VIRAL-NESS, YOUTUBE CRITICISM, and WHAT’S NEXT
For those just joining the Camp Redblood crew, here’s a quick recap of how we got here…
In late 2013, I was working a middling job at a middling company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing occupation-wise (I’m still not to be honest, but I do enjoy the work I’m doing at my current job, a firm that’s anything BUT middling). Anyway, one day the company hosted some sort of tech fair, in which several vendors showed off cool gadgets and products. There were booths and presentations, and there was a guy giving free massages (my chief reason for attending). In other words, it was the boring adult equivalent of having a school holiday party–half the day was working, the other half was pizza and fucking off until it was time to get back on the MBTA.
Anyway, one of the companies that showed up was Microsoft. You might sense where this is going. Fresh from a killer 10 minute massage and encouraged by some excellent friends and coworkers, I moseyed on over to the-booth-that-Gates-built. There I listened to five seconds of a pitch about how awesome the Microsoft Surface 1 was before I held up my hand and said, “I gotta be honest, I’m really not interested in a tablet, but here are some cool drawings I made with one of your… other products.” It wasn’t the smoothest pitch in history, but it impressed a very special woman named Barrie Mirman, who passed it on to someone, who passed it on to someone else, and in January of 2013, Microsoft’s New England Research and Development blog ran a story about me.
Now, at this time, Camp Redblood was nothing more than a failed horror screenplay alternately titled Last Stand at Camp Hawkeye and Something’s Out There… However, when I saw how far my weird MS Paint hobby had brought me, my inner hustler was awakened. If I could get Microsoft to do a story about me, I sensed the potential to fulfill Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” prophecy… in other words, the potential go viral. I’d already made the front page of Reddit a year or so before, when my girlfriend posted one of my Harry Potter illustrations there. MS Paint was already inextricably connected to the birth of Camp Redblood (see here), but now it had a shot at getting Redblood to the next level.
After some hand-wringing over whether I should create a Paint comic book or a novel, practicality won the day, and I wrote it as a prose novel with illustrations. This would later lead to some misconceptions in the press, with many outlets referring to the book as a “graphic novel”, which I totally understand. My illustrations look like comics, or even animation cells from a cartoon—not entirely matching the very R-rated tone of Camp Redblood. As it happens, I did make some proof-of-concept comic pages, but to do it as a comic would have required me to quit my job, and brother, I just don’t have that kind of capital.
So two years went by, during which I wrote my first book. I wrote on it the Orange Line, I wrote it on the Red Line. I wrote it in my cubicle. I wrote it on park benches. I wrote it in the Algiers Coffee House in Harvard Square, drinking pot after pot of jasmine tea, waiting for my girl to finish the late shift at her job. I wrote it at three different apartments, on God knows how many notebooks, and typed it on at least five separate computers. I self-published to Amazon Kindle and made like ten bucks from those family members who were kind enough to buy it (even if they didn’t own a Kindle). That first edition, published in April, 2016, did have a few illustrations, but they were little more than black and white line art, nothing that would attract attention. I knew I’d have to wait until they were done in full color before really putting it out there.
Another year went by.
May, 2017. I finally release the “Special Edition” with eight full-color “MS Paint-ings”, the most I’ve ever completed in one year (buy it here!). I posted them to Imgur just before lunch on a bright day in late May, and at just the right moment—using the novelty of MS Paint to go viral had been the plan from the beginning, but it was a plan that always hinged on a certain amount of luck—and then I went to lunch. By the end of that lunch I had several thousand views on Imgur and, for once, more upvotes than downvotes. The next thing I knew, I was fielding interview requests and Microsoft had invited to fly me out to Seattle to join the Creator Council for their new program, Paint 3D. It was my first time on a plane since 2007, and it was pissah.
Fast-forward to late August, and my stuff has gone viral twice over since May. First was July when Microsoft announced it was done with MS Paint, and now again with the release of the awesome video produced by the talented folks at Vox.com. The video has racked up over 700,000 views, and peaked at 19 on YouTube’s top videos. Both of my Facebook pages have received over 600 new followers in less than a week, which is why I’ve written this little abbreviated history.
THE VOX VIDEO
I can’t overstate how honored I am by the video Phil Edwards and the rest of the team at Vox put together. It’s so well-edited and informative that even listening to my own voice (which I hate) didn’t bother me as I watched it. Even before the video was released, many people warned me against reading the comments, as YouTube’s comments section isn’t exactly known as the bastion of sober, respectful discourse. While much of the comments have been positive, ego-boosting bursts of praise, there has been some legitimate criticism of the illustration itself.
To receive this criticism is, in itself, its own kind of honor. It means that, at least for the moment, the discussion has moved beyond “Why don’t you just use Photoshop?” (I’ve provided many answers to this, but it always boils down to 1. I don’t fuckin’ feel like it, and 2. We’re only talking about this BECAUSE it’s MS Paint.) So I’m only too happy to see commentators like “Juliette” rip on the piece a little, because it also means people are taking it seriously. While I appreciate all the nice folks who have sprung to illustration’s defense, I thought Juliette’s assessment was pretty fair. In my own defense, I would just say that this project was somewhat rushed because of a deadline, and I was working on a much smaller canvas than usual, which is why the seams of Paint show a bit more—the larger the canvas, the less you see those somewhat jagged Paint lines.
I’m cool with all of the criticism now for another very specific reason—I’m not a professional. I’m an amateur, a hobbyist. This is a passion project for me, and while I’ve come a long way from my earlier MS Paint pieces, I’m still learning with every single project. My chief weaknesses remain perspective and anatomy (I seriously have like one standard ear that I draw on everyone, and you should never scrutinize my characters’ hands for too long), but I’m comfortable with that for the moment because I do make honest efforts to improve the craft with each new illustration. I remember reading a prominent comic book artist admit one time that he never drew his characters from an elevated perspective, as if you were looking down on them, because he could just never nail that angle. I find little anecdotes like that heartening. I also like to remember how unpolished stuff like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics looked when they first appeared in the early 1980’s. They were rough, but they had serious charm, and I like to think that what people who like my illustrations are responding to is a similar sort of rough charm.
The plan was to just jump right into the next Camp Redblood novel, Camp Redblood and the Summer of Terror, which I began writing well over a year ago (there’s even a chapter 1 excerpt of it in the Camp Redblood and the Essential Revenge Special Edition, available here!). The story is set several years before Essential Revenge, and chronicles Leigh Carter’s first summer at Camp Redblood. All my recent attention, however, has led to commission requests, and since I do still work a full-time job, this has slowed down the production on that novel. Another reason for the delay is that Summer of Terror is much more ambitious than Essential Revenge, spanning, as the title suggests, an entire summer, whereas Revenge took place over the course of 48 hours or so. For this reason, I’ve decided to take my time with the book.
The good news, however, is that another, much shorter Camp Redblood novel is in the works. I don’t have a working title yet, but it is a direct sequel to Camp Redblood and the Essential Revenge, and picks up a few weeks after that story left off. As of this writing I’m about 55 pages into it, and am aiming for a much shorter, leaner, propulsive narrative. A synopsis will be forthcoming, and like Essential Revenge, I’m anticipating a barebones version first, followed by an illustrated Special Edition.
I just want to take this moment to thank Vox.com once again for their dynamite video. Also want to thank all the new readers and Facebook followers, and welcome them into the Camp Redblood gang. Have a look around, check out some concept art, some old blog posts, and be sure to check out Camp Redblood and the Essential Revenge. The Special Edition costs about six bucks, and the standard version is even cheaper. It’s a fun little foul-mouthed adventure, but it was written—and drawn—from the heart.