Published on November 8th, 2012 | by Julie Davis0
Interview with Shaenon Garrity
Shaenon Garrity is one of the great success stories in the world of webcomics. Her most popular strips — Narbonic, which ran from 2000 to 2006, and Skin Horse, which is still running — are dailies, the sort of comics that newspapers used to carry, with a new story each weekday. In short, she’s drawn a new strip every day for over a decade.
“I’ve always been drawing, like everyone; I just never stopped,” Garrity said. “I got into comics, specifically, when I was a teenager. I drew a comic strip for the youth section of the Cleveland Plain Dealer when I was in high school, and then in college I drew a strip for my college paper. In my senior year, some friends introduced me to webcomics, and I realized that was a way to keep drawing comics after I graduated. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
As if drawing daily comic strips wasn’t enough to keep her busy, Garrity also edits translated Japanese manga; writes about manga and comics in general for Otaku USA, Comixology and The Comics Journal; and heads a cartoonist’s group called the Couscous Collective that puts out a new anthology every six months. Plus, she’s started dabbling in prose writing. And there’s no sign of her slowing down yet.
Art Animal was pleased to be able to talk with Garrity about her work, her influences and the secrets to her successful Kickstarter campaigns.
Art Animal: How long have you been doing comics?
Shaenon Garrity: I’ve been doing comics professionally for twelve years now. I started my first webcomic, Narbonic, in 2000. I’ve been writing and drawing various webcomics ever since.
AA: How many strips do you think you’ve done by now?
SG: I used to number every Narbonic strip, so I know that I drew 2,028 daily Narbonic strips. That’s not counting Sunday strips and illustrations. I’ve foolishly neglected to number the Skin Horse strips, so I don’t know how many of those I’ve drawn. I’ve been drawing it for five years, though, so I’m probably creeping towards the 2,000-strip mark.
AA: Can you describe your process? Do you draw by hand, work digitally or a combination of both?
SG: I do almost everything by hand, even the lettering, because I like to suffer. I draw a week of strips at a time: I draw six sets of panels, then do all the pencils, all the lettering and all the inking. I clean up the art and add screentone on the computer, which takes about an hour per strip. That stage had gotten a lot less tedious since I got Netflix on the computer, so I can watch old X-Files episodes while I’m working on the strips.
AA: What are some of your major influences as an artist?
SG: Daniel Pinkwater. I admire the way he gradually builds up absurdity upon absurdity in a way that seems perfectly logical until you pause to look back at how far he’s taken you from reality. Art-wise, there are countless cartoonists and illustrators I love, but I was thinking recently about how much my style is influenced by Quentin Blake. I wish my lines were as loose and casual as his. You have to work for years to learn how to draw that simple.
AA: Let me put that another way. Who are some of your current cartooning heroes? Who is doing the kind of work you admire, or aspire to do?
SG: Most of my favorite cartoonists do work so different from mine that I can’t imagine coming up with anything remotely like it. Jason Shiga is definitely on that list, as are Kate Beaton, Lynda Barry, and Moto Hagio.
As someone who struggles with the illustrative side of cartooning — I don’t have any formal artistic training, and there’s a lot I still have to learn — I admire cartoonists who started out with kind of crude art styles but gradually got better and better through sheer dint of effort. Alison Bechdel and Moyoco Anno are my favorites in this category; when they started out they were much better writers than artists, but now their artwork is as stunning as their writing. That’s what I want to do!
Oh, and I adore Carla Speed McNeil. I’m hoping we can collaborate one of these days.
AA: The majority of your comics are black-and-white, but it seems to me like you’ve been doing more work in color recently. What’s the reason for this?
SG: People like color! I think my webcomics would be more popular if I bothered to color them. But I hate coloring. When I was in third grade, I’d leave my coloring assignments on my desk, undone, and Tara Alsobrook would take pity on me and do them for me.
Nowadays, though, I’m trying to teach myself a little color theory. I deeply admire artists who are good with color, especially Mary Blair, who’s one of my ultimate heroes. I do a monthly wallpaper design for Skin Horse, and that’s largely an opportunity to practice color and design. That said, I’m trying to force Pancha Diaz, who designs the Skin Horse books, to do some of my coloring for me. I haven’t changed since third grade.
AA: Skin Horse and Narbonic have some really dedicated fans. Tell us a little about them.
SG: They are awesome and rad. Back when Narbonic was running, this group in Minnesota had an annual Narbonic mini-convention, which they flew me out for every year. My husband Andrew insisted on going with me, because you never know when this kind of thing can turn into a Misery situation. But it was lots of fun. One year we had a demonstration from the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices; one year we went to an electricity museum. I still miss meeting up with everyone. Plus, we’d always get brunch at Hell’s Kitchen on the last day, and that place has the best brunches.
Lately, since I’ve been doing this for over ten years, I’ve been hearing from more and more people who got into my work when they were in middle school or high school, and now they’re adults and they’re still following it. That’s pretty amazing.
AA: What kind of feedback do you get on your stories at live readings or conventions, or through mail and email? What do people like the most about your work? What kind of questions do they ask?
SG: People are generally very nice, although the commenters on my sites always love to poke fun at my artwork. I don’t get a lot of questions. Daniel Pinkwater once wrote that the difference between the mail he gets from kids and adults is that the kids generally want to ask him questions, whereas the adults generally want to tell him things. I’ve found that to be true. Especially since I do comics with a lot of science and technology in them; people want to tell me lots of useful things.
AA: Your books have been funded very quickly through Kickstarter, so this has been a really successful method of production for you. What would you say is the secret to a successful Kickstarter campaign? Are there any negative aspects to working with Kickstarter?
SG: I love Kickstarter almost without reservations. Just looking through the site, and all the projects people are working on, makes be feel better about humans. That said, there have been lots of awesome Kickstarter campaigns that undeservedly failed. Jeff Wells and I have an advantage with Skin Horse because it’s a known quantity on the internet and its following is mostly online — where Kickstarter is also conveniently located! (And here’s where I want to give all kinds of credit to Jeff Wells, my co-writer on Skin Horse. He’s responsible for so much of the greatness of that strip, whereas I mostly write the penis jokes.)
To people putting together Kickstarter campaigns, I advise you have a plan for what you’re going to do, develop a pitch that explains it clearly, and build up interest online even before you launch on Kickstarter.
The one negative thing about Kickstarter is that the funding has to be processed through Amazon. Not everyone likes working with Amazon, and I wish they had other options available.
AA: Tell us about your Monster of the Week project. What kind of reactions are you getting?
SG: Monster of the Week is a webcomic wherein I draw twelve-panel comic-strip recaps of every X-Files episode. I’m getting to the end of Season One now.
It came about because, as mentioned earlier, I was watching The X-Files while scanning Skin Horse strips. Then I had a revelation: if I drew a strip about The X-Files, I would double my productivity! Not until I’d started posting strips did it occur to me that The X-Files is nine seasons long, and the last two seasons are pretty awful. I should have picked something shorter, like original Star Trek or Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place.
AA: What’s your ultimate goal as an artist? If you had to write your own obituary, how would you want to be remembered? (Presumably after a long, full creative life in which you did everything you ever wanted to do.)
SG: I wonder about that sometimes, but honestly I have no idea. I just do things that are entertaining to me. Hopefully some of them will entertain other people, and maybe also be important to them in a way.
AA: What are you working on these days? Any upcoming shows, publications, or new work you’re excited about?
SG: I’m putting together a graphic novel pitch with an artist, but it’s a little early to go into detail about that. There’s another graphic novel I’d like to do, but I haven’t found the right artist for it yet. I’m drawing stories for a couple of anthologies; one is called Cringe and the other is SF in SF, a collection of science fiction stories set in San Francisco. Beyond that, I’m very busy drawing Skin Horse and Monster of the Week and working my various real jobs.
Oh, and my cartooning group, the Couscous Collective, puts out a themed anthology twice a year, and I’m always working on something for that. Our latest anthology, Kitties, just came out, and the next one will be Spirits. For that, I want to do one ghost story and one booze story.
Oh, Oh! Wait! I’ve also gotten back into prose writing and have published a bunch of sci-fi stories in various places. The latest one will appear in Daily Science Fiction in December. So there’s that.
Geez. No wonder I’m tired and never have time to shower.
Read Skin Horse, Narbonic, Monster of the Week and more of Garrity’s work on her website, www.shaenon.com.