Unearthing Sara Zimmerman’s Comic Secrets
With that in mind I want to introduce one of the online webcomic world’s most active and well-known comic artists. Her comic, Unearthed Comics has become an inspiration for many others, including me. I have enjoyed her quick wit and gentle illustrations, and now I have the pleasure of publishing an interview with the well-loved Sara Zimmerman.
There is so much I want to say about her, but I think you came here to read about Sara and her Unearthed Comics in her own words. So here it is, an interview with webcomic artist Sara Zimmerman.
Tell us about Unearthed Comics
Q: When did you start Unearthed comics and why?
I’ve always made little comics as a way to cheer me up during dull work hours. But in 2012, I had had an incredibly tough year (a colleague had stolen from me to better his business and a client decided not to pay me after agreeing on a bunch of work). I was so hurt and frustrated. After months of moping and proclaiming “poor me,” I realized that I was playing the victim role too much and needed to get myself out of the muck. So I started Unearthed Comics later that year as a means to get out some of my frustration and to force myself into seeing the humor of my situation. Now I realize that these people were actually angels in disguise (I mean, without them, I don’t know if I would have jumped into webcomics full-force!). Anthropomorphizing the earth, giving life to inanimate objects, and drawing out puns became just the thing I needed (and continue to need), to get out of my funk and into the fun.
“Anthropomorphizing the earth, giving life to inanimate objects, and drawing out puns became just the thing I needed (and continue to need), to get out of my funk and into the fun.”
Q: What’s the inspiration behind this choice to start a webcomic?
I am a graphic designer and fine artist by trade. But the two fields never felt like the best avenue for getting out all my internal dialogue that’s locked up inside. And then I found it: The Oatmeal (by Matthew Inman) is a webcomic that I followed closely at that time and once I saw how he just tells it like it is, (flinging webcomics around that are saturated in profanity and often doused in a less-than politically correct nature) I knew that webcomics was going to be my thing.
Q: How did you come up with the name “Unearthed Comics”?
I’m pretty addicted to looking for the meaning in everything, digging deeper and deeper, “unearthing” the explanation behind why each little thing I see and hear comes into my awareness. Unrelated, I have a Bachelor’s in Earth Studies and have always been fascinated with the natural world. Slap those two things together and the word “Unearthed” seemed the best way to disguise my obsession in the form of comics.
Q: What’s Unearthed’s niche?
I’d say my niche is dynamic, changing to whatever I am concentrating on at the time, with some overall recurring themes of work/business/marketing, personal growth/health, parenting/relationships, and science/nature mainly because they reflect the constant variables in my life. But Unearthed Comics is not, and will not be, limited to just those…. No sirree! I’m wayyyy too spastic for constants like that. For instance, I learned a ton about the schmarmy things that happen in the political process this year so I created a series of political comics to bring those aspects to light. And recently, I am journeying at a million miles per hour down the scary road of personal growth, adding categories of self-help related comics into the mix. So, though I have some regular themes, I keep throwing new ideas in.
Q: After everything you’ve been through getting the webcomic off the ground, what’s your best advice for someone looking to start one themselves?
I’d say the best way to get started is to follow several different webcomic artists with large followings and take note of everything they do, from marketing, to setting up their store, to how they interact with trolls, etc. And no, Silly, I’m not saying be a stalker or post a million comments on their page… that would be spooky! But take note of how they run their business and then test out the waters by adopting certain practices for small bits of time.
Questions about growing the webcomic
Q: Can you recall your most successful comic in terms of views and engagement? Why do you think it was as successful as it was?
First of all, I just want to say that anytime anyone loves or shares my work, I feel pretty darn stoked. I mean, any external validation I receive helps me squelch the voice of my inner critic. So then it’s like a cosmic spasm of excitement when pages like George Takei and I F*cking Love Science share my comics (and actually remember to attribute me). Shares like those have had some incredible engagement and have boosted both my Facebook and Twitter followers. One of my most recently successful comics was my “Playing With Dolls” comic which Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls page shared. From that one share, I received 10K fans overnight. That felt incredible since this comic was a subliminal wake-up call to the public about over-reaching government mandates. (Seems like 10K people got the message I was hinting about, too!).
“From that one share, I received 10K fans overnight.”
Q: In a world of infinite platforms for distribution, from self-hosting to Tapastic, content mills like 9Gag to social media, what’s your take on a good overall distribution strategy for a webcomic artist? And where do your comics best engage the readers?
I’d say pick 3 platforms that you enjoy being on and really stay on top of them by posting and commenting regularly. Facebook, Twitter, and Tapastic have been the platforms that have had the most reader engagement (which happen to also be those places where I actually hang out on, too).
But I’ve personally spread myself thin and have leaned on some nice fans that have voluntarily helped me distribute on other channels like iFunny. It’s a lot of work and doing it right means limiting yourself until you have help or have figured out how to juggle it all. I still don’t have it figured out, but I keep trying (and failing). And then when I feel like stopping posting on a platform, some nice fan asks me to post more (and I am a sucker for nice people who like to commend me).
Q: Have you done/received many guest comics? Which is your favorite?
I have done quite a few guest comics for some of my favorite comic artists, such as Lunarbaboon, The Awkward Yeti, and The Oatmeal. I have also received some fan art from some of the nicest comic artists, including Lunarbaboon, Rain Dog Comic, According to Devin, Nineteen Letters Long, Bad Oranges, etc. But my all-time favorite was the hand-drawn note I got back from Matthew Inman (The Oatmeal), since he was one of the culprits that helped inspire me to start.
Q: You have so many active and loyal followers! You have an experienced background in marketing, among other things. How did you grow your following, and what’s your advice for newbies?
I’m so grateful for my fans! It took a while to grow my fandom (mainly because pleading, begging, and guilt-trips do not work). But, things really started taking off when The Awkward Yeti (Nick Seluk) posted one of my comics on I F*ucking Love Science for me. I cried and wanted to reach through the internet to give him a hug, but sent him a gift box instead. After that, I did fan art and interacted a lot with other comic artists. Some of their fans then came to be fans, too.
“But, things really started taking off when The Awkward Yeti (Nick Seluk) posted one of my comics on I F*ucking Love Science for me.”
Q: You have produced books of your comics. Tell us three things about that process that might shed some light on a webcomic artist’s decision to undertake that adventure.
I self-published two books, one as a Kickstarter campaign. It was a lot of work, but to be totally honest, the initial process was born out of these ideas:
- The lure of money
- The notion of success
- Being overly tired, drunk, and/or having delusions of grandeur
In the end, the books did nothing to really boost my income or fame. But it was a fantastic exercise for me in terms of patience, how to compile a book, and being ok with trying to sell “me” again and again. If anyone wants to indulge themselves in a pain-staking process that teaches patience and attention to detail, with the notion that it may not make you a lot of money and will require you to pitch it to your friends and family, then creating a book is a good way to go. (Aside: my BFF tells me weekly how the two books are her favorite bathroom books. Now can you see why I’m determined to make a third book?)
Qs about the webcomic’s illustration
Q: How did you ‘discover your voice’ so to speak; how did you develop your style?
I thought I would magically be awesome right away only to discover that I sucked at drawing humans and that this process was labored. So I practiced every day for a few weeks until I got a rhythm down. I used pencil on newsprint, drawing different body styles, different eyes, different mouths and different noses, finally adopting a style that became my own. But, as you’ll notice, my people in my comics have now changed, (e.g. no more split face Picasso-people or super long faces, etc.), but they still exhibit some overall elements that still make them mine.
Q: What is your process for creating a comic? Tell us about your tools.
I sketch my comics out in pencil on smooth Bristol board, then ink and scan that image. Once scanned, I clean it up in Photoshop. I import it into Illustrator and add color and text. I then bring it back to Photoshop to hit it with a subtle texture that is my signature. I feel like that texture makes it appear more “natural” approach to drawing (even though, when you think about it, using Photoshop and my computer truly negates that notion!). It’s a multi-stepped process, but now I have it down so it goes pretty fast.
Q: Any chance we can get a picture of your work space? Do you listen to music as you draw? Tell us about your preferred ambiance.
When I have a large project or paying clients, I am a recluse, returning to my home office to complete my work. And when I’m writing, I love it completely quiet. But when drawing or inking, I usually crank it up, listening to Indie, California, or Classical Rock, such as The Revivalists, The Mother Hips, The Band, Led Zeppelin, etc. My office is adorned in orange and teal, covered from wall to wall with my paintings (mainly because I ran out of storage space). (And no, no photos right now. My office is somewhat messy, so you can get an idea of what it kind of looks like by looking at my paintings. I have a drawing table but don’t use it mainly because I feel bad for spending too much “extra” time in my office away from my daughter once work is done. So instead, I push my daughter’s Legos out of the way and sketch out comics on the dining room table generally before breakfast while she watches.
Q: Of all the illustrations you’ve made for Unearthed Comics, do you have a favorite? Or favorites?
Here are some that make me giggle to myself:
Tell us about you, the real Sara Zimmerman
Q: You’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons from being the founder of one of the first for-women surf shops. Of all the lessons learned, which is most applicable to Unearthed Comics, specifically?
I started Paradise Surf Shop when I was 19 with a group of 3 other women. I desperately wanted to make something fun into my career and surfing seemed like the answer. I had no idea what I was doing so went to the Small Business Development Center and SCORE (both free business education organizations) to learn as much as I could. This shaped my life because it taught me what business is about and how to determine if something is a profitable endeavor. I now use this approach in any comics project or when people approach me for commission work so I can quickly determine if the project is worth my time. I also regularly apply the principles I learned about marketing and public relations when communicating about my comics, too. Yet, to this date, I still am a babbling mess in front of the microphone (note: I was interviewed by CNN and NPR for the shop, but I looked completely goofy! I still need to work on that).
“I regularly apply the principles I learned about marketing and public relations when communicating about my comics.”
Q: You are an accomplished artist, designer and marketer. Have you learned more lessons from Unearthed Comics that are applicable to your other work, or would it be vice-versa?
Comics have given me an international venue to play in where I get to explore with immediate feedback from people all over the world. It has shown me that being 100% my authentic self, (a.k.a. a goofy, awkward, and vulnerable person) versus some cocky, know-it-all, has benefits because it attracts other like-minded people who share in similar experiences. I’ve received some of the kindest, most thoughtful comments from people worldwide who connect with some of my more “vulnerable” or “self-help” style comics (i.e. those ones that were hard for me to create because they are such a window to my insecurities and the things I am working on from a personal stand-point). Receiving praise from people worldwide for stepping out of my comfort zone has shown me that bringing some of these scary thoughts to life is exactly what I am supposed to be doing. Comics has provided me this exact avenue for this lesson to unfold.
Q: Alright, more about you! I read that you like raptors, why’s that?
I like the idea of birds coming out of the air and ripping shit up.
Q: Swiss or Belgian dark chocolate?
Neither. I prefer this super expensive free-trade stuff from Madagascar… I’m looking into finding a sponsor to support this habit.
Q: Tell us something about you and the family that we don’t know that we’d like to know? 😀
My husband is a super talented singer/songwriter/guitarist and I am the drummer in his band. We no longer play out since we had a daughter, but we still play a couple times a week. (Hear our live recordings). Our daughter (who is now 7) is following in her daddy’s footsteps, playing guitar and singing all the time. I love my family!
“Receiving praise from people worldwide for stepping out of my comfort zone has shown me that bringing some of these scary thoughts to life is exactly what I am supposed to be doing.”
The future of Unearthed Comics
Q: The big question for some aspiring webcomic artists: has Unearthed Comics been a positive for your financially? Feel free to elaborate on your response here
I wish I could say “yes, comics has given me gold and riches.” But really, comics has not yet been a super profitable endeavor for me. If anything, I have used its viral nature to connect me with some of my larger web and graphic design clients (I own/operate my own graphic/web design firm sarazimmerman.net), as well as some fun illustration projects. Yes, I have made some money from my Kickstarter as well as some print-on-demand options and through self-publishing. But, to date, I am still making a majority of my income from running my own firm. However, I’m grateful that comics has brought me the clients it has and am pushing forward to grow.
Q: Where do you see Unearthed Comics a year from now?
I envision myself with a super awesome agent and publisher who is stoked to help me distribute a ton of the ideas I have circulating in my head out into the world. I still see me doing comics, but doing it almost full-time (with the income to make that happen) while adding some fun supplemental products to the mix. And if not, I’ll self-publish my next book and will unleash more Kickstarters.
Q: What are you dying to tell us? What’s something you really want us to know?
Do what you can to choose love over fear, (especially when the fear is coming from the media).
Thanks so much for taking the time to interview me!
Thank you, Sara! Thanks for spending time on these questions and I hope everyone who read this interview has been enriched by this bit of insight into your life.
Sara not only has a wonderful comic, she has things for sale to decorate yourself or your house or your significant other with. Don’t hesitate to explore her links.
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Sara’s day job
This one: http://sarazimmerman.net/
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