Interview with Gene Ambaum, Creator of the Popular “Unshelved” Cartoon

With: Anna Faktorovich

Gene Ambaum uses a pen name because he’s scared of his own shadow. He is so good at making fun of strange, difficult customers in Unshelved because he is the strangest, most difficult customer of all. He taught English overseas because no one there was in a position to criticize his spelling. Follow @ambaum.

Unshelved is a daily comic strip most notable for being set in a library. Published by Overdue Media, the web comic was created by writer Gene Ambaum (not his real name) and co-writer/artist Bill Barnes, and has been appearing at the rate of a strip per day since February 16, 2002, with a virtual circulation in excess of 45,000 readers and growing via RSS feed, website and email subscription. It is part of the Create a Comic Project.

Faktorovich: We met at the GaCOMO conference during your and Bill Barnes keynote presentation. On your Unshelved website, http://www.unshelved.com, you list a dozen forthcoming presentations in the coming month. And over the years, you have done keynotes at most international and regional ALA/ Book Expo fests. Do you think you find most of your new readers for the cartoon’s RSS feed during your talks? Or do you make a profit as a presenter, and finding fans is a secondary objective?

Ambaum: I think we find most of our readers from the comic being passed or posted in libraries along by folks who read it, but we do get a few more every time we speak, which is nice. Presenting is a great way to touch base with fans, though it’s even better after the talks when they come up and talk and we start sharing stories—those are my favorite moments. It’s also nice to get paid while getting a chance to see the country, and to find out how libraries work in places other than Seattle.

Faktorovich: Unlike most other celebrities with 45,000 readers, you have chosen to remain anonymous for over a decade now. I believe you mentioned in an interview or on your website that some of the details you include in the cartoon are based on actual experiences that you have had working in a public library, and that you were cautious to avoid stepping on toes in your workplace. Was this the reason your initially chose to be anonymous? And, why didn’t you reveal your identity once the comic strip took off? In theory, it might have helped your librarian career if you had positive notoriety for a cartoon about a library (it’s not as if it’s about “poop”…) Would you recommend anonymity to starting artists/ writers that plan on writing in part about their own professional lives? Can you really remain anonymous if you disclose that you are a librarian in Seattle (I mean how many libraries can there be in Seattle with guys that look like you working in them)?

Ambaum: When we initially started publishing, I was afraid that we’d hit it big and that if library patrons knew that I wrote about libraries and the weird things that happened in them, that they’d be afraid of asking me questions. If that happened, I couldn’t do my job. I was a little worried about getting fired, too, but I realize that was ridiculous.

The stories I write are loosely based on some of my experiences in the library—it’s not a holistic picture of how great the job is. I’m still a little worried that if I told everyone where I worked (and still work occasionally) that folks would see Unshelved as some sort of indication of how crazy things are at that library. It’s not. So I remain “anonymous.” (I put that in quotes because folks around me know what I do. I just never tell anyone. I have too many friends who attend conferences and have seen me speak to really be anonymous. People know. I have to disclose that this is my job when I apply for work. If you’re curious as to who I am, ask around. But I guarantee it’s not exciting. When I’m doing this, I’m Gene Ambaum. When I’m not doing this, I’m just some guy, you know?)

For the record, I never said I’m a librarian in Seattle. I live in Seattle and I’m a librarian somewhere in the area. 🙂

Faktorovich: How precisely do you split duties with Bill Barnes when creating Unshelved? I guess he is the “programmer” (according to his Twitter account, @billba), but he also is creating his Not Invented Here cartoon without you, and it has a similar artistic style to Unshelved. So, are you primarily the writer with the knowledge about libraries, or do you also do the bulk of the drawing? It’s difficult to imagine how two people can draw a cartoon together. One artist’s style would be different, so if one strip is made by only one of you, it should stand out as a sharply unique pen. Most of the cartoons on your website have consistent elements that seem to be the work of a single pencil. So, please clarify for the sake of my curiosity. What’s the best way for two artist/writers to collaborate on a regular comic strip?

Ambaum: I write. Bill draws. I draw once a year on Bill’s birthday. He writes sometimes. We edit together (which sometimes includes coming up with the visual), and that’s where the strip really gets its voice—it’s both of us. The knowledge of libraries is mine, but increasingly I just put bad behavior I witness elsewhere into the library setting and see what happens.

I’ve got no idea how other folks do it. What we do is fairly labor intensive. I write about twice as many initial drafts as we edit into final strips. “Edit” is sometimes code for “argue over a single word” and it’s not always fun, but at the end of the struggle we just try to make each other laugh. And when it’s time to draw, I just have to let go and see what Bill comes up with.

Faktorovich: Your website’s archive has 3,295 episodes of Unshelved. Considering that you have been making this comic since 2002, this means that you must have been making at least one cartoon strip five times per week, every week since 2002, and all of them were about your library, and all were released from Overdue Media. How do you keep your drive up to stick with this project without almost any breaks for so many years? Or are you unaware of the passing years because this project is so much fun? Have you had the urge to split off and do another cartoon like your partner’s Not Invented Here, or does library work keep you busy? Do you ever find yourself staring with great earnestness at the patrons of your library, hoping one of them will give you an idea for the next cartoon?

Ambaum: It’s still fun. I don’t really think about how long we’ve been doing the comic until someone asks. (I’ve done a few side projects (Poopy Claws, Fifty Shades of Brains) and I’m always working on something non-Unshelved, though I’m never sure what’s going to see the light of day.)

I do hope for misbehavior in the library, especially when the folks I work with say something like, “You should have been here last night. You won’t believe what happened!” But mostly I just enjoy the people I get to work with and to help when I’m on the reference desk.

Faktorovich: I guess South Park has been around since 1997, but they have only made 260 episodes and on themes unrestricted to one place. Did you start making Unshelved in part as a counter-measure or an anti-South Park cartoon? In other words, were you disturbed by the low-IQ of children’s cartoons and the mindlessness of anti-intellectual cartoons like South Park? You mentioned before that this is a partial statement in support of your nerdly background, and if so, is there a need to support intellectualism in the modern world?

Ambaum: Nah, Bill and I just did this for ourselves. I love South Park. I don’t think entertainment has to be highbrow to be successful. I like watching BBC dramas as much as I like Ren & Stimpy.

Faktorovich: According to Wikipedia, you initially called the cartoon, Overdue, and within a year of its release you ran into “trademark issues” and had to rename it via a contest with your readers. Can you describe this incident in a bit more detail? Did you deliberately call the new cartoon with a name that wasn’t in the dictionary, or did you do extensive research to find a single word that was no already trademarked? What do you think about the concept of trademarking a common dictionary word like “overdue”? Are creators that sue others over trademark name disputes like this one being too litigious or have you had experiences where you appreciated having a similar protection for your Unshelved brand? For example, if I created a cartoon about the library (as I confess I’m tempted to do) and called it, Non-shelved, are you likely to file charges?

Ambaum: It’s not as interesting as it sounds. There was a cartoon video that was a Cops parody released online just before we launched our comic. It featured a librarian/ cop going after overdue books and was called Overdue. When we created our LLC about a year later, our lawyer was concerned since our comic and the short were both library-themed. We tried to get permission to use the name from the video producer. They told us they had just been acquired by a large media company. It all looked like too much trouble so we opted for a name change.

We did want some protection, and one of the reasons we settled on Unshelved was that the URL was available. I’m not sure if we’d sue you for that or not—it all comes down to confusion. If we thought folks would confuse our comic with what you’d done, we’d probably have our lawyer send you a letter, at least.

Faktorovich: Since 2005, your Sunday strip includes a full-page Book Club listing. I looked over the last couple of these from October 2015. All of them are positive recommendations, and after a summary reply to the questions: “Why I picked it up?” and “Why I finished it?” For example, on October 2, 2015 you write about The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton: “Look at that pony. It’s super cute. How could I not finish it.” Why do you prefer doing positive reviews? Wouldn’t negative reviews be funnier for the purposes of entertaining your readership? As an artist, why stop at “cute” when describing a picture book. Wouldn’t “cute” be a criticism of the images’ simplicity/ plainness/ girlishness? And isn’t it more important to inform readers on which books you can’t finish or those that were serious disappointments to spare them from the nightmare of reading these concoctions? Many of the books you review are for young adults and for children. Is this your primary audience?

Ambaum: I hate negative reviews. The reviewers come across as people trying to prove how smart they are, and they’re often quite mean. My stance comes from conversations I’ve had with Nancy Pearl—there are just so many good books out there to talk about, why bother talking about the bad ones. I don’t read them. I don’t want to have to read them. So we don’t require our reviewers to read them, either—in fact, we just tell them to tell us about books they love.

I figure our readers are smart enough to figure out what they’re going to enjoy. And if they’re getting their books from the library and they don’t like them, they can just put them down after a few pages. I often do that. I’d recommend for everyone to do this.

I guess we have a lot of kids’ books, YA titles, and graphic novels. That’s what we read and what we talk about. Most of the folks reviewing for us are friends of mine, and most work in schools or as YA librarians. It’s not that it’s my primary audience, it’s just that this is what I read and like to hear about. If we went broader or more negative, I think our reviews would lose their character.

Faktorovich: A McFarland book, Graphic Novels and Comics in Libraries and Archives: Essays on Readers, Research, History and Cataloging (2010), mentions you in a chapter, “25. Webcomics and Libraries,” where the author, Amy Thorne, states, “Most creators chose to take advantage of the creative freedoms of the Web not in the area of exploring the digital environment but rather for liberation from editorial control. The situation of syndicated strips, where the syndicate partially controls the rights, means emphasis is often on broad appeal and avoiding offense” (210). According to the BBB, your company, Overdue Media, was founded in 1999, 3 years before you started the strip, by William Barnes. (I guess as part of the trademark case against you, you didn’t have to change the name of the company, but rather only of the cartoon?) Do you consider yourselves as self-publishers of Unshelved? Overdue Media’s website states that the company is responsible for publishing Barnes’ two cartoon strips. The cartoons look just like any syndicated cartoon, and I was surprised to discover you are publishing them yourselves. Either way, do you think it’s true that those who publish cartoons on the web or self-publish print versions have more creative freedom than those who are syndicated? Have you guys ever attempted to switch to syndication (for money, visibility or something else), and if not, why not?

Ambaum: Yeah, that’s wrong. Overdue Media was founded in…2003? I think. We’d been doing the strip for at least a year (we started in 2002), because we founded the company when we put money in to print our first book. (And to clarify, there was no trademark case against us.) We are self-published in the truest sense of the word, but it doesn’t matter since we’re a “legit” publisher, too, whatever that means these days. (I’m just going to assert that it’s true!) We’re not responsible for Bill’s Not Invented Here—he takes that risk financially—but we do sell it for him. Same with my projects.

I’m not sure how much creative freedom we’d give up if we worked with a syndicate. We both function as editors of our comic—throwing someone else into that mix sounds like a bit of a nightmare, though it also might be good to have someone else to bounce ideas off of. Mostly, we’ve always seen ourselves as a “newspaper comic” and haven’t used that freedom in terms of format or naughtier, unfriendly-to-family content.

We did apply to a syndicate at some point after our first year or so. We got a very polite reply turning us down. We still think they were crazy, especially since we started making money selling our books and T-shirts right after that.

Faktorovich: Do you (guys) design your own website, and if so what tips do you have for others attempting to create a great website like yours? Which programs, platforms, design tools and the like are the best for this purpose?

Ambaum: To all aspiring writers, I say find someone who can draw and who not only handles the technical website stuff but who also enjoys it. It’s been wonderful to work with Bill in this respect, he’s amazing. Without him, Unshelved would not only not be hosted on GeoCities, it would look crap (see the strips from his birthday, January 13th, over the years).

Tuesday, January 13, 2009: A Birthday Drawing by Ambaum

2009-01-13

Faktorovich: In one of your earlier strips from Wednesday, June 19, 2002, you discuss intellectual property. A librarian is attempting to combat piracy at the library, while a patron is attempting to take CDs out to copy and send to her friends. Have you done many strips on intellectual property over the years? Do you think contradictions and ironies such as the one depicted here are at the backbone of good comic humor? What are the elements needed to make a comic humorous? For example, does slapstick work? Is it more important to say something meaningful with a comic vs. getting a laugh?

Wednesday, June 19, 2002

2002-06-19

Ambaum: There have been quite a few strips on intellectual freedom, yes. Mostly I don’t sit down to do this, I just see something that makes me laugh and try to figure out how to work it into a strip. I love that librarians help people find information no matter what it’s for, even if they know some information leads to crime. I’ve asked colleagues if we should show people how to remove DRM from ebooks, for example, and have gotten a lot of different responses. I like to point out that it’s legal to know how to do that and to share the information. We’ll show folks how to make a nuclear bomb or how to grow pot or how to identify magic mushrooms for the same reason. But they balk at this. It’s even funnier when librarians don’t see what’s funny about that.

Slapstick is hard.

I go for meaning. Bill goes for laughs. When we edit what I’ve written together, he’s often trying to figure out how to make my point funnier. It’s good that we both bring what we do to editing—it’s how we end up with something better than either of us could write alone.

Faktorovich: Your continued interest in the Book Club makes more sense when one looks at the images in your Unshelved Book Club comics, such as the one from Friday, March 4, 2011. This particular one is about Roald Dalh’s Matilda. The book does not sound like something I would want to read because of the age-difference, but your images are hyper-dramatic and entertain readers, regardless of the content of the book. Do you view these Sunday strips as a chance to make mini animated cartoon adaptations of the books you’re reading? It seems as if while you give positive reviews in the text versions, the strip itself pokes fun at the books by exaggerating their formulaic/ pop elements. Have you ever been tempted to do a similar caricature of adult best-selling formulaic novels? And if not, why not?

Friday, March 4, 2011: Book Reviews: Drawing by Aaron Renier: Review of Roald Dalh’s Matilda: http://www.unshelved.com/2011-03-04

Ambaum: Yeah, the amazing cartoonist Aaron Renier drew that one for us—I’d read anything that guy recommended in that format. I view them as a chance to do a booktalk for a book—basically, it’s a quick, appealing pitch about the book. (This is common for children’s and teen services librarians to do during school visits.) We don’t see them as caricatures, but rather as a quick way to appeal to potential readers. (We allow teachers, libraries, and bookstores to print these off and use them in displays.) We don’t ever want to make fun of a book, but sometimes I can see how they might come across that way.

Faktorovich: During your talk at GaCOMO you mentioned the recurring nudist character in Unshelved, Naked Ned (“nudist lawyer with a love for his civil rights”). For example, he appears in your cartoon from Saturday, September 9, 2006. As usual the nudity is tastefully concealed or off-page. In this particular case, a librarian is complaining about the pet hair on a library patron and he exclaims if he has to be naked to use the library, just when Naked Ned arrives and complains about “the temperature again.” Why did you guys initially decide to include a naked character as one of your main set? Did you think it was necessary to introduce a character that seems to offer outrageous sexual perversion without actually violating PG13ish rankings in order to attract more readers? In other words, does sex sell even in cartoons for somewhat young readers? Somehow, when I wrote this question down it sounded a bit more obscene than it did when I conceived it in my mind, so I hope you’ll elaborate around this issue and help me reach the meaning I intended.

Saturday, September 9, 2006

2006-09-09

Ambaum: I can’t remember when we decided to include him. I vaguely remember seeing a news article about a naked student on the Berkeley campus at some point that I thought was funny, and the library I used to work in as a teen services librarian was close to a nudist colony and folks from there were always coming in for books/ help. I think Bill likes to draw Ned that way because he’s an Austin Powers fan. I don’t think Ned’s nudity is about sex at all, though it is a little naughty/ unexpected. No idea if it sells but it makes us laugh.

Faktorovich: A young writer/artist comes into your library and, knowing who you are, asks you, “How can I go about starting my own web cartoon? What should I do first? What books should I read to learn about cartooning? Should I collaborate with somebody or do it myself? How should I choose a ‘style’ for the strip?” He goes on and on, and keeps asking you questions, wide-eyed. What would you reply in reality, and what would you reply if the same questions were asked at Book Expo during your presentation?

Ambaum: I’d reply to both the same way. Plan on doing it for free for a long time before you make any money. Decide on a schedule and stick to it—people don’t follow comics that don’t update regularly (mostly). (I recommend at least 3 updates a week.) Figure out how much time you have to do the strip and let that dictate your style—if it’s 1/2 hour a day for drawing, you can’t spend 6 hours on a comic and update 3 times a week. Make yourself laugh. Work with a friend if you can, you’ll keep each other on schedule. And I always tell people the deep secret—marry or partner well, preferably to someone with a good, steady paycheck and healthcare.

Faktorovich: Is there anything folks should know about you, Unshelved, Barnes, Overdue Media, or anything else that they don’t already know?

Ambaum: Buddy is a guy in a beaver mascot suit. Merv does have eyes under his hair somewhere. And I never acted like Dewey at work, I’d have been fired.

Faktorovich: Thank you for participating in this interview!

Ambaum: Thanks!

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