I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Hallbeck, the creator of The Book of Biff. Biff, the titular character distinguishable by his shaved head and crazy eyebrows, has bizarre, full-color, single-panel adventures every weekday over at thebookofbiff.com. His strange problems and stranger solutions make for a fun daily diversion, and cartoonist Chris Hallbeck regularly delivers glimpses into Biff's surreal world, often in themed weeks such as "magic tricks" or "childhood playthings." He and I sat down over email for a closer look Behind the Biff. (And by "he" I mean Chris, not Biff.)
JF: So how did you come up with the Biff character, anyway? And why did you decide to name him "Biff?"
CH: Biff evolved from a doodle that I did in my friend's student planner. We had lunch together and I would draw things to try and make him laugh. Biff became a reoccurring character in those doodles. I liked the name Biff because I didn't know anyone with that name and it could also be used as a sound effect.
JF:I always think of truck drivers when I hear the name "Biff." Or that guy from Back to the Future. But Biff seems to have a very different personality from Biffs like those.
CH: Biff is more of a childlike mad professor.
JF: How does it feel to take Biff from his humble origins to a widely-read webcomic with two print collections? Did you expect Biff to be this successful?
CH: I think one of the most important things to happen was that when I got out of college I tried to get Biff accepted as a syndicated newspaper comic. I still have the stack of rejection letters in a box somewhere. I stopped drawing Biff for a number of years after that but when I decided to start it up again it was without any dreams of success. I realized that I just wanted to draw comics for the sake of drawing them. I made zero dollars from this project for the first 2 years but that wasn't a problem since it was not my original goal. The main attraction to me to the concept of drawing a webcomic was that it would cost me a very small amount of money to make it available to a large number of people.
JF: It also allows for more immediate fan feedback; I imagine that's a plus too. What's your favorite facet of being the creator of The Book of Biff?
CH: I like the challenge of it. Each comic is a new puzzle to solve and it's satisfying when I find the solution.
JF: The Book of Biff is a unique webcomic in that it takes the single-panel approach. Apart from the ubiquitous Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, it's the only single-panel webcomic I can think of. I'm not sure where I'm going with this question, but do you have any thoughts on Biff's single-panel-ness? What made you decide to go with that format?
CH: There are definitely a bunch more single panel webcomics out there. Savage Chickens is one that I read daily. The reason that I draw a single panel comic is The Far Side. My cartooning developed from drawing in the margins of school books and notebooks. Those small spaces are better suited to a single drawing with a caption than a strip format. I think those early doodles wired my brain for thinking one panel at a time.
JF: The Far Side really is the iconic single-panel comic; it's what everyone thinks of. But one thing that sets Book of Biff apart from The Far Side is its recurring cast—of one. What do you think being able to center the weirdness and humor around a single individual does for your comic?
CH: On the positive side, it can give me speed and focus. The writing can go faster because I only have to figure out what Biff's reaction will be to the situation. And unlike a multi-character comic I don't have complex character relationships and storylines to maintain.
I think having a single character can also be very limiting. There are a lot of jokes that I throw out because they won't fit into the limits of one panel/one figure/one sentence caption.
JF: For a typical comic, what does the creative process look like for you? How do you take an idea from…wherever your ideas come from…and carry it to its completion? Is there a lot of variation in the process, apart from the particular content, or is it pretty standard?
CH: I have a few different writing strategies. Sometimes I think of a funny image and try to reverse engineer a caption to fit it. Sometimes I'll think of a theme and write a list of objects or activities in that theme to bounce ideas off of. Usually I think of some sort of problem that Biff has to solve and then explore a few successes or failures he may experience and then I write down the one that I think is the funniest. The writing is the hardest part and it is the most random in the amount of time it takes. Some comics pop into my head fully realized. Some take days of chipping away at them. I know there's a comic in that idea somewhere I just have to peel off enough of the bad punchlines to find it.
The physical part of the comic is pretty straightforward. I do the drawing in Flash and the coloring in Photoshop.
JF: The relationship between what's weird and what's funny is a weird one. What do you think makes weird things so funny?
CH: I think it's just enjoying something that's new or unexpected.
JF: I'm surprised to discover that you draw the comic in Flash. The linework looks really hand-drawn, at least to me. Do you have a personal preference for digital or traditional craft? Any thoughts on how new digital tools are changing cartooning?
CH: Well, I still draw the lines with my hand. I think there is sometimes confusion when I hear comics described as either "drawn by hand" or "digital." As if artists in the "digital" category are somehow bashing their face into a keyboard to create their images.
The reason I use Flash is because my computer is not powerful enough to draw in Photoshop at the file sizes I like to work in. For me, drawing digitally allows me greater speed an I'm more fearless with my brushwork since I can always undo. I was actually afraid that I was going to lose my pen and ink skills when I first started drawing in flash but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the speed and line quality improvements carried over when I did my first post-digital ink on paper drawing.
JF: Thanks for your time and responses, Chris. Do you have any parting advice for aspiring cartoonists? If you could give one single piece of advice, what would it be?
CH: Keep drawing. If you look back on what you did every 6 months and you hate it then you are going in the right direction.