Taking the Widdershins route: An interview with web comic creator Kate Ashwin

The frontispiece for the first Widdershins story, which Kate Ashwin launched in October 2011. Art © Kate Ashwin.
The frontispiece for the first Widdershins story, which Kate Ashwin launched in October 2011. Art © Kate Ashwin.

 

Regular readers of downthetubes will recall that earlier this week we plugged an upcoming Laydeez do Comics event in Leeds, which prompted me to follow the links to the creator sites, just to check they were correct more than anything else. While I was familiar with the work of guests Darryl Cunningham and Jacky Fleming, logtime web comic fans might be surprized to hear I wasn’t aware of the work of the third guest, Kate Ashwin.

I was in for a pleasant surprize, because Kate’s Widdershins comic, is an absolute joy to read. If you’re a fan of the work of Garen Ewing’s Rainbow Orchid or Herge’s Adventures of Tin Tin, this engaging, light-hearted romp should be right up your street. (You can read Widdershins right from the start here. Go on, we’ll still be hear when you get back in about three or four hours time…)

Kate Ashwin at Thought Bubble last year. Via Laydeez do Comics. (Kate stole this! Not me!)
Kate Ashwin at Thought Bubble last year. Via Laydeez do Comics. (Kate stole this! Not me!)

Kate is a highly talented British creator who has been putting comics on the internet for twelve years so far, and enjoying every minute of it. Her current project, Widdershins, is a set of Victorian-era adventure stories set in a magically-infused Yorkshire town, featuring grumpy bounty hunters, failed magicians, and more besides.

She also previously completed Darken, a fantasy comic focusing on the bad guys rather than the heroes, which followed the story of an evil overlord and his “minions” and their exploits in taking over the world.

On top of this daunting weekly schedule creating new Widdershins, she’s also contributed to both of the Cautionary Fables and Fairytales comic anthologies, and co-wrote a piece in Dark Horse Presents #34 with Kel McDonald.

We’re very grateful to her for taking time out of her busy work day to answer our questions about the world of web comic creation and Victorian wizards…

downthetubes: For the benefit of those of us like me coming so appallingly late to your work, what was it that prompted you to start creating web comics back, I believe, in the early 2000s?

Kate Ashwin: I was lucky in the timing, really, since I grew up and properly got into comics around the exact same time that people around the world realised they could put the things on the internet. I seem to recall that I read a lot of fan fiction at the time, as is now standard for teenage girls, it seems, and a creator whose name I’ve entirely and unfortunately forgotten had started a comic. That’s probably the point when it occurred to me that pretty much anyone could make one of these things, and it looked a lot of fun! So I got some free hosting, started a godawful strip that’s hopefully lost in the eddies of the internet, and fell in love with the whole comic-making process.

Having had a check, I seem to have started in 2002, which is a bit terrifying…

downthetubes: Indeed! But impressive… Was it hard to build an audience back then, when the web wasn’t as all-encompassing as perhaps it is for many people now – or easier because there wasn’t so much “internet clutter’ to distract readers?

Kate: I didn’t treat it as any sort of business until I started Widdershins in 2011, so I didn’t hover over my stats quite as much as I do now! Building an audience wasn’t a priority so much as making a thing and telling a story. With Darken, I’d joined a few forums full of other people who made comics- we’d read each other’s work, and link it on our own sites, and from there you’ve got the beginnings of a fanbase.

I’d be inclined to say that it’s actually easier to bring in readers these days, due to some excellent advertising and social networking resources that just weren’t around at the start, but it’s hard for me to say for sure.

An early page from Widdershins: Sleight of Hand. Art © Kate Ashwin.
An early page from Widdershins: Sleight of Hand. Art © Kate Ashwin.

 

downthetubes: For someone who has gained such a well-deserved following for their work, I was surprized that I didn’t immediately find any interviews with you. Have you had some pixies scrub the internet?

Kate: Heavens, it’d take more than pixies to scrub the internet clean..!

I’ve done one or two interviews recently that haven’t been published on the various sites that conducted them yet, since I’d imagine running a blog takes a lot of work! Honestly though, if it’s not in a speech bubble I’m not very good at writing, so perhaps it’s for the best.

Art © Kate Ashwin
Art © Kate Ashwin

 

downthetubes: Do Darken, which you completed in 2011, and Widdershins which is ongoing now, have very different audiences, or have your earliest fans happily followed you no matter what the subject matter?

Kate: Hmm. The two series have a pretty different feel to them, Darken was a little more… well, dark, whereas Widdershins is light-hearted, with little dramatics. I know I’ve carried over a few people who seem to like my style no matter what sort of thing I do, which is fantastic! But since Darken was loosely based on a Dungeons and Dragons game I played in, it picked up a lot of D&D/ fantasy/ gaming fans who’ll enjoy anything with an elf in it and the idea of a set of dice having been rolled somewhere in the background.

Some people don’t care for that at all, and much prefer Victorian era wizardly shenanigans, and they’ll read Widdershins and not bother having a look at Darken. It’s quite nice to have something for different types of people!

downthetubes: How has the Net evolved as a medium for comic strip for you down the years? Is it easier or harder to promote your work?

Kate: It’s a lot easier now! Infinitely so. Back in the day, a lot of people didn’t even know the term “webcomic”, whereas now it’s quite hard to be online without tripping over some strip or another. Networking sites like Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest and the like are a blessing for letting people know that you’ve got a new page up, a new book out, or whatever. New resources like WordPress and the various plugins for it make designing sites easier, there are more opportunities for monitizing with ad sites like Project Wonderful, and then there’s Kickstarter..

A page from 'No Rest for the Wicked'. Art © Kate Ashwin.
A page from ‘No Rest for the Wicked’. Art © Kate Ashwin.

 

downthetubes: Your strips follow what some might say is still a ‘traditional’ format – no continuous tapestry or odd layouts to take advantage of what can be achieved with digital delivery. Is that because you’ve found people simply don’t take to that kind of experimentation, or the simple practicality of ensuring your work can easily be collected for print?

Kate: I did play with it a little in Darken, but now I’m wanting to kick my past self because adjusting those pages for print is nightmarish. I like to keep things print format, which you could call unadventurous, but it’s not like there isn’t a lot you can do with a blank page anyway!

I do appreciate it when other people try it though – Allison Shabet’s bits of animation in Dead Winter and Sam Gwilym’s interactive vote-based evolving story Death is Certain spring to mind.

Widdershins by Kate Ashwin. © Kate Ashwin
Widdershins by Kate Ashwin. © Kate Ashwin

 

downthetubes: Your current project is Widdershins. What was the inspiration for that story?

Kate: It sounds a bit simplistic, but I’ve always heard you should write what you’d like to read, so I just collected up the elements I wanted to play with – magic, a Yorkshire setting, Victorian era – and pieced something together from there. It’s actually a series of loosely-connected short stories, which allows me to play with a lot of different ideas and characters.

downthetubes: Do you find that telling a web comic tends to lead to it taking a different route than planned as readers respond to the characters, or do you stick rigidly to your overall plan for a story?

Kate: There’s definitely a plan with certain points that are fixed, but I’ve been known to change things around depending on what seems to be working and provoking a positive reaction. Reader response is something that’s pretty hard to ignore, and if you’ve got the benefit of instant feedback as you do online, it’s not a poor idea to use it in some capacity.

You have to have your mental filter on, of course, I wouldn’t suggest taking every idea your fans throw out, but definitely keep an eye on what they’re saying.

Kate's web page design choice (the "Inkblot" wordpress theme) not only presents her strip well, but also affords prominent postioning for various means to fund her work -  ads, Patreon and more. Art © Kate Ashwin.
Kate’s web page design choice (the “Inkblot” wordpress theme) not only presents her strip well, but also affords prominent postioning for various means to fund her work – ads, Patreon and more. Art © Kate Ashwin.

 

downthetubes: It’s great to see from the Widdershins web site that you make a living from creating your comics. I’ve heard from other creators that they fully expect that it will take at least three years to build a web audience to numbers that will then afford string sales in terms of strip-related merchandise, for example. Is that true?

Kate: Thank you! I’m honestly very lucky to be in the position I’m in, and the circumstances that led here would be quite difficult to replicate. Three years sounds about right. In December I’ll be at that point with Widdershins, and I’m basically making minimum wage. There’s nothing especially lucrative about any of this, the battle is to make a living, not millions, and if someone’s interested in comics as a career it’s best to keep that in mind.

downthetubes: Are the print collections still a vital part of financial success?

Kate: Books are actually the backbone of my earnings! That surprises a lot of people, since the content is up for free online, but comic fans seem to just love a nice print collection to have on their shelf – I know mine is full of webcomic books! Other financial sources like ads simply can’t measure up.

Print is a ton of work, between finding a good printer, finding the funds for the print run, prepping the files, getting the word out, shipping and storing the boxes… but it’s very much worth it in the long run.

Art © Kate Ashwin
Art © Kate Ashwin

 

downthetubes: You’ve also used the crowdfunding site Kickstarter and the new social subscription site, Patreon, to support your creativity. Are these platforms “game changers”, or are we still trying to find the best way to earn a return for creating great stories?

Kate: Kickstarter is a definite game changer, yes! I love that site! It wasn’t open to the UK when I did the first Widdershins book, so I had to pay for that out of pocket, and it was terrifying. I wasn’t sure if I’d thrown a few grand down the toilet, or if I’d be stuck with a thousand books no-one even wanted. Now Kickstarter opened its doors, a successful campaign will not only let you pay your print run, it’ll gauge interest very nicely, and you’ll even have extra stock left over that you can sell at cons and online.

Managing a campaign is a real balancing act, though, and there are a lot of pitfalls. Research is a must, and ask other creators what they learnt from their experiences.

Patreon is lovely too, but very much In its infancy. It’s going to grow, though, or at least I hope so, since a voluntary subscription model is a perfect idea for the way the internet is currently set up. It’s always worth keeping your eyes out for the next big thing in funding.

downthetubes: What one piece of advice above all others would you offer aspiring comic creators, whether starting a single page or considering the creation of their own graphic novel?

Kate: Just do it! I see too many people worrying that they aren’t good enough to do a comic yet, but you’ll never know until you start. Pick a short story idea as an exercise to see how it feels, and just put pen to paper and begin. Don’t worry about being crap, we all started like that, and the only way to get better is to make more!

• Kate Ashwin is a guest of the Leeds group of the international Laydeez Do Comics project on Monday 19th May, along with Darryl Cunningham and Jacky Fleming. The event is at 6.30-9.30pm, Wharf Chambers, 23-25 Wharf Street, Leeds LS2 7EQ price £1.50 (donation) and are run by Louise Crosby. Contact: laydeezdocomicsleeds@gmail.com

• Laydeez Do Comics Main Site: www.laydeezdocomics.com

• Kate’s official site is at www.kateashwin.com, but there’s more elsewhere on the web: she has a tumblr at http://katedrawscomics.tumblr.com and you can follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/KateDrawsComics

• You can find Kate Ashwin’s Widdershins: Sleight of Hand, No Rest for the Wicked and other stories at www.widdershinscomic.com You can also support the strip on Patreon here, or buy e-Collections and print editions of Widdershins at: http://widdershins.storenvy.com

• Read Darken, Kate’s Dungeons and Dragons-inspired web comic at: http://darkencomic.com. There’s also an outline of the story here on Wikipedia

Reviews of Widdershins

• i09: Webcomic Widdershins is home to treasure hunters, magical kleptomaniacs, and spells gone very awry

• Mombsite: Widdershins: Sleight Of Hand by Kate Ashwin
A review of Widdershins by Michael Georgiou

John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John describes himself as is a "freelance comics operative", currently working as a freelance editor for TITAN COMICS, as Creative Consultant on the new DAN DARE audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the LAKES INTERNATIONAL COMIC ART FESTIVAL and LANCASTER COMICS DAY. John has worked in British comics publishing for over 30 years, starting out at Marvel UK, where he edited a number of the Genesis 1992 books with Paul Neary. His numerous credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine at Marvel and Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine at Titan Magazines, where he was Managing Editor. He also edited STRIP Magazine and worked as an editor on several audio comics for ROK Comics, including TEAM M.O.B.I.L.E. and THE BEATLES STORY. Most recently he is writing CRUCIBLE as a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and DEATH DUTY and SKOW DOGS with Dave Hailwood for the digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

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