Saying Goodbye to the Brick House – Part 1
I’ll likely be working up the final strip or two over this weekend, but there’s enough interest in my decision to close the book on Brick House to merit an early blog posting or two. This first post is a retrospective on the Brick House – a bit of its history and how things progressed behind the scenes.
I started the comic over seven years ago, back in September of 2006. I didn’t really have any idea what I was doing. My site was already pretty popular thanks to the Mini-mizers and LEGO creations, and I wanted to try something new. There weren’t many big brick-built comics out there, and I thought maybe I could carve a niche for myself. I mean, why not?
I was inspired by the comics I grew up with – Bloom County for its amazing writing and lack of fourth wall. For Better or For Worse for the slice-of-life characters. Calvin and Hobbes taught me that a comic could be smart and meaningful and still funny. I was also inspired by the ones that didn’t impress me. I remember being very down on Ziggy, for example; surely I could write something funnier than that.
I was also inspired by my contemporaries – Legostar Galactica’s polished format, great MOCs and commitment to story gave me a goalpost to aim for. Irregular Webcomic fit the smart-and-funny angle, and its readership was something for me to envy. I really liked the story structure and layout of Order of the Stick. And while not LEGO based, XKCD was (and remains) my personal gold-standard for what a web-comic could be.
I’ve always been a big fan of pop culture, so my first idea was to parody the “Real World” style quasi-reality shows that MTV was producing. I planned to fill a house – a Brick House – with LEGO versions of movie and TV characters, including seventeen versions of Kevin Bacon (each based on a different movie role of his). I built the house for them to live in, and started trying to write up some sort of pilot episode.
I still wonder how that idea might have worked out. But, in the end, I decided I wanted to tell my own stories and not rely on other people’s creations and characters to populate my world. I knew I’d end up using pop-culture characters at some point, but I wanted them on the periphery as much as possible. So I started again, creating a cast that I could call my own.
I’m pretty sure Whiskey was the first to really gel. I wanted to put a “WTF” joke into the strip at the core, but I couldn’t use “Whiskey T. Foxtrot” because it felt like I was creating a false link to Amend’s Foxtrot comic. So he became “Whiskey Tango.”
Scotch was named to continue the boozy naming convention. I don’t remember why I decided he should be a frog. I think that was probably a Calvin and Hobbes trope – a boy and his frog instead of a boy and his tiger. Scotch was intended to provide an outsider’s perspective on things, a character trait that never really manifested as much as I thought it might.
Luka was named and created purely for the Suzanne Vega reference. I’m sure there’s a reason Donut got his name, but I don’t remember that either.
My initial plotting was focused around the Cola Wars. I wanted that to be the background story arc that carried Whiskey and Scotch through their other adventures. I had also worked out the one-step-back story arc of Scotch’s history as the root cause of everything. I didn’t have a lot of individual strips planned; my storytelling style has always been pretty improvisational in nature, and I knew that plotting to that level would just be wasted as the story moved itself in new directions.
“World Building” is a pretty apt turn of phrase for LEGO-based comics. After a few days I had enough set dressing to start putting actual comics together. I was using Paint Shop Pro at the time, a software package I had learned to use at my day job. It was free, and that price point worked well for me.
Those early strips were very ambitious, and I think they’ve held up very well. There was no story too big, no MOC that I couldn’t put together. I had time, energy, and something new to do.
And that early NRE (new relationship energy) lasted for a good long while. The cast of characters expanded rapidly, the story grew ever more complex, and slowly my readership started to grow.
Looking back, I was making some mistakes that would lead to the strip’s eventual crash and burn. I kept introducing new characters and plots left and right. While this made my world more real and interesting to me, it also meant that soon there was no way I could keep everyone and everything in focus. I started out telling Scotch’s story, and I ended up writing for a “core” cast that would make 1995’s X-Men roster feel inadequate.
And that, I think, is the core reason I was never able to make this comic a popular success. The comic didn’t fit a “joke of the day” format that could be easily passed around – you had to know what had happened in the hundreds of previous strips for context. New readers just didn’t have the motivation (or time) to do that sort of archive binge. As a result, the fans I did have were very loyal and devoted – but it wasn’t a rapidly expanding pool. I think at its peak Brick House had a readership of 2500 or so. That’s pretty respectable, but not nearly what I thought I could do when I started this.
Meanwhile, I continued to have responsibilities outside of the Brick House. I had an increasingly stressful day job, family health issues, and a far too complex personal life. By 2010 I was in a pretty rough place, and things were continuing to go downhill. This was reflected in the strip in subtle and obvious ways. The jokes got darker; the plot was either ham-handedly forced or abandoned completely. The lush backgrounds and set pieces vanished as I relied more and more on the stuff I had built early on.
I think you can see it most clearly with the way Whiskey’s relationship to the Doyle-avatar developed. Whiskey started to speak in the frustrated voice I imagined my readers to have – always disappointed with the unfulfilled potential of the comic and, by extension, with me. Whiskey would berate me: “Things could be better, and they should be better and why aren’t they better?”
I never had a good answer for him.
But I kept trying with the Brick House. I took a page from mainstream comics and tried rebooting my universe, tried to refocus the story on neglected characters and story arcs. I changed the strip’s format, tried mini-hiatuses, slowed the frequency down to a few times a week. I took things in new directions, throwing things at the fourth wall and hoping something, anything, would stick.
But things kept going downhill, both in the comic and in real life.
By the start of 2011 my “joke” end-of-the-strip arcs were becoming more and more frequent attempts to let myself get off this ride. But I’d always be pulled back in. I was disappointing my readers. I was disappointing myself. If I just tried harder I could bring in the new readers. If I just tried harder I could bring this sinking ship back to shore.
It wasn’t meant to be.
In Part 2 I’ll talk more about the past couple of years, and the final decision to let the Brick House go. In Part 3 I’ll talk about the envisioned fates of at least some of my cast of bajillions. If there’s something/someone in particular you’re curious about leave a comment to this post and I’ll try and answer it in Part 3.
Thanks for reading.