Elana Kopelevich

Squirrels, comics, and loss

November 26, 2023

tldr: This is a personal update. I've taken some time off work. I've been publishing a web comic. I lost my dad. I've learned a lot in this time.

Remember September of 2023? Oh, I was so young then, so naive. I had just rebuilt this site in yet another Javascript framework and published it for all to see. I wrote a blog post about writing, about my intentions, about nothing, and I believed that would be filler, quickly forgotten beneath the mountain of interesting pieces to follow.

But, was I naive? Did I not know better? No. The fact is that I was lying (mostly to myself). As I stated in that previous post (no need to go back and read it - it doesn't really say anything), I have done the blog thing many times before. I know, from first hand experience, that it is very hard to write publishable work regularly, even if you really like writing.

I'm doing it again. I'm writing about writing. I'm making excuses and I'm not telling you anything new. Let's begin again.

In September, I started a several-month break from work. My dad was terminally ill and I was stressed out. I wanted some time to be with my family, not think about work, make meaningful progress on personal projects, and sleep until 8am if I felt like it. In the conversations leading up to the break, I learned that I am incredibly lucky (well, I knew that, but this is one more reason) because my team encouraged me to take FMLA and return when I was ready.

So, it began. I started spending days at my parents' house, built my personal site, wrote a singular blog post, drew some pictures, participated in "Inktober," attempted "NaNoWriMo," got more consistent with meditation, figured out how to screen print at home, found the energy to hang out with friends more, and launched a comic that had been brewing in my mind for many years. In the past few months, I have learned a lot about the world of web comics, (free) time management, improved my drawing skillz a bit, wrestled with story development, social media, and remembered/relearned some basic web stuff too.

I also lost my dad. That was beyond difficult. I may write more about this experience another time. I may not.

Squirrel and monkeys and comics

Let's talk about Mooshy and Co. It's a family saga, based on the very real family of (toy) squirrels and monkeys that my partner and I have invited into our home over the last 15 years. There is Mooshy, a steady and responsible red squirrel, who is the namesake of the comic. Don't take his calm demeanor for dullness. He has lived a real, serious life - moving across the country on his own, overcoming a drinking problem, and becoming a father. It's been a slow ramp up in his character development, but you will get to know him well in the months to come.

Then, there is his partner, Monkeylynn. She is a monkey and a professional creative. She struggles with work stuff, imposter syndrome, and being a mom. Marshmallow is their daughter. She is a monkey squirrel (not squirrel monkey) and, partially because of her mixed heritage, she sometimes has trouble finding her people in the Wild West that is middle school. And, of course there is Smooshy (a gray squirrel). He is Mooshy's cousin and he is an entrepreneur. He sells the smooshiest pickles in the world and he can get you a good deal on anything. I've introduced a few more characters, but you will have to go read the comic to get fully caught up.

I provide this backstory for context here, but what I really want think and write about is the experience around this project - the story development, the web development, the art, the layouts, the self-imposed deadlines, writing for an audience, putting myself "out there," the chore of social media, the learning, and the fun of it.

Build in public

One of the clearest reflections so far: You can do so much when you put some space between yourself and the idea of perfection. It's not that I've ever been a textbook perfectionist, but I've definitely embraced some of the faults of one. More times than I would like to admit, I've taken a long time to share a piece of code or writing because I held it against a very high standard and I thought my work was not ready for the light of day.

With Mooshy & Co, I built the absolute MVP of a website, wrote the first chapter poking fun at myself for not being prepared to continue the story or knowing how to draw very well, and I shared it. Since September, I've iterated a lot on the site (you can create an account and collect "SmooshyBucks" for merchandise now!), started making funny ads for social media, fleshed out some long-running story arcs, made business cards and stickers, wrote character profiles, and drew a lot of scrappy comics. I have not been particularly consistent about layout, style, and chapter length. The whole thing evolves every week, as I figure out what works and what does not. But, I am publishing a comic every week, and oh man, is that a win!

"Building in public" is a phrase that tech people like to toss around, and that automatically taints it a bit, but it's a sentiment that I like. I understand the fantasy of humbly doing your homework in secret, honing your skills, and then stepping out shining like a natural. There are so many problems with this! Not only is that old-school thinking (I mean, do you even Mindset, bro?), but it comes with a big risk for your ego. There is a pretty good chance that you're not going to be "good enough" to have justified the suspense. And then what? You thought that your project was going to be an instant hit, but it still needs work, and you can't even brag about all the progress you've made.

And think about all the time that you lost not getting feedback, not seeing it in context, not iterating. Building in public means learning in public, and the positive weight of that is so much greater than then the fear of failing or looking stupid. Not only do you get the benefit of crowdsourcing feedback, but you desensitize yourself to the judgement of strangers.

It is a much better idea to put your shit out there, early and in a state that is properly labelled as "shit." That way, you can get feedback from the beginning, grow with your early supporters, and have something to talk about as you get better. This comic project is the most public building that I've ever done (aside from OSS stuff at work, but that work is far less shitty), and I cannot recommend the experience enough. I mean, I've deployed crap on the internet before, but this time I am actively growing an audience while I'm doing it. I'm like, "Look! I'm building shit! It's getting better! And I want everyone to see it!"

I actually want to do more explicit learning-in-public projects. It is such a joy to watch people's weight loss or getting swole progress over time. I love the people who are learning to draw and share their work from the first flat, disproportioned doodles, through their brilliant concept art compositions. Progress is so much better than "natural talent," whatever that is.

Making a web comic

I've learned some things about making comics for an internet audience.

I've been completely off social media for several years, so I kind of lost track of the state of web comics. Starting this project, I realized that I would have to dip my toes back into that realm (more on that later). I signed up for Mastodon, Instagram, and Reddit (subscribing to all the comic subreddits), as well as Webtoon and Tapas. I discovered a world of artists, making cute, serious, hilarious, and fucking weird visual stories. Some of these artists appear to be successful (measuring by followers, views, and patrons).

Many of them are working with a similar template. The most engaging comics are drawn for the platform (square panels, without too much white space), are short and funny, and don't have long running story arcs. There are those that are a little darker and embrace a jaded worldview (I relate to that) and those that are nice and wholesome (I want that), but for the most part, the popular comics are 2 to 4 panels, are on the simpler side, have minimal dialogue, and make you go, heh.

I realize that this format works (and I've used it several times), but I'm torn about forcing myself into that mold for the long run. I'm not trying to be a "content creator" working for "likes." I am only doing this because I think the characters that my partner and I came up with are funny. I like them and I like telling stories about them. I do love clever punchlines, but I also want to explore the characters' inner lives and their relationships. Ultimately, I am (humbly) aiming for some kind of brilliant balance between funny and deep, à la Rick and Morty, because that's the kind of story that I like.

These observations are new (as this project is new) and this line of thinking comes back to the learning process. I not only need to decide what I want in the world of Mooshy, but I must also get good at executing it. I'm in the scrappy stage now, where I'm still unsure about who this comic is for (aside from me) and how it should flow, but I think I'm getting closer to figuring it out every time I publish a new chapter.

A project for fun

I've already alluded to purpose, but to be clear, this project is fun. I am only continuing on with it because it's fun. In the very early stages, I thought that it had some potential to make me an income, but I've let go of that fantasy. I'm still hustling, passing out business cards and stickers, and playing the social media game, but I am only continuing the endeavor because I enjoy it. It's a lot of work, of various kinds, but it's the kind of work where I do what I want.

In a world of overwhelming entertainment options to consume, it is always a pleasure to make something. But I make stuff all the time. This project is turning into even more than a simple creative outlet. It provides surprising satisfaction to make something that evolves over time, and it is a thrill to share it with others.

That said, there is also the awkward part where I ask strangers for money - no it's not that I have high hopes of just making comics for a living, but there are some benefits to getting donations and subscribers. The pittance that I may be able to get from ko-fi and my shop will certainly help cover hosting costs and business cards, as well as provide me with the confirmation that someone out there likes this project enough to support it.

Wrapping up

I'm glad that I spent some time reflecting on these last few months, my time off, and my big project. I thought I would cover more, like how I've been working, time management, and my hate/hate relationship with social media, but I've rambled for long enough as it is. Stopping here just means I'll have to write another post sooner, rather than later. In any case, if you've made this far, I appreciate it. Thanks for reading!