Having just graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design, Renee Lott is celebrating the release of her first graphic novel released by Oni Press at the biggest convention of them all, San Diego. Her debut graphic novel, “Festering Romance,” follows a young female lead whose best friend turns out to be a ghost. Not all goes according to plan as her life gets upended when she meets someone, who not only makes the ghost jealous, but has issues of his own. With twists and turns abound as theplot unfolds, Lott is able to balance the light and dark elements while never letting one overwhelm the other. It’s an impressive debut for the twenty-five year old cartoonist and CBR News was able to chat with Renee to talk us through the process of getting her book off the ground.
CBR: There is always something different that brings people to comics. What was it about the medium that attracted you to it?
RENEE LOTT: Well, I was born and raised in Rogers, Arkansas… I got into comic books around the time I was 8 years old when I found an issue of Betty & Veronica in a comic rack at Wal-Mart. My dad had this deal where he would buy both me and my sister a book whenever we went out somewhere like that, so I asked him to buy that comic for me. After that, all the books I picked out were comic books.
When I was little, the only real outstanding talent I had was drawing. I did pretty well in school and all that, but the only thing that really differentiated me from the other kids was art. I was always the kid in my class that was, “the real good drawer.” So I thought, “Well, I guess I’ll be an artist.” My dream was to be some kind of artist even before I found comic books.
Now, I was a fan of comic strips before I read that first comic book, but I never really wanted to do comic strips. All the same, I really liked drawing cartoon characters, but I never wanted to be an animator. Something about comic books in particular really captured my imagination. When I found that first comic book, I thought, “I want to be a comic book artist.” And that’s been my goal since then.
CBR: So once you started getting into comics, were there artists that you tried to model yourself after? Who were your influences?
LOTT: Arg, it’s always hard for me to pick out specific influences… I’m sure I imitated elements from any artist that did something I liked. When I was younger, I was super-crazy about artists like Dan DeCarlo, Alan Davis, John Byrne, Joe Madureira, Paul Pope… a lot of manga artists too, like Rumiko Takahashi, CLAMP, Rui Araizumi, and Nobuteru Yuuki. Lately, the artists I can most clearly point out as artistic influences are Peter Bagge and Charles Burns. I’m sure there’s tons of new influence from manga too, but I read so many it’s hard for me to pick apart…
Any artist that has a super-clean line and strong black placement makes me jealous, but I don’t necessary set out to imitate their specific style. I definitely admire that sort of sensibility and try to imitate that, but say, I don’t really set out to draw characters just like Charles Burns or Andi Watson. Like, there’s a lot to learn in terms of technical skill from an artist like Jaime Hernandez, but in terms of style, I don’t think I would feel comfortable drawing everything just like he does.
Lately, the artists that get me most excited are Peter Bagge, Jaime Hernandez, Julie Doucet, Hitoshi Iwaaki, Ai Yazawa, Miwa Ueda, and Kentaro Miura… I always have to get my new Nana and Berserk.
CBR: The first artist that came to my mind when seeing your pages was Andi Watson, but I can see a lot of the kinetic energy Peter Bagge uses in your work. It’s a style that people tend to associate with manga. What do you find so compelling about it as a reader and as an artist?
LOTT: When I was talking to my editor one time, he said he thought my style was like a combination of both Andi Watson and Chynna Clugston, which I can kind of understand, so I can see where you’re coming from with the Andi Watson comment. I have read books by both Andi and Chynna and enjoy their work, and while I don’t really ever remember imitating Chynna specifically, I’m pretty sure I did a fanart or two of Andi Watson stuff at one point or another.
Any time I do a fanart of a specific artist and seriously try to imitate their style, I think something of it rubs off on me. It’s kind of weird in that way since I don’t always do fanarts of my favorite artists’ work. So, a lot of artists who I haven’t really obsessed about as much may have affected my style in a much more noticeable way just because for one reason or another I ended up doing a fanart of their work.
The same kind of thing happened with Peter Bagge. Around the time when I first read Hate, I got an assignment to imitate another comic artist’s style for class. I ended up choosing to imitate Peter Bagge and made a one page comic in my interpretation of his style. This was, of course, a lot harder than I thought it would be and not at all totally successful. Working on that comic gave me a lot more of an appreciation for Peter Bagge than I already had.
I guess, as a reader and an artist, I especially appreciate a very energetic and expressive style, which is why I enjoy artwork like Peter Bagge’s so much. He’s not afraid to abstract a person into something almost completely unrecognizable as human to super-enhance the expression of an emotion or mood. I definitely see a lot more of that type of extreme abstraction in manga and manga influenced art which is probably why a lot of people associate type of style with manga. And hey, I like a lot of manga. Also, not surprisingly, I have an appreciation for abstract art.
Art that is more abstract or expressionistic tends to hit me with more force and holds my interest a lot longer than styles that are more representational. That’s not to say that artwork that leans more towards the representational doesn’t impress me, but I tend to appreciate it more on a technical level than an emotional level. To me, it’s like looking at a space shuttle or something. It’s a fine piece of advanced technical work that might make me feel a sense of awe or something like that, but it wouldn’t necessary hold a place in my heart.
And as for drawing like that… Putting in too much detail gives me anxiety. All those little tiny lines… I kind of want to just strip away everything unnecessary down to the bare minimum, but I don’t have the skill to really pull it off yet. Jaime Hernandez said something like that in an interview once, that one day he would like, simplify his style down so much that he would just be drawing a circle and a square or something like that. I want to do the same sort of thing with my art — simplify it down to all but this like ultimate squiggle that makes you feel and understand everything I want to express. Buuuuut, that’s nowhere in the near future for me, at any rate.
CBR: You majored in sequential art at the Savannah College of Art and Design. What was the experience like for you?
LOTT: Looking back, the way I feel about it is… it was college. That’s pretty much how I feel about high school, too. It was high school. There were good parts and there were bad parts.
I learned a lot at SCAD. It gave me a lot of time to concentrate on art. It gave me focus and demanded that I keep working every day. If I hadn’t gone to college, I might have just fizzled out artistically.
I definitely learned a lot of the basic art stuff. I hadn’t really drawn many comic pages before I came to college, so I learned a lot about the construction and technical aspects of comics. It helped me learn to see the form in a different way; I learned to look at comics with more of an artist’s eye. Now whenever I read a comic, I can’t help but study it in a way, too. I appreciate certain things a lot more.
Of course, the other side of that is that it’s left me with a lot of hang-ups about technical things. Perspective, anatomy, and photo-reference are all well and good, but you can get a bit obsessed with things being exactly, “correct.” I don’t think it’s too uncommon… It’s just something I have to learn to get over.
CBR: For so many young artists their early works are largely autobiographical. The main character of your book is a young female art student. Just for the record, are you or have you ever been friends with a ghost?
LOTT: Heh… No, no. Also, just for the record, Janet isn’t my comic book counterpart. If Festering Romance is in any way autobiographical, it’s because each of the characters comes from a different part of my personality, only exaggerated. The events themselves are fictional though.
CBR: So where did the idea for Festering Romance come from?
LOTT: I don’t remember specifically how I came up with the concept… It was about 5 years ago or so, after all. I came up with the original pitch for a class assignment. We had to create a pitch packet to mail to a comics company, and then actually mail it to the company. The idea I came up with was the basis for Festering Romance (or “Exorcism Therapy,” as I called it back then). I eventually got a letter back from the company I sent it to telling me that the character designs and synopsis looked interesting, but they needed to see more, like comic pages and stuff like that. I wasn’t really that serious about the pitch back then and just never followed up.
The story in the book now is almost completely different from that original pitch. For instance, in the original pitch, Derek was the main character and Janet had psychic powers. Later, I switched it around so that Janet became the main character and there’s no psychic element. Everything was basically reworked in the very early stages of production because a lot of the stuff didn’t really make sense in terms of a long-format script.
My editor didn’t know about all the changes for a while, so at first he was worried that the story would be too close to this movie that was coming out during production, “Over Her Dead Body,” but it didn’t end up being anything like that (thank god). I actually went and saw that movie, totally nerve-wracked that my book might be an accidental duplicate, but no… No no no.
CBR: Where did the title come from? It is a great supernatural romance title.
LOTT: I just kind of came up with the title on the spot when I was putting together pitches for Oni… I wanted it to sound all “ghost-y” and play up the romance element. The title I had on the original pitch was, “Exorcism Therapy,” which still fits in a lot of ways, but I think “Festering Romance” sounds zippier, y’know?
CBR: How did you end up at Oni Press?
LOTT: At SCAD, every year they hold an Editor’s Day where a lot of comic editors come down and give students portfolio reviews. It’s a pretty big deal in the department, and it’s a big opportunity when you’re looking to work in comics… I first went during my Junior year, thinking like, “YES, I shall learn from these editors and get criticism and stuff!” I was pretty optimistic, but not expecting much since you don’t usually hear about many people being hired.
To see an editor, you have to fill out a form listing what editors you specifically want to see, so I picked Oni as my first choice. I had it in my head that my work would best fit Oni, Slave Labor, or Tokyopop in terms of companies I was familiar with, but I wanted to work with Oni the most. So anyway, I went to see Oni, and James Lucas Jones gave me some pointers and told me he’d like to see my Senior project when I was finished with it.
So, I went to see him again the next year when I had finished my Senior project. That year, I was totally not confident and had a ton of graduation-joblessness anxiety, but then James asked me to pitch. I was like, “DEAR GOD THIS IS MY CHANCE,” and sent him pitches the next day. And thus, “Festering Romance”.
CBR: So what’s next for Renee Lott? Having just completed this epic, it must have taken a lot energy. Are you ready for another?
LOTT: Well, when I first pitched Festering Romance, I had a few other ideas I was also interested in pursuing, so while I was working on this book I was also developing one of the other stories. I’m not sure what’s really going to happen with that, so I don’t really want to set too much in stone yet. I do know that it would have to be executed as more of a series, so not just another one shot if I continue to pursue that idea. In all honesty though, anything could happen.