Interview: Christopher J. Paulsen from Precocious

A comics interview article by: Sarah Lau

A mischievous innocence runs rampant through the never-aging, gifted children of Poppinstock Academy that not only captures the attention of its average citizens but the hearts of Precocious readers.

Christopher J. Paulsen, 34, got the idea for Precocious when he attended an elementary gifted school. Paulsen says his sixth grade classroom was nearly identical to the Precocious classroom.

“I spent my life in the honors bubble, with the warped outlook that came from it. When I first tried to create a comic, it was inevitable that Precocious would come out,” said the Virginian on his website.

Precocious launched on January 1, 2009 but was conceived in Paulsen’s 1991-92 school year when he first began drawing a comic strip as a sixth grader. According to Paulsen’s website, in 2007 he resurrected his comic and began to learn how to draw big-eyed creatures.

Precocious is often mistaken as a “furry” comic because all of its characters are animals with human personalities. The difference is that Paulsen’s characters have hands with fingers and not paws. They also refer to themselves as people but do say they will kick each other’s tails and not butts.

The adorable webcomic casts solely canines and felines because Paulsen felt that the more animal types the more the focus of his comic would be about the animals and not the story. The creator also says that all his characters forms just mean that cats and dogs are not to be romantically compatible since he does not like “shipping” especially regarding minors.

Precocious features three main living areas from the fancy Diamond Bluffs, the most talked about area Sapphire Lake, and the underdog Emerald Woods. The main cast consists of Autumn Pingo, a red fox, Bud Oven, a cat with Scottish fold ears, Jacob Linkletter, a mutt, and Tiffany Et, a calico cat. The website lists more species of other characters.

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Above: The Precocious cast

A key reminder about Precocious is that it is a “sliding continuity” meaning that its characters never age. There are still birthdays in the story but the characters remain the same age.

“I set out to draw a comic about kids at that perfect age where they had developed personalities, enough freedom and skill to do fun stuff, but were still innocent in regards to many adult things. It’s meant to be pure and refreshing, and if I let them age it would destroy everything after a year. The class would split up, characters would change with age and it would soon be a comic I wouldn’t want to write,” said Paulsen on his website.

The lovable webcomic stays true to the continuity with standard fashion to all of its characters with the occasional wardrobe change when the plot allows it. Paulsen tries to make the clothing match the characters. Autumn’s faux-schoolgirl look is specifically designed to make her disarmingly cute and allowing her to gain a tactical advantage on others. Bud’s vest is loose and casual since he’s often running around unsupervised. Suzette, the spaniel, wears overalls because she thinks they present the working class. Readers can try to imagine what the rest of the characters outfits symbolize.

Precocious plays up its gifted children’s intelligence to “wacky” extremes and Paulsen’s influences of smart children comes from comics like Calvin and Hobbes but especially Peanuts.

“Someone told me when I was still young that Peanuts was interesting because every character in it was rotten in some way – they’re a bunch of children who act like cruel adults. That idea stuck with me, and I’m sure that’s why the main characters of Precocious are the villains of their classroom,” said the 34-year old.

Some of Precocious’s characters are based of real people in its creator’s life. Autumn’s parents are modelled after the redheaded librarian pair that is Paulsen’s close friend’s parents. Autumn’s father, Soren, does often use his real-life inspiration’s dry humor whereas the mother, Ivy, isn’t similar to her original inspiration. Precocious’s parents were “reverse-engineered from the children.

“I looked at the characters are tried to figure out what combination would create that twisted entity – both in personality and in looks,” said Paulsen.

When the webcomic artist was in middle school, he tried using his comic doodles of classmates to impress them.

“While my cartoon of a girl named Tiffany failed to get me a date with her, it did become the model for Precocious Tiffany,” said Paulsen. Aside from the Tiffany’s hair color and name that is where the similarities end.

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Above: Inking over blue pencil of left, Bud Oven and right, Tiffany Et

Paulsen takes about two to three hours to produce a comic once he has the script completed. He says that since Precocious is a series of small stories that is written in seven-day chunks he likes to draw in batches. He prefers to outline the full story before drawing and scripting as much as he can.

“Scripting, being scripting, can take minutes during bouts of inspiration of can result in me staring at a blank computer screen in silence for the better part of a day,” said the Precocious creator.

After he has scripted, he uses pre-printed comic templates to line and letter in blue pencil. Although the final lettering is digital, he needs to pencil to get an estimate of how much drawing space he has. Then he rough drafts in loose shapes and after he is satisfied he draws all the comics in blue pencil.

Once the pencil sketches are ready, Paulsen uses a thick brush pen to ink all the panel borders and dialogue balloons.

“It feels like cheating to do that digitally, even if it would be easier. Plus, a smooth, straight line in Precocious would be so weird to see,” said Paulsen.

The webcomic artist currently prefers to use a fude pen to ink comics for thicker lines, varied width, and control that he cannot achieve with larger brush pens. After his inks are completed and dry, he scans them into Photoshop where he applies flat colors and final texts. The last thing after he finishes a comic is he sizes it for the web and upload.

Paulsen’s first conventions were under the wings of “furry” cartoonists when they discovered Precocious. The webcomic creator had vaguely been aware of the “furry” community but now says people will be hard pressed to find another community that respects artists like the furries do.

“Not only do they want you to draw original characters, but they want you for you,” said Paulsen.

The Virginian says the worst thing someone can say to him about Precocious is that it is “just a furry comic.”

“What stings there is that it’s trying to belittle me by belittling a community – and it’s symptomatic of the internet posturing that insecure kids do. That negative thinking, trying to pick on the weakest, permeates the internet and I’m caught in the crossfire. It hurts when people have to post disclaimers when they recommend my comic to others [like] “I know it has animals, but it’s not actually furry! Give it a chance,” said Paulsen.

But like any other stellar comic, Paulsen has his share of fans too. He especially values the support of other creators like Bill Holbrook, creator of On the Fastrack, Safe Havens, and Kevin and Kell. Paulsen says that at his first convention he had ever attended, Holbrook came up to him to tell the Precocious creator that he read his comics.

“…that fueled the fire inside me that keeps me grinding away at this unforgiving business to this day,” said Paulsen.

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Above: Christopher J. Paulsen’s table at the 2014 Fur The ‘More 2014 convention

The Precocious artist shares his top five tips to beginners who want to start a “furry” webcomic like his as follows:

1) If your goal is to write “furry” comics, just stop. The world doesn’t need any more “You know me, I’m a [species]!” jokes. You need something more unique to offer. I’ll liken that to kids whose “original character” is just Sonic the Hedgehog, but green. A great comic can come in any form, in any genre – because the greatness is in the craft. Crafting genre-first leads to predictability, recycled tropes and empty, easy jokes.

2) If you have a comic you think is worthwhile, and it involves animal forms (or any other standard genre element), don’t let loud fools hold you back. Draw what you think you should draw, and make sure it can stand as “comic” and not just “another [category] comic.”

3) Your content choices do[bold] affect who reads your work, though, so at least keep that in mind. A narrowed focus brings more intense loyalty, but a smaller potential audience. You’ll have to find a proper balance between art, writing and frequency. Great art grabs readers far faster than great writing, though the writing can be a difference between “I read it because it’s pretty” and “I want to invest in this creator.” More frequent updates means more chances to get the audience to stick around, but if deadlines start harming the work it’s also a great way to lose people’s faith.

4) Anyone wanting to launch a new comic should first draw a complete story and trash it [bold] before putting anything online. You need actual comic work to figure things out, and you will learn so much that the art will improve dramatically from the first panel to the last. Get as many awkward moments and rookie mistakes out of your system as you can before your produce something for your website, or accept that you’ll have some embarrassing work in your archive forever – especially if you’re a story-based cartoonist who can’t possibly hide chapter one.

5) Know what kind of cartoonist you are. Part of the deal with running a comic is that people will expect updates as promised, on time and of strong quality. You’re not going to make decent money of comics, if you make any money at all. You’re going to work harder than you think, and you’ll have to work even when you don’t feel creative. It’s satisfying when you love it, and for some people that love comes from the grind, while for others it’s best as a hobby. You can always increase your output later, but once you start missing updates you’re in trouble. Comics are very versatile, so don’t feel limited by what you see around you. Maybe you’re someone who’s best drawing comics when they feel like it and posting it to Tumblr. Maybe you do have that grind in you, and you need to have deadlines to motivate you.

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Above: Tiffany Et with her parents Sky and Gene Et

RED ALERT: Kickstarter for Precocious book three in color!

Precocious book three covers a really special time. This is when the comic began appearing in color, marking a period of experimentation, education and growth. It’s a great reward for long-time readers, and a perfect place for new readers to start. Since I believe in creating unique experiences in reading online and in print, I’ve added many bonus features to the book. Each chapter begins with commentary, and there are print-only comics, deleted scenes and even a bonus story in there. With the Kickstarter campaign already past its funding minimum and into stretch goals, those jumping in now can get even more bonuses that have already been unlocked!

What makes a Kickstarter campaign like this so important is that it sets the tone for the next year of work. Every stretch goal isn’t extra money in my pocket – it’s an investment in the Precocious business. Funds gained go to the comic, and each goal hit means I can then devote time and effort to creating something special that I’ve wanted to make. Otherwise, I have to put these projects on the back burner and focus on earning enough to pay my bills. I’m a small-timer, so my margins are razor thin. When you contribute to a campaign like mine, it means so much. Not only are you getting an excellent product, but you’re keeping the dream alive. This year, I’ve set my sights on a special secret book project, but I can’t feed myself on speculation. My fingers are crossed!”

- Christopher J. Paulsen

You can check out Christopher J. Paulsen’s other links below:

Precocious

Kickstarter: Precocious’ book three in color!

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