Ted Naifeh has created many comics for many publishers including “How Loathsome,” a groundbreaking work he made with Tristan Crane, “Gloomcookie” with Serena Valentine, “The Good Neighbors” with Holly Black and many other projects. Most comic fans, however, will forever associate him with Oni Press and the two heroines he created while working for the publisher: Courtney Crumrin and Polly the Pirate.
In recent years, Polly returned for a second adventure drawn by Robbi Rodriguez and “Courtney Crumrin” returned as an ongoing series as Naifeh brought the saga to a conclusion. At this year’s New York Comic Con, Oni announced that Naifeh will return to the publisher with “Princess Ugg,” a new ongoing series launching in 2014, and CBR News spoke with Naifeh about working on his next great heroine.
CBR News: Ted, your new book, “Princess Ugg,” was just announced at NYCC. What is “Princess Ugg” and where exactly did this idea come from?
Ted Naifeh: “Princess Ugg” is the story of a barbarian princess from the mountain kingdom of Grimeria, who comes down from the mountains in search of education. Unfortunately, she ends up in a ladies’ finishing school, which isn’t exactly what she was looking for. So it’s a fish out of water story in a fantasy setting. I thought it’d be fun to mash up sword and sorcery fantasy with the more mainstream Disney-style fantasy. But I think the original idea germinated when I discovered the work of French artist Claire Wendling, and wanted to come up with an excuse to draw the kinds of things she draws.
What is it about teenage girls that you think offer so much drama and creative potential?
It’s largely unexplored territory. As Joss Whedon has pointed out, most media for teen girls tends to be variations on “How to get a Boyfriend,” leaving vast swaths of the the female coming-of-age experience unexplored. There’s an ongoing assumption that boys don’t read stories about girls, and therefore unless you’re creating material strictly for a female audience, you should stick with writing stories about boys. There’s some truth to it, but only because the assumption perpetuates a tendency for most media about girls to be strictly aimed at girls. It’s a self-sustaining belief.
That’s the way culture works; assumptions about societal norms are what establish societal norms. But it also narrows the parameters of those norms, until all books, movies, comics, etc are the same thing again and again. All comics must be superhero comics. All video games must star Whitey McStubbly (as game writer Rhianna Pratchett aptly puts it). Harriet Potter becomes Harry, even in the planning stages. “The Simpsons” gives way to “Family Guy” and “American Dad,” even “The Incredibles.” From “Breaking Bad” to “The Michael J. Fox Show,” we see the same family story about a beleaguered patriarch and his supporting cast. Few of them are about the mom, the kid, the adopted cousin. Why? Because while the moms, kids and cousins will watch the shows about the dad, dads take little interest in shows about any of the others. So many adult male fans have told me they didn’t think they’d like “Courtney” as much as they do. God bless those adventurous readers. I can only assume there are ten times as many who’d like it just as much if they’d bothered to take a look, by never get past their assumptions.
No one would pitch “Courtney” on television, because everyone knows that stories about young girls, no matter how spooky, should be about making friends, getting a boyfriend, dressing up, and giggling, none of which happen in Courtney’s stories. That’s what girls relate to, according to Nielsen rating statistics. I love the comics medium because I don’t have to worry about what a TV exec doing coke lines on his desk between meetings will think of my idea. I just dream it up and do it. Once it’s done, the readers can decide for themselves whether they like it. But that decision is based on genuine taste, not on statistical assumptions based in greed and fear.
Societal norms are always in flux, and the best subjects to explore in story exist in those shifting places that people don’t like to look at in real life. The best stories always take place on the edge of civilization, because that’s where we ask the big questions. Detective shows, outcast stories, even romantic comedies push us out of civilized behavior and into the wild, with a simple question, “What if I didn’t act like everyone thinks I should?” Such a simple question, but one that can be explored until the end of time. Story allows us to explore questions like that safely, and find answers we may to have expected. Our protagonists learn things the hard way so that we don’t have to.
In the past you’ve talked about how “Courtney Crumrin” was about the pain of being a kid and “Polly and the Pirates” was about the excitement and terror of becoming an adult. What do you think “Ugg” represents?
I don’t know yet. I find that I can’t define what my characters represent until I’ve talked about them with fans, and seen how they’re affected. The readers define a story’s subtext as much as the author. I never knew that until I’d been an author. We have less control over the meaning of our stories than we suppose. Any attempt on my part to sum up the meaning of “Princess Ugg” would diminish her story at this stage.
I have been told that princesses are big right now. Is this a reaction or response to the “princess” culture?
I think it’s interesting how this pop mono-culture has emerged. The princess paradigm is so pervasive these days. I suppose I could get into a big huff about its negative effects, how it forms bad self-image issues among women, etc. But since none of that affects me directly, it may not be my place to take it personally. Plus, if you have an axe to grind, I think there are other venues than stories for that. To my mind, stories are better at asking questions than offering answers. When they attempt to do the latter, they’re usually cheap, easy answers, which tend to be useless in the face of the big, important questions.
But I think it’s interesting that there isn’t much media to directly challenge the princess paradigm. Its another unexplored subject. So I thought I’d ask the question, “what do you mean by princess?”
Talk a little about working with colorist Warren Wucinich and what he brings to this project and to your artwork in general?
Warren is a godsend! He’s added so much to the atmosphere of the “Courtney Crumrin” series. I’m not a huge fan of comics coloring most of the time. It usually adds nothing, and these days, it tends to overwhelm good artwork with cheap effects. What I really didn’t want was a color-by-numbers colorist; flesh must be flesh-toned, trees are green, skies are blue, etc. We hired Warren because he knows how to create a rich mood. He isn’t interested in just making Superman’s cape red. He doesn’t get in the way of the lines, or try to render over the art with his color. He can enhance to mood while also standing back and letting the lines do their work. Its a wonderful balance.
But most importantly, he tells story with his colors. Comics is a storytelling medium, so every aspect should work toward that. Warren uses color to suggest danger, to enhance the sorrow in a sad scene — he even uses it ironically. In chapter 2 of the first volume [of “Courtney Crumrin”], he cranks up the saturation to create a sense of oppressive cheerfulness. It made me laugh out loud when I saw it. That’s what you want from comics color, another element to enhance the story.
You’re coming off doing “Courtney Crumrin” as a monthly series after years of bouncing around on different projects. What did that experience teach you and how do you think it’s changed “Princess Ugg” from your original thinking about the book?
I had originally planned “Ugg” as a graphic novel, but after the success of the “Courtney” series, I’ve decided to do it as an ongoing series. I have an eight-issue first story arc, and I’m working on a second one. I’m hoping the series gains enough momentum that I can keep going for the foreseeable future. We’ll see.
One of the times I interviewed you a few years back, you were talking about “Princess Ugg” and mentioned that you thought it would mark a new stage for you as a creator. Do you still feel that way?
Hmm. It’s been so long, I can’t remember what I meant by that.
“Courtney” wasn’t originally conceived as a long term single story. It was really just a basic premise to hang random stories on. “Ugg” is much more deliberate in its intent. The first story arc was meticulously planned. Also, “Courtney” is a much more niche character in the comics world. Your average adult male comics reader tends to look for different things than “Courtney” offers. I’m hoping to reach out to that mainstream fan with “Ugg.” I’m not abandoning my own sensibility, but I’m looking to find some common ground with the comics mainstream.
So, brass tacks. How many issues do you have planned, is it an all-ages book, and when can we expect to see the first one?
As I mentioned, the first 8-issue arc is all written out, and the next set of 8 is in the planning stages. The book will be all-ages, though maybe not quite as much as “Courtney” or “Polly.” Its target is a teen audience but, like all my books, it’s designed to have a broad appeal. Books for kids that adults can’t enjoy are to my mind not well written. When I watch something as an adult that I enjoyed as a kid and discover I don’t like it anymore, it’s very disappointing. I prefer stories that endure.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Ted Naifeh’s “Princess Ugg.”
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