Allow him to illustrate
How Zac Gorman went viral
Published: January 11, 2012
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."
> Email Travis R. Wright