Meredith Gran Bakes An "Octopus Pie"

Meredith Gran has been creating webcomics since she was a teenager, but it's her current strip "Octopus Pie" that she's been writing and drawing for more than three years that's really made the internet stand up and take notice of her. The strip centers around a pair of twenty-something roommates, Eve and Hanna, but more than the dynamic between the two, it's a comic about Brooklyn, being young and finding meaning and love in the midst of what seems like an inevitable grind, whether you're a clerk or a drug dealer.

Gran's new book, "Octopus Pie: There Are No Stars in Brooklyn," has just been released by Random House's Villard Books imprint, collecting the initial story arcs of the comic plus a bonus story created exclusively for the print edition. We spoke with Gran about her strip, the new collection and planning for the second Webcomics Weekend in Massachusetts this November.

For the Octopus Pie book tour, Gran will touring North America including stops at The Beguiling in Toronto on July 2, New England Comics in Cambridge, MA on July 5 and the Indy Comics Expo in Austin, TX on July 11. For more information and additional tour info, check out octopuspie.com and keep an eye on the CBR Events Calendar.

CBR News: Let's start things off with a simple question: how do you describe "Octopus Pie" to people?

Meredith Gran: In brief, it's a comedy about a hard-working young woman in New York who gets roped into living with a bunch of crazy hipsters.

More broadly, it's about the crappy jobs, social interactions and relationships of people you've probably known or been at some point.

The comic began by focusing on Eve and Hanna, but it quickly expanded beyond them to encompass a large cast and broader subject matter. Was the intent always to move beyond the initial odd couple, or did you just start with them and let the rest happen?

I had Eve and Hanna, as well as Hanna's boyfriend Marek, in my head for a few years.  The characters managed to write their own stories in my head. Getting the comic off the ground was always the biggest challenge.

You started working on webcomics as a teenager, essentially growing up with the industry. What were the comics that really inspired you and have had a particular influence on "Octopus Pie?"

I've really admired the cartoonists behind the Dumbrella collective for years. Jon Rosenberg of "Goats," R. Stevens of "Diesel Sweeties" and Jeffrey Rowland of "Wigu/Overcompensating" in particular taught me a lot about the business, cultivating a readership, and the sort of lifestyle webcomics demand. 

Artistically, most of my influences come largely from outside the webcomics bubble. Though David McGuire of "Gastrophobia" attended college with me, and I see a lot of similarity in our styles.

My background is in animation, and I was raised on Looney Tunes (Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett) and MGM shorts (Tex Avery), which I consider some of the biggest influences, even if the comic itself doesn't resemble them superficially. I love Genndy Tartakovsky and Craig McCracken's shows of the 90s. "The Simpsons" is probably in there too.

You studied animation at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Why animation and is that still something you're still interested in?

I studied animation because it's what I love to do. After college, I worked in TV animation for a bit, which I loved a bit less.

I've always enjoyed making comics, and ultimately they ended up being the easier business to get into. It's very difficult to be an independent animator because of the time it takes to make just a few seconds of footage. I'd need a crew to keep it going. But I can bang out a comic series all by myself.

I still love doing animation when I have time. I just finished an animated trailer for "Octopus Pie," which will be premiering online soon.

Last year, you changed how the strip is updated. You originally worked on a schedule with regular updates throughout the week, but you eventually changed to a schedule where you wait to post the complete story arc until you've finished it. Has this altered how you work on the strip?

It's altered the process, for sure. I have more time to analyze the story and work on the art. There's definitely less pressure to make each strip stand-alone, and as a result, I feel like there are fewer interruptions to each story.

There's also the matter of reader feedback, which I used to read on a regular basis before a story was even finished. It was easy to second-guess my ideas, or fear that people were getting bored of the current arc. It's much less maddening these days.

What is it about Brooklyn that makes for such a good setting for the comic?

It's an expensive, crowded, difficult and dense place to live. Eve insists on making her life difficult, and as such it makes sense for her to love Brooklyn so much.

I began the comic when I was living in Brooklyn myself, so there's a bit of personal reflection involved.

I always think of Eve in the way Hanna once described her to a guy, "Unfunny, self-reliant, derives all kinds of significance from shit she reads...and hey, you're both dicks." I think I'm fairly representative of your readers, in that it makes us laugh because in a way, we think that describes us. I'm curious to what degree Eve is the character that you use to express your own feelings, thoughts and concerns?

Eve's concerns, pains and regrets are almost always my own, even if her problems aren't literally the same. I'll often write a story and realize after the fact how strongly I'd been relating to it at the time. It seems very natural to write this way, and over time Eve has come to resemble me very strongly. 

Another thing that is interesting about your approach to webcomics is that the strip is online under a creative commons license. Why did you make that decision?

I love seeing the creativity of fans. The CC license is my way of saying "Yes, please do!" in regards to playing around with my images. It's yielded some fun and interesting results - such as The Most Horrible Thing, which makes hilarious use of a reaction panel.

Occasionally, the strip dovetails the characters and plots into nonfiction territory, like the story of the Brooklyn parrots or the legal background of being "top-free" in New York. Is there anything specific behind your decisions to blur the line between fact and fiction like that, or is it simply that sometimes an idea strikes you and you run with it?

Aside from some weird physics, the comic mainly exists in the real world. I like to anchor the characters to actual people and events that shape their lives, much like they've affected mine. 

Comics are such a fun way to talk about history and obscure facts, and often readers will be surprised and interested to learn that a story was true. I've turned a lot of people on to the 1960s girl group The Shaggs, for better or worse.

What was it that led you to abandon the East Coast for Portland, Oregon, and how do you keep the comic so Brooklyn-centric (Brooklyn-licious?) from 3,000 miles away?

Ha ha! I wouldn't say I've abandoned it. Someday I'll move back to New York, when I have a big pile of money. But I love the city of Portland and I'm enjoying my time here. Living away from New York actually allows me to reflect fondly on it. I have thousands of small New York experiences that bore no significance at the time that I've since turned into stories.

You've been working on the comic for a couple years, and you've self-published a number of volumes of the strip, but now we have "Octopus Pie: There Are No Stars in Brooklyn" out from Random House. What did they offer you and what made you say yes?

Random House offered me an advance that helped me to move cross-country and get by more easily. They're a huge company with connections and marketing power I've yet to experience. So far, I've found that my own self-promotion has worked very well in conjunction with their publicity. I'll be very interested in seeing how major distribution affects sales.

Are there plans for a second collection of the strip?

That will depend on sales, I guess! But whether I go through a publisher or not, there will definitely be future volumes. I have hundreds of pages drawn that haven't seen printed paper yet, and they'll have their day.

What do you think of the new book as a physical object?

The book is very hefty and substantial! It's amazing to hold so much of your work in such a nice little package. I'm very pleased with the appearance. It looks super nice on a coffee table.

You added a new short chapter to close out the book, "End of the World." What was your thinking in creating a new comic for the book?

I wanted to have something exclusively for the book. The final reprinted story, "Interview," ends on a sad note. I thought a more lighthearted story would be a better way to wrap things up.

Do you have any plans to do more comics like "End of the World," which shows readers a young Eve and Hanna and their colorful preschool adventures?

If it seems appropriate, I'll write more about pre-school. It's amusing to draw them as tiny, more naive versions of the adults they'll someday be. But I'm more interested in exploring their childhood and teen years in future stories. I'm looking forward to that.

You've been letting people pre-order the new collection, offering sketches and encouraging fans to get it through you. Have you gotten a lot of response?

Yes, the pre-order period has been wonderful. Fans have really come out to support the book. A large majority of direct orders are for personalized copies.

I get lots of questions from people, wondering how their purchase can best affect me. I'm impressed and flattered by the care they're taking to support me. Of course, all sales are helpful. Directly from me means more money for me, but Amazon and book store sales make my publisher very happy.

So, what are your plans for the book tour?

I'm doing a loop around the US (and high-fiving Canada) for the next month or so. The plan is to hit Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Columbus, Toronto, Boston, New York, Austin, Los Angeles and San Francisco. And then San Diego Comic Con. 

I'm bringing my comics to work on, of course. I'm bringing my little dog Heidi, too. She'll probably have more time to blog than me. 

There's going to be another New England Webcomics Weekend this November. What are your plans on making it different and better than last time?

Webcomics Weekend was a spontaneous gathering-turned-convention that we hosted last year. This year it's going to be bigger; we've expanded our space within the building to house more guests. We're allowing more attendees in, and we'll be hosting even more events than last year. 

Aside from scale, the main difference is that we have months to prepare - whereas last year we only had a few weeks - so it'll inevitably be better organized. We're treating it more like a small press show for webcomics, but the hope is that we can preserve a lot of the spontaneous fun we enjoyed in 2009.

You've created strips before "Octopus Pie." Is there a time in the future where you plan to end the strip and move onto something else?

At some point I'll certainly do something else. Right now I have a lot to say about being in your 20s. The characters inevitably grow with me, though, and I don't think I'd want to write about them at different stages in their lives. It would be a very different comic.

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