Saturday, April 30, 2011

Interview: Josh Uitvlugt of Just Add Water, Part 1 of 2

As you can probably guess, I'm a big fan of both webcomics and science fiction.  A little while ago, I was able to interview my friend and fellow student Josh Uitvlugt, creator of the science fiction webcomic Just Add Water, which updates Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Josh was kind enough to provide us with an introduction:
"My name is Josh Uitvlugt, and I am the author of a webcomic called 'Just Add Water'.  I am having a lot of fun doing the comic, and it acts as a great outlet for the creativity that I am proud to have.  I am an engineer, and while that may conjure up ideas about people with a rigid application of rules and mathematics, engineering requires more creative input than almost any other occupation.  Creative problem solving is the very basis of engineering, and it is what defines me as a person.  I like to feel that the insight that I have to offer contributes to the world around me, and I hope that this interview will convince you that I can be an interesting person."
 Do to the interview's length, it will be posted in two parts.  In this installment, Josh discusses the creation of the comic, the characters, the many uses of paperclips, coffee versus tea, the evil mechanisms of squirrels, and his own thoughts on how science and science fiction should interact.

With out further ado, part one of the interview:

S: So, let's start with the really obvious question to start this with: what inspired you to start a webcomic?

J: Well, a lot of it is I sort of doodle around a lot during classes and I like to draw things a lot and I like to think that I'm kind of a funny person and I often have weird thoughts about things that are funny, but I don't really have a way to tell everybody else about them.  It's like, "hey, yeah, I just had this weird thought about this thing and it's hilarious and this is what it is," and people are just like, "Okay.  Cool story, bro." Comics give me a chance to "hey, I had this funny thought" and now I can sit down and think about how to communicate it well enough.  Also, part of it is just sort of a thing to do.  I dunno, it's sort of made a little bit out of boredom.  I have lots of free time, I might as well do some cool, comicky-internety-thing.  That's sort of how it got started.

S: So would you say it's like a hobby?

J: It's kind of like a hobby, yeah.

S: How much planning did you put into the comic before going live with it?

J: I actually did quite a bit.  I was sort of playing.  I had the idea about "hey, maybe I should start a webcomic" sometime during Fall Semester last year, so I was  just like doing doodles and stuff and I finally started doing it.  I was just slowly drawing characters and stuff and deciding that I would start it in the summer, so I did put a significant amount of thought into it; mostly it was just drawing sketches of what the characters might look like and stuff like what the format would end up being.  Most of the characters didn't change super much, like, Ben was pretty much always goofy like how he is now and Sam didn't change super-much, but Katie started out a completely different person, with a weird shaped head.  I didn't think that that-- I don't know-- I changed her into into like a klutzy, Canadian person that's sort of like a comic-relief person.  She's amusing.

S: As it is, she's probably the most normal character of them all.

J: Yeah.  But that's just because, it's fun to make fun of her because she's Canadian.

S: [laughs]

J: Also, like, Frank went through a couple things.  He was originally gonna be like this crazy, creepy old guy, like with a big, skeletal head and long, creepy fingers, but I changed him into an actual awesome person.

S: From Grand Moff Tarkin to Indiana Jones?

J: Yeah, pretty much.  He wasn't going to so much creepy as crazy.  He was just gonna be completely insane, but I made him less insane and more awesome just because that's more interesting, I think.

S:  Yeah.  With... I guess this would be the style of the comic, it starts off seeming like it was gonna be relatively slice-of-life, kind of about people going to college and, oh, they make things blow-up, but they're still just going to college, and then rapidly it... ascends into insanity and science fiction.  Did you have that planned all along, or was that something that just kind of happened?

J: Yeah, I think I've always sort of been planning to do it sci-fi-y, it's just the beginning was sort of to establish the characters and that kind of thing.  The point of it is, it's a group of four really nerdy people, and how I'm going to do it in the future is they're in the storyline right now it's near the end and once I wrap that up, on the site header it says "Just Add Water: Lost In Time."  That's the name of the story right now, and once that's over the logo's going to turn normal.  I guess... since it started black-and white, I'm gonna do a color of the logo and do that, but there's going to be other short storyline things.  This one, it's probably drawn out a little longer than I would like, so I'm gonna make them shorter, and I didn't do an astonishing amount of planning fore how the plot's going before I started on the story, so the other ones I'll do more planning on how the plots go and that kind of thing, but I'm sort of imagining it to be kind of like an episodic structure, sort of like "Star Trek," where they're doing normal things and then all of a sudden, whoa! This weird stuff happens and now we're going on an adventure!  And then they solve it and everything goes back to normal or whatever.  Usually, in those kind of adventures people will get new things or learn stuff about people kinds of things.

S: Yeah, there will be character development, it will just be episodic.

J: Uh huh.  I've sort of got ideas for other stories.  One has a time loop where they're doing stuff and then they die at the end and then they start over.  Um... I'm planning like a zombie story, just 'cause, zombies are awesome.  And things like that.

S: Will there ever be a story where the other three characters go inside Katie's imaginary world?

J: There might be at some point.  I mean, they're sort of, because they have projections of them, there, but I haven't really decided how that world is going to relate to reality.  She goes there and she's conscious of being there and she remembers it afterwards, but it's still sort of just a weird dream/hallucination world that only she sees.  It's not really that real, it's just a weird hallucination thing, so there might be a long storyline there, but it would probably only happen in her head.  It's an interesting place.

S: Yep.  So, what inspired your characters?  Frank is pretty clearly inspired at least in part by Indiana Jones.  Were there any other people or characters that inspired any of your other characters or..?

J: I've... well, with Ben and Charlie, at least, I try to make them sort of modeled after me a little bit.  Ben's the engineer with curly hair and cargo pants and I usually wear cargo pants and I have really curly hair, and Charlie's this little skinny guy who plays computer games and is totally nerdy and that's like me, but the other people aren't really modeled after anybody else.  I mean, Sam is sort of modeled after my sister a little bit, but, I don't know... my sister isn't quite as like... well, maybe she is a little as, like... I don't know how to describe it...

S: Spastic?

J: I'm thinking "sisterly".

S: [laughs]

J: "Sisterly" I don't think actually means anything, but sisters will say embarrassing, awkward things and act silly around their brothers.  My sister and I tend to act weirder around each other than we usually do around other people, so that's kind of the model for that relationship there.

S: Yeah, my brother and I do that.  That's probably a normal sibling thing.

J: Mm hmm.  "Sibling-ly." I think I used that word, maybe.  In the comic.

S: "Look at them being all sibling-ly on the moon."

J: Yeah, that.

S: If your characters were animals, what would they be and why?

J: Oo... that's an interesting one.  Um... I think... I dunno. Katie would probably be like a beaver, because that's like the Canadian thing.  They're sort of like a weird, awkward thing, but-- Beavers are real smart animals, but they just look weird and awkward.  Katie is smart, but she's weird and awkward, so...  I could probably just randomly assign some animal to the other people and find some connections, but... I don't know, maybe Ben is like a badger, because in my mind badgers are still connected to Redwall badgers, these big things.  He's like a big guy, and he's good with his hands and stuff, and weren't they smiths or something?

S: I don't know, my first mental connection to badgers is Trufflehunter from the Chronicles of Narmia.  A little bit different there.

J: Well, I don't remember.  I think they made some fancy swords or something in those books.  I read those really long ago, but he's... I don't know if badgers are necessarily prepared for every situation, but he just has those magic pockets that any amount of stuff can fit in... I don't know, I doubt he has magic pants, but...

S: Cargo pants.  That's what they do.

J: Cargo pants.  They hold lots of stuff, but not an infinite amount of stuff.  But, yeah.  He's just a rather big guy that if you just look at his appearance--- I don't know, maybe the glasses make him look like a big smart person, but usually someone who has wide shoulders and big, hairy arms, you don't immediately associate that with a nerdy physique, which is sort of why he has freckles and scraggly facial hair and, like...

S: Giant glasses?

J: Giant glasses.  But I think that once they get back to civilization and aren't time-traveling anymore he's probably going to shave more regularly, 'cause it's inconvenient and gross to have scraggly facial hair.

S: He could just grow out a beard.

J: I don't want him to have a beard.  I don't think he's a beard kind of person.

S: Yeah, that would look kind of odd.

J: It would probably make him look a lot older.  In the comic he's like twenty-four, twenty-five or something.  I don't know.  You can have a beard at that young, but it makes you look forty or something.  I don't want him looking like an old guy.  Um... let's see... Charlie might be some kind of turtle--

S: [laughs]

J: --because he's just this weird looking guy with sort of a narrowy face and a weird beard thing-- I dunno, I don't think that turtles really have those beard-- Maybe it's like a-- I don't know, he's not like a big ugly snapping turtle.  They have these... I guess that's on their tongue.  It's like this appendage thing.

S: So the line thing Charlie has is a beard?

J: It's a little beard-thing, I don't know what that's called...

S: A something-patch?

J: A soul-patch or whatever.

S: Oh, I've been trying to figure that out...

J: Sometimes, the thing sticks below his chin, but, a lot of things with appearances started, like, with Charlie's hair I actually started off by just drawing a bunch of weird parallel lines and I didn't really imagine what actual, real-world hair-do would fit along with that.  So, I've decided once I've started coloring it that he's gonna be a Chinese guy, so once everybody comes back to civilization and he has hair again, I'm gonna make his hair like that short, spiky Chinese style hair.  It's straight, short, stiff hair that sort of sticks out in all directions.

S: Was that really common when you went to China?

J: Yeah, yeah, a lot of people had that.  A lot of them also had it a little longer so that it was combed, but that short hair that is short enough that it's sticking in all directions but is still a whole kind of thing was pretty common, too.  Let's see... I think Sam would probably have to be some kind of rodent.  She's like... perky and excited.  She's clever--

S: A squirrel?

J: I hate squirrels.  Squirrels aren't--

S: Chipmunk?

J: Chipmunk... Maybe more squirrel.  Squirrels are really smart.  I mean, I hate squirrels.  I don't really like them because they, like, they stuff...

S: They scheme.

J: They scheme. They're evil little rodents.  Are they rodents?  I think they're rodents... But they're real smart, but they're evil smart.  They're like evil geniuses of the rodent world.  I think it would be really cool to have a nice, trained squirrel that does whatever you want.  I don't know if they're actually smart enough to be trained, but...

S: Yeah, they seem like they could be domesticated.

J: If you had one that's trained sit on your arm, you could just be like, "Hey! Go pick up that thing!" and it'd scamper over and--

S: Like trained monkeys.

J: Yeah, because they're real agile and they can, like, climb up brick walls and things.

S: They secretly rule the campus.

J: Yeah they do, actually.  There's squirrels that I've seen that have been here the entire time that I've been here.  One just looks distinctive because it's got like missing patches of fur.  The squirrels will even stick to the same area.  That one lives out in front of [a residence hall] and I haven't seen any living over here, but usually when I go out that direction I can see him just on the ground.  It's just interesting.  Big, fat, lazy squirrels all over the place here.

S: It's probably the secret God-father of the squirrels.

J: Uh huh, yeah.

S: Now, Ben and Charlie are both kind of based on you, but which character do you most identify with?  Would that be Ben?

J: Probably Ben, yeah.  He's an engineer and I'm an engineer and his main thing is that he's always got lots of gadgets and thinks on his feet. I don't know if I've shown this, but he likes to mess with things and has lots of ideas all the time and I actually do have paperclips in my wallet.  I don't have all the other stuff, but...

S: In case you need to McGuyver something?

J: Paperclips are useful.  I actually dis need to use a paperclip recently from my wallet for a purpose paperclips are not originally intended for.

S: ...was it legal?

J: It was legal, yeah.  I have an art class and I was scratching off parts of the cover so I could etch my name into piece so I could use that and that worked.  I think that I'm the most like him just because I've just tried to make him like, "Oh, in this situation what would I do?  I'll make him do that."

S: Do any of your characters drink coffee?

J: I think so.  I think that Charlie does.

S: He seems like he's always on caffeine.

J: Yeah, he's a Computer Science guy.  I guess he's modeled after Brad a little bit.

S: He even looks a bit like Brad.

J: Yeah, I guess.  He's short and stuff, but I think most of the characters probably drink coffee except for Ben, who's adamantly against coffee and for tea, like me.  I think Charlie probably drinks coffee regularly and Sam and Katie probably don't drink it all the time, but they'll drink either tea or coffee if it presents itself.  They don't really have that much of a preference.  Probably they'll drink coffee more because it's easier?  Maybe? I don't know if making a pot of coffee's easier.  You probably need more equipment, but...

S: It kind of depends.  Sometimes a cup of tea is just way easier.

One of Josh's many teapots
J: That's probably how they decide.  "Meh.  I'm too lazy to make a pot of coffee, so I'll have some tea" kind of thing, but Ben drinks tea all the time, but he won't drink coffee because coffee's gross, which is kind of how I feel about it.  If I wanted something that tasted like burnt bleach I would realize that it's a stupid idea and then not have it.

S: Is Sheldon secretly an alien spy from a planet of tiny, turtle-like creatures?

J: No, he's just an angry turtle who doesn't like being picked up very much.  He's just a turtle.  There's nothing special about him.  Ben found him on the road at some point and he just put him in a box.  Ben doesn't approve of the name "Sheldon," because it's a dumb pun and he doesn't like dumb puns.  And neither do I.  I usually try to avoid putting dumb puns as the punchline.

S: Somehow I think it's less bad than "Michelle" would be.

J: Yeah, I guess because it is a male turtle, but "Sheldon" is much more immediately obvious than "Michelle."  It's even sort of spelled the same.I mean, it doesn't have enough L's, but "Michelle" has all these weird other letters in there.

S: Like a C?

J: Yeah, that.

S: Do you think that you're being an engineering student has effected the comic?

J: I think so.  When I'm writing plot-y things I have them do something that involves science and the the science behind it and I'm not like, "Oh, I'll do things and then just leave it unexplained."  If I saw it and then this weird thing happened, I'd be like, "huh?  Why's it doing that?" so I feel like I have to sort of explain the science behind it.  That just make it a little more interesting to me.  If it's just this weird "Oh, it's Science Fiction so we can do whatever we want!" then it doesn't really work.  I think science fiction is better if it can sort of explain itself.  I don;t really like the idea of "oh, this is some obscure scientific principle that no one really knows anything about," but it's an actual scientific principle that they're using wrong.

S: Like having someone play a symphony on string theory?

J: I don't really know what that means, but...

S: Somehow incorporate real science into the explanation?

J: Yes, somehow use real science, like tachyons or whatever.  I don't know if tachyons are real science, but science fiction shows use those a lot to do time-travely things or weird things like faster than light travel.  That kind of dumb stuff.  I think it's better usually to make up some science-y thing and sort of explain it but not really explain how it exactly works, like...

S: Techno-babble?

J: Sort of.  Not really techno-babble that's indecipherable, but like in Mass Effect, they have faster-than-light travel and they sort of explain it by there's this special magic element and you pass electricity through it and it generates either a increased mass  field or a decreased mass field, so you can reduce the mass of something to zero or you can do weird things that project a field of negative mass around something and distorts the local speed of light, or whatever.  They made up a complete science and they get to decide how it interacts with the universe.  Like, how the time machine that [my characters] have works is that there's this little hand held device that's got two power core things in it.  It's got a Time Core, which has a main function of teleportation and time travel and it's got another core that does everything else.  It's the kind of thing where it has a Time Core and that's how I'm explaining it as be able to time travel, but I'm not really explaining what that is or what that means.  I think having a time machine and saying, "Oh, this has a Time Core in it and that lets you do funny time stuff" but not explaining how that works is better than us having a time machine and accepting that it's a time machine, it works.  It does time machine stuff.  Or even worse: trying to fully explain how a time machine works with modern science, which modern science cannot possibly explain.  You just have to do it correctly there.  Also, the alien's probably a lot more humanoid than any actual alien intelligence would be.  I think if there was a real alien intelligent being that come into contact with Earth, we would see it and it wouldn't look like something that could possibly be intelligent.  It's the kind of thing that would be so alien that we just can't imagine what it would actually look like.  It probably wouldn't even have the same body chemistry, it's almost certain that it wouldn't breathe the same air.

That's it for now!  Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion!  In the meantime, "Just Add Water" updates Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at  Go check it out!

Edit:  Part 2 is now up!


  1. But that's perfectly clear! :P Yeah, Stargate does use techno-babble to the point that they mock themselves for it, but I would say that they make-up and explain the basic idea of how things work, like "The Stargate generates a wormhole to another Stargate that you dial with this device."