Fanboy Comics Interviews the Creators of ‘Unshelved’ and ‘Not Invented Here’

The following is an interview with Bill Barnes, Gene Ambaum, and Jeff Zugale, the creative teams behind the popular web comics Unshelved and Not Invented Here. In this interview, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor Barbra Dillon chats with the writers and artists about their work on the respective web series, their plans for collecting and publishing the comic strips into paperback form, and how you can support the creators through their Kickstarter campaign.

This interview was conducted on August 12, 2013.


Barbra Dillon, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor:  Bill, you are currently working on two web series, Unshelved and Not Invented Here. For our readers who may not be familiar with the series, how would you describe each story?

Bill Barnes: Both are workplace comedies. For people my age, I say Unshelved is like Barney Miller set in a library, or Cheers with books. For people who don’t get those references, I say it’s like The Hunger Games meets Twilight, because that gets them really excited, and by the time they realize I lied, it’s too late - they’re already hooked. Not Invented Here is the story of two best friends who work in a software company - it’s more about their friendship than it is about software, but we make a lot of server jokes too, such as they are.

BD: As a man of many talents, you write Not Invented Here while you are the artist for Unshelved. Do you find that one aspect of the creative process is more difficult than the other, and how do you balance the workload of each project?

BB: For me writing is much easier and more satisfying, and I’m definitely a better writer than I am an artist. I find I write bigger, more complicated scenes for Not Invented Here, because I’m not the sucker who has to draw a robot on a roof threatening to shoot a hostage while a crowd below looks up in fear ( Whereas if Gene asks me to draw more than two people in a panel, I go on strike. I put off both writing and drawing, and everything else I do, until the last second of the last minute. Writing is much faster than drawing, so Unshelved still takes up the lion’s share of my creative time. But, the time I spend actually making strips is dwarfed by the time I spend helping run the businesses and travel for conferences and speaking engagements.

BD: Gene, what inspired you to tell the story of Unshelved, and what do you hope that readers will take away from the series?

Gene Ambaum: It really just started by telling stories about my days at the library. But now, I feel like we're on two missions:

1) To let librarians know that they're not alone. Weird s--t happens everywhere, and the weirder the story we run in Unshelved, real or imagined, the more likely we are to get an email or thirteen saying, "That happened to me today."

2) To let other folks know what it's really like on the other side of the desk. Most people are either really frustrated by, or super happy with, their local libraries, depending on whether or not they got the book they wanted immediately or if a computer was open when they wanted it. The truth is much, much weirder.

BD: Unshelved has been publishing new strips since February of 2002, with ten published collections. Do you have an end point in mind for the story, or will we have the chance to continue enjoying the series for years to come

GA: It's a library, so there really isn't an end point unless a giant asteroid slams into the planet or there's a zombie apocalypse. Or, worse, everyone suddenly stops reading books.

BD: Jeff, as the artist of Not Invented Here, do you prefer working with a specific artistic medium (i.e.: pencils and ink, paint, etc.), and what can you tell us about your artistic process for the series?

Jeff Zugale: Most of my work is done on computers. I'd prefer to do comics on paper at least until the inks are finished, but for practical purposes that's really almost impossible these days, at least for me. It's definitely not fast enough for me to produce NIH within the time constraints I have. So, I do it all digitally. I letter in Adobe Illustrator, copy/pasting directly from the script. I take the letters with rough balloons and place them in to a Photoshop strip template file that I've set up, then I do rough "pencils" in blue, which I send to Bill for sign-off. Then, I place those back into Illustrator, adjust the letters and balloons, and add the balloon tails. Then, it's back to Photoshop to ink, color, and finish. I use the BPelt filters for coloring, and I have a whole bunch of custom Photoshop Actions that speed up repetitive tasks like placing the type and resizing the image for the web site. Apart from the nuts and bolts of it, I have to fit NIH production into a busy life of family and work, so from the beginning I've set a hard limit on how much time per week I can put into the strip. Thankfully, I've been able to speed up a lot since I started, so I'm coming in 2-3 hours under that limit pretty consistently now . . . for which my family is grateful.

BD: Bill and Jeff, like many independent creators, you initiated a Kickstarter campaign to fund the second collection of Not Invented Here’s comic strips. What encouraged you to use this specific fundraising method, and how has Kickstarter enabled you to provide further promotion of the comic strip?

BB: We ran a Kickstarter for IT Barrier Tape, which was perfect because we had absolutely no idea how to measure demand. And, that went so well (with over 500 rolls sold) that it was a no-brainer to go back to the well when it was time to print our book. I love how much momentum there is, and the stretch goals add an extremely satisfying level of audience investment. And, obviously, this one is going extremely well, too. There’s something about Kickstarters that get people excited in a way that a basic book pre-order just doesn’t. I think it’s because they can see what’s happening in real time, and hold their breath right along with the creators.

BD: Are there any other projects on which you are currently working that you are able to share with our readers?

BB: Gene and I have an Unshelved project coming right up that makes us giggle every time we talk about it. And, Not Invented Here fans have been eating up our live-action photocomics ( and starring me as Owen and my friend Maurice as Desmond. I’d love to do a series of video shorts.

GA: I'm always working on a project or two on my own, but I've found that talking about them makes me less likely to finish them. Plus, I like the surprise reveal, like when I told Bill and my wife about my last non-Unshelved project, [50 Shades of Brains].(

JZ: My main job is doing concept art at a video game company. I wish I could tell you about what we're doing, but it's all still secret projects at the moment. I can tell you that I'm drawing a lot of spaceships, which makes me happy! I have an ArtBlog where I put up some of the kinds of work I do professionally at

BD: Being that we focus on all things “geek” at Fanboy Comics, would you care to geek out with us about your favorite web series?

BB: I am hopelessly addicted to the Harmontown podcast. I got to see it recorded live in Portland during their national tour, and it rocked my world. I sat three feet from Dungeon Master Spencer.

GA: I don't read a lot on the web; it cuts into my video gaming time. But, my daughter and I have really been enjoying Bravest Warriors.

JZ: Howard Tayler's Schlock Mercenary is one comic I'm really following closely these days. I did some guest coloring for them a few months ago when the usual colorist got hurt in a car accident, but I've been reading it for many years now. Howard's really got some fun stuff going on, and it's a really deft blend of "funny comic strip" with "serious science fiction."

BD: What is the most important piece of advice that you can offer to indie writers and artists who aspire to create their own web series?

BB: Don’t make what you think people want, because how do you know what other people want? Make it for yourself. That way if it’s successful, you get to keep entertaining yourself. The worst thing I can imagine would be to hit it big by pandering outrageously, because now you’re stuck pandering outrageously.

GA: Poop jokes are universally funny. Don't let your collaborators edit out your poop jokes.

JZ: Even though you're doing what you want for the love of it, you're probably hoping it will turn into more than a hobby, so apply as much "professionalism" as you can. Set a regular schedule that you think you can stick with, set deadlines for completing the work, manage your time as effectively as you can. These things can be difficult for a lot of people!

BD: On that same note, which creators have inspired your work?

BB: My comic strips are heavily inspired by Gary Trudeau, George Carlin, Steve Martin, and Bill Amend.

GA: I don't know if I could point to anything that really inspires my work. But, I'm a huge fan of writer/creators who produce consistently great comics in different genres like Lewis Trondheim, Emmanuel Guibert, Terry Moore, and Faith Erin Hicks.

JZ: There are so many influences on my art I'd be typing all day if I listed them. Specifically for Not Invented Here, I've noticed that Mort Walker is a huge subconscious influence. Other cartoonists that stir my brain are R. Stevens, Jeph Jacques, Jon Rosenberg, Bill Watterson, Berke Breathed, Schulz, Sergio Aragones, and Mort Drucker.

BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about Unshelved and Not Invented Here?

BB: Don’t let the ostensible subject matters constrain you. Unshelved isn’t just made for librarians, and NIH isn’t only for programmers. They are both sitcoms that focus more on the people than their jobs. And, if, like me, you prefer to read comics the old-fashioned away, most of our books are available at your local public library. We get a satisfying number of new fans that way.

GA: Tell your mom about Unshelved, it will probably be her favorite webcomic.

JZ: Best way to learn about the comics is to read the comics! They're right there free on the Internet, and they don't take long to go through!

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