In a world filled with webcomics still debating whether Han shot first, HijiNKS Ensue stands out as a unique, smart and uproarious comment on geek culture. Creator Joel Watson originally conceived of HijiNKS Ensue as the webcomic embodiment of his conversations with his sci-fi-loving friends. Since then, it has evolved into a go-to destination for funny thoughts on everything from the latest Syfy Original Movie to the new iPhone. It’s the comic that gave us the “Team Edward James Olmos” t-shirt and the comic answer to the Comic-Con counter protests.
While Watson can rant about the ending to Battlestar Galactica with the best of them, HijiNKS ENSUE is about finding the joy in geeky things as much as pointing out their foibles. For every comic mocking Transformers 2, there’s a strip extolling the remarkable weirdness of Fringe. We asked Watson about his approach to writing jokes and why mediocre TV shows make for better comics than terrible ones.
Why did you start working on HijiNKS ENSUE?
I was working in sales and marketing in a job that paid really well that I really didn’t enjoy. And I was good at it, but I just hated every moment of it. And the only reason I was doing it, the only reason I had to get up and go to work or do anything was just to try to make my paycheck bigger. It was a very hollow and very empty pursuit.
Then I had a kid, and almost immediately realized how embarrassed and ashamed I would be if she was old enough to ask me why I was gone for 10 hours a day. I felt like it wasn’t a good enough reason to say, “Oh, I’m chasing money, and I hate my job, and I can’t stand the people I work with and the thing I do doesn’t matter. It doesn’t help anybody, and it’s just complete BS.” And I felt like those were all terrible, terrible excuses for what I was wasting my very short amount of time with. I guess it’s that thing where you feel invincible until you have a kid, and then you have mortality staring you in the face. And I realized that I also wanted to set an example to her at the least—that you have a really, really small window of opportunity to do anything, and then it’s over. And that every single day that you’re unhappy is wasted.
So right now, the comic is sustainable?
For the most part. I mean, you’re always kind of wondering how next month’s going to be. It’s not that worrisome, because it’s a good life. I don’t fret about money like a used to, even though it can be scarce and it can be hard to come by, and where it’s going to come from I don’t always know. Several times since I’ve been doing this full-time, I would have gone out of business if not for a very lucky accident, either a particular t-shirt design happens to take off or somebody calls and says, “I want you to do this and I want to give you money for it,” or some reader decides right at the time when I need it most to give me a donation that gets me through to next month. It’s just been a series of lucky happenstance. At the darkest points, it always seems to pick up. So I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t worry about that so much, as long as I get to do this every day and have the kind of life I want to have.
Your friends Josh and Eli are characters in the comic. How much do they contribute to the humor?
People ask if they’re like their characters, and they were at first, but the fiction of the characters is what I’ve allowed to grow. I don’t keep putting the real people into the comic; I’ve allowed the fake aspects of their fake personalities to grow and change over time. So right now, I’d say they’re almost parodies of their real selves. They’re certainly based on them in appearance and in tone, maybe, but not nearly as realistically as some of the readers hope. I feel like those people would be monsters and you would not want to know them.
One of the challenges of geek culture comics is that we often see a lot of people all making the same joke. How do you avoid making the obvious joke and take the joke to the next level?
I always see the obvious joke first. It’s almost like some Dead Zone-type guy, where I touch the joke and it’s like, “Oh, I have a flash of where it’s going to go. I can’t do that. I’ve seen your future.” So I have to go another way. I try very hard not to do the first thing that comes to me. I’ll even write it. I’ll write it first just to get it out of my system, but knowing that I’m never going to make that comic. Sometimes it helps to get the hacky material out of the way and then see where else it might go.
I just try and tell myself, “Never go for the obvious laugh.” Unless, sometimes you’ve got to do a fart joke. And then you do a fart joke and you don’t do one for another six months. But every once and a while, you have to do some base material just to cleanse the palate.
And you don’t tend to build your comics around punchlines.
If you study humor, if you study comedy, if you like comics, if you like the three-panel format, the standard way to approach that is: Panel One: “Hey, Guy #1.” “Hey, Guy #2. What’s up?” “I don’t know. Here’s a premise.” And then Panel Two is: “How about this?” It sort of elevates it. And then Panel Three is like badum-bum, punchline. That’s what you expect. So I try and do more of a screenwriter-y approach to it where I try to start in the middle of the conversation. Panel Two I try to do sort of an escalation, but maybe in an unexpected way. And then in Panel Three, I typically try to avoid punchlines almost entirely. If you ever see a punchline in one of my comics, it’s because I was struggling and I couldn’t think of anything funnier.
So what’s the secret to writing a great George Lucas joke?
Man, he’s hard to write for now because he keeps doing the same shit over and over and over, and I’ve almost run out of ways to make fun of that guy. He is almost a parody of himself.
Is there anyone else you’re tired of lampooning?
There are franchises and things that I’m tired of saying, “This is bad.” And I don’t want to become the guy that just says, “Hey, remember how this is bad? Guess what? It’s bad.” The problem is, like Lucas, the things that are bad typically continue being bad. And the thing is, it is easier to write jokes about things that are already giving you a leg up with their lack of quality. And I don’t want to end up being a hater comic.
I just watched half of the Falling Skies premiere, hoping that it would give me something to talk about. And my hope going into that is that it’s going to be very good, because I would rather promote enthusiasm of science fiction and enthusiasm for good television than just say, “Guess what? Everything sucks. The end.” It’s just boring.
How do you decide what media you’re going to cover?
I find myself going for things that have a sort of middle of the road viewpoint, at least for multiple comics on that material. If it’s horrible, you’ll get one or two comics from me. If it’s amazing, you’ll get one or two comics from me. But if it’s something that’s kind of iffy, kind of shaky, you’ll probably see me talk about it quite a bit. I almost had to reevaluate what my job was when Lost went off the air. It was sort of that geek struggle of “I want to love you. Why won’t you love me back?” that I think makes for the best material.
Is there anything right now that is filling that void?
Doctor Who, mostly. There was a shift around San Diego Comic Con last year where nobody wanted to talk about anything but Doctor Who. And everyone just assumed I had been watching it, because that would make sense. And I was like, “There’s so much. I’m never going to see it. And it’s British. And I don’t know.” And then at the next show, everyone wanted to talk about Doctor Who. At the next show, people are asking me to draw Doctor Who. And I didn’t even know what the characters looked like to draw them. And I realized, about six shows into me seeing this paradigm shift among geek pop culture, that I was actually posing as a Doctor Who fan to avoid awkward conversations and letting people down. So I binged on three seasons of the David Tennant era, and then got caught up on the current Matt Smith season, and then went back and watched all of Christopher Eccleston’s seasons.
And I was doing this because it was an obligation. Then I realized very quickly that I was enjoying it and that it filled that gap that Battlestar Galactica and Lost used to occupy of, “Well, everybody watches that.” It was giving fans that combination of sci-fi/action/drama/humor that it sort of filled the hole left by multiple series. Also, the really great thing about Doctor Who from that writing perspective is it’s kind of shaky. It’s great. It’s always great. And sometimes it’s like, “Oh, what, they’ve got farting aliens in this one? That’s going to be the whole episode, these big fat aliens farting and laughing? Oh, well. Let’s hope for the next one.” And then the next one’s fantastic.
Do you find there are any sacred cows in science fiction and geek culture? Is there anything that people get especially upset about when you make fun of it?
You know, the things that people do get upset about, I’m always really surprised. I don’t get backlash over the biggest sci-fi franchises. I get backlash over a thing that has an unusually loyal set of followers. Like I got so much shit for making fun of Scott Adams from Dilbert for being kind of a misogynist asshole. And I’m like, “Why are there all these Scott Adams apologists?” I mean, he said some really creepy things—and then he did it again last week!—and I’m like, “This guy is just a creep. And I feel like making fun of him because he’s such a creep.” And I get so much backlash, even respectful backlash, like, “Look, I really like your comic, but I wish you would stop making fun of Scott Adams.” And I don’t really understand. I guess he has this sort of cultish fan base, where it’s like, “Hey, hey, hey. You’ve crossed the line. Say what you will about my mother, but don’t talk about Scott Adams.” And I a) never would have guessed he’s such a creep, and b) never would have guessed that his fans were so die-hard as to take offense at people poking fun at his very obvious douchiness. That was weird.
I do occasionally get the “Whoa, whoa, man. You’ve crossed the line. I watch you make fun of stuff all the time, but now you’ve made fun of the thing I cannot abide.” But it’s nothing that you would expect. It’s nothing like, “Don’t make fun of Star Wars, man. We understand that it’s got some problems, but it’s our religion.” That never happens.