Archive for profiles & interviews

Near Miss: A few questions with Barbara Slate

angel-loveBarbara Slate‘s Angel Love was one of the major inspirations for this project so I was delighted she agreed to answer my questions through email about its creation and her career — then and now. She had so many cool things to say!

Comicsgirl: What brought you to comics? 

Barbara Slate: In the 70s, I created the first feminist greeting card line featuring a character called Ms. Liz. We sold over two million greeting cards. I appeared with Ms. Liz on the Today Show, and drew a Ms. Liz comic strip which appeared monthly in Cosmopolitan magazine. Ms. Liz was my obsession for nine years but competing with Hallmark was no easy task and for various other reasons, I was definitely looking for something else. So, when a friend suggested I contact Jenette Kahn, president at DC Comics, I did. Luckily, the timing was fortuitous. Jenette was looking to create a girl’s line of comics.  

CG: What makes you prefer that over other forms of storytelling? 

Slate: Comic books have it all! I can create my own characters, draw them, and write their stories. I think comic books are beautiful in their simplicity. Every month my work appears in a 24 page story produced on cheap paper and held together by staples! How lucky can a girl be?! 

CG: What keeps you wanting to create comics?

Slate: I love telling stories. My latest graphic novel is Getting Married and Other Mistakes. I also love teaching teens and adults how to do a graphic novel. I find this work rewarding and it takes me all over the country as a teacher and speaker on the subject.

CG: How did Angel Love come about? It did seem like it was part of an era where DC Comics was trying new things.

Slate: In the early 80s, the comic book reader was 95% boys, 5% girls. Jenette and her staff liked Ms. Liz, so she asked me to create a character for DC Comics. Writing and drawing greeting cards is very different than comic books. Although Ms. Liz has a personality and point of view, she did not have the depth of a character like Angel Love where a Character Bible and Plotline were part of her backstory. I am forever grateful to Jenette. She handed me the Wonder Woman Bible to study and had her two vice presidents, Dick Giordano and Paul Levitz, teach me how to plot using color code. Then she introduced me to my editor, the amazing Karen Berger. In a month’s time, my education through DC Comics was like attending a four year college in how to do a comic book.  

CG: I know you teach graphic novel workshops. I constantly hear from other teachers of sequential art classes that their classes are at least half female, if not more than half.  Has that been your experience?

Slate: When I first started teaching, I was afraid there would be 15 super hero inspired boys but instead it was half boys and half girls. That is a wonderful thing to see. The super hero genre is usually about 15% of the class. My book You Can Do a Graphic Novel breaks down the steps  so anybody can learn to do a comic book. It may not be a graphic novel that gets published by Marvel Comics, but it is a fun and rewarding process.  

CG: Is it important to you to encourage girls specifically to make their own comics?

Slate: It’s a funny thing about being a woman in comics. There is an unwritten code that you are supposed to “empower girls.” When I first started, it was just me and Trina Robbins writing and drawing comics for Marvel Comics and DC. That was the time to encourage girls specifically to make their own comics. Today, I teach girls who are already empowered.  I really don’t see the purpose of encouraging girls specifically over boys. Writing and drawing comics is an equal opportunity passion

CG: What changes in comics overall have you seen in comics during your career?

Slate: Certainly, computers have changed the way comics are created, especially in coloring and lettering. Another big change is that the comic book reader is now 50% girls due mostly to the Japanese manga influence. When Angel Love hit the market in the 80s, there was no place for her in comic book stands. She was literally squeezed in between superheroes. It is disappointing to see that Marvel and DC Comics still have not embraced a line of comics for girls; however, mainstream publishers saw that kids love comics and have created their own divisions. The change is that they call them graphic novels. 

My theory is that the name “comic books” was so demonized in the 50s, that main stream publishers thought if they changed the name to “graphic novels”, the mothers wouldn’t notice that their kids were really reading the dreaded comic book. (Will Eisner was the one who originally coined the name “graphic novel” with his publication of his book, A Contract with God.) 

And it worked! Teachers today use comic books as a teaching tool. Librarians have special sections for the graphic novel. It is a proven way to get teens into the library. The movie industry uses the comic book series to create block buster movies and art critics take the genre seriously. Even mothers are encouraging their children to read comics. 

Today, more and more women are writing their stories in graphic novel form. My dream is that one day there will be enough female graphic novelists that we will have our own section in a bookstore instead of being scattered everywhere amongst superheroes and novels. Yes, we’ve come a long way baby, but boy, we still have a long way to go. 

Near Miss is a semi-regular feature that will be appearing on Comicsgirl throughout 2013. This project is sponsored by Big Planet Comics.

Five Questions with Russ Kick, editor of The Graphic Canon

The Graphic Canon Vol. 1 is the first in a three-book series featuring comic adaptations of classic literature. The sprawling anthology includes work from legends like Will Eisner and R. Crumb to more recent favorites like Molly Crabapple and many others.

Editor Russ Kick managed to find time during his current tour in support of the book to answer a few questions via email.

Comicsgirl: For those unfamiliar with The Graphic Canon, what do you want to say to introduce them to the concept?

Russ Kick: I asked 150 comics artists and illustrators to adapt the great works of literature from all ages. I asked them to stay true to the source material, but artistically they were given free reign — any style, any approach, any medium.

CG: I’m always interested in projects that may attract non-comics readers. Was that one of your intentions with this project?

RK: Definitely. I see The Graphic Canon operating on many levels and in many directions. I think it will draw non-comics readers to comics and non-literature readers to literature. From a purely artistic standpoint, I hope the sheer creativity and power of the adaptations and illustrations will go a little way toward propelling the art form in new directions. On the literary side, it contains some unusual choices, so it may spark some debate there regarding what belongs in the canon of great lit. But beyond all those agendas, I wanted it to be a powerful, self-contained experience.

CG: I love the diversity of both the works of literature adapted and the styles of art. How much of that was a goal and how much of that just happened?

RK: Diversity was definitely a goal from the beginning, and I did what I could to make it happen, but the exact ways that it happened came down to chance and synchronicity. I purposely approached amazing artists whose approaches and styles are all over the map (and sometimes off the map). Once in a while they had a work of literature in mind already, but most of the time I offered specific suggestions or a large “wish list.”

CG: What was the most surprising part of working on The Graphic Canon?

RK: Every time an artist emailed me final art, it was like Christmas. Pretty much each time I opened a newly arrived adaptation, I was amazed all over again at the level of energy they all brought to the project.

CG: After The Graphic Canon, do you have any other comic-related projects in mind?

RK: Yes! There will be further volumes of The Graphic Canon, and I’m also wanting to compile multi-artist anthologies of newly conceived mystical and religious art of various kinds. I’m also trying to figure out how to create unthemed collections that exist to show the astounding amount of sequential/illustrative talent out there.

Russ Kick will be signing copies of The Graphic Canon Vol. 1 at Big Planet Comics‘ Bethesda location (4849 Cordell Ave.) from 1 to 3 p.m. on June 2.

Five Questions with Jeremy Whitley

Princeless, written by Jeremy Whitley, surprised just about everyone as it became a hit earlier this year. This independent comic about a princess who refuses to follow the path set out for her connected with readers with its combination of wit, action and powerful message. It’s even been honored with two Eisner nominations — for Best Single Issue (Princeless #3) and Best Publication for Kids (ages 8–12).

The collection of the first four issues should be out soon and Whitley was kind enough to answer a my questions via email.

Comicsgirl: Congratulations on the Eisner nominations. How much of a surprise was it? Anything you want to say about it?

Jeremy Whitley: It was a huge surprise! Action Lab has asked if I was okay with them sending it in for consideration, but I had never imagined that it was an actual possibility, especially not for the individual issue award. Obviously I believe in the book but there is a lot of great competition out there. I’m ecstatic about being nominated.

All I really have to say is thank you to those who believed in the book and please vote if you haven’t already.

CG: There’s a tendency to make action heroines nearly perfect — they’re strong and smart and without flaws. Adrienne is definitely smart and capable, but she’s also someone who doesn’t seem to quite know what she’s getting herself into. How did you make sure she was still a character to admire while still feeling real?

JW: I based her a lot on my wife and my sister-in-law (after whom she is named). She’s somebody who seized her freedom and overflows with determination, but the reality is that determination does not necessarily win the battle for you.

It’s very important to me that if she’s a character that girls are going to look up to, that they can also see themselves in her. It doesn’t do any good to have a role model if you can never live up to them.

CG: Adults have happily embraced this title, but we’re not necessarily the target audience. What has the reaction from children — girls as well as boys — been?

JW: Well, understandably not as many of them write Internet reviews and send me Facebook messages about how much they love it, but all the kids and parents I have talked to have said they loved it.

I met sci-fi author J.L. Hilton at a convention last year and sold her the first few. When she found me at another convention a few months later, she snatched up the other two issues saying “My daughters and I read the first two issues every night before bed. They love them. We NEED these other two.” I’ve actually had a couple reviews where the reviewers have mentioned handing them off to their kids or reading them with their kids. Those are some of my favorites.

CG: You touch on many social issues — race and racism, gender roles for both boys and girls — as well as media presentation of female characters. While one of my favorite scenes is Adrienne’s horrified reaction to the skimpy “armor” Bedelia initially presents to her and I think it does work in context, it’s still very self-aware in the statement its making. How do you balance the points you want to make while maintaining telling a good story?

JW: To be honest, when I wrote issue 3, I wasn’t sure that I had. I kept having people read it and asking “Is this too preachy?”

Thankfully, they mostly said that they didn’t think it was and I left it. That seems to be one of people’s favorite scenes too.

As far as race, I wanted it to be a part of the book, but in the way that it always is. As a fact that isn’t constantly talked about. Adrienne is black and that’s the way it is. Too often I think that people struggle when they spend their time pointing it out. In Adrienne’s land, however, she is one of the royal family. White girls can look at Cinderella and Belle and Sleeping Beauty and relate to them without constantly having to be reminded that they’re white. Black girls deserve that sort of comfort as well. I made a point of pointing it out in the first issue, gave her a chance to jump up and down and shout it, then I moved on.

As for the armor chapter, I wanted it to be both a bit of pointed satire and a kind of mission statement for the story. I want to tell and action story about girls that’s for girls and doesn’t feel it’s necessary to rely on some of the older tropes.

CG: Princeless: Save Yourself, which should be out soon, collects the first four issues of this series. What’s next? How much more of this story can we expect?

JW: Well, the original plan was to continue to produce mini-series until we finish the story of Adrienne saving her sisters, which should run about 25 issues.

In addition to that, we’re actually now working on a series of short comic stories about the characters and their world. These stories are being illustrated by a team of amazing female artists for a collection due out late this summer. I think fans of the book so far are really going to enjoy these.

Meanwhile, Volume 2 is well under construction and should be available this winter. I’ll be posting a lot of the progress on both the second volume and the short stories online at princelesscomic.tumblr.com and on my (@jrome58) and the Action Lab‘s Twitter accounts.

Whitley will be signing copies of the Princeless: Save Yourself that collects the first four issues (copies should be in stores soon) May 5 (Free Comic Book Day!) at Big Planet Comics in Vienna from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and at the College Park store from 3 to 5 p.m. Jorge Aguirre, writer of Giants Beware! from First Second will also be signing copies of his book.

And yes, I know that the Vienna signing conflicts with watching The Legend of Korra (although these signings were scheduled before the airdate for Korra had been set so it’s forgivable), but I’ll just have to catch it later.

Five Questions with Dan Piraro

Dan Piraro is a man of many talents — cartoonist, comedian, activist — and he approaches each with a quirky take on the world. Before his signing at Big Planet Comics U Street and performance at the Riot Act Comedy Theater on Sunday, Piraro was kind enough to take time to answer my questions via email.

Comicsgirl: Bizarro Heroes is a collection of your cartoons skewering superheroes. Are you (or were you) a superhero comics fan? What appeals to you about the subject?

Dan Piraro: Though I am a regular reader of various kinds of literature now, I hated to read as a kid, so my interest in comic books was entirely about the art. I bought tons of them but only followed the stories by looking at the pictures. I still had the same fantasies of super powers that attracts most people to super heroes, of course. I think the contrast between those childhood fantasies and the reality of an adult world are what amuse me about the topic now, and many of the comics in this new book deal with that aspect of fantasy world meets real life.

CG: Why comics? What is your creative process when it comes to creating them?

DP: Good question, I wish I had an answer. I’ve always loved comics, especially single-panel ones like I used to see in magazines when I was growing up. Back then, all magazines were peppered with cartoons, not just The New Yorker. As an adult, I was inexplicably drawn to creating them and still am. It’s just a creative urge that has remained constant all these years. I suppose it is the way I am wired.

My process when creating them is frequently to surf the web for other people’s comics. Looking at good comics makes me want to create ones of my own. I find the same thing to be true of fine art; when I go to a museum or gallery, I want to rush home to paint.

CG: Most of your comics are one-panel comics. Do you find it hard to express a joke clearly given those constraints? Do you ever have ambitions to do longer-form work?

DP: Single-panel comics have always been my favorite because the story is not spelled out for the reader. You have to put it together in your head –– what just happened before this picture and/or what is going to happen after? –– and that little feat of mental gymnastics is what makes you chuckle. I sometimes think of long-form comics and use them in my Sunday panel, where there is room to expand. But for the most part, my brain works in the single-panel form and I have no trouble getting my idea across that way.

CG: You also do standup comedy (as you are at the Riot Act Comedy Theater on Sunday). How do you approach performing standup differently than creating comics?

DP: Stand-up comedy is entirely different. What is funny in speech is not always funny in print and vice versa. I’ve tried, however, to combine elements of both in my comedy shows. I don’t do strictly stand-up, I also show images of cartoons and other things that bring visual humor to the show.

I learned to do live comedy by trial and error, just like everyone else. You start by tossing out one-liners in school as a kid and if you can make people laugh, you just build on that skill over the years until you have the courage to try it in front of a roomful of strangers in a comedy club. There is no quick way to learn it, you just have to gut it out, fail, and build on the few things that work. Eventually, you learn to make people laugh one way or the other and your performances are relatively successful most of the time. If you have the basic talent and you practice enough, you can actually get to a place where you never fail in front of an audience.

The bottom line is that you become addicted to the adrenaline. Stand-up comedy is one of the scariest things you can do and it feels like dying when you fail. But when you succeed, it is exhilarating!

CG: You are very openly vegan (which is awesome) and I admire your activism there. Your comics dealing with animal rights are both funny and thought-provoking. What advice do you have for someone who’s interested in becoming vegan?

DP: Thanks, glad you like my activism cartoons. I’d say if someone is interested in veganism, they should comb the web. There are so many great resources out there now: how to begin, how to shop, recipes, how to stay healthy, how it benefits your body, mind, and the environment, how animals are treated in the food industry, etc. There is no one way to do it, but if the idea appeals to you, you should have no trouble finding plenty of info. For practical info, I’d start with Nutritionfacts.org.

Piraro will be signing copies of Bizarro Heroes at the Big Planet Comics U Street location (1520 U St. NW) on March 11 from 6 to 7 p.m. He then will be performing at The Riot Act Comedy Theater at 8 p.m.

Five questions with Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery

Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery are the co-creators and writers of the IDW series Kill Shakespeare. They will be speaking at The Folger Shakespeare Library on Tuesday (I will be there — I wrote it down months ago). In preparation, they were kind enough to answer my questions via e-mail.

Comicsgirl: I like that Kill Shakespeare includes a broad range of Shakespearean characters, from the ones everyone knows to ones that are more obscure. How did you pick which characters you wanted to include?

Conor McCreery: We always joke that they chose us. After the main characters, though, we did do a bit more work on choosing the cast. Oddly enough we agonized a lot more over the inclusion of the Parolles and Philip the Bastards of the world then we did over Iago or Juliet.

Anthony Del Col: As Conor said, the main characters came very naturally to us. We immediately could see Juliet and Othello fighting together, Falstaff serving as a comedic sidekick/mentor, and Lady Macbeth and Richard III fighting against them. Hamlet was the last main character that we realized should be in it, which is a tad surprising as he is the main character. But once we realized we need to include him it brought everything together.

CG: How do you balance the legacy of Shakespeare with the need to keep the story moving and accessible? Do you feel like you have any responsibility to stay true to the spirit of Shakespeare?

ADC: We’re trying to make Kill Shakespeare appeal to those that love the Bard (by playing fantastic ‘What if?’ games and including Easter Eggs) but – just as important – making his work accessible in a whole new way to new audiences. We know that we could never write anything better than Shakespeare does. He is the best writer of all time – no debate on that. However, we’re trying to shine a spotlight on his characters in a very interesting, unique manner.

CM: True to the spirit? Absolutely. We VERY much want to tell a story that has sophisticated human emotion and that is, at its core, a humanist tale. But we don’t feel too much responsibility to regurgitate
scenes or tropes from Shakespeare’s plays – at least not ALL of them, GRIN.

CG: The reaction overall has been very positive. Have any of the reactions surprised you?

CM: It is always a pleasant surprise when people like your work. I think I might have been a bit surprised at how much intellectual rigor has gone into the criticism (both good and bad) of the work. That’s actually
very flattering.

ADC: The best reactions are the reviews where the writer states that reading Kill Shakespeare has made them want to go back to re-explore a play that they had read/watched in their pasts. Or, on the flip side, hearing from people that are big Shakespeare fans but have never read a comic book before and now want to check out other series. Those are the best reviews we could ever receive.

CG: Neither of you really had much of a background in comics before this. What do you find satisfying about the medium of comics? How does it compare to the other media you’ve worked in?

ADC: I love the instant – and unfiltered – feedback. It’s very creatively fulfilling to be able to put out an issue and talk about it with fans and readers to see what they liked and what they didn’t like. We’ve tweaked aspects of our story as we’ve gone on based on this feedback. I also like that comic readers are very honest with their feedback – if they like or don’t like something, they are NOT shy to tell you. It’s quite refreshing.

CM: I think the speed at which your ideas become reality is very satisfying. Working in film and TV takes a long time and you never know when the whole thing could come unplugged. I’ve also loved the ability of comics to be the perfect delivery system for both melodrama and delicate emotion. Plus in a comic if you want 600 guys on horses charging a 2,000 person army of lizard men, well, you just have to buy your artist a lot of beer.

CG: After Kill Shakespeare wraps up, what are your future plans?

ADC: More Kill Shakespeare, hopefully! We’d love to continue the series beyond the current twelve-issue arc and know what subsequent stories could involve. We’ve had a lot of people ask for more so we’ll see if we can make it happen. We really love working on this series and it would be a dream to be able to continue.

CM: We also had a kid’s show we did together that we’d love to find a home for. And of course we both have a lot of projects that have gathered dust while we worked on Kill Shakespeare. It would be a dream come true if this work gave us the credibility to move some of that forward.

Check back tomorrow for my review of Kill Shakespeare: Vol. 1