Have you ever heard been told never to step in a fairy ring? If you’re unfamiliar with a fairy ring, it’s a natural occurring circle of mushrooms. People used to think that it was where fairies danced and the circle was the remains of their activity. If you stepped into the circle, it supposedly took you to Fairyland or wherever magical beings lived. There’s a fairy ring close to my home and I was bored one afternoon, so I decided to test the legend. I put one foot into the center and was whisked away to an artist’s studio in San Francisco. After I convinced the startled artist that I wasn’t breaking and entering, he told me that several other people had been popping up in his studio. Can you believe my astonishment when I discovered I was speaking with renowned comic book artist and writer Ted Naifeh? Before I hitchhiked my way back home, Ted and I sat down for an interview.
Whitney Grace (WG): You burst onto the comic scene with Gloom Cookie that you co-wrote with Serena Valentino. How did you two come up with the idea and why did you decide to turn it into a graphic novel series?
Ted Naifeh (TN): Serena and I both live in the same neighborhood, so we’d get coffee together and talk about the San Francisco goth community, and the funny, weird characters that were, and as far as I know, still are a part of it. One day she showed me a story she’d written about it, simple prose, just a page and a half. It was so perfect, so charming, and full of the universal pathos of youthful romance, I realized instantly it’d make a great illustrated story. So I drew some sketches, and edited together the first Gloom Cookie story. At the time, I’d basically failed in the comics world, and was working in video games. But Serena and I had this idea to make little hand-folded ashcans of the short story, and hand it out at San Diego Comic-Con. It was only when we showed it to Roman Dirge and he passed it to Dan Vado at Slave Labor that we realized we had to actually come up with more stories.
WG: Polly and the Pirates is one of my favorite series. I especially liked how you drew her feet. Would you explain what the series is about in your own words and will you ever continue it?
TN: Polly is a story about a teenage homebody of a girl going to a cozy little boarding school in the late 1800s. She is kidnapped by pirates, because they’re convinced that she’s the daughter of their long lost pirate queen and that Polly has pirating in her blood. This is absurd, because Polly was always led to believe that her mother (now deceased) had been the most proper lady in the world. But it turns out, much to her surprised, that swashbuckling comes to her as easily as breathing. So there’s a mystery there. It’s now got two volumes. I have a third in the works, as soon as I can find the time to write it. I’m glad you like her feet. They were inspired by the Powerpuff Girls.
WG: Courtney Crumrin is one of you ongoing series. What was your original idea behind the comic and what makes it different from the usual fantasy story?
TN: Good question. I suppose the original idea was inspired by Emily the Strange, which was everywhere in the early 2000s, regardless of the fact that Emily was less a character than a bunch of bland signifiers of young female rebellion. I was annoyed that Emily didn’t actually have a story, so I created a character that was Emily if she’d had a real story. It’s interesting though that no one really made the connection, possibly because Emily is all surface design, and Courtney is so character and story driven that people don’t really think of her design at all. But that was one reason behind her noselessness. I wanted her to be simple and iconic, the way characters like Batman are. She can be stripped down to the big black eyes, blond hair, and the barrette. Originally, I wanted her image emblazoned on backpacks, socks, etc., but I got too preoccupied with her story to do any of that. In the end, I’m more interested in telling stories than running a merchandising business.
To answer your other question, I suppose it’s different from your usual fantasy fare because it is so character-based. The magical aspects of the book are secondary to Courtney’s personality. This seems to be a winning formula in fantasy. Anyone can put a unicorn in a book. What interest’s readers are how characters react to the unicorn, and what that says about them.
WG: Courtney and Polly are two girls who atypical to most heroines in young adult fiction. When you created them did you keep this in mind?
TN: I try not to compare my work to other work in the genre. I’m not nearly as well read in my chosen field as I should be, which I used to worry about, because it’s so easy to come up with ideas that someone else has already done. I find that if I spend too much time studying a genre, my “original” ideas are just derivative. For example, When Serena and I pitched Gloom Cookie, Landry Walker and Eric Jones were pitching Little Gloomy. We were both asked if we wanted to change ours, of if we’d like each other to change theirs. In the end, we decided not to sweat it. And you couldn’t imagine two less similar books. Had we all been excruciatingly aware of what the others were doing, we would have come up with two very different titles, but possibly two much more similar books, which only superficial differences.
So when I sat down to write Courtney Crumrin, I didn’t even bother to read most of the popular tween and YA fiction currently out there, either in comics or in books. I knew everyone was trying to do something vaguely like Harry Potter, and I knew Courtney couldn’t have been more different. At the end of the day, adhering to basic principles of storytelling will provide you with all the originality you need, for no other reason than that so few writers seem to do that. Courtney undergoes a heavy transformation in every story, but remains herself throughout. The same happens with Polly. Once I got a handle on that dynamic, everything else fell into place, and felt reasonably fresh and original.
WG: Many of your characters are also girls. Why do you enjoy writing with a female lead?
TN: Who knows why writers do things? I suppose I do it because there’s so much unexplored territory, especially now. Stories with female leads are changing dramatically, and getting out in front of that and telling these new stories seems like a great way to be original. Plus, people seem reluctant to tell women’s stories now, because there seems a lack of consensus on what a woman’s story should be.
I was watching an old movie called Philadelphia Story with Catherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. It was one of those grand old actress-lead films of the day, the kind that are rare now. But that’s because back then, there was more consensus as to what makes a woman’s story. It was all about how women relate to men, of course. Nowadays, no one would stand for Philadelphia Story, because right in the middle of it is this big speech from Catherine’s philandering father about how drinking and philandering is really no big deal, and she needs to get off her high horse and stop holding men to impossible standards. Just this outrageous double-standard. But it was pre-feminism, and that double-standard prevailed at the time. Nowadays that kind of thing is less tolerated. So you have half the audience wanting to go back to those days and half the audience who won’t stand for it. The easy answer is to just not tell those stories, rather than choose a side. I’d rather choose a side, because I think it’s pretty damned important.
WG: What differences do you see when you write about a boy?
TN: Well, I do that less. In general, I like to write to the experience of the individual. Men tend to face different challenges than women, though this by no means a universal truth. For example, Courtney deals with the same issues she would had she been a boy. Her rage and her isolation, however, would have had a different meaning to readers, and it’s important to bear that in mind. For boys, independent identity is more encouraged, so male outsider characters tend to be more common, and are less challenging or thought-provoking. Girls are encouraged to form relationships, and define themselves by those. So a loner girl who never ends up belonging anywhere is a more unique and compelling character, because it’s unexplored territory. With girls, I try to explore things like finding individuality and personal power. For boys, perhaps I should be exploring the opposite.
TN: I knew someone at the game company that developed Death Jr. the game, who was a huge Courtney fan. She was the game’s art lead. She brought me on to do a mini-comic as a hand-out to promote the game. That worked out so well that they brought me back to draw two mini-series, but I can’t take credit for writing those. They had Gary Whitta come in for that. The hope was it would become the basis for a movie, though that never happened. Of course, Gary was small potatoes back then. Who knew he’d eventually be writing Star Wars Episode VII? Go Gary!
WG: What sort of problems do you think DJ would face in high school? Would he go through a rebellious phase?
TN: That’s a funny thought. But ya know, He’s got such a terrific dad, it’d be hard to rebel. Maybe he’d go all hippy, and go around in a tie-died robe and carry a giant sunflower instead of a scythe.
WG: Also it was great that Death was portrayed as a laid-back, fun dad. What did you enjoy about this incarnation of death?
TN: I liked juxtaposing the friendly banter with his frozen rictus. You’d think I’d get tired of drawing the same skull-face over and over, but I didn’t. I had a ball. DJ was super easy to draw as well. He was perfectly designed. I’m still sad that property never took off the way it should have.
WG: You really shifted your audience demographic when you co-created How Loathsome with Tristan Crane. Why go from dark humor to straight up mature drama?
TN: It was an experiment. I’d come up with How Loathsome with Tristan Crane after Gloom Cookie, when I was trying to decide what direction to pursue. Gloom Cookie has this perfect trifecta of cute, sexy, and goth. Courtney managed to be cute and goth, and How Loathsome went in the opposite direction to sexier. By the way, Tristan ended up toning down my gothiness a bit, which was the smart choice. It makes good window dressing, but the meat of the story was sexual identity, and too much gothiness would have made the book age poorly. Tristan saw that better than me.
In any event, both directions were different shades of my personality, but as it happened, Courtney was a bigger success, with a company I like working with, so that’s the direction I pursued. But who knows? Roald Dahl, my main inspiration for Courtney, experimented with all kinds of subject matter in his lifetime. Maybe I will too.
WG: What do you think the impact of such a piece is?
TN: Well, it won some awards, and found a huge number of comics readers that love the medium, but felt under-represented in it. Comics are still an alternative medium. It’s greatest strength is the fact that you can simply think up an idea and throw it on the page without going through dozens of meetings with execs, marketers, and money people who all want to make sure that it’ll be profitable. That’s why so many alternative people are drawn to comics. There’s a sense that it’s for them in a way that mainstream media is not. You’re not soon going to see a How Loathsome HBO show, because it’s the kind of subject that studio heads assume the mainstream has no interest in. It’s incredibly important to be as daring as possible in comics. If you can’t take risks here, you can’t take them anywhere.
WG: Do you want to write another comic in the same vein as High Loathsome?
TN: Oh, hell yeah. I have a few projects in the works in that vein, but even more daring.
WG: One of your more recent works was The Good Neighbors written by Holly Black. You’re not a stranger to magic, but this trilogy was different from Courtney Crumin. Did that change how you drew the art?
TN: Yes, I used that series to completely reinvent how I drew lines. I’d been collecting new influences from my book tours in France, which has a totally different and amazing comics scene. So I took the opportunity to go in a different direction, loosening up my line style to emulate artists like Claire Wendling and Roger Ibanez, and trying more line experiments like Sergio Toppi.
WG: Have you ever thought about writing you own book involving the good people?
TN: Courtney of course has a little faerie lore in it. I have another concept I’ve been working on that’s a little more history-based, more steeped in traditional mythology.
I have little interest in stepping into a pre-established genre, like urban fantasy for example, and creating a story following it’s standardized rules. I find genre works best when you’re inventing it as you go. Even if it’s been invented before. Take for example the Iron Man movie. The best parts for me were watching Tony create the suit, and at the same time, create the rules for Marvel’s cinematic universe. They started in the world we know, and built their world into it organically.
That works best for me, much better than if they just landed us in a world with laser guns and battle suits already up and running. When you jump into a world that you assume everyone already knows without doing any of the world-buildling work yourself, that’s when you’re most likely to stumble into clichés. Look how quickly the urban fantasy genre filled up with clichés. It happens when you throw in ideas that someone else built, assuming everyone will just know them. Who cares how many vampire books have come before? I’m reading this one, and I want to know how vampires exist in this world, and fit into this story. Fall back on clichés instead of creating ideas anew, and you end up with something worse than derivative. You end up with something meaningless.
WG: If you were taken away to live with fairies would you stay or try to find a way back?
TN: I’d try to find a way to go back and forth. I’m never satisfied in just one world.
TN: Princess Ugg is the tale of Ülga, the princess of a mountain kingdom called Grimmeria, who goes on a quest to get educated. Of course, she only knows of one place where princesses learn things, and that’s Princess Finishing School. So she goes to this much more Disney-esque kingdom, where she meets “traditional” fairy-tale style princesses, and gets a few lessons she hadn’t bargained for. And of course, they end up learning a lesson or two they won’t forget.
WG: How long of a series will Princess Ugg be?
TN: In theory, it’ll be ongoing, which means that I’ll keep if going so long as it sells. But right now I have it plotted out to eight issues.
WG: What would happen if Courtney, Polly, and Princess Ugg met?
TN: I don’t know. A very awkward tea-party?
I seem to be the only guy in comics that thinks the characters and their worlds shouldn’t intersect too much. Characters’ worlds define them. These girls are all from different eras, so even putting them together would involve time travel, which is a can of existential worms. Then you have each character being pulled out of their time and place, which further removes their defining traits.
I’m old-fashioned enough to think that Batman belongs in Gotham City more than he belongs in, say, outer space. A lot of who he is gets taken away when you remove him from his crime-ridden urban setting. Robert McKee, author of the screenwriter’s bible, Story claims that character and plot are the same thing. The plot defines the character, and exists to do so. Without the worlds and stories that define them, who are these people anyway? Just a bunch of traits stuck on a name. Courtney: grumpy; has magic powers. And if I pull some villains from their respective stories, and team them to fight the girls, what do I really have? A story? Or just a bunch of mixed genres and metaphors that don’t add up to anything meaningful?
I’m not trying to build a Naifeh-verse. Not yet, anyway.
WG: Lastly, do you have anything to declare?
TN: Alas, if you’re looking for genius, you may have to conduct a cavity search.