MATT CHATS: Webcomics Wizard Scott Kurtz on Commanding His “Table Titans”

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Welcome to MATT CHATS, a weekly interview series in which I, Matt O’Keefe, talk with people of interest in the comic book industry. Whether they’re writers, artists, letterers, editors, retailers, etc. if they have something to say, I want to hear it and share it with you. Here’s a special conversation I had recently with webcomics maven Scott Kurtz.

Scott Kurtz is one of the original webcomic pioneers, having created PvP (Player vs. Player) nearly seventeen years ago and making a living writing and drawing it for almost as long. He eventually launched a spinoff of PvP named Table Titans about friends playing a role playing game that’s taken on a life and legacy of its own. I spoke with Kurtz about the huge-and-still-growing webcomic series, the role the owners of Dungeons and Dragons have in the comic, building an online empire and more.

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What were your initial hopes for Table Titans creatively, professionally and personally?

My hope with Table Titans was to create a comic book that captured the spirit and joy of tabletop roleplaying. I’ve personally wanted to make a fantasy comic for many years, and after a reader survey revealed many of our fans were into tabletop gaming, it seemed a perfect topic. We’ve been telling stories for years at our kitchen table that nobody but our gaming group is aware of. What an amazing opportunity to tell them to a wider audience and simultaneously encourage them to tell their own stories collaboratively with friends.

How do those hopes compare to where you are now?

All of our hopes with Table Titans have been fulfilled and exceeded. The comic is doing gangbusters. In only two years it has the same traffic as PvP on days we post new strips. That’s more than we could have ever hoped for. And every email, and fan interaction at cons involves someone telling us how they started playing D&D because of the strip or one of our podcasts about gaming.

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You brought Steve Hamaker on to color Table Titans, but choose to leave the pages black & white when he’s unavailable. What brought about that choice?

Steve is always available. It’s just that sometimes I’m late getting pages in to him where it works inside his schedule. So on those days, we run in black and white and then once Steve gets the time to color them we pop them up. It’s my problem. Steve is a monster.

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How did the collaboration with Wizards of the Coast on Table Titans come about?

We had an existing relationship with Wizards from our D&D podcasts and live shows we do with Penny Arcade. So we talk all the time. And we ran the idea of Table Titans past them at the early stages of outlining the comic. They loved the idea and we talked to them about the possibility of working in a marketing partnership with them on it. They promote the comic, the comic promotes D&D. Win-win, right?

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Do you have to jump through many hoops to use their characters and concepts?

Not really. We’re not an official Licensee. It’s a marketing partnership. So they’re very hands off. There are a lot of things I can put in the comic that, while are a part of D&D, aren’t owned by Wizards. Orcs, Elves, Dwarves, Dragons, Goblins, Clerics, Fighters, etc. I just don’t get in trouble when I drop in something they do own like the drow or a beholder or displacer beast.

How involved is Wizards of the Coast in the storylines in Table Titans?

Not terribly. We talk all the time about what they have coming up as far as their campaign settings and if it interests us from a story level, we get to incorporate it into the comic. Season one of the comic centered around their campaign to reintroduce the idea of D&D as a collaborative storytelling exercise. We focused on that theme quite a bit. And season two lined up with their “sundering” campaign (sort of). So we see what they’re doing and if it ignites an idea we run with it. But these are our stories. They’re very hands off.

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What are the big benefits of getting to use the Dungeons & Dragons content in Table Titans?

The biggest benefit is that we’re associated with Wizards of the Coast and they promote the strip on their social media sites. We’ve also worked with them collaboratively on a couple of non-comic projects. We’ve jointly made a beholder dice bag and a vinyl figure of our main character Val standing triumphant over a beholder. Those projects are a lot of fun. Plus I grew up playing D&D and so it’s the game I want reflected in the comic. I could have just made up a fake game they were playing, but how great is it that they get to play D&D. Just like we all do?

Are there ever times you wish you were using creator-owned characters and setting instead?

All of Table Titans is creator owned. We own everything we create. Sure if we drop in a displacer beast or a drow (as we have done in the two years we’ve produced the strip), Wizards owns those characters. But it’s worth creating an antagonist from the pages of the offical Monster Manual for our characters to go up against. And in the end, we own Table Titans. We’re also currently working on our own campaign setting which we’ll be featuring in the strip in upcoming seasons. We wanted to show the natural progression players take. Season 1 was D&D encounter groups (what you do when you’re learning). Season 2 is a purchased campaign setting. Season 3 and beyond will show the Titans playing their own home-brew setting. And in the real world, we’ll be building that setting ourselves.

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How business minded would you say a lot of your creative decisions are?

It’s impossible not to be business minded about all the decisions you make. But at Toonhound Studios, we make what we love and find a way to monetize it afterwards. We try not to put the cart before the horse. I’ve also been lucky to have found a business partner in Cory Casoni (formerly the marketing director at Oni Press, currently the Director of Business Development & Brand Management at Toonhound Studios LLC). Cory came on board about 3 years ago and we’ve been building Toonhound Studios into an American Mangaka. That’s why we work with so many talented people on all of our projects like Dylan Meconis, Brian Hurtt, Tavis Maiden and Steve Hamaker. We’re trying to build the independent publisher of the future here. And having a ball doing it.

Are you setting out to build a webcomics empire, or is it happening organically?

It’s happening organically. And it’s nothing that I had any interest in until I hired Cory. His first couple of years were spent undoing all the mistakes I made on my own over the first 15 years of my career. HA HA!. Then once all the old business was settled we sat down and said “What’s next?” Honestly, I handn’t thought much past “I want to be a cartoonist.” So that’s been a difficult but exciting and challenging question to try to answer. We are always trying to remain fluid and lean and ready to adapt. Things change so fast in this industry. We always want to be creating new content and trying things that challenge us and scare us a little bit. So yes we have plans. But to say we’re trying to build an “empire” is a little far reaching I think.

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You eventually stepped away from The Trenches, and helped bring in and guide the new artists on the series. Would you ever do that with Table Titans one day?

We’re already doing it. Brian Hurtt will be taking over drawing duties on Table Titans for the next season. He’ll be writing and drawing a story with a side group called the Dungeon Dogs. Meanwhile I’ll be busy drawing the next Table Titans adventure and we’ll move the comic from posting 2 days a week to 4. Tavis Maiden (tenkoking.com) is also working on a new project with me that takes place in the Table Titans universe that’s so crazy and hilarious It’s hard not to talk about it. And I’m writing PvP now with Dylan Meconis, so everything at Toonhound is a group effort. Working collaboratively is my next step as a cartoonist and it’s making all of our work better across the board. Hands down.

How do you see Table Titans (and PvP) evolving as time goes on?

Who knows. I’m equally nervous and excited about it. I just turned 44 and PvP is turning 17 in May. I don’t see myself ever stopping either strip. I love making them so much. I still love writing and drawing PvP after over a decade and a half. I want to join my heroes Stan Sakai, and Sergio Aragones in celebrating 20 and 30 years of making the comic. Same goes for Table Titans. I can definitely see myself creating new comics and characters and working with others to carry on PvP and Table Titans with my guidance while I work on other things. Another hero of mine is Jim Davis and he built an amarican Mangaka at PAWS. A lot of people give him shit about that or look down on him for it. But they respect and honor Miyazaki for working the same way. Makes no sense to me, but it’s all cultrual. I know the benefits of collaboration and I intend to do more of it as my career continues.

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You can find Scott on Twitter and his simply excellent podcast Surviving Creativity. Check out Table Titans if you know what’s good for you.