You’re the creator of the Wondermark web comic. Now, after a varied career doing other things like movie trailer editing, you’re working on Wondermark and your company Topatoco more or less full-time (well, full-time with some side excursions). How did the comic first get started, and how has it grown over the years to the point where it’s not your primary occupation?  

A point of clarification: TopatoCo is not my company, but I do work for them. It was created by cartoonist Jeffrey Rowland, to serve his fellow artists with merchandise and shipping support. I am pleased to work for Jeffrey and his wife Holly as book editor and art director, with additional help on special projects as needed.

As for Wondermark, the comic began as an experiment—“can I actually make a comic strip using illustrations I didn’t create?” Ten years on, I’m here to confidently say “yes, it turns out you can.” I got some breaks early on when The Onion agreed to publish Wondermark in their (now defunct) newsprint editions, and I’ve spent many years touring to events and conventions selling merchandise. I’d have to say, however, that partnering with TopatoCo was probably the watershed moment in my career: because the TopatoCo website features merchandise from lots of different online creators and artists, there’s a big cross-promotion effect where fans of all the artists can be exposed to ideas and products and merchandise from all the other participating artists. That has really helped get my merchandise—which is the tentpole of my day-to-day income—in front of enough people that it has become a sustainable enterprise.

One of your side excursions was co-editing (and publishing) The Machine of Death anthology with Ryan North and Matthew Bennardo. Tell us a little bit about what that is, and how that all came about. 

A few years ago, Ryan (author of Dinosaur Comics) published a comic that postulated the existence of a machine that could predict how you die. It wouldn’t give you the date or any specifics, just a few cryptic words that could come true either literally or (more likely) ironically. You couldn’t change or avoid it, but neither could you be sure exactly what the words might mean. It’s a fun thought-experiment concept that we quickly realized had a lot of depth to it.

We opened submissions to writers, inviting them to show us the different ways that the existence of such a machine might change the world, and how people would react to it. We got almost 700 submissions, and managed to pick our favorite 34 to package together in a book, accompanied by illustrations from our friends in the world of comics. And since we were first-time anthologists without much cred in the publishing world, we were given the privilege of self-publishing, by dint of the fact that all the publishers we approached unceremoniously turned us down.

It seemed to work out okay! We were the #1 book on Amazon the day we released (thanks to a bit of grassroots marketing), Glenn Beck called us part of the “liberal culture of death,” and we’ve sold almost 30,000 copies of the book. Just got lucky I guess!

Following the success of Machine of Death, you and the guys did a follow up volume, This Is How You Die. And then you also led the charge on the creation of the Machine of Death party game, which you Kickstarted very successfully. At what point in the Machine of Death development cycle did you guys come up with the party game idea, and at what point did you realize that such a thing could actually have a great chance at commercial success? 

I first had the idea for the game when I printed up some death-prediction cards to act as promotions for the book. In the book, the machine spits out very stark cards with your manner of death printed in the center. I made a bunch of them, with different death predictions on them, that we could hand out to people at conventions, send to folks in the mail, and so on.

Once I picked them up from the printer and held the stack of them in my hands, I realized that they resembled nothing so much as a deck of cards. It struck me that you could play a game with them, and from there, I set out to figure out what that game was. I knew it would have something to do with surviving, or dying, or killing people (because they are, after all, death predictions), and quickly it became clear that a storytelling game had the best potential for fun. I play-tested at least eight or ten different fundamental game ideas before zeroing in on the “Game of Creative Assassination,” and even that took almost a year of testing and fiddling before we had the rules properly figured out.

The whole time, I was just trying to make a thing that would enable fun, that would provide a structure for creativity and storytelling and nonsense and absurdity. That’s the way I like to think. So I’m really gratified to see that other people are as excited about our game as we are! I hope the final printed game will be shipping to our backers in the coming month or so.

Why did you guys decide to publish This is How You Die via a traditional publisher rather than self-publishing it, as you did the first volume, or Kickstarting it, like you did with the party game? Now that the book has been out for several months, do you feel like that was definitely the right decision? If so, what kind of benefits do you see this method having over what you did with volume one? 

We were lucky enough that some publishers were interested in partnering with us for the second anthology. And so we wanted to see what would happen if we did it that way—to have a larger pool of experiences from which to compare. According to our estimates, the money at stake didn’t tip the scales hugely in either direction, but the potential benefits were significant with the leverage of a publisher behind us. And at the time we made that decision, the prospect of blowing the roof off a Kickstarter wasn’t really an option—we didn’t have the experience, observational or experiential, with Kickstarter that we would later get.

I’m hesitant to talk about making the “right decision” because we made the decision that we felt was appropriate for that moment, with the information we had and given the situation at the time, and it’s turned out fine. We’ll never know if we’d have done better or worse had we gone another way. We’re happy with what we’ve gotten out of the arrangement—which is a different set of benefits than we may have had self-publishing—and the book itself has been received extraordinarily positively by readers, which is of course the most important thing.

What’s up next for you? 

Right now I’m focusing on finishing the rewards for the MOD game—there’s a lot of detail work making sure that all the games themselves arrive in the U.S. and get shipped out in as timely a fashion as we can manage. I went to China last month to visit the factory and see for myself how the process works, and that was really interesting and educational. Now I’m crossing my fingers that everything makes it to port and through customs in a rapid fashion. In addition, I still have to write a song and hand-write a single copy of the game in order to fulfill specific stretch goals and rewards. Oh, and show a bunch of copies of the games to one or more goats. So there’s definitely work to be done yet. And I think after the games are delivered, the backers’ actual response to playing it will determine a lot of our next steps.

BONUS: Is the exclamation point an official part of your last name? Like, is it on your driver’s license and passport, etc.?

I put it on all the forms, it’s up to them whether or not they honor it. I once had a person at a credit card company apologize that they didn’t have that symbol on the punch to put on the card. But she would have been happy to upgrade me to a business account so I could add a second line of text, to spell out the words ‘EXCLAMATION POINT’ if I really wanted to. (I didn’t.)