Li Chen is an artist and creator of Extra Ordinary Comics (Exocomics), a terrific webcomic with a passionate fanbase of readers spread around the world. Li was kind enough to talk to us about how she got started, her advice for aspiring webcomic artists, and how she makes the business side of webcomics work. Even if you don’t read webcomics or aren’t an artist you should really read this interview. She has a lot of great advice that applies to any creative venture or artistic pursuit. Her success really shows the power of persistence and following your dreams. Without further ado, here’s Li Chen!
Going back to the very beginning, when did you first start drawing and how did that lead to Extra Ordinary Comics?
I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. My family wasn’t very well off when I was a child so I didn’t have a lot of toys but I always had plenty of paper and pencils. That’s the beauty of drawing, it’s a very inexpensive hobby to get into. All you need is your imagination and a bit of perseverance.
After high school I decided to study architecture at university because I thought it would be a good way to channel my creativity into a career. But when I graduated it was really difficult to get a job. I was feeling stressed and upset so my boyfriend Jordan suggested I should get back into drawing. We’d joked before about making a comic together so I just started making small comics to take my mind off job hunting. I posted them on my personal Facebook account and my friends liked them so I just kept making more.
In the early days, how did you share your work? Was there a moment when you went viral or was it more of a slow build?
After I posted a handful on Facebook and got positive feedback from friends, Jordan suggested that we get our own website. (Fun fact: my site was the first that Jordan ever made and now he’s a full time web programmer!) It was a slow build at first, then Abstruse Goose kindly linked to my comic and we got our first spike in traffic. Jordan and I woke up that morning and our site was down because we’d run out of bandwidth. It was really exciting, I literally squealed. Since then it’s been a mix of slow build and occasional spikes, usually from places like Reddit.
I still draw all my comics by hand and scan them in to colour.
What was the moment when you realised you might be able to do Extra Ordinary full-time?
I started the comic in 2009 and worked on it at night and during the weekends when I wasn’t at work. It wasn’t until my first successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012 that I decided to quit my day job. I’m an extremely cautious person so it wasn’t a decision that I made lightly. To be honest, I totally didn’t expect the Kickstarter to do so well. We reached our target in just four days and it was only then that it sunk in that it was real. The campaign was to publish the first two volumes of the comic so I decided that it was the best time to quit since I would need six months off to design, publish and send out all the Kickstarter rewards anyway. I’ve been a comic artist and freelance illustrator ever since.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
This is going to sound cheesy but the answer is everywhere. I think most creative people would say the same. Your work is a reflection of your life and experiences so naturally you find inspiration everywhere you go. Sometimes it’ll just be a cool tree that I saw on a walk, or the way the light shines through a window. I try to capture all the little moments of life that makes me smile.
At Exocomics you’re both a storyteller and an artist. Can you talk about how you combine these two different forms of creativity into your comics?
Hmm good question! I’m a newbie when it comes to storytelling so I’m still learning a lot with each comic I make. The awesome thing about comics is that you can blur the lines between drawings, words and composition to communicate your story to the reader. That gives you a lot of room to be creative and whenever you alter something, it subtly changes how the comic can be read. Personally, I’m better at drawing so I try to use as few words as possible. If you can still understand what’s going on in a comic panel without words then I’ll definitely leave them out.
What tools do you use to create your comics and bring them online?
In the past I’ve been a bit reluctant to go digital and I still draw all my comics by hand and scan them in to colour. The hand drawing part of the process requires normal traditional media tools: paper, clutch pencil, kneadable eraser, steel rules, occasionally french curves. Once I scan them the digital tools I use are my intuos4 tablet and Photoshop.
I used to find computers really intimidating but now they’re an important part of my process. Nothing can beat the tactile sensation of drawing by hand though.
One of the coolest moments in my career was when I saw my books on the shelves of the library in my hometown.
You’ve run two successful Kickstarters. What did you learn from your experience on Kickstarter and is there anything you’d do differently the next time?
Oh man, my first Kickstarter campaign was such a crazy experience. I didn’t even think it would succeed so when we reached target I had a really hard time believing it was real. It made me realise that I have a group of incredibly awesome readers. Their support was so overwhelming that it made me cry on more than one occasion. Making comics can be quite a lonely job and I spend most of my time in the office by myself. Kickstarter taught me that there were people from all over the world who wanted to help me achieve my goals. It’s an amazing feeling. I don’t think there’s anything I’d do differently.
What has your experience been like on Patreon? Do you have any tips for other creatives looking to crowdfund their work?
Patreon has been really awesome! I was a bit hesitant to join in the beginning because I was worried that directly receiving money for my comics would change how I worked but it hasn’t been like that at all. My patrons already like my stuff and they just want to support me to do what I do. They are such a lovely bunch of people, I’m very grateful.
I’ve also done a bit of illustration work for Patreon and everyone I’ve interacted with has been awesome. They’re such an enthusiastic and friendly team and I love working with them.
What are some of your favourite Exocomics stories? Any interesting commissioned pieces or fun fan meetups?
One of the coolest moments in my career was when I saw my books on the shelves of the library in my hometown. I was a huge bookworm when I was a kid and spent hours in that library. It makes me smile to think how excited Past Me would be if I told her that her books would be there in the future.
Another memory I’m fond of happened when I was at a convention a few years ago. A man saw my books and came over to my table to say hello. He was a primary school teacher and he said he kept copies of my books in the classroom for kids that didn’t like reading. My comics don’t have a lot of dialogue in them and the kids found them funny and it helped them get used to reading. That was such a proud moment.
What books, movies, art, or other webcomics are you particularly fond of?
My work has been influenced a lot by the work of Azuma Kiyohiko. He’s a Japanese comic artist who made Azumanga Daioh and Yotsuba&! His work reminds me to always appreciate the little things in life and that’s something that I try to bring into my own work.
Many people dream of drawing their own comics – what advice do you have for someone reading this interview who is just getting started?
I get asked this question a lot and this is going to sound boring but the best advice I can give is just to keep practicing. A lot of people start with good intentions but then they get frustrated and stop. You won’t get better at something if you don’t keep at it. To quote Jake from Adventure Time “sucking at something is the first step towards being sorta good at something”
What’s next for Li Chen and Exocomics?
More comics and more tiny adventures!
All images copyright and courtesy of Li Chen.