A year ago Taylor-Ruth Baldwin, a self-described "outsider" and a bit of a Luddite, didn't even have a Facebook account and rarely checked her email. But at the urging of a friend, the Carmel teen created a Tumblr page the summer before her junior year of high school. She began sharing comics from her diary on the blog, comics that combine a barbed wit with raw, openly expressed emotions.
Her work, collected under the title Hanging Rock Comics, immediately struck a nerve, and her blog soared in popularity, topping 30,000 regular followers within a few months of its launch. This led to a profile of the 17-year-old in Wired magazine, which in turn triggered a dizzying blitz of offers from book publishers and TV and film studios.
Baldwin now finds herself engaged in bicoastal conversations with big-time media executives and creative managers. Her spring-break agenda includes a trip to New York City, where she will meet with several agents to discuss creating platforms for the characters in Hanging Rock. She's even been offered a starring role on a reality TV show, a proposition about which she readily admits to having serious reservations.
Baldwin exudes openness and vulnerability, qualities that surface when I ask her how she started creating comics. "I was going through early adolescence and trouble and changes, and I saw a therapist who recommended that I keep a diary," she says. "I took her advice, but I was too lazy to write every day, so I just documented my life using comics."
From age 13 to 16, Baldwin kept her comics to herself. She only opened up to the idea of having an audience for her work last year when, in a math class, she and a close friend started creating comics and showing them to each other. "The entire period she would draw a panel and then I would draw a panel," Baldwin says.
Last July, she began posting her latest work, typically single-panel illustrations documenting the inner turmoil of a high school girl who - sporting oversized glasses and a vintage band tee - bore a strong resemblance to Baldwin.
The blog took off, spurring her to do more: "I noticed that when I began posting comics based on my life, they began receiving numerous notes," she says. "Recently, I can pretty much expect anything I post to receive a thousand notes. I've had several posts in the 50,000 range."
She's also inspired others to create their own comic blogs, a form of mentorship that serves as a source of motivation. "Some of them are really successful and really good," she says. "But you quiver in your boots a little because you think, I'm not going to be relevant forever. It's cool, though, because thinking that I inspire people inspires me." She's also received numerous messages from people thanking her for being a source of comfort, for letting them know that they're not alone.
Baldwin views her naysayers (always in the minority) constructively, crediting them for helping her to become more self aware. "It's important to know when something you're saying is trying too hard or is conceited or oblivious," she says. "I've received messages before that have made me go, I see how I'm coming across. This is a good thing about having a Tumblr - you really learn to see yourself how a lot of other people see you."
As for what attracts people to her blog, Baldwin points to the authenticity of her work. "I think people enjoy that I'm a real person, that I put myself into the comics but that I also exist outside of them," she says. "I think that really resonates with people, that what you're seeing is relevant to teenagers and that it's also created by a 17-year-old girl."
So, does Baldwin share her characters' balled-up stress and confusion? "I have bouts where I'm definitely angsty and dry and sarcastic," Baldwin reveals. "And then there are other times when I feel like I'm really normal and even optimistic. It depends on who I'm surrounded by and talking to."
Baldwin says that, over time, the focus of her comics has shifted gradually from herself to the lives of those around her. "It's not all autobiographical," she says, "but it is all pertaining to my life."
She's often questioned whether, through her work, she's relating to angsty teens or poking fun at them. The answer, she claims, is both. "For me, there definitely are comics where I'm poking fun at people," she says. "But then there are ones that I take very seriously and that are more autobiographical. At the end of the day, if you can relate to it, that's cool. And if you see it as satire, that's cool, too. But it's an interesting question. The more I do it, the more I find the answer."
'They want more, more, more'
Though Baldwin has received plenty of media attention of late - including, somewhat oddly, a profile in a popular webzine based in Rio de Janeiro - she has, to this point, sidestepped the local spotlight. She says that her classmates treat her the same now as they did before the launch of her blog.
Does Baldwin look forward to her peers gaining a heightened awareness of her comics and blogging successes? Not exactly. "I'm scared," she admits, "because I'm not used to having the type of attention I've gotten through my blog, let alone in real life."
Baldwin's teachers have also taken note of her online exploits. "The response from teachers has been really interesting and has exposed a side to them that I didn't know was there," Baldwin says. "Teachers have said to me, 'I was that kid in high school.'" She's quick to issue a caveat, though: "I'm like, okay, but please don't be offended if you see yourself in a comic."
Baldwin's transformation from intensely private wallflower to blogging sensation seems at once improbable and effortless. Yes, she's logged countless hours creating comics and maintaining her Tumblr. But one gets the impression that what she faces now - that is, navigating the wide-ranging creative possibilities being dangled before her - presents a far greater challenge. In addition to keeping up with her coursework at Carmel High School, Baldwin has to make time for media execs, for journalists - and to keep up with the blog itself.
Baldwin begrudgingly recognizes that, when it comes to the Web, quantity often trumps quality. "Great content, that's not what even matters on the Internet," she says. "It's a very 'more-centric' culture, the Internet. They want the newest thing, the next thing, they want more, more, more. It's a lot of pressure."
Baldwin continues to strive to update her Tumblr daily, but she sometimes feels the need to take a few days off so that she can connect with her real life. These multi-day respites have proven to be a challenge, however.
"I'll get messages from people saying, where are you?" she sighs. "It's like you're always up in the air. Like, if you're not creating the next thing that takes off, the next thing that's really good, you're at the risk of losing relevancy. You're at the risk of people not paying attention to you anymore."