Bill Barnes is best known as the artist behind Unshelved, one of the biggest and oddest webcomics success stories, a long running and successful series about librarians. Last fall, Barnes launched a new strip that he’s writing with cartoonist Paul Southworth on art. Southworth is no newcomer to the webcomics world, either, having written and illustrated the popular “Ugly Hill” which ended a long run last year, as well as “You Are Dead” on Crispy Gamer.
“Not Invented Here” focuses on the exploits of software developer Desmond and program manager Owen. The strip hit its stride last month with a long series about Desmond’s horrible user interface for a new piece of software. Far more complex and involved than just a series of in-jokes, “Not Invented Here” is a great workplace comedy with well-drawn characters and laugh out loud punch lines.
CBR News spoke with the duo about the comic, how they work together, and what will happen to the strip in 2060.
Let’s start at the very beginning , here – how did the two of you meet?
Paul Southworth:Â Bill and I knew of each other, and I think we had emailed briefly before we started all this nonsense, but I’m pretty sure you just emailed me out of the blue one day to talk about collaborating on a project. Is that right, Bill?
Bill Barnes:Â I had followed your brief foray in drawing “Ding!” for Scott Kurtz. I emailed you like ten minutes after you two parted ways. I had been planning the comic strip that became “Not Invented Here” for a couple of years, and eventually decided I wasn’t the guy to draw it. I tried out another artist, but I dropped him like a hot potato when Paul became available
Southworth:Â I was just bringing “Ugly Hill” to a close, coincidentally, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to entertain any gentleman callers
Paul, what was it that made you interested in collaborating with Bill after working on strips solo for so long?
Southworth:Â It was Bill’s pedigree that piqued my interest. I knew he had been doing “Unshelved” for years, and that it was how he made his living. If that weren’t the case, I don’t think I ever would have agreed to a partnership of any kind. But I figured this guy knew what the hell he was doing, and since I was soon to be fresh out of projects, I found myself considering a long-term comics collaboration, which surprised me.
Bill, what was the initial idea behind “Not Invented Here?” I know you worked in the software industry for years before becoming a full time cartoonist, so I assume that that’s where the concept came from.
Barnes:Â I first started writing comic strips as an adult while I was still working in software. So pretty much the last thing I wanted to do was think about it when I got home. After Gene Ambaum and I started “Unshelved,” people kept asking me when I was going to start a software comic, and it always annoyed me.
Then, as I was getting ready to leave my day job for good, I started thinking about it and it didn’t annoy me. So I started taking notes and sketching characters. Eventually it felt ready.
Why didn’t you think you were the right guy to draw it?
Barnes:Â Drawing “Unshelved” and running the business doesn’t leave much time. I also really like working with a partner. And I liked the idea of it looking better than I could make it. I was also worried about it looking, visually, like “Unshelved 2.” I don’t have a lot of variety in me.
Once you decided that you were going to have to get someone else to draw the strip, did you have a style or a person in mind?
Barnes:Â No. First I went with Mark Monlux, who is a friend who lives reasonably close. I always liked his style, but he couldn’t really give the strip the time it needed. Also, he never really got the jokes, and I really wanted someone who would work with me on the writing.
What was it that made Paul the right guy?
Barnes:Â Honestly? I really enjoyed tweeting back and forth with Paul. I felt like his and my senses of humor meshed nicely. Twitter is the baby mama of “Not Invented Here.”
Both “Unshelved” and “Not Invented Here” are collaborative strips, though on the former you’re the artist and on the latter you’re the writer. How do the creative processes differ?
Barnes:Â First of all it’s completely reversed. I’m used to getting scripts which I hack to death until they’re unrecognizable, and then drawing whatever I want. Paul is very nice about the scripts I send him. He makes good fixes and helps make everything funnier.
Southworth:Â And Bill is an excellent liar.
Barnes:Â I have learned (the hard way) that Paul and Gene are very different people. Gene writes very stream-of-conciousness, and expects big edits. Paul writes pretty polished stuff (thanks to years of writing his own strips) and I can’t just rip it up and start over. I think we’re settling into a nice groove.
Southworth:Â And I’m learning to be more flexible, and not to be married to everything that spills out of the soft spot on top of my head.
Barnes:Â I will say that Paul writes more material than I originally expected, and that’s excellent.
Paul, you mentioned Bill’s experience and background as why you wanted to work together, but what about the idea did you like and what did you think you could bring or add to it?
Southworth:Â I liked the dynamic between Owen and Desmond that Bill had in mind, the surrounding cast of characters and the potential for the dynamic between them. Plus, it represented a challenge for me. I’ve never drawn a strip with a human cast before, believe it or not. It’s always been monsters and animals for me, but I’ve always wanted to tell stories where I could make pop culture references and other jokes that people could truly relate to.
What goes into putting together an average strip?
Barnes:Â Recently we’ve started breaking stories together. Working out the beats before scripts. Basically if it’s about software, I wrote it. If it’s about the characters complex inner lives, Paul wrote it. But hardly a single strip goes out that doesn’t have input from both of us.
Southworth:Â Usually Bill will send me scripts, but recently I’ve been coming up with stories and we reverse the process. I send Bill scripts, he edits and sends them back, etc.
Paul, is this how you like working, having some say and not being just the artist?
Southworth:Â Oh yeah, I could never be just the artist. I always have to put in my two cents. If I didn’t have input into the writing, I’d go insane. I’ve been spoiled by working alone for too long.
Barnes:Â I have a strong personal conviction that two people are better than one when it comes to writing humor. Sometimes I’m just not as funny or clear as I think I am.
How autobiographical a character is Desmond, and how did you guys design the characters?
Barnes:Â Owen and Desmond started off as different parts of my personality. I’ve been a clueless program manager (Owen) and a developer (Desmond). But as we started writing the strip, Desmond has taken on characteristics of Paul. It turns out the program manager/developer relationship maps really well to the writer/artist relationship.
Southworth:Â It’s actually how I’ve learned to understand the dynamic between the two of them, since I’ve never worked in software
Barnes:Â There’s the guy who waves his hands and says “something like that” and there’s the guy who makes it real. In terms of character design, I sent my early sketches to Paul, and he took the basic concepts and made them sing.
Paul, when it comes to creating the supporting characters, what does Bill give you as far as description?
Southworth:Â We collaborated very closely on the main cast: Art, Marketroid, Eliza. I think I nailed Umesh on the first try. Any other ancillary characters are mostly up to me, and if not, Bill just has some minor guidance.
Barnes:Â When it comes to characters, I’ve learned to just say “male character, hispanic,” or whatever. Paul is all about character design, and I try to give him free rein.
How much of Marketroid is Bill and how much is Paul? There aren’t many marketing robots in comics, so that particular character and design really stands out.
Southworth:Â I had fun with Marketroid! Bill had some key points to hit: Elvis hair, suit, wheels for feet, I think…
Basically he had to look like Robo-Douche
Barnes:Â I still think we should have gone with that name. Marketroid was part of my original strip proposal, but Paul really found the hatable marketer within him.
It is an incredibly subtle critique of marketing.
Southworth:Â Subtle as a sledgehammer!
I actually feel a little bad about Marketroid sometimes, because I’m good friends with a marketing guy from work and I secretly hope that he never reads our comic.
Barnes:Â I won’t reveal our next damning critique of the industry. Recently Paul has found a vicious streak in Marketroid I didn’t even know was there. It made me very happy. The true story, of course, is that I’m a big time marketer myself now. I do best when I make fun of myself.
There have been a number of strips that referenced the old cartoon show “Dinosaucers.” Whose idea was that?
Barnes:Â I still don’t believe that’s a real thing.
Southworth:Â Guilty! Bill has little to no knowledge of pop culture
Barnes:Â I do too. It’s just from the 1930’s. “Rhapsody in Blue,” amirite?
Southworth:Â We needed an obscure pop culture reference for the strip, and I’ve had that god damn theme song in my head for the last twenty years. It finally came in handy.
The big story for much of February involved what happens when developers get to design the user interface, thus forcing the users to write code. I think that was the point where you guys really hit your stride with the strip. How much of it was fiction and how much truth?
Barnes:Â It’s a hackneyed truism that developers are terrible UI designers. So, of course, I was happy to use it. Mostly, that sequence was an opportunity to show usability testing in action, something most people have never seen. I got to channel some real bile about one usability tester from my past.
Southworth:Â The Usability Jerks! They were fun to design. Like the Wonder Twins with bowl cuts.
Barnes:Â My favorite contribution from Paul was that Desmond’s UI somehow involved holding a hanger at just the right angle.
Bill, “Unshelved” is pretty huge, especially among librarians. How has the feedback been about “Not Invented Here” from people in the software industry?
Barnes:Â ” Unshelved” gets emails from librarians of the form of, “Omigod this happened to me today. Are you following me?” I know we’re doing “Not Invented Here” right when we get the same ones from software people. Which we do.
So what can we look forward to in the strip?
Barnes:Â You know, when I first conceived of NIH, it was a very different strip. There was a giant story arc that we will probably never do. So I guess I’m not sure, exactly.
Different how? What were your original plans?
Barnes:Â Originally, Owen and Desmond were these veterans of software startups. They had started four startups, and all had gone down in flames. They had no money and were stuck working in dead-end IT jobs at some random company.
Then they decided to try one more time. But because they had no money, and every investor in town had been burned, they had no chance of money. So they did their startup out of the offices of the company they were working at. There was a lot juggling their day jobs with their startup.
Southworth:Â That felt like the end of the story to me. I thought it would be more interesting to follow these guys from the bottom up, rather than joining them when they had already been though all the funny stuff — failure.
Barnes:Â Yeah. It’s also true that the company-within-a-company setup was very confusing. It would work for a sitcom, but not a comic strip. It was basically “Bosom Buddies,” now that I think of it.
Southworth:Â So all that stuff might still be in the future for Owen and Desmond, who knows? Right now they’re just peons.
Barnes:Â Ironically, Paul is always pressuring me to resolve sequences, but he killed my ending. No, it was good. The strip is much stronger now.
Southworth:Â A good comic strip should be able to go on forever! I fully expect our sons to be forced into taking Â up the mantle of NIH in 50 years. Even if they hate drawing, comics, and each other
The sons of Southworth and Barnes will be continuing the strip in 2060 – now we have a real scoop!