Cartoonist Natalie Dee’s eponymous website, NatalieDee.Com, has consistently ranked among the most highly trafficked comic sites on the Internet since its debut. Her comic panels are equally hilarious and dark, featuring all manner of talking creatures, personified objects, and, occasionally, a likeness of Natalie herself.
Characters are often despondent, depressed, and brutally honest about life and, equally as often, death. The style is bright and lively, an appealing and deliberate contrast to the nihilistic tone.
Natalie Dee—”Dee” is a pen name—grew up in Marion, Ohio, a gifted artist from the start. She concedes, however, that paper was scarce in her home, an overlooked, unnecessary expenditure, so Natalie often resorted to tearing end-pages out of books on which to draw. Her single-parent family struggled financially throughout her childhood, so Natalie worked assorted jobs, beginning at age eleven. These formative experiences—having to work during school vacations, while her friends were out playing—strongly influenced her work ethic into adulthood. In a stroke of prescience, Natalie was hired as a graphic designer for an apparel company when she was just fifteen, where she first got to experiment with Photoshop, the program she now uses to create her comics. She also gained experience designing t-shirts, which would come in handy later on.
At first, her website was just a hobby, something to update whenever she could get online. (She was an online personality, in fact, since before she owned a computer. She would hand-draw comics and physically mail them away to be scanned in.) As her site gained traction, though, Natalie quit her day job and invested in the venture full-time. These days, it’s her livelihood. By 2003, NatalieDee.com was being updated on weekdays. It progressed to daily updates—that is, seven days a week—in 2005, a relentless work schedule that the artist imposed on herself. Trace it back to that work ethic. She has created around 3,000 comics thus far, generally working two months in advance, and has never missed a deadline, even when she had complications with her pregnancy in 2008, nearly dying in the hospital.
Because of her desire to take full advantage of her unique situation of being able to work from home—and to satisfy an admittedly short attention span—Natalie immersed herself in a number of side projects, unwilling and/or unable to focus on just one thing. She collaborates on a second comic called Married to the Sea, started a cosmetics business, pens a blog, and has written a regular advice column, all the while releasing a consistently funny, extremely popular daily comic. She has an extensive fan-base that circulates her work around the Internet and also helps her keep track of copycats. (Natalie Dee and I were first in touch in 2007—as it happens, we both make t-shirts and sell them online, and we discovered that an Australian company had been ripping us off. We became online commiserates in our battle against Australia.)
Natalie’s comics look like this:
As mentioned, there are thousands more where that came from. A few will be scattered throughout this interview…and the rest you can peruse in your leisure.
It’s difficult to write a full bio of Natalie Dee without mentioning her husband Drew, an equally prolific cartoonist and web presence, best known for his daily comic Toothpaste For Dinner. Nata
For this interview, I spoke to Natalie Dee by phone for nearly three hours. She opened by telling me that she wasn’t a huge fan of interviews and preferred to do them—if she had to—by e-mail. But it didn’t take long for her to open up, as you’ll see. She came across as funny, quick, outspoken, thoughtful and opinionated. When I first started transcribing this piece, I designated laughter throughout our conversation with the ubiquitous[laughter] brackets, but quickly realized that I would have to add those brackets every tenth line or so. And so [laughter] was, regrettably, omitted. For the record: Natalie Dee likes to laugh and it’s contagious.
She can also rant with the best of them, whether she’s talking about her aforementioned work ethic, the state of the Internet, her struggles with chronic depression, occasionally creepy fans, being a female cartoonist in a profession dominated by men, or the world at large. She’s a force. Talking to her makes you want to work harder. She’s a great, inspiring conversationalist with a unconventional story.
Natalie Dee: In terms of just being prolific…previously, I had a job doing work with people who had worker’s comp injuries and pharmaceutical stuff, and I was doing my site and it was not as often as I do now. At some point, I quit my job because my site was doing okay. I mean, it wasn’t enough for me to live off of at that point, but it was okay enough that I could quit my job and look for a new job. So, once I quit my job, I just started treating my site like it was my job. I just kind of thought to myself that if I was expecting to make enough money making comics to hold me over to my next job, that I should put more into it. And the more I put into it, the more successful it was. I think that a lot of people see me posting every day as something that is Herculean, but I think that’s kind of the standard when it comes to comics. Anybody who makes comics, who doesn’t do it online, I think they do it at the same clip. Right?
Rumpus: Newspaper comics that are published seven days a week, that kind of thing.
Dee: Yeah. And so I just kind of look at it like it’s my job. I treat it like it’s my job. I probably have closer to 3,000 at this point.
Rumpus: I tried to count them, but I only got back so far.
Dee: There’s a lot of them. I mean, I have a lot on there and I think that having that many on there kind of gives me more room to do different stuff. By the same token, it kind of makes the topics a little more sporadic, just because there’s so much.
Rumpus: Do you look back on them at all?
Dee: I do. I will look back at recent months when I’m working to make sure that I’m not repeating myself too much. And I will look back on previous years to see if there was anything that I did that maybe, in hindsight, I didn’t go all the way with. So I’ll kind of revisit them, just in the interest of being consistent. I think that a lot of times when I look back on them, though, I have a strange relationship with them. I think other people look at it and see what’s on the site, but when I look at it, I’m usually looking at it through a lens of the stuff that was going on at the time. I can look at it and tell if I was having a particularly shitty time, or if other stuff was going on. So I kind of view it through a more critical lens. I can see when I wasn’t paying attention. I have a tendency to look at stuff like that.
Rumpus: Are you saying that when you look at a particular comic, it’ll remind you of where you were and what you were thinking when you wrote it? Or are you talking specifically about the comics where you’ve inserted yourself into the panels?
Dee: There’s this series—maybe in the beginning of 2008, end of 2007—where it’s probably one of my favorite times of the comic. The comics, in that particular era, I thought were good when I made them and when I go back to them, I still think they’re good. But the time directly after that, between the summer and fall of 2008, I can tell that it’s not how I would’ve wanted it to be, necessarily. That was when I was pregnant and I wasn’t telling anybody about it. I was really sick and having all kinds of problems, and trying to work up enough back-catalogue so I would be able to take leave. So I can see, looking at it, that it’s not quite as on-point as I would’ve liked. That’s when I go back and see if there’s anything that I didn’t go all the way with. I will look back there and see if I had any ideas that just kind of farted out, instead of getting my full attention. It goes both ways.
Rumpus: I remember reading in an interview you said you wish people would notice how much work you put into your comics. Do you still feel that way?
Dee: I don’t feel put upon by people not noticing it, because obviously they’re not viewing it in the same way that I am. I would prefer if what I liked about what I do was more similar to what other people liked about it, but I am not going to complain, because I understand that my situation in being able to make the kind of art I do and make a living at it is so lucky and it’s such a privilege that I’m not going to complain about why people like my stuff.
Rumpus: In terms of cartoonists, do you feel like women are still in the minority? You’re a really prominent cartoonist, but the field seems kind of dominated by guys, right?
Dee: I will tell you a story, Jory, and you are going to hate it.
Rumpus: Oh really?
Dee: Are you ready for it?
Rumpus: I’m ready.
Dee: Okay. Here’s my story with comics: I was raised by a single mother, and so I never had any ideas in my head about stuff that women could or couldn’t do. Like, if women can’t do something, that means that it’s not gonna get done and they’re fucked, right? If you can’t do it yourself, you’re fucked. I could do anything. There’s nothing I couldn’t do, and I dare anybody to tell me I can’t do it.
So, when I was younger, there was a comic book store in the city that I lived in. And my friend’s parents owned the comic book store. Her mom was always the one at the comic book store. I would go and hang out with her mom. I just loved her, I thought she was great. I would go down there all the time after school. It was a small town and no one cared about indie comics, but she would always get stuff for me, because she knew that I liked it. And so I was always on top of all the comics, which was great. It was my jam. And I was able to get what I wanted instead of having to read kiddie superhero shit. And so that was my exposure to comics. It wasn’t threatening, because it was just me and my friend’s mom. And we would sit there and talk about comics. And she would order stuff and say, “I thought you’d like this.” And I’d get it and bring it home and read it. And I’d come back and she’d find something else that she thought I would like.
So then I moved from Marion to Columbus, and I was still into comics. There’s a lot more comic book stores here, but it wasn’t women who were working at the comic book stores. It didn’t even occur to me that I’d go to a comic book store and just feel gross, but you could feel people staring at you. It’s sick. This was in the late ’90s/early 2000s. I could feel people staring at me. I’d go through the door and a door chime would ring when you’d walk in, and you could almost hear everyone’s whiplash. “Oh, there’s a chick in the comic book store!” And after a few times, it just made me feel so gross that I stopped. I just didn’t do it. I was tired of guys looking over my shoulder and seeing what I was getting. “You’re getting what I’m getting!” Or being judgmental about what I was getting. So I stopped going to the comic book store. I’d do other stuff. You know, I’d order stuff online if I wanted to read comics.
Dee: I started doing my own stuff, and it wasn’t comics necessarily. I was drawing pictures. And it was like cutesy stuff, when I first started out, it was real cutesy stuff. It was one-shot, one-panel comics. Right? And it kind of evolved into something where it resembled comics.
So, I had a Wikipedia page. Toothpaste For Dinner had a Wikipedia page. Married to the Sea had a Wikipedia page. Drew’s defunct industrial act had a page…and my Wikipedia page got deleted because I wasn’t notable. They put me as a footnote on the Married to the Sea Wikipedia page, even though I was getting more traffic than any of those sites. And nobody ever said anything, no one ever mentioned me. At the height of my site—I was probably one of the top five [web cartoonists online] in terms of traffic—and no one would even acknowledge that I was there.
Rumpus: That’s insane.
Dee: And I don’t care, really. You know what I’m saying? I’m making a living. I have a house. I’m doing my thing. I know I don’t need other people’s approval. But it is definitely a bro scene. They definitely don’t want chicks coming to the party. If you’ve read other interviews with me, I’ve mentioned it before. It is definitely a clubhouse and they’re all in there talking about which Legend of Zelda cartoon they’re going to draw tomorrow. You know the bullshit those dudes do, right? “I made a comic about a video game with Chewbacca in it!” You didn’t fucking make Chewbacca! Quit drawing Star Wars comics! Anyway, they’re like, “No girls.” Periodically there will come a girl who’s doing webcomics, but either she can’t hang, she gets overwhelmed and she can’t update regularly, or she immediately gets into this tokenism, where she goes and tries to rub elbows with these dudes and they just tokenize her. They’re like, “Here’s the girl webcomic.” It’s embarrassing. I don’t want any part of it.
And I think, to a certain extent, I’ve had issues with people objectifying me. I’m not, like, anything special. But I have had people saying gross shit about me. I’ve had people e-mailing me about my tits. Gross stuff. The only time I’ve ever seen another comic mention me is when some dude made a comic and the gist of the comic was, “Webcomics don’t look how they draw themselves to look, so-and-so draws himself like this but he looks like this! And Natalie Dee draws herself like a stick figure, but she’s a fox.” For years, I never posted pics of myself anywhere, and people would say things like, “Oh, she doesn’t post pics because she’s fat and she’s ugly and she probably is covered in zits and real nasty.” Then, when I did post a pic, it was a flood of people saying really disgusting things to me and accusing me of being a cam-whore and all that. There’s no way to have it be okay.
Rumpus: I don’t know about the fans, but do you feel like the other web cartoonists use you as a target because they’re not happy that you’re simply funnier than they are? Do you feel like that’s an issue?
Dee: It might be an issue. I don’t sit around thinking I’m great. In general, I’m like, “I suck.” You know? But I think there’s probably a level of honesty and a level of humor in my stuff that they can’t get to because they’re trying so hard to not be honest about themselves. And they will never get over the hump, as long as they can’t be honest about themselves. And maybe that threatens them. Maybe the amount of traffic I get without involving myself with the scene threatens them. I don’t know. Maybe it’s that most of the people making comics are on that weird nerd shit, where all they talk about is fucking video games and shit like that, and there aren’t female characters that aren’t inserted in a really sloppy, heavy-handed way. Like, they’ve never drawn anything in great detail in their comics, right? They don’t have fucking any handle on perspective or anything, but when they have a female character, her tits are fucking perfect. They’re suddenly the Rembrandt of titties. She’s still all fucking wall-eyed and shit, and she’s just in the panel to roll her eyes and be like, “Oh, you guys are crazy!” and then fucking get out. Right? That’s the female character they have. Maybe they’re mad about the traffic I get because I’m not threatening to women, and there’s more women online than men.
Rumpus: Do you feel like that has driven you? That you had to prove yourself a little more because of that whole scene? Do you feel like that’s made you even more adamant about, This is what I do, this is my work ethic, I’m going to kill it every day.
Dee: Well, my work ethic is always the same, regardless. I don’t see myself as being in competition with people. They are not making my site, and I’m not gonna be threatened by them doing their site well. It doesn’t affect my work ethic, because I’m not in competition. Like, I’m not going to be mad at you for getting a manager position at Subway when I’m still frying fries at McDonald’s. It’s not the same thing, we’re not working at the same place, and so there’s no reason for competition. So I don’t think about them. I don’t participate. I don’t do anything, except mind my own business.
Rumpus: It sounds really annoying, honestly. Because for the most part your site is entirely content. Nobody’s even in the same room. It’s crazy there’s still that gender discrepancy.
Dee: Well, my site isn’t about being a chick. I don’t talk about chick shit. You know? I am a lady and I have lady friends and we do lady shit, but that’s not all I have going for me. I’m not sitting here thinking about my period all the fucking time. I’m not Cathy.
If anyone ever tells you there’s not sexism in comics, they’re lying to you. Because that’s the only place I’ve ever experienced sexism in my entire life. [On Wikipedia] they put me as a footnote in Married to the Sea. I’m not “notable.” I don’t care, I don’t make money off a Wikipedia page. But it just really illustrated to me how people feel about it. I think it’s kind of played into stuff I’m doing on the side, because I’m doing my blog about cosmetics and stuff. And people initially—if they think about it—they’re like, “Why would you do that? That’s just dumb chick stuff.” But I wanted to have something where it was a woman writing about women’s interests and not making it stupid. Because you have a choice when you’re a lady: you can either be smart and homely, or you can take care of yourself and be fancy and dumb. That’s the choice. But that whole thing lit a fire under my ass and—as I get older—I just get fancier and fancier. Because I’m like, You know what? If it bothers them, I want them to fuckin’ know a girl brought it. If you think I can’t do it, I’m going to make sure you know I did it. I’m not going to go up in some fucking corduroys and some kind of fucking homely, mousy haircut because it’s not threatening or whatever. If it’s going to be an issue, I’m going to make sure you know that I’m a bad bitch. Too bad.
Rumpus: You’ve said that your site is about holding up a mirror to society and showing how disappointing it is. Do you still feel that way?
Dee: Oh yeah, absolutely, absolutely, I still feel that way. Because I think that everything when I first started, it was fun; the first comics on my site aren’t even comics. There weren’t webcomics. No one was talking about webcomics. There wasn’t MySpace. Not even blogs. I remember making comics so long ago where I was making of fun of people calling these things “blogs” because I thought the word was so dumb. Because it was new. So, I think I got into it at a time when it was different. Aside from that, as my site was picking up steam and I was starting to focus more on it, it seemed like the United States in general was taking a really shitty, dark turn. It was right after 9/11 and all this other stuff. And all of the blind patriotism was going on. And we’re invading Iraq. And I’m sitting there trying to work and watching Nick Berg get his head cut off.
I think that that kind of real heavy, dark negativity kind of influenced my site in a way. It was an issue for me then, to get into a jokey mindset when all that ill stuff was happening, so I had to find a way to make it work. I mean, I was not raised in an environment where everything was cool. You know? And I think my upbringing was a lot different than a lot of Internet college-educated liberals and so I think I came into it, anyway, with a little bit more realism than a lot of people my age have toward stuff in general. I am liberal, I am a Democrat, but I can see stuff that they do that is the same as the stuff right-wing people do. I don’t think anybody is perfect. And so I think I’m able to hand it out everywhere. Just like, liberals talking about Republicans hating blacks and hating women. But at the same time, a lot of the liberal media will talk about people in a way that’s really classist. I don’t put blinders up just because I feel like I’m a part of something.
Rumpus: I remember you said that being on the Internet, you don’t have to worry about getting approval from some editor somewhere, or worry about distributing your stuff. It’s immediately global.
Dee: Oh, yeah, absolutely. There’s a lot of stuff that I’ve made that no editor in the world would touch with a ten-foot pole. I’ve done spec work, though. I will be honest: I really like doing spec work. I like just making bullshit and squaring it up, slapping a logo on it and then dusting my hands off. I’ve joked with Drew before that if I didn’t do this anymore, I might work for Valpak, in Columbus, and just make all those shitty coupons. Because I mean, it is what it is. What’s the difference between me drawing something and me making a car wash coupon? There is no difference. More people would probably see the car wash coupon and it would actually be useful in some way.
Rumpus: You’d still get to see it published and distributed and read.
Dee: Yeah, making it is making it. I mean, I have done a lot. I’ve worked since I was eleven and I’ve done work that was really horrible. Like, when I was in middle school, I had to go get documents, because I was too young to work, but I had to go and work in the summertime. Everyone would leave on the last day of school and I would come back, the next day, and clean all the graffiti up and scrub the desks and wax everything. And I was eleven or twelve years old, and my hands were petrified with wax and my knuckles are cracking and bleeding and shit. That is way worse than making comics. You know what I’m saying? And coming back the first day of school, after you’re done cleaning the whole thing, and seeing your friend walk down the hallway with a pencil and just dragging a pencil on the wall the whole way down. I mean, I’m not going to complain about making art for a living. It’s probably part of the reason I’m so prolific. If I’m not sweating, I’m not convinced I’m working enough.
Rumpus: You were always really enterprising, huh? Were you always hitting the pavement and getting products out?
Dee: Yeah. I started working when I was really young because I had a lot of sisters. My mom was single. So it was kind of expected that once we were able to work, we had to take care of ourselves. And so I was always working. I was cleaning the school and working at restaurants and working at the library and making t-shirts and watching people’s kids and…everything. Like, I always, always, always worked.
Rumpus: After all that work, it seems like it would take a huge amount of confidence to finally quit those day jobs and just make art for a living.
Dee: Well, I didn’t quit my job thinking that I was going to make a living off my website. It was just a happy coincidence that when I invested more time into it, things started taking off in a way that I was able to procrastinate on finding a new job, longer and longer and longer. And even now, it’s been a really long time that I’ve been working online and making my living online, but I don’t feel entitled to it. I keep good track of what’s going on and, if I have to get a job, I’m not going to be sad about it. Because who else got to do what I got to do? I don’t feel entitled to anything.
Rumpus: So you come from pretty humble roots.
Dee: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I grew up in Marion, Ohio, which is north of Columbus, but it’s a really small town. No one is educated, no one has money. It’s a very Appalachian scene. There was a business there called the Power Shovel, which was a factory that made giant diggers and crawlers, those big trucks that take the shuttle to the launch pad. But when they opened, there wasn’t a ton of people in Marion to work there. And so, a lot of people came up from Appalachia to work there. Then the Power Shovel closed and now they are on some Rust Belt shit.
So the scene is rough. Only ten percent of people there have a college degree, and a quarter of them live in poverty, and everyone is blue collar. Or not even blue collar. Like, no collar. I was not originally from Marion, but I grew up there, so a lot of my friends are from there, and I graduated high school there. So I’m used to working-class people. And I think that feeds into me thinking that a lot of people online are kind of frivolous, or something. And Drew, also, his family is Appalachian. So we both know what it is actually like to work. When I see somebody who has a webcomic and I go to their site and their site says, “I had to go to the dentist today. No comic,” it definitely colors how I feel about their work ethic. And there are definitely people who are like, “Oh, I don’t have a new comic. I couldn’t think of anything.” Fucking do your fucking comic. No one gets to do comics. No one gets to do comics! Just shut the fuck up and do your comic. There’s no excuse. There’s no excuse. If people want to come to my site and look at my comics, there is always a comic. If I know I have to go to the doctor tomorrow, I’m going to make sure I already have tomorrow’s comic done. I’m going to go and I’m not even going to tell anybody about it, because it’s not people’s business, and they don’t care if I need to get a rash checked out or something.
Rumpus: Right. Like when you were pregnant.
Dee: Oh yeah. And you know what—I almost died when I had my daughter. I was in the hospital for a week. I had preeclampsia really bad. I was going into organ failure. I had an emergency C-section where I got cut twice, in the shape of an anchor, and my daughter was premature, and I didn’t miss a goddamn comic. Not even fucking one. No one even knew I was fucking pregnant. Because I wasn’t trying to take this project I had for so many years and turn it into a mommy blog. I have a daughter and I love her and I take care of her, but she’s not content for my site. And so I don’t want people to think about it like that. So I didn’t say anything. I didn’t tell anybody I was pregnant, and I never missed a fucking comic. Not one. Not one.
Rumpus: When you were pregnant, how long did it take to make a backlog? Are you always working four-to-six weeks ahead?
Dee: I work pretty far ahead. And I just did double-time. And obviously, I didn’t work as far in advance as I would have liked, because I didn’t know I was going to get so sick, and I didn’t know my daughter was going to be premature. I thought I was going to have another couple months to do more comics. As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I started double-timing it, because I knew I was not going to be up to it.
So, I had, like, six weeks extra. I had the month that I had just taken care of and then I had six weeks extra. And so my daughter was born in the beginning of October, and I had to go back to making comics in November. I had it dropped in my lap that I wasn’t going to have as much time as I had thought. I only had a couple weeks after I was discharged before I had to start making comics again, so that was really hard. And that’s what I’m thinking about when I was talking about looking back on my stuff and seeing that some stuff isn’t as good as I would’ve liked. I can see where I was not mentally there, I was not firing on all my cylinders. But I still went. I still fucking did my shit. People who wanted to read my site wanted to read my site, not hear me moan and call it off for a month.
It’s just—I don’t understand people with no work ethic when they have such an amazing opportunity to do something that is fun, that they love. Go make those goddamn comics.
Rumpus: I don’t know if this is accurate, but I would imagine that you’re the only one who noticed a discrepancy in the quality of the comics at that time. You’re your harshest critic, right? Did anybody else notice?
Dee: Oh, no, I don’t think that they would. I mean, I was telling you before—what I like most about my stuff is different than what other people like. And so I don’t think that people notice when there’s a discrepancy, but I notice when there’s not as many that month that I liked. I’ve had people write me and say, “You’re on a roll!” when I definitely was not feeling like I was on a roll, and I’ve had people write me and tell me I’m slipping when I am making a ton of stuff that I’m really digging.
Rumpus: Going back to that period at the beginning of 2008 that you were happy with: what appealed to you about that period, versus the next phase where you were just trying to build up a backlog?
Dee: The stuff I like is weird and dark, and the stuff other people like has a sillier slant to it. I know that you do stuff online, so maybe you feel the same way about this—I have my ideas of what I like the most about what I do. And when I look back at the stuff that I like the most, it is not the stuff that other people like. I have to kind of balance it, in order to make myself happy, but then also not make people drop me.
Rumpus: And can you say what it is that you like about it, exactly?
Dee: Well my experience is in art. When I was a kid, I was real involved in art stuff. I went to college for art stuff, and then I think I got kind of disillusioned with some things and kind of divorced myself from fine arts and professional arts, just because I am a little bit misanthropic and I don’t like a lot of the snootiness that goes around with it. And so when I started my comic, it wasn’t something that I was doing with an eye towards it being professional. I was dating someone and we just drew pictures, and I put them online because it just seemed like somewhere to me, like a shoebox to put ’em in. And so, when I first started out, I didn’t have any grand designs. It was just something I was doing for fun. And I ended up getting into a situation where people liked it a whole lot, so I kept on doing it. But stylistically, it maybe wasn’t something I would have done originally.
So when I think about what I like the most—and most of them are from the last five years or so—I’ve been a little bit more comfortable with the style that I started with, but also kind of having a lot more drawing in it. There’s a little bit more attention to detail. I will spend considerably more time on some pieces. If you look over my comics, sometimes the drawing is pretty quick. But other ones I draw, I will spend a really long time on it. I personally like the ones where it is a little bit more detailed, because I think the kind of childish drawing quality, combined with elements that are a lot more realistic. Like, I really get down and draw it to the very, very tiniest detail. I like that. And so that’s the stuff I like the most. But people usually like the shit jokes the best.
Rumpus: And when did you start occasionally inserting yourself as the protagonist? Was that something you were doing pretty early on?
Dee: I think that the protagonist in my comic is loosely based off of me, but is not me. Like, it’s as much me as anything else I write. Obviously, I can’t completely get out of my head, so there’s always going to be a little bit of me in anything I do. It was always like a very slight me quality to the character. I started really clearly trying to make myself a different character, when people started to blur the line a little bit too much, or they didn’t really understand that I wasn’t the same person that was on my site. People have ideas about how I am that aren’t accurate. And they talk to me in a way like they think I’m a cartoon. That’s not really the case. I make comics, but that is not my whole life. So now, when I am making a comic that is definitely about me, I make it look more like me. It’s just a way of further marking the difference between what people see on a regular basis and how that is a character that I made. And I’m somebody different than that.
Rumpus: Right. And it sounds like, based on what I’ve read and what you’ve told me, that there’s a part of you that really enjoys not sharing everything about your life, keeping some of your life to yourself.
Dee: Absolutely. You know, I’m not like a hermit or cagey or anything, but when I first started out, I had a few things happen to me—in terms of my privacy—before I was even popular at all, that really kind of shook me up a little bit too much to be comfortable sharing too much about myself. Like, I got married when I was really young. When I got married, no one was looking at my site. But I mentioned getting married, and someone wrote me and told me all the personal information about myself, because he heard me say I had got married, and he went through the Franklin County records and went through all the marriage licenses until he found someone named Natalie who had gotten married in the last week. He was like, “Your name is blah blah blah and you married this guy,” and it was creepy as fuck.
I’ve had stuff like that happen a few times, to the point where I’m like, “You know, I have a pen name and that’s fine.” And initially, I had the pen name because everybody had fake names that they were using on the Internet. No one used their real name, because no one knew what was going on. Everybody had, like, AOL handles and shit. So my name on my site—my maiden name started with a D. When I was younger, people would call me that, if there were other girls named Natalie in my school or wherever, so they wouldn’t confuse me with some other Natalie. I picked that for my pen name/site name because I thought it was funny, calling myself that, since of course there were other Natalie’s online.
After I got married, my last name didn’t even start with a D anymore, so it’s like an extra layer of disguise. I’m fine with that, and I’m fine with people not knowing my real name. When I wasn’t even popular at all and I wasn’t making a living and people didn’t care who I was, there were still people who were really fucking creepy. It’s not that I don’t trust people. Once I’ve talk to people in real life or become online pals, I don’t care. My online friends—I have no problem telling them what my name is, they mail me stuff to my house, I’m not weird about it. I don’t care if you know what my name is, because I know your name and if you started being weird, I could be like “Whoa, Jory’s being weird,” and I could take care of myself because it’s not me versus some anonymous weirdo. But if I don’t know people, they have no reason to know my personal information.
Rumpus: Do folks in your real life—your neighbors and people you encounter where you live—do they know what you do and do they get it? Or do you feel like you keep that part of you separate from the people that you see in real life?
Dee: I used to keep it more separate, because it was something I did casually. Once you do it as your main job, it’s really hard to not tell anyone about it. People in my neighborhood don’t bug me, because I just think the vibe in my neighborhood is different for whatever reason, and it’s part of the reason that I decided to live here. People leave me alone. Like, my particular street is middle-class, but there are areas in my neighborhood that are considerably fancier. Eric Clapton owns a house a few blocks over from me.
People don’t care about me, and people don’t care what I’m doing. I’m just that lady who is weird, but pretty nice to chat with in line at the market. I like this neighborhood. But there are certain parts in town where I can’t even go, because people get in my grill. And I realize that part of that is my own fault because I am kind of eccentric and people kind of know how I am and and see someone weird and do the math. There are certain areas in Columbus where I know that I will get hassled if I go, so I don’t like going there very often. Drew, just a couple weeks ago, had gone to a neighborhood in Columbus to meet Kris [Wilson] from [webcomic] Cyanide & Happiness, because he was in town and, on the way back, Drew stopped to get custard or something. He was in line at the custard place and three different people went up to him. I have a fucking shitty station wagon with no A.C. I don’t make enough money to want to be all “jazz hands” all the time, in case someone sees me.
Rumpus: Yeah. I would imagine that the longer you’re online and the more and more people who see your stuff, it becomes harder and harder to completely separate it, right?
Dee: Oh yeah, and like I said, I’ve been doing this as my only job for such a long time, so I meet new people and they’re all, “So what do you do?” And what am I gonna tell them? Sometimes I’ll say I have an online store, because I want to keep it real vague, you know? I have an online store. And they’re like, “Oh, what’s your store? What do you sell?” And I’m like, “Oh god. I sell t-shirts with stuff I’ve made on them.” And they’re like, “Oh, what do you make?” And they poke me until I have to tell them and then their iPhones come out.
Rumpus: And you have to stand there, watching them look at your stuff.
Dee: Yeah, and it’s awkward as hell. And it’s like, I know you wouldn’t like it, then it’s awkward forever after that. And my family, obviously, they all know what I do. But my family is like the total opposite of me. They could not be any more different than I am. And so I don’t even think they care, really.
Rumpus: You don’t think they check the site?
Dee: They might. But they don’t seem to be affected by it at all. My sister modeled t-shirts for me. But they don’t care. I’m just as weird as I’ve ever been. My sisters and I have nothing in common at all.
Rumpus: Switching subjects, what’s your writing process like? Do you carry around a little notebook? Or is there a routine where you always sit down at a certain time?
Dee: When I do my comics, I know I have to do them, and so I will sit down and do them. I know people are like, “I don’t feel like it, I don’t have any ideas.” But sitting down and starting to work will always give you ideas. Sometimes, if I have an idea and I’m not working, I have that little note app in my phone, that thing with the Post-It notes. I’ll make a little note with that, or on some scrap paper at my desk. But I usually like the drawing-pictures part. So, a lot of the time, I will draw something that I want to draw, and then think about what I want to write on it as I’m drawing it.
Rumpus: Oh, I wondered about that, whether you just picked an object and then figured out what funny thing the object would say.
Dee: Yeah, I do that a lot and, I mean, when the joke is more specific, it’s usually something that came to me before the drawing did. But a lot of times, I will draw something that I wanted to draw, I thought would be funny to draw, or I thought would be enjoyable to draw. Then, as I’m drawing, I will think about what I’m drawing and then come up with something.
Rumpus: And do you have a quota? Are you trying to do one drawing per day, or is it more like a long-term weekly or monthly thing?
Dee: I try to work monthly. I don’t do it all in one day. I have a file on my computer where I store all of the stuff for next month. And so I am always working ahead of time. That also makes it easier for me to make sure that it goes together. You know what I’m saying? It flows better. And then, right before the month changes, we have this proprietary thing on our site, where I will load up all of my comics and then it updates for me. It updates at the same time every day because, if it was up to me, I would sleep through it.
Rumpus: So when you go into the office, the first thing you’ll do is just basically think, What do I want to draw today?
Dee: I will think about what I have to do this month. I have a lot of things that I’m doing in addition to my comics that don’t necessarily have to do with my comics. After I upload my comics for the month, I will spend a few work days doing other stuff, just so I can clear my mind and not think about it for a minute. It’s really hard to get ideas if you’re just constantly thinking about it. And so, at the beginning of the month, I’ll work on other stuff. And when I come into the office, I come and I sit and I drink coffee and think about what I have to do. And if I have to do comics, then I figure out how many comics I want to do, and I open up that many files in Photoshop and get cracking on it, and if I have something else to do, then I might do that instead.
Rumpus: And your workday: is it all over the place, or is it pretty consistent? Are you in the office for a certain number of hours?
Dee: It used to be more sporadic and I would work whenever I felt like it, but now we have someone who comes over and takes care of my daughter, and so I work when she’s there.
Rumpus: Are there days where you just bang them out and other days where you’re kind of like, Oh boy, I haven’t even finished one yet?
Dee: Hell yeah. I mean, sometimes I’ll sit down and I will really fucking crank them out. I’ll do a lot. But other days, I’ll be like, I need some comics today, and I’ll sit, and I’ll…get hung up on one that is detailed and I’ll spend a few hours doing it and my hand hurts and I don’t want to do any more. It just depends.
That is a benefit of working so far in advance: you have a lot more time to be flexible with what you’re getting done on a daily basis. If I had to do comics every day, and I was just posting them every single day, I’m sure it would be really taxing and it would be easy for me to be a puss about it and call it off, you know? But I could call off three days in a row and no one would know.
Rumpus: Totally. But is there ever a time where you’re like, I’ve just thought of the perfect idea for tomorrow and I’m going to do it right now and get this thing online, ASAP?
Dee: Oh yeah, sometimes I’ll do that and I’ll be like, I have one that’s just for tomorrow. Or there’s something that happens at the beginning of the month and I know we’re not going to update until two days afterwards, and I’ll send that up the line and rearrange things so comics that are time-sensitive happen when they need to.
Dee: It just depends. A lot of times, it doesn’t really matter what day it is. But when it does, I will always shuffle the deck and make sure it happens when I want it to. I try to be timely. If there’s something that’s a hot topic, I’ll switch things around so I’m not making a joke about last month’s news. I try and keep an eye on what’s going to be going on next month, too, so I plan for seasonal topics and things you can expect, like it being sweltering in July, or Halloween, or the next apocalypse prediction.
Rumpus: And what about your theme weeks? I really love them. Like your Daughters Say Crazy Shit series. It seems like every once in a while, you’ll come out with a different series. Does that help you come up with ideas?
Dee: I started doing themes because I would think about something I wanted to do, and I would get more than one idea about it. And so when I do a theme week, it’s not really so much of trying to dump out a whole bunch. It’s more like I group them all together, so they are a part of a set, instead of people being like, Oh, is she doing another one about worms? If I want to do a whole bunch about worms, I’ll put them all in the same week and say, Oh, it’s “Worm Week!” Sometimes I’ll do a theme week and sometimes I won’t. It just depends on what kind of ideas I’m coming up with that month. Sometimes I think I’ll do a theme week, and I can only think of three of them. When that happens, I’ll scatter them out. But when I do something like that I try to do them under the same heading so you can tell they belong together and it’s not accidental.
Rumpus: The headings of your comics are always funny. The titles play off the comics. Do you write the titles first and then the comics come after that? Or the other way around?
Dee: Yeah, I write the titles when I save the files.
Rumpus: Were they always titled? Or were they untitled in the beginning?
Dee: No, I think that they were always titled. It’s just that the titles evolved, because as I made more and more comics, I couldn’t keep calling them things like “Socks,” because then I’d accidentally erase the old file with the same name. I started making them more declarative, so it’s really hard to have the same title twice.
Rumpus: So it’s a way to both be doubly funny, with an extra joke, and to also archive them?
Dee: Yeah. It kind of started off like that, but then it evolved into a way of clarifying the joke for someone who might be simple. Or adding another element to the joke. Just kind of tying it up and sending it off.
Rumpus: And what about your style for drawing people—was that always the same? Looking back to 2002, it seems pretty consistent.
Dee: Yeah, in terms of my site, I think it’s always been pretty much the same. But it kind of started off as—like I said—I think it was me doodling stuff for fun, just ’cause I got some markers or something. And it wasn’t something I was doing on purpose. Prior to that, I was always into comics and always into art and stuff like that, and I used to draw people and it was different. It was a totally different style. I think that my other styles of drawing, in the past, there’s definitely influences and that’s probably why I opted not to use them.
Rumpus: Who was influencing you?
Dee: I think that probably in terms of how I kind of learned how to draw in general, on my own, there’s stuff you learn in school and stuff you learn on your own. I used to read a lot of indie comics and Slave Labor stuff and I think that in terms of comics I always enjoyed and comic artists who I think are really great, my favorite is Evan Dorkin. His main comics are really good, but something I think is probably real influential — in hindsight, I can see it as influential — was Dork. I liked that a whole lot, because it was a collection of his single-shot stuff and he would just compile ’em seasonally or whatever. But then, as it progressed, toward the end, it had a real autobiographical bent to it and it was really dark. It was like really, really super dark. And there’s just something I liked about that. I think that something that is important about making stuff is being able to be self-deprecating and acknowledging negative stuff about yourself. There’s a lot of comics online where I’m not feeling it, because they are incapable of seeing themselves in a light that isn’t like this super-dude, awesome-guy thing they’re trying to get the Internet to think of them like that. You know what I’m saying? I don’t ever pretend to be anything that I’m not. Because it’s just exhausting.
Rumpus: I think it really shines through. You genuinely say in your comics that sometimes you deal with depression, for instance. That’s stood out to me. Is it cathartic to work that issue into your comics?
Dee: I think that in terms of talking about depression and other problems I’ve had—at this point, I wouldn’t even consider it a problem. It’s just something that’s ongoing: I have chronic depression. I’ve had depression since I was a kid. And I also have ADD. And that contributed to my chronic depression. I’m never gonna not have it. But I’m not like Morrissey. I’m not crying in my bedroom. It’s so internalized and it’s such a part of my personality, it kind of manifests more as a nihilistic attitude. But I like being honest about it because I think that there’s a lot of people who just don’t say stuff like that to their friends, or don’t say stuff to, like…whoever. And I think it’s refreshing to have someone talk about it like it’s not something they’re ashamed of, and to make other people feel better about it. Because I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with it. I don’t feel that there’s anything wrong with me. It’s part of my personality. But I’m chronically depressed. I’m not going to make comics where I’m saying, Everything’s great, everything’s cool, and I’m cool, and you’re cool! No, if everything’s cool then nobody’s cool. Right?
Rumpus: Doesn’t one of your comics basically say, If you like everybody, you don’t like anybody?
Dee: Yeah, exactly. That’s what I always say. My daughter is walking around the house like, “I love everybody!” And I’m like, “If you love everybody, you don’t love anybody. You just gotta shake that off, sister.”
Rumpus: You don’t see a lot of comics talking about funerals, as you’ve done. There was that one where you had a woman in a coffin and you had some guy giving a bland eulogy about how the woman was really good at Bejeweled. I don’t know if that was supposed to be autobiographical, or a random woman.
Dee: That was actually autobiographical. I whoop a donkey’s ass at Bejeweled.
Rumpus: I mean, that’s something you don’t see everyday in comics—not only somebody in a coffin, but somebody just giving the most surface, unemotional eulogy for the poor woman. And I remember a comic you did that talks about a solitary march to the grave. I think there really is something very appealing about combining the imagery that you create with those super-dark themes.
Dee: Well, yeah, and like I said, there are certain things that I really enjoy. I really enjoy being totally honest, because I’m sure that I’m not the only one who thinks that way. You know? And I think I like talking about it because it kind of does make people squirm a little bit, because people don’t like to think about it. They don’t want to talk about it or be reminded. I like the combination of the kind of simple, childish style with the dark themes.
Rumpus: Do you know where your humor comes from?
Dee: I don’t know. I think my humor is probably more of a gallows humor than anything else. I wasn’t, like, totally fucked when I was a kid. But shit happens. And I think my sense of humor kind of comes from trying to find humor in stuff that maybe isn’t that great, you know? I mean, aside from the obvious disadvantages of poverty, there’s a level of brutality on a day-to-day basis that people who have had a nicer row to hoe maybe don’t understand. [In Marion] kids were always getting fucked up and stuff. I’ve known all kinds of people who’ve died huffing freon in the parking lot, or killed themselves, or died of cancer from living too close to the toxic waste dump, or wrecked their cars or O.D.’d. I just think it’s real precious when people think that there’s a certain idealized way that the world is. How do you think it’s like that? I’m intimately aware of how shitty things can be, I’ve actually seen what happens to people who were unlucky enough to be dealt a cruddy hand, you know?
And that kind of goes back to the nihilistic, depressive spin I put on everything. I’m too exposed to stuff to not notice things now. Just because shit is depressing or horrible, doesn’t mean you can’t laugh about it with blood in your mouth. If you can’t make light of the horrible stuff that happens all the time, you’re never going to laugh at anything. You know, like, “George just got hit by a train, where’s that weed?”
Rumpus: Right. And just because things have gotten better for you, doesn’t mean you don’t remember what it was like.
Dee: You know what—I think things have gotten better for me, but, if anything, it kind of makes things worse for me, because it kind of makes things seem capricious, or maybe unfair. I don’t think I’m better than anybody else, so I don’t think it’s necessarily fair that other people I’ve known in my life, who are as smart as me, or as funny as me, or as hard-working as me, are not in the same situation that I am. I think it was very lucky that I ended up in the position that I’m in. I think it was just a function of me being in the right place at the right time. We had a collection [of comics] online when people started being online. And so we were there already. We got in not knowing what was there and then it was just a happy coincidence that the Internet turned into something different. We are hard workers and so we were able to respond to the increase in traffic and interest and business by working harder. But it was luck and I know it was luck and it also plays into the thing of having a good work ethic, just because I don’t take it for granted.
I don’t think that I deserve it. I don’t think that people need to kiss my ass. I don’t think that people need to suck up everything I make. There is no artist, anywhere, who has it how I have it. I’m so fortunate. If people are going to pay attention to what I’m doing, why would I sit there and not work? There’s a level of entitlement where people take things for granted and are like, “I’m just not going to today.” Just fucking work! No one gets to do this! If you’re doing something you love, it shouldn’t be a big deal to fucking go to work. Go to work!
Rumpus: Something that I was thinking, when I was looking back through your stuff, is that you seem like such a perfect fit for the Internet and vice-versa. It’s such a great example of something coming together so perfectly.
Dee: Well, thank you. I mean, I think it’s funny seeing what I’m doing now, in comparison the stuff that I was doing when I was younger, because when I was younger, there wasn’t really a slot that my skills would fit into. But I do agree that it’s definitely a uniquely Internet kind of thing.
Rumpus: Are you feeling like you’ve sort of experimented with different techniques that you can really do on the Internet, as the comic has progressed? One of the things I noticed you doing, in more recent years, is incorporating actual photos of things into your drawings.
Dee: Yeah, yeah. I mean, a lot of times I do that because I like the way it looks, too. I think the contrast looks cool. But it’s just something I’ve started doing recently, to try out new stuff. And I kind of started off not putting details in at all, then I got more detailed. Then I started doing more of a thing where I would render out textures myself, and work them up to have a weird, more realistic vibe to it. Lately, I’ve been doing photos. But a lot of times, I’ll use photos when I need people to recognize what it is, immediately. Like a lot of times, I’ll use a can of soda. People know what it is and I’m not going to spend a half hour drawing it. I like how it looks. The style of drawing I do is obviously not realistic at all, and it is kind of projecting them into a situation that is more realistic.
Rumpus: And what about your more gruesome stuff?
Dee: Oh yeah! And when I do that stuff—most of the time when I do the really gory stuff—I do all of that by hand. But that’s just my own personal aesthetic. I’m a pretty unapologetic metalhead, so I like kind of injecting the horror elements into it. That’s something that I would probably say is one of the things that I like doing on my site, gore and stuff. The pictures I have for my Facebook group—the one with the nesting doll—that was one of my favorite ones I’ve done. I took a really long time doing that, and no one gives a shit about that one. But I’m gonna keep it up there, because I like it.
Rumpus: Are you self-taught with Photoshop?
Dee: Yes. I had a job doing Photoshop before I had used Photoshop, really. There was a company that makes t-shirts for anybody and everybody. They had a lot of business, considering that it was such a small town. I’m not even really sure why they hired me. I was fifteen. I got hired to do graphics for this company. That’s where I learned to how to do Photoshop. No one taught me how to use Photoshop. They taught me how to fire up a file, and then they were like, “Do it.” And so the first files took me a really long time to do.
Rumpus: So you were just thrown into it.
Dee: Yeah, I was thrown into it, and it was also where I started drawing pictures in Photoshop. That was probably the place where I first started doing doodles that were kind of primordial versions of what I’m doing now. I was working in Photoshop and kind of hacking it out.
When I was a kid, I was poor. I liked drawing pictures, and I was good from a really young age. When I was in first grade, I started going to the art college on weekends, on scholarship. Doing art was always my thing, but my family was always poor, so I didn’t have stuff like…paper. There’s actually a part in Drew’s novel where the guy is talking about the first page and the last page of a book is free paper. You just rip them out. That’s what I used to do—rip out the first page and last page of the book, because it was free paper. But I started doing stuff in Photoshop, and I was working and doing all this stuff with fonts and stuff like that…and I was like, Couldn’t I just draw pictures with this? And so when I was on lunch, I would fuck around with it.
Rumpus: And did it immediately feel like a good fit, like, Oh, this is it?
Dee: It was awkward at first, but I think I got it at a point when I was kind of young. And so it was easy for me to train myself into doing it. I didn’t have a computer for a really long time. When I started doing Photoshop, it was such a long time ago, we’d save stuff on these massive Syquests, since computers had no memory, and Photoshop would grind forever whenever you had to do anything. So it wasn’t particularly elegant. The technology was intriguing, but I wasn’t like Princess Jasmine on the rug with Aladdin or anything. But I could make it work because you use the materials that you have access to. I didn’t have a computer at any time in high school, or in college, and I didn’t have a computer until my website was well on its way, when I was in my early twenties. So when I got back to Photoshop, it was a lot better.
Rumpus: That’s amazing that you didn’t have a computer while your site was up-and-running. People associate you so fully with the Internet.
Dee: Oh, yeah, people probably assume a lot about me, just because I’ve been on the Internet for such a long time. But I didn’t have a computer for a really long time, and some of the first computer files that are on my website where I drew pictures, I did not use a Wacom pen or a mouse. I had a keyboard with the nubby clit-mouse in the middle. I always called it the clit-mouse. I know that’s not what it’s called. You have your finger on it …
Rumpus: Those things are terrible.
Dee: Yeah, I drew on those. That’s what I started off with. Then eventually I got a Wacom tablet and was like, This is like the future.
Rumpus: That must’ve been a million times easier.
Dee: Oh yeah. But I mean, you use whatever you have, if you want to do it. People always come to me and they’re like, “How can I make money doing what you’re doing?” And I say, “Don’t try to make money. Do it because you like it.” I did it regardless. I did it for a really long time before anyone gave two fucks about me.
Rumpus: Is that what you tell people who ask how you end up working for yourself? Is that the advice you give them?
Dee: I try not to give people advice, because I know it’s so uncommon to be able to do something like this. My thoughts on it are: do something you like, because you like to do it, not because you have expectations of what’s going to happen with it. If you don’t like what you’re doing, then that’s just stupid. When people write to me and they’re like, “I want to do webcomics. How can I do a webcomic?”, one of the first things I say to them is, if you’re making comics, you need to sit down and do 300 of them. If you can’t do 300 of ’em, how are you going to do two or three or four or five or ten years of your comic? If you can’t do it, then don’t do it. And, like I said, you have to do it because you like it, not because you expect something from it.
The way things are now, the Internet is changing in a way that is not good for people who create content, so you can’t expect that that is going to happen for you. You have to do it because you love it. If you don’t love it enough to do it, whether people are paying you enough—or paying you at all—then you don’t love it enough to take it as far as you’d need to in order to make it a thing. If you don’t love it enough to do it 500 times, then fucking don’t do it ten times and quit when you don’t immediately get high-fives from everyone who looks at the Internet.
The Internet is changing now where people don’t care about where the stuff came from. People want to go look at it at BuzzFeed, or they want to go look at it at Reddit, or 9Gag. Anywhere but going to the website. They want people to spoon-feed them. And so if you’re thinking that you’re going to get online now and make content and be in the same situation as anybody who makes content for a living, you’re wrong. It’s just not the same as it used to be. People don’t go look at a comic because they like the comic. They look at a comic and then they scroll farther down the page and look at a different comic, then they scroll farther down the page and look at a picture of a cat. It’s just different.
So my advice is: you have to do it a lot, do it because you like it, and don’t quit your job until you’re already making as much on your site as you’re making at your job. People are in a hurry to quit. If you love it, then it’s not a big deal that you’re doing it full-time on the side, right? If you love it, then it doesn’t make a difference that you have to do it in addition to your job. I just think that this situation with the content and aggregators and stuff is going to make it very, very hard. And, like I said, the only reason I was able to make it is that it just wasn’t a thing when I started. There are a lot more people making content now, and it’s harder to get that initial burst of traffic.
Rumpus: Speaking of which, do you have a concept of how many people are reading your stuff each day? Or is that not something that you’re paying super close attention to?
Dee: You know, I used to pay closer attention to it, but I feel like I have a better relationship with my website when I don’t pay attention to how many people are looking at it, when I don’t pay attention to the demographics of the people who are looking at it. And I never, ever, ever, ever, ever read people talking about what I have done, because I didn’t care when I made it, so I can’t care now. It doesn’t make me mad. It’s just like, you didn’t get it! You didn’t even get it. You didn’t get it, and now you’re getting all huffy and pedantic and condescending about nothing, when all you’ve done all day is sit on the computer with your thumb up your butt.
Rumpus: And why take the time to write about it when you don’t understand it?
Dee: Why do you even care? That’s the other thing. Why do you care? You decided to look at my site, and you didn’t have to pay for anything. If you didn’t like it, put the pretzel back and order something else. It’s no skin off your ass. I’m sitting here minding my own business. But what are they gonna do? They have the keyboard right there. They’re just typing to hear the clicks. “Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.”
Rumpus: Can you tell me a little bit about how certain comics become t-shirts? What’s your process for choosing them?
Dee: Usually I keep an eye on what my readers seem to dig. A lot of times, what my readers like won’t really translate to shirts, so what I’ll do is just pick out what I like that will translate to something that someone will wear around and will look good on a shirt. But the most popular [comics are] nonsensical. It’s not gonna be a good shirt. I will pick according to that kind of stuff, and I take it pretty seriously. This is as close to being Karl Lagerfeld as I’m going to get.
Rumpus: And you used to screen-print them yourselves, right?
Dee: No, we have never screened them ourselves. Initially, one of Drew’s friends did it. Then, as we got more popular, we had to switch manufacturers. Now we have a company up in Michigan. They do our warehouse stuff, and they ship our stuff, and they make our shirts for us. They’re good. I do all the graphics stuff for it myself. I prep all the stuff for them, so all they have to do is make the screens and screen it.
Rumpus: Was your business model always the plan? When you first started the comic, did you think, Oh, maybe these would also be good as shirts. Maybe I can make some extra money here?
Dee: No, it was never the plan. When I first started, I didn’t think anybody was going to look at it. I didn’t think of it as being something that would even hold interest with anybody, and when I started, people weren’t even on the Internet like they are now. People didn’t have the Internet at work, you know? People might work on computers, but they wouldn’t have the Internet hooked up on their computers. So the scene on the Internet was totally different. There wasn’t anyone on there. It was more of a hobby that I was initially just doing by myself. I had a whole bunch of these doodles and I just put ’em up. I didn’t even have a computer. When Drew and I met, he lived in Cincinnati, so he would come up and we would hang out. He was like, “Why don’t you just post your pictures on the Internet?” And I was like, “All right, but I don’t really have a computer.” So I drew stuff, and I would mail it to him.
Rumpus: Oh really?
Dee: Yeah. I didn’t even really have a computer until I had been doing my site for a while. And I say “doing my site” in a very passive way, because how involved can you be if you can’t look at it?
Rumpus: Do you still have the drawings that you would mail to each other?
Dee: Um, I think that he probably has them somewhere in his office. But I don’t have them. I’m not real sentimental about stuff.
Rumpus: So when did you know the shirts were gonna take off? I’ve read that, over the years, you’ve shipped merchandise to every country with mail delivery, right?
Dee: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think it’s really crazy how many shirts we’ve sold over the years, and how many places we’ve sold to. But, I mean, it was never the plan and it was so gradual that it wasn’t even like, one day we didn’t sell anything, and all of a sudden we were selling a ton. It was a really gradual process, so we were able to improve our workflow and our order-packing speed as it was ramping up. It really wasn’t like waking up one day and suddenly everything’s just going great. It was gradual, and Drew and I are kind of frugal, anyways, so it wasn’t like we were struggling and suddenly we weren’t, you know? We were generally pretty frugal. So we were never really hurting when we started out, even though we weren’t selling much.
And we weren’t doing it because we expected to make money. We were never really shocked and amazed by suddenly selling a bunch out of nowhere, or planning to sell a ton and making sales-projections or whatever. We just worked and it slowly snowballed. We shipped a bazillion shirts by ourselves. I’m not even sure—like 100,000 shirts. We folded them up and put them in envelopes, and shipped them ourselves. And we did that until I had my daughter because at that point, I was too sick and that’s when we set up fulfillment with someone else. Until then, we were doing it all ourselves. If we shipped 500 shirts, it’s because we packed up 500 shirts and carried them to the post office. We would do it ourselves. Especially over Christmas, we would go in a few times a week and mail out hundreds of them a day. But like I said, I’m not afraid to put my back into it. It’s amazing what you can do if you’re not afraid to get some blisters.
Rumpus: And it must be nice to get out of the house and switch it up, right?
Dee: Oh, yeah. And now I feel really bourgie about it, because I have someone else shipping stuff, so all I have to do is graphics stuff for the shirts—when I need to do that—and I work on my comics. I work on other stuff on the side and it’s a lot more chilled out. It was really a little bit hectic when we had a lot of stuff to send out and I had a lot of comics to do and this and that. But with a kid, that wasn’t doable. It feels different, but we tend to have a way of filling the time up with other stuff. So we didn’t delegate the shipping and then go drink beer in the yard, or something.
Rumpus: In terms of the shirts’ popularity, are there designs that clearly stand out as your most popular of all time? Also, do you discontinue them after a while, or do you keep some of them around forever?
Dee: We’ll keep a shirt around if people like it. We have three sites and we have all the shirts for the sites. We will keep shirts if they are popular. If they are unpopular, we will get rid of them. Even when we were shipping stuff ourselves, a spot on the shelf is money. Renting that spot on the shelf is money. If something is not selling, we will discontinue it, so we can make more money putting something on that spot on the shelf that will sell. It’s just like with my comics—when I put new shirts out, I will put stuff out that I know other people will like, and I will put stuff out that I like and that I’m just making because I like it. Then, when we discontinue stuff, it’s always stuff that I liked best. That’s always the stuff that gets flushed down the toilet first.
Rumpus: How did Sharing Machine come about? Did you just want to come up with an umbrella company for the whole thing?
Dee: Yeah, kind of. Originally, my stuff and Drew’s stuff was separate. I had my store page and sales got deposited into my bank account and he had his. Then we got to the point where we were doing more business and we were filing taxes together and all that other stuff, so it was just a lot easier to set that up, to have one store page to maintain, instead of three store pages to maintain.
Rumpus: You guys really seem meant for each other. I mean, you were both doing independent comics when you met, right?
Dee: Yeah. We were doing different stuff job-wise, too—I had my job where I was doing pharmaceutical stuff, and he was a chemical engineer. We were doing our own projects in our spare time, and that stuff definitely wasn’t our main gig. We had a lot in common when we met, obviously, and we hit it off. We have different stuff that we are good at, aside from being fond of each other or whatever. Like, we have complementary skill sets. I’m horrible at computer stuff and math, and anything that has to do with little, teeny details. I have to get the calculator out to multiply “7-by-8,” you know? But I’m better at, like, having an eye for certain design stuff and things like that. So I think it balances out and makes it a little bit easier to do as much stuff as we do. I have my nail polish, and that’s all me. Every single part of it I did on my own, I didn’t really have any help from anybody. The packaging, formulating, making the store—everything was just what I’ve been doing for the last year or so. But Drew is a chemical engineer, so if I have to talk to commodities labs, he will talk to them for me, because he knows the lingo. He used to do that stuff at work when he was doing chemical engineering, and I don’t need vendors thinking I’m a rube when I get confused and think a pound is more than a kilogram or something.
Rumpus: Were you guys familiar with each other’s work before you met?
Dee: No. He had stuff online, he had the Drew site. I didn’t even have a computer so I didn’t know. I just met him and we hit it off because we had a lot of stuff in common. We were both kind of weird.
Rumpus: Did you both come up in Ohio?
Dee: Yeah, I was living in Columbus and he was living in Cincinnati. I don’t even remember how I met him. I met him in some capacity and I was probably drunk. But I met him and I was like, “Heeeyyy. Why don’t you come back to my house?” And he stayed for three days.
Rumpus: That’s a great first date!
Dee: It wasn’t even a first date. I didn’t know him, and then I met him, and then he was at my house for three days. And that was basically it. I always joke with him—we should’ve just gotten married that first day. Just to freak people out.
Rumpus: That’s a great story, though, and it would be a good addition to the nonexistent Wikipedia page about you.
Dee: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Like I said, I got married really young. And Drew and I have been together for a really long time.
Rumpus: And what about your collaboration with Drew on Married to the Sea? What’s that like?
Dee: Well, I do not work on Married to the Sea as much as I did when it first started. We don’t collaborate, like collaborate. If he does the comic on Married to the Sea, it’s all his. And if I do one, it’s all me. It’s a lot easier to get an idea across if you don’t have someone else trying to help with it. The reason it started off with both of us trying to work on it is because it’s like a font and the art is not hand-drawn, so it’s easy to put any voice into it that you want. It kind of feels like a mutual screen to project stuff on that’s different from his site or my site. It’s a place where you could throw something up that doesn’t necessarily fit on the other sites.
Rumpus: I always pictured you guys working across from each other, basically nose-to-nose.
Dee: Oh, no. We used to share an office, but I actually moved my office recently, because he always wants to listen to some kind of Portuguese psychedelic stuff, and I’d rather be by myself and listen to Nicki Minaj for a minute. We always have instant messenger on. We’ll talk, but we’re not in the same room anymore. I had to spread myself out.
Rumpus: Switching subjects again, do you have favorite and least favorite things to draw? I know you have certain things popping up from time to time, like your dog Chester, and other repeating images.
Dee: You know, I used to like drawing my dog, because my dog is so dumb looking. But people were unable to see it as a comic about a dog. They were like, “Pug, pug, pug,” fetishizing the breed or something, calling me a “pugmom” and stuff. So I kind of don’t draw my dog as much anymore because it was a little annoying. I like drawing animals. I like drawing gory stuff, like bruises and zits. I like drawing gross stuff. I think drawing gross stuff is probably my favorite, but I don’t draw it all the time. I think it’s better if you don’t do it very often. It has more impact if you don’t do it very often.
Rumpus: I also really like all your sea creatures: the narwhal, the sharks, all that.
Dee: Yeah. A lot of times, I just draw animals because I haven’t drawn them yet. There are certain animals that I always like drawing. I like drawing snakes just because I think it’s fun. I like drawing the scales and stuff. It’s not that I care about snakes. I don’t give a fuck about snakes.
Rumpus: Do you sometimes approach something like, “I’m going to challenge myself. I’ve never drawn this type of thing, so I’m going to try it?”
Dee: You know, I used to do that a lot, and there are still things that I’m not very good at drawing. I’m really bad at drawing horses, stuff like that. But there’s a feature I have on my site where I will periodically draw commissioned pieces, and it’s usually like, “Will you draw something for my girlfriend?” Usually they want me to draw something that would never, ever, ever occur to me to draw. So I used to challenge myself more, but when I started doing the custom drawings on my site, it had me drawing stuff that is beyond what I would even think to practice. Every kind of dog. All kinds of stuff. If you pay, it’s spec work; I don’t care anymore and I’ll draw whatever.
Rumpus: Have you thought about doing books? Collections of comics? Or is that not on the immediate agenda?
Dee: I’ve had people contact me about doing books and they always give me the “Fuck You” deal. The deal where they’re like, “$5,000, and you’re never going to get any royalties.” And I’m like, No. And they would put [the book] in that area—we always call it the “LOL Ghetto”: that shelf where it’s all the website books and the next month, the whole shelf is on the clearance table. I’m not really trying to get into the LOL Ghetto, so I have turned down some book deals, because the deal isn’t very good. I’m a little bit petulant—I know it’s really hard to believe—but I’m a little bit petulant, and I don’t like when people tell me what to do. It’s hard for me to get into the idea of a book, because there’s a lot of work involved with getting a book set up. It’s hard for me, because they just want to do, like, a collection of stuff I’ve already done. It’s hard for me to set aside so much time so I can redo a bunch of stuff I did already, and then I’d just end up in the LOL Ghetto and not make any money for it, anyway. And if they give me $5,000, I mean, that’s not much money for how much time I would have to spend putting it together.
Rumpus: Yeah, but on the flip-side of the coin, do you ever look at somebody like Gary Larson and think, Oh, I should be making all these calendars and all this stuff that sells forever like The Far Side does?
Dee: You know, I’ve thought about doing that stuff, but I’ll say if I decide to do something like that, I have business relationships with print shops from making merch over the years, so I would do it myself. I don’t think I’d give people my cut. Because that’s my problem—I know how much money book companies make off of stuff, and I know they give everybody the “Fuck You” deal. And for the same amount of work, I can remove them from the process and get to keep their cut, you know?
I’m just a little too crotchety. I don’t want people saying, “You have to have it done by next week.” I have other shit to do! I’m not dying to have a book out. I mean, if people want to see my old comics, they can look at them for free online. That’s what stops me, because I’m like, Who’s going to buy it when they can look at it for free, online? And they’re not going to let me put the nasty stuff on there. They’re not going to let me put the messed-up stuff. They’re going to make me put all the dumbest ones in there, and it’s all stuff that’s already online.
Rumpus: About have you thought about newspaper syndication? You already have a built-in readership. But I would imagine going through a syndicate to get your comics in the newspaper would be a hassle because…
Dee: It would be impossible! It would be impossible. I don’t have any illusions about the stuff that I do. It’s not, like, an ongoing storyline. So there’s nothing compelling in that regard. The jokes themselves are either nasty or sort of absurd. It’s not something that people reading the paper would want to read, or any other host of reasons. I don’t think anyone would want them in the paper. When I’ve had comics printed in the paper, my comic doesn’t stand up very well in black and white. That’s another thing that makes it hard for me. It’s just not something I’d pursue. Like I said, I have problems with people telling me what to do.
Rumpus: And what are your current side projects? Are there things that we haven’t heard about yet?
Dee: Probably, probably. I’m starting a cosmetics company. I’ve been making handmade nail-polish. So I had been selling it on Etsy, but it was moving so quick on Etsy that I didn’t publicize it. I posted it to a group of 1,000 people and it sold out immediately. And that happened a couple times and so I’ve been kind of trying to organize that… I put the brakes on it, just for a little while, because I wanted to get a better workflow going on with it. I’m getting an actual site set up, instead of selling through Etsy. There’s other stuff on the side—like I’ve been taking notes about a horror novel and just different stuff. I get tired of myself, I get tired of it. People have this idea about who I am that is really suffocating. So I always have to do stuff on the side that doesn’t have anything to do with that. I want to do something where I make it look how I want it to look and it doesn’t have a comic on it, it doesn’t have my name on it.
Rumpus: You just seem like a real idea person. Have you always been like that, where you’re always thinking of new concepts and stuff?
Dee: I mean, I try to. I feel like I’m obligated to, because my situation is so unusual and it’s such a privilege to be in the kind of situation I’m in, so if I get an idea, I run with it. I have the free time, or at least the flexibility to make time if I need it. I have the space and all that kind of stuff. I’m not rolling in money. We call it “Ohio rich,” which is not at all rich, but the low cost of living here makes it easier to scrape money together for projects. If I lived in the Bay Area or New York, I would not be able to get half the stuff done that I do, because the cost of living is exponentially more. I doubt I would be able to do my site as a full-time job, and I’d probably live in an apartment behind a dumpster.
Rumpus: That’s what I do!
Dee: But since I live in Ohio, it’s different, because the cost of living here is so low. So it’s a lot easier to be able to flex your muscle—in terms of stuff like that—because it doesn’t cost as much to run a house, it doesn’t cost as much to do…whatever. So I feel obligated with my situation and what I’m able to do, and what I’m able to produce with the connections I’ve made in the process of getting other stuff done with my comics. And so I feel like I have to. If I didn’t, then who’s going to? And so, in order to be happy with doing the same thing all the time, I have to do stuff on the side, just to keep balance with it. And I’m prolific, but Drew is mega-prolific compared to me. He is a lot more prolific than I am, because I have attention problems. There’s certain things that he’s better at than I am. But there’s certain things that I’m better at than he is. I think it kind of makes it easier for us.
Rumpus: I’m really impressed by your output. It seems like it’s pretty smooth sailing for you, at this point. Do you ever look toward the future in terms of where you see Natalie Dee comics going, or are you having a good time now, and you’ll basically keep doing it as long as you’re having a good time?
Dee: I am doing it, now, and I like the body of work I have, thus far. But I can see the Internet changing and I can see the way people interact with content changing. So I’m always keeping an eye toward that, because I don’t want to play dumb on the stuff that’s going on and end up fucking myself. You know what I’m saying? I like making my site, but at this point, I’m in my thirties, I have a house, it’s my job now. I like doing it and I’m very fortunate in being able to do it, but I always have other stuff that I’m working on. And if one thing stops working and something else starts working, then I think it would be stupid to not follow avenues. I am flexible enough to take other avenues if they present themselves to me.
Rumpus: Is there anything you want to add?
Dee: I feel like we’ve covered it. We’ve talked for such a long time that I don’t even remember any of the questions, honestly.
All comics © by Natalie Dee.