Inside the Twisted Mind of a Webcomic Artist

The world of online comic strips—or webcomics—has pretty much existed since the Internet was commercialized in 1995.

James L. Grant has been lurking in the shadows the entire time.

“It was… 1997? I had my first tech support job at Hewlett-Packard, and I noticed that a few cartoonists were just putting their work out for free on the intertubes,” wrote Grant from his home in Dallas, Texas.

“Part of my brain recoiled at the idea of putting out comics for free, but another part of me noted that hell, 90 per cent of my comics had never sold to magazines, so it wouldn’t hurt to put them online, would it? So I did, about the same time as Penny Arcade started.”

Penny Arcade is one of the longest-run and most successful webcomics. Although Grant hasn’t attained the same notoriety as its creators, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, his FLEM comics—“more fun than a sack of dead kittens,” according to its motto, has been around since the beginning.

Grant started FLEM in high school—before the Internet even existed. The comic, which is told in a mixed format of series, standalone strips and single panel comics, is sometimes autobiographical, but just as often simply a vehicle to get out something funny he thought of.

“FLEM is just, as the misspelled name implies, what my brain hocks and spits out on people,” wrote Grant. “There are over 1,200 comics in the archives, spanning almost 13 years of webcomicry, and they run a severe gamut, from the whimsical to the totally disturbed. FLEM is my personal, homemade therapy.”

While FLEM has maintained a more indie presence in the webcomic world, Grant’s other webcomic, Two Lumps—which is written by his wife Mel Hynes—has gained a more mainstream audience.

Featuring Hynes’ two Russian Blue cats as the main characters, the humour of Two Lumps is toned down from FLEM’s craziness, but not by much. Even though Grant doesn’t write for Two Lumps, Hynes’ sense of humour is so similar to his that the styles easily overlap—for the most part.

“She just refuses to write strips about dancing aborted fetuses and lesbian slut ninjas,” wrote Grant.

“When Mel and I started doing Two Lumps, we realized we had a chance to keep it family-friendly, keep it funny, but still push some boundaries. I maintain to this day that if you do comics for more than a year and never get any hate mail, you’re doing something wrong. Especially with the Internet crowd.”

In the early days, Grant drew his work with pen and ink. But in 1997, when he decided to move online, scanners were a fairly new technology for home use and cost a fortune.

“Kids today won’t believe that, since you can now get a 1600 dpi USB scanner in a box of Captain Crunch, but back in the mid-1990s, scanners were way too rich for my blood. So I started learning how to draw with a mouse. A ball mouse, if you can believe it,” wrote Grant.

“I kept cracking, optical mice came around, and by the year 2000 I was a passably good artist with a mouse.”

As of late, Grant has gone back to drawing with pen and paper, but still uses computers extensively for his work. The creative process for Two Lumps and FLEM is fairly similar, Grant explained: “For Two Lumps, Mel sends me a script to draw. For FLEM, I come up with an idea that’s just too awful not to share. Either way, the first step of creation is: booze. Beer at first, switching to vodka or rum as common sense dissolves. Then I draw the strip, scan it, letter it, and take my pants off.”

Though his comics aren’t primarily political, Grant, who grew up in California with three siblings and a single mother with a heart condition, still has a very political consciousness. His family lived in a level of poverty so extreme, Grant wrote, “that most Americans don’t actually believe is still happening in our country.”

“We had to make food stretch like crazy. Most people I know today have no idea how to make soup twice out of a single leftover roast chicken, once it’s been served for dinner. The first is to boil off what little meat is left. The second is to boil out the marrow, and get the microscopic amount of flesh that still exists.

“Chuck some dandelion greens and wild onions in that broth, and serve it up to four hungry kids. Maybe mix in an egg, if you have it. Ignore their complaints.”

Grant described his frustration with the welfare system in the United States.

“We live in a country that is overflowing with wealth, but I’ve never forgotten my destitute upbringing. We can do better, as a nation, than to just say ‘screw the poor,’ but nobody particularly gives a damn. They don’t have to, since the poor don’t have any power to make their voice heard.

“It doesn’t help that those of us who climbed out of poverty, all too often, don’t want to talk about it. It’s painful. But until enough of us do, the system will go on being broken, and the poor will continue to get screwed to the dirt.”

Grant moved from California to Dallas in his early twenties. He would later write a semi-autobiographical strip within FLEM that chronicled the drug-induced, gonzo-esque adventure, known as the Jay Series.

Over the course of its 500-strip run, the Jay series garnered a cult following that persists today. Grant made it very clear during the interview, however, that Jay is gone for good—the title character was left to rot in prison after being arrested for molesting a loaf of bread in public—and Grant has no intention of bringing him back.

The new Grant lives in Dallas with his wife and daughter from a previous marriage. He continues to create FLEM and draw for Two Lumps, which has a table at ComicCon International, and is often recognized on the street.

As for hobbies? “[I] sometimes cruise the dark in my black costume and mask, stopping evildoers—and showing them how to do evil better.”