In 2013, comics writer Greg Pak and singer/songwriter Jonathan Coulton — old college buddies — teamed up to adapt several of Coulton’s songs into comic form. The result, “Code Monkey Save World,” proved to be a fan-favorite mash of robots, zombies, monkeys and laser beams which smashed records on Kickstarter and found incredible success online.
Which is why it’s so exciting that this month sees the pair reteaming with the creative team of Takeshi Miyazawa, Jessica Kholinne and Simon Bowland for a physical release of the all-ages picture book “The Princess Who Saved Herself.” The story of a feisty Princess who’d rather go on adventures with her pet snake than wait around in a tower all day, pricking herself on looms and waiting to be saved, the project sees the team return to Kickstarter once again, in all their dragon-fighting, guitar-rocking, witch-encountering glory.
To find out more about their latest collaboration, CBR News spoke with both Pak and Coulton to learn just how their Princess saved herself.
CBR News: Jonathan, let’s start with the song itself, “The Princess Who Saved Herself.” You’ve spoken before about how personal the song is — what inspired you to write it?
Jonathan Coulton: I have a daughter, and she’s always been a pretty excellent kid — lots of very strong opinions, not much care for what other people think of her. She had a big princess phase, and I guess I wanted to tell a story that was about her kind of princess, someone who wasn’t going to wait around for someone to help. She loves pink and purple, and she definitely refused socks for a long stretch of time.
Was it difficult to hand the concept over to Greg for him to adapt into this new book, or were you excited to see what new angle he’d give to your characters and story?
Coulton: Not at all. I have great faith in Greg’s storytelling prowess. And really, after I’ve written a song, I feel like I’ve said about all I have to say about it. So I’ve always loved seeing what other people add and enhance when they develop something on top of one of my songs.
If you’ve ever been on the Internet, for even a moment, you know that ideas can start in one place and get taken all the way around the world before you even noticed they were gone. From working with him on “Code Monkey Save World,” I knew that Greg was really good at picking out and developing themes that I didn’t even know were there. So I was excited to see what he was going to do.
When creating both the song and the book, who did you want this princess to be? What makes her such an interesting character for you?
Coulton: My favorite thing about her is that she doesn’t blink. Bad stuff comes at her, and she just shrugs it off, takes a little step to the side, and solves the problem. Moreover, she’s countering mean and scary behavior with an invitation to join her, which is a good trick, and which I wish was able to use more often in my own life.
An extra element in the comic is that she is a multiracial hero — how important was that to you, personally, Greg, when putting this comic together?
Greg Pak: I’ve always tried to cast my films and books diversely. And particularly when it comes to children’s books, people of color are painfully underrepresented as main characters. So it just felt right.
I’m also multiracial myself, and I’ve seen a ton of dumb, stereotypical depictions of multiracial people in movies and books my whole life. So it was fun to write a non-stereotypical multiracial kid who’s nothing like the various tragic mulatto or savage half-castes I grew up watching in the movies.
How did you develop the script? Once work started on the book, do you go back and forth at all on the story and characters?
Pak: We got together a few times and talked it all through. My big question for myself at first was exactly what kind of children’s book we wanted to do — a young readers’ chapter book, or a picture book? We eventually realized we had a straightforward story that lent itself to a picture book format with a kind of verse narration that echoed the rhythms of Jonathan’s song.
I also realized we needed to simplify a bit with a single main villain. The song has the princess confronting both a dragon and a witch (and an annoying prince, in the voiceover section). For the book, we decided to make the witch the main villain with the dragon as her lackey, and we left out the prince altogether.
We also added a giant bee, because of course we did. And I came up with the reason for the conflict in the first place: the princess plays rock ‘n’ roll guitar all day, and it drives the classical-guitar-playing witch crazy. Escalating conflicts ensue, followed by surprising reconciliation!
The song itself is probably a full comic’s worth of story, so how do you decide what to add into the narrative, and where?
Pak: The song gave us a fully-formed character, a great conflict dynamic, and a great ending. My job was to dig a little deeper and figure out what the big conflict for the whole story would be and put a little more progression into the plot.
Hence the aforementioned giant bee.
I should also note that the really heavy lifting was done by Jonathan in writing the original song and creating the character of this very awesome princess in the first place. What I love about the character is that she tackles every problem with a straightforward solution that sometimes involves kicking ass — but that ultimately she always turns to compassion. That’s deep and true and beautiful and surprising and fun, and it drove everything we did in making the book.
The creative team from “Code Monkey Save World” are all back for this story — Takeshi Miyazawa, Jessica Kholinne, and Simon Bowland. How do the two comics compare, visually? Do they share a similar aesthetic, or does this new story step away into something different?
Pak: We talked quite a bit about how the look and feel of the “PWSH” would differ from “CMSW.” A lot of it comes down to coloring. Jessica worked up a really great watercolor-like style for the “PWSH” that really works for a children’s picture book. It’s vibrant and exciting while also being a touch soft around the edges and subtle when necessary. It’s a very inviting look, and I love it.
We also gave Tak more room to play in a certain way. On my second or third draft of the script, I went through and consolidated or removed half the images so that each page is just one or sometimes two images. And Tak just ate it up. The book is full of great, powerful, fun, and iconic images as a result.
Are there any connections between “Code Monkey Save World” and this story? Are you planning on creating a shared universe?
Pak: Ha! Not currently planned, but you never know!
After reading through the completed adaptation, does the song take on new life at all for you, Jonathan? Do you start to see new things within the lyrics when you perform the song live?
Coulton: I guess it does feel like the character is a little more fleshed out. It’s hard for me to unsee her after seeing Tak’s artwork, with all those great facial expressions.
You’re taking to Kickstarter once more for the new book — what is the Kickstarter itself for? What will people get for their pledge?
Pak: We really just want to make it possible for folks to get their hands on physical hardcovers of the book. This is children’s picture book, and while it looks great digitally, it really wants to be an actual physical thing that parents can read to their kids and kids can pore over at their leisure again and again. But you can also get the book digitally via the Kickstarter. And you can get three and ten packs of the hardcover, if you’d like to spread it around!
How’ve you found Kickstarter as a way to get these creator-owned projects off the ground and to an audience? How’s your experience been with crowdfunding?
Pak: I love Kickstarter. It’s a huge amount of work to run a campaign and fulfill the rewards, but our wonderful backers have made these crazy ideas Jonathan and I had possible. Thanks, y’all!
Finally, with “The Princess Who Saved Herself” now firmly on the way, could you see there being more Coulton/Pak comics in your future?
Pak: I’d love to do more. And actually, the very first time I approached Jonathan about collaborating, it was about one of his songs that we still haven’t touched. So who knows!
“The Princess Who Saved Herself” launched on Kickstarter this week — you can find the Kickstarter page here.
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