Skin Horse Interview

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Today’s interview is with Shaenon Garrity, the cartoonist behind the award-winning mad science webcomic Narbonic (having won the 2005 Lulu of the Year from Friends of Lulu, along with the 2005 Web Cartoonist Choice Award for “Outstanding Writer”) and Skin Horse (winner of the Outstanding Small Press award at the 2008 Stumptown Comics Fest). (I have to apologize for the awkward phrasing of the first sentence; I’m still working on how to effectively say that. Sad, really.)

I have to thank Shaenon for participating in the interview. Unfortunately I didn’t exactly choose the best of questions for her to answer; some of my later questions didn’t really provide her with the opportunity to expand on things. Fortunately she was quite patient with the two rounds of questions and I appreciate her taking the time to answer my questions.

Did you have any inspirations that inspired the genesis of Narbonic? What about Skin Horse?

Inspirations that inspired, eh? Narbonic came out of a couple of things. One was my decision, at the end of college, to make a webcomic by smooshing together characters from all the previous comics I’d drawn. Mell was a character in the strip I’d drawn in high school, Dave came from the strip I drew for my college newspaper, and Helen was in a three-page comic I drew for a contest in the excellent comic book Thieves and Kings. The other thing that caused Narbonic was watching City of Lost Children back-to-back with Mystery Science Theater 3000.

With Skin Horse, I’d been toying for a while with the concept of a Black Ops Social Services department dedicated to assisting the nonhuman creations of super-science. One day I realized that the agents themselves should be nonhuman, and the whole thing fell together very quickly.

What got you initially interested in creating your own webcomic?

I always liked doodling and drawing comics. In high school, I drew a comic strip called North of Space for the kids’ section of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It was about space aliens. In college, I drew a strip for my college paper; it was about college students, which was similar. Near the end of senior year, I suddenly realized that when I graduated I’d have no further excuse to draw comic strips. Fortunately, or not, some friends introduced me to webcomics. Like so many people, I immediately thought, “I can do that!” I launched Narbonic a couple of months after graduation, immediately after moving across the country for an internship at the Cartoon Art Museum and a job at manga publisher Viz Media.

What are some of your influences and inspirations, and why do you find them inspirational?

Obviously I’m a big-time comics nerd. I can’t possibly list all the comics that have influenced me, but classic comic strips like Thimble Theatre, Little Nemo, and Barnaby are up there. Like most kids of my generation, I devoured Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County when I was growing up. Nowadays, I love Lynda Barry, Carla Speed McNeil, and Moto Hagio, among countless others. I also read tons of science fiction. Right now I’m going through a 1970s New Wave sci-fi kick.

My single greatest literary influence, as well as my mentor and spiritual guide, is probably children’s writer and NPR essayist Daniel Pinkwater. He’s the best guy.

Do you read any other webcomics? If so, which are your favorites, and why do those stand out for you?

Right now my webcomics trawl is pretty light. There are some longform comics I save up and read in big chunks, including Girl Genius, Family Man, and Dicebox. I love and deeply admire Achewood, but that’s on a kind of hiatus right now. Aaron Neathery’s Endtown is wonderful. Generally I like webcomics that are very different from my comics, that do things I don’t know how to do.

Do you have any opinions on creating or designing webcomics for viewing on smartphones and other mobile devices?

No, not really. I don’t have a smart phone myself, and I have only the vaguest idea how these things work. I’m kind of Luddite for a webcartoonist, as you can probably tell from my primitive website designs.

If you were to take a critical look at your own artistic talents and storytelling skills, what aspects would you consider flawed and how would you go about improving it?

I’m always bagging on my artwork, but recently I’ve reached a point where I’m pretty happy with my basic drawing and cartooning. What I’d like to do now is expand my toolbox. I can’t ink with a brush or dip pen, I have no experience with painting, my grasp of color needs work.

My storytelling skills are awesome. I am an excellent writer. When writing comics, though, I could always stand to think more visually. My strips tend to be talky.

What is your opinion on webcomic criticism, and how do you cope with negative or destructive criticism?

I don’t pay a lot of attention to online criticism, to be honest. I’m kind of out of the loop of the whole comics blogosphere, so I don’t know what, if anything, people are saying about my comics. Usually, when I come across negative criticism, it’s stuff I already knew needed work. Or else it’s totally wrong. You know the Internet.

I guess I should accept criticism as constructive and use it to make my work better, but screw that, I’m too immature.

Given your partnership with Jeffrey Channing Wells in your current comic Skin Horse, what are your experiences of working collaboratively on a webcomic and what advice would you offer new writer/artist collaborative teams in the effective creation of a new webcomic?

I don’t know how to create an effective webcomic, so I don’t really have any advice. I work with people because I enjoy the collaborative process. Usually I write for artists, so doing the cowriting/drawing thing with Skin Horse is interesting. I like brainstorming plots with Jeff. He’s a fantastic writer with an endless supply of ideas I never could have thought of.

How much time goes into the creation of each comic, and what steps do you take in making the strip?

I draw a week of strips at a time. That usually takes about three days. I’m really low-tech: plain ink on bristol, hand lettering. It takes about half an hour to scan each strip and clean it up for publication. Recently I’ve started adding screentone on Photoshop, which adds a little time to the process.

How do you overcome writer’s or artist’s block, and does working with a partner help you overcome blocks?

We’ve got a bunch of stories we already know we want to tell, so it isn’t too much of a problem except when we have a difference of opinion or have trouble figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B, the latter of which happens pretty often. I tend to write storylines by coming up with cool or funny scenes I’d like to include and hoping they all link up; it’s the linking up that’s the problem. Oh, and figuring out how to make expository strips funny.

And last, what types of subtle elements do you insert into your artistry and storytelling? Do you have any concerns that increased complexity with the comic could constrain your update schedule?

That’s…kind of a broad question. Do you have any examples in mind?

A couple of examples that comes to mind would be your insertion of book titles in Narbonic and movie posters, as well as some of the laboratory equipment shown in the background, which you have commented on in your Editorial Commentaries for Narbonic.

Oh, well, that stuff is what makes the strips interesting for me. Nobody else seems to care one way or another, so it’s basically for my own amusement. I have these ridiculously complex systems of referents in Skin Horse that probably entertain only me.

[Editor's note: I think Shaenon underestimates how interesting those background details are; while I unfortunately missed most of them the first time through, I have been enjoying reading about them in her Cartoonist Commentary reposts.]