One of the most common questions I get is “How do you come up with your ideas?” They are no doubt talking about my bigger successes like Earthworm Jim, The Neverhood, Nickelodeon’s Catscratch or any one of my 13 graphic novels. But while a broad variety of my work is out there, people don’t see my ideas that don’t make it to the public. I’ve created HUNDREDS of ideas and only a handful of them have made it to where the public can see them. That’s right, for every Earthworm Jim you’ve seen there are twenty Earthworm Jims you haven’t.

The truth is that ideas are easy to come up with, but execution of any idea is near impossible. Earthworm Jim had so much working against it that it boggles my mind how it ever got made. My job at Shiny was offered to two other people who turned it down and if either of them went for it I wouldn’t have been hired and wouldn’t have created Earthworm Jim. When young designers ask how to make it in the gaming industry it’s hard to tell them, “Be incredibly lucky, and hope that two other people better qualified to do your job turn it down.”

Getting the opportunity to make Earthworm Jim was a complete freak accident of coincidences and lucky breaks. Not just for me, but Shiny just-so-happened to have an open invitation to create a unique title by our investor Playmates Toys. The Neverhood was created solely because Dreamworks was aggressively trying to start their gaming division and gave me an open invitation to create something unique and interesting. I didn’t go to business school, I was a fine art major and Dreamworks funded my company. No other company in the world would have greenlit The Neverhood, a clay animated puppet animation adventure game.

But opportunity is a fickle lover and my game projects could get no heat for fifteen years. People ask why I left games and I say, “I didn’t leave games. Games left me.” I’ve pitched plenty of games, at least as viable as Earthworm Jim and Neverhood and I got the sound of chirping crickets. Rejected by disinterested publishers, I always assumed that the gaming medium would be dead forever to my work. Then came Kickstarter. Then came Tim Schafer’s appeal directly to players for funding, circumventing the usual publisher route. After his DoubleFine game got over 3 million dollars in funding, Brian Fargo blew the door wide open with the crowd-funding of his games Wasteland 2 (edit) and Torment.

My old pals Mike Dietz and Ed Schofield were running their animation studio Pencil Test on fumes. We were trying to find a project that would be appropriate to Kickstart and we were spinning our wheels trying to make a 2D animated movie make sense. Finally, Mike said, “Why don’t we just make another puppet animated point and click adventure game?” Within a few hours, Armikrog was born. There was no way I could have predicted that Kickstarter would exist one day, or that if we proposed a game that it would get successfully funded. Once again, if a young designer asks how to make an Armikrog, I would say, “Wait for fifteen years after you’ve become a gaming has-been and hope for some new invention known as crowd-funding to come along and rescue your idea.” Just five days before our campaign funded, many were still betting against our success. Even Mike, Ed and I had regular Skype sessions where we went over the principles of crowd funding to try to look for any positive hope, a fool’s hope, to see the thing through.

Now that Armikrog is funded, people will play the game, and like so many of my other projects it will seem like they couldn’t do anything but exist. But now you know the truth. My punctuated string of successes are an unforeseeable stroke of luck, coincidence, and perhaps even miracle, one after another.

There are better creators than me working in game companies right now and they can’t get a break. There are amazing artists, designers and idea men who have the world’s best ideas that can’t reach that unachievable goal of execution. Your lack of opportunity is not necessarily because of your idea. It could be because of the normal problem of how difficult it is to have any idea executed.

It’s my great hope that the successful funding of Armikrog will only make more ideas by more people become a reality. But it’s not a given that you can follow the exact trajectory of Armikrog, it may not be Kickstarter that makes your idea become real but there are more options than ever available to my fellow artists. There’s always hope… a fool’s hope.Image
Ed Schofield, Brian Belfield, Doug TenNapel and Mark Lorenzen work on The Neverhood (Photo by Joe Sanabria, circa 1996).

Your last chance to get a TenNapel Sketchbook Archives

For most of medieval literature, there were no female elves. Tolkien was criticized by fairy-genre purists for having female elves in The Lord of the Rings because it was considered redundant. To the pre-modern mind, there were men, and the mystery of the female was represented by elves and fairies. The male elves represented women, so it breaks the genre by creating female elves. It’s like making chocolate out of chocolate.

Tolkien was the master of the genre, and knew which rules he could break and which ones to uphold. But given the liberties he took with the genre, I find his use of women and elves in that epic tale fantastic. The same rules were broken by another, C.S. Lewis who had Father Christmas show up in Narnia. If Aslan is the Christ, then Father Christmas would be Father Aslanmas… but Lewis, like Tolkien was transcending his genre in the same way. They were pointing to something higher than the boundaries even of fairy tale.

This from Tolkien on the Virgin mary:

“Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.”

To fully understand the Lord of the Rings, one must first understand that Tolkien was a devout, pre-Vatican II Catholic who faithfully attended the Latin Mass. As a Protestant, it’s difficult to view Mary like a Catholic. She is called “the Coredemptrix” which they believe tells of her unique role in participation of the redemption of man through Christ. So you’ll find elves in LOTR constantly co-redeeming mankind throughout the epic. It’s not specifically about Mary, because even in the language of story, Mary is just a conduit, to be blunt. It is the female mystique that represents the mystery of God, beauty and longing for glory.
Tolkien never publicly spoiled the spell of LOTR, he was even careful to ascribe future edits of the work to a failure in Bilbo’s memory when he put pen to paper. But in a private letter, Tolkien spills the beans:

“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like “religion”, to cults or practices, in the Imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”

This is telling, because he protected the story’s religious elements by removing religion from within the narrative. It’s also what freed him up to make female elves… for elves no longer symbolized women, but symbolized what Mary stood for to a Catholic, a coredemptrix. Similarly, it was Dr. Michael Ward in his book Planet Narnia who explains why Father Christmas can show up in a land with Aslan, because the entire book was more about Jove or Jupiter, the Christ figure of the universe who changes winter to spring in any land, not just Narnia. There is no need to have religious characters soap boxing within a fictional narrative, because the whole story is the soap box.


In Middle Earth, like in our Earth, all of mankind is low, prone to the weaknesses of the male species. Man is proud, greedy, and cannot resist overt power. This is embodied in Boromir. Every man who is tested by The Ring fails, but Aragorn is the only one to turn it down when offered the ring by Frodo. Why? Aragorn was raised by elves. He inherited their suspicion of men, and it tormented him. The elves, or the women of fairy tale provided him the humility that made him resist the power of low men and made him the only worthy king of men. Being a ranger, he was still a man’s man, so he also embodies the humanity of Christ, triumphant on Earth.

A further symbol of the redemption of man, is that Arwen, an elf, gives up mortality to marry him. This is the Christ who marries the church. It doesn’t cost Aragorn anything, but it will force Arwen to experience death. When the beauty of the higher things redeems the lower, it injures the higher thing.

Tolkien’s view of women personally? No higher praise could be given to his wife, Edith Mary Tolkien where her tombstone read: “Luthien” while J.R.R.’s read: “Beren.” These are the elvish names for Arwen and Aragorn. After 50 years of marriage, Tolkien claimed he could still remember how Edith sang and danced while he sat on the grass, spellbound. This is also how Aragorn first meets Arwen in the Appendix of LOTR.

Legolas and Gimli
It’s a long story, but elves and dwarves are long rivals in Middle Earth. Elves are considered high while dwarves are considered low, not only in stature, but their own creator Vala Aulë offered to destroy them before they ever awoke. But the creator of all, Ilúvatar, offered to adopt them as his own with the condition that they were awaken after the Elves. That’s Jacob and Esau, but off topic for the purposes of this post.

By the beginning of The Two Towers, Legolas and Gimli have struck such a rich friendship that when Eomer the Rider of Rohan threatens to kill Gimli, Legolas points an arrow at him and says, “You would die before your stroke fell.” Gimli the low is defended by Legolas… womankind. It is Gimli who is completely smitten by Galadriel upon meeting the highest elf of all. It’s no coincidence that the highest elf is a female. At the end of the age, it is Legolas who builds a boat and brings Gimli with him to the Grey Havens (heaven).

Frodo and Arwen
When Frodo is sure to die by a mortal wound from a Morgul Blade (the weapon of the most powerful of men, the Witch King) Arwen shows up just in time to save him. (Correction: since I posted this, reader Jenni Noordhoek corrected me that it’s not Arwen who waves Frodo in the book, it’s Glorfindel who saves Frodo. But the point still stands, because it’s an elf who rescues Frodo.) When Arwen gives up her own immortality, she gives Frodo her place on the boat to the Grey Havens. Enough said.

Eowyn and Theoden
When King Theoden is crushed by his horse from a blow by the Lord Nazgul, it is Theoden’s niece Eowyn who stands between the King and death. The Lord of the Nazgul is the most powerful man, brought down by a woman who was forbidden to join the battle. She wears the armor of a man to participate. Eowyn is womanhood militant on earth, forced into battle.

Shelob and Sam
Contrast the soaring beauty of elves with Shelob. Older than Sauron, she is the last daughter of Ungoliant (the devil) known as the giant spider Shelob. There is no character described by Tolkien as more gut-wrenchingly foul than Shelob. Female gone wrong is a horror far worse than even that of the greatest failings of mortal men. The oldest, most powerful female of Middle Earth is defeated by the lowest, most humble male character: Frodo’s gardener, Sam.

Female as the North Star

The three great females of LOTR are named after lights and stars. Stars are fixed ideals by which we can guide a ship, measure the size of the universe and keep from getting lost in the woods. Their names: Galadriel, the Lady of Light, Arwen, the Evanstar and Luthien, the Morning Star. Each of these characters play a role in guiding men. Even Galadriel has Gandalf’s number. He may be a wizard, but he is subservient and knocked off his feet by the highest elf.

Tolkien was criticized by feminists for his lack of female characters in his books. I don’t have go into how thin that view is, but I believe it proves how Modernity forces us to not only miss what would be obvious to a pre-modern mind, but by addressing those false problems it ruins good story telling technique. Women weren’t short changed in Tolkien’s world, they were the firm backbone of that entire work, elevated to the highest place in a Catholic, pre-modern, story-teller’s mind: the magic redeemer of fallen men.

Here’s a group portrait of all of the commissions. Lots of familiar faces and some new ones. (Click the pic to have a closer look)

11 X 17″ ink and brush on paper.

Here’s a gal in a Kimono at no additional charge.



I got this question from a pal on Twitter about my Kickstarter campaign:

 But may I ask how you were able to get so many backers? It’s incredible! How did you promote, advertise and spread the word about your project? What’s the trick? I would really like to know how this works.

Any help would be hot. :)

I didn’t go into Kickstarter knowing anything about the process. I was in contact with a few friends who had successful kickstarter campaigns: Kazu Kibuishi, Jake Parker and Jason Brubaker. They didn’t make it sound easy, but they made it sound possible. That was all I needed. At the time that I launched my own campaign, I looked up every project that launched within my category of book making and comics and I looked at what failed and what succeeded. The problem is that most of the things that succeeded weren’t necessarily the kind of project I was thinking of, while the projects that fail are from every type and style of book imaginable.

There’s one great thing about Kickstarter, which is that it doesn’t cost anything to fail. There aren’t a lot of things in life that are like that, so all I had was my pride at stake to get kicked if it didn’t work, and my pride has a lot of scar tissue on it by now, so why not?

My backers aren’t entirely from my list of Kickstarter friends (4,000) or from Twitter (5500), but that gave me a good head start. About 500 of my donors came from those lists. One thing I didn’t anticipate was that I would gain about 1,000 followers on Twitter from having run my Kickstarter campaign! It was the new people that spread the word to their own networks that I didn’t have access to. They did it, not me.

The project itself is what ends up driving the donors, because people don’t buy things from me they don’t want. I could just as easily have made a different project and the exact same bidders would have said, “We don’t want this.” I’ve thought of doing a board game, a card game, a video game and an animated short, and it didn’t seem like the right timing, the Sketchbook seemed like the best idea… and my audience confirmed my hunch.

The launch of the project is when it’s at its greatest risk of failing, because after one day I might have only had 50-100 or so donors. You have to get those donors to be proud enough of the project to think their friends would also want to buy into the project. That’s why Kickstarter is just like any other free market idea… people don’t spend their money on well wishes and good intent. They really do want to be excited about something and they can’t fake their interest in something they don’t want or need.

I’d like to pause for a second and offer a consolation for projects that don’t work out. Don’t be discouraged. I have a ton of projects and ideas that I try to launch that fail or fizzle out. I’ve read enough about all of our great inventors and idea men that their past is littered with more failures than successes. The one attribute that separates successful people from failures isn’t creativity, but perseverance. Are you the kind of person to try something even after failing in a big way? 

Let me get back to answering your question. I don’t consider 1,725 people that many donors. Other guys like Jake Parker and the Creature Box guys had many MORE donors than I did and they didn’t even have the notoriety or fame of making Earthworm Jim and Neverhood in their corner. That’s how you know it’s the actual project that people want… it’s not based on the fame or marketing, it’s the thing itself that gets the donations. There are lots of great people making projects and I just don’t really want the project. Guess what? They still can’t get me to donate. It’s the project, it’s the project, it’s the project. Ask yourself if you didn’t know you, what would you buy from you?

While you can advertise your campaign, you don’t have to because Kickstarter already is a marketplace. Hot projects float to the top because even Kickstarter gets a cut of projects so that if they want to remain profitable, they want popular projects to rise up. They don’t want you to fail. If a project fails, it fails for very good reasons.

So the trick ends up being what all of us in mass media stay up at night thinking about… what do I want to make that enough people want? I’m still baffled by this and I’m the author of 14 books that haven’t lost money. My most popular projects aren’t necessarily what I would bet money would have been popular and some of my favorite “sure fire” projects were my biggest market failures.

Like everything in mass media, Kickstarter doesn’t lie. Give your best project your best shot and let the audience of donors educate you about your tastes. That’s what I did, and I was completely surprised (and humbled) by the response I got.

This is the second post on Kickstarter advice based on what I’m learning from my own campaign. The previous post was on setting a reasonable goal amount:

As I ran my campaign, I made sure to regularly communicate with all of my donors through frequent updates and by responding to as many personal emails as reasonable. They don’t tell you about this part on the Kickstarter site, but maintaining communication, especially during the actual fundraising portion of the campaign, is important to build trust with donors.

Most of the donors don’t know that I’m a trustworthy person, so without going through my fiscal background, they trust me with a donation of real money. They make the first act of trust, and in my case, they were saying they would trust me with their funds for six months before they would get their rewards. The least I could do is keep them up to date on the project, even though I don’t really have time to produce constant contact.

The updates allow me to communicate with all 1,725 donors, and I can show them my due diligence by inviting them in to the process of both running the Kickstarter campaign as well as the construction of the project, in my case, a book. So I showed them images we were scanning, even showing them mistakes that we needed to fix. I got an outpouring of personal thank you’s from the donors and I was surprised to found out that other campaigns didn’t regularly communicate with their donors.

This advice comes with two warnings. 1. Some donors will send too many emails! I had to gently remind them that I couldn’t respond to every piece of communication, but I try to take care of big questions and big problems that multiple donors are asking about. 2. Don’t give too many updates! Every update sends a Kickstarter reminder to every donor and they can feel like the communication is too frequent and bothersome. If I didn’t talk to the donors for a few weeks I thought to myself, “If I donated to a campaign, I’d want to know if the guy was still alive at this point.” Usually there was some point of progress I could put together and send it out to the donors.

Earthworm Jim Commission

February 4, 2013

Earthworm Jim Commission

I did this live at the San Diego Comicon. Earthworm Jim is always fun to blast out!

For years I’ve had friends give Kickstarter projects a try and I was always very skeptical… until my little Kickstarter project drew in over $100k in donations!

See original project over here:

Since that project initially launched, I’ve been doing a lot of research on other Kickstarter projects, and there’s one piece of advice I can give that’s actually pretty self-evident. Don’t ask for too much money at the start.

In general, when setting the amount of money you want to get from Kickstarter, don’t ask for the amount of money you need, ask for the amount of money you wouldn’t walk away from.

I’ll use my own project as an example. I wanted to print a hard bound sketchbook and figured it would cost me around $40,000 to make the book… but I didn’t think I would get that amount, as donors would be discouraged after a week if it didn’t get over $18,000. The question is, if I could only raise $18k of that $40,000 I needed, would I not make the book? No! I was going to make the book no matter what, so $18k would be really helpful. If I got less than $18k, however, my losses would be so great that I would probably need to walk away from the project. I was willing to lose about $22k of my own money if the book got made, so that’s how I came up with the bottom line amount to ask for on Kickstarter.

There is a misconception about Kickstarter that it’s somehow supposed to pay for every single aspect of a project, and if you raise enough, then good for you. But most people are going to make a project anyways, so putting the burden on Kickstarter donors to pay for the whole taco might be asking too much.