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Of Fretting Cats and Wandering Rooks
Dissent: Volume 6 of the Helter Skelter Anthology of New Writing

Of Fretting Cats and Wandering Rooks

As far as webcomics go, Johnny Wander needs very little introduction. Started in September 2008, Johnny Wander is an autobiographical comic strip created by Yuko Ota and Ananth Panagariya. The strip takes a light-hearted, honest look at life after college, striking out on your own, and all the moments in between the adult stuff. And cats. Lots of cats.

We caught up with Ananth for an exclusive interview about the webcomic and the duo’s recently-released book Johnny Wander Vol. 1: Don’t Burn the House Down. Read on for a quick peek behind the curtains of Johnny Wander.

Helter Skelter: Johnny Wander
Johnny Wanderin’—John, Ananth, Conrad, and Yuko.
Helter Skelter: Johnny Wander

Congratulations on the release of your first book! What have you guys been up to over the past few weeks?

Thanks! Shipping, shipping, and shipping. The first rush of orders is always the toughest to get through, no matter what the new release is. We worked New York Comic Con this past weekend, which was a happy success, but very draining. And of course, [new] comics.

You don’t find a lot of books released under a Creative Commons Licence. Was there a specific reason for your doing so with Johnny Wander Vol. 1?

Webcomics like Johnny Wander are out there for free anyway, and they will inevitably get passed around the web, whether you like it or not. If you flip to the copyright page of any webcomic print publications, there’s a good chance you’ll find a CC statement.

George Rohac Jr., in his foreword, correctly mentions that Johnny Wander is a comic series based on reality, which avoids falling into the trap of “had to be there”.

He’s right! At least I hope he’s right. The things we choose to make strips about are meant to be something that you and your friends can relate to. If something happens that is too specific (and like every friend group, we have an inner vocabulary), we skip it. It has to be something that can be understood out of context, or something we can provide context for within the space of the page in question.

“Johnny Wander” has to be one of the coolest comic strip names on the web (or off it, for that matter). How did you guys come up with it?

We wanted a name that was catchy and felt broad, because we planned to do more than autobio comics alone (read ‘Cecilia‘, ‘Delilah‘, and ‘Maidens‘). We kicked around a few, but as soon as Yuko said “Johnny Wander”, we knew that was it.

Do you get annoyed when people inadvertently refer to the strip as “Johnny Wanderer”?

(Laughs) We don’t get annoyed, although it is occasionally frustrating when it shows up in a place without an accompanying link to the comic. It happens now and then, although much less frequently as time goes on. Our roommate typically refers to the strip as “Jimminy Wangles”, so I think we’ve been trained.

A lot of people, myself included, love the poem in the debut Johnny Wander strip. Who wrote the poem? What inspired it?

The poem is actually all Yuko! She is inherently a little more musical than I am. We talked a lot about the treatment—we wanted it to look like it was scanned out of an old book of poetry. The inspiration was the idea that we wanted Johnny Wander to encompass whatever we were interested in doing—Johnny Wander would let us wander wherever we wanted.

Helter Skelter: Johnny Wander

What is the story behind Johnny Wander‘s association with rooks?

There are two uses for the rook, which also appears as a Maw, one of our mythical bird creatures. First, the Maw will show up in the background of work we do and we use it to mark our stories—a common thread to tie our work together. The other use is simply as a design element. My background is graphic design and to some extent branding, and when we first started Johnny Wander, I wanted a text mark and an icon that we could use in various configurations.

What are some of your favourite Johnny Wander strips?

The ones with John, probably. The things that come out of his mouth…

(Laughs) How long did the process of outlining, planning, and putting together the first few strips take? The extras included in Johnny Wander Vol. 1 seem to span from mid-2007 to sometime in 2008. What was the process like?

Yuko was still finishing school and I was working full-time (often overtime) as a designer at that point, so we were just scribbling notes and doing test strips whenever we had a little bit of free time. I can’t think of any specific anecdotes; it was all so spread out. We were making notes everywhere. I think we even did that once while apple-picking out in the country.

What made you decide to make the strip autobiographical?

Autobiographical seemed quicker to do than fictional work (I don’t know that it’s actually true). It was meant to be something quick and dirty that we could throw out there, but Yuko loves having polish in her work, and the art tightened up pretty quickly. A lot of autobiographical work also seems… um… depressing. Nothing wrong with that, but at the time everyone was talking about the Recession and the news every day was about war and so on—there was no need to add to the pile.

Helter Skelter: Johnny Wander
Ananth Panagariya. Photograph by Charlie Chu.

Would you like to tell readers a little more about the early years of Ananth Panagariya?

Sure! I’m the son of two Indians that immigrated to the U.S. roughly 30 years ago. I’ve got a younger brother who works out in Silicon Valley. We grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland (right outside Washington D.C.), although we spent most of our summers in India; Rajasthan specifically. My father is a professor of Economics, so it follows that we grew up in a home that revolved largely around learning. I was in the Math/Science/Comp. Sci. Magnet program in middle school (Takoma Park Middle School), and then again in high school (Montgomery Blair High School). This program really developed my love of the sciences—I am constantly trawling the web for the latest. In college, I met my buddy Mohammad F. Haque, and together we created a successful webcomic called Applegeeks. After that there was no more pretending—comics owned me. Johnny Wander is actually a more recent endeavour, only about two years old.

How many hats do you currently own? Do you prefer certain brands, colours, styles, etc.?

I don’t even know. I still have my first hat; it’s really gross. I’m going to bronze it. All my current hats are from LIDS, but they tend to bleach from black to blue very quickly. The really lame origin story is that my eyes are really light-sensitive, so I wear a hat when I go outside. At some point it became an identifier. See? That was lame.

What is a typical day like for you?

I’m up by eight or nine a.m. E-mail first. After that it depends on the day. Sometimes I’m doing layouts in InDesign, sometimes it’s prepping a tee design to go to the printer, sometimes I’m writing scripts. Shipping is in there too, and if there’s a lot to ship it takes priority. Yuko and I work till about eight or nine p.m., although sometimes it will go through straight till midnight or one a.m.

Do you read a lot?

I do read a lot. I spent most of my time as a kid with my nose buried in a book—I was the nerdy one.

What kind of stuff do you like to read?

I don’t get to read novels as often as I’d like, but I am pretty up on my comics. As far as straight fiction goes, I like magical realism—García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Haruki Murakami, etc. Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was the first book in recent memory to really knock my socks off—the one before that was Perfume. My mother is a reader too, and she recommends a lot of books to me. I wish I read as many books as she did!

What do you usually work on outside of Johnny Wander?

Applegeeks, and lots of freelance work—t-shirt design, production work on print comics, web work. Yuko and I are doing a graphic novel together with a publisher, and I’m about to sign on to work with another artist on another graphic novel. Can’t say more than that! I also work closely with my brother, but I’m currently under N.D.A. on this too.

“If you want to make a living in art, you had better be ready to work your ass off and be savvy. In my mind, discipline is folded into the definition of a successful artist.”

Do Yuko and you ever have creative differences?

Rarely. Yuko and I are typically on the same wavelength, and usually if there’s a difference we’ll just talk it through and figure out what’s best for the strip or story.

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How much time do you spend working on individual strips? How does it all come together?

It takes Yuko a couple of hours to do a strip from start to finish, although that can change based on the complexity. Yuko pencils a page, inks with a brush, scans it, and then tones in Photoshop. Pretty straightforward. I think my favourite part of the process to watch is the inking.

Have the two of you considered working on Johnny Wander full-time?

It takes up the biggest chunk of our time, but we have a lot of things we want to do. I think we like being able to shift focus from project to project. If you had asked me whether we’d like to work on comics full-time, the answer is yes.

Helter Skelter: Johnny Wander
Partners in art. Photograph by Charlie Chu.

Both Yuko and you seem to possess a very strong, positive work ethic, which is refreshing to see. A lot of young artists these days seem to fall into the trap of thinking that it’s cool to be flaky.

We love what we do. With some people the problem is that they get into art because it seems easy, and that’s a dumb move. Being at all successful in art is hard work. You’ll put in more hours in a day than the typical nine-to-five. If you want to make a living in art, you had better be ready to work your ass off and be savvy. In my mind, discipline is folded into the definition of a successful artist.

What would you say to someone who wants to start his/her own webcomic?

Do it because you want to make comics! You’ll enjoy yourself more that way.

What is your take on the business of online comic strips? A lot of comic strip artists seem to be doing this full-time now, and depend on merchandise sales and advertising for income. How important is it to have a strong community of fans built around your comic, in this regard?

The strong community is essential. As for income, it just depends on what works for you. Some people can make a living off of selling originals, some people do well with prints, some people subsist on t-shirts. Books seem to be successful all around, though.

Speaking of community, what, according to you, is the best thing about webcomics/comics conventions? What have been some of your most memorable experiences at these events?

The best thing about them is a toss-up between meeting our readers and meeting other folks who do the same thing we do. We’ve all got a lot to learn from each other, but everyone seems to have their own unique approach to their work. Learning about the differences is a lot of fun. When my brother and I were young, we used to go to shows as attendees. We once crammed 17 people into one hotel room. One guy slept in the closet and another guy slept in the bathtub. I think we somehow got 10 room keys out of the lady at the desk—she was wise to our game, but totally covered for us. That was a great weekend.

Have you had any interesting/weird real-life interactions with fans?

I got stalked once! It’s why I don’t put my day-to-day destinations on the Internet until afterwards anymore.

(Laughs) Alright, Ananth. Thanks for taking the time out to do this interview. Any famous last words?

If you like comics, explore comics! If you don’t like comics, explore comics! If you think comics are for kids and you find yourself rolling your eyes, get over yourself. There’s a little something for everyone, and you’re missing out!

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Highly recommended: Read Johnny Wander online at this location. Click here to purchase a copy of Johnny Wander Vol. 1: Don’t Burn the House Down.

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