Like many, I was introduced to Dan Berry through his informative and enjoyable podcast Make It Then Tell Everybody, where Dan speaks with another cartoonist about the craft of comics. I found myself equally delighted by his comics, which feature thoughtful writing and an art style that expresses so much character with so few lines. Until his 2018 Top Shelf title The Three Rooms in Valerie’s Head, his work was largely comprised of short-form comics. I interviewed Dan about his transition to full-length graphic novels, becoming a full-time cartoonist, launching a new Patreon, and selling his comics through Gumroad for the first time.
What made you decide to leave teaching to become a full-time cartoonist?
The short answer is stress. Although I really enjoyed much of my time teaching comics, it was becoming increasingly difficult to do it effectively where I was. It was taking an increasing toll on my health so I had to change something.
Have you found that your years of hosting Make It Then Tell Everybody helped prepare you for the business of making comics full-time?
I’m not sure anything can prepare someone for making comics full time! It certainly helped me understand that there really isn’t such a thing as ’normal’ and that everyone’s approach is different. This has helped me not beat myself up too much about my workload or schedule. It’s more important that I’m a healthy person first and a healthy cartoonist second.
Did anything surprise you about the transition, despite everything you learned from conversations with other creators?
Not particularly. I’d been making comics for quite a while alongside teaching comics, so there weren’t really any surprises there. The surprising thing was how long it took me to recover from the stresses of teaching. I’d estimate that I was still in ‘panic-mode’ for at least six months after leaving my job.
Did you start work on Erased by Wolves immediately after you left teaching or did it begin sometime later?
I’d had some ideas ruminating in the back of my head for a while about and was interested in doing a silly story about teenagers with special abilities. It’s far from finished, and I’m still in the process of solidifying it in terms of tone and style, but the more I’ve worked on it and spoken to others about it (especially Christian Ward and Danielle Corsetto, who were both incredibly useful sounding-boards for this), the more I’ve begun to realise the potential for using this story to talk about my own experiences growing up poor on a council estate in the 1990s.
Does sharing your progress through Patreon serve as extra motivation to produce pages?
Yes, it’s a great way to help keep yourself on track. Since the pandemic and lockdown, it’s become far more challenging to maintain a schedule as my wife is still working and I’m trying to keep my kids on track with their school work. The knowledge that people are interested in and supportive of what I do is humbling.
Did your experience running a Patreon for Make It Then Tell Everybody help prepare you to launch one for your comics work?
Yes, it was useful to be familiar with how Patreon works, what to expect, and how to lay out the offer.
You recently released your comic book shorts through both Patreon and Gumroad. Did you find that some customers preferred to buy them outright versus paying an ongoing subscription?
Yes, I think so. I like the idea of choice. The Patreon has more detail in the behind-the-scenes stuff, whereas the Gumroad is just the books.
Do you find comic book shorts more challenging to monetize than standard-length comics or graphic novels?
For me, they work slightly differently. When I do an independent book, I am in complete control of pretty much everything. I print and produce them myself, I deal with all the fulfillment myself and so a short for me can be a very rapid way to monetise a short story. When it comes to graphic novels, they tend to take far longer to actually get to the reader. I don’t see either as more or less challenging than the other though, they just work to different timescales.
Have you considered collecting some of your shorts into a graphic novel?
I’ve considered it, but I think I’d prefer any collection of my work to be of new stories.
How does the experience of creating short comics compare with working for an extended period of time on one graphic novel?
I really like the immediacy of drawing short stories or diary strips. They tend to be far more impulsively created. A longer comic or graphic novel, on the other hand, I feel I have to take more time to ensure continuity, location, and consistency. It’s a lot more involved than autobiographical work for me, that requires more research and reference to do the story justice. Autobio for me is easier in comparison as I already know everything about the main character!
You’re drawing another graphic novel for Top Shelf, writing and drawing Erased by Wolves, hosting a podcast, and running two Patreon accounts. How do you balance all of those responsibilities?
Well, the short answer at the moment is ‘barely’. Under normal circumstances, I assign a day or two for each task during the week and then approach it like a full-time job, putting in the hours until it’s done. At the moment, with my kids at home all the time, the stresses of money, staying healthy, freelance work becoming more scarce, and projects being suspended makes everything far more challenging. There’s a lot of uncertainty at the moment.
Matt Chats is an interview series featuring discussions with creators or players in comics, diving deep into industry, process, and creative topics. Find its author, Matt O’Keefe, on Twitter and Tumblr. Email him with questions, comments, complaints, or whatever else is on your mind at firstname.lastname@example.org.