With the release last week of Princess Ugg #4, writer/artist Ted Naifeh cleared some time in his schedule to discuss the ongoing Oni Press series. After years spent with Courtney Crumrin, the creator moves into new territory by combining barbarian adventure with a princess finishing school to create a social satire/adventure tale.
While I had read the first few issues in preparation for our discussion, I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised to learn Naifeh created the character out of a desire to “play with Frazetta-style barbarian fantasy.” That turns out to be just one aspect of his work I was delighted to learn about, has his candor about the creator/editor dynamics also proved informative.
Tim O’Shea: Do you recall the moment you realized you wanted to develop the Princess Ugg series?
Ted Naifeh: I can’t quite remember how the idea came about at the beginning. I think it had something to do with my discovery of some European artists like Claire Wendling, and a desire to play with Frazetta-style barbarian fantasy. But I wrote the first draft of the script years ago, and was developing the idea long before that. I really need to pick up the pace of my idea-to-execution process.
Once I had the idea of combining these two kinds of fantasy, I knew I really had something. In a way, one might say the barbarian fantasy is “boy fantasy” and I thought it would be fun to contrast it with the Disney princess “girl fantasy” tropes. But over the last few years, things have become really interesting. More and more women relate to barbarian fantasy, in the form of Game of Thrones, or Skyrim, or Becky Cloonan’s creator-owned comic work. While boys are becoming more and more interested in things like Frozen and My Little Pony, which is all very much what one would call “girl fantasy.” It turns out that the audience doesn’t give a damn who these categories are “intended” for by the marketing people. So now seems like the best possible time to put this book out, as it’s a combo of both.
You clearly love working with Oni Press. What is it about the publisher that made you want Princess Ugg to have its home there?
Well, for starters, they trust my ideas, and always have. Back when I developed Courtney Crumrin, I’d intended it for Slave Labor. But they just didn’t believe in me or my ideas. I know that sounds damning, but frankly, I don’t blame them. I was an artist who was arrogant enough to think I could write as well as draw. Plenty do, and many are wrong. And even Joe Nozemack at Oni has told me my execution is much better than my pitches. But Oni gave me a chance when no one else would. And over the years, they’ve been patient and helpful partners. Will I take everything to them? Probably not. But they’re always going to be a go-to publisher for me, because I can rely on their support.
Back in the Gloomcookie days, when I took a finished issue to Slave Labor, exhausted from spending 24 straight hours finishing, scanning and lettering it (I had a day job at the time), I never got so much as a thank you from Bob, my editor. But no matter how late my work is at Oni, no matter how rushed and sloppy I feel it looks, I always get a little compliment on it. That matters. I can’t speak for other artists, but I still have a delicate ego, and a little boost at the end of a project always helps me get enthused about the next one.
How important was Jill Beaton to the series initial development — and how critical has Robin Herrara been in filling the void left by Beaton’s health-related departure?
Jill was key to developing the idea. She helped me workshop the story a bunch of times. The first three pages have been rewritten several times, with each one a little simpler than the last, and she was great at giving feedback, helping me massage the subplots and develop the characters. It’s not ideal that she’s unable to see the project through. We were both looking forward to it so much. But Robin has been great support, keeping me on schedule, etc. And Jill must have taken her aside and said, “Whenever Ted delivers work, he needs you to tell him how gorgeous it is, even if it looks like he just wiped his ass on a piece of Bristol board. Otherwise, he’ll mope.” Seriously, I need that. So I’ve been lucky. I do miss workshopping ideas with Jill, but I think Robin and I are developing a good rapport in that regard.
Was it challenging settling on the dialect you use for Ülga?
On the contrary, I couldn’t see writing her any other way. She just sounds like that in my head. I think there’s a certain amount of Terry Pratchett’s Nac Mac Feegles in it. Pratchett is great at getting humor at of dialects. I started developing Ugg after touring Iceland, which may also have had something to do with it. I learned that Iceland was actually a blend of Viking and Irish culture. So I thought to make Ülga’s kingdom a sort of play on that. They have Norse names and an Irish brogue. Interestingly, since that visit, Iceland has gone through a remarkable financial revolution. So I may have to work a story like that into a future Ugg arc. Note to self.
I was a little taken aback at the initial reaction to Ülga’s accent, but what can I do? I create the story as my subconscious dictates. If people don’t like it, too bad for me. I can’t just throw her accent away now, just because some reviewers didn’t love it. That would be such a … television thing to do.
In terms of her fellow princess classmates, are there one or two you have been particularly pleased in how developed (and important) they are to the character dynamics?
Right now, they’re sort of one character. There’s Julifer, and “the other princesses.” Which is fine. They don’t all need to be aggressively distinct yet. As I’ve lived with the story, though, they’ve started asserting their own personalities, and I’ve started planning what their stories will be. My intention is for each princess to be the prime foil for Ülga in their own arcs, and will bring out a different element of her development. So each will get their own unique story, the way Julifer is getting hers in this arc.
How essential is Warren Wucinich to the look and feel of the series?
I don’t think the book would quite work without Warren’s colors. He’s brought so much to the series, I can’t quite believe it. When I’d finished the first issue, I really wasn’t sure the book was going to be OK. But when Warren delivered his first few pages I knew everything would be fine. He brings this lovely glow to the series, and tells story with color all the time. One of the teachers, for example, Lady Dour, was described as being overly made up and kind of a clown. I realized too late that I’d made her essentially a fat joke. “Isn’t it funny that this older, overweight lady is teaching young princesses how to be ladylike.” So I decided to make her kind of pretty. But forgot to change anything in the script. When I got the colors back, Warren had gone ahead and followed my direction to make her overly made up. But he must have felt the same way I did about her, and so colored her dress completely black. Suddenly, she was a widow, which transformed her whole persona. Just with that color choice, she went from a cheap, one dimensional joke to a character with a little story behind her, with depth. He does that stuff all the time.
Was it vital to you that the narrative have a tie-in back to Ülga’s homeland via Odin the Eagle watching over her and then filing reports (as well as his alternate versions of events providing some comic relief)?
The comic aspect of Odin’s narrative, telling high school stories in the style of a Viking saga, was the backbone of the series concept. But in developing the story, that part became less important than the story itself. It’s still funny to me, but it became less the point than his tethering her to the larger story of her quest. “What is Ülga doing here?” is the big question of the series, and it’s Odin’s purpose to keep that firmly a part of the narrative. Otherwise it just becomes an amusing but pointless fish out of water tale.
In a July review of Issue 2, CBR reviewer Meagan Damore says of your art :”He’s just as fashion-conscious as Princess Julie, careful to switch up the characters’ clothing choices in line with their fashion-obsessed personalities.” Do you relish the opportunity to design distinctive clothes and fashions for the various characters? I realize this particular review frustrated you on some level (judging by this tweet), but did you take solace in the fact the reviewer admitted the series would resonate with her more after a few more issues?
Concept design is for me one of the great pleasures of creating comics. I can do it all day long, whether it be different variations on the concept of “Princess”, different kinds of cities, creatures, vehicles, etc. I don’t know that I’m the best at it, but it’s a huge part of world-building, and building worlds is a huge part of storytelling.
Regarding that review, I wasn’t so much frustrated as confused. I couldn’t figure out what the reviewer was really complaining about. I finally figured out that part of it was that the themes of the book were much more young adult than tween, which is what she’d been expecting. Having a nude shower scene was kind of frank and not a little sexual, which jarred a lot of readers who were used to my Courtney Crumrin work. But also, frankly, I’d just drawn the characters a little more adult-looking than I’d intended. Oh, well, I can’t go back and redesign them now.
Am I right in thinking that her history professor will be an important influence on Ülga’s life at the princess school? Did you ever consider not having any male teachers at the princess school, or does gender not matter into the creative equation in situations like this?
I worried about that a little, that the one voice of reason in Ülga’s life was a man. But for better or for worse, this character popped into my head, a man in a woman’s environment. Maybe that means something, that he understands being the odd man out better than anyone else at the school. I don’t know. I do know that you can’t second-guess every single decision in your story. I say if it feels right, don’t worry too much about it.
Would you agree with Johanna Draper-Carlson’s assessment that on a certain level Princess Ugg is “really a social satire”?
Absolutely. It’s also an adventure story, to be taken at face value. But I think any social satire, if it doesn’t work as a story, won’t work very well as a satire. Stories aren’t t-shirts. They can’t exist purely as irony.
What am I forgetting to ask you about in terms of the series?
Well, I suppose you could ask me if I think Ülga is a good role model. But that would be a bit obvious, I suppose.
When you post tweets like this, are you hoping to pique people’s interests on upcoming projects or to solicit opinions on the design itself, or a little of both?
Mostly, I just want people to remember I still exist between books. Apparently, that’s what Twitter is for. And people are far more interested in this than in my opinion of the pilot for Gotham. Speaking of which, I really gotta tweet the finished product of that piece. It turned out good.
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