An artist has an idea. He thinks it's cute, pointless, utterly enjoyable: Sega's video game icon. Sonic the Hedgehog, funnily running. He sketches it out and likes what he sees. Looking for a good excuse to test out new software, he turns this little drawing into an animated GIF — a rough, Web-ready animation. He throws a title at the top — "I think it'd be cute if Sonic ran like an idiot" — signs his name at the bottom, and puts it on the website that's home to his art.
Somehow, someone finds it and starts sharing it online. It finds its way to a Tumblr page — a sort of blog that, among other things, makes sharing images very easy — then to a major fanboy site, in this case Nedroid.com. It's "liked" and reblogged several hundred times. Then the heads behind that site put out a call for more artistic renditions of a "dumb-running Sonic." The response is immense. Immediately, and for weeks, new versions appear.
Someone creates a site dedicated to hosting all the other animated dumb running Sonics, which others around the world are now creating. As of Jan. 8, it's home to 376 dizzy hedgehogs. New arrivals land daily with no sign of slowing down
A blogger for the SoHo-based content aggregator BuzzFeed (brainchild of Huffington Post co-founder Jonah Peretti) gets hold of it, and suddenly a thousand or more people view it and toss it around the Web; they post it on their Facebook wall or send out tweets, maybe even go old-school and e-mail the URL link to a few friends and in the subject bar write: This!
A meme is born.
This is what artist Zac Gorman started Dec. 9, 2011. It's been shared more than 11,000 times. The way things are going, by the time you're done reading this article, it's been reblogged again. At its current rate of being shared via Tumblr alone, Gorman's original sonic will have been viewed more than 100,000 times by the end of 2012.
When trending Internet subjects come across whatever screen of ours they happen to appear on, very rarely, if ever, do we find the primary source.
That's the case for clips of kittens, indie music videos (have you checked out Azealia Bank's "212"?), parents confessing they've eaten all their kids' Halloween candy, inventively or lazily misspelled words, things that come out of Rick Perry's mouth. Most recently, the series of videos "Shit White Girls Say."
What follows is the story of how one metro Detroit artist, with a nuanced sense of nostalgia, has found success with some of 2011's nerdiest online memes.
Zac Gorman has been drawing his whole life. As a junior in high school, he penned a comic strip for the Dearborn High School Observer called "Fuzz Muffin."
"I can't even remember why I'd joined the school newspaper," says Gorman, who absolutely knows the reason. "My girlfriend at the time was doing it, so that was probably it."
It was the artist's first serial, multicharacter strip. "It had some anti-establishment undertones," he says with a laugh.
His backpack was filled with the stuff, entire notebooks of three-panel talking-head comic strips. This was his public artistic statement. And when it ran in the school paper, people dug it. But they never saw the whole story, or did they?
"The main character was obviously just an avatar for myself, a very self-deprecating avatar. I don't know if I hide it too well," Gorman says. "People liked it, I guess. But if you psychoanalyzed my whole collection, it was actually just very self-loathing."
It was a brief affair, and didn't even continue into his senior year, but it gave Zac, now 27, his first experience with what most artists desperately need — a deadline.
After graduation and two years at community college, Gorman went to Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids. He says he didn't have a strong direction. "I was considering psychology and a bunch of other things, but the one thing I always loved to do was draw, so I started looking into art schools — College for Creative Studies and Kendall — and I really liked Kendall's illustration program. I was going for comic art. They had some cool illustration thing going on."
Gorman spent more time at the grindstone than most students.
"You get out of it what you put into it, right? Even outside of classes, I spent a good amount of time drawing at school. I partied my fair share, sure. But most nights were just me in my room, drawing by myself, working on self-directed projects. That time was all about learning how to draw. It still wasn't about drawing comics so much at that time. It was about trying to find my artistic voice."
He finished up art school in the winter of 2006 and moved from Grand Rapids back to Dearborn for a few months. Then, in the fall of 2007, he followed his girlfriend out to Berkeley, Calif., where she was attending university. Corporate graphic design jobs are plentiful in that part of the country, and it didn't take Gorman long to find work at a consumer electronics company.
"I found the job tedious and horrible," Gorman says. "It wasn't necessarily the easiest place to make friends. I wasn't in school; everyone I worked with was 10 years older than me, and, let's face it, I spent a lot of my time alone, drawing comics. That's when I started drawing Montgrave."
Montgrave was Gorman's first foray at writing and drawing a regular comic strip since high school, the misadventures of a rather rabbity fellow and his quirky crew.
"Montgrave was born out of a few things," Gorman says. "First, being painfully bored at work, dreaming up comic strips. Second, if you psychoanalyzed this story, it was about me missing home, it was a fantasy, a way I could be surrounded by my closest friends and family."
When the economy went bust in 2008, Gorman was one of those recent hires let go early on, which was fine with him. What the job had lacked in artistic merit, it made up for in time and technology to produce this other work. And all of a sudden there was much more of that time.
Gorman says he wanted to pursue what was out there and popular in the world of Web comics. He wanted to, albeit virtually, stand next to the big boys. He produced full-color Montgrave strips every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for two-and-a-half years. It didn't find much critical acclaim, but Gorman got props from his peers online, mostly other web comic illustrators and blog reviewers.
Then Gorman's girl graduated.
"Right about the time we were getting ready to come back to Michigan, I just kind of stopped doing Montgrave. It fell off. I got burned out on it. I still think about picking it back up, because I feel like I never wrapped it up. There was a story to it, but I was making it up as I went along and never figured out what I wanted to do with it, where I wanted to take it. There's no conclusion, and that bothers me. Sometimes. I want to do something with an ongoing story. At some point."
Moving back to his hometown created what Gorman describes as a mixture of excitement and defeat: "I think that's almost always the case. You're split between the enjoyment of reconnecting with a lot of people, picking up with a life that's familiar and this feeling that coming back home feels like a sad, failed experiment."
It wasn't the worst, but it wasn't exactly smooth either. "I was unemployed and looking for work. It was rough. The job market in Detroit was much more bleak than in California, where at least there were jobs in the market you could apply for."
Not long before moving back to Dearborn, one of Zac's best friends from back here introduced him to Chris Everheart, who, working under the name the Silent Giants, creates art pieces of all sorts (from downhill skis to backdrops that the Dead Weather use on tour) and is internationally recognized for silk screen posters for films and music.
After checking out each other's work online, Everheart and Gorman started collaborating, starting with a poster for an Animal Collective concert at the Royal Oak Music Theatre on May 18, 2009. That performance was in support of their record Merriweather Post Pavilion, arguably the year's most critically acclaimed record. No small gig.
Gorman's line work in the poster is eye-catching and slightly unsettling. Two hornets, a heart, a sprouting seed, a bird of prey, a rabbit, and an incomplete horse skeleton encompass an illustration of a young girl falling into what could be water or a meadow. Not so unsettling, though, that it couldn't hang framed in almost anyone's living room.
They collaborated a couple more times before Gorman moved back home, and continued after the move. "To be honest, it was nice to be around people I was already working with creatively and knew but didn't really know," Gorman says.
Since those early collaborations, Gorman has done well for himself with poster art, namely for Grammy-nominated My Morning Jacket, original art print posters of Abraham Lincoln, a cover for J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan and Wendy (for a series of lit-inspired posters), the Buffy the Vampire Slayer cast (using a blocky 8-bit graphics style reminiscent of early video games), as well as a bunch of video game characters — the latter proving surprisingly successful.
Gorman says that, up until very recently, he had separate artistic approaches for illustrating comics and others for graphic design.
"With graphic design, it was about the final composition, but with drawing a comic I detached from that. You can't spend the time on a strip that you would if you were trying to compose something someone might frame and hang on a wall," Gorman says. "With comics, it's about what happens inside the panels. It has its technical merit. But what you're trying to get across in a brief amount of time requires something different."
But the process, for both, he says essentially begins the same: with a pen or pencil.
"I sketch out some ideas and work from there," says Gorman, whose influences include the French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim — "I'm not able to hide that influence too well," the artist admits — along with video game designers such as Nintendo virtuoso Shigesato Itoi, a hero to Gorman. Another biggie for him is Muppets creator Jim Henson. "It doesn't matter if it's comics, video games or anything else — I enjoy those artful masters that changed things forever."
Zac has many styles. Three you could point out quickly after spending some time with his work include the hip 'n' wistful look, the detailed dour effect, and a deceptively simple, cartoonish characterization he regularly employs. His knack for color palette is so good it can sometimes distract from the subject. Sometimes, all of these aesthetics mesh, and, recently, some of his poster work has started to take on the flavors of his comic strips.
"I have an illustrative mind-set," he says of himself. "I always wanted to use the style that's going to be best for the concept of the piece," Gorman says. "If I think something should have a more — and I hate to use this word, but — realistic look, then I'd go for that. Or maybe I'd think it'd be better served to have a '90s comic book feel to it, or French indie comic look, then I'd do that."
But with a new sense of artistic confidence, Gorman has begun to project where he is as an artist right now into the breadth of his work. "More than ever before," he says, "I'm pushing what it is I'm doing visually independent of the project."
Successful as he'd been, last year he thought the way to further his craft and career was to pursue an MFA through the prestigious program at the Cranbrook Academy of Art.
"Cranbrook was amazing and the people there were very open to all my crazy ideas and have put me on to some amazing things happening there," Gorman says. "I got accepted on my second try and I was about to do it. Then, in an ill-timed life moment, these comics I was doing sorta blew up."
The comics Gorman refers to, the ones that blew up last summer, started with a four-panel animated gif comic based on the Legend of Zelda video game. Like the dumb running Sonic later on, Gorman posted it on his portfolio site, where it sat, just as he'd intended. Then it cropped up elsewhere on the Internet, mainly websites dedicated to art and video game ephemera, places like Tiny Cartridge. These pop culture hubs — large and small — help spread work, reposting work their creators like, lending the work both Web world and real world credibility.
"All of a sudden I'm getting a ton of hits. Like, a lot of hits. So, I decided to capitalize on the moment," he says. "Drawing is something I love to do, and I didn't realize anyone else would like the stuff I just do for fun."
He drew a few more video game-inspired strips, including one in June, titled "How To Sell Me on a New Console," which name-checked deep-geek Nintendo game Earthbound in reference to the Wii-U, a soon-to-be-released console Nintendo had just announced.
That little comic took a good spin around the Web, accelerating after the Gawker site Kotaku made it a highlight.
Then Gorman began using Tumblr, the fast-rising blogging (or micro-blogging) platform that some observers expect to be a Facebook-size enterprise in the years to come. In the meantime, what it lacks in overpowering numbers, it makes up for in ease of use, if not buzz, on projects like Gorman's.
The first experiment with Tumblr was a project and site titled "I Draw Nintendo." Then Gorman started setting up more Tumblr sites that started with "I Draw" including "I Draw Ninja Turtles." And so was born yet another project. "I wanted to produce a regularly updated blog with an illustration of every Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figure ever made, and so I did, and I started selling those as small 8-1/2-by-11-inch prints for $10 or $15."
Gorman's illustrative homages to the heroes of his youth — and adulthood for that matter — quickly proved fiscally viable with printings of 60 to 100 a month (and larger prints going for up to $45).
Then Zac consolidated his work under one roof, a Tumblr-powered site called "Magical Game Time," which Gorman says is dedicated to his very personal relationships with video games.
"I think there are quite a lot of people who have strong, weird, complex and sometimes lasting relationships with video games," Gorman says. "So, more than retelling the story and playing with the mythology of the game, my site is about putting yourself in these character's shoes. How are they personified? How do we really relate to them? How well do we know them?"
For Gorman, Link from the Legend of Zelda games, is one of the most compelling characters. "Part of the beauty of Link is that, even in the newest installment, Skyward Sword, he doesn't speak. His voice is your internal voice. That's how you become immersed in a game. You are that character."
Tapping into the nostalgic well in a way that appeases the hearts of those gamers with an eye for aesthetics created viral success in short time.
"I knew 'Magical Game Time' was really working the first time I completely sold out a run of prints and not one of them was bought by a friend or family member," Gorman says, laughing.
Not that there needs to be a clear distinction, but it's hard to define the line where Gorman's "Magical Game Time" stops being an art project and becomes a business. The man behind it all surmises it's a bit of both, and still evolving.
"It's a brand, but it's also just a home for my comics that relate to video games. Prints of which I definitely do sell. Art prints, screen prints, T-shirts. And I'm expanding the store. I don't know. I have fun doing it."
Gorman says he plans on ramping up the amount of work he's putting into "Magical Game Time" in 2012. "I think this first year was a real learning experience, just feeling things out. I never had to run a small business before; I've never had to be responsible for delivering a product to a client. That was very new. Now that I'm a bit more comfortable, I'll have the time and energy to spend creatively on making new content."
Content, he says, may or may not include his first attempt at a graphic novel.
Throughout all that's happened in the past year, the role — heck, the brute yet unpredictable power — that social media has had on his recent success isn't lost on him. He knows he's a good artist. He's found that confidence. But he's no fool. He's also found a sweet spot in the Web's nerd-based economy.
"What I'm doing right now wouldn't be possible without Tumblr and Twitter," he says. "Even if they're not always great at crediting the source, people on Tumblr know how to pass art around like nothing else I've seen. It's a great way to find new fans. Twitter's great to interact with them once we've found each other."
These relationships don't just always exist online, either. And for the better.
Gorman was recently invited to PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) West, a weekend-long gamer culture throwdown in Seattle. There, Gorman met up with other young artists he admires, guys like Cory Schmitz, a Seattle-by-way-of-Toronto 24-year-old artist whose work has found its way into games such as the immensely popular Uncharted series.
"I was able to hang out with these guys and crash on their floor through a friendship that was basically founded on Twitter," Gorman says.
Harnessing social media interactions to build a wider community of artist friends and art appreciators could be the secret for a lasting career for this witty, nostalgic nerd of an illustrator— more so than attempting to engineer the next gamer graphic meme anyway.
Gorman says he was surprised by the contagiousness of his simple and silly Sonic illustration, calling it an afterthought drawing.
"I really never expected it to take off like it did, he says. "Even Sega commented about it on their Facebook page.
"You really can't purposefully design viral things," he adds.
"It's not really about the artist, as much as it is a community that wants to play with the artist's idea. I'm not trying to get hung up on how many Twitter and Tumblr followers I have or how many page views I'm getting. Those are false markers. For me success is found in doing what I love to do — and being able to pay my bills doing it. Some people want to win awards. Others get off on collecting social media followers. For me, it's really just about making a living."