Keeping a Beginner’s Mind: An Interview with Dave Mercier by Carleton Whaley (2016)

Dave Mercier is the creator of the comic Mercworks, a weekly webcomic strip. He has self-published two collections of his comics, Mercworks: The Joy of Despair and Mercworks: The Cure for the Human Condition.

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“Coffee” by Dave Mercier. Used with permission from the artist.

Carleton Whaley: So I guess I’ll just start off with a basic question about Mercworks. How long have you been making it, exactly?

Dave Mercier: I got a notification from Tumblr a few days ago that it’s been five years.

CW: Congratulations!

DM: Thank you!

CW: What made you start it?

DM: Well, there’s a couple reasons why I started making this thing. I had gone through a breakup with a girl I had been dating for five years, and I realized that I had put a lot of how I defined myself into that relationship, and I realized that I didn’t have an identity anymore, except that I called myself an artist. Only, I didn’t make anything, so I was a pretty poor excuse for an artist in that regard. So I said, “Well I gotta start making something,” and I started making drawings, just single panels and whatever I thought of. I don’t really know what made me start making them into comics. I think people on the internet laughed at them and I thought “oooh, attention.”

CW: Were there comics that you found inspirational? Were you always an avid comic reader, or did things just happen?

DM: In retrospect, I was. I’ve never liked comic books or super heroes, but I loved Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts. I was just thinking about this the other day. My parents tried to get me to try all these different things when I was a little kid, and I have this very vague memory that they wanted me to try gymnastics, and although I did gymnastics for a while I can’t remember any of it except that there was a giant snoopy mural on the wall—that’s the only thing I can remember. So that sort of thing was an indicator, I think. For a while I didn’t think that people could actually do that sort of thing.

CW: What, the idea that it’s already been done?

DM: No, it was more like I thought all the things that I like just came from God or something. I didn’t know where they came from.

CW: So was it a simple transition into webcomics—just the natural progression from print to web? Or were there specific webcomics that influenced you to choose that medium early on?

DM: I didn’t really follow them before I started. I had seen Nedroid and followed that, and eventually I started to really enjoy K.C. Green’s Gunshow. But starting out, I don’t think I read anything. I was totally, totally disconnected from it. And I hadn’t read a comic in a newspaper in years either, because it was in newspapers I suppose. I don’t know, I guess it’s just always been in me. I did make little comics and stuff when I was a little kid, so I think it’s just where I defaulted to.

CW: Well here you are now with a second book out.

DM: Pretty good, right?

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“Grace Under Pressure” “by Dave Mercier. Used with permission from the artist.

CW: It’s fantastic, by the way. So, this is the second one you’ve done through Kickstarter. What are some of the good and bad memories from that?

DM: I almost had a nervous breakdown with this last Kickstarter; it was torture. It was hell, I don’t know what it was, but—ok, Kickstarter is a great platform. It’s great for realizing ideas. It’s just that, with the funding for the second book it was almost a 1-1 ratio comparing it to the first book. The experience was the same, but my expectations were higher, because I had two and a half years more experience. I felt my work was that much better so my expectations were almost double what I wound up achieving. So part of the torture of that was the imaginary goal in my mind not being met and it was pretty devastating. I almost stopped making comics. Since I came out with the first book, I looked at everything I made and said to myself, “Well this is going in my second book, so it has to be good.” When I was making the first book I didn’t know I was making a book. It was just stuff that was funny to me. So I put all this pressure on every single thing that I had done for two years, and then I wanted people to appreciate that, and psychologically it hurt me that I didn’t think that they did. And that’s not fair. Most of my problems with the second Kickstarter were my own. That being said, all my experience from the first Kickstarter made the whole process, like mailing rewards and stuff, a breeze. I knew how to deal with the printer, I knew how to deal with shipping stuff, I have my own little workstation, I’m using stamps.com. For the first one, I was hand writing every single address on every single package, because, I don’t know, I just didn’t want to use my printer? I don’t know!

CW: How do you feel about the new book?

DM: I really, really, really like the new book. But when I compare it against the first book, maybe some things in the first book are funnier. Maybe there’s some better content there. I fell into a bit of a trap, it was all part of the same creative thing, where I thought that I knew how to do this. I had this idea in my head, like “this is how I make comics.” But that is a big monster, a dangerous monster against your creativity, because instead of trying to think of new ways to reinvent yourself, to reinvent your stuff to make sure it works, you’re just doing what you thought worked before. And in some ways that can feel less honest. And that’s not to say the second book sounds dishonest, what it means is that the stuff that’s good is very good, and the stuff that isn’t, well it’s a better quality—let me try to explain. The first book, the shit that was bad, was shitty, terrible right? And in this book nothing is really that bad. But the stuff that’s really good in it maybe isn’t as good as the rare things that were really good in the first book. That’s how I’ve come to see it. I wasn’t willing to take risks.

CW: I mean, the Pyramid Man was a really big risk.

DM: I don’t know how well that one panned out, but I’m glad that I did it. It was a good risk, and I did other stuff, like Hitler, but only when I was feeling safe. When you’re feeling safe as a creator, that’s probably when you’re making your worst work. On the other hand, I’m feeling safe right now because I’ve been taking risks constantly since with the Webtoon stuff. Just trying to branch out and not do the same thing. It’s hard after five years. I’m becoming more willing to have what’s called a beginner’s mind. Every time I make something new I want it to be fresh, as if I had never made a comic before.

CW: Along with trying new things, something I’ve noticed is the content of your comics change. Starting off, you had this cast of characters who were modeled off of yourself and close friends, but as it’s progressed you’ve gone into new characters, sometimes one-off or extra characters, and even parody now. Do you find that you have a preference? Or do you just try to move away from whatever you feel comfortable with?

DM: Because they’re based on real people, and I don’t even see those people often, it feels disingenuous to use them most of the time. And I could make up stuff, but it never feels right. If I had started with completely fictional characters, I don’t think I would have this problem. But what I started thinking about when I was marketing the Kickstarter was, “What is Mercworks about?” Ostensibly it’s about Dave. But that’s not true. The more I thought about, the more I looked through my old comics and stuff, I realized that Mercworks is about other people, and how I don’t understand them. And figuring that out was huge for me, because it’s not about writing for characters.

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“Novel” by Dave Mercier. Used with permission from the artist.

CW: So, Kickstarter is a trend among webcomic artists, that’s kind of their method of publishing. Do you think there’s a reason for that?

DM: I think there are a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s hard to get published. Webcomic artists tend to have a very “do it yourself” mentality because that’s what it takes to start one, and that’s what works for us. Trying to find an agent or a publisher to give you a shot is difficult, and a little mysterious to be honest. I don’t even know where I would start. Also, if you want your book to be carried in stores, you have to already have the book. So you sort of need to have a track record before you can even get a publisher. So it’s a good way to do it yourself and have that track record without having to chase down a publisher. We have the audience already, so we just do it. Another thing is conventions. You can make a lot of money there, because you have the book with almost no start-up costs, and now you have about a thousand books that you can sell for twenty dollars or so.

CW: Along with conventions, I’ve noticed that a huge part of webcomics is the community around it. Not only the community of other artists, but that of fans who can comment immediately, rather than write in or send a letter. How do you think having that community has influenced you as an artist?

DM: Well, feedback at conventions is great, because people either come up and talk to you and tell you they’ve been fans for years, or they just don’t talk to you, which is awesome. On the internet, everyone has an opinion, and you need to hear it. They feel certain that you need to know what they think. It helped me, starting out, because I had a lot of very supportive people commenting. But going forward, it has been to my severe detriment, like I’ve gotten in fights with people. Not that bad, but I just feel attacked. And it’s always over something stupid, like someone saying “I don’t think this is funny,” and then me responding, “Well, maybe you’d like one of my other comics?” And then like a hundred people start telling me that I’m bad, and then I feel over my head. So that might be the problem with having a sort of medium sized brand rather than a small one. So the internet has been great for me in that I got my audience there, and positive feedback is what kept me going early on. And it’s still great to get positive feedback, but I don’t pay as much attention to it as I used to, because it can hurt me if I’m not careful what I choose to look at.

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“Therapy” by Dave Mercier. Used with permission from the artist.

CW: You recently started a Twitch account, made videos on YouTube, and you’re on Patreon. Does it get difficult juggling these social media accounts?

DM: Shit yeah, dawg! Diversification’s the name of the game, son! OK, you can’t count on money from ads, you can’t count on money from books, you can’t count on money from YouTube, you can’t count on money from patrons, you can’t count on money from donations, but you can count on money from all of those places. Say I run out of books, I can still count on all of these other sources of revenue, so it’s a good thing to have. As far as feeling like I’m juggling, I mean, I have to have office hours for Twitter. That was a big reason I think I lost some of my audience, because I stopped posting to social media. I just got real sour for a while, I don’t know why, but it turns out that that’s a huge part of this industry. Communicating with fans and with your audience is huge, so I have to force myself a lot of the time to make a joke on twitter today. It doesn’t seem like a lot, and I haven’t done it in a while, but it makes a difference. It’s one of those parts of the job where I like it when it works, and I don’t like it when it doesn’t work. But I have to do it, regardless.

CW: If you could give advice to new or younger creators, what would you say?

DM: Just make stuff. Don’t worry so much. Well, that’s tough, because I day don’t worry if it’s good, but you kind of need to pay attention to what you’re doing that’s good. Maybe don’t worry if your stuff is good enough for your impossible standards. And don’t let yourself think that you know. Stay a student. It’s easy to get stuck in the idea that you know how to do this. That’s what I was talking about with the beginner’s mind. In many ways it’s been more challenging to continue making things than it was to start. Making stuff is hard, it’s overwhelming, but then you have to keep making it, and it has to be different every time. And you’re going to think you’re running out of ideas, but there are infinite ideas out there. Just put the Fonz in there or something. It’ll be hilarious.

Carleton Whaley is a senior English major at the University of Connecticut, and has the privilege of working with the Long River Review as Creative Nonfiction Editor.