Alex Norris, aka Dorris McComics of Webcomic Name fame, approached the trend of relatable comics with a format that works through any number of layers of irony (including none) and from any meta spitting distance that his audience (of a quarter of a million on twitter alone) is comfortable with. He has created a three panel comic series so iconic that there is now a surreal mashup generator of the format that produces outcomes almost as satisfying as the original strips. See if you can tell which of the following is the one I created using the mashup generator.
If you only know Alex from the “oh no” comics though, I recommend a journey through some of his other projects. He has been tabling at events and conventions for a few years and I was very pleased to run into him at ELCAF last year where he drew me a custom Webcomic Name comic about my husband and my propensity for takeaway pizza. This year he is back with bells on and hosting a workshop on the Friday.
I caught up with him via the format of email to ask him some probing and less probing questions.
BROKEN FRONTIER: With a number of very popular webcomics under your belt, please can you give us a whistle stop tour of the chronology of your career and how your different approaches have overlapped and developed? From my shallow research, I noticed a Webcomicname format strip within the very first page of your Hello World! comic on Webtoon, was that an idea that germinated early and became a more standardised format later?
ALEX NORRIS: It’s a bit all over the place because I love doing lots of different things! While studying English Literature at university I did quite a few comics for the student newspaper, mainly about student life but mixed with weird body horror and visual gags. I later published those online under the pseudonym Dorris McComics (I thought it would be fun to present myself as an old lady), which I developed once I graduated and became my first webcomic series full of quite complicated meta-humour most of the time, while keeping it silly and as funny as I could.
When Webtoon started their English-language platform they asked me to do Dorris McComics there but I didn’t think it would work. I’ve always wanted to be an agony aunt like those who have newspaper columns, and decided that a love advice webcomic would be fun for Webtoon’s teen readership. That was How to Love. I did that for a year while doing Dorris McComics, and then pitched for a new series – I wanted to get out of the house more and turn my regular walks into something cool, so I pitched a photo-collage travel webcomic which I hadn’t seen on the internet before. I did that series, Hello World, until earlier this year.
While I was making Dorris McComics the internet became more about feeds than going to individual websites to read webcomics, so my weird and complicated layouts for Dorris McComics stopped working because people didn’t want to spend time reading things that didn’t fit in their feed. This was 2015, when “relatable” comics became massively popular and a genre in themselves, and much of the webcomic community lamented the surge in popularity for these comics over ones that were mainly about making surreal gags.
I would labour over each Dorris McComics comic and updates would be very sporadic, so as an April Fools gag that year I jokingly turned Dorris McComics into the the worst relatable webcomic, badly drawn with an “oh no” catchphrase and making the most obvious jokes, with 8 updates a day. That went down very well and those comics were more popular than any I had ever made before, which I found funny. I sat on that for a year before I realised I could make the “oh no” comics into a full series, and the more of them I made the funnier it would be.
I launched Webcomic Name in June 2016, and started Hello World just afterwards. Webcomic Name was reacting against the surge in obvious relatable comics, and Hello World was reacting against the stereotype that all webcomic artists are introverts that stay in the house all day. I put that “oh no” comic into the first episode of Hello World partly as a hint that I was the same artist who made both (it still isn’t very common knowledge) and because I thought it would be funny to seem like I was reacting against another webcomic series that I was also making. The lack of consistency and structure to Dorris McComics as a series always frustrated me so all my series since then have had very strong identities from the beginning.
I have a different approach to each series mainly because I want to achieve different things, but each time I want my comics to be accessible, fun and do something new and interesting. Webcomic Name is the culmination of a few years of making webcomics and learning how to make a cohesive series that I can play around with, and the one I am most happy with and enjoy making over all.
BF: Alex offered me the chance to insert questions in between his long answer to the first question to make his cleverness look like mine, but I have abstained from doing so because that would be more work for me and it clearly is unnecessary. Joke’s on you Alex you look clever all on your own. Here is my bleeding obvious second question instead:
What does the “oh no” blob’s voice sound like in your head?
NORRIS: This is probably my most-asked question, and I usually say it sounds like someone who is disappointed but used to being disappointed, or reading from a script. If I ever turned Webcomic Name into a video format, I would probably get readers to send in their version of the “oh no” and use a different one each time. I like that the “oh no” speech bubble is basically a visual motif now – because you see it so often as you read my comics it loses the verbal meaning and just becomes a symbol.
BF: Possibly in the future the “oh no” speech bubble will become the most ubiquitous pop art symbol in the world, it’s probably worth visiting Alex’s table to buy a print before it becomes simultaneously worthless and priceless.
A lot of your work dances that classic line between bittersweet and just plain bleak, but despite its consistently disappointed ending Webcomic Name seems often pretty joyful. Is this intentional? Do you think it’s born from the pleasure of an anticipated repetition? Does reading them in bulk induce some kind of fractal metagasm? Or am I just trying to impress you with long words?
NORRIS: My comics have always largely been about exploring the link between joy and sadness, and finding humour in despair, so I think when I started this format the mix of heartbreak and silliness just sort of came naturally and I like to take it as far as I can. Interesting things happen when you say two opposing things at the same time. I’ve always seen Webcomic Name as a sort of celebration of failure, and I think the mental twist in that prevents the repeated “oh no” from becoming completely depressing!
We all get the feeling sometimes that our life has become one bad thing after another, and we feel like it completely grinds us down, but in Webcomic Name I try to flip that around and celebrate it. All of this is helped by the fact that people love catchphrases and seeing something they recognise, and that it has lovely bright colours! I didn’t sit and plan all this beforehand but I think my creative intuition from making comics for a few years helped me pull all of these things together, and I analyse my own past work obsessively to see where to go next!
BF: Have you been tabling at events for the breadth of your career? How do you see the real world and web contexts feeding into each other? Which kinds of comic events do you prefer?
NORRIS: I didn’t do conventions or events straight away because I was a bit uncomfortable with breaking the separation between art and author that I wanted with Webcomic Name. I like that people come to me at events and say they never thought of Webcomic Name as having an author, they assumed it just existed on the internet. That isn’t very good for my career though so I’ve started to attach myself to it a little bit more. I’m very extroverted so I love meeting people, and it’s really fun seeing people laughing at my comics in real life, that freaked me out at first. I love all sorts of comic events but my favourite thing at the moment is doing talks about comics and my work (I could ramble on about it for days) so I’m looking for more events like that.
BF: What will you be offering at ELCAF?
NORRIS: I like keeping it simple so I will be offering nice prints of my comics, and some other surprise goodies. Sometimes I do personalised “oh no” comics about specific things in people’s lives, which I love doing but I need to be in the right headspace for it so I will decide on the day. We will see!
BF: You’re also running a drop in workshop at ELCAF on the Friday this year, can you tell us a bit about that and what attendees can experience?
NORRIS: I’m running a workshop where people can make their own “oh no” comics, basically to show that anyone can make them! The format is so intuitive and the style so simple that i think it is really accessible, which I think art should be. We’re providing comic panel templates and some art materials and attendees can just do whatever they like and get really silly, and share what they’ve made. There’s only limited space though so make sure you sign up quick!
BF: I’m sure this is another of the bleeding obvious breed of question but do you have any thoughts or plans for a printed book version of any of your webcomic series?
NORRIS: I’m working on the first book collection of Webcomic Name with a publisher at the moment, that should be coming out next year. I’m also working on some self-published mini-books of themed “oh no” comics! The first ones will be “Animals” (“oh no”s of the animal kingdom), “Disney” (collecting some comics I posted earlier this year about Disney movies) and “Future” (basically Black Mirror except three panels long and the depressing ending is just an “oh no”). I’m not sure when those will be ready – I’ve been busy with other projects but they are always ticking away in the background. I’m also obligated to talk about THE WEBCOMIC NAME EROTICA which will be an unnecessarily huge collection of very explicit erotic stories featuring the silly blobs (often ending in “oh yes”). I haven’t actually started work on that but I talk about it all the time to keep the hype alive, I really want it to happen.
BF: That all sounds unbelievably exciting, please remember us kindly with your review copies.
You can also follow Alex on Twitter here.