środa, 12 września 2012

Interview with Shaenon K. Garrity, comic artist and creator of Narbonic and Skin Horse

First – hello to all English-reading folks who stumbled upon this interview. And now, to not make introductions too long, let’s get to it.

Today Net is Nerdy presents you the very hard-working and known in the business of Internet cartoons guest. Shaenon K. Garrity publishes comedic webcomics for years. She draws, she writes and she is full of ideas… mad ideas, that is, because most of her creations have something to do with MAD SCIENCE!!! (yes, with exclamation marks, because mad science is that awesome). She’s most known as creator of Narbonic, a story of a guy who got too near certain girl dabbling in beforementioned field of science work and thus he became a technician in crazy place called Narbonic Labs. In addition to this long running and awarded project, she created kinda-sorta spin-off Li’l Mell and Skin Horse (created with Jeff C. Wells) – her ongoing comic set in the same shared universe about government project that eliminates problems caused by non-human sapients… with a team that consists of ex-military crossdressing ladies man (puns not intended, BTW), hyperinteligent dog field-team leader, zombie/Frankenstein girl bent mostly on killing everything (but otherwise symphatetic, albeit she has short attention span) and military helicopter with a brain of obnoxious nerd. Yes, you can see that this is kinda unique. In addition, Shaenon does lots of acclaimed side projects, writes about comics for Comixology and recaps X-Files in the webcomic form. It’s not surprising she has lots of interesting things to say, so, well, enjoy the interview.

Shaenon with Jeffrey C. Wells, co-creator of Skin Horse

WARNING!!! – just read some stories from Skin Horse first. Or all of it. You won’t regret it and then you’ll understand the interview better, I suppose.

Hi and welcome to Net is Nerdy guest zone. I will start with pretty obvious, predictable question. Narbonic? Skin Horse? All revolves around mad science, mad scientists and effects of their experiments (sometimes mad too). From where the preoccupation with mad science came from? Is there any particular reason or inspiration behind this long-running theme in Your work?

I just love science. I wanted to major in biology in college, but I soon found that I don't have the patience for scientific work. I'm much better at just making stuff up, which is how I ended up writing science fiction instead.

I also love scientists, their enthusiasm and curiosity. I have a friend who's a mycologist, and that guy can talk about mushrooms all day long. The scientific mind reminds me of Wordsworth: "The earth, and every common sight/To me did seem/Apparell'd in celestial light." Can you tell that I ended up majoring in English?

I’m a bit behind when it comes to Narbonic, as I mentioned in email conversation, but I found Skin Horse very fascinating. So let’s delve into mad-sciency part of Your work a little deeper. The characters of Skin Horse are mostly the creations of evil inventors or shadowy corporations, made for ultimate destruction and such. They’re dealing with their past by various means (which isn’t explored in fiction that much) and they have very unique abilities and mentalities. How do you balance such characters as Unity, Sweetheart or Nick (to mention the main ensemble only), making them very human in the exploration of their issues and possible for reader to identify with – but also distinctly “alien” and believable as non-human sapients? I guess comedic character of Skin Horse (like quirky traits of cast) helps, but the comic can be pretty deep in portraying such beings.

Both Jeff and I love nonhuman characters in fantasy and sci-fi, and we're both interested in the classic question of What Makes Us Human. We probably have slightly different ideas about it, but that's all good.

One theme that keeps coming up is how the nonhuman characters get along (or don't) in a human society that doesn't accommodate them. All the main characters have different approaches and reactions; Sweetheart, for example, is conservative by nature and just wants to get along to get by, while Nick has gradually gotten involved in the Machine Union and is becoming a little more radical. Tip doesn't entirely understand any of these conflicts. Tip always tries very hard to empathize without actually succeeding all that much.  But he tries.

And, continuing the character creation questions – what, in Your opinion, is necessary to create original, cool and sympathetic character the reader had never seen before? Because You have plenty of those, I thought I should ask.

Specificity! I don't want to write a cute talking dog; I want to write this particular cute talking dog, with the romance novels and the weird daddy issues and the confused feelings of the heart. A lot of this comes from Jeff, too. Especially Sweetheart; I came up with the idea of Sweetheart and Unity, but most of the details about them are Jeff's.

These characters didn't arrive fully fleshed-out, of course. Writing is less about creating characters than it is about exploring characters (or ideas, or problems, or settings, or whatever interests you).

Tip is a crosdresser. But his portrayal deviates from the usual popculture views on crosdressing. Pretty much, Tip evades lots of stereotypes and I would even say he’s sometimes more realistic in his habit than most of fictional crossdressers. He doesn’t try to be too feminine in drag (unshaved arms :D), he is an heroic army officer, he has impossible woman seducing skill of Casanova on speed (and in the world that thinks crossdressing = instantly gay, it’s much), he’s not ashamed of his dressing and is not emo about the world not accepting him… Crosdressing is also not his sole defining trait and he avoids creepiness and over-the-top sexual portrayal of such characters from more fetish-oriented or anime works (that web is full of). Have You been aware of the stereotypes and wanted to defy them from the start or did You just imagined him that way, not addressing such issues?

My initial concept for Tip was to have a suave James Bond type who was nothing like the typical macho idea of such a character. I was definitely worried about the sensitivity of portraying a cross-dresser; I didn't want to piss off my cross-dressing friends. Some of them punch hard. Once Jeff and I started writing the character, though, he developed into an individual pretty quickly. I hope people like him.

Skin Horse is written by You and Jeff and illustrated by You. In webcomics (and traditional as well), we can get use to one writes-one draws mode of work. Please tell me – is working as a duo of authors is much different process than writing solo for You? In comics that depend mostly on witty dialogue and crazy scripts, like Skin Horse, the dual writer thing must be really important part of creation of the strips.

My previous comic strip, Narbonic, was written and drawn solely by me, which was a great challenge but also exhausting. After I finished it, I said that if I ever did another daily webcomic, I'd get someone to help me out. I was a fan of Jeff's writing and had wanted to work with him for a while, so when I came up with the idea for Skin Horse I contacted him.

I enjoy collaboration. I've collaborated on comics in almost every possible combination: drawing for a writer, writing for an artist, and trading ideas back and forth like I do with Jeff (and, previously, with Tom Hart on the short webcomic Trunktown). I'm always excited to see what unexpected ideas arise from working with someone. And Jeff is great to work with and full of crazy ideas.

Skin Horse, later in its run, was strongly integrated with Narbonic – they’re part of the same fictional world. Not to mention earlier spin-off, Li’l Mell. Tell me, is developing more separate works that take place in the same universe is a good choice for webcomic writer? It may have certain advantages, like appealing to audience you’ve earned before and creating your “brand”, but I can think of some disadvantages too, am I right?

I don't know if it's a good choice, but I thought it'd be fun. Skin Horse was always intended to take place in the same world as Narbonic, but I wanted to put off the overt crossovers as long as possible to let Skin Horse develop into its own thing. That said, I don't know if Narbonic, Li'l Mell, and Skin Horse are 100% in the same continuity with each other. Li'l Mell is maybe a little bit different. I was influenced somewhat by the manga team CLAMP, which has a lot of crossover between its many series, but there isn't really a clearly-defined, unified CLAMP-verse the way there is, say a defined DC universe. It's more of a big toybox for the creators to play in.

You’ve developed a distinct style of art for Your works. It resembles newspaper comic strips, it’s highly super-deformed (let’s put it that way) and well-suited for comical action that we witness in Your comics. What dictated such a choice of graphic style and how do You improve it with being true to its minimalistic, caricature-like character?

That's just the way I draw.  I don't really have much artistic training, and my art style is basically just a refined version of doodling.  If I could draw in different styles, I totally would. I will say that Jeff has been forcing me to push myself by coming up with increasingly complicated things to draw. The current storyline is set in a giant underground city-train.  That meant I had to design such a thing. I ended up doing a sort of cross between early Boston subway trains and the Disneyland Monorail. Consciously designing things like architecture, vehicles and costumes, to give them a sense of style and intent, is a new challenge for me.

You have been working on webcomics very, very long and You have a rather big fanbase. I would like to ask about interaction – with lots of fanart, conversations with readers and guest art pieces by know comic creators, I’m sure You have lots of experience in this matter. How one handles interactive aspect of functioning as author on Internet? And should you be picky, somewhat restrained in developing bonds with other authors and fans or you should gather as large crowd of friends as you can?

I'm pretty gregarious online; I'll talk to anyone. Fortunately, I haven't run into any problems yet. I think I'm far enough under the radar to escape most of the creeps. Some of the other lady webcartoonists I know haven't been so lucky.  But my interactions have been mostly very positive, and I always enjoy seeing fanart and other fan-stuff. I know that's one of the things Jeff enjoys most about doing Skin Horse; he gets positively giddy whenever someone sends us artwork of the characters.

I assume working on webcomics, as time-consuming as it is, isn’t the only thing You like to do. So, to give readers an idea what kind of person You are, please tell us what do You like to do when You’re not plotting new crazy adventures for comic characters or drawing new strips?

I work as a freelance manga editor for Viz Media and teach writing at the Academy of Art University. That's what pays the bills. I also volunteer at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, where my husband Andrew is the curator. It's basically all comics, all the time over here.

And finally – Monster of the Week, Your newest creation. I must say, it could be rather simple comedic take on X-Files (although awesome), recapping it episode by episode with sarcastic commentary on some stupidier/lamer/stranger/predictable stuff in them (and frankly, X-Files have lots of those). But, as far as reader can see at this early stage, You’ve managed to capture the essence of the show pretty well. Relationships, character mentality (particularly well with Scully, IMO), the plot building… You did it even better than some serious analysis done elsewhere. Do You consider parody a good way to deconstruct and learn about a work of popculture?

I don't think of Monster of the Week as a parody, but I admit I'm not entirely sure what it is.  Sarcastic recaps, I guess. I like how the characters have been developing slightly different personalities in the strip. It's not intentional, but whenever I draw Scully, she seems annoyed by all the nonsense. My Mulder is strangely perky.

Monster of the Week seemed like a good idea for about ten minutes, but then I remembered that The X-Files is nine seasons long, so I could end up doing this for a loooong time. That said, I'm having fun with it so far. I can't wait to get into the really good seasons.

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