Since 2010, Emily Carroll has been releasing a series of incredible short comics online, showcasing her talents in a variety of styles and approaches. Through these stories, all of which remain available to read on her website, Carroll has proven herself a master of atmosphere and mood, so it’s no surprise that she’s found herself showcased in a number of print anthologies as well, including “Explorer: Mystery Boxes,” “Fairy Tale Comics,” “Creepy” and “The Witching Hour.”
But now, it’s time for her to explore the world of print as a solo act. Her first book, “Through the Woods,” was recently published through Margaret K. McElderry Books. In addition to reprinting “His Face All Red,” which has been re-mastered for print, the book contains four all-new stories, each one exploring the world of horror Carroll has made her home.
We spoke with the acclaimed cartoonist about her new release, the different approach she found she had to take in crafting stories for the page rather than the screen, why she’s constantly experimenting with new approaches to her storytelling and more.
CBR News: How did this book, “Through the Woods” end up coming together?
Emily Carroll: Not long after I started making comics in 2010, I began to get interest from a number of publishers, both in terms of being an artist for existing scripts as well as inquiries about graphic novel ideas I had. While I had no long form stories in mind, I did have a number of ideas for short horror stories, and with the help of my agent, Jen Linnan, pitched the idea of a short story collection to a number of places. This is a terribly unexciting story when recounted, I’m realizing. It was much more exciting to be involved with it at the time, believe me! At the time I was pitching the book and first putting it together, I had only done maybe two or three things for print.
The book has five stories, and four of them are brand new. Why did you decide to include “His Face All Red” in the book?
In part because it was the most recognizable story I had made until then, and in part because it set the tone of the book very well, and showcased the sort of horror and storytelling that I was after with the other stories. Also, even though I had arranged it on the Internet initially, I didn’t think it would be too difficult to adapt it to print. It’s not like some of my other webcomics that would be impossible to translate.
When you were making these other comics, were you thinking about them differently knowing that they were going to be in a book?
As opposed to the ones I created for the Internet? Absolutely, sure. Especially with a (ideally) scary story, it’s very important to manage reveals, so the timing of page turns is especially important. Admittedly, I started off doing webcomics, where I could choose whatever dimensions I wanted (or thought I needed), so switching to print did initially feel like a bit of a limitation. I don’t know that I necessarily found it more difficult, but it did present a different sort of challenge; I was much more aware of how each panel affected another, and the way a reader’s eye could wander.
So just like many of my webcomics are specifically designed to be viewed online, I think these stories are definitely designed for print first and foremost — they are very much influenced by picture books, probably more so than comics really, which was the feeling I wanted to evoke when you open the book up.
What do you enjoy about the space that telling stories online affords you as an artist?
I enjoy that they are so easy to share, that they receive a wide audience, and that, honestly, I don’t have to fuss with things like printing or color correction or shipping or any of that. I like how immediately I can put them out there once I’m finished them. And this is to say nothing of the little things you can play around with like gifs, or mouse overs, or alt text or strange, wandering layouts that scroll on forever. I don’t think all webcomics should have these, and they can definitely be over done, but for me they’re fun to experiment with. Just like a different page size would be, or a palette limitation, or whatever else. It’s actually pretty nice to move back and forth with print and web to see how what I’ve discovered in one might translate to the other.
Do you draw on a computer or do you work on paper?
All the inks and pencils in my book are done on bristol, using a brush or nib, but the color is all digital. I’ve been experimenting more with doing things wholly digitally lately though — out of sheer necessity, because I didn’t have a scanner for a long time after a recent move. Again, it’s just cool to toy with different methods: Take what works, discard what doesn’t.
I loved your most recent comic, “The Hole The Fox Did Make,” but I was curious about the choices you made as far as the design. Why did you decide to tell the story the way you did, mostly with four panels arranged horizontally?
That comic came about because I was really excited about the idea of doing a horror comic strip, as I’d never done a comic strip before and it would be a challenge to figure out how to create unease in such a limited space, especially when said limited space is serialized (a notion which, granted, I did away with fairly early on). Practically speaking, I was also working on that story during breaks in between other work, so I wanted small chunks I could work on and finish quickly so I didn’t get too involved with each installment — this is also why I chose to do the comic in black and white, and completely on the computer.
Overall, I’d like to experiment more with strips and grids in general. Â I liked the rhythm I fell into with it, and what that did for the atmosphere of the story being told. It wasn’t just the pacing within each strip’s panels I had to consider, but the pacing of each strip as a beat within the larger network of strips, and what happens when you disrupt any element of that.
I’m curious if you have any thoughts on this: There are many cartoonists around your age who are interested in horror stories, not as they’re usually defined, but more about tone and mood. I don’t know that you have any idea why it’s become so big, but I am curious why it appeals to you.
Personally, I am interested, as a consumer, in all kinds of horror stories, whether they’re like the kind I create or not. I’ve always watched a lot of movies, I’ve been reading more horror novels lately, I’m expanding my horror comics knowledge bit by bit. As a kid, I was always drawn towards scary story collections, because really, even if horror isn’t out and out scary, it can very often still be pretty fun.
To be honest though,Â a large part of why I am so interested in making horror comics myself is that it is fairly rare for me to find horror that really creeps under my skin, really scares me, and I want to try and explore what it is I find scary then, and what about it makes it so unsettling or so difficult for me to find (and it is usually less a nebulous fear-of-death and instead more a fear-of-rejection, guilt, or envy based fear, something very much based in everyday experience).Â Horror is a challenge to create, but one that I feel this urge to tackle — as opposed to Comedy, another challenging genre, which I have no aptitude for whatsoever!
Maybe it’s because I am, generally, such a cluster of anxieties, it gives me a chance to untangle all that and work it out in what seems like a safe, contained way. And while my own comics don’t really scare me — just because by the time I’m done with them they are too familiar to creep me out anymore — they do give me a chance to channel those fears and anxieties that constantly riddle me into something that is, perhaps, cathartic in a way. And really, as I mentioned before, it’s fun.
I know that you’re working on a couple books right now. What are you working on and what else would you like to work on?
Right now, I am finishing up the art for a YA book called “Baba Yaga’s Assistant,” written by Marika McCoola and due to be published by Candlewick (which will actually mark the first time I’ve drawn a full length graphic novel), and after that I will be working with author Laurie Halse Anderson, adapting her novel “Speak” into a comic as well. In terms of my own writing, I am presently working on a 32-page comic for Youth in Decline’s Frontier series, which will be out in November, I believe (and that will definitely be horror).
In general, that’s what I’d like to keep working on, I think, more horror work, more short stories, more writing. I’d like to tackle some classic horror tropes, like a haunted house or maybe even a vampire story one day. And webcomics, of course — I’ll be doing more of those for sure.
Has working on a long form project changed how you work? And how much of that change has been because you’re working with a writer?
I’ve actually been thinking of it a little like a series of short stories that all feature the same characters. Marika, the writer, has divided the book up into chapters, so I just focused on one chapter at a time which was very much like working on the short comics I usually do. I scripted out color palettes for the different chapters for instance, so there’s a unique look to each — though it’s much more subtle than the stories in “Through the Woods.” I think the biggest thing that struck me about it was keeping the art consistent, because over months of drawing I get more comfortable with the characters, and their lines come easier to me, and I think that comfort shows in the final art (hopefully it’s not too glaring what order I did the pages in).
I’m happy I had a writer, though, for my first graphic novel. It was good that the book already had a strong backbone for me to build off of, as I know that if I were the writer, I’d probably waffle and go back and forth on story elements even when I’m doing the art, and things might get muddied by the time I’m at page 100. In the future, I would like to try writing a longer form work myself, but right now I’m having a really good time with short pieces. I think there’s so much left for me to explore there.
I’m curious about what it’s been like working with Laurie Halse Anderson on “Speak.” I know it’s early in the process, but have you thought about how you’ll be depicting some elements of the book, like a main character who speaks little and is very internal? It’s a story that seems like it fits well into your body of work in that it’s a horror story, in a certain sense.
It is still very early in the process, yes — so early that I don’t actually have that much to tell you, other than I am really eager to begin work on the book in earnest, daunting as the task is. We haven’t actually reached the point where we’re discussing how best to balance the writing and art in terms of best exploring Melinda’s inner narration, but in a lot of my comics the characters are in their own heads already, and in many ways I control the atmosphere, mood, and art to reflect them, rather than an objective reality, which can be so hard to see anyway, when one is dealing with depression.
Art’s very important in the story too, and the creation of art, and the way it can give us a voice even when we otherwise remain silent. When speaking to Laurie this has been a theme we’ve come back to a few times. In general though, I was very flattered Laurie picked me for this, it’s an excellent book, and it will definitely be a challenge to complement the original work.