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A Short Interview With Shaenon Garrity
posted January 1, 2007
 

imageShaenon Garrity is a cartoonist, a writer, an essayist, a reviewer and an editor, she's collaborated with several artists including alt-comics legends Roger Langridge and Tom Hart, she's written for Marvel Comics, she works at the most important comics company in the United States at this moment in industry history, she helms an important anthology, she's a smart and funny Internet presence, she's even married to someone in comics and most people I know in comics have never heard of her. While that's about as stark a case as I can make for the divisions that still exist between the various comics camps, all that really means is that comics is a big room. As you'll see, the majority of Garrity's output has come in the webcomics corner of that room, with her best-known work probably Narbonic, a webcomics community favorite for its five-year history, a run that will end a week from Monday (the announcement was made after this interview was conducted).

I've been dying to interview Shaenon Garrity since talking to her about comics briefly at the 2005 San Diego Con. I'm glad I finally got the chance.

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TOM SPURGEON: Shaenon, by way of introduction, can you break down your various day and creative gigs and how much time you take to work on each one?

SHAENON GARRITY: My real job is that of freelance manga editor for Viz Media. I oversee the production of about a dozen manga series for Viz. I work at home and go into the office two or three afternoons a week. All things considered, it's a pretty sweet deal. I've been working at Viz since 2000, but I've only been an editor for about half that time. Before that, I was the front-desk receptionist. I got laid off as the receptionist and rehired as an editor.

My unreal jobs include writing and drawing the daily webcomic Narbonic, writing the weekly webcomics Li'l Mell (currently drawn by Neil Babra) and Smithson (drawn by Brian Moore and Roger Langridge), and editing ModernTales.com. I sometimes write for Marvel; I did a story for last year's Marvel Holiday Special, and another one this year (in collaboration with my husband, Andrew Farago). I also do some freelance writing on comics for magazines and so on. I recently became a regular contributor to Sequential Tart. I'm also supposed to be a contributor to the Web-only section of The Comics Journal, but I haven't actually written anything for it yet.

I think that's everything.

Until recently, my time has been divided roughly into thirds: Viz, Narbonic, and everything else. But Narbonic is ending on December 31, so there'll be a big hole in my schedule soon.

SPURGEON: Really? I had no idea.

GARRITY: You didn't know? I assumed that's why you wanted to interview me now.

SPURGEON: No, I'm completely clueless.

GARRITY: Yeah, Narbonic ends on December 31. I always planned for it to last five or six years. There's a main story arc, and it's coming to an end now.

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SPURGEON: Endings are a big deal. Without giving anything away, can you talk about sitting down and grappling with the conclusion creatively? Are there any models in terms of long-running strips or TV series that appeal to you?

GARRITY: When I came up with Narbonic in college, I was really, really into Babylon 5, which had a set five-season schedule, and this definitely contributed to my decision to give the strip a planned ending. I'm a big old nerd. In the intervening years, of course, I've been paying attention to the way various comics end. There actually haven't been many comic strips with definite, considered endings. I've heard descriptions of the final Barnaby strips, but I haven't read them. I'm very curious to see how For Better or for Worse wraps up.

SPURGEON: Has anyone reacted strangely to the news?

GARRITY: Not yet. You'd think someone would have the grace to commit ritual suicide or something.

imageSPURGEON: Now how is it that you decided to take over the Modern Tales gig from Eric Burns? Where are you in terms of you various plans for developing that site?

GARRITY: Joey Manley had wanted me to take over the content end of Modern Tales for a long time, and I always turned him down. Eric accepted the job, but then he ran into personal and day-job problems that forced him to drop out. By that time, I'd taken Narbonic off Modern Tales, where it had been for most of its run. When Joey offered me the editorial job again, I decided to accept. I just can't stay away from Modern Tales. It's like a sickness.

I've now been the content editor for about six months, and I've accomplished what I consider to be the most desperately-needed goal: getting a lot of good new content on the site. When Joey ran the entire site himself, he spent most of his time on technical issues, letting the selection of comics on the site dwindle.

This problem became more acute as the MT sister sites Girlamatic and Graphic Smash continued to grow and develop strong new content. (Serializer, the other sister site, was AWOL for a long time, but has recently returned with an awesome lineup.) My first priority was getting good new comics on MT. Fortunately, Eric had already done a lot of the work for me in his brief tenure, and had a bunch of great comics lined up. I also got Joey to revive Longplay, the section of the site for long-form comics, which I've always thought was one of the most promising areas for MT to explore.

The next step is something Joey and I need to discuss together, but I'd like to work on the eternal problem of making money. Right now, MT is straddling the fence between offering subscription content and bringing in revenue through ads, and I think we need to improve both sides. To start, I want to get MT onto Project Wonderful, a promising new service that allows sites to auction ad space. Of course, Joey always says that he thinks of MT as the loss leader in his little backwoods empire, so he isn't as concerned about making it profitable.

SPURGEON: How much are you surprised you have the career and creative outlets you have, and how much does it make sense considering your aims and activities growing up? Am I right in thinking you were involved in comics at college?

GARRITY: I'm not sure if this is exactly what I thought I'd be doing, but I guess it was bound to be something nerdy. I wasn't particularly into comics as a kid, but I got heavily addicted in high school. I drew comic strips in high school and college. I went to Vassar, where I majored in English and took writing classes wherein it was assumed that we'd all end up sipping dry wine in the New York literary publishing world. Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I'd ended up doing Real Writing Without Pictures.

Probably boring, although I imagine I'd find myself enmeshed in fewer solemn debates over whether women are mentally capable of reading books.

It could still happen, though. I might try writing prose fiction once Narbonic's out of the way. It's kind of refreshing just to write.

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SPURGEON: People have criticized your art in the past, but do you feel you have a full vocabulary, that you can tell any story you want with the abilities you have?

GARRITY: No, those people, whoever they may be, are correct. I'm pretty terrible. After six years of daily drawing, I've reached the point where I can pull off a very simple illustration without totally embarrassing myself, but that's about the limit of my artistic ability.

I keep saying I'm going to enroll in the Academy of Art or something and actually learn to draw, but I haven't. I never took any art classes past high school. I'm very limited in the range of things I can draw, and, perhaps more damningly, my style doesn't have much beauty or flair. It gets the job done, provided the job is simple enough.

I get a lot of pleasure out of drawing, though. Doodling has always been my method of brainstorming, even for my prose writing. A lot of really gifted artists seem to hate drawing. Derek Kirk Kim, for instance. He bitches and moans about it all the time. Maybe if I learned all the technical skills and theory necessary to draw well, I'd find it too much of a chore.

SPURGEON: The reason I didn't want to say anything about your art is because I wanted to say something about your lettering. Is that something you've thought about giving to an outside source? Does it ever concern you that your line to line spacing is such that you give away huge amounts of strip space in constructing your word balloons? You strip is so verbal to begin with.

GARRITY: Yes, it's terrible, isn't it? The New York Times complained about it, so it must be a problem. It's a very wordy strip, and my lettering is awful. I don't know what you mean by giving it to an outside source, though. I can't afford to hire a letterer. The sensible thing to do would be to do my lettering on the computer, but computer lettering looks so harsh and artificial next to the crude artwork on Narbonic. If I ever draw another comic myself, I might do computer lettering. Fortunately, for the comics I don't draw, it's not an issue; the artists do everything, and it comes out much better.

These questions are kind of mean, aren't they? "I notice that everyone thinks you suck. Have you ever considered not sucking?"

SPURGEON: I have a reputation. Now, having done Narbonic for so long, I'm interested in how you write. There was a scene in a recent comic where you asked in a caption, "Who would win in a fight between a giant robot foot accompanied by a rifle-toting assassin and an army of hamster in mechanical suits?" And your full-panel answer was "The cartoonist." How much of your narratives are constructed out of the simple concerns of enjoying yourself? And due to the length of what you write, how do you avoid falling prey to writing pure soap opera -- or is that even a concern?

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GARRITY: I try very hard to make each strip funny, or at least vaguely entertaining, on its own. Maybe if I went on for years it would end up like For Better or for Worse or something, more about the soap opera than the humor. I'm a big fan of For Better or for Worse, by the way, although I hate Anthony with the fire of a thousand suns.

My first intention is always to write something that I personally enjoy. If I enjoyed console video games or superhero rape, I'd probably do a lot better in the comics business.

SPURGEON: Who and what do you find funny?

GARRITY: Geez, what a question. That's like, "Where do you get your ideas?" Pain, mostly.

SPURGEON: Is it really that weird a question? It's just an influences question. I'm more interested in the who than the what. Do you have any creative influences when it comes to writing humor? What about generally?

GARRITY: Um, everything. I read a lot. That is, I used to read a lot, before Narbonic. One of the downsides of doing a daily strip is that I haven't had much time for reading. I can draw while watching TV or listening to music, but I can't draw while I'm reading.

Narbonic is mostly influenced by Shakespeare and Young Frankenstein. Even if that's not true, it seems like an entertaining thing to say right now.

SPURGEON: Smithson has a really nice flow to it when you read a bunch of it at once; it manages to catch the ebb and flow of college life as a I remember it. Where did that series come from, and what were your aims going in?

GARRITY: Thanks. I think the pacing hurts it as an online serial, since there isn't a punch or a hook to each weekly installment, but I'm pleased with the way it reads when you go through the archives. Smithson is a story I've had on the back burner since high school, which makes it older than any of my other comics in that sense. I did most of the work on it in college. For a long time, it was the place where I would throw all the ideas I couldn't find another home for, so it ended up with some weird elements, like Darryl O'Doyle, commissured Irish poet.

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I started writing the comic for Graphic Smash, the action-oriented Modern Tales site, but it didn't pick up much of a readership there. I guess it never totally fit with the rest of the site. Then the first artist, Robert Stevenson, had to bow out, and I ended up revamping the whole thing: new artist, new title, new website. It seems to be getting an audience now, but I still have to find a way to make money from it, if only for Brian's sake. He does such a great job on the art every week. There's another development in the works that I may not be able to talk about yet, but I'm hoping it'll be an opportunity to introduce Smithson to a lot of new readers.

My aim is really just to tell the story. It's my superhero story.

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SPURGEON: Before I forget, I wanted to give you a chance to talk about Lil' Mell a bit. I've seen very little of it, but what I've seen seems to indicate a degree of awareness of old, classic kids comic books right down to the page design -- as opposed to strips, where children seem to act as mouthpieces for adult concerns. What drove you to do that feature?

GARRITY: Originally, it was Lea Hernandez's idea, from back when she was launching Girlamatic.com. She and Joey thought I should do a kid version of Mell, one of the characters in Narbonic, and then we got Vera Brosgol to agree to draw it. Vera eventually dropped out because she had school and stuff, so Li'l Mell became a comic with rotating artists. I've had a different artist for each storyline, including myself for "The Horror of Rukavina Caverns" (which was a story I initially wrote for Vera, because she got sick of drawing classrooms and wanted me to have her draw caves instead). Neil Babra is drawing it right now, and I'm very lucky to have him. He's amazing.

I don't think it's really a kiddie comic, not as long as I periodically have characters scream things like, "By the way, he's going to grow up to be a bisexual vegan atheist!" But it's not an adult comic, either; it's not one of those comics that has kid characters but is obviously written for adult sensibilities. Neil and I have tried selling it to publishers, who are mostly interested in it for Neil's art, and I've had some trouble explaining who it's supposed to appeal to. Of all my comics, it's the one that's probably written most purely for an audience of me. Which would explain why I write all my friends in as characters.

Incidentally, the kid comic I've read the most of is Little Lulu. I've got all the Dark Horse collections.

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SPURGEON: What have you learned from your various collaborations over the years? I'm particularly in interested in your work from Tom Hart and Roger Langridge, because they're so strong writing-wise on their own.

GARRITY: I have no idea why those two put up with me. I probably learned the most from Tom, because we spent a lot of time brainstorming and trading ideas about comics before we started Trunktown. He's a great teacher and he loves talking theory. The first few weeks of Trunktown are terrible, incidentally, but then it gets good. That's probably true of everything I've written, but it was really hard to get into the rhythm of Trunktown at first.

Roger just takes my scripts and draws beautiful pages. His approach to his work seems to be very professional and matter-of-fact; he just hunkers down and draws. In England, he does spot illustrations for a Doctor Who magazine and the British equivalent of Soap Opera Digest, and he has no particular interest in either Doctor Who and soaps, but you wouldn't know it from the illustrations. Even though he's a great writer on his own, he does a lot of collaborations with various writers, and he's very good at making someone else's script look good.

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I have a great time working with Brian Moore, the main artist on Smithson. He's very talented and he shares my nerdy passion for all areas of comic art, so we talk a lot over email. I hope he gets to be better known; I love the art he's been doing for Smithson.

imageSPURGEON: I think Tom Hart mentioned to me that you have a really broad range of interest in comics art. Is there any particularly obscure or surprising passion that you have when it comes to comics?

GARRITY: I don't think so. I try to have an appreciation for all comics that don't suck, although I do have some special preferences: I adore 1970s shojo manga, for instance, and of course I love comic strips. Alley Oop is one of my favorites. V.T. Hamlin was one of those guys who could draw anything. I also like a lot of weekly strip cartoonists, especially Lynda Barry and Alison Bechdel.

SPURGEON: You said in another interview that you had almost memorized Ghost World. Is there anything that revealed itself to you after multiple readings that you maybe didn't see the first few times through. If not, what do you get from the later readings?

GARRITY: I just like rereading books. And Ghost World is a really well-constructed graphic novel. I know David Boring and Ice Haven get more critical attention because they're all serious, but Ghost World is smart and nicely put together, in addition to having a little more human warmth than [Dan] Clowes' recent work. Clowes always blows me away, though. It's pretty amazing to trace his career from his early work to the present, and see how he keeps building on his past achievements in unexpected ways.

SPURGEON: Say you're like me and you've kind of aware of webcomics for years but it still seems to look like what it did six, seven years ago -- some promising work, an avalanche of junk, and according to a few rabid advocates the revolution just around the corner. What do we need to know about webcomics that might not come through via message boards and on-line articles and discussion of same?

GARRITY: I can't offer much advice, because I don't actually read that many webcomics outside the Modern Tales family, and the webcomics scene has exploded beyond what anyone can reasonably keep track of. It's certainly not remotely what it was six or seven years ago. I started doing webcomics then, and I can attest that it was a much, much smaller and much, much less interesting world. I'm floored by how many good-to-great webcomics there are now, and how the Web has become a standard, legitimate publishing venue for comics. It's amazing.

I guess it's possible that the shit-to-diamonds ratio is the same as it's always been, but I don't think even that's true. There weren't many good webcomics six years ago, and the decent ones, like Scott Kurtz's PvP, are way better now than they were then. The bar is much higher now.

I don't know if there's going to be a "revolution," in the sense of some huge turning point that everyone can point to and say, "There. That's when webcomics officially became worth paying attention to." Actually, I think we passed that point a year or two ago, by almost any measure you care to name. Or we can agree to place the revolution marker on the date when Gene Yang's American Born Chinese, which started as one of the first comics on Modern Tales, was nominated for a National Book Award.

SPURGEON: It may be years of malt liquor talking, but am I right in remembering that there's a Shaenon Garrity convention somewhere where you're flown in as guest of honor? I know it's either you or S. Clay Wilson. What is that experience like?

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GARRITY: If there is an S. Clay Wilson convention, I want to go there more desperately than I can possibly convey in print.

ClayWorld Chicago notwithstanding, I assume you're thinking of Narbonicon, a mini-convention that's been held annually in Minnesota for the past four years. Um, yeah, it exists. Or existed. With Narbonic ending, unfortunately, there is no longer an impetus for Narbonicon, so this year's was probably the last such event. It was a very small affair, maybe two dozen people hanging out and going to the science museum and stuff. But, yes, it happened, and they flew me out to the Twin Cities every year to attend. Webcomics is a weird place.

SPURGEON: You recently popped into the rolling discussion on-line about DC's Minx imprint to point out that there was only one female creator among those announced. This has been an incredible year in terms of dialog about women in comics, from the Mid-Ohio Con incident, to exhibits, to not being in exhibits, to so much good work coming out from female cartoonists like Alison Bechdel and Renee French, and so on. Do you have a take on where the comics industry stands in terms of these sorts of issues right now. What could be done immediately to improve matters?

GARRITY: More Moto Hagio translations. I'm not sure if it'll do anything about the patriarchy, but it'll stop me from bitching for a few minutes.

To be perfectly frank, I find the institutionalized sexism that permeates the comics industry, from the upper echelons of management to the target audience of socially inept young men, mostly just baffling. It's not something I was raised to have any patience with. And for the last six years, I've worked for Viz. Half of our product line is manga specifically aimed at girls, and most of our popular "boys'" titles have an audience that's about half female, so the interests and tastes of female readers is always of great importance. About half the work we publish is by women. About half the editorial staff is female. All three of the supervising editors I report to are women. I'm not saying Viz doesn't have problems of its own, but the idea of having to indulge the petty power trips of aging male nerds with ingrained Girl Issues is totally alien to me.

Right now, the comics industry seems to be in the midst of a major upheaval, and the schizophrenic position of women in comics reflects this. On one hand, thanks to the whole manga explosion, there are now tons of female comics fans, and publishers are scrambling to provide them with comics. Also, female creators have generally done very well in the burgeoning bookstore market, a fact driven home when a recent Time profile on new graphic novels featured, by chance, only work by women.

On the other hand, the comics industry continues to be hidebound by the limitations of the direct market and the Diamond monopoly, which, among other things, means that the established boys' club isn't changing much. That goes for the small press and indie end of comics as well as the superhero publishers; everyone is having trouble getting out of this sort of 1990s model of what comics are all about. So it's the best of times and the worst of times for women in comics, both as creators and as readers. Probably the most promising development is that, between the graphic-novel market and the Web, there's less and less reason to get involved in the "mainstream" comics industry at all.

You may note that, in spite of everything I just wrote, I happily write superhero stories for Marvel whenever I get the chance. I'm a complicated woman.

SPURGEON: There's a story about a big comics company executive whose spouse will only allow one room in their house to have comics in it, so the rumor is that room has shelves that go give comics deep. I'm offering up that ridiculous image because I wondered how the comics collection is different when both members of a household are actively and aggressively involved with the art form. Are there comics all over your house or what?

GARRITY: I could tell you wonderful stories about some of the collectors involved with the Cartoon Art Museum and their rooms.

As you know, I'm married to Andrew Farago, curator and gallery manager of the Cartoon Art Museum, who also draws comics. Our accumulation of comics is limited by the fact that we live in a tiny apartment in San Francisco, and there's only so much physical room. Our living room is pretty much lined with shelves, although that includes Real Books as well as comics. I also have manga all over the place, and there are Andrew's bedside shelves of reference books and Marvel Essentials. Oh, and the spinner rack in the hall. Can't forget the spinner rack. Andrew's collection is much, much bigger than mine, but the bulk of it is in longboxes at his parents' house. He's been gradually selling it on eBay and buying trade-paperback collections of everything.

I've actually been trying to get away from comics collecting, partly because we only have room for so many comics, and partly because I've reached the point where the acquisitive, materialistic part of fandom -- any fandom -- turns me off. That said, more comics keep coming into the house. It's very hard to stop.

Oh, and we have tons of original art on the walls, including a page from the issue of Kamandi with the screaming man-bats. We are super classy.

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SPURGEON: What are you doing for Christmas?

GARRITY: We'll go home to Ohio to see our families. As it happens, although Andrew and I met here in San Francisco, we grew up less than an hour apart; Andrew's family is near Cleveland, and mine is near Akron. We'll also go to Pittsburgh to see my extended family.

SPURGEON: Where would you like to be professionally five years from now?

GARRITY: I don't know. As much as the opportunities for cartoonists in general are opening up these days, my personal options seem limited. I don't draw well enough to be a professional cartoonist, which mostly limits me to writing scripts. This depresses me, because I enjoy drawing, and most great comics are the work of a single creator. Joey [Manley] says I should be the next Brian Michael Bendis, which strikes me as the most horrendous fate imaginable. Nothing against Bendis; I'd just be bored stiff writing the kind of gritty police-procedurals-in-leotards that sell well in the mainstream comics market. I like writing fun superhero comics, but the market for fun superhero comics is pretty small right now.

Also, most women who do comics are driven completely batty within ten years, with good reason, so if I'm still in the comics industry five years from now I'll probably be a basket case.

SPURGEON: To conclude, can you tell me one of those stories about the collectors involved with the Cartoon Art Museum?

GARRITY: No. To get that, you'll have to interview Andrew.

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* from Narbonic
* from Smithson
* last two panels from a Narbonic
* panel from Narbonic
* Narbonic near the beginning and one from near the end of the run
* that's one cute-looking critter; from Narbonic
* from Smithson
* from Lil' Mell's opening sequence
* Roger Langridge on Smithson
* a Smithson from very far away to note the use of canvas
* from Garrity's Tom Hart collaboration, Trunktown
* illustration that ran on site about Narbonicon
* from Narbonic

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Narbonic
Smithson
Li'l Mell
Livejournal

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