Graphic Lit: An interview with Scott Adams
With all the dire news stories about recession, layoffs and other economic woes plaguing the country, it seems fitting somehow to note that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the comic strip “Dilbert,” the ever-funny, ever-savage satire of life in the modern workplace.
Creator Scott Adams celebrated the anniversary recently with “Dilbert 2.0,” a ginormous slipcovered “greatest hits” collection that includes a DVD containing every strip from the past two decades.
I talked to Adams from his studio in California about the new collection and the strip’s legacy. My thanks to Tom Spurgeon and Tim O'Shea for their help in formulating questions.
Q: Tell me about the new 2.0 collection. How did it come about and how did you go about selecting the strips?
A: I got a call in December a year ago and my publisher said “We’d like to fly out and talk to you,” which is an unusual thing. The telephone usually works pretty well for most things. So I knew they were about to ask me something that would be very difficult and there wouldn’t be enough time to do it. That’s usually what that means.
So sure enough, they described their idea for making this big anniversary book and that we would have less time than any book of this size has ever been created basically. But I really wanted to do it and they wanted to do it and I figured it was worth the work so we cleared our calendars and went to work.
Q: And how did you go about picking strips? Were there any criteria regarding what to include?
A: That was a hard process because I had to read every one of my comics several times and there are 8,000 of them at this point. I picked the ones that made me laugh first of all. That was my first filter, because so much time has gone by that I forget my own comics. I get to read them just like a newspaper reader at this point.
Secondly, anything that had a story involved with it. Sometimes I got interesting complaints or answered someone’s interesting complaint with a comic. Or sometimes I did something so naughty I can’t believe it got in a newspaper.
And then anything that was a key turning point in the life of the strip. When a new character was introduced or a major change, I flagged those.
Q: In the early days of the strip was there an “a-ha” moment for you when you felt like everything clicked, both in terms or readership and aesthetic appeal?
A: There were a lot of steps. It wasn’t a smooth increase. There were these points where something important happened. Probably the biggest one was when I started running my email address in the strip. That was about 1993. At the time, not many people had email so it was a big deal to include my email address in the strip, between the panels.
I got all this email from people that said “We like your strip. We don’t love it. But we do love it when Dilbert is doing things at work.” Which was a big deal because up till that point he wasn’t at work very much. He was a guy that had a job but didn’t spend much time at it. He was usually at home inventing something in his basement.
The email was almost universally consistent on that point. So I just changed the strip and put him in the workplace. That’s pretty much when it took off.
There were some other moments, like when Bill Watterson retired it opened up a lot of things. When I published the Dilbert Principle and that was a number-one best seller. That was another big push.
Q: You talk in the beginning of the book about how interested you were in cartooning as a child. What was it specifically about cartooning that appealed to you?
A: You know just about half of every 12-year-old boys want to become cartoonists. It’s just some phase you go through. Apparently there’s some aspect of the maturation process that did not hit me, cause it never really went away. I could rationalize it and tell you it seemed like a good job because I could work for myself and be created and I liked comics, I could tell you all that stuff, but that would be true for every 12-year-old kid. What’s different is it never went away.
Q: But was it something specific about making cartoons or comic strips that took with you as opposed to writing books or making music or whatever?
A: I think it was a function of where I thought my talents were. I knew I wasn’t going to do fine portrait painting because I didn’t have that kind of artistic chops. I have a — usually, not today so much — economical way with words that kind of suits the comic format.
Q: You include a lot of your early work in the book. What was it like to revisit that early material?
A: Looking at my early drawings, the first thing I wondered was why doesn’t everyone become a famous cartoonist? (laughs) Cause obviously there wasn’t much prodigy in attendance.
I really think it was my MBA that made me successful as a cartoonist, which is not a joke. Most artists have the artists have the attitude of “I’m going to do what I think is right and the audience will follow.” But if you have a business degree you say what does the market want and how can I give it to them. It’s probably not a huge surprise that Dilbert is arguably one of the last mega strips to come out in the past 20 years.
Q: You have a lot of notes in the new book. What do you think is one of the big revelations here that readers might not have known about you before?
A: Oh man. My life is such an open book I don’t know if there’s anything.
Q: That’s kind of why I asked the question, because you have been very open about the strip and how it came to be.
A: Well a lot of that was intentional in that I always thought that what made a comic strip more interesting is if you knew a little bit about the person who wrote it. Because if you read it every day it’s almost like you’re forming a relationship with the cartoonist.
As a reader, that’s how I always felt. I felt like I could tell when Schulz was in a bad mood. Or feeling a little blue. It just seemed to be reflected in his strip. And so I took that to the next level and said the more people know about me the more they can enjoy the whole product. So I think the thing that would maybe surprise people the most is that I never considered myself a cartoonist so much as an entrepreneur.
Q: Along the same lines, it occurred to me that you prefigured a lot of the Webcomics that are popular today in that you’re one of the first cartoonists that have had a really direct relationship with their audience. What are the pros and cons of that sort of relationship?
A: Well, I think this ties back to my comment about being more of a businessperson than a cartoonist in the sense that a huge amount of the input I get is negative and always has been. I think from the first time I got email in 1993, every once in a while I get the letter that says “I used to be a fan but you’ve really gone downhill. You’ve lost it. I wish you could get back to whatever you were doing that worked before.”
Every year I get a number of those. And they’re tough to read. If you have an artist’s mentality, that would crush you and you’d just stop doing it. But you would also miss out on all the useful stuff like the people who wrote and told you that Catbert was their favorite character after he had only appeared twice in the comic. I had no intention of keeping him.
Q: Along the same lines though I imagine there must be times where you have to trust your own instincts. How do you know when reader input is worth listening to versus someone just ranting?
A: Well the great thing is you can do both. I can just try something and see what the reaction is. The reaction doesn’t lie. They have no reason to be nice to me obviously. When I do something that doesn’t work, no matter how much I thought it would work, if the reaction is negative I just get off of it.
Q: Can you give me an example?
A: I’ll give you the most direct example. I tried to start a second comic strip, something called “Plop.” It was about a little boy who’s the only hairless Elbonian. It was based on the thought that once I figured out how to be a cartoonist and learned all the tricks that starting a new comic that wasn’t bound by the workplace would be a big hit because obviously I knew how to be a cartoonist, I already had the audience. I had all the assets to make that work.
But I just got eviscerated by readers who saw it. It never got published in newspapers; I tried it out on the Internet first. The trap that was completely invisible to me is that people didn’t compare it to a new comic strip. As if it had been somebody else who had made it. They compared it to where Dilbert was after 10 years of development.
If for example you looked at the first year of the Simpsons TV show and compared it to any comic strip or show you see now, it would look awful. You’d have never predicted it would become on of the biggest hits of all time. And the thing is that when it came out it was compared to nothing, because there wasn’t anything like it. Then they had the luxury of hiring talent and making money and becoming arguable as some people have said the best show ever on television.
Dilbert had already gone through 10 years and people can’t help comparing it to me. So my new stuff didn’t really have a chance. That was a interesting experiment in human behavior.
Q: You talk a lot in the book about people’s overreactions to some strips, the letter from the Square Dance Association being my favorite. Is there a particularly memorable negative reaction that stands out for you?
A: In terms of surprising, I’d say the people who complained about my references to cannibals. I thought cannibals were on TV, the movies, jokes; cannibals are everywhere. It’s just a funny concept. And when I did jokes about cannibals people would write angry letters to their editors, objecting to my cannibal references. That by the way, is an example of something that doesn’t happen anymore. I don’t know if society changed or Dilbert just became more popular, but I get a little bit of a free pass now.
Q: You don’t get those kind of complaints?
A: I’ve written about cannibals since then just to see what would happen and I got no complaints.
Q: That’s another thing you talk about in the book, how you’ve managed to make the humor a little edgier as it’s gone along. It’s interesting to note how certain words have become acceptable on the newspaper page. Do you think that’s just you, or do you think the comics page is becoming a bit more accepting of the kind of PG-rated humor?
A: Well, I think the more successful you are the more you can get away with, so there’s a little bit of that. There’s also the recognition that Dilbert is not your kids cartoon. That gives me a little extra. It’s often on the comics page just as often on the business page. So I think that gives me a little bit of flexibility. But it’s all in the psychology of the editors. I can’t really get in their heads that much.
Q: Do you think you’ve become a better artist as the strip’s gone along?
A: Yeah, I would say so. If you practice this much at anything, you’ll be better. My lines are smoother and the characters look the way I like them instead of whatever they were when I ran out of time.
When I drew on paper, which I don’t do anymore so it’s easier to correct and get it right this time, I used to have a day job for the first six years. So wherever I could do it — an hour an a half — was what it was. Sometimes it was acceptable and sometimes it wasn’t but I didn’t go back. I just didn’t have that luxury.
Q: Do you think cartoonists these days quit their day jobs too soon? Was there a benefit to keeping your day job as long as you did?
A: Well, in the sense that I had more business experience and it’s a business cartoon, but otherwise no I don't think so.
Q: How has corporate culture changed in the years you’ve been doing the strip and how do you keep abreast of those changes?
A: I still get lots of email from people and I am my own business to a large extent. The Dilbert Empire, if I can call it that, is a business with meetings and conference calls and contracts and lawyers and all that stuff. I’m kind of always in it. And I own a couple of restaurants, which give me the human dynamics that you can never imagine without observing them. There’s a little of that.
Then there’s the memories that never really change. I liken it to if you were going to prison for five years and then ten years later somebody says “Oh, you’ve pretty much forgotten what that was like, right?” You’d say, “No, I pretty much remember that.” And then there’s the fact that things don’t change that much. The technology changes. There are things like IMing someone at work versus conference calling them from the next cubicle, so that stuff changes, the ability to outsource is greater than before, but that stuff is in the headlines. It’s not too tough to know where that’s going.
Q: Is it harder to make jokes about the corporate environment when people are losing their jobs? Do you worry about cutting too close to the bone?
A: Oddly enough that’s when Dilbert had it’s biggest surge, during the downsizing of the mid-90s. The more miserable people were the more they wanted somebody to represent their misery, represent their point of view and displeasure of the whole thing. My popularity tends to track with the misery index. The worst time for Dilbert, in terms of licensing and everything else, was during the dot-com era when everyone felt that if they weren’t already a millionaire it must be their own fault.
Q: I had mentioned to someone that I was going to be interviewing you and they said Dilbert was almost too painful for them to read at times. Have you ever gotten a complaint like that?
A: I hear that a lot. It varies from joke to joke. I can see that. There are TV shows about restaurant owners like Hell’s Kitchen. I can’t watch those cause that’s too much like work.
Q: How do you settle on the design of a character, something like the pointy-haired boss? At what point do you look at it and say “That’s the character”?
A: A lot of it is just accident. As I talk about in the book, his hairstyle which has become the defining characteristic for the boss, just defined itself over time. One day my pen slipped I just drew one of his tufts of hair a little too tall once. I made the other one equal and it just drifted into that pointy-haired direction over time until he started to look right. So I have a quote which I said a long time ago, it’s probably the thing that gets quoted the most, that creativity is making mistakes and art is knowing which ones to keep. So the creativity in the character design is mostly mistakes and the art is knowing that Dilbert looks better without a mouth. It’s a mistake by any definition, it just looks better that way.
Q: Is that something you realized as you went along or were you conscious of it right away?
A: He was originally a doodle, and when he was a doodle he had a mouth. There was probably jut some day — I don’t remember it happening — but I’m sure what happened is I drew him without a mouth, looked at it and said “Huh. Looks a little better.”
Q: Like you said, you are one of the last mega-strips. What’s your take on the current state of comics strips? Is it as dire as people are saying the newspaper industry in general is?
A: Well, yeah, things are pretty dire. I think the thing that hurts comic strips the most, I that unlike television and unlike movies that are able to be essentially uncensored so they can drift to accommodate popular tastes which got more edgy, they weren’t allowed to get edgy, and couldn’t grow with the preferences of the public.
Q: That’s a complaint I’ve heard from a couple of comic strip artists, people like Stephen Pastis. The other complaint I hear a lot is about legacy strips. That there’s no room for new people to come in the door, because readers still want Snuffy Smith even though it’s 80 years old.
A: OK, now you’re channeling Pastis.
Q: Actually a couple of people have told me that, not just him.
A: There’s definitely that. Especially if the strip has been handed off to another artist or the kids or something. You’ve gotta assume that it would be unlikely that a second person would have whatever spark that made the first person so special that they got in the newspaper in the first place.
Q: Do you follow the Webcomics scene at all? And if so, do you feel any sort of affinity towards those comics?
A: No, I don’t follow them but I look at the social Web sites a lot like Digg and Reddit, and so quite often they point to them, and when that happens I look at it.
But I do follow Basic Instruction. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that one.
Q: No, I don’t think I’ve seen that one.
A: I did a little experiment on my blog. We tried to get him to become a syndicated cartoonist. We had him switch to a comic strip format and character-driven stuff. That turned out to not be successful but it was a good little boost to his popularity. What he does is just fricking hilarious.
Actually if you want an example, he is the perfect example of what’s wrong with comic strips in the newspaper. Here’s a guy who writes a comic that is completely g-rated, because it’s in a square four-box format and doesn’t draw like other people he has almost no chance of being a popular syndicated cartoonist and yet if you showed it to 20 people, 10 of them would say that’s funnier than anything that’s in the newspaper today. The quality of his art is not a predictor of his ability to succeed in newspapers. I don’t know if that’s true in other media.
Q: I think in comics, timing and being able to tell a joke is much more important than necessarily artistic ability. I think the craft in comics comes from layout and timing.
A: That’s why Basic Instruction is so interesting, because his writing is what is sensational.
Q: How long have you been drawing Dilbert on the computer now?
A: I think it’s been about three years.
Q: Other than the obvious — you’ve had this debilitating health problem — how has drawing the strip on the computer helped you? What are the benefits?
A: A lot of benefits. Anything that involves a straight line I can draw a lot better now. I can finish things in half the time which means if I want to do something that’s a little more complex, it buys me the time to do it. And I enjoy it. It’s just easier. It’s a more pleasant experience.
Q: How so? Can you give me a little more detail?
A: Well pen and paper is kind of tedious. It’s small and tiny and you’re hunched over. Even if you have a drawing board. It feels like work. Since we’ve been talking I’ve finished half a cartoon. (laughs) I did the writing already, I was just finishing up the art work. I can talk with one hand and draw with the other. If I draw a bad line I literally push one button and redraw it. Drawing a bad line with pen and paper used to be a huge pain in the ass. What you do is look at it and say “Eh, maybe it’s not really that bad.”
Q: One of the things I enjoyed in your notes in the book is when you talk about the rules of making a strip. What for you is the most important, number one rule in making a funny comic strip?
A: Well, for Dilbert in particular the number one rule is if there is something you can relate to in it. So I don’t have Dilbert going to the moon and a giant salamander eats his head.
Q: I wouldn’t mind seeing that.
A: I know. That’s the kind of comic I did in the first few years that people objected to. It’s the type of thing that other cartoonists like to read, but the public in general is interested in one and only one thing — themselves. Everybody wants to see something about them.
Even now I’m doing a series where Dilbert will eventually lose his job. You’ll see that in a month or so. But I worry because I don’t take that series too far because all the people who did not lose their job aren’t going to be able to relate to it. So you hope that there are enough people that have been laid off — and I think that’s true at this point — everyone knows somebody close to them that’s going through the same set of emotions so that even if they say “that’s not me” they say “oh my god, that’s Bob. I’m going to send this to Bob.”
So I usually go for something recognizable and then something cruel, something bad is happening to somebody. I make one of the characters a talking cat or something like that so that bizarre is in the mix too.
Q: You were talking before about business culture. Is there anything you can make fun of now that you couldn’t say 10 years ago?
A: There’s the ability to track what your employees are doing, which is interesting because they have company cell phones with GPS. You can track their keystrokes in some cases. you can track their IDs so you know where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing. That’s a little different.
I think maybe just ability to work from everywhere is different. Everything that’s different I would say is technology related. The basic human interactions where you put three people in a room and one of them is an asshole every time, that just never changes. It will always be true that all three people have a different opinion of which one’s the asshole.
Q: You talked about listening to your audience and mentioned getting a lot of negative complaints. Do you worry about jumping the shark, losing a connection with your audience?
A: You’re not in this business unless you worry about that every time you pick up the pencil or whatever this is I’ve got in my hand. You should have a certain amount of panic every time you draw a comic. Without that, I think the whole things falls apart. The reality of whether I need to worry about that is separate from the fact that it’s built into the process. It ought to be.
Q: It’s healthy in other words.
A: Yeah. A healthy fear.
Q: You talk in the book about writing affirmations really helped you focus and get Dilbert published. I was wondering if that’s something you still do.
A: Well you hear me talking, right? I don’t know if you know this story, but I couldn’t talk for three and a half years.
Q: I didn’t know whether to bring it up or not.
A: It’s not a sensitive issue.
So I lost my voice through this thing called spasmodic dysphonia. It was considered incurable, just like my hand problem was. But I was actually the first person — I don’t know if I wrote about this or not — but I was the first person who ever essentially — I won’t call it a cure — but found a way around my hand problem. Through just constant repetition of small motions that weren’t quite the motion that caused me trouble. After a period of years it remapped itself.
At the moment my hand is also fixed because I haven’t used it in a classic drawing or writing way unless I write a check or write a sticky note to myself. But for all of those normal uses — as long as I don’t have to write a college essay — it’s never going to be a problem again.
So I have experience with two incurable problems that I personally have cured. And for both of them I used affirmations. What are the odds? I’m not the only person who had the surgery to fix his voice, but there are probably millions of people who have spasmodic dysphonia, and don’t even know the doctor exists. I kind of came at it through several indirect connections that got me to where I needed to be. Although I probably sound a little nasally or hoarse right now on the phone the thing you don’t know is that is my normal voice. You’re probably wondering.
Q: I thought it might be the phone connection.
A: The spasmodic dysphonia sounds like a bad cell phone connection, so if I were to say “My name is Scott Adams,” which incidentally I could not say, it would sound like “My ame Cott Ada.” That’s all you would hear on the phone. I basically couldn’t use the telephone to order a pizza or spell my name or anything like that.
It’s a good thing my job involves comics. That’s also a reason why I started blogging. It was a way to communicate. And when you don’t have a way you’re used to, you kind of need an outlet.
Q: With the affirmations, do you think it just gives you an ability to focus better? Articulate your goals better?
A: Well, it’s probably several things. I wrote about this in my book God’s Debris, that was my first non-Dilbert book.
I think it’s a number of things. One possibility I’ll call the Boltzmann Brain theory. Do you know the theory?
Q: No, I don’t.
A: If you Google it you’ll find out there are serious physicists who have calculated the odds of the universe just kind of existing in the state that’s perfect for life and the odds that this is all imagined by one brain, because it’s easier for the universe to create simple things such as one brain than an entire universe filled with six billion brains on this planet and other life forms on other planets and all that. There are serious people who say that this reality is not in any way what we think it is. It’s an imagined reality. And if it’s an imagined reality, theoretically you could program it and perhaps affirmations is a mechanism to doing that. Changing what you imagine in other words.
That’s one theory. I don’t accept that theory (laughter), but I’m just putting it out there. It’s one that serious scientists, people who are not even nuts, say is infinitely more probable than whatever you think is real.
The other possibilities are it’s what you said, it’s if you focus more on your goal — and there’s something called reticular activation, which is a fancy name for saying you recognize your own name across a crowded room more than other noises. You just notice stuff that you’re kind of tuned into.
So I tuned myself into all things voice-related and the way I diagnosed my problem with my voice is I woke up one day and thought “I wonder if this has anything to do with my hand problem.” I googled Dystonia, which is the problem with the hand, and voice and up popped a video of someone with spasmodic dysphonia who sounded exactly like I did. That led me down the path that ultimately led me to the solution. It took three and a half years because I tried everything but surgery first, which is rational. But I think back about that moment when I realized which two words to Google, that’s exactly the type of thing that happens when you’re doing affirmations.
Now I can’t say it’s because of affirmations but it’s exactly the type of thing. You notice things or you think of things that you wouldn’t have noticed or thought of without that. So it seems like an insight, but it probably is just a very normal process of focus. The other possibility is affirmations don’t work at all and it’s selective memory. And that I may have done affirmations on lots of things that didn’t work but I don’t remember them. I don’t think that’s the case, you know if you write something down every day for a long period of time it’s hard to forget it. I think it’s worked just about every time.
The other possibility is and this one I kind of lean towards, that on some subconscious level you’re a better judge of yourself than you are on a conscious level. And your subconscious if it even allows you that much time writing something down as a goal, it probably has a good sense that you can really pull it off.
So, for example, if I started writing “I want to become an Olympic gymnast” I’m positive that after the second day my subconscious would find something better for me to do because it knows that one isn’t going to work. When I wrote down “I’ll become a syndicated cartoonist” or “I’ll have a number one bestselling book,” even though those seem unlikely to any rational observer including myself, on some subconscious level I knew I had the ability to make that happen. That’s kind of my best guess.
The way it works is almost irrelevant isn’t it?
Q: Has Dogbert been in the strip lately? I don’t think I’ve seen him in it as often as usual.
A: As a matter of fact I noticed that myself recently. I’m trying to put him back in a little more.
Q: So it wasn’t anything conscious on your part?
A: Yeah, these things happen kind of accidentally. Ashok the intern hasn’t been in lately either. There’s no reason.
Q: I was reading a story recently about the Belgian cartoonist Herge who did a all-ages series called Tintin. They found a bunch of his letters where he rails about how trapped he feels by his character because he’d been doing this character all his adult life. Alongside this question about losing your audience, do you worry about being trapped by Dilbert?
A: Well let me answer the bigger question by saying that cartoonists are the biggest whiners. “Oh boo hoo, I’m a famous cartoonist. I make millions of dollars by sitting in a chair.” (laughter) Well, fuck you. If that’s what you’re complaining about, that you’re trapped by your character that made you famous and let you live in the big house, try a real job.
Q: At the same time I always read stories about people who feel trapped by their characters and start to resent them. It seems odd, but at the same time it’s there.
A: Well, I’m not going to deny that I have those feelings, but I am going to deny complaining about it.