In an industry so often associated only with material suited only for children, it's not often that you actually see comic books featuring lead characters that are children. While "Courtney Crumrin & The Night Things" certainly isn't a comic book aimed at kids, despite any assumption that the case may be so because of the young protagonist, the first mini-series by writer/artist Ted Naifeh and released by Oni Press proved to have across the board appeal. With the sequel mini-series and collection of the first mini-series planned for a December release, CBR News decided it was a perfect time to catch up with Ted Naifeh and spoke to the creator about all his current projects including, of course, "Courtney Crumrin."
"'Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things' is a series about a young girl whose family moves to a creepy old house in a wealthy suburb, the home of her great uncle Aloysius," explains Naifeh. "She discovers that her uncle is a warlock, and she soon takes an interest in his craft, touching off a series of adventures. The neighborhood is full of dark little spirits, goblins and gremlins, and at first they vex her, until she learns to deal with them properly."
The series is about more than that for Naifeh- it's an exploration of the complexities of childhood, also allowing him to explore the dynamics between children and adults, something he finds innately intriguing. "I'd always planned the series to be longer than four issues. It was conceived as an ongoing series, though I'm not sure how long I want to sustain it. Right now I feel that I've barely scratched the surface, that Courtney's world has a lot of potential for development. Writing Courtney is easy, because she's such a fun, cathartic character. For me, she expresses the anger that comes with childhood, which goes largely un-acknowledged in mainstream culture. Childhood anger is usually born out of powerlessness and results in frustration, so it was natural for Courtney to slowly gain a certain amount of power, giving the series a satisfying wish-fulfillment aspect. Also, I like the idea of that side of childhood being nurtured by a parental adult, rather than suppressed, which brings me to Courtney's affection for her uncle Aloysius. I've enjoyed developing that relationship, and I want to explore it further in the next series.
"The series isn't as influenced by the comic book world as most comics tend to be. Yet it's commercial and reader-friendly, and not necessarily the insane vision of a bizarre genius kind of thing. Often in comics you have one or the other. I'm working hard to make Courtney an easy reading experience, which comics writers don't often do. I don't read comics as much as many writers, so my perfect comic-reading experience is to pick up a single issue and get a satisfactory read out of it. So that's what I wanted to create. I hate picking up an issue and getting part six of a ten-part series, or more frequently, part twelve of a story that has no plans to wrap up or even get anywhere. People shell out three bucks for these things. They should get their money's worth, or at least some level of satisfaction."
This desire to expand upon the world of "Courtney" has led to December's new mini-series and Naifeh says it won't be the last. "I have two more minis planned. The upcoming series is called 'Courtney Crumrin and the Coven of Mystics.' In it, Courtney will encounter the occult community of which Aloysius is a member. It will deal with the complexities of belonging to a community, the benefits and the drawbacks. I wanted to do a longer story. Issues three and four of the upcoming book will be a two-part story. And the entire series will cohere more directly than the previous one, which was deliberately a set of single-issue stories that one could read individually, and not necessarily in direct order."
Of course, all this does beg one question: if Naifeh's having so much fun with the "Courtney" stories and fans are responding well, why not return to his original idea of making it an ongoing series? "For promotional reasons it's best to start small," answers Naifeh. "Lots of people have never heard of 'Courtney,' and as they discover it, I don't want to daunt them by asking them to pick it up at issue 10, or issue 40. Besides, I only have so many stories on the subject, and I don't want to rush telling them. I think writing an ongoing series for too long can undermine the creative flow of ideas. I've seen it happen with the best writers."
Naifeh says that he's really happy with the reaction from fans to the series and it also pleases him that he's having success selling a series with a female lead who doesn't have sex appeal. "What's happened over and over is that I convince readers to buy issue 1 (at conventions we've been selling issue 1 for a dollar), and the next day they come back and buy the rest of the series. That's been very gratifying. It's not the easiest concept to sell, but people seem to think the book itself delivers. On the other hand, Courtney is not a 'sexy' book. In comics, as with most other media, sex is king. If you don't have it, you're handicapped. Courtney Crumrin is one of a very few female lead characters in comics that has no sex appeal. I think that this has had an effect on initial public interest. Yet, I feel it's important for a series like this to be out there, and I don't regret the decision. I could have made Courtney sixteen and given her big boobs, and the book might have taken off quicker. But I couldn't have told the story I wanted to. The fans appreciate that she is a little kid, and that she deals with her issues on a more primal level than adult comics characters. If she were older, her evil nature wouldn't be as delightful."
But it's not just the fans that have been supportive, according to Naifeh, as Oni itself has put a lot of genuine support behind "Courtney." "Oni have been great. The main reason I published the series through Oni is that they were dying to do it. Their enthusiasm started strong and has only increased. The collected edition was never a debate. We'd planned it from the beginning. Oni feels that it will reach more people than the individual comics."
When CBR spoke to Naifeh last time, he mentioned a project called "EVA: Iron Kitten" that he hoped to get off the ground and with that dream close to coming true, the writer/artist briefs readers on the series premise once more. "'EVA: Iron Kitten' is my attempt at a straight manga book. I've been watching anime and reading manga off and on since I was fourteen, so it's a deeply ingrained aspect of my aesthetic. Yet one reason I think manga has never quite made it to mainstream American culture is that it's not about America. At its core, most manga is very Japanese. It's unavoidable, of course. So 'Eva' is my American manga series. The premise is this: Eva is a new student at a suburban high school, and her fellow students are fascinated by her. She's beautiful and statuesque, the ideal girl. Eva's secret is that she's actually a cybernetic being, a stealth-combat machine sent to earth to stop an alien force from using our little planet to launch a galactic war. In the meantime she's got to maintain her human identity so her enemies won't detect her. Of course, she's really obviously a robot, with little vents and bolts and seems everywhere, and the fact that her classmates are oblivious is part of the slapstick quality of the series.
"One of the things about Anime that I enjoy the most is the juxtaposition of the extremely poignant with the totally ludicrous, i.e. in the midst of a ridiculous premise or situation, suddenly the characters go into these heartfelt soliloquies, dealing with profound emotional issues. Then, back to killing tentacle monsters. I love that. 'Iron Kitten' is my attempt at that sort of style, done in a language an American audience can understand. The series should be out sometime this summer, definitely in time for the Comicon in San Diego."
But Naifeh reminds anxious fans that just because "EVA" is closer to becoming reality doesn't mean that it's reality just quite yet. "It's not out of my head yet. But to answer your question, Oni liked it okay when they first saw it, or at least they liked the concept. The biggest problem I've encountered with writing is that I'm no good at writing proposals. When the first issue of 'Courtney' was done, Oni was surprised that it was so much better than the outline I'd sent them. The details were what made it work, I guess. With 'EVA,' they liked the concept, but they had several 'bad-ass girl' books already, and weren't in a hurry to do another. And they weren't sure I, as an inexperienced writer, could make the series work. They weren't the only ones. So a year later when 'Courtney' had worked out so well and I was still shopping around 'Iron Kitten,' they decided that they should grab it before someone else did. I'm glad it turned out that way. I like dealing with Oni and they're enthused about my work. That's a pretty valuable thing in the entertainment industry. You can always tell when a company isn't enthused about a product. The promotion is lackluster, which always hurts sales. And then the company turns around and says, 'I knew it wouldn't sell,' which is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy. So when Oni shows their enthusiasm, I'm all the more tempted to go with them than I am to try and convince someone else that my idea has legs."
Naifeh has always wanted to push himself creatively, forcing himself to grow as a creator with each new project and he explains that his other big creative venture, "How Loathsome," is a markedly differently book from his others, which in many ways is the "Naifeh flavor." "To start with, 'Courtney' and 'Eva' are both pop-culture comics," explains Naifeh of how "Loathsome" relates to his other works. "'How Loathsome' isn't really pop culture. It's a different breed entirely. 'How Loathsome' is very much an underground comic. It's written in an autobiographical style from the perspective of a woman named Catherine Gore, who gives the reader an inside view of many alternative lifestyles. She's gender-queer (meaning she doesn't necessarily identify female, yet doesn't consider herself a man either, but seeks some neutral ground between the two), and she explores sexuality, drug culture, and her spirituality without preconceptions, questioning and reinventing everything to suit her own unique identity. It's basically about being a weirdo, an outsider, and having to find one's own way through the world because the normal, accepted ways of living don't work. It's a challenging series, but we're working to make it accessible to anyone. After all, everyone to some extent has to rethink who they are, and fight cultural pressures to be happy. Everyone but Barbie and Ken. "
If you think the project sounds ambitious, you'd be right and Naifeh says that's the reason he recruited friend Tristan Crane to aid in making "How Loathsome" a smoother writing experience. "Challenge is the right word. It's too challenging for me. When I was first thinking up the series, I found that I wasn't up to the task of writing this kind of material. I started talking to my friend Tristan about it, who's also a writer and who has read a lot more of this sort of thing than I. He had a much clearer perspective on it, so we decided to co-write the series. We work incredibly well together and the results have been brilliant. I think the book is far superior to what it might have been if either of us had tried to write it on our own. I think it could well be considered a groundbreaking work."
With all these new projects lined up, Naifeh's got a lot of work to do in a short time but also wants to share an important message with fans before concluding the interview:
"I have two thoughts. The first is this: Go out and try something new. Don't be afraid to pick up a comic that looks interesting, challenging, or downright weird. You might just find your new favorite series.
"The other is this: If you don't like a book anymore, stop reading it. Comics are too expensive to buy issue after issue when you don't like the series anymore or it's not going anywhere, and you're wasting money that you could be spending on something far more satisfying. Don't encourage writers and artists that produce work you don't like.
"Your dollar is the deciding factor in quality.
"Remember, no one owes comics creators a living. As much work as I put in, as much as I struggle to pay bills, my life is amazingly cool. I do what I love, and not many people in this world can say that. It's a privilege to make a living this way. It's not like plumbing, which no one would do if it didn't have to get done. Comics creators, like moviemakers and novelists, and musicians, are paid to entertain you. If you're not entertained, you don't owe us anything. So you die-hard comics fans, make sure you're being entertained by your comics, and if you're not, go out and find better ones. That's how you keep us punk-ass artist types accountable."