Today, Colleen Coover is the Eisner Award-winning creator best known for comics including “X-Men: First Class,” “Gingerbread Girl” and the ongoing series “Bandette," written by Paul Tobin and drawn by Coover, which saw its third print collection published by Dark Horse Comics late last year. Coover’s first comics project, though, was a little different. “Small Favors” was an adult comic originally published by Fantagraphics’ Eros Press imprint from 2000-2003, and is now coming back to print in a deluxe hardcover edition -- titled "Small Favors: The Definitive Girly Porno Collection" -- from Oni Press’ Limerence Press imprint, the publisher's erotica and sex education line.
"Small Favors" tells the story of Annie and a spite named Nibbil, who’s assigned to watch Annie by her conscience. Nibbil does not keep Annie’s libido in check, and over the course of the series the book manages to maintain a tone that is fun, sex positive and playful -- and by the end, also surprisingly moving and romantic.
In a new interview with CBR, Coover makes it clear that was the goal from the beginning. In our conversation she talks about the challenges of making a comic without drama, why she ended "Small Favors" and why she views the book as her "grad school dissertation."
CBR: I had heard of “Small Favors” before this, but I never had a chance to read the series until this new edition. Was this your first comic?
Colleen Coover: It was my first major project. I had some stuff with Paul [Tobin] earlier. He was doing an independent comic for a small press called “Attitude Land” and that came out first through Caliber Press and then Slave Labor in the '90s. It was a kind of punk rock anthology book. Paul was writing everything and there were a couple artists that drew shorts for that, and I drew a few.
“Small Favors” was the first thing that I sat down and said, "I’m going to make a series and I’m going to work on it until there’s something that can be published as a series of comics." I worked on it for a couple of years before I sent it to Fantagraphics. I had 100 pages of completed comics -- which I copied and sent in a package through the snail mail to Eros and Fantagraphics to see if they would take it -- and they did.
What was your initial goal?
I was working at a comics shop at the time in Iowa. I noticed that a lot of the adult comics were not very much fun to read. There was sex in them but they weren’t very sexy -- a lot of times they would be very dark or humorless or just vulgar. I noticed that a lot of the women who came into the store, who weren’t regulars after their pull boxes of “X-Men” and what have you, were coming in looking specifically for adult comics. Stuff that was more mature or grown up. There wasn’t really anything there for a lady who just wants to read a sexy comic book and have fun reading something sexy, so I decided to create that comic.
I read very few Eros Comics, but I always had the impression that the line was heavily influenced by underground comics.
Exactly. It was more about counterculture or drug culture than it was about being sexy entertainment. And so “adult” in those comics seemed to be more about being stuff that’s not for kids. It would include sex but it would also include violence and ultra-violence and drugs or whatever. A lot of them, frankly, were specifically for dudes. I wouldn’t want to paint too broad a brush, but it was definitely heavy in that way.
So was the goal for you in part to make a book that you found sexy?
Yeah. As part of that, I made it a rule that everybody was going to have a good time. I figured that if everybody in the comic book was having a good time, then anybody reading the comic book was having a good time. I made a conscious decision that the most conflict anybody ever had was: “Are we going to have sex?” “I don’t know... OK.” [Laughs] That kept things fun.
On some level, making it fun doesn’t seem like a very high bar and yet so few comics or other media do that.
If you set yourself a restriction like that then you have to find something to keep the readers’ interest. That was the challenge. That’s part of where the fantastical element comes in -- Nibel being a sprite, the size change, the queen of the conscience. Having a setup outside of the bedroom was important to give it some sort of context other than hey there’s these people having sex. Otherwise why even make a comic? Why not just make sexy illustrations?
You managed to get that tone right and you took this idea very seriously.
I did. That was important to me because another thing that I sometimes would see in adult comics was people just saying, well, we’ve got sex in here, so I guess my job is done. This was my first big comic and I wasn’t setting out to be a porno comics artist, I was setting out to be a professional comics artist. I was taking my craft really seriously. Another reason that I was doing an adult comic was it was my way of learning the discipline of creating a comic book over time. One of the hardest things you learn as a creator is starting a thing and not stopping. I figured that this wouldn’t get boring. [Laughs] That worked out nicely. I churned out eight issues over the course of the series and that was a time when it was like, OK, I’ve done all the positions I can think of. [Laughs] I’ve achieved a mature romantic relationship with the main characters and now it’s time to move on and do something else. That’s when we started to do an all-ages comic, “Banana Sunday.”
I think one of the tests of an artist as you said is creating a book, setting a schedule, working on the project over time.
That’s why I finished 100 pages before I approached publishers. That’s almost four issues worth of comics, and by the time the first issue was actually in shops I had even more pages done. That was a real conscious effort. I’ve always tried to be very up front about what my speed is. I’ve always felt that an important part of being a professional creator is being mindful of that. When something is going to print you have to make that deadline because there’s other people involved -- printers and distributors and truck drivers -- who have to make a deadline, so you have to make your deadline.
And I would imagine that was part of the learning experience, that this is how fast you work, this is what you need as an artist.
Definitely. It’s a hard job. [Laughs] Especially when you’re working on your own and you’re figuring out how to work on your own. I didn’t go to school for this. I had to figure it out on my own. I had to figure out what worked for me. I didn’t have computers at the time even so I was hand lettering and it was a real learning process. It was basically my grad school dissertation. It was the project where I learned how when bodies are interacting with each other, where do the legs go? [Laughs] A lot of the lessons that I learned in “Small Favors” about how arms and legs intertwine I applied later on when I was working at Marvel and drawing fights. It’s a different context, but it’s all the same stuff.
Looking over the comic again to prepare this new collection, what did you think?
Well, I thought some of the art was pretty old. [Laughs] Which is a problem that I think every comic artist runs across when they look at their older work. I also thought it was pretty good. I’m really pleased with the place where I started and where it wound up. I actually drew a new story that I wrote years ago and never drew it, but I dug it out and edited it and drew it for this collection. It was very odd revisiting some of these characters with my more mature art. It was interesting to see how they were still totally recognizable to me and totally familiar, but drawn in my current state of being.
Reading “Small Favors,” it’s possible to see your evolution as an artist.
When I talk about grad school dissertations, I think that was a pretty big leap from the very earliest stuff to the eighth issue. I learned how to refine and scale down and cartoon and act and not always refer to photo reference. I just learned a lot about storytelling and everything you need to tell a comic book story. I hope I still continue to learn. I’ve always felt that a comics artist should never feel complacent, that their work has reached its peak. Once you’ve reached your peak, that’s when you start going downhill. I never want to do that.
One decision you made in the book was that you didn’t have any guys appear in the book, not even in street scenes. Why?
That was inspired by an adult video that I saw in a store. There was a VHS tape of like “Hotel Lesbos Volume 2” -- something like that. Right on the cover it said, “The only man in the room... is you!” I was like, wait, me? [Laughs] I thought about how that really puts the reader or the viewer into a box that they don’t necessarily fit into. If a lesbian woman wants to read “Small Favors,” I don’t want to make the assumption that the person reading is a dude. I feel like a lot of the adult comics at the time made the assumption that everybody who read these comics was a dude. I knew that wasn’t true. By removing men from the comic I felt like I was removing the contextual male voyeurism of reading an adult comic book. I mean voyeurism is part of porn. If nobody’s looking at your porn, then why are you doing it? [Laughs] I didn’t want to make an assumption of who the voyeur was. I didn’t want to exclude men. I don’t think I ever did. I wanted to make it inclusive to all.
You made the point before that you didn’t want to draw porn comics, you wanted to draw comics. Was that one reason why you ended the series?
It is somewhat. I talked to another adult comics artist years ago back in the early 2000s when I was most of the way through the series. He had been doing some adult comics under an assumed name and he said, after a while you just run out of stuff for them to do. [Laughs] I was like, well, I haven’t got there yet, but I can see your point. I didn’t want it to get stale. I didn’t want to introduce drama to prevent it from getting stale. Also I wanted to work on stories that did have some conflict in them. The first short story that I did after “Small Favors” was for an all women anthology that Diana Schutz put together called “Sexy Chix.” The story I did was called “The Boogeyman” about a woman who is basically in trauma after the death of her husband in a car crash that she survived. It was the saddest thing I could think of. It was about six pages long and I was bummed out by the end of it. At the same time, I thought, this is a really good palate chaser after all the sugar that I had with “Small Favors.” A little bitter salt to chase that sweet flavor out of my mouth and be ready to do something else. I wanted to continue to challenge myself and I just didn’t want to be in a pigeon hole.
You followed “Small Favors” by making “Banana Sunday” with Paul, and I would guess that making an all-ages book was a very deliberate decision.
Absolutely. We had been working on that for a few months before we showed it to Oni and got it approved. That was definitely something that we wanted for my career and also for his. That was the direction that I wanted to go. I like kids and I want them to read comics.
Reading “Small Favors” and then reading “Banana Sunday” and “Gingerbread Girl,” it’s very much of a piece with where your style was at the end of the series.
Once a reporter about the different styles that I use, but I always use the same style. It’s just me. Sometimes I’ll change the technique but it’s the same style.
You’ve always had this cartoony style, though I dislike using that term, because of how people tend to use it.
Yeah, cartoony as a derogatory term has always been confusing to me. Cartoon just means that you’re drawing not from life. If you’re drawing you’re usually looking at a model or a photograph and recreating what you see. With cartooning you’re building a character. I generally prefer cartooning to drawing.
Have you always preferred cartooning to drawing?
I don’t think so. In my comic book work I have, but in the early “Small Favors” I was still referring to photo reference to figure out how the body was put together. I think my big breakthrough was getting a copy of “Cartooning the Head and Figure” by Jack Hamm. It’s one of these perennial art books and it’s just got pages of how to cartoon feet or how to cartoon a fat guy or a lady. Referring to that taught me a lot more about how to build a figure than a lot of the life drawing that I had done before. They’re both valuable, it’s just that I rely on one more than the other.
Right now you’re working on “Bandette” and is that it for the moment?
Right now my main comic work is “Bandette.” This is artisanal comics so it comes out on the occasion that it comes out. I think we’re making a graphic novel each year and a half? That’s how often it comes out in print after it’s serialized digitally on comixology. That’s my full time gig and I occasionally take some commercial work on the side to pay some bills. That’s really it. The art is all me, which takes time. I’ve always been sort of a control freak when it comes to lettering and coloring, so it’s a very very inefficient production line of one.
Do you want to write more comics?
I enjoy writing short pieces. Which is one of the reasons why most of the “Small Favors” stories were short. It’s not my main passion. Occasionally I’ll think up a story. It usually springs fully formed out of my skull and then I’m compelled to make that story.
Right now I really like working with other writers. Particularly Paul. We occasionally co-write, which is nice. We prop each other up when we’re co-writing, but writing for myself for the long term, I don’t think I would do that. That would be a frustration rather than fun.
"Small Favors: The Definitive Girly Porno Collection" is scheduled for release on April 26 from Oni Press.