time, so being able to produce content to draw was pretty important. I had originally envisioned Cortland (and later Out at Five) of being more of a “daily gag” comic, but I started seeing some fun possibilities with longer stories that involved a fictional history of Apple Computer and some of the stories and urban legends I’d learned about the company over my many years as a Mac user. Eventually, Cortland evolved from an Apple-based Dilbert comic to more of a Pirates of Silicon Valley meets The Da Vinci Code, and it wasn’t entirely
R: Looking at the whole work, the transition of gag-a-day to techno-fantasy epic is certainly visible, but you kept enough G-A-D/slice-of-life elements in story that the whole saga felt very contiguous and comfortable. Was there a particular point in the story were you chose to jump the rails, as it were? And at that point, how much of the ‘big picture’ did you have figured out?
J: There were several points in the story where I felt I needed a break from the current plot or characters just so I could figure out where the story was going to go next. Almost anytime you see the comic shift gears into a series of “Forumies” comic, that’s exactly what’s happening. For about half the time I was drawing Cortland, I was entered in the Daily Grind Iron Man Challenge trying to draw five comics every week (a challenge that’s remarkably still going on). That meant that I needed to come up with content regardless of whether I had a story or not, so I often had a bunch of gags or ideas to pull out every now and again when I needed time to figure out what was going to happen next. Other times, I had the urge to try something new (such as the January 30, 2006 comic, where I changed the orientation of each comic and tried a little shading in the background).
As for “big picture,” I usually had in mind which major villain the characters were eventually going to face down the road and would write the story backwards to lead up to this confrontation. This was especially true with the “Lisa” cyborg, which I had planned out at least a year in advance. There were other plots I wrote that wound up getting changed down the road for one reason or another. In the September 23, 2005 comic, for example, Todd make a reference to unveiling his revamped Cortland operating system at an expo, which was originally going to be when Lisa first appears to try to take him out. This got changed later when I decided it would be more fun to have Silvio and the guys from Nemesis Design take over Wieser Graphics. I usually had a good idea of where the story was going, but it evolved quite a bit as I was writing and drawing it. I was often very grateful to have given myself a target far enough in the future to shoot for that I could rewrite the story leading up to it without ruining anything.
R: And is it just me or did Silvio seem a lot less evil in OA5?
J: And yes, Silvio is definitely less evil in OA5 — he’s had time to cool off from his days of plotting arson and other mayhem with the villains in Cortland. He may or may not have reformed.
I suppose that is all the space I have this time out. Be sure to come by tomorrow for the wrap-up!
Mathew D. Rhys
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