Welcome to the Inaugural Edition of FreakSugar’s DIY Comics column.  DIY Comics will focus on creators who are not currently featured by larger publishers and are successfully navigating the somewhat nebulous end of creating comics completely on their own.

Justin Peterson has been successfully publishing his project, Very Near Mint, for several years now.  He started out small with characters he created in 1997 when he was in high school and, over several years, has cultivated his own brand with three successful collections as well as three successful Kickstarter fund-raisers to aid him in his print publication of his books.

I contacted Justin this week to talk about his experiences to date as well as what keeps him going without the aid of a publisher or partners.

FreakSugar:  Justin, for people who aren’t familiar with your work, give our readers a little background on your work in the field thus far.

Justin Peterson: Well, I’m the artist and writer of the super underground, instant cult classic Very Near Mint, which is a graphic novel series I started back in 2010. Volume 3 just came out last month. I’m also the muralist for the restaurant chain Tijuana Flats, I get to paint crazy murals in the southeastern parts of this fine country. And, recently, I’ve started working for Mad Magazine.

FS:  What sorts of inspiration drove you to create Very Near Mint?

Peterson: Chicks, dude. Comic artists get a TON of girls. Oh, wait, we don’t? Huh. That explains a lot then.

I created the characters for Very Near Mint back in 1997, when I was a sophomore in high school. They always just rattled around in my head. The original concept was “a comic book version of Seinfeld, but with teenagers”…which, you know, isn’t a very interesting comic book, really. Just a bunch of kids sitting around and talking. In high school, I worked at my local comic shop. Then I read “write what you know”, so I gave my characters a job…at a comic book shop. Genius! Then it only took me 13 more years to get the comic off the ground.

FS:  Self-publishing isn’t easy.  You’ve been relatively successful so far.  What have been your biggest hurdles in terms of getting your books out there?

Peterson: Technology has made getting the physical books out into the world much easier… on demand printing, Kickstarter, digital distribution. My biggest challenge is, and always has been, the DRAWING. I’m a one-man show, so everything rests on my shoulders.  Pencils, inks, letters, tones… you touch each page 4 or 5 times before it’s finished. It’s a lonely existence sometimes. Finding “the groove” is the key… just getting to that groove and producing the work. There’s no magic button to get you there.

FS: What’s been your key to success with your THREE successful Kickstarter campaigns?

Peterson: I think the work speaks for itself. I don’t have crazy long and intricate videos with the campaigns…it’s just “Hey, this is who I am, this is the project, help me get it off the ground.” All my effort goes directly into the books. I think it shows. I HOPE it shows. It’s not gimmicky, you know? This is the comic, this is what the art looks like, maybe you’re into it, maybe you’re not. But I like to think that the art, the production, the end product, is what’s made the book and the Kickstarters as successful as they’ve been.

FS:  What do you think is more important?  Social Media use or getting out there, in the trenches, at the conventions and just hocking your wares?

Peterson: Both. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There’s no way you can reach everyone on the internet, and there’s no way you can reach everyone who goes to a convention. You have to do both. It’s taken me a couple years to figure out which conventions work best for me and which social media works for me. I’m a big fan of Instagram, not so much a fan of Twitter.

FS:  What has been your biggest success to date?  What sorts of improvements do you focus on as you’re growing as a commercial artist?

Peterson: I just had the biggest financial success at MegaCon this year. The most sales I’ve ever done, it was crazy. The Kickstarter campaign for Very Near Mint #3 was the biggest one so far. My biggest improvement needed is to find a way to manage time better. I could be MUCH MUCH MUCH better at responding to e-mails, hitting social media, working more, getting books shipped out. I feel like it’s at a tipping point, maybe…if there were only TWO of me! Let’s go, Science…it’s 2014, where’s the cloning technology?

FS: Sounds like the premise for Very Near Mint #4…

Peterson: It’s KIND OF a plot point in Very Near Mint #3! It’s one of the bigger jokes in the book. There’s a robot and, well, yeah…I won’t spoil anything.

FS:  How hard can it be to juggle a day job with creating comic?  Is it tough on your personal relationships?

Peterson: Luckily, for me, I haven’t had a “day job” while creating the books. My muraling gig with Tijuana Flats is probably the best thing that’s ever happened for me. I work for a week or two every 5 or 6 weeks. That allows me incredible amounts of free time between murals to work on personal projects. Like comics! My girlfriend is VERY supportive, and she actually wants me to work on the comics MORE. I’ll want to watch Parks and Rec, and she’s saying, “Go into the studio and draw another page!” She’s like my manager. My unpaid manager.

FS:  What sorts of projects would you like to work on in the future?  Are there any popular characters out there that you secretly fantasize about drawing?

Peterson: Truth be told, I don’t have a ton of interest in working on any mainstream comics. My style isn’t really that conducive for X-Men. Now, don’t get me wrong. If Marvel called me up tomorrow and offered me a gig, you better believe I would take it in a heartbeat! But I’m more interested in personal projects. Too many ideas, not enough time to do them. This is where those clones would come in handy.

FS: You’re actually making the most difficult sorts of projects; personal or “funny” books are considered the most difficult types of books to make in this industry because you actually have to be…funny?

Peterson: It was something I struggled with in Very Near Mint 3, because it’s the darkest of the three books. It’s also why it took me the longest to produce, because I kept asking myself, “IS it funny enough?” and, ultimately, I decided that the darkness only enhances the crazy and funny parts of the book, so it all worked out. That said, I also know that “funny” books aren’t hugely popular, so one of my goals is to have this book, Very Near Mint, that’s a comedy, but that ALL kinds of people who read comics would enjoy. I don’t have facts or figures, but I think I’ve done a good job in getting “mainstreamers” to try out a little black and white indie book, which also happens to be a comedy.

FS: How do you try to stay focused on maintaining consistency now that you’ve self-published three editions of Very Near Mint?

Peterson: By taking breaks in between the books. I get burnt out, I won’t lie. I think all creative types struggle with that, though. But once the book is done, once I’m holding the finished product in my hands, it’s like a shot of adrenaline. “OH MAN LET’S DO ANOTHER ONE RIGHT NOW!” But, yeah, breaks are important. I go on the road, hit up conventions, and then it’s time to go home and work up something new. And hopefully I have recharged the batteries to do it all over again.

FS:  What shows will you be attending this season?

Peterson: Upcoming… Phoenix Comic Con, Special Edition: NYC, Heroes Con, Tampa Bay Comic Con. I’m sure I’ll find my way into more shows later on in the year!

FS:  What sorts of advice can you give to aspiring creators out there who want to take steps into creating their own comics?

Peterson: Draw COMICS. Quit with the pin-ups and prints and all that. You want to draw comics? Then draw comics. We don’t need any more Doctor Who prints, guys! We need more awesome, inventive, creative, well drawn graphic novels! Draw a 12 page comic, take it down to your local print shop and have them make you 100 copies of it, get a table at a convention, get your work out there.

Okay…fine, you can sell your Doctor Who print, too.