In Andi Watson's 'Princess Decomposia,' romance is undead

The creator of Skeleton Key and Love Fights, cartoonist Andi Watson has worked in more recent years on his all-ages series Gum Girl and Glister, which are better known in his native United Kingdom than in the United States. However, he's about to make a big splash with young readers on this side of the Atlantic with Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula, a lighthearted romance with creepy characters to be published in February by First Second.

We asked Watson to talk a bit about the book and where it fits in with the rest of his work.

Brigid Alverson: First of all, can you tell us what Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula is about?

Andi Watson: It's a spooky-themed romance story about love, responsibility and desserts. Princess Decomposia is princess of the Underworld whose father, the king, has taken sick and demands constant attention. The Princess has to run the Underworld, the palace and take care of her father. It's all getting too much when the king's fussy eating habits drive off another chef. Fortunately, Count Spatula gets the job and he helps the princess tackle the Underworld's problems while they grow closer ... only the king's not too keen on their friendship.

Vampires, zombies, mummies -- all the standard horror-movie characters -- are instantly recognizable to most readers, independent of any individual work; I remember seeing my nephew name them all when he was just 2 or 3. What are the pluses and minuses of that for you as a storyteller? How do you make these characters fresh?

The pluses are that they don't need an introduction. They're archetypes that the reader can identify immediately, and so the story isn't held up for inconvenient info dumps. Also, they're an awful lot of fun to draw and design in order to make my own. Also, because they appear familiar it's quite easy to give them a bit of a tweak and get a fresh angle. The palace is kind of a bureaucracy so the mummies and ghouls are pen-pushers. Then there's the Count who's a baking vampire. He doesn't drink blood and has lost his teeth from eating too many sweet treats. The king of the Underworld might have been an awful lich or necromancer but instead he's a hypochondriac ... a bit unusual considering he's "dead." So there's lots of room to have fun and play around and still be visually interesting.

The giant eyeball, on the other hand, is a novel character. Can you explain a bit about that?

Skulker, the eyeball on legs, first appeared in my sketchbook, and I really liked the design and wondered what kind of role it might play in the story. Then I figured that the king needs a spy to keep a watch over the princess. That came out of the idea of parents keeping such a close eye on their kids online activities nowadays and the way that's played out on a larger scale with the NSA snooping on us all. Although the king acts powerless, he has creatures running around the place reporting back to him. Knowledge is power.

I read in an interview that you finished the book before you went looking for a publisher. Why did you work this way, rather than pitching it and tailoring the final product to a particular publisher's style? Has First Second asked you to make any changes?

That was a reaction to my finishing work on Gum Girl. I really just wanted to get on and finish a book without any delays. I'd had to do that on my previous series and it really killed the momentum and enjoyment for me. I didn't want to be waiting several weeks over every stage for approvals and worked my way through from beginning to end. I'm really glad I did as it helped my confidence and kept the entire story in my head. Once I start a book and get the plates spinning I find it a lot easier to maintain a steady work rate rather than stop and start. It's self-delusional but I believed I'd find a publisher, and after I'd completed the book I was lucky enough that First Second picked it up. They didn't ask for any changes beyond some small tweaks, which I was more than happy to make. It was more about changing a couple of small details rather than whole scenes. I'm more than happy to take notes and improve my books, but in this case I was on a mission to get it finished.

How has your style evolved? What are you doing differently in this book than in your earlier comics?

I've focused on the story from start to finish, the big picture and how each scene fits within the whole. I went with a regular page layout of six-panel pages so I could concentrate on the rhythm and beats of the story, do fun moment to moment actions and emphasize the 'acting' and bringing the characters to life. I also wanted to work a lot more on the page after Gum Girl being in color. By that I mean the drawing being the finished product as much as possible, not too much work done 'post-production' on the screen. So I used a black and white style that reflected the shadowy Underworld and used a brushpen and pen to add texture and keep the line lively. The drawing is the fun part for me, spending lots of time in Photoshop, not so much.

As someone who has done both serialized comics and graphic novels, which type of storytelling do you prefer?

I like both but this is actually my first full-length original graphic novel. Before this my longest stories had been the Glister books, which are roughly 65 pages. Princess Decomposia is more than twice that length. I found it quite daunting at first and wasn't sure I could sustain a narrative over that distance and keep it all in my head. But in the end it's just like any comic, you need the beginning, middle, end, characters, situations and whatnot, so I made sure I plotted out my scenes beforehand and was happy with the underlying structure before I started writing. It was a pleasure to have the story written and thumb nailed beforehand, it felt like the hardest work was done before I even began drawing. With a serialized story, no matter how well-planned, there's an element of "winging it" as the issues progress. I like having room to maneuver but I also enjoyed knowing I had all the main 'beats' figured out beforehand.

Will there be more Princess Decomposia stories after this one?

There's lots more stories to tell with those characters, but I guess I'll have to wait and see how the readers react. We're off to a good start because the Junior Library Guild picked it up and we have a hardback available. I'm hopeful.

I also I have a bunch of projects ready to go in 2015. I'm looking for a publisher for my webcomic, which concludes early 2015, I have a graphic novel for grownups finished and looking for a home, and I've also written a new spooky graphic novel, which I'll start drawing in the new year.

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