Overview

Ted Naifeh - Part One

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Naifeh started as a comic book artist in 1990, working on minor books such as Innovation’s Shadow of the Torturer, Mojo Press’ Atomic Chili Anthology and Dark Horse Comics’ The Machine. After the comic industry took a downturn in the mid-90s, Naifeh left to pursue work in the video game industry. In 1998, Naifeh took another stab at comics, this time collaborating with writer Serena Valentino on a goth romance comic called Gloomcookie. The comic proved to be a smash hit at the San Diego Comic-Con, capturing the attention of both fans and Slave Labor Graphics. 

After drawing six issues of Gloomcookie, Naifeh struck out on his own. In the years since Gloomcookie, Naifeh has created such projects as the critically acclaimed all-ages Courtney Crumrin comics, the gender exploring gritty How Loathsome (with Tristan Crane) and the manga-styled Unearthly. With the debut of his new all-ages book from Oni Press, Polly and the Pirates, on the way, Naifeh took some time to talk with Broken Frontier about his work.

Broken Frontier - What influences your writing and art?

Ted Naifeh - I could write a hundred pages about my influences. Everything I come across these days is an influence, especially in my writing. I’m still way too unformed a writer to narrow down my influences to just a three or four name list. Lately, though, I think my single greatest writing influence just now is Terry Pratchett. But Joss Whedon is a contender, and Jane Austin is beginning to make a strong impression. I like writers who put emotion in the center of their stories.

As far as art goes, I think I’m just beginning to shrug off the heavy influence of Mike Mignola. I think Mike's been my biggest single influence. It’s funny to keep saying that, because when I first saw his work in Cosmic Odyssey, I loathed it. I felt that he was so in love with his stylization that he neglected expression, and his characters all looked like Muppets. What a difference though when I came across Gotham by Gaslight. His faces were much improved, and I could see he was finding a balance between his strong style and the need for convincing human expression. Suddenly, that style I thought so grotesque became utterly irresistible.

I’m also hugely influenced by Dave McKean and Travis Charest, though I daresay those influences are far less noticeable in the work. Lately, manga techniques are becoming a larger influence, though I don’t have any particular favorites.

BF - Gloomcookie, the series you co-created with Serena Valentino, earned you a loyal audience very quickly. What was it like to gain such a large positive response so quickly? 

TN - I always dream of another project that will take off as fast as Gloomcookie. That was completely exhilarating, to suddenly go from having zero fan following to ten thousand readers. I’d been working in comics on and off for eight years, doing what good little comics artists are supposed to do, which is to say taking assignments from companies like Dark Horse. It never worked out. I could blame this solely on the poor quality of the projects or the failure of the companies to publish those projects, but the fact is that I was a pretty sucky artist. I was only beginning to get good when I started choosing my collaborators myself.

Gloomcookie was such a ridiculous fluke that it’s laughable. I’d failed in the comics world. No one would hire me, and I went to work in videogames. Then Serena, who lives down the street from me, showed me a short story she’d written, a page of text that captured perfectly the angst of the dating world. I loved it. I started doing sketches, we came up with more story ideas, and soon we had a pretty convincing little pipe dream. We decided to take it to San Diego Comic-Con and show it to publishers, but I really didn’t have much real hope that anything would come of it. I’d been down that road a dozen times already. But sure enough, the next thing I knew, we had a hit indy comic on our hands.

BF - Do you find you gauging the response to other projects against that of Gloomcookie?

TN - My next series, Courtney Crumrin, has gotten two Eisner nominations, and my other book, How Loathsome, is being used as a textbook in gender studies classes. They both sold quite well, and are still selling. But none of them had the huge initial impact that Gloomcookie did. I just have to keep telling myself, “The next one will do it.”

BF – In regards to Unearthly - what was inspired you to write a manga book?

TN - Unearthly is a teen romance sci-fi adventure. It’s basically about this bookish girl named Ann who falls for a sweet, gentle prettyboy named Jem, only to find out that the most popular girl in school likes him as well. He doesn’t know what to do with all this attention, but it’s all taken out of his hands when an alien fugitive kidnaps him and steals his identity, becoming, essentially, the bad boy from outer space. Wackiness ensues.

I didn’t set out to write manga, I just wanted to grab the attention of manga readers. I’d always wanted to reach an audience outside the core fanboy base of 15-55 year old males with specific tastes that collect Justice League comics and the like. I never took much interest in that side of the medium myself. I was never so impressed with superheroes, and tended toward comics like Swamp Thing, Mage, Heavy Metal magazine, etc. I always dreamed of bringing new and different readers into the medium, and when Gloomcookie drew a readership that was at least 50% female, I was ecstatic. I knew that many of those readers hadn’t ever picked up a comic before. Courtney Crumrin and How Loathsome have been the same way. I think it’s important to do that, because most of those readers go on to read other comics, and I’m contributing to the community. Recently, manga has gained a huge audience of readers who would never enter a comics shop by breaking out of the traditional format, and appearing in large numbers in a different venue: bookstores. These books are also bringing new readers into the medium, which can only be a good thing. I wanted to be a part of that.

That being said, I didn’t write Unearthly specifically to be manga. I just wrote it to be three 150 page digest sized books. What really makes it manga is really the art style. Of course, it’s doubtful that DC or Marvel would ever publish something like Unearthly. They wouldn’t know how to market a sci-fi action romance series, and the typical Marvel and DC readers wouldn’t be the least bit interested. In addition, most manga publishers might not publish it either, because it doesn’t follow the strict rules of manga sub-genres. It’s essentially a shoujo book, but it also has specifically shonen elements, like sci-fi action. But I think it’s going to be a success with both male and female readers, because it has elements that appeal to both shoujo and shonen audiences. Personally, I don’t see why it has to be one or the other. It’s already appearing page by page on the Seven Seas website and getting rave reviews.

BF – You’ve already mentioned the Courtney Crumrin books – the projects that really helped bring your name to a wider audience. Who is she, and what are her stories about?

TN - Courtney Crumrin is an eleven-year-old girl whose parents move in with her wealthy but eccentric great uncle Aloysius. Courtney soon figures out that he’s a warlock, and starts to pick up witchcraft herself. Courtney is this grouchy, sullen, irritable little curmudgeon who at first uses magic to take petty revenge on her spoilt, snotty schoolmates. But as the series goes on, she begins to have bigger adventures and deeper emotional experiences. In the meantime, she and Uncle Aloysius become very close. Her parents are shallow, yuppie social climbers who don’t understand their moody withdrawn daughter, but the equally withdrawn and reclusive Aloysius gets her right away. The series is really about their relationship, and the struggle of two emotionally isolated people to love each other.

BF - While preparing for this interview, I read somewhere a comment you made about using a “pulp/action flair” for Courtney Crumrin Tales. What other genres or styles would you be interested in experimenting with?

TN - I love all kinds of genres, but I especially like the kind where anything can happen. Sci-fi and fantasy are two favorites, obviously, but only insofar as they allow for unfettered flights of fancy. I also like noir, period pieces, and romance quite a bit. I’d even like to do an action comic sometime, or a swords and sorcery type thing. 

Courtney’s world has been a delightful place to play, because I can explore so many genres. So far I’ve introduced fantasy, magic realism, horror, mystery, and even a little romance. I’d never put science fiction elements into it, of course. No aliens can land in Courtney’s world. It wouldn’t fit somehow. But genres like horror and pulp action blend seamlessly into that world, because they’re known to occasionally contain supernatural elements. 

But to me, genre is a secondary concern. I often find that when you start with a genre and try to draw a story out of it, you end up following well-trodden paths, allowing the conventions of the genre dictate your story. Perhaps it’s naïve of me, but I’d rather think up a story first and then place it in the genre that best suits its emotional emphasis.

BF - Polly and the Pirates is the next book you have coming out – what is this mini-series about and what inspired it?

TN - Actually, I can’t remember what inspired it, beyond the comic book world’s delight that pirates had finally come back. I hate to jump on a bandwagon started by Disney, but you must understand that for the longest time, the comics writer’s community has wanted to see pirates become popular. Alan Moore even put a subtle joke about it into Watchmen the form of the Black Freighter comic. In his world, because superheroes became real, superhero comics died out early, and most contemporary comics were about pirates. Aside from the social commentary, I thought it was a pretty cute idea. Anyway, I always shook my head sadly and said, “Give it up, it’ll never happen. You can’t force a trend on an audience. It has to happen naturally, like that whole monkeys thing in the late nineties.” How wrong I was. 

So Polly and the Pirates is a comic about this goody-two-shoes girl who gets kidnapped from her school and made captain of an infamous pirate ship, which used to belong to a famous Pirate Queen. At first all she wants is to get back to the safety of her boarding school, but she quickly finds that piracy and swashbuckling come to her as naturally as breathing, for reasons that should remain mysterious until you actually read the book. It’s a very silly, fun comic and I’m having a ball writing it. It’s going to be a six-issue series.

Check back tomorrow for part 2 of Broken Frontier’s Ted Naifeh interview as he talks How Loathsome, Iron Artist and more…

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