The Life Of A Comic-Book YouTuber: A Conversation With The Creators Of NerdSync And Comic Tropes

Comic Tropes and NerdSync, Two YouTube creators focused on comic-book and superhero history, give us an insight into their lives to find out what it's like to be superhero-focused video-creators.

Comic books. They fascinate us; excite us; capture our imaginations. They also have an intricate history, both in terms of the stories they tell and the people that created them. Their decades-long journey is filled with fascinating tales, many of which could sustain an entire documentary on their own. Comic-book documentaries aren't commonplace, but there is a promising alternative: YouTube creators. There are a select few individuals on the video-sharing platform that delve into the vast history of comics.

Two especially skilled at such a task are historian-style channels NerdSync, run by Scott Niswander (@scottniswander), and Comic Tropes, run by Chris Piers (@comic_tropes). NerdSync focuses on analyses of comic-book characters, storylines, superhero movies and TV shows, and obscure industry details. Comic Tropes, meanwhile, focuses on exploring the history of specific comic runs (including manga) and their respective creators, as well as on comparing comic-book-inspired television series and films to their source material. 

Making videos about comic books — a medium that's as much niche as it is mainstream — is a fascinating journey. To help viewers understand what it's like and what it entails, Niswander and Piers agreed to give us an insight into the lives of YouTube comic-book-focused creators.

Starting Out

Superman-Starting-Out

There usually isn't a straight trajectory to becoming a full-time YouTuber. Unlike careers like, say, psychology, medicine or law — which generally require a set study and professional path — people often make YouTube a profession following a series of very specific (and often random) circumstances. It was that type of fascinatingly tangled journey that led to the respective creations of NerdSync and Comic Tropes. Niswander, for example, began his video-creating journey in college. With special effects being his passion, he started making tutorials on the subject and its adjacent branches:

"[I] was in college at the time [for] film production, mostly. I was very much inspired by channels like Film Riot and Indy Mogul and Video Copilot. [...] I wanted to be a filmmaker. Not even like a director in any capacity; I just liked the visual-effects side of things. [...] So, [I would] team up with my friends [...] and I would make tutorials and videos about prop-making and sometimes cosplay, and [visual-effects]. [...] And those videos were somewhat successful."

Then, something changed. As he was making his tutorials, one of his favorite channels branched out into comics, which made him realize that there was a vacuum in comic-book coverage on YouTube — a vacuum he could help fill:

"[Film Riot] spun off to have a sister channel called [Variant Comics]. [I] was like, 'That's interesting. There really aren't that many comic-book YouTube channels.' [...] And I thought, 'Man, I'm such a big fan of comic books. I was raised on [them] and superheroes' — this would have been around 2012, 2013, where 'The Avengers' had come out, so superheroes were big. [...] And I just thought to myself, 'Well, maybe I can start talking about [them], because I know at least a little bit about it, and I'm passionate about it, and I like doing it.'"

And so, his first superhero-focused video became a Green Lantern one, after a friend asked him a question regarding the Emerald Knights' complex lore: "So, I load up my built-in webcam in my college dorm and I start talking about Green Lantern, because a friend of mine [had asked me], 'Well, how many Green Lanterns are there, even?' I was like, 'Good question! Let me answer that. If you have that question, I bet other people have that question.' So, I answered it in video form. [Before] I did that, [...] I had a channel called 'Scott's Thoughts,' or something, where I made little vlog-y-style [videos]. And I started doing the comic-book stuff on that channel as well. [...] And then, I was like, 'You know what? The comic-book videos are doing somewhat better than my other stuff, so maybe I'll just move those to another channel called NerdSync.'"

As mentioned, NerdSync delves into different areas of pop culture. Its versatile exploration of the entertainment landscape dates back to the channel's beginnings, given that Niswander strived to cover as many geek-related topics as possible. This, however, led to the channel initially being slightly unfocused:

"[The] idea of NerdSync was, 'It's not going to be about one thing. It's about all these different nerdy topics.' And so, we had our filmmaking-prop-tutorial-After Effects-stuff on there. We had these comic-book videos that I started to rebrand to 'Comic Misconceptions,' [...] and then we had gaming stuff. [...] It was just this very scattershot-of-content [YouTube channel]."

The channel ultimately found its stride, settling on primarily covering superheroes and comic books while also dipping into other nerdy areas, such as Pixar's strategies and Scooby-Doo's vast lore.

For Comic Tropes' Chris Piers, having worked in marketing, his career was not necessarily related to entertainment. Instead, comic books were a side passion for him, but one that ultimately led him to host a podcast and write about pop culture online:

"[I've] always had my day job, my career — marketing and stuff. But I had gotten into doing a weekly podcast with some friends about genre TV — sci-fi, fantasy; that kind of stuff. And it did pretty well. And then, eventually, I also started writing for a website. It's not up anymore, but every day, I would put up a couple articles. I wrote a lot about all sorts of nerdy stuff. So, each of those slowly exposed me to being a host and to doing research for topics, but neither was really monetized."

Piers eventually found himself out of a job, and the experience he gained in entertainment through writing and podcasting provided him with the tools to create a YouTube channel:

"[I] came to a point where I had moved across the country [for] a job, [and] it went well. After about three years, [they] downsized. I was out of a job. [...] And I said to myself, 'I need to be busy. Otherwise, my depression is really going to kick in. What's a project that I could take on for myself that would be fun, while I'm looking for my next job?’ And I said, 'Well, I love talking about comics.' But I didn't really want to do another podcast and I was already writing for the site. And I said, 'Well, YouTube. Maybe I can put myself out there as a host, and at some point, maybe even monetize that. That would be a nice long-term goal.' [...] Short-term, it was going to be a project that just kept me busy while I looked for my next job."

Having been a comic-book fan from a young age, he realized he could use his knowledge to kickstart a show discussing the history of the medium: "I knew that comics are something I'm very passionate about. Read them since I was young. A lot of information — I have no need aside from being a YouTube host for knowing this stuff, but it's just [in my head]. I just remember a lot of different creators and pieces of history. So, I knew that I'd have a lot of information that I could easily draw on to start the show."

Going into his first upload — a Chris Claremont-focused video — Piers didn't think much about it. He used his knowledge to produce a video that would eventually become a staple of his channel, and that would also give it its name:

"I don't think I put that much thought into the first video, to be honest. I just chose things that I knew fairly well. If I look back, [...] I would not produce the same show. But the first episode I did was just talking about how Chris Claremont writes, and how he uses a lot of the same catchphrases, and I literally thought, 'Well, if I just pick a random issue out of a back-issue bin, I bet I'll find a bunch of his writing-style techniques.' And I didn't even have a name for the show yet. [The name 'Comic Tropes'] came based on just that first episode. [...] And I really just pulled a book out of a bin, and there was no script or anything. [...] And slowly the show got a little more structured as it went on."

As time passed, Piers realized that focusing solely on comic tropes limited the scope of the content he could produce. As such, the name stuck, but the content evolved: "[At] a certain point, I realized, 'This sort of limits me. I've got things that I want to say about these creators.' [...] At a certain point, I did start writing full scripts. I sat down and I said, 'What do I have to say about this person?'"

His content has evolved so much from what it was before, that Piers at one point considered pulling down his early Comic Tropes videos from YouTube — not out of embarrassment, but out of a desire to make his channel more in line with what it is now content-wise.

Making YouTube a Full-Time Job

Jimmy-Olsen-Making-You-Tube-a-Full-Time-Job

Creating videos as a pastime or as an outlet to discuss one’s passions is one thing, but there usually comes a point in which the hobby — if worked consistently — gains traction, ultimately becoming a viable career path. For NerdSync, the journey toward that outcome began when his channel started seeing some growth:

"So, as I said, [...] I was doing all of this from my dorm room in college. [...] I was filming either on my webcam or on my phone, and just editing [on] iMovie or something. It was not very good. But I was having fun with it. So much fun that I stopped going to class, because I was so tired from staying up all night editing things that I would just sleep in. It's such a weird thing. When you have even the smallest following on the internet, you feel so dedicated to them. So, I had about 12 subscribers at the time, and I was like, 'I cannot miss a weekly upload. I always have to upload on [Wednesdays]'."

Ultimately, this led him to quit college. He still had student loans to take care of, so he opted to take a chance on YouTube based on the engagement he had achieved: "[I] was just dedicated to my YouTube channel so much that I failed out of [college]. And by 2014, I said, 'Well, this is it, then. I don't want to go to college, because I'm having so much fun doing this YouTube stuff. I don't remember how many subscribers I had around that point — it was more than 12, but still not very much. And I said to myself, 'I have six months until I have to start paying student loans, and I don't have a job, and I'm living with [my parents]. [...] Let's see what I can do.'"

Luckily, it didn’t take long for things to take off — Guardians of the Galaxy was approaching. In 2014, to tie into the film's growing public awareness, Niswander uploaded a video focused on the titular team's leader, Star-Lord. To his fortune, it gave him a jumping-off point for his eventual online success:

"[Around] month five was when 'Guardians of the Galaxy' was coming out, in 2014. And that was a movie about characters that no one really had heard of before, and I made a video about, 'Hey, who is Star-Lord?' [...] And that was my first viral video. [...] I think I've maybe had two or three viral videos over the nine years I've been doing this, but this was the first one and the most important one, because it shot me up to, I believe, over 100,000 subscribers, or close to. It still has over a million views, which is my first video to do that."

That's when he realized YouTube could be turned into a job: "[It] basically cemented that, 'Hey, I can start doing this full-time as my channel starts building up this momentum. And I've started earning money.'"

For Comic Tropes' Chris Piers, the realization that there was a career to be had on YouTube came similarly gradually:

"[Making YouTube videos] was not set out to be an income replacement or anything like that. And I figured, even if that happened, it was going to take a long time. It was primarily something that I could keep busy with that I cared about. I was just going to talk about something that I loved very much and share that with people. [...] And fortunately, I enjoy doing it. And the show has changed and evolved through the years a little bit, as I've [worked out], 'Okay, this works a little better as a show, or that works a little [better].' […] There have been minor adjustments through the years."

Piers now considers YouTube his full-time job, and is focused on growing his channel as much as possible. Still, he keeps a secondary option in his back pocket for any eventualities:

"[In 2021], I made the decision to go part-time at my job, just because I'm a very cautious person. Therefore, I consider YouTube my full-time job. I had originally made episodes weekly for, like, three and half years. I stuck to a very rigorous schedule. [...] But as time went on and the videos got a little bit [more] complex and [intricate], they began to take a little longer to make. [...] Long story short, a lot of [2021] and [2020] was more like I was only able to do an episode every two weeks, and [the growth of my channel] slowed way down. YouTube really rewards regularity. And I was like, 'I want to do better there, because I feel I haven't hit my cap yet.’ [...] So, basically, [I made] the decision to devote more time to YouTube and go part-time at work — and that's just in case."

The Work Process Behind a Video

She-Hulk-The-Work-Process-Behind-A-Video

Venturing into documentary-style video-creating is challenging mainly due to two factors: the researching and editing required. Comic books have been around for many decades, which means the information available for any given topic is a lot, and often laborious to sift through in order to deliver the most accurate information possible.

Piers' research process, for example, is intensive. He uses his decades-long comic-book knowledge as a basis for most of his videos, which he then supplements with interviews and any other types of information available to him:

"[My comic-book knowledge] still informs a lot of where I'm starting from. But I'm going to now do a fact-check on what I think I know. And I'm going to come across interviews and other research and be like, 'Is there anything else I need to supplement here to craft a narrative?' And I try to pick a specific way of looking at someone’s career."

His intent is to create a narrative built around specific points in time of the comic-book industry: "I don't want to just summarize the Wikipedia and list everything that [creators have] done, so much as find maybe a high point, or a low point, or when they changed a technique and why. Or something that informed the change. Or maybe something that was going on in the industry. So, [I want] to find a story, almost, when I pick a creator. [I'm] always at various stages of production on several episodes at once, because I'm always researching several potential ideas for topics. Just have lots of files on my computer of notes of where something could go. Or maybe an image or something that's important for me to remember to look into later."

Production-wise, the process is split into three stages — writing, recording and editing:

"[When] it comes time to the actual episode, that's something I craft within a week. I write a script, which usually takes a day or so. I record, which will take, for, like a 20-minute episode, [around] 45 to 50 minutes. [...] And then, editing takes a lot of time, because making a video about a comic book is so different than making an episode about a movie or TV show or a video game, where you can grab clips that are already created. In this, you have to take a static image of a page — I either have to scan that or buy a digital version that I can then start editing. [I use] a few scene transitions and cropping images to the right size, and that takes a lot of time. [...] [That takes] several days."

Niswander's research process is just as rigorous. As he explained, he is not a comic-book encyclopedia, but he is passionate about the medium, and most importantly, he is eager to learn about little-known topics to then relay that information to people interested in them:

"Something that I've always tried to distinguish is the difference between an expert and an enthusiast. I consider myself a comic-book and superhero enthusiast; I am not an expert. If you [ask me], 'Who wrote this comic back in 1984?' I'm just like, 'I don't know.' But, if that's an interesting question, then I'm going to dive into the Wikipedia and the many, many books that I have on my shelf to figure out anything that I think is an interesting question."

Niswander's excitement toward knowledge encourages him to tackle topics he is often not familiar with: "The thing that I do [now] is less about trying to take a question that I already know the answer [to], and instead ask questions that I don't know the answer to, and then try to turn that into a video about me trying to discover the answer."

Researching is a time-consuming process — one that he approaches carefully, especially after a mistake in a video about the 1943 Batman movie serials starring Lewis Wilson as Bruce Wayne and Douglas Croft as Dick Grayson:

"[It] certainly depends on the topic, but more often than not, [I have] a very big fear of getting stuff wrong. [...] I remember the very first time I got something big wrong on the internet [was] when I made a video about the old 'Batman' serials. [I] thought the serials [had aired] on television. But television was not commercially available to many people at the time; obviously, the serials aired in movie theaters. [...] But throughout the whole episode, [I] kept calling them, 'The "Batman" TV Serials.' And then, people were like, 'Scott, [the serials] were never on TV.' [...] And it was because a friend of mine, when he introduced me to the serials, had said they were TV serials, and in my head, I was like, 'Well, that makes sense to me.' And I never questioned it."

As Niswander explained, he began including sources in his video descriptions early on in his YouTube career. Since the Batman situation, however, he has put a special focus on avoiding factual mistakes or research gaps, so as to prevent his work from being discredited:

"There's a very famous line, 'What does it feel like to be wrong?' and the answer is, 'It feels like you're right,' because you don't know that you're wrong until somebody points it out. And that's how a lot of it feels to me. [...] And it sucks sometimes, because I can make the rest of the video as well-researched as I can [make it]. But then, I will get one thing wrong — maybe I'm pulling from a book that's outdated, or there's since been new interviews that have surfaced, [and] fans will say, 'Well, Scott got this wrong, so the rest of the entire video is also wrong.' And that kills me. [...] [That] really does force me to try and be as accurate as I can be. And to that end, I always put the sources in my video descriptions, if anyone's wondering, 'Where did you get this information?'"

As for the production process, Niswander is also very familiar with the struggle of coming up with a story for a video and bringing it to fruition. He breaks down his ideas before looking for a narrative that will make for an entertaining viewing experience: "It's different every time, depending on what I'm doing. [...] Normally, I attack it from a bullet-point perspective. And then, I will flesh out the bullet points into a full script, and I will cut stuff that doesn't work. [...] And then, I just try to create a [narrative]. [...] For a long time, my videos looked and felt the same. They had the same background music, they had the same [visual template], and I didn't really challenge that in any capacity. But then, from around 2018 forward, [I] tried to make my videos stand out as very different from one another. [...] I tried to tell a story. I tried to use props."

The narrative capabilities that props provide are particularly valuable to him. He equated documenting comic-book history to history classes, as he feels it's pivotal to craft a storyline in order to keep viewers connected to the content:

"I remember one of the first times I used a lot of props [was for] a video about the Marvel drama that created the Teen Titans. [...] Stuff like that, I felt was really fun to try and tell a story. Not just say, 'These are the events that [happened]'. [...] It's the difference between having a really terrible history teacher versus having a really cool history teacher. [...] [In school, the best history teachers] were the ones that would tell you a story. I mean, 'story' is in the word 'history.' So, when I'm telling these stories, [...] I want to weave a tale that's going to keep people interested in what they're listening to. So, set up the characters who are real-life people; set up the setting; the events. Establish how people might feel about those sorts of things. Not just that they did certain things, but why did they do them? And, what was going through their mind at the time? So, that's the biggest part of making a video. Trying to figure out how to weave a narrative that will keep people hooked."

For him, crafting storylines for videos is the most challenging part of the creative process: "Coming up with the narrative of the video is the hardest, most difficult thing. Everything else is much more time-consuming — the research, and the writing, and the filming and the editing. That stuff takes a long time, but I've gotten fairly decent at all of those that they're not as difficult as trying to come up with, 'What's the narrative through line of a video?'"

Budgets

Spider-Man-Budgets

Making videos is sometimes an investment, but it's up to the creator to economize as much as possible. For Comic Tropes, budgets tend to stay at a relatively reasonable level because Piers is quite frugal. Aside from the occasional expense, he's careful with the money he puts into videos:

"The only time I spend money — I guess, if you consider that I buy a comic or on the rare occasion I might buy a shirt or a mask if I think it's worth a laugh. But it's just done for nothing, basically. [...] [I'll] spend money when I need to, but I will keep in the back of my mind, 'Well, don't go nuts, Chris, because, how much are you going to even make off of this video?' [...] I don't use him a whole lot, but I've got a robot — sort of pretend [that] he's my sidekick. [...] [I made that out of] a cardboard box and [aluminum foil]. The only stuff I bought was for the arms. I used some ducts [that] you can get at Home Depot, but [they were] like, five bucks or something like that. So, no, I don't spend a whole lot making an episode. It's my time where I'm investing [something]."

Niswander, on the other hand, revealed that there are times in which he's had to spend somewhat significant amounts of money on some videos — mostly for books and props:

"[Every video] is different. So, sometimes I'll just have to buy books. [...] Depending on the specific topic, there might be a book that I buy just to read one sentence from it. I remember I bought the entire autobiography of Christopher Reeve — who played Superman — for a video that I did about Superman and nuclear weapons. And I bought that book. It wasn't available anywhere digitally, so I had to buy a physical copy of it from eBay or something, just to read one sentence where he says, 'The less said about "Superman IV," the better.' That's how in-depth I'll go with stuff. Sometimes I will spend like $20, $30 on a book just to get a couple sentences from it. [...] So, books are a huge one. [I've got] about two book shelves full books [that are] just about the history of comic books and sometimes not even history. There's science, and there's law, and there's [comic-books and superhero] essays [and] interviews, and things like that. [...] Those definitely add up. And then there's props. Like I said, depending on the video, I might invest in a lot of specific props. The 'Bob Ross' video is a really great example of having to buy all the paint supplies to make a painting that I never ended up showing on camera. [...] And it was a little expensive."

Another investment Niswander makes for videos is captions, which he considers pivotal due to their many benefits for viewers:  "[The] number-one thing that [I buy for every video] is captions, because I'm a very big accessibility-disability advocate. I think having captions is so vital to people who need them. [...] [It's also] super helpful in general to people who are learning [English]. [...] Or, just, if you're in a place where you don't have headphones, but you want to follow along with the video. [...] So, captions I always buy. [...] And that always fluctuates depending on how long the video [is]. [...] Those are the main costs of my video stuff. [...] [In] the past, for bigger videos, it's been maybe about $250 at the absolute most."

Handling Online Negativity

Batman-and-Superman-Handling-Negativity

Being an online personality has its advantages; one of them being connecting to a worldwide audience through — in the case of comic-book video creators — imparting knowledge about a generations-old medium. Due to the nature of online interactions, however, having an internet presence also opens the door for negativity and, at times, toxicity. For Niswander and Piers, handling those aspects centers, for the most part, on not paying attention to them.

NerdSync’s creator, for example, doesn’t read comments anymore, and instead has his partner read positive viewer interactions to him:

"[When] it comes to [angry or mean] comments, or things like that, I'm at a point right now where I'm trying so hard to prioritize my mental health. [...] And the way that I look at comments now is... I don't. And instead, I have my girlfriend to look at the comments and she will read off the best ones to me."

Piers also ignores negativity, but stated that he's comfortable with his audience, as he feels he’s developed an environment that fosters healthy discussions as opposed to conflict:

"I just learned really quickly that I had to have a thick skin. I made a conscious decision that I really wasn't going to reply to any of that. I wasn't going to give that any oxygen. And I think that [...] the topics that I choose for my show are primarily — not exclusively, but primarily — positive. As in, there's so much I love about comics that I wanna share. Every once in a while, I might look at a comic that I think wasn't done well, because you can learn from that as well. [...] But I don't focus on that primarily. [...] And I think that that does curate a certain audience. And I think that the vast majority of my audience certainly appears to be kind, intelligent and thoughtful."

He understands that art can bring people together, and focuses on that to make his channel grounds for relatively harmonious interactions: "We're probably not going to all agree on [everything]. I am who I am, but I'm focusing mostly on storytelling, and I think that the arts in general are a pretty universal way for humanity to connect with each [other]. Everybody likes music... [There are] all sorts of artistic things — like a well-crafted meal, or a good play, or a good movie. These are things that people can connect on, and I think that I'm focusing more on where people have areas that they can agree on. I do, of course, get super-negative comments sometimes, but I don't read them all, and I never really respond to the negative stuff."

Overall, the Comic Tropes creator has not encountered a significant amount of negativity throughout his time on YouTube.

Looking at the Future

The-Flash-Looking-At-The-Future

Much like the entertainment industry, YouTube's creative landscape is constantly changing. Channels that were once popular may fade into obscurity, while others with established brands may switch strategies, crafting new identities for themselves. In the case of Comic Tropes and NerdSync, their creators plan to continue delivering their signature content for the foreseeable future.

When asked whether or not he would switch careers if given the opportunity, Niswander stated he wouldn't. He is focused on continuing to grow the NerdSync brand as well as the scale of his videos, while collaborating with other creative individuals: 

"I think, as far as I can think into the future, I just want to continue making bigger and bigger videos. I want to continue telling stories through history, and philosophy and art, and things like that. But as for where I want to take this, I think I have a couple ideas of projects I want to do in the future. For the most part, I just want to work with other [creative people]. [...] And I think that's just about the extent of what I have in mind. [...] I [want] to keep doing what I'm doing, but continue to do it bigger and better, and with more interesting folks."

Piers is also focused on keeping Comic Tropes growing, both through his main channel and through his second one, Pros and Cons, which allows him to interact with his most dedicated viewers: "I don’t have hard numbers that I’m trying to hit. I’m just trying to make sure that my growth continues at a healthy rate. And I started a second channel [where] I do a weekly live show, where I'll review briefly everything that I read that week. And then, I'll draw something while talking about the comic-book news of the week. And that's a way for me to engage with the viewers that are most engaged. But also, I use that channel to put out videos that aren't Comic Tropes videos, but are still sort of related. So, going to a convention or something, I'll make a video about what that is. Sort of more vlog-y."

He also has a backup plan, since he keeps in mind that audiences may not be interested in seeing someone they would consider advanced in age talking about superheroes:

"[I think], at a certain point — and hopefully it's many, many years down the road —I'll probably look too old for people to want to listen [to me] about comics. I sort of feel that that's a possibility ten years from now, or something. [...] Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel like that's a possibility. So, I've created this second channel where I could get more into travel vlogging and stuff like that. [...] I'd love to start doing more vlogs, because there's a bigger audience there. So, I do have a backup plan of having that in place and trying to do some more travel and food vlogging on that, but that's related to nerd stuff. [...] My focus is definitely on growing Comic Tropes, but I have that as a [secondary option] where I can explore things other than just reviewing a comic book."

Comic books and their worlds are ever-evolving; never stagnant. There's always something new on the horizon, so the need to document and explore its history will likely always be relevant. It's a challenging process, but that branch of the comic-book and superhero industry will continue to thrive thanks to the efforts of creators like Niswander and Piers.

To follow their future endeavors, you can subscribe to the NerdSync YouTube channel at this link. Scott Niswander is also on Instagram, at @scottniswander and on Twitter at @ScottNiswander. For Comic Tropes, you can subscribe to the YouTube channe at this link and follow Chris Piers on Instagram at @comic_tropes and on Twitter at @CTropes.

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