How to Make a Philosophy Comic: An Interview with the Existential Comics Guy

Existential Comics is a philosophy comic about, well, mostly Existentialism.  Founded in December of 2013, it has since become a traffic behemoth drawing in over a million readers. It’s Facebook following alone has quickly surpassed that of most other philosophy websites, including Critical-Theory.

The comic is the work of 29-year-old Corey Mohler who, while currently unemployed, normally works in software. A Portland resident, he has no “proper” philosophy training – he majored in math in school – but is self-taught.

While Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus are predictable targets of the comic, it also regular features the likes of Karl Marx, analytic philosophers I won’t pretend to have heard of, Judith Butler and even Ayn Rand.

We reached out to Corey via email to discuss Existential Comics.

CT: When did you start making comics/drawing?

CM: I first learned how to draw by practicing drawing my D&D characters in high school. Some time in college I pretty much left it behind, and I never used any kind of comic style to begin with (the first comic is roughly how my high school art looked). So it was a lot of learning and rough patches at first as I learned how to draw in a comic style, as well as drawing digitally for the first time. Scott McCloud’s book on how comic are made was highly useful, and anyone looking to get into webcomics or comics in general who doesn’t have a ton of experience should definitely pick it up.

CT: When did you get the idea for Existential Comics?

CM: Essentially I wanted to write or do something, and I took a look around the internet and realized that if you want to be popular online you have to draw some shitty cartoons next to what you write. I figured I had enough drawing skill to pull it off, so I might as well start a webcomic. I got my tablet and started practicing and writing, but it took me about a year and a half before I published my first comic (so the project was first conceived about two years ago now). The first serious comics (“The Sniper” was also finished completely before I launched, although published it much later, due to it being very similar in theme to my first comic) took a long time to produce, but I’ve gotten much more efficient now,  and the art generally looks much nicer now. It was originally intended to be mostly serious comics with a few jokes thrown in, but it turns out jokes are much easier and more fun to make, so it ended up being the reverse.

CT: How fast is it growing? How many people read it every week?

CM: It has grown much faster than I thought it would. I get around 100k unique visitors a week, obviously depending on how popular the particular comic was that week, so sometimes much more. To be honest, when I started it I didn’t really think that many people would be interested in a philosophy webcomic. I figured there was a good reason why there were dozens of popular science/technology webcomics, and really no philosophy webcomics of note (Dead Philosophers in Heaven is of course great, but it’s not exactly hugely popular). Sometimes the product creates the market though, I guess.

CT: Did you have a “big break?”

CM: The comics got some traction right away, and my first comic is still fairly popular, but “The Germans Play Monopoly” was about 100 times more popular than anything else at the time. I had almost a million unique hits in a single day (melting my server), and my Facebook page went from 2k likes to something like 12k. When I originally thought of that joke, I searched online figuring that someone else would have certainly come up with Marx flipping a Monopoly board, but apparently not really. Before that comic, “The Adventures of Fallacy Man” also made a splash, however, so that was also a bit of a breakout comic.

CT: What’s been the response so far? Any notable fans?

CM: The response has been very positive so far, overall. A couple of fairly notable philosophers have shared the comic, such as Brian Lieter and Graham Oppy. I’m still waiting for David Chalmers to add me to his Philosophy Humor list. Come on! Not a philosopher, but I also was followed on Twitter briefly by Hikaru Nakamura (USA chess champion) which was exciting because I’ve been a fan of his for a long time. It was late at night, and I looked at his followers, he had about 170 and they were mostly chess people. In the morning he was no longer following me, and was in fact only now following about 25 people. So while I didn’t make a single tweet while he was following me, I still credit myself for him purging his Twitter list.

I did have one negative comment early on that was bemoaning how “overrated” my comic was (despite the fact I wasn’t really popular enough at the time to be rated at all). He said how first there were the terrible, overrated comics such as xkcd and smbc, and now there was my comic! It has inadvertently been pretty much best compliment I’ve gotten so far, since xkcd and smbc are two of the highest quality comics on the internet, in my opinion. So to be put in the same “overrated” class as them would be quite an honor.

CT: What’s the most popular comic to date?

CM: “The Germans Play Monopoly” is the most popular, with” World Cup Philosophy” very close behind it. Everything else is miles below those two.

CT: What’s your creative process like?

CM: I don’t know, I don’t do much special. I think of general ideas fairly randomly, and jot them down on my phone. Later I go through them and decide which one I to use that week, and from there it is usually pretty straightforward to write. The writing for the joke comics is usually done very quickly. The idea I go with has usually been sitting in the queue, so to speak, for several weeks, so I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do with it. For the serious comics, the writing is much more stretched out, as I try to refine it over a fairly long period of time. So far, all four of the serious comics were conceived prior to the launch of the website, and I have one more that I’m (very slowly) working on now that has also been hanging around since the start. The art itself is usually pretty straightforward, and just has to be done, essentially. I usually don’t get too creative with the panels or mess around too much, I just lay it out and proceed to work on it.

CT: Who would you consider your most influential philosopher?

CM: Although I don’t consider him a very important philosopher in the grand scheme of things, for me it is Jean Paul Sartre. There is a reason the comic was called “Existential Comics” and for me Existentialism is synonymous with Sartre. At the end of the day, the most important philosophy will always be how to best live your life, and for me Sartre has the best grasp on that. That being said, I obviously have a wide range of interest regarding philosophy, I certainly don’t just read existentialism. As of right now, Wittgenstein, Russell, Kant, and Hobbes have all appeared in the most comics, with four appearances each (if you look on the archive page you can see which philosophers are in which comics). I’ve had  46 total philosophers appear, with just 37 comics published.

CT: What’s your plan for the future?

CM: No big plans, really. I will be offering some merchandise soon, since that’s apparently how webcomics make all their money. At some point I’d certainly like to publish a collection, or maybe even write something new just for a book. As of right now I don’t think I really have enough comics to fill a book though, so we’ll see.

CT: Any other side projects?

CM: As of right now, no. I’ve toyed with the idea of getting back into a game development side project, as many programmers do when they have some time off. Since I have a bit of a brand I would certainly try to tie it back to philosophy somehow. I’ve been thinking about a web game based on the Trolley Problem, where you try to avoid (or not avoid!) as many people as possible, but I wouldn’t hold your breath, since I haven’t even started.