Emma Capps is a pretty typical webcartoonist except for one thing: she hasn’t graduated from high school yet. Her series “The Chapel Chronicles” is an all-ages strip that tells of the adventures and fantastic imaginings of Chapel Smith, a Lady Gaga-obsessed 11 year-old with a fondness for elaborate headwear and a pet hedgehog named Rupert who tends to sit on top of her head. If drawing a weekly comic strip wasn’t ambitious enough, she also publishes it online in Spanish as well as English.
The weekly comic succeeds in part because of its sense of fun. Whether sleep air guitaring, begging for a puppy, or engaging in board game competitions to the death, Chapel manages to feel very real and very over the top, often in the same panel. Emma Takes pain to mention that she is not Chapel, though the two share many of the same obsessions, from David Tennant’s Doctor Who to Cardcaptor Sakura to Jane Austen. CBR News spoke with Emma about Chapel’s origins, Plato’s “Republic,” her upcoming projects and the MoCCA Festival.
CBR News: Where did character of Chapel come from?
Emma Capps: A couple years ago I was doodling late at night. It was just after I had reread Scott McCloud’s “Making Comics” trilogy. I was reading the section on expressions and I thought, “I’m going to see what character I can doodle that can make an expression with as few lines as possible.” I was doodling various characters and then suddenly I doodled someone who has the same design as Chapel. I thought she was really cute so I drew her a bunch more times. In the morning when I showed it to my mom, my mom said, I really like that character. For my mom’s birthday, when I couldn’t think of anything to give her, I said I’d make her something so I wrote her a poem and I illustrated each stanza with pictures of Chapel. It was such a big hit. Whenever people visited my mom would go, “Look, this is what my daughter made me for my birthday.” For Christmas I did the same thing only for both of my parents and some of my friends, too. And before I knew it, for every single holiday I would be making greeting cards and presents for my friends and family with drawings of Chapel on them. By then I had given her a name and some story. All the while I was also drawing comics of Chapel, just little cartoons on the side for my own enjoyment.
When it came time to determine my recital project — which is a year-long project my school, The Nueva School, has every eighth grader pursue — I chose to expand the greeting cards I had already made of Chapel into a whole line. I finished my project too early, so then I decided to work on doing a book of Chapel comics.
How did you decide to put “Chapel” online?
I wasn’t really that aware of webcomics before then but I began to start reading webcomics like “Gunnerkrigg Court,” “xkcd,” “Modest Medusa,” [and] “Girl Genius.” I was becoming more aware of webcomics. Before that I didn’t really know much about them. I thought it might be fun to put them online. My dad is a computer programmer so it was very very easy for him to make a website to put my comics up there. I decided it would be a nice way to be able share them with people that I knew. I have friends and family who live very far away and it’s much easier to send them a web link than to mail them a book of comics. It was initially just a way for me to share them with people that I knew, but it started growing and now I have readers from other countries and other states who are constantly commenting on the site and I’m getting into discussions with them.
Why did you chose the four-panel strip for the comic?
I’m a big fan of old style newspaper comics such as “Mutts” by Patrick McDonnell and “Peanuts” by Charles Schulz. When I was doodling those little comics there would be any number of panels that I wanted. There were some that were fifteen panels, some that were nineteen. When I decided to do my book of comics, I drew the first thirty strips in an entire month. I wanted to challenge myself and draw one strip a day for a month. I thought that would be good to make myself do them so quickly and be able to really make the character consistent in a compressed time period.
I was looking at the comics that I had already made for myself and thinking, “How can I possibly do thirty strips in thirty days.” I thought, “Okay, they obviously have to be four panels.” Obviously I don’t do one every single day now. I do one a week but I really enjoy the four-panel format. I feel like it’s just long enough to be able to have a little glimpse into Chapel’s life. In terms of the writing it and trying to fit the joke into four panels I never have any problems with that. For me the writing and the coming up with ideas comes very naturally so fitting it into four panels has never seemed like a problem and I’m actually really glad that I chose to do it that way because for me I think it best suits Chapel.
How autobiographical is the comic?
A lot of people always seem to think that Chapel is me but simply with a different name and different hair style but she’s not. Obviously there are things taken from my own life. For example, there’s one comic strip where Chapel has difficulty wrapping up a cookie with plastic wrap because the plastic wrap keeps getting all bunched up before she actually wraps the cookie and that is something that happened to me. My rule of thumb is I only draw inspiration from my own life when I think it can universally appeal to anyone. For that strip tons of people have commented on the website saying, “That always happens to me.” I wouldn’t do a comic about the trials and tribulations of being a fourteen year-old cartoonist because that’s not something everyone can relate to and it’s not Chapel, that would be me. Chapel and I are two different people. She likes Lady Gaga and dressing up in ridiculous costumes, which is not something I would do.
How did you settle on your style for the strip?
The reason I use a cartoon-y approach for Chapel [is] that was initially the way I designed her. It’s going back to my love of old time newspaper comic strips. For me that is a style that naturally fits Chapel’s world. She’s a bit playful. She’s an eleven year-old girl, so to my eyes having a style that was realistic and developed wouldn’t really suit this strip. It’s meant to be a funny, slice of life comic from Chapel’s perspective so for me having a more playful style that was really vibrant and bursting with color actually fit the personality of both Chapel and the strip.
I know that you’re a manga fan. One of the great things about manga is how they approach character design and use an expressionistic manner to convey emotion. You don’t do that with characters, but you do use backgrounds.
Yeah, I like using backgrounds in my comics. I find that there are some examples of webcomics that don’t have a big emphasis on background and that’s fine. That’s their choice. But for me, I love showing all the details of Chapel’s world. You can get so much information on someone’s personality by just showing all the trinkets they have in their bedroom, for example. Maybe the posters from TV shows they love, whatever junk they might have on their bedside table. For me it’s a way to have all this subtle information about Chapel’s family and her life just in the background of the panels that’s why I always try to put so much detail into my backgrounds.
But more than that, you use the backgrounds to show emotion through your use of color.
I love how you picked up on that because that’s exactly what I try to do. I try to use all of those things to inform what’s going on in Chapel’s mind and her perspective and her mental state during whatever’s going on during the strip.
In the second season of the strip you tweaked a few things. Can you tell us more about that?
You mentioned backgrounds. I chose to bring out some more details to show more of the world of Chapel’s daily life. People have so far been really really enjoying it and I think it’s a good choice because you can tell a lot about someone’s personality just by showing some of the books they might have on their bookshelf or things like that.
In the second season of the strip, you’ve also been translating strip into Spanish. Why did you decide to do that and what kind of feedback have you received from Spanish speakers?
I always intended to translate the strips into Spanish. I’ve actually translated the ones from the first season as well, they’re just not up on the website quite yet. My greeting card line with Chapel I had translated into Spanish many months ago. When I researched the greeting card market I found out that good quality greeting cards for Spanish speakers are really underrepresented. I wanted to do the same thing in my Chapel comic because I find that a lot of webcomics, at least in the U.S., you don’t see much for people who speak Spanish, and certainly not that many all-ages webcomics for kids who speak Spanish.
I do it as part of my Spanish homework. Every week I translate the week’s strip and then Photoshop it into Spanish. It’s actually interesting that you just brought it up because today, just an hour ago, I was going over a bunch of translations with my Spanish teacher who will look through things and say, “Here’s an expression you could use to make it sound more natural.” For me it’s been very interesting. There hasn’t been that much feedback on the Spanish strips so far because I just started putting them up on the website, but I have had kids who speak Spanish in this country reading it.
Even though she hasn’t commented on the website because she’s too young, my Spanish teacher’s daughter reads the Chapel strips in Spanish and she loves them so much that for her sixth birthday — every year she has a big theme birthday party — she chose to have her birthday party theme after Chapel this year and went so far as to have her mother make her a Chapel-shaped cake and recreate a piñata that Chapel used in one of the greeting cards. I actually got to go and it was incredible. It was magical.
How long does it usually take you to draw a strip?
It depends. Sometimes I use backgrounds that I’ve used previously and when I do that it takes maybe two hours if I’m lucky. Mostly, though, the strips take around four or five hours depending on how complex they are. Sometimes they’ll have backgrounds with lots of detail or a big splash panel like in my recent Valentine’s Day panel with lots of color and decorations everywhere which takes a long time to draw. I’ve [been] meaning to a make a video on the strip at some point soon just so I can see how long it does take because I’ve never timed it completely, but it takes around four or five hours.
Do you have any plans to do something like the “Chapel in Wonderland” strip series that ended the first season of the comic again?
I would like to do some sort of series of strips to end Season Two that’s similar to “Chapel in Wonderland.” I’m not sure if it’ll be the same surrealist story, but I would like to do something to wrap up season two. I haven’t quite decided yet what I’m going to be doing but I’ve been thinking about it for the past few weeks.
A few weeks ago you drew the Unshelved Book Club weekly feature where you reviewed Plato’s “Republic.” How did that happen?
I love Unshelved. I sent them an email saying, “Hey, I’m a young cartoonist. I wondered if you might want to see some of my comics.” They liked them so much that they said, “Would you like to do a guest strip for us?” So around the same time I was reading Plato’s “Republic.” That’s an unconventional book to do a book review comic off of for Unshelved’s Book Club and I thought this’ll be something that will really surprise people. Then I thought how can I tie this into what Chapel might be doing in her daily life. I think of it as an extended Chapel strip that just happens to feature a book in it. She does mention quite a bit of what actually happens in Plato’s “Republic.” It was really, really cool, and I was incredibly honored to be invited to do a guest strip for them.
In the fall you drew a great “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” strip and you wrote that you hadn’t watched every season but you asked your mother to ruin the other seasons so that you could write a better strip.
Well, I didn’t expressly ask her to ruin them. [Laughs] I’m currently only halfway through season two and I wanted to do a strip about “Buffy” and so I asked my mom, can you give me some plot points that I could use. She sent me an email which was approximately three pages long which was essentially an essay on the seasons of “Buffy” I had not yet seen. Once I had read it I couldn’t forget it. [Laughs] But I thought, I really need this to make a good strip, so I will sacrifice being surprised in order to have a strip that people will enjoy. Hopefully I can try to forget some of the things but I don’t think so. I agonized over the wording of those jokes. It’s hard to forget that kind of things.
Chapel is obsessed with headwear. Do you share that particular obsession or is it just something you enjoy drawing?
I really do enjoy hats, but I don’t have a large collection nor do I wear them frequently. I actually only own two hats which I hardly ever wear. Chapel has a lot of different hats just to have them and she does wear them all the time. Completely outlandish ones that I would never in a million years wear.
What else are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m finishing up Season Two. At the end of April I’ll be exhibiting at the MoCCA Festival in New York City again and in order to get the book version of season two printed in time I have to finish the art fairly early. I’m really excited to go back to MoCCA again because I had a great experience last year. It was simultaneously my first convention exhibiting and my first time ever going to a small press comic convention. It was so great because I met so many people I’ve admired for years and got to speak with them and then were so nice and accommodating to me. It was just amazing to have people double my age or older treating me as if I was an equal.
Besides “Chapel” I’m currently working on scripting a graphic novel that I’m working on which is in a much more realistic style. As we speak, I am staring at a drawing of some of the characters on my desk. That will be very different from “Chapel” because it’s more science fiction/fantasy with a humorous twist. I’ve now designed about ten out of the fourteen major characters and [am] working on the designs for others while plotting out, storyboarding and scripting that one. I’m hoping to start drawing actual pages this summer. I’m really excited to be able to do that in tandem with “Chapel.”
I have to ask. The Spock poster on Chapel’s wall… Leonard Nimoy or Zachary Quinto?
[Laughs] Leonard Nimoy. Don’t worry.