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'User Friendly' Cartoonist J.D. 'Illiad' Frazer at The Bazaar

Dec 21, 1999, 04:34 (8 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Emmett Plant)

By Emmett Plant
Editor, LinuxToday

J.D. Frazer is not known for Open Source development. He is also not known for releasing enterprise solutions. J.D. Frazer is not known for speaking at conferences world-wide about the Open Source community, or running seminars for businessmen about using Linux in their businesses. J.D. Frazer is charged with the responsibility of making the Open Source community laugh at others, or most commonly, ourselves.

J.D., or as he's more commonly known, 'Illiad,' is the artist and writer of a daily comic strip called 'User Friendly,' which chronicles the lives and employees at Columbia Internet, a fictitious Internet Service Provider in Canada. His site, userfriendly.org, racks up about nine million page views a month. His fans, called 'UFies,' are voracious in their reading and their propagation of the comic. His fans range from ISP technical support personnel to high-tech high rollers from all four corners of the Earth.

The comic strip deals with all things geeky: from Star Wars to Quake competitions; from tales of insane technical support work to the competition between Linux and BSD and MacOS and any number of other operating systems. The UserFriendly fan base has supported their comic strip by buying a lot of T-shirts and merchandise and most recently a book published by O'Reilly and Associates, a publishing house much better known for their 'nutshell' books and animal-themed covers. This gives just a tiny inkling of where UserFriendly's audience lies.

I got to interview J.D. 'Illiad' Frazer in the aftermath of The Bazaar, the Open Source conference held in New York City December 14-16, 1999. Hopefully, this interview will give you a little insight into one of the most unassuming and influential characters in the Open Source world.

So, how old are you?

"Old enough to know better, young enough not to care. You can say early thirties."

How do you explain the monstrosity that is your work?

"Well, the cartoon strip happens to appeal to the best-connected demographic on the net, and because they are the best-connected on the net, they have the resources to propagate things they love among themselves. Have you ever played the game Life, where it explodes on its own? Same kind of thing. It's really a tell-two-people, they tell-two friends thing, and it goes on forever."

Boxers or briefs?

"Depends on the temperature."

I've noticed a steady stream of groupies everytime you're around...

"I wouldn't call them groupies. Rock stars have groupies, cartoonists have fans. There's a not-too-subtle difference between the two. If you can't figure out [the difference], you're beyond my help."

Are you surprised by the popularity?

"Enormously. I am astonished by something new just about every day about the audience and the popularity."

O'Reilly isn't usually in the business of publishing comic books. What do you think the decision to publish a UserFriendly book was based on?

"The popularity of the comic strip itself, especially in the Open Source community, which O'Reilly has become a major proponent for."

How does Linux affect the strip?

"The cartoon strip doesn't deal with technical issues in the sense that it doesn't tackle anything; The cartoon strips focuses on the social aspects of the Open Source community, which includes Linux, BSD, Open Source, BeOS, Windows, etc. So, Linux affects the comic strip in its evolution and daily impact on the community that surrounds it. I try to keep the cartoon strip topical."

What operating systems do you use on a daily basis?

"Linux, BeOS and Windows. I use Linux to IRC, get mail, webbrowsing and writing. I use BeOS for a lot of illustration and multimedia work. I use Windows for games and for now, some illustration work. When Adobe ports Photoshop and Illustrator to Linux, the only reason for me to still use Windows will be games.

What did you think you would be doing at this point in your life?

"I figured I'd be working as a creative director or a project manager for a high-tech company."

In a way, you are.

"Yes, I am. Creative director, anyway."

From books to T-shirts to Christmas tree ornaments, people can't get enough UserFriendly stuff. What's new on the merchandising front?"

"So far, we've been introducing a new item once a month or once every couple months. What we plan to do in the year 2000 is introduce one or two new items a month. This will come about either with current efforts, or alternatively with a large merchandising firm. We haven't decided which yet."

What did you think about The Bazaar?

"Well, I'll be honest and say that I only saw small parts of it, because I was only on the show floor for about three hours. All those three hours were spent signing books and T-shirts for fans. So, with the window I had left of my time to examine The Bazaar, I think the organizers have learned a few lessons. They probably need stronger marketing, and the timing for the show wasn't the greatest."

Where do you see the staff of [fictional ISP] Columbia Internet in a year?

"Oh, they'll probably all be rich because the Chief will IPO Columbia Internet, even though the company is still losing money. Judging from Amazon.com, that's the way it works, doesn't it?"

Time Magazine selected Jeff Bezos from Amazon as Man Of The Year, you know. If you could pick a person for Man Of The Year, who would it it be?

"Good question. Let me think about it for about 30 seconds. Hmm. We're basically talking about Western civilization, right?"

Anyone you want.

"Jar Jar Binks. No, wait. Darth Maul."


"He's cool."

Other than the Open Source community, what else inspires your work?

"Man's inhumanity to man. Just watch a group of tech support workers, and you'll see what I mean inside of fifteen minutes."

What's your personal worst tech support experience?

"Alright. Customer calls me up, explains to me what the problem is, which basically amounted to them not understanding what was going on with their machine. Then for the next ten minutes, they explained to me how they were going to fix it. I couldn't get in a word edgewise, other than the occasional 'um' and 'er', and then they hung up."

It's no secret that the CEO of the fictional 'Columbia Internet' is based on UserFriendly CEO Barry Carlson. Tell me how people you know get into the strip.

"I go by the axiom that the best humor has a grain of truth in it. So, developing storylines and jokes for the cartoon strip is a pretty simple process. All I need to do is pay close attention to what people are saying and doing everyday. More often than not, they'll come up with something funny. That's it."

You must be having a bunch of fun.

"I do, when I'm not thinking about work. There's actually an enormous amount of work going on behind the scenes at UserFriendly, and these developments will come to light in the new year."

What do you feel about the title 'cartoonist?'

"It's a title, like any other, and it means absolutely nothing."

Who are your biggest influences?

"In order, Berke Breathed, Garry Trudeau, Bill Watterson."

What's your take on Open Source software? I mean, the characters in the strip are pretty solidly Pro- Open Source.

"My take is real simple. I like Open Source because it allows for rapid development, and generally it produces software with the purist of motivations. Having coders work on something they love means you're going to have a product that is orders of magnitude better than one that coders aren't in love with."


"Where there is light, there must be shadow."

That's pretty cryptic.

"Mm-hmm. If you think about it, it could mean a million different things."

Occasionally, real-life people make it into the strip. Has any real person you've used in the strip taken offense?

"I haven't had any documents served on me, so no, I don't think so."

Where would you like to be in five years?


The cool thing about conducting interviews is that I get to ask job-interview questions; here's one for you. If you were a vehicle, what would you be?

"You mean a land-bound vehicle?


"I'd be an M-1 Abrams tank, because you can run over bad people and blow stuff up."

What do you like to do in your offtime?

"I write, I game, I read, I go long-distance running. Those are the big ones."

Do you consider yourself a geek?

"Yes, because I have a deep curiosity about a great many things."

Do you watch much television?

"No. When I do, I watch Law and Order, wildlife documentaries, and I spent a lot of time on the history channel."

Tell me about where you live, and how it impacts your work.

"Vancouver, British Columbia. Quite possibly the most beautiful city in the world. It doesn't impact the content of my work, but it does impact the way I work, because I have the luxury of leaving the environs of the city, travelling for about an hour and I'm into green wilderness, and that's when I need to recharge."

Thanks for talking to us, J.D., and we wish you and UserFriendly all the luck in its coming endeavours!