Thomas: How did historycomics.net get its start, and how has it changed over the years?
Tim: I am eternally grateful to AJ Juliani, a noted educational leader today, who was once upon a time, a staff developer in my school. He kept pushing me to share what I was doing in my classroom on social media and to develop a website. I really did this reluctantly, as I thought that teachers should be “humble” and not show off – and that people wouldn’t care what I do in my classroom. He walked me through the steps of setting up Twitter and gave advice on setting up my website – even sharing it with others once I brought it online. Because of his advice, my world completely changed and I realized how much more impactful educators are once we can share with, and inspire, one another. I am no tech guru and I still have much work to do on my website, but it is a labor of love. I have now linked it to TeachingWithComics.com because I want folx to realize that my work is not “just” on history comics, but comics that can be used in all classrooms and all levels. I always tell educators that we need to share the awesomeness that is going on inside of our classrooms – that we need to control the conversation about education. While we are doing that, we will help to inspire the next generation of teachers as well.
Thomas: Your book, Teaching With Comics and Graphic Novels, joins a growing chorus of professionals advocating for the many benefits of reading comics. It’s a format and not a genre, after all. What have been some of the successes of integrating comics into your classroom? How do you address a student struggling with comics?
Tim: Any student can struggle with reading comics, especially as many have never read a comic before my high school class! GASP! Often, it is my most advanced readers who initially struggle the most with reading comics. Every educator, no matter the subject or grade level, needs to be a teacher of reading and this is no different. Before teaching any comic, it is vital to demonstrate how to read a comic with students, to go in deep on a few pages, and showcase the power of the medium before giving them time to read in a more independent manner. Once this is done, there are so many engaging comics to use, such as Star Wars #021 (2015) where I teach evidence-based essay writing at the beginning of the year. The story is from the Stormtrooper’s point of view and the students debate if they are “good or evil.”
We also have powerful discussions based on the wordless comic, Nat Turner, created by Kyle Baker. Without words, students are challenged to read deeply into the images and to understand that these images will have different meanings for different readers. The March and Run graphic novels (graphic memoir based on Congressman John Lewis’ life) make the Civil Rights movement personal and accessible to my students. The free online comic, Madaya Mom(from ABC News and Marvel) tells the story of a family just trying to survive a horrific siege of their city during the Syrian Civil War. We were lucky enough to have the authors and artists interact with Zoom with our students. I could go on and on, but then, that’s what my book is for! LOL! I share a lot of the lessons that I do in my classes in my book with the intention of helping educators understand how to get started.
Thomas: You present about comics all over the place. What are the most frequent questions you get from other educators?
Tim: The most common question I am asked is how to get comics at low cost, or even free for the classroom as budgets are always tight. The most visited page on my website is where I list free online comics that are perfect for use in the classroom. There are a surprisingly large amount of these free resources available.
Another is how to convince reluctant administrators and/or parents on the literary merit of graphic literacy. I show them the teacher guides I have created, such as this one for the graphic adaptation of Laurie Halse Anderson’s powerhouse Speak. All of my lessons are connected to Common Core standards and showcase the power of visual literacy. These concrete examples open the door for lesson planning for educators who are just beginning to go down the awesome rabbit hole of teaching with comics.
Thomas: Let’s talk gateways into comics. Your children write reviews of the comics they read – what were their early favorites? For that matter, which comics won over any students who maybe weren’t excited about comics?
Tim: Teagan – anything by Raina Telgemeier, the entire Phoebe and Her Unicorn series from Dana Simpson, the Emmie and Friends series from Terri Libenson, the Friends books by Shannon Hale, and Anne of Green Gables by Mariah Marsden. Charlotte – The Time Museum by Matthew Loux, Olympians by George O’Connor, anything Archie comics, Poison Ivy. Liam – New Kid by Jerry Craft, Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, Dogman by Dav Pilkey
Thomas: What trends in comics and education have you excited right now? Any that make you wary?
Tim: The only thing that makes me a bit concerned is when publishers try to latch onto the success of comics without understanding the power of the medium. I have seen comics that are text heavy and with illustrations that do not add any depth to the storytelling. This is not only disappointing but also dangerous in that it places another hurdle in accepting comics in the classroom.
Where I am most excited is in the representation of not only characters but also the teams who create the comics as well. I LOVE that my own three children are growing up reading stories where they are literally seeing all folx in their heroes. To have heroes such as a bi-racial Spider-Man, a Korean Hulk, a Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel, LGBTQIA+ characters, neuro-diverse, non-traditional families, etc. is just amazing. To them, it’s always been the norm.
Thomas: What resources do you recommend for librarians and educators who want to learn more about quality graphic novels for their collections and classrooms?
Tim: There are so many fantastic resources out there that it’s easy to get lost. Of course, there’s No Flying No Tights! I love following the ALA Graphic Novels and Comics Roundtable and what they share about comics in libraries. One often overlooked gem is that of your students. Seriously – I have found so many great titles just by asking students! Also – don’t be shy about going into your local comic book store. This sounds like an obvious resource, but so many adults are leery about going into this place that they feel may not welcome them if they are not a comics expert. I’ve been in stores across the country and I have never had a negative experience. It is not the exclusive den of nerd-dom that many see in their minds – comic stores are welcoming places – just tell the employees what you are looking for – maybe science class – and they can point you in the right direction. People say to me all the time that I have a comic for everything and that is mainly true!
Thomas: Finally, what is a hidden gem that you would recommend to the world, given the chance? (This is your chance!)
Tim: As I am answering this interview, NASA announced its Artemis mission and intent to return to the moon! I was lucky enough to meet with representatives from NASA at Awesome Con in Washington, DC in the summer of 2022. They showed me a comic that just blew my mind! It is a free online comic about a fictional future mission to the moon to place the first female astronaut there. There is an app that can be downloaded that can read the comic aloud and also makes the text available in both Spanish and English. The app also has a powerful virtual reality component to it that my kids (and I) love! Go to the app store and download the NASA’s First Woman app!
Cathy Camper and Raul the Third launched into intergalactic travel with their first graphic novel, Lowriders in Space. This middle grade adventure follows three friends-slash-mechanics as they compete to create the best lowrider car in the galaxy. The highly anticipated sequel, Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, came out July 5th from Chronicle Books and features an even greater mix of fun, science, and Spanish. Camper, who is also a youth outreach librarian for the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon, took the time tell us more about her creative process, graphic novels, and what’s next for the Lowriders.
NFNT Interviewer (Heather Dickerson): What are you reading right now? What’s your favorite graphic novel?
Cathy Camper: AUGH! Never ask a librarian that—I always have multiple books going at one time. I’m just finishing reading forty-five middle grade books for my librarian job, because we record video book talks for teachers about the “best books” of the past year. Sad to say, there’s still a lack of diversity, so as soon as I finish up I plan to read How to be a Chicana Role Model by Michele M. Serros. I don’t know if I have a favorite graphic novel, but I probably reread Krazy Kat the most, it’s just the best. Also excited to hear that the Hernandez Brothers Love and Rockets might start publishing more often again.
NFNT: Why graphic novels? Why do you love telling stories in this format?
Cathy: I’ve always loved the way comics and graphic novels can feed multiple lines of a story to your brain at the same time. The text tells you one thing, while the pictures may be showing you something quite different. But a reader is also picking up information from the font, chibis, emoticons, framing, etc. Also, writing a comic is a super cheap form of film making, that allows for all kinds of magic without a cost.
NFNT: What was the genesis for the idea of the Lowriders crew?
Cathy: I noticed doing outreach as a librarian, we couldn’t keep books on lowriders in stock; they just got grabbed up right away. But these were all nonfiction books. So I started daydreaming up an idea, what if there was a comic or picture book about these cars? Somehow I got the idea of a car detailed by outer space…and then the title popped up, Lowriders from Space. It was all notes scribbled on scrap paper and daydreams for the first year or so, until I had enough to write a short script. The original script could have been a picture book too—it was much shorter—because I didn’t know which way it would sell. When Chronicle took it on, we had to flesh out the manuscript considerably to build it into a full-length graphic novel. But for book 2 it was the reverse, we had plenty of action to fill the pages!
NFNT: Why did you choose to make them animals?
Cathy: I had thought up the name Elirio Malaria first; it was just fun to say, like a roller coaster for your tongue. But then I kept wondering, what kind of guy would be named Elirio Malaria? This was one of those examples where your character actually speaks to you—it was like a little voice said “Hey, I’m not a guy, I’m a mosquito.” Oh. So then I thought up Lupe Impala—she’s named after the Chevy Impala, which is the prized car of lowriders. And Flapjack Octopus is a real kind of octopus. They have short stubby legs, and that’s why they’re called flapjacks. They are super cute—you can look them up and see real photos. So that’s how the characters came about, but as Raul and I worked on the strip, we also realized that by having animals, we could make comments that we couldn’t do if we’d had human characters. We wanted to be sure nothing was stereotyped or caricatures in a bad way.
NFNT: You and Raul live in different cities. Will you talk a little bit about the creative process you use to collaborate?
Cathy:Yeah, we’re lucky in that we share the same sense of humor, the same work ethic and the same spirit of collaboration. So it’s like we’re jazz musicians improvising on a shared tune. In general, I come up with the script first, go through several drafts with our editors, then the script goes to Raul and he blocks it out and draws it. Sometimes he’ll need to cut lines, or suggest changes in the script to better match what he’s drawn. Sometimes I’ll tell him things that need to be drawn or written into the art. It’s rare to have this kind of collaboration in kids’ picture books, more common somewhat in comics. I think that’s why the book feels so rich; you have two people’s imaginations running around in the same landscape. But sometimes it’s frustrating having a three-hour time difference between us, just in terms of making phone calls, etc. It’s also aggravating sometimes, that I’m pretty much done with the writing by the time Raul gets engrossed in the art. There’s a time lag—so he’ll be all excited about something six months or a year after I wrote it.
NFNT: How does your work as a librarian influence what you write and who you write for?
Cathy: I work as a youth outreach librarian for the public library in Mutlnomah County, in Portland, Oregon. I visit kids and schools grades K-12 all year long. I see everyday what books kids and teachers need, which books connect and which flop, and what kids study at different grade levels. That’s all super important if you write for kids. I also interact with parents, teachers, and kids so I hear a lot about what folks need. That said, my books are also just stories I would like to read.
NFNT: What’s something you’d like to share with teachers, librarians, and readers of graphic novels?
Cathy: I think it’s really important to support diversity in what’s published, what you read, and what we share in schools and libraries, so that readers can find themselves, whoever they are, in books. When I do school visits, I tell kids when I was growing up, comics were made by older white guys writing about super heroes. But now you can find all kinds of books written by all kinds of people. I like to mention El Deafo and Smileas examples of how what kids are experiencing right now might provide material for something they might write later as an adult. And books like American Born Chinese, March, and The Shark King are great examples of how a diversity of creators provides both a wider variation of books and role models of writers and artists, for kids.
NFNT: What’s in store next for Lupe, Elirio, and El Chavo?
Cathy: Ah, we just got the OK from our publisher to start working on a third book, so guess what I’m doing this summer? In book three, we meet our three heroes as kids, learn about how they grew up, what their families were like, and how they met. And oh yeah—their rides—lowrider bikes!
NFNT: What do you hope your readers take away from the stories you tell about the Lowriders?
Cathy: Our books have a strong message of empowerment and self esteem, that you can build a lowrider car, write, draw a comic, or do whatever kind of creative thing you dream up, if you put some work into it, and possibly collaborate with friends. Raul drew our books with ballpoint pens because it’s what kids have available to them—art can be made with anything. I also wanted to empower kids to read the book on their own, so we included glossaries for Spanish, car, and science terms, and notes at the back to talk about lowrider history, Aztec culture, etc. I hope readers see themselves in our books, but also expand their worlds by reading our comics, whether it’s because they learn something new, or they just like silly, outrageous puns.
Nathan Hale is the name of a Revolutionary War spy. It’s also the name of an author.
In the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series, Nathan Hale (the spy) tells stories from history to a hangman and a British officiant in order delay his inevitable execution. The trio’s gag lines, along with well-researched and carefully illustrated history, make this series a delightful addition to elementary and middle school library collections.
Nathan Hale (the author)’s most recent addition, Alamo All-Stars, was released this March.
NFNT Interviewer (Amy Estersohn): What’s your research process like? Do you have a sense of what historical topics you’d like to cover before you begin research on a new book in the Nathan Hale series, or do you wander into a library looking to learn something new and see where it takes you?
Nathan Hale: I give a handful of potential topics to the publisher, usually three or four ideas. For example: The Pony Express, The War of 1812, and Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders (these are random examples, not a list of what’s coming in the series…or is it?). Then the publisher chooses the subject they are most excited about. Once I made the mistake of giving the publisher a list of ten topics to choose from. It took them months to decide. Now I keep the list slim.
Once the topic is decided on, I’m off to the library. I check out all of the books on that subject and read them all. I then buy the books I really liked so I can mark up the inside with notes and underline things. Then I go to the internet to see if I’m missing any major books on the subject and track those down. More reading, more marking. I’m basically writing a giant research paper. Once I get the facts in place, I begin writing the narrators’ reactions to the events. When the manuscript is finished, it goes through a rigorous fact-checking at the publisher. My goal is to get my manuscript back with no changes from the fact checker. This has never happened. The fact checker really digs in and finds all kinds of errors or poorly communicated ideas, which I then fix. Then it’s time for drawing.
Drawing takes just as much, sometimes more research than the manuscript because now I have to know what everything looks like. I have to track down photos, paintings, images, trips to museums, etc. The research never stops until the last panel is drawn. These books start with research and end with research. Phew.
I’m always on the lookout for potential subjects for the series. But lately, thanks to school visits, kids are constantly shouting ideas at me during Q and A sessions. “Will you do a book on WWII?” (That’s the most common one.) “Suffragettes?” “The French and Indian War?” “What about the Benedict Arnold book promised in the back of One Dead Spy?” “Vietnam!?” I now have a mountain of possible topics.
NFNT: How do you turn all of that research into sequential art? If you write text, it’s really easy to make small changes to a document. Do you ever draw a full page only to realize that you’ve come up with the perfect comment for the Hangman?
Nathan Hale: A lot of the jokes come out of the drawing process. I’ll have the manuscript all paneled out on the page, then—like you said—the perfect comment will pop up for the Hangman, so I’ll fit it in. I work in Photoshop, so it’s easy to rearrange things as I go. My first graphic novels, Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack, were inked traditionally, and there was no rearranging things on the fly. The fluidity of working digital really adds room to play with jokes. About 30% of the dialogue gets rewritten or added to during the drawing process (to the frustration of my editor). There are jokes that work better on a panel than a manuscript—and vise-versa. So things are constantly changing and evolving when they hit the panel. Things like the Grim Reaper in Donner Dinner Party didn’t even appear until the drawing stage.
Changing the manuscript on the fly is one of the benefits of being the author and illustrator. You can’t do that when someone else wrote the story.
NFNT: How has your new book, Nathan Hale’s Alamo All-Stars, challenged you as an author and artist?
Nathan Hale: A lot of stories about the Alamo—some of the most well-loved stories, aren’t, um, how do I put this, based on recorded facts. There are a lot of events that fall into the category of legend rather than historical event. The line drawn in the sand by William Travis, David Crockett using his rifle as a club until the very end—these are stories that every student of Texas history knows about, but there is little or no documentation to back them up. What do I do? Fortunately, this is a comic book, so I show the legends! But I also get to explain why they may or may not be true. I basically get to have my cake and eat it too.
No other subject I’ve written about has had as many legends and folklore as the Alamo. So many legends!
NFNT: How did you decide to start drawing comics? Any advice? Regrets?
Nathan Hale: Oh boy. I start drawing comics in 2007. My first comic was Rapunzel’s Revenge. I met the author Shannon Hale at a writing conference, she had seen my picture books, asked if I’d ever thought of doing a comic. I said, “Sure. That sounds fun.” One extremely long year later, I had drawn Rapunzel’s Revenge. Yeah. Late bloomer. (Thanks, Shannon!!!) Before that I focused on picture books and illustration—but not in the comic style. Fortunately for me, comics are just like reeeeeeaally long picture books, with waaaay more pictures.
My advice to young cartoonists: Draw, draw, draw. Drawing comics is time consuming. You need to build up the ability to draw for hours at a time, and the ability to draw any scene you can think of. Fan art of existing things (Star Wars, manga, video games, etc) is fun, but don’t make it your central purpose. Create your own stories, draw your own characters, discover your own style. Draw, draw, draw. Write a lot and read a lot—and not just comics.
Regrets? Well, I regret that I have but one life to give to…er, drawing comics.
NFNT: How does your spouse feel about the fact that you took your Mac and a bunch of extension cords with you on a camping trip so that you could keep working, even in the great outdoors?
Nathan Hale: Ah, yes, the Facebook photo of me working in the woods with my Cintiq tablet. I get asked about that at more school visits… Yes. It’s a real photo. I didn’t stage it. This wasn’t just any camping trip, this was the HALE FAMILY REUNION. I have about a million cousins. Last Fourth of July we all got together, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, everybody. This is rare and only happens about once or twice a decade. I was under a major deadline—the Alamo book, in fact. We wanted to get the book out in March of 2016. But in order to do that, I had to really crunch. I was behind—it was my fault, I had signed up for too many school visits and book festivals that spring, so work on the Alamo book kept getting pushed into summer. I had no choice! How did my spouse feel? She wasn’t even there! She couldn’t get work off (she’s a public librarian, she had a big event that weekend). So I was able to laugh and chat and catch up with my cousins, all while drawing pages for Alamo All-Stars.
You can get a lot of work done when you’re stuck at a family reunion.
NFNT: Who are you reading right now?
Nathan Hale: I’m reading a lot of books on the Doolittle Raid, a WWII bombing run. Lots of books. I wonder why.
I’m also listening to two audio books: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (which is 27 hours long and I’ve been chipping away at it for over a month now) and a horror novel, The Consultant, by Bentley Little. As for comics, I just got Daniel Clowes’s Patience, but I haven’t started it yet—I hid it on a high shelf where my ten-year-old daughter won’t find it. She’s reading Unicorn vs. Goblins by Dana Simpson.
NFNT: What do you want readers to appreciate about history after reading your Nathan Hale series?
Nathan Hale: I want readers to feel excited about history. I want them to see that history isn’t just names and dates, it’s people—crazy people, doing insane, gross, heroic, reprehensible, hilarious things!
Chris Schweizer might be best known for his Eisner-nominated historical adventure series The Crogan Adventures, but it’s his middle grade horror series, The Creeps, that draws on the cartoonist’s most terrifying experience: his time as a sixth-grade social studies teacher. Starring four middle school misfits who spend their time dealing with a town full of monsters and mayhem that no one else seems to acknowledge, The Creeps features a mix of whimsy and horror—think of a junior high Middleman or Night Vale light.
The second installment of the Creeps’ adventures, The Trolls Will Feast!, came out March 8th from Harry N. Abrams. It’s full of group projects, exploding deodorant, social media-savvy trolls, and the power of friendship.
NFNT Interviewer (KatieRose McEneely):Can you tell me a little about your background? What led you to create a story with such a distinct mix of humor and horror?
Chris Schweizer: I’ve been doing predominantly historical adventure and historical fiction comics since I started. Horror is a genre that has always been of interest to me, but I tend to gravitate to designing horror for a kid audience.
There’s a famous monster named after my hometown, and I never heard of it until well after I moved out—no one ever spoke of it because it was so embarrassing. The idea that there would be a town where weird stuff happened and everyone felt like it was destroying property values struck me as something weird and worth exploring.
NFNT: How do you build a Creeps adventure?
CS: Usually what will happen is I’ll think of what kind of monster I want to tackle. And how can I change that to make it different from the way you’ve seen that monster before, and is there a way to make it modern. With the trolls, they’re playing off the internet trolls idea—you can create stress by badgering people online. How could that translate to being beneficial to a monster?
NFNT: Does Pumpkins County Middle School resemble your own middle school experience?
CS: It does, both as a student and as a teacher. I taught sixth grade social studies at the same middle school I attended as a kid. It enabled me to see this school through the lens of a student and a teacher. The main classroom that the Creeps are in is based very heavily upon mine.
NFNT: The second Creeps adventure has them chasing (and being chased) by trolls outside of school. What were some challenges that came with the change in setting?
CS: The biggest was the amount of time I had to spend coloring, because most of the story took place outside and in daylight. I had to stick to local colors, literal colors. It expanded the environment of Pumpkins County more than I might have.
NFNT: Do you have a favorite Creep?
CS: The one that is least like me is Rosario, and she is also my favorite. I’ve never had much concern for embarrassment, but that’s pretty much her key feature. Her loyalty and her concern for her friends forces her to confront that on a regular basis. There’s a nobility there that I wish I possessed.
NFNT:How many designs did you go though for the Creeps?
CS: The one that changed the most was Mitchell. He’s kind of a goth-y kid, and I drew him the way that goth-y kids looked when I was in high school. Subsequent to the realization that I was defaulting to what people were wearing when I was younger, the kids sort of were stripped of any period identifiers. I just started treating them in the way that Wes Anderson might treat costume design, a cartooniness that speaks more to character than to any part of fashion.
NFNT:Like Tom Rigby’s sweater frock?
CS: That was originally the joke! What kind of outfit would you have been mortified that you wore when you were younger? I do that a lot: I’ll make a bit of dialog that’s meant as a joke and then it later becomes a plot point. In the second book, Jarvis mentions things that were taken from his utility belt; I put “pants ejector” because it sounded funny, and ended up using it as a plot device twice over the remainder of the book.
NFNT: What should librarians know about this series?
CS: I think it’s good for kids who are excited to read scary stories but may not want to take on stuff that’s too graphic. Here you get horror, but it’s presented in the context of comedy, and hopefully that makes it more digestible for a wider age range.
NFNT: I can definitely see those layers in there, like in the first volume when the kids are getting their bodies swapped with the Frankenfrogs. Carol’s the only person who’s horrified by it; everyone else is like, oh, it’s fine.
CS: The Creeps are the characters who make it horror. I can’t remember who said this, but there was an academic argument that horror as a genre means that what’s happening was seen by the characters as being wrong naturally, that there was something inherently problematic about something. In science fiction and fantasy, there’s an acceptance of weird things happening. Carol is the one who recognizes that things aren’t as they should be.
NFNT: Who’s the primary antagonist in this series? I get the sense it’s Madison [a Creeps classmate], not the monsters.
CS: Madison Gruss is their primary foil. She’s been an interesting character to tackle as well. She’s based on a kid I knew who was sort of the queen bee of one of the classes that I taught, and was absolutely brilliant and very biting and genuinely motivated by her morality. I like the idea of those qualities permitting one to be villainous. She can dislike the Creeps because they are upsetting the status quo, she can have a problem with her teacher because she feels the assignment conflicts with her moral center. It’s not her motives that make her problematic, but the way she goes about trying to see them enacted. She lacks empathy, and that puts her in conflict with these outsider kids.
I’m guessing as the series progresses, there will be more events where she teams up with the Creeps. I think as adults we often forget that kids are forced to coexist and it doesn’t change the social order. You can work towards a common goal and you can still hate each other.
NFNT: What’s your favorite part of volume two?
CS: Rosario’s climax was a lot of fun for me to tackle. I was making it up as I went along, so I was getting to see her make these tough decisions and it was kind of a roller coaster. The most fun thing to draw was, of course, the explosion propelling a wheelchair with four kids on it through the air.
NFNT: I love how sweet the Creeps are with each other—they’re very supportive, which is nice to see when they’re being chased by monsters.
CS: I had a couple of instances where the kids were kind of sarcastic with each other, but I thought, if they are as disenfranchised as the plot sets them out to be, they need to be each other’s advocates. I made a real effort to make sure that they weren’t biting to one another—that’s something that in middle school is really easy to do, to make fun of each other. Their situation would be too dire if they were to allow those baser instincts to come to the surface.
NFNT: Yeah, I saw that in Mitchell’s relationship with his older brother.
CS: In my outline he was a jerk, but as soon as I started writing him, he didn’t come out that way. I never know until the character starts talking whether they’re going to be patient or impatient, kind or unkind. Mitchell’s brother became a guy with well-meaning bad advice, the sort of advice you would get from a 16 or 17-year-old.
NFNT: Does he lose his driving privileges, or are the Creeps the only ones who have to deal with the monster fallout?
CS: He probably lost them. I am really curious to examine the consequences of things that happen in a town where if you accept the consequences, the whole system would fall apart. The villain in the first book getting a pass almost has to be the way that things usually are, because if there’s a steady call for justice or accountability every time something happens in this town, nothing would ever get done. The Creeps are the only ones who really have to deal with consequences.
The Creeps: Book 1: Night of the Frankenfrogs ISBN: 9781419717666 Harry N. Abrams, 2015
The Creeps: Book 2: The Trolls Will Feast! ISBN: 9781419718823 Harry N. Abrams, 2016
In producing this event, we partnered with the remarkable charity organization the Boston Super Heroes (BSH). As an official charity group devoted to spreading their love of superheroes around the city, they had only just begun to work at large scale events when we nabbed them for our day. In speaking with the group founder, Anthony Ferranti, he confirmed their commitment to charity work and the special place libraries hold for the group, “We will always do library programs because libraries are a place open to everyone, for everyone to come to. We don’t want libraries to disappear.”
The entire Boston Super Heroes group from Avengers Day, with their fans and a librarian or two.
The members’ enthusiasm, commitment, and sincere delight in sharing their heroes with comics fans of all ages continues to be inspiring. I got in touch with them again to talk heroes, libraries, and to gather advice for librarians on how to best connect with and partner with their local cosplayers.
Group selfie before the heroes hit the main stacks, taken by Scarlet Witch (Faith D’Isa).
No Flying No Tights: How did you first get involved in cosplaying?
Faith D’Isa (Scarlet Witch): I’ve been cosplaying since 7th grade and can hardly remember how I started. I always did big Halloween costumes but then I think I found a group of Canadian cosplayers on YouTube and realized that people did Halloween ALL THE TIME and just as hardcore as I did. My dad started taking me to cons then and I’ve been cosplaying since.
Phil MacRamos (Nick Fury): Cosplaying felt like an extension of acting to me. Just improvisational theatre with an established character.
Amanda Gibson (Groot): I first got into cosplaying through anime. In high school I heard about Anime Boston and got a couple friends to go with me to check it out. I cosplayed Sebastian from Black Butler. It was awesome. That was my first con and it felt like home.
Peter Vann (Spider-Man): For my second year at Anime Boston, I decided to try wearing a costume at a convention for the first time and all the positive vibes and good times that ensued made me a cosplayer for life.
Sean Derr (Captain America): Already considering myself a huge super fan of comics and Marvel, I built and pieced together a replica shield because I thought it would be a cool collector’s item. For a completely separate reason, a group of friends and I decided to dress up like superheroes and surprise our friend for his bachelor party. Fast forward a year or so and I found myself in Boston with a free weekend, and lo & behold Boston Comic-Con was in town. I decided what better place to go and use my costume and shield again. While I was there I met some incredible people who showed me the world of cosplay, and I have been laughing, smiling, and having an incredible time ever since.
Captain America (Sean Derr) with a young Thor.
NFNT: What led you to join the Boston Super Heroes group, and especially to join up for events like Avengers Day?
Faith D’Isa (Scarlet Witch): I found Boston Super Heroes through some mutual friends in the cosplaying community in my first year of college in Boston, and eventually joined up as an admin. I’ve done character parties before so this sort of charity work was immediately sounding like a great opportunity to me, especially as we’ve started to move the group towards a more charitable direction!
Phil MacRamos (Nick Fury): My first con was in Boston, met some folks for a photo shoot. Really connected with [Boston Super Heroes founder] Anthony Ferranti and he extended the invite. Great decision.
Amanda Gibson (Groot): I joined the Boston Super Heroes because I wanted to get more into cosplay and make friends with like interests. At the time I was thinking about making a Groot cosplay from Guardians of the Galaxy. I had a friend from school who joined the BSH on Facebook and I thought that joining as well would be a good opportunity to see other superhero/supervillain cosplays. I decided to help with the charity events because I know that if I was little I would have loved to see people in costumes like these and I wanted to use my costume to help and make people smile.
Peter Vann (Spider-Man): I met a few cosplayers (who now I consider friends) at Anime Boston this year at a superhero photoshoot and one of them sent me an invite via Facebook. I always wanted to do events that give back to the community, especially for the kids.
Sean Derr (Captain America): I heard about the BSH at [Boston Comic-Con] and joined up to be connected with people sharing a similar interest. I joined the Avengers Day event because I realized that I could actually use my newfound hobby to make more people smile and to help make lifelong memories for kids.
Nick Fury (Phil MacRamos) checks out the library’s comics collection.
NFNT: What inspired you to choose the character you did for the Avengers event?
Faith D’Isa (Scarlet Witch): I’ve been a big Scarlet Witch fan since I was a kid reading comics. She’s been my favorite character since then (along with her brother [Quicksilver]), and because the film had just come out it seemed like a perfect opportunity to bring her to life for some kids who’d just been introduced to her.
Amanda Gibson (Groot): I chose to be Groot for Avengers Day because it is currently my only hero costume and because I thought people would enjoy seeing Groot there.
Peter Vann (Spider-Man): Spider-Man saved my life. I grew up watching his cartoons and reading his comic books as a child and his stories always hit home for me. A couple years ago, one of my friends was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in front of me and I was traumatized. Without even realizing it, I turned to Spider-Man for strength, especially with how he dealt with his guilt and anger from his uncle passing the same way. It still hurts to this day, but Spider-Man and Peter Parker’s character has given me strength and hope that life gets better through the tragedies.
Sean Derr (Captain America): I’ve always liked captain America, he’s a huge Boy Scout and does what’s right and fair because it’s right and fair. It echoed my own upbringing and I felt a connection. He’s also a man out of place and time, and at various points in my life I’ve felt similarly.
Spider-Man (Peter Vann) amid the crowds of fans.
NFNT: What was your favorite reaction from an attendee during the day?
Faith D’Isa (Scarlet Witch): My favorite reaction during the day was the little girl who came up to Black Widow and I saying that she wanted to make sure she found us because she gets very excited about female superheroes and wanted to meet as many as she could. As a girl who’s been into superheroes, I know how isolating some of the media and merchandise can be so it was really great to be able to make her day like that. There was also the little boy who was slowly starting to believe we were the real deal and started quizzing us on our lives, and later said he was sorry that my brother died.
Phil MacRamos (Nick Fury): The kids in the quiet room sneaking up behind me, trying to figure out who I was.
Groot (Amanda Gibson) greets Baby Groot and a young fan.
Amanda Gibson (Groot): My favorite reaction from the event was this little boy in a Spider-Man outfit who came with a baby Groot toy and let me hold it. He kept coming back to see me and asked me to stand with him in the group photo.
Peter Vann (Spider-Man): I remember one little girl was all smiles to see me like I was her long lost best friend and laughing through and through.
Sean Derr (Captain America): A boy asked if I was the real Captain America, to which I responded “of course!” His jaw dropped to the floor, smiled ear to ear, and gave me a high five.
NFNT: If librarians are interested in hosting such an event, what would you want them to know about what you do and what you’ll need to be a success?
Faith D’Isa (Scarlet Witch): If other librarians want to host an event like this I think they should definitely focus on the idea of maintaining how real this world is for kids. As adults we’re aware of the idea of these heroes being fictional but for kids, these characters are important and real role models. This means having your staff also help with that illusion (things like calling characters by name and talking to them as if they’re the real deal) and making sure your costumed characters are professional and in character, not to mention of course never letting kids see them out of costume.
Amanda Gibson (Groot): I think for these events, that librarians should know a bit about the characters that will be attending so that they can help keep the kids in the illusion.
Peter Vann (Spider-Man): I definitely need my freedom to roam and interact, but also take breaks for myself without drawing attention. Also, a little structure is nice but not standing stationed for picture-taking.
Sean Derr (Captain America): The green room space before hand was awesome. It allowed us to change on site and grab a break if needed while not breaking character in front of the kids. From experience, it helps having a few people act as controllers and come in to give the cosplayers breaks or pause a line of photos so we don’t have to be the bad guys, cause it’s way too hard to say no to a child.
Story time with Captain America (Sean Derr), Scarlet Witch (Faith D’Isa), and Black Widow (Lauren Murray), as well as Peggy Carter at the front (Kelsey Young.)
NFNT: If librarians aren’t local to Boston, do you have any advice or resources you’d recommend they use to find similar cosplay charity groups in other areas?
Faith D’Isa (Scarlet Witch): I’d say definitely make connections with your local comic shops. Often these shops have contacts with costume groups in the area who might be willing to put on an event like this, either as customers or through doing special events of their own.
Amanda Gibson (Groot): I would ask cons or comic stores if they have any information about specific groups. This group at least seems really good at communicating with places we attend, so the places we have been should be able to get in contact with us.
Peter Vann (Spider-Man): Honestly, I got lucky that I met the people that I did and had the chance to join such a wonderful organization.
Sean Derr (Captain America): Join and connect with a group like the BSH and ask for information or contacts in their area. Most of us meet fellow cosplayers at conventions all over. We usually know someone that knows someone and we’re always happy to help especially when it’s something we love!
NFNT: Any advice for teens (or adults, or librarians) who are interested in getting started cosplaying? Resources on cosplay you’d recommend?
Faith D’Isa (Scarlet Witch): If you want to start cosplaying, dive right in! My first cosplay at a con was a manga character who wore a large white shirt and jeans—I didn’t know how to craft or sew yet but I just put myself out there and felt so welcomed into the community. There are tons of Facebook groups that are also great discussion forums for making your own cosplay and places to buy costumes and wigs to start off—just start searching “cosplay” and specify it to groups and tons will come up, from Disney to Game of Thrones and superheroes and everything in between! There’s also a new app called Cosplay Amino which is a social community for cosplayers where people post their costumes, ask questions, and share tutorials and ideas.
Amanda Gibson (Groot): Just go for it! Find a character that you absolutely love that you would love to be. Keeping that kind of mindset can really help you make a good cosplay. Personally, Home Depot and Walmart are my best friends when it it comes to supplies. I’ve been told there are a lot of good online resources for specific stuff as well and if necessary you can sometimes commission other cosplayers to make things.
Peter Vann (Spider-Man): My first Spider-Man suit was a blotched disaster and scared little children away. It’s trial and error with making the outfit but there are cosplayers and cosplay groups online who are willing to help. Also, don’t pay any mind to any negative comments towards your outfit or body. Cosplay is for everybody and is supposed to be a fun experience. If a random jerk says something otherwise, just ignore them and go about your business because at the end of the day, the positive outweighs the negative.
Sean Derr (Captain America):therfp.com is great for showing how to make props and building things. Attend a convention in the area and talk to the cosplayers there. We love talking about our costumes and props. If they can’t actually attend, try to just get in the lobby and ask people as they enter/exit.
NFNT: Any other comments or advice you’d want to share concerning the group, events like these, or the day itself?
Faith D’Isa (Scarlet Witch): I don’t really know what else to share other than how absolutely rewarding this experience is, and if people are on the fence about participating or hosting an event like this—do it! It’s a lot of work but the payoff is indescribable.
Amanda Gibson (Groot): Make sure you take care of yourself when you’re in costume. Keep in mind how functional the costume is when you are building it or else you may end up in trouble.
Peter Vann (Spider-Man): The staff did a wonderful job accommodating making the group feel welcome and I will always remember that day!
Sean Derr (Captain America): It was an incredible time and I’d be honored to do it again, so spread the word about groups like ours and people like us!
At the Brookline Public Library, we’ve now had the group participate in three events, including our Superhero Edible Book Festival and our Batman Day, both of which were a huge draw for our patrons young and old. The group is currently on hiatus in terms of booking new events until the new year, but never fear, they’ll be back in 2016.
Thanks to the entire group for partnering with libraries to make amazing memories for our attendees.
I don’t know about you, but when I become obsessed with an author, I become obsessed. My top author who is the apple of my eye is Jane Austen. I cannot tell you how many copies of Pride and Prejudice I have (last count was 8) in different formats (illustrated, prose, graphic novel, and gender bending). My love for Austen, over 20 years and counting, will never die. This is why I was super excited to find out UDON now produces a Manga Classics line which includes, you’ve guessed it, Jane Austen adaptations.
I was lucky enough to interview Stacy King, writer, copy-editor, and manager of UDON’s Manga Classics line, who shares a love for Austen just as much as I do.
NFNT Reviewer Lisa Rabey: Let’s start with a very simple question: tell us a little about you and about your background.
Stacy King: I have a BA in English Literature. I did marketing and communications stuff right out of university and I worked for some IT companies and in film production. My career is best described as bursts of continually falling upwards. I started taking opportunities as they came up, and that lead me to working with UDON in marketing, communications, and event planning. And then when [UDON editor-in-chief] Erik Ko originally came up with the idea of doing the Manga Classics line, I was all over it. I was like, “me! That’s me! I want to do that.”
NFNT: That actually leads into my next question. What was the inspiration for the classics?
SK: The inspiration comes from Erik, and also Andy Hung, who is the founder of Morpheus, the art studio we work with. Erik and Andy know each other through publishing stuff in Hong Kong. Erik’s mom is a retired high school principal and Andy’s mom teaches English as a second language in Hong Kong This whole time, Erik’s mom has been kinda like, “why don’t you do something that’s good for the kids? Do something that is constructive, valuable, and not this video game fluff”. So, I think part of where Erik’s inspiration for this came from was wanting to do something that was going to make his mom proud. That kind of feeling of wanting to do something really well and wanting to impress people that we really care about is something, I think, the whole team shares.
Erik came up with the idea and we started developing Pride and Prejudice, which is our first book. Then Po Tse, who is the artist that Erik had contracted to work on that book, started working with Morpheus Studios and it’s all sorta rolled together since Andy Hung was also very interested in doing something similar. Due to his mom’s ESL background, he saw a market for works which would serve as a literary introduction for ESL learners. They would have the visual component to support the prose work and some kind of cultural background as well. So you’re just not developing language skills, you are also developing and understanding some really important aspects of western culture. It puts them [readers] into the position to better understand metaphors and references when they come up.
NFNT: How many times did you read Emma?
SK: I read Emma about six or seven times before we even started this project. I read all of Austen, I think, in high school. Well, I read some of Austen in high school and the rest during university. She’s definitely one of the authors I come back to time and time again. I find her work gets more interesting, and I discover new things in it every time I read it. As I get older, I learn more and more about her world and the people in it. I can appreciate her insights of how people act. For this project, I read Emma three times in total. Usually, once the script is done, I will usually read the novel again to compare it to the script just to make sure there is nothing important that I’ve missed. I read it over enough times to feel like the pacing is reflective of the original novel, and then usually again during the copy-edit phrase just to make sure we haven’t missed any opportunities to include any additional really great lines to place in the final draft.
NFNT: Okay, since you love Jane Austen, you did Pride and Prejudice, you did Emma. Are you going to do Northanger Abbey, and are you going to do Persuasion?
SK: I would love to do Northanger Abbey! It’s probably one of my favorites as I really love gothic fiction. Austen’s send up of gothic fiction is just perfect. I actually just finished the script for Sense and Sensibility.
NFNT: Oh! Nice!
SK: We’re currently working on the third Austen book. I think the feeling is we need to leave Austen alone for a little bit, as there are a lot of other great classic authors out there we need to spend some time with. I’m not sure when Northanger Abbey [is coming out], but I continue to push for it, though I have a very long list of books. I’m also kind of like, “oh, we can do this!” and “we can do this!”
A page from the Manga Classics Emma.
NFNT: I hope Persuasion is going to be one of those titles…
SK: I think if the lines continue, we’ll definitely get around to doing all of the Austen books. But, it’s the case of part of what we’re doing is we’re looking at titles we’re trying to build diversity into the line, primarily with Western classic literature is very challenging. Right now, we’re looking at diversity in terms of the authors we’re trying to establish. We’re trying to find more books that represent a diversity of authors and not female or male, but looking at finding literature from around the world that connects into the western culture.
NFNT: You just answered my next question.
SK: It’s a little difficult for me. It’s challenging because I’m a big proponent of diversity…
NFNT: Not all dead white males, with the exception of Austen.
SK: I’m trying to avoid the dead white male phrasing, but that is definitely an issue when you’re looking at classic literature of any kind. And part of the chances of there being great classic novels or the number of great novels that would fit with that, but they tend to still be under copyright. Licensing can often be challenging. Once you start adding in approvals and copyright holder sort of things into this, it gets more expensive and also it depends on how long you can finish the book due to the back and forth that goes on. So, we’re eventually going to start looking into things like To Kill A Mockingbird and things like that. That is going to be a little bit down the line once we have a better feel for how long it’s established and what kind of financial problems could occur, like budgeting.
NFNT: How long does it take you to do produce a book?
SK: It sort of depends. Pride and Prejudice took about two years.
SK: We’re generally looking at about an eight month cycle right now with production, from when we start working on the script and character designs to when we have a final edited draft ready to go.
NFNT: How many titles do you currently have in the classics line and how many do you have upcoming, in addition to Sense and Sensibility?
SK: Right now, we have five titles in the line. So that’s Pride and Prejudice, Les Misérables, Emma, Great Expectations, and The Scarlet Letter. The goal is to be doing four to five books a year.
NFNT: So what do you have upcoming?
SK: Our next releases are going to be Jane Eyre by the same [creators] who did The Scarlet Letter and Sense and Sensibility, myself, and Po Tse. In the fall we have The Count of Monte Cristo.
NFNT:Emma was around 300 pages. So, you’re going to try and keep it (other books) around that?
SK: We’re going for around 300-400 pages. That should make them relatively uniform so that you can wrap them all together as Manga Classics on a bookshelf, hitting those teen readers who tend to be manga fans and shelf browsers. They tend to be waiting for the next volume of Naruto and they tend to like lots of books in a series, so if we can convince them Manga Classics is a series, then we’ve got them.
NFNT: Since we’re talking about the adaptation of the books, what kind of challenges are you coming up against?
SK: Oh, well, definitely pacing and length is a big challenge. Even for some of the shorter novels, there’s generally so much density in the original books that it’s really challenging to try and capture all of that. So part of what we’re always doing is looking and asking ourselves what can we keep, what can we trim, and how do we make this flow? We just try to make the adaptation as true as possible, and as faithful as possible to the original book while still making it an enjoyable read and within the length constraints we’ve established for ourselves. That’s our biggest challenge.
NFNT: Did you have a difficult time with language? Did you experience any difficulty translating Austen into more contemporary usage of language, specifically her slights,in-jokes, and all that other good stuff?
SK: Definitely yes. Working with the language is very challenging. One of the things that is very important to me is trying to keep the voice of the original author. I want for people, after they’re done reading Manga Classic, to feel comfortable when they open up the original nove. I want them to have a sense of how the author works with prose, the ribbons of their language, things like that. But I also need to adapt the dialogue and narration to work with a digital format.
The copy-editing process is actually quite intense because I’ll write the script and then once I have the final artwork, I have to revisit everything and ask, “does this work the way I thought it would? How much are the visuals telling the story? Is this where I need to cut back on dialogue? Are there places where I need to expand on dialogue? How do I deal with that if the artist hasn’t left me much room?” There is a lot of fine tuning around the text itself during the copy-editing process.
Wherever possible, I try to take wording from the original book, but then there is a little bit of tweaking that could happen to certain lines, either to make them flow a little bit better or to make it less confusing to the modern reader who might not be comfortable with an older language style, and that might be slightly changing the word choice or providing context for that word choice. There is something like if I were to mention fortnight, I would need to make sure you know what that is. Things like that. I used fortnight because I need to establish those kind of things but you also need to kind of accommodate readers who are coming to the book, particularly those who are coming to the book as fiction readers or maybe even just as manga fans who don’t necessarily have a lot of exposure to more classic authors.
NFNT: Who is your audience for these particular books? You mentioned using them in the classroom, but you also mentioned using them for ESL learners, as an introduction to manga users, is that kind of it? Or do you have other audiences in mind?
SK: We would like them to be for general readers. I would like to think that somebody who wants a fun introduction to the classics or who has always been curious about a classic book but whose not the type of person to devote time to reading it, will pick up one of these as a way to get to know the story and characters. A little bit better than say book notes or just watching a movie adaptation. We generally describe them for being a symbol for 12+ general audience and then we’re working with exhibiting at library association conferences and things like that to try and connect with librarians and educators, so they can use them as a supplement in classroom learning. Ideally we’d like to see that they can work for general audience but we also know there is a value for a few niche audiences. We’re trying to do outreach in those areas as well.
NFNT: How many people do you have working on a particular book?
SK: Well there’s the author, and then when Crystal is writing the book and I’m also coming in to do an English language script as she’s actually working in Chinese, which is a whole interesting process to get into for some of our arguments. Victor Hugo is my favorite one because I’m reading an English translation of the French novel and she’s reading a Chinese translation of a French novel and then we’re debating about wording we’re going to use.
NFNT: This sounds like a bad Google translation.
SK: We have a lot of fun trying to get the process worked out. We’ve got it down now as we’re on our fifth book, were we’re like it’s going pretty smoothly now. On the art team there is a lead artist, and I think two or three assistants that work with them. Then on the administrative side, Erik and Andy are overseeing all of our production stuff.
NFNT: So about eight people?
SK: Yeah, about eight or nine people.
NFNT: What’s the reaction been so far?
SK: The reaction has been really positive. We gotten a lot of great feedback. Obviously whenever you do an adaptation, some people who are a little annoyed you slighted their favorite character or favorite scene or just annoyed at the idea of an adaptation at all. I understand where some of those people are coming from, but we have worked really hard to try and make them, our adaptations, to be very faithful.
A lot of the time, these kind of stuff happens because people think this is, kind of, a quick money grab, I guess. Where it’s sorta got, we can pump these out and we know they will sell this amount and we’ll get this much money, and so on. For Erik, it’s definitely about introducing a really high quality book. That’s kind of driving how the rest of the team is working on it as well.
Generally, what’s been most exciting for me is I’ve been getting a lot of great reader feedback via Facebook and Twitter and they say, “I’ve really enjoyed this. It’s inspired me to go pick up the original book.” That for me is the most satisfying thing to make someone understand these classic books aren’t just that wall of prose but you see when you crack open that front page, they’re actually exciting, wonderful stories, with this great list of characters and that’s why they’re classics. There is so much in there for you to explore and enjoy. If I can convey that to a new reader that is quite the best thing for me.
NFNT: Have you seen the Marvel adaptations?
SK: I have. I go looking at other adaptations, I watched all the films. I research!
NFNT: I saw that you have a strong social media presence. How has that impacted with the success with the Manga Classics? Are fans reaching out to you through that method or are they mainly going through email channels?
SK: Most of the fans who have reached out have done via the Goodreads website. It actually has a great author set up. It allows people to find out very easily if you’re reading a book the author is also on Goodreads. There are message boards and messaging to communicate with the author. Facebook is also a new channel right now.
NFNT: For people coming into manga, what series would you recommend for them to start with other than the Manga Classics?
SK: See, it’s hard because there are so many things are extended series and I’m not a huge fan of those. Books I know I really quite enjoyed are Emma, which is actually not based on Jane Austen’s novel but is a series about a Victorian maid who falls in love with an upper class aristocrat, so there are social challenges that keep them apart. It’s about 10 books. So that’s a nice, kind of manageable series for someone who is interested in exploring manga. Lone Wolf and Cub is just amazing, which is basically about a wandering samurai who is traveling with a small boy. I really enjoyed Death Note, but I know it’s not for everyone.
Jonathan Maberry may be best known in recent years to many librarians for his runaway hit in the YA field, the gripping Rot and Ruin series, but this year he’s gone back to another favorite monster, the vampire, in his miniseries Bad Blood for Dark Horse Comics. Check out a six-page preview from Dark Horse here. Bad Blood is currently available in individual issues from Dark Horse, and will be available as a trade paperback in December 2014
NFNT contributor Anna Call was able to snag an interview with Mr. Maberry to pick his brain* about his return to comics. Read on to hear more about his inspirations, histories, and fears generated by the monsters, human and inhuman, that still give us nightmares.
*Yes, I wrote that intentionally. I know. I couldn’t help myself.
NFNT interviewer Anna Call: Thank you very much for sitting down with me. I’ve read Bad Blood. I was very impressed, as I think a lot of your readers were, and I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about how it was to write Bad Blood verses some of your other material that readers may have been familiar with previously, the YA novels that you’ve written, the zombie books, and the stuff you’ve done for Marvel.
Jonathan Maberry: It’s certainly different than the Marvel stuff. I was writing mostly superhero stuff for Marvel, even when it was apocalyptic, like Marvel Universe Versus and Marvel Zombies Returns. But it was definitely a different approach. This was a darker story, there aren’t any conventional heroes in it, and it’s a bit more personal in some ways.
I had a friend, when I was in high school, or junior high school, who had leukemia. Going through it with him and trying to be his friend, you know, a good friend through it while he was dealing with what he knew to be a life-threatening disease, couldn’t be detached from it. I kind of have some of that back story built in, and I had planned to explore that dynamic as time went on. As far as my novels, comics are substantially different than novels. Even though with a five-issue arc, you get to tell a moderately complex story, but it’s a different type of storytelling. You get more personal very quickly. Bad Blood has that kind of vibe to it.
NFNT: It is very personal.
JM: Yeah. What does it mean to be a hero, what does it mean to live forever, what does it mean to die? These are fairly complex questions for a person. The nature of hope, and the nature of hope being lost or betrayed are things you can explore pretty easily and pretty fully in the comic book because you get the artwork and the expressions of the characters to help tell the story in ways deeper than through just words. You get that extra layer of storytelling that comic art really does well.
NFNT: What made you decide to make this a vampire story? We’re a very vampire-saturated culture and you’ve contributed a lot of very interesting, innovative stories to the zombie genre. This wasn’t a complete change for you, you’ve written vampires before, but what inspired you?
JM: I was into vampires long before zombies. I did five nonfiction books on the folklore, myths, and legends of vampires. So I did quite a bit of research on the subject of what people actually believed in terms of vampires and vampire-like creatures. And also, my first three novels, Ghost Road Blues, Dead Man’s Song, and Bad Moon Rising, are vampire novels, so I was more into vampires before I got into zombie fiction. I’ve always loved the vampire as monsters. It’s a very interesting monster to write about because it’s so different than what people expect. Most people, the only thing they know about vampires is from Hollywood movies and pop culture, and those versions of vampires don’t in any way resemble vampires of myth and legend. So I kind of like playing with being new by being old-school, so to speak. Finding fresh new stories by tapping into older legends that people have, in this day and age, kind of forgotten.
NFNT: Is that why you present characters who seem to think that vampires are almost this angelic being as opposed to the very dark creatures, the almost parasites that you present?
JM: Well, vampires become romanticized. It’s kind of hard in movies and TV to keep a monster purely monstrous and be able to tell a story that people relate to. When Dracula was brought to the theater, into early film, they made him a romantic, tragic figure so that it would kind of tie into Victorian, post-Victorian seduction elements, which were big factors in the culture of the time. So the vampire had to be a seductive character rather than just a pure monster. Pure monsters tend to be one-note. By giving the vampire complexity of that sort, they were able to bring something fresh to it. The thing is, when they stuck to that one note, it kind of became a problem, it became also one-note. The vampires became this kind of tragic, love-lorn creature that is misunderstood and is only looking for love in this horrible thing that they do. It became that same one note again. In folklore, there are a lot of different kinds of vampires, different reasons for people to become vampires, and not all of them are evil, not all of them drink blood, etcetera…I wanted to go back and explore the other possibilities.
NFNT: Well it’s pretty refreshing after Twilight.
JM: Well, you know, it’s a funny thing about Twilight. A lot of people take punches at it and certainly a lot of my writing colleagues do. I don’t, for the following reason: I’m not the demographic for that. I’m not a 13-year-old girl, or an 11-year-old girl. Since I’m not the person it was written for, I feel that it’s kind of not for me to say that this is right or wrong. Stephenie did a great job in writing for her demographic and the success of the Twilight books and movies did quite a lot for the horror industry and vampires as a fictional trope that helped people sell books, comics, movies, whatever, so I don’t take any swings at it.
That said, because the vampires of that being moderately sanitized and sparkly and so on, people were looking for a darker version, a darker story, and there have been some responses to that. Chuck Hogan and Guillermo del Toro did The Strain, Justin Cronin did The Passage, and of course I did Bad Blood and V-Wars, which was also darker, less happy vampires. That’s a response to what people wanted and to what we as storytellers wanted to say.
NFNT: Previous comics that you’ve written have dealt with superheroes, sometimes focusing on people who are on the high side of normal human ability, like the Punisher, Black Panther, going up against enemies who would have no trouble taking down a god. In Bad Blood, your heroes are sort of taking that to the extreme. They’re just about as weak as they could possibly be, but they’re going up against, we find out, the killers of history. So is there something attractive about writing weak heroes? Is there something that makes them strong in their weakness?
JM: I think that’s part of the personal journey. I grew up in an abusive household with a very monstrous father, and I grew up in a rough neighborhood where the strong and violent groups took advantage of the weak, and I survived it. I went on to teach self-defense programs to special-needs groups, women, children, the elderly and the physically challenged. I saw a lot of successes in what can happen when somebody discovers when they are stronger than they think [I saw] … people telling them that they were weak …or were trying to make them believe that they were weak so that they could make them easy prey. I know that people of all kinds can be powerful and that power and strength come in a lot of different frequencies. So I like to write about people discovering their power and finding ways to confront different kinds of threat and darkness. And, it’s fun. It’s fun to write the stories where people tend to surprise not only the bad guys, but themselves.
NFNT: Is this really a victory in Bad Blood? We find at the end that nothing is as it seems, so what does this bode for humanity? Can we look forward to a Bad Blood 2? Will Trick continue the fight?
JM: That’s being discussed. I really don’t want to give all the details, but it’s being discussed. I had originally pitched it as a five-issue standalone mini, and end it where it ends, but I’m certainly open to going further. I know what the story would be should we decide to go further. Even further, it’s still not going to turn into the feel-good comic of the year. Not all stories have happy endings.
NFNT: That is true, but something I think it’s refreshing for a story to have a little bit of a darker ending.
JM: Yes, victory has its own costs. That’s something that we should learn in Bad Blood.
NFNT: Will there be a cost to Jonas, who sort of disappears at the end?
JM: I have a feeling that I’ll be exploring the Jonas story. Also, that sort of fits with some of my political views. Sometimes, the bad guys don’t ever get comeuppance. Look at the bankers during the economic downturn. They never really got comeuppance even though they were responsible for the economic crash. It’s a political statement, but it’s a fairly provable one, that sometimes the bad guys do actually win. Doesn’t mean the good guys can’t win also, or survive or recover or whatever, but usually the world doesn’t have a very clean, final act where all villains get comeuppance and all problems are solved.
NFNT: That actually brings me to another point that I thought about when I was reading this. These vampires seem to symbolize a lot of the ills of humanity. Is that something you were going for, then, that they symbolize some of our own darkest motivations?
JM: Certainly. In mythology, which is one of the things I draw on for this, vampires have been what we’ve used to explain bad things that have happened to us. A great example: in the clinical condition of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, SIDS, they would put a child to bed, and the next morning the child would have died. There was no explanation, they didn’t understand it, and if you’re going back even a century, there are people who just can’t imagine how God would let their child die. It was easier for them to believe that some kind of a monster came in – a ghost, a spirit, a demon, a vampire – and attacked the child, took its life, stole its breath, or whatever. That makes sense, because if there are monsters, then that helps prove the existence of God, because if you pray for protection from monsters, having seen what monsters can do, those prayers are often rewarded. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome rarely affects the same family more than once. So once the child dies and they pray to God for protection from this monster, this vampire or whatever, then their other children don’t suffer the same fate.
This is one of the ways in which faith was built: the fact that prayer appeared to give you protection against these types of events. And I’m not saying this as an attack on any religion, it’s just a phenomenon within the folklore of vampires that things like SIDS was explained away by the creation of monsters. It gives you a measure of comfort to know that if there’s a monster, then there’s a god trying to protect you from the monster and all you need to do is follow the tenets of whatever your religion is, and you’ll be protected.
If you look at werewolf legends, there are hundreds and hundreds of cases in Italy, Germany, France, and other places where people were arrested for being werewolves, and if you read the transcripts of those trials, which are available, what you find out is that these were serial killers, people acting like animals. There was no concept of what a serial killer was at the time. Believing a person was possessed by a demon or a monster made sense because we didn’t really understand abnormal psychology, sociopathy, or any of that. Monsters help us have a balanced view of the world. Sounds freaky, but that’s pretty much how it works out.
NFNT: How do the vampires in Bad Blood – or do they – balance the world? They seem to think that they are apex predators, keeping the human population in check. Do they have a place, or are they just an evolutionary gaffe?
JM: We don’t really explain it too much in Bad Blood and I don’t really want to yet because if we did go into a second story, that would be kind of a factor. But the short version of it is that they are part of nature, but they’re part of a darker side of nature. Nature has a duality: one that’s positive and geared toward health, and one that’s negative and geared toward destruction. Both are necessary. Even cancer is part of nature. Vampires are to the evolution of predators what cancer is to the microscopic world. They have their place. It’s just that, unlike cancer, they develop awareness so that they are able to understand that their nature is predatory. Unfortunately, there are corollaries in humanity as well, people who realize that being a predator is more fun than being prey, so that they simply embrace that as what they’re supposed to be and who they’re supposed to be.
NFNT: You’ve been prolific in both print and comics. Have any of your previous successes influenced Bad Blood at all?
JM: There’s an echo of it in my Pine Deep novels. There’s a character named Mike Sweeney who had his own issues with a doomed life and his own connection to vampires. It isn’t a direct connection, it’s just part of the process of thinking about what it’s like to be in a life where essentially you’re doomed. How do you go on living if you’re doomed? In this case, Trick in Bad Blood has terminal cancer, and in the Pine Deep novels, the character Mike Sweeney was destined to become something terrible that he didn’t want to be.
This also brings up another issue that is a factor in some of my writing: nature, nurture, and choice. We often look at that issue of nature verses nurture, but I actually believe that there’s a third element to that, which is choice. We don’t have to be what our nature or our environment has tried to make us. We can impose our will and choose to be who we want to be. Trick could just very easily give up and be nothing. He could let it all go and say,”It’s not mine to do.” And that isn’t his choice. Actually, he’s one of the most heroic characters I’ve written because he has no resources. He has no chance, no thought that he could possibly win. He just knows that he can’t die without having done something. He’s a fun character.
NFNT: He was very easy to empathize with.
JM: It was a shame to mess with him so much, because he probably wouldn’t like me! But writers aren’t in the business of giving their characters a good time.
NFNT: That is true. Lolly actually has very sad story as we learn more about her. Did you research her world, her subculture at all, or did you draw upon influences from anywhere else?
JM: That’s a little bit of personal experience too. I worked, for several years, as a bouncer in a very seedy strip club. I knew a lot of the girls who were dancers and a lot of them were people who were either lost or who were trying to make a buck. A lot of them were junkies. Some of them were single moms with no education, no resources, trying to make money to raise their kid and didn’t want to get trapped in the lifestyle. It’s a very destructive one. You see a lot of substance abuse, you see a lot of sadness. You see a lot of people who, if they just had one good break, would have a much better life, but life just does not seem to give them the break that they deserve. I drew a lot on that experience, the years working at that club. It’s a sad, sad thing that we have so many people pushed to the fringes of our society who just aren’t convenient for us to take time to deal with, so we marginalize them, forgetting that that means that we’re ignoring an actual life. There’s a lot that went into the character of Lolly.
NFNT: Do you have anything big in store for the future? I’ve heard rumors that one of your series is on track to become a movie.
JM: Actually, we have two books in development for film right now. The Rot and Ruin series is in development for film, that’s my post-apocalyptic zombie series for teens. And, I’m doing a new monthly comic on it for IDW that will launch in September, all brand-new stories set in that world, set between books two and three in that series. Also Dead of Night, which is one of my novels for my adult readers, which is also a zombie novel, is in development for film right now. We’re just a script phase for that right now. The other thing is V-Wars, which started out as a prose anthology for IDW. V stands for vampires [and] the culture acquires vampires after a virus triggers junk DNA and people begin turning into whatever type of vampire is part of their ethnic background. So you have all of these different vampire species from around the world causing problems. The first anthology came out last year. It went really well. The second anthology is coming out in August and IDW asked me to write a monthly comic, which came out this past week. Plus we had a free issue come out on Free Comic Book Day on Saturday. That’s just been optioned for television.
NFNT: It sounds like you have an awful lot going on.
JM: I’m having a lot of fun working on all these different projects. Right now, I’m in that gear where I’m spending half my time working on zombies, half on vampires, with just a little time left over for other things. I’m doing my adult thriller series, a couple new projects that I’ll be announcing pretty shortly, from outside my usual zone.
NFNT: If I can ask you one last question before we go, I’ve been wondering, while reading your previous works, what brought you to zombies and vampires in the first place?
JM: The zombie part – I was always interested in horror and horror movies when I was a kid. My grandmother got me interested in the folklore of vampires and other monsters before I even started watching monster movies. She was really knowledgeable on the subject and told me quite a lot about world folklore and got me to read quite a bit about everything from archaeology to anthropology to mythology. So that kind of kicked that process off. Then when I was ten years old, a buddy and I snuck into the movies in Philadelphia to see the world premiere of Night of the Living Dead, back in 1968. That pretty much locked me in to being a zombie fan for the rest of my life. That movie absolutely scared the bejeezus out of me. I love the movie. I went back to see it over and over again, and have seen, as far as I know, just about every zombie movie ever made. One of the fun things about writing this sort of stuff is that I also get to know and become friends with the people who write zombie books. Robert Kirkman, Jim McKinney and so on, we all get to know each other and share in the very strange world we’re procreating.
NFNT: I saw your work in Marvel Zombies. That must have been a lot of fun to work on.
JM: Yeah, that was originally supposed to be Marvel Zombies 3 or 4, but I decided to call it Marvel Zombies Return. Seth Grahame-Smith, David Wellington, and Fred Van Lente, we each took turns writing different chapters of that story. It was so much fun. I got to do Zombie Wolverine and Zombie Spider-Man, and now I have a Zombie Wolverine statue on my bookshelf here. It’s a very cool statue. But yeah, Marvel Zombies was always a favorite of mine. What a lot of people don’t know is that the Marvel Zombies characters were originally created by Robert Kirkman, the guy who created The Walking Dead. It started with the Ultimates, which is where the zombies showed up. He’s a much bigger influence on zombie pop culture than people know from Walking Dead. It was fun to play with those characters, see what we could do with them.
NFNT: Do you have a favorite character? You mentioned that you’ve never written anyone quite as heroic as Trick in Bad Blood, but how does he rank in your personal pantheon?
JM: Of my characters, or of all the characters out there?
NFNT: Of course your characters.
JM: My favorite character is Joe Ledger, the main character of my thriller series. He’s actually the opposite of Trick. He’s the ultimate badass. He’s also a smartass and he’s an awful lot of fun to write. Trick is probably the one I feel the most sympathy for and wish that I’d been able to give a happier ending than I gave him, but it is what it is. Trick was a lot of fun, and there’s a lot of subtlety and in-jokes that we throw into Trick that people may catch later on. Some of the visual sight gags and so on have nods to other things in pop culture. Trick was a lot of fun. He’s one of the characters I’ll always remember, probably one I’ll return to.
Aline and Robert Crumb are one of the great couples of comicdom. Robert Crumb is know for such iconic underground comix creations as Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, as well as a recent graphic adaptation of the Book of Genesis. Aline Crumb was an early fixture in underground comix as well, and author of the raw and hilarious memoir Need More Love. We were lucky to get a chance to speak with Aline Crumb about Drawn Together, a new book collecting comics that the duo created together over several decades of marriage. The book contains plenty of eye-popping artwork and raunchy humor, with guest cartoonist appearances by Sophie Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns and others. At the same time, Drawn Together depicts a very close and dynamic partnership between two people whose journey together never ceases to evolve and amuse.
NFNT: You and your husband are both are notable cartoonists in your own right – tell me about your background.
Aline Crumb: I was a painter before I met [Robert Crumb] and I started drawing comics in 1971. I was in the first Wimmen’s Comix and that was before I got together with him. So I already had started drawing comics but I still painted – I still paint now. I’m essentially a visual artist.
NFNT: When and how did you start cartooning together?
AC: The first year I was living with him we were up in the country in northern California, really in a remote place, and I fell and broke my leg. I was going crazy so – when he was a kid he used to draw two-man comics with his brother Charles and they would just go back and forth – so he suggested we try doing it. We did it in the beginning just to amuse ourselves really.
So that’s how we got started, and we found that it worked really well between us, which is not obvious. At one point we tried to get some other cartooning couples to see if they could participate in a project with us and nobody could do it. As far as we know, we’re the only couple in the world or that’s ever existed in cartooning that’s ever done this to the degree that we’ve done it. We know couples where one person writes and the other person draws or vice versa but we don’t know any other case of a couple where each one draws themselves and writes their own dialogue and it’s sort of like a conversation.
NFNT: What is your process when you work together – do you both draw at the same time or do you write it first?
AC: We write it first – whenever we travel together or even go out to dinner or whatever we always have a notebook with us. We write all these mundane stories – something will strike us in a really funny way and we’ll write a story. One of the last stories in the book is called “The High Road to the Shmuck Seat” and that took place in a café in France where we had kind of an amazing revelation after years of marriage.
We write them and then we pick out a story. We pencil out the panels and do all that and then we put the dialogue in each panel in pencil. Depending on how many pages it is we’ll do the whole story – not if it’s a thirty-page story but if it’s like a three or four page story we do the whole thing. Otherwise, if it’s a long story, we’ll do two pages at a time. After we have the dialogue penciled in we each draw ourselves in in pencil, and then when that’s done one person starts inking and then passes it to the other one, and then we just go back and forth like that.
We work in the same room when we’re working on stuff together. We have two desks in Robert’s studio – normally I don’t work in his studio but for this I do. So we have the desks kind of up against each other and we work looking at each other. We don’t do it all the time, this is just one thing that we do. But it’s interesting and in a way it’s more fun than working by yourself, I have to say.
NFNT: You’ve got someone else sort of pushing you in different directions.
AC: Yeah, you get this feedback and you take off – it’s like improv a little bit. A lot of the time you bounce off the other person and their ideas, one thing leads to another, and sometimes it ends up quite different than we intended. If we have something we wanted to say we try and make a point to stick with that a little bit, even though it still doesn’t always come out as we intended.
NFNT: Some of these comics have been collected previously but is the one you mentioned – “the High Road to the Shmuck Seat” – is that one new to this collection?
AC: That one’s new, “Dinner with Slacky” is new and the one about senior sex is also new. Those are all new stories.
We really wanted to do something really raunchy and sexual because there’s nothing more disgusting than the thought of old people having sex so that seemed like an important idea.
My daughter looked at it and she said “Oh my god, you’re sixty-four, I thought by now you’d stop embarrassing me with this stuff!”
NFNT: You both take a very self-conscious tone throughout the book, frequently worrying about what readers will think. At the same time, you often show things either as they are, or at least not in the most flattering light. Nothing’s held sacred. What motivates that?
AC: It’s some deep neurotic need to say “Look how disgusting I am, do you still like me?” I don’t think it’s much more than that. I could put it in more complex and pretentious sounding terms but I don’t think it would be more accurate.
NFNT: In some of those final stories you do talk about self-awareness as a positive thing – so it seems like all the self loathing ultimately leads to an awareness of yourself and what’s going on around you.
AC: Well I do think the dialectic of self-criticism is really important and it’s an important theme of all of the work – it’s a theme of my life. In comics I’m making fun of it but it’s a very serious thing actually – but it wouldn’t be very enjoyable to read if I didn’t make it funny. I do think that constant self-criticism is really important. As you get older, hopefully you have more detachment about yourself and you’re taking that criticism in a different direction a little bit, evolving. But I do think that the ability to self correct and to improve and to move ahead is one of the essential things in life – one of the reasons long term relationships can work is that you’re both constantly refining yourselves and you’re redefining the relationship as you grow and change. You’re always criticizing and always looking at where your fault lies and how you can improve.
In my old age I’ve gotten into yoga and Robert meditates – we both have gotten more into another level of looking into ourselves, as hopefully you do when you get closer to the end of your life.
NFNT: It’s interesting because obviously you’re real people, but in the book I have to read you as characters. And you do mature over the course of the book.
AC: Thank god!
NFNT: It made me think that these are adult comics in two very different ways. There’s the raunchy sex stuff, and underneath that there’s the story of two people maturing, which is a different kind of “adult” – it’s actually a book about adults and adult concerns.
AC: For me, I think our work is not pornographic particularly or erotic at all – it makes fun of sex, actually, as it does everything else. So to me it doesn’t count really as pornography – I don’t think it’s titillating at all. I think it’s the opposite. It brings sex down to the level of eating and everything else, which is just a part of life. It’s really the opposite of titillating. But some people just see images and nothing more.
NFNT: What’s next for you? Are you still making these comics? I know you said you were painting…do you have any projects you’re working on now?
AC: I’m working on a story now about our recent trip we took to Serbia. I’m also thinking of working on a book by myself now.
Robert’s got two or three projects he’s thinking of doing he’s not sure which one he’s going to do. So we’re kind of putzing around here, we’ll see.
Or maybe we’ll retire! We’re not sure. We play with our grandchildren a lot.
NFNT: I did like it that in the book, while almost everything is collaborative, there are a few stories that either he did by himself or you did by yourself, and it’s nice to have that contrast in there where we can see your individual styles.
AC: Oh good. That one where we each do a day in our lives – I thought that was pretty funny. I wasn’t sure how much that would work but I like that it’s just this very small slice of time and so many annoying things can happen in that small space. I’m glad it worked because it’s different than the other stuff.
My one criticism of this book, and I don’t know if this is true, is that it might be too much – I don’t know if it’s a book that you should read in one sitting. It might be a book that you want to look at and read a little bit and then put it down and read again later because it might be too much of us in your face for one sitting – that’s my feeling about it.
NFNT: Recommended in small doses.
AC: Yeah! Maybe in several sittings. I think some of the stories are maybe a little bit of a relief too.
NFNT: What kind of response have you seen so far?
AC: One reason why I like to do book signings out in public once in a while is because I like to see who reads the work. Really it’s all ages – it’s really interesting. All ethnic groups and everything – it really amazes me, that people from such different backgrounds – different religious and socio-cultural backgrounds can relate to it. It crosses over a lot of lines and that always amazes me. I’m really happy to see that, because if you don’t do that once in a while you really don’t know who you’re writing for anymore as you grow older and your audience disperses and they become grandparents or die off, you wonder “who’s reading this stuff?”
It’s interesting to go out there – I just came back from the Miami Book Fair and I did stuff in New York and that was very stimulating . I get to see people’s faces and talk to them – so then when I’m working I imagine them, and that’s really good for me.
NFNT: I was curious about that. When you talk about “what will the readers think of us”, I was wondering who you were thinking of as the readers.
AC: Well now I have a whole new crop of people I can think of because they’re a lot younger than I expected. I used to think I’m talking to these old hippies and now I see all these other generations reading this stuff so that really inspires me. It’s kind of what makes me want to produce this book now too. The name of my next book, if I do it, it’s going to be called “Talentless Parasite”. That’s what someone said about me in terms of working on the same page with my illustrious husband. They said “he’s really great, and she’s just a talentless parasite.” I thought well, that’s so great! Once someone called me the Yoko Ono of underground comics years ago and I use that a lot, I thought that was pretty good. But now I like talentless parasite – I felt that’s a poetic book title. So that’s my title.
NFNT: That’s good that you can own that too, rather than feel pressured to stop making work.
AC: Yes, exactly.
NFNT: Well I’ll look forward to reading that, so I hope you do it!
AC: All right well you’ll have to be patient. I’m not fast. I teach yoga and pilates and I have an art gallery and I play with my grandchildren – I’m busy.
NFNT: Sounds like a good life.
AC: Yeah, it’s okay! I can’t complain.
Drawn Together by A. Crumb and R. Crumb Published by Liveright ISBN: 9780871404299
Author Rosemary Edghill can now officially say she has written a book in every genre— including books with Superheroes!
Have you read any of the Shadow Grail books she co-wrote with Mercedes Lackey and thought the characters reminded you a bit of the X-Men? Well, Rosemary has been a huge fan of the X-Men ever since the first comic was published. She even got the chance to write two X-Men tie-in novels, Smoke and Mirrors and Time’s Arrow Book Three as well as a short story in Ultimate X-Men.
Over at Not Quite Superhuman, I got the chance to interview Rosemary about the new book she co-wrote with Mercedes Lackey, Dead Reckoning. When I found out what a big fan she was of the X-Men, I thought it would be great to get her take on working for the Marvelverse as an author. Here is what she had to say about it:
Rosemary Edghill: I have been a Marvelmaniac since Issue #1 of the X-Men, so getting to write two X-men novels had me all: OH MY GOD I AM WRITING THE X-MEN!!!
I didn’t exactly work directly with Marvel (though I used to hang out with Chris Claremont in a totally-unrelated way, which was very awesome) — I was working with Keith deCandido, who was the editor preparing the books for Boulevard Books (I think it was) which held the license at the time. I cannot say enough about Keith’s awesomeness (so I used him as a character in both books) and his fanboy chops — he’s a huge comics fan from way back, and we bonded over comics, which was how I ended up getting the gig. He also knew I’d used to write for Warren Magazine Group (Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella) back in the day, so I had totally paid my dues in comics. As well as earning the right to say I used to kill vampires for a living. TRUTH!
On the second book, Spider-Man and the X-Men: Time’s Arrow: Book Three: The Future (which totally wins my award for most colons in a book title) I was writing the third book in the trilogy. All three books had different writes, and Tom deFalco had outlined all the stories (the fun thing was, when I wrote Book Three, I don’t think One and Two were done yet, so I kind of winged it), so for that I just had to hew to canon and a sort of postmodern Comics Code sensibility. Keith sent me a huge, huge, huge stack of comics for reference, because I was dealing with a number of characters I didn’t know, like the Future X-Men (I think the book was called X-Men 2020, so it’s not that far in the future these days, is it?), and the future versions of Iron Man and Spider Girl. But I was already entirely familiar with the Marvelverse, and, of course, the X-Teams.
Anyway, when I finished the manuscript, I sent it off to Keith, and he sacrificed chickens over it ran it past Marvel Licensing, but I don’t think I had to make many changes.
This was not true of my other X-Book, Smoke and Mirrors, where I submitted a full proposal (since I’d come up with the plot) and Licensing kept saying “The X-Men Cannot Be Terrorists” (silly licensing department). So I made some tweaks to the original idea to have the X-Men fighting primarily against the Villain of Importance for the Book (who was supposed to be a big reveal around Chapter Six or so, but they put him on the cover, alas) who was not working as directly for the government as he was in the first version of my outline.
Licensing’s only other tweak to Smoke and Mirrors was in the scene where the crazy Wolverine-clone, Ladykiller, is slaughtering her way across the United States: there’s one scene where she’s killed everyone in the house but a tiny baby. I had to make it very clear that no, contrary to all expectations, the wee tot survives…
The most important thing in doing a tie-in novel, especially for a comic book property, is to maintain the “look and feel” of the original. Sure, you’re doing it all with words and not with pictures (*sadface*) but the ideal is to write something that could be retroengineered into a comic book without the need to throw out incidents or behaviors that you just wouldn’t see in the usual book. (Although I’m not entirely sure what that would be these days.)
But it was the experience of a lifetime to get to virtually hang out with the X-Men, and I absolutely adored it. And I would do it again in a New York Minute, too. Because they are just that awesome….
Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder series has long been a favorite of comics insiders. She’s imagined an expansive world with a deep and layered society that lets her explore themes ranging from cyberpunk to aboriginal mysticism, all firmly rooted in the complex interpersonal relationships of a large cast of intriguing and believable characters. In 2011 McNeil transitioned from self-publishing to working with Dark Horse Comics, allowing her work to find a broader audience. Her first Dark Horse release was Finder: Voice followed by two volumes of the Finder library and an ongoing story in Dark Horse Presents. I interviewed her through email just as she finished up her first year with Dark Horse.
NFNT: Now that you’re a year in, how’s life with a big publisher? Any changes from self-publishing that were hard to get used to?
Carla Speed McNeil: Not really. It still amazes me to have so many dedicated professionals asking me what I think about this or that detail of production or promotion. When you’re a one-stop shop, it’s a bit different. The great thing about having an editor (when that editor likes and understands what you want to do) is that, when you call her at work to bounce an idea off of her, you’re not gonna get her in trouble with her boss.
NFNT: Dark Horse Presents is somewhat unique in the current American comic market; there aren’t a lot of other ongoing anthology books out there. What does the anthology format let you do that you couldn’t pull off in, say, a webcomic or a 32 page monthly book?
CSM: DHP is so jam-packed with Names every issue that people have to blast disdainfully past to get to me, it’s amazing. I’m sure that’s just what everybody does. “Frank Miller, bah. Eric Powell, what have you done for me lately? Howard Chaykin, Andi Watson, Steve Niles, Neal Adams, REALLY? AHHH, here’s the good stuff, Carla Speed McNeil.” DHP is the big kids’ table, and no mistake. I tend to blast past the other entries in the book to check on how mine turned out because if I don’t move fast, one of those bald eagles will eat me.
Seriously– it has been interesting, getting to the point of actually being able to write in little chunks. Eight pages is SHORT. I was never able to write short before– technically, this isn’t short, since these eight-page chapters are all pieces of a larger story, but cutting a big story into fractions like this, building anecdotal pieces into a larger whole, isn’t something I was able to do before. The art keeps pushing back; it wants more room to expand, but I must say that if it wasn’t somewhat confined, I would never have at last shrugged my shoulders and started drawing the layered city streets of my city in as much detail as I have in 3RDWORLD, my DHP story. I’d always meant to render them, but they want to be full-page images, multiple full-page images, possibly four- or five-page panoramas, and I always begged for mercy from the demands of my imagination and didn’t draw them. Now that a panorama has to be represented by at most half a page, I’m drawing them.
None of this rules out returning to a 32-page book or a webcomic.
NFNT: One of the obvious effects of your move to Dark Horse is that Finder is now available in a few different forms — individual issues, collected trades, big omnibuses, online, with notes, without notes — do you have in mind a “right” way to read them? When you’re working, how do you imagine the reader accessing your work?
CSM: No right way. Every way is right for different reasons. As a reader, I still want the TPBs in my hands, but I can’t resist some books as individual issues or as digital files. Some books I buy in all three forms. I never think of how the reader will access my work when I’m drawing it; this is why I never try out stuff like side-scrolling formats when I do webcomics, or any of the flash-comic bells and whistles. These often don’t translate well (or at all) into print, and I’m still very much in favor of printed books. People love the notes. Digital formats offer interesting possibilities for bookmarking and footnoting within the work. These don’t exclude print. I’m all for digital, but not to exclusion of other formats.
NFNT: Speaking of notes, your extensive world building is definitely one of Finder’s strong points. The notes deliver page after page of great little cultural/historical/character details that read like you’re working from a big pool of research rather than making it all up. What sort of prep work do you do before starting a storyline?
CSM: Oh, I’m easily bored, so I always have a jumble of bright shiny ideas in the back of my head to play with. I also have my mulch-pile, the stacks of pages and scrap paper that I have ideas and scenes scrawled down on. Bits of anthropology, sociology, history, folklore joggle around until I have a use for them. There’s a difference (at least, for me, right now) between these details, the characters who voice or enact them, and the creation of a plot. Plots may hinge on culture clash or the actions of people who think they agree but don’t, or who want the same thing but go about getting them in radically different ways, but those things that come from my research tend to spin things this or that way rather than form the seeds for a plot.
NFNT: At the same time, you manage to avoid the common speculative fiction trap of letting the cleverness of your world building drag your narrative down into exposition hell. Is that something you actively fight against?
CSM: Ho ho ho. Yes.
Ever since Day One I’ve had letters from people asking “Why isn’t this or that cool detail actually IN the book? Why is it only in the notes?” Because I didn’t think of it until I was writing the notes. The notes are like a slightly perverse back-up story. I start with the stuff that would bog the story down (or bog it down FURTHER, in some cases), and start cramming more stuff in as I type.
NFNT: Since you’ve built such a large sandbox to play in, Finder’s able to wander into all sorts of places. Do you have any particular favorite locations or ideas you were able to explore? Alternately, have you had any ideas that you just couldn’t fit into your world? Has anything popped up while you were writing that surprised you?
CSM: Well, of course it was my intention to build a world in which I could tell any story I liked. That’s what you did, back when six thousand pages seemed like too much. Back before online networking and author blogs, it was hard to keep track of your favorite authors and what they were up to if they didn’t have a personal project to publish in which they printed lists of other projects, show appearances, that sort of the thing. Print blogs, that’s what the letters pages of comics are. The idea was to make a world with a very high ceiling, so I could move around if I had to. Start a war in this part of the world? Move to a part that’s untouched by it. High tech story in this part, low tech over here. And of course in any part of the world I can set a small, personal story, which is what I’ve tended to do. I am laboring now under the idea of creating a big, overarching plot that will affect all or most of my world.
In the past, my itch to explore ideas not consonant with my world was scratched by collaborations with other writers. I will say, though, that I have a pet project that can’t be cut to fit or painted to match the FINDER scenario. It hatched out most unexpectedly at TCAF a few years back, and is more or less fleshed out now. As a writing exercise, having this wholly new Thing calve itself off of the parent glacier was very liberating.
Then there are a lot of explorations within FINDER; one’s about a mail-order bride from a clan in which all mature women look like ten-year-old girls. It’s a rumination on youth as a constant in the aesthetics of beauty. Thematically, it’s my old favorite, culture clash, but it will probably get me arrested. Give to the CBLDF, you never know who’s gonna need them.
NFNT: One of the more distinctive aspects of the society you’ve imagined is the dominance of a small number of clans all striving for physical homogeneity — something that sounds like an absolute nightmare for an artist but you pull off really well. Have you ever had occasion to regret that choice?
CSM: Not really, because cultural identity within self-chosen and self-rejected parameters is something I think about a lot. People choose, and groups choose. Making them all look the same, or the same with specific variations, is just a way of putting the idea through its paces. Establishing a group identity is very like establishing a character’s identity: when people see a member of a well-known group, they are seeing a chess piece or ‘face card.’ if that individual character conforms to the group’s characteristics, the reader knows what to expect. If they don’t, the reader may be intrigued as to why. Given that I have a lot of clans, each of which has its own ideas, I don’t find it limiting.
NFNT: It’s pretty uncommon to see an author produce a main character of the opposite gender. How deliberate was that choice with Jaeger? [A side note, when I discussed this with my wife she laid out some big Jungian theory I couldn’t hope to reproduce here so bonus points if you include Jung or the animus!]
CSM: Uhhhh… is it uncommon?
I didn’t realize. Jaeger is chipped off of a core personality in the back of my head (one of several). That core personality is ‘fed’ by a number of people, some of them female, but most of them male. This core personality has taken many forms, some of them nonhuman, since I was quite small. Once he became part of a story and had a name, Jaeger had to have a story of his own, rather than remain an elemental force. He is masculine because I love masculinity. I am fascinated by it in men; I am fascinated by it in women. Another fan favorite, Lynne, is also chipped off that same core, and Lynne loves makeup.
Is that Jungian? I guess if it includes an interior masculine core, it’s an animus. I once told a male friend I had to get in touch with my inner drag queen in order to discover my tastes in specifically feminine clothing. He smiled at me quizzically and asked how I could have such a thing if I am authentically female. I could only say that that’s how it felt.
NFNT: Similarly, a lot of authors who take a shot at writing characters of the opposite gender come up short. Do you have some secret trick for writing believable men?
CSM: You’ve got to like what you’re writing about to write it well. I like people. Some of them are men. It’s just like drawing: if you want to draw people well, you’ve got to spend some time really looking at them. If you want to draw cars or trains or pastries or abyssal crab species well, you’ve got to pay some attention to them. Then you have to show what you see. You don’t leave out a joint in a crab’s legs because you don’t like it. If your story calls for a hyper-detailed crab, you depict that. If your story calls for a more symbolic rendering of an anglerfish, you do that. Same with trains and cars and pastry and people. If you can’t write convincing men, or women, or kids, it’s because you’re not paying attention.
Many of my favorite science fiction writers do not really have a dab hand at writing vivid characters, mainly because the progression of their core ideas are not dependent on the voice which articulates them. Characters are something that happens as the plot unfolds, rather than the other way around. What people do and how they do it is what I get into– especially the broad range of what people find boring. The AMAZING THINGS that are ordinary and banal. Characters’ sexual identities are loci in their personalities– collections of traits that lend themselves to storytelling. Sometimes you play a king, sometimes you play a jack. What body you put any given locus into can make things so interesting.
NFNT: Of course you’ve also got a slew of intriguing female characters and a great willingness to dive headfirst into thorny issues of gender politics. With that in mind, I was a little surprised to see you consistently cite Cerebus as an influence. Cerebus and Dave Sim are rarely mentioned without some acknowledgement of the misogynist philosophizing that cropped up in later issues. Do you see your work as inherently political or feminist? Do you have any trouble separating someone else’s craft and artistry from their politics?
CSM: I don’t have an agenda, but I do have a point of view. I’m sure I’m missing things, I’m sure there are plenty of things I haven’t thought through. I don’t want my work to devolve into political tract, so I leave interpretation up to the readers. It was important to Dave Sim to do the opposite. I’m not wild about quite a lot of his content, but the man is a master of the form. My fascination with comics took hold with CEREBUS, and his soapbox rants about getting started and overcoming obstacles were a large part of the genesis of my career. His mysticism is cut from whole cloth and it’s worth study to see how its presentation evolves in his work. The length of the work, the ambition of the writer, and the texture and detail contributed by Gerhard have created an immense world. And nobody has the control of pacing and dialogue, the inflections of the spoken word, that Dave has.
I’m equally interested in the world that Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino have created, especially now that they’re really starting to move forward with it. Used to be, TV was where ideas went to die. Now, TV seems to be a place where they have a place to spread out and grow in ways that movies can’t. Seems heretical to say TV is better than movies, but TV studios are taking risks that Hollywood seems not to be these days.
NFNT: I’ve spent some time lately debating whether libraries should keep their graphic novels in a separate section or mix them in with the other books, putting them in fiction, sci-fi, nonfiction, and so on. If you had your choice, where would you like to see Finder shelved?
CSM: If space and available copies do not permit cross-shelving, I like to see GNs in their own section, divided into subsections. But as the current crop of kids grows up, I think it’ll be less and less of an issue.
NFNT: I just chipped in to the Smut Peddler kickstarter. At the same time, libraries are going crazy trying to keep up with the demand for 50 Shades of Grey (except for the libraries who’ve refused to shelve it, of course). Do you think we’ve hit some sort of tipping point for social acceptance of erotica?
CSM: Dunno. Dita Von Teese has her own line of lingerie and makeup, and I like her. An old friend of mine from high school now dances burlesque, and I only felt weird about really, REALLY wanting to see her perform for half a minute or so. I’m not that fond of sleaze, so it’s cool that there’s more stuff that doesn’t stink available. Ted Sturgeon’s 90% law still applies– but if the total is bigger, then the 10% contains more cool stuff to choose from.