One of the most curious and most original webcomics around is “A Softer World.” The comics are funny and strange, dark and touching, featuring zombies and cute babies and death and obscenities. The format of the comic has remained essentially the same for more than five hundred strips; three photographs that sometimes directly relate to the text and sometimes does not. Within those formal considerations, writer Joey Comeau and photographer Emily Horne have crafted something so unique that it’s hard to pinpoint any precise influence they’ve had.
The creative duo have also published comics on Tor.com in addition to their own separate projects. Comeau has written four books, including last year’s “Overqualified” and the upcoming novel “One Bloody Thing After Another,” coming out in May. They recently released the second collection of the “A Softer World.”
CBR News: How did the two of you meet?
Emily Horne: We met through our mutual friend Tim, in 2000. Tim worked with Joey at the phone company in Halifax, and went to school with me. He thought Joey and I would get along, so we went to meet Joey on his “lunch break” – at 4am! Later, we dated.
Joey Comeau: Even later than that, we stopped dating, but kept doing the comic!
Where did the idea for “A Softer World” originate?
Horne: Joey started making comics in, maybe, 2001, using pictures cut out from magazines about royalty (this is a thing that happens when you have a Queen; there are multiple magazines about The Royals). When yet another King Edward abdication comic got dull, we thought maybe we could use my photos instead. I’d started taking photos on shoots (usually involving costumes and props) with my university friends, so I had a pretty significant backlog of shots. I don’t really recall any moment of feeling like making photo comics was a dumb idea, neither do I recall feeling like we were being particularly innovative (and of course, later we learned that there was a whole tradition of photo comics). It was just a thing that seemed like a good idea!
Take us through the process of a typical strip, if there is such a thing. Emily, do you create a triptych of photographs and send them along to Joey. Joey do you write based on what Emily sends you or how do you work?
Comeau: Emily and I talk about the strip’s humor, and if we’re both not on board, we don’t use a particular joke (or photo) on the site. But we both have an idea of what the comic is and should be, and we try to keep the idea in our head balanced with what we make for the site. The idea of having comics that were funny and sad started right at the beginning, too. Our first comic was the one with Wednesday the cat, asking god if her parents are ever coming home. I remember we sent this and some others to a science fiction magazine here in Canada, and they liked most, but they wanted us to change the last panel of that particular comic to read, “Can I have my testicles back now, please?” We did not do it, though on April fools a couple years later we changed dozens of comics so they all had that for a punchline.
Horne: Our process has evolved considerably since we started. We worked on comics together in person when we were both in Halifax, then when I moved to Victoria, things had to change. I would scan a few photos at a time, then put the comics together and send them to Joey. He would then write text for them and upload the finished comics over the next few weeks. Usually I’d be able to look them over before they went online, but sometimes they were a complete surprise! We got so used to working that way that when I moved to Toronto, we kept it up (minus the time-zone difference). Joey did a lot of traveling to promote his new book “Overqualified” this year, which meant that often he was sending me ideas and I was finding appropriate photos and uploading them myself. That’s where our process is right now. We are usually creating strips the day before or the day of posting. I envy those webcomic-makers who can be ahead of the game, but that’s rarely us.
Writers and cartoonists often compare the comic strip format to haiku, but very few, it seems, really play with formal constraints the way you do in “A Softer World.” Was that always the intention, and what do you both enjoy about establishing these constraints and playing within them?
Comeau: We didn’t really come into this with any intentions. Formal constraints are fun to work with, because they make the act of writing even more of a puzzle than it already is. Instead of just coming up with a story and a joke, you have to find a way to fit that into three panels and keep it from being too wordy. You have to make it seem like that’s the natural amount of space for the idea to need, too. You also have to figure out how to make that idea about lesbians, dead moms and zombies. You know, to make it Art.
“A Softer World” has recently hit two big milestones, having published more than 500 strips with a second printed volume on the way. When you started, did you have any idea this could last for so long and that you would continue to find it so interesting and fulfilling?
Comeau: When we started, we were just goofing around and we had no idea we’d still be doing it almost seven years later. If we had thought about it, we might have gotten worried, thinking that we wouldn’t find it interesting or fulfilling this far down the road. And, if we were still doing the same comic, maybe we wouldn’t. But the comic changes. We write about whatever pops into our heads and take pictures that interest or engage us. There’s always the temptation to try and recreate comics that people have particularly liked, but those will never be as satisfying as the first comic, because it has already been done. So the comic is what we want it to be, and its about the things that interest us. Those things change and come back in circles, and sometimes they go completely off the rails into unexpected places, but we figure we can do what we want. And it’s still satisfying. It will be as long as there are things we find interesting enough to write about. If we stop being interested in things, then we have worse problems than just not being fulfilled by the comic.
As far as the collection, your own advertisement practically discouraged people from buying it. “These comics are free online, / so you’re essentially paying to have trees killed! / You’re pretty much a Bond villain.” If you sell no books, does this mean you’re good at advertising or bad at it?
Comeau: Well, what are you supposed to put in an ad for a webcomic, you know? Everybody knows it is free online. Sure, there’s always extra features and things (we, for instance, included scans of the original photocopy comics we made with the typewriter, and little stories about those) and of course there are benefits to owning a book in physical form, but everybody knows that too. Really, all we’re doing in that ad space on our site is letting people know that it exists. There’s no need to condescend or beg or cajole. We made a book. If you’d like to buy it, here is the link. If not, please continue about your day. We don’t do any advertising on other sites or in magazines or anything. I know that there are ways in which advertising works, and in the future, we might find it interesting to make ourselves an ad campaign (Although, clever, anti-ad campaigns that are still ads feel a bit disingenuous…it’s a tough call.). But for now, that is essentially just a news box with pictures! “We have a book. Carry on.”
As you mentioned, the book has some bonus features. Tell us what to expect, how many comics it includes and why everyone should be excited by it?
Horne: The bonus feature actually builds on our origin story. When we started making comics, we made them for ‘zine fairs in Halifax, photocopied onto cardstock and sold in envelopes (Maybe we expected people to use them as postcards? Who’s to say?). To make them, we’d take our green Smith-Corona typewriter and a pile of photos to the all-night photocopy shop, and make them up on the spot. Given that only about two dozen people ever saw those original comics, we thought it would be neat to include a few of them (With Joey’s commentary!) in the new book.
After self-pubishing “A Softer World” for so long, how did you end up connected with Tor.com and having comics on their site?
Comeau: I think when they became interested in offering sequential art on their site, they started looking around for people who were already working in webcomics to fill some of that role. I think one or two of the editors involved liked our comic, and we often have comics where the story takes place in the future, or uses crazy technology or is in some other way science fiction. So, they asked us and we said yes! It is also a chance to play with the format of the comic on a more regular basis. We’ve tried our hand at six panel comics before, but on Tor.com, it is a chance to tell more involved stories in the same pared down format. Again, with the constrictions making something challenging and fun. Now the puzzle is, what does doubling the length allow us to add to our way of telling a story? What kind of picture layout is going to work with a whole new dimension to the frame layout? But the real reason we’re excited is way simpler. We love science fiction (and horror, and pulp mystery novels and etc.), and we are going to have us some fun making comics on that site that are sometimes unexpectedly sad or wrong or just flat out silly, right up until they realize they’ve made a terrible mistake.