More Than One Way to "Skin Horse"

Her latest project is "Skin Horse," a daily comic illustrated by Garrity and co-written by Garrity and Jeffrey C. Wells. The comic tells the story of a top secret government agency that handles non-humans in the manner of social workers, albeit social workers who are armed to the teeth. Whether confronting the strange ecosystem in their building's basement or trying to further a werewolf infection in Alaska, they may not be the most effective government agency, but they are the most entertaining.

Garrity also writes a biweekly column for comixology.com and is a regular blogger on The Comics Journal. Her book "CLAMP in America" is scheduled for release from Del Rey Books early next year. The second volume of "Skin Horse" will be out this month, and Shaenon spoke with CBR about the collection.

CBR News: For the people who don't know, what is "Skin Horse?"

Shaenon Garrity: "Skin Horse" is my current online comic strip. It's about a government Black Ops department that deals with "nonhuman sapients," like zombies, robots, genetically-engineered life forms and so on. Most of the staff members are themselves nonhuman. It's a humor strip but tends to have long, ongoing story arcs, because I like big stories.

Where did the idea for "Skin Horse" start? There was a line in one posting about how it was secretive like the X-Files but functions more like the welfare office.

Yeah, I liked the idea of Black Ops Social Services and having a group that functions kind of like the X-Files but on the side of the monsters. Of course it would be much less glamorous and well-funded. I kicked this idea around in my head for a while, and then one day I had the idea that the agents themselves should be "monsters" like their clients. The main cast clicked in place almost immediately. At the point where I decided the director should be an intelligent swarm of bees named Gavotte, I started to like the story.

Prior to "Skin Horse," you worked solo - why did you bring Jeff Wells onto this project?

When I finished "Narbonic," I told myself that if I ever did a daily online strip again, I'd get a collaborator, because it's a lot of work for one person with a day job; I'm a freelance editor at manga publisher VIZ Media. I'd admired Jeff's writing for some time and was itching to work on a project with him. Also, Jeff is a real-life government bureaucrat out in Wisconsin, so I figured he could lend a patina of realism to the strip. And he has!

Jeff has come up with some of the strip's most popular characters, including the weirdly adorable cobras that live in the basement of the building where everyone works. I want everyone to know the cobras were his idea.

"Skin Horse" is a daily strip with long story arcs. How does a typical strip get created?

One of us comes up with an idea for a storyline and we kick ideas around. Eventually Jeff writes a plot outline, which I nitpick and bitch about until we work it into something we both like. Then we write individual strips. I usually write strips all out of chronological order, as gags occur to me, and then poor Jeff has to find ways to insert them into the narrative. Eventually we accumulate enough strips that I can start drawing. We've tried more elaborate ways of brainstorming, like setting up a shared online whiteboard to which we could both post ideas, but mostly we've ended up just emailing back and forth.

Tip, the hilarious crossdressing lead character, is something of a clothes horse and a fashionista. Where did that aspect of the character come from and is drawing clothes like that something that comes naturally to you?

I'm a baggy-hoodie-and-jeans girl myself, but I always felt kind of lazy for drawing the "Narbonic" characters in the same clothes all the time. While working on "Narbonic," I became interested in fashion as a way of expressing character, as well as a fun thing to draw. I'm a huge fan of the manga artist Ai Yazawa, who got her start drawing comics for fashion magazines. There's a great review of Yazawa's manga Paradise Kiss by Sean Collins in which he quotes the lead singer of the Dandy Warhols talking about how "style is merely the outward manifestation of a person's insides." Yazawa is great at expressing her characters' personalities through the way they dress and present themselves. I've tried to do a little of that in "Skin Horse." It's not just Tip; the way all the characters dress (well, the ones who wear clothes) reflects who they are.

Tip's wardrobe is also kind of an oblique nod to the old tradition in girls' comic books, and some newspaper comic strips, of featuring paper doll cutout pages with different outfits for the characters. I love that stuff. In fact, some of Tip's outfits are based on those paper dolls (almost everything he wears in the storyline with Tigerlily Jones, for instance, comes from the "Torchy's Togs" feature in the old comic strip "Torchy").

Also, if nothing else, it forces me to learn how to draw clothes.

How did your relationship with GoComics.com begin and how successful has it been?

GoComics is great. They syndicate "Skin Horse" on their site, so I get a chance to reach out to another group of readers. Everyone there is really nice, and I've met some cool cartoonists through it, like Tom Gammill, a "Simpsons" writer who started drawing a strip called "The Doozies" during the Hollywood writers' strike.

How did you end up funding the printing of the second collection of "Skin Horse" through Kickstarter?

A lot of cartoonists flocked to Kickstarter when it started up, and many of them were able to use it to fund publishing projects, so when it came time to print "Skin Horse" Volume 2 it seemed worth a try. I never though it'd work as well as it did. I was very worried that nobody would pledge any money. As it turned out, we funded the entire project within the first day of the pledge drive. So basically my readers are awesome.

The book's at the printer now. Everybody who pledged already has a PDF copy, and now I have to put together all the other goodies people get for pledging at different levels. Jeff wrote a really cute, yet disturbing prose story as one of the goodies. I'm making a sketchbook and production diary featuring the more interesting excerpts from our brainstorming emails.

Would you use Kickstarter again, and if so, what would do differently?

Well, it worked well for me. Having gone through it, and seen other people go through it, I think it works best for projects like mine that have an established online fanbase and a proven track record of producing good work (after years in the publishing business, one thing I do know how to do is put a book together). It also helps if your project has an instantly appealing hook; Spike Trotman did great raising money for her "Poorcraft" book, a guide to living frugally, because she's a widely respected artist and it's a topic people want to read about. I definitely plan to use Kickstarter in the future. I'm already putting together my next project, in fact.

The size of the comic is that of a typical strip, but the art feels cramped,, which is something I've felt of your work since "Narbonic," where the physical gags and lots of the business of panels could get lost in the size of the strips.

That may be true. I'm sorry.

Okay, now I feel bad. That wasn't my intent at all. I just know that you've worked on a number of strips in the past decade, both solo and with others. You're a great fan and student of the medium and I was curious about this observation and whether you feel that's the nature of comic strips; is it a question of space, of deadlines, or what?

Ha! It's okay. I guess I've gotten used to the format I've been drawing in. I do draw in different formats for other projects, including the bonus stories in the "Skin Horse" books, but for the daily strip that size is about what I can handle and still get a comic out every day. You're right that it's an overly cramped format, but I've gotten used to it and now I find it all cozy. It's bad for me, I'm sure.

One of the things that constantly amazes me about "Skin Horse" is what an active and involved community there is around the strip, between people commenting, drawing the characters, crafting song parodies and more. Is this something you could have pictured years ago and what do you attribute it to?

My comics tend to attract small but very devoted audiences. I think that's true of Jeff's writing, too. For "Skin Horse," we've gotten all kinds of awesome fan art, and somehow a tradition has arisen of writing song parodies for every single strip. I don't pretend to understand any of it. All Jeff and I can do is let it happen.

What can you tell us about "CLAMP in America?"

It's a big art book devoted to CLAMP, a four-woman manga drawing collective in Japan. I spent a year reading all their manga, talking to people who have been influenced by them, and interviewing the women themselves. It was a lot of fun; they're interesting, gifted artists who have taken on a lot of eclectic projects over the years, and they're very prolific. As I said on a panel at Comic-Con International this year, even when a CLAMP manga is a failure, it's an interesting failure, which is kind of rare in modern mainstream manga. And some of their comics, like "Cardcaptor Sakura," are outright brilliant. That's right - "Cardcaptor Sakura" is brilliant.

Back when you started in 2000, webcomics weren't as prominent as they are today - how did you jump into that arena?

Way back in high school, I drew a comic strip for the youth section of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. When I went off to college at Vassar, I drew a weekly strip for the college newspaper. As graduation approached, I felt sorry that I wouldn't have an excuse to draw comic strips anymore. Then a couple of friends turned me on to webcomics, and I thought, "I can do that!" At the time, the webcomics scene was dominated by "Penny Arcade," "PvP" and "Sluggy Freelance." "Narbonic" was obviously more in the "Sluggy Freelance" mold.

I started "Narbonic" shortly after moving to San Francisco after college. I had to update the strip by hand every night from a computer in the living room of the people I was renting a room from. I edited the strips on MS Paint. It was the webcomics equivalent of living in a log cabin and splitting rails.

In one of your recent columns, you wrote that your mother expected you to be Cathy Guiswite. How does she respond to your career today?

I think she still expects me to be Cathy. She's my mother. She figures sooner or later people will realize my obvious brilliance and sign me to six-figure contracts or something. The thing is, I've passed on opportunities to develop a strip for syndication, for various reasons, but mostly because I enjoy webcomics so much. I think that exasperates her a little.

For more on Shaenon Garrity visit her official website.

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