Naifeh Talks "Courtney Crumrin," "Good Neighbors"

Ted Naifeh is well known as both a writer and an artist. He illustrated "Gloomcookie," written by Serena Valentino, and two volumes of "Death Jr.," written by Gary Whitta. Naifeh is best known, however, for his work as a writer and artist on two Oni Press series, "Polly and the Pirates" and "Courtney Crumrin."

Recently, Scholastic released "The Good Neighbors: Kin," the first volume of a trilogy illustrated by Naifeh and written by Holly Black. In December, Oni Press will be releasing the newest Courtney Crumrin volume, 'The Prince of Nowhere," a sequel to last year's "The Fire Thief's Tale."

Naifeh was kind enough to take time out to talk about these and the many projects he's working on, including a sequel to "Polly and the Pirates," the upcoming "Princess Ugg" -- which he says will be a high water mark for him as a comics creator -- and the status of the previously announced project, "Zenith."

Additionally, don't forget the CBR-Graphix Books contest to win a free hardcover copy of Naifeh and Holly Black's "The Good Neighbors: Kin." All you have to do is sign up right here.

CBR: How did you come to work on The Good Neighbors?

Ted Naifeh: Holly Black heard of me from Cassandra Claire, the famous fan-fic writer turned successful novelist. The story of how Cassie heard of me would out my girlfriend Kelly as an avid Harry Potter fan-fic reader, and she'd kill me, so I'm afraid I can't tell that story. Oh, wait a minute... Damn!

What has it been like working with Holly Black and Scholastic?

It's pretty hands-off for the most part. I get a little direction from Holly, and a little from my editors, but all really good input. Except there was one instance where Scholastic made me remove a naked butt. But hey, that's the big publishing world. More eyes on you means more pickiness. It's a trade-off. I can get away with almost anything in the regular comics world, 'cause it's small potatoes.

The only really difficult part has been the covers. They require a lot of redraws. This is partly because they need to pass through a lot more editors, and as the representative image to sell the book, they matter more than any other single element. But mostly it's because a Scholastic book, graphic novel or no, has a lot more copy on it than a comic. On a comic, the title logo is very much a secondary element to the image, and everything else is really just an afterthought. But with "Good Neighbors," the title is the most important part. They want that title huge and bold, plus they want both our names featured, info about Holly at the top, etc. There's barely room for art, and that art still has to make an impression. So it's a big learning curve for me to work around all these needs.

The first cover was an excruciating process, mostly because they chose the design sketch I was least happy with, which I tossed off as an afterthought just to round out my offerings. I had a lot of trouble making it work. The sketch is really different than the final cover, which, after all my struggling, thankfully turned out really nice. It has a slight movie quality, and all the text makes it feel almost like a novel, but it's still comic art, it's still very much the cover of a graphic novel.

And the editors I work with communicate very well, explain their needs and their reasons clearly, and never make things antagonistic. This kind of skilled hands-on editing is very rare in comics, in my experience.

Children's book editors are known as some of the best in the publishing business. Did yours have a good understanding of the grammar of comics in a way that was helpful for you as an artist working with a writer who is new to the medium?

The process of assembling the art and story was a little rocky, in that Holly's script has some clunky points. But as with any comics writer, these points instantly became apparent after the art was delivered. What was especially nice about the process was that the editors sent us a PDF of the pencils with letters in place about halfway through the art process, and we had ample time to rewrite, redraw, or just reconceive everything that wasn't working. We ended up adding almost a dozen pages to the script to clarify the storytelling, and smooth out action. This didn't iron out all the bumps, but I think got most of them. And it was really the editors' hands-on work that made it possible. In regular comics, everything is being pumped out way too fast to give the creators this amount of opportunity to prefect our work. I know there's dozens of pages of "Courtney" I'd like to redraw, rewrite, or fix in some way. Alas.

How does working with Black compare with other collaborators you worked with over the years?

As I mentioned, she's very hands-off, mainly because she has so much else on her plate. She hands it over and tells me to get at it. When I'm done with the pencils, she drops what she's doing, sweeps in, and does some rewriting, and makes a bunch of notes for me to redraw. Then she's off again. If I need her, I can call, but she's not trying to draw the story through me. She's letting me get on with it. Also, I mentioned some things I'd love to see in the second volume, and she put them in. We're not talking about little scenes or characters, but major plot points. In some ways, I feel more like this is a collaboration than in almost any other project I've worked on.

Your style is a little different in "Good Neighbors." What prompted that changed?

As I read the script, I realized that the Courtney or the Polly look would totally inappropriate for this story. It needed to be darker and scarier. So I decided to develop a much harsher, more realistic style, like that of a horror comic rather than a cutesy goth comic. If I'd drawn the faeries in "The Good Neighbors" as cartoons like I do in "Courtney," how would the horror play out? It would have pulled the punch of terror that the script was trying to convey.

I had wanted to flex different art muscles anyway, but really, a comic artist's job is to serve the story. We're storytellers first, picture-makers second. If we can't adapt our style to suit a script, we shouldn't be in this business.

And just in time for Christmas, there's a new Courtney Crumrin book out. Could you set the scene for what's going on in this volume?

As you may remember, the "Courtney and the Twilight Kingdom" book ends with Uncle Aloysius offering to take Courtney to Europe. Over the course of the journey, the two grumpy loners struggle to find a way to bond. This is problematic, mainly because while Aloysius can observe the mystical world without getting too involved, Courtney has a tendency to dive in head first, heedless of the dangerous rocks. So aside from encountering some classic old world monsters, they also have a terrific clash of personalities.

Why did you choose to release the story this way, in two 64-page volumes instead of waiting until it was completed and releasing a four-issue miniseries? Was it just a question of fitting them in between other projects?

I never liked releasing "Courtney" as floppies. I think that, for a pulpy series like the 1960s Batman, it was fine to crank out pamphlets, because they were super cheap and could be tossed when folks were done reading them. But with a miniseries like "Courtney," it's different. For a story that's meant to last, a more lasting format is called for. I'm not cranking out quick monthly adventures, or making it up as I go along. For better or for worse, the days of cheap pulp comics are mostly over, if for no other reason than the rising cost of a single issue.

These days, comics need to carry more weight, to make a stronger emotional connection with the reader. You can't put a fluffy show like "Magnum, P.I." on TV now, because people expect material with deeper content, like "House." They don't watch the show and forget it. They buy the DVD. In the same way, you can't publish simple, perfect heroes with no inner conflicts defeating evil over and over again in repetitive, throw-away stories. readers want more. They want to cherish the book and reread it every few years. Comics cost more than ever now, and folks expect more bang for their buck. I hope I'm giving it to them. But at the very least, I can present it in a more lasting format. That's what "The Dark Knight Returns" style prestige format was invented for.

Most Courtney readers have little attachment to the nostalgic saddle-stitched pamphlet anyway, and prefer a book that can go on a bookshelf. And the ones who do generally have no objection to prestige format, because it's still a comic. The two latest volumes will, or course, ultimately be collected in a single, manga-sized digest called "Courtney Crumrin's Monstrous Holiday," for folks who prefer that format.

Do you think the pacing and the feel of the story was altered by releasing them in this manner?

Actually, the story format I'd decided on helped decide the book format. I had originally wanted to do four stand-alone stories of four different countries, four different monsters for Courtney to meet. I'd been thinking a werewolf story, a vampire, then maybe the loch ness monster, and then something else. But only the first two were really fleshed out in my head, and I wanted more time for them. So decided to do a pair of two-part stories, one about werewolves and one about vampires. That's when the first "Courtney Tales" book came out in prestige format, and it occurred to me to do the new books like that, two short GNs rather than four floppies. Two two-part episodes became two stand-alone GNs. I'm so pleased with the result that I want Oni to re-release the rest of the series as six prestige volumes. But so far, they've just laughed and patted my head, saying, "Maybe one day."

With "The Fire Thief's Tale," there's more of Aloysius in the story. Was your plan always for him to play a bigger role as the series progressed or have you just come to enjoy the character as much as the rest of us do?

Oh, I've always had big plans for Aloysius. The whole series is really about Courtney's relationship with him. And now the plot has thickened considerably, what with his revelation about himself in the second volume. But I don't want to spoil anything so I won't say anymore.

Are you planning more spin-offs focusing on different characters like "Portrait of a Warlock as a Young Man?" Perhaps a sequel?

I intend to do a sequel to "Portrait of a Warlock," which I'd like to call "League of Ordinary Gentlemen" if Oni lets me, plus one or two more spin-off books. I have a great story about Butterworm I want to do.

What is the future of Courtney? Can you see yourself doing this indefinitely, do you have an ending in mind?

I have a very specific end for this series, one that will tie the whole thing together as a single story. Though I've been contemplating bringing Courtney back as an older character, maybe like an evil Mary Poppins type who babysits younger kids and terrorizes them. But that's a long way off.

Is there going to be a sequel to "Polly and the Pirates?"

Yes. I haven't had time to return to it, but I have two sequels in mind. After all, I have to reveal what happened to the Pirate Queen.

Oni is looking at artists to take over for me, and there's one that looks promising. We'll see how that goes.

Is it just a question of you not having the time to write and draw the book?

It's not that I don't have the time, it's that I don't have the time right now, and folks are clamoring for more Polly right now. In the future, I'm going to be much more careful about open-ended stories. I just watched "Wanted," which I liked well enough for a morally ambiguous tale of murderers (hey, no one complained about "Pulp Fiction," which was basically the same thing), but what I really respected was that it told a very complete tale that almost precluded the possibility of a sequel. The only character to survive was the least interesting, least mysterious one. And the way the movie was constructed, they couldn't have done it any other way. I like that they did that, and didn't get trapped in sequel hell.

For Polly, there's way too much left untold, way too much potential for sequels, that it frustrates readers not to do more. I feel like Matt Wagner leaving "Mage" so open-ended that folks were strangling themselves waiting for ["Mage: The Hero Defined."] And by the time it was out, Matt was a completely different creator, so the book kinda fell flat. I don't want to do that with Polly, but I do have other projects to draw. So this is the compromise. And with the right artist, it might make Polly better than ever.

What is important in finding an artist from your perspective. Is it a question of similar styles or what are looking for in a collaborator?

I don't care if the artist is completely different from me. I'm not sure I'm the best man to draw a book like "Polly." For a cute, fluffy book about teenage girl pirates, it got awfully dark and shadowy in places. Maybe that worked, maybe it didn't. But I think Polly, more than Courtney, can be reinterpreted effectively without losing the essential concept. Polly herself needs a certain type of appeal, and that's what I'm holding out for. I want an artist who can give her the innocent sweetness as Polly, and the dashing, knowing Errol Flynn smirk as Captain Peg, without going too deep into bad-ass brow-furrow territory. If an artist can do that, the rest is negotiable.

You mentioned a project called "Zenith" a few years back. What's the status of that?

I don't know when exactly I'm going to get to that one. I have a series coming up next year called "Princess Ugg" that I'm really excited about, which is about a barbarian princess that goes to princess finishing school with all the Cinderellas and Sleeping Beauties. That one feels hotter than "Zenith," so I pushed it forward in my schedule. "Zenith" (the world's littlest giant robot) will probably come after. You know, by now I really thought I'd be sick of little teenage girl stories, but the ideas just keep coming.

Can you give us any more details on "Princess Ugg" - who's the publisher, what is the release plan?

Princess Ugg's publisher will be Oni, or course. They've done good by me over the years, and I feel a certain amount of loyalty to them. It doesn't hurt that they're doing better than ever, and want to do a full color GN with all the trimmings. There's no release date yet. I haven't even written the script yet. Right now it's just a highly detailed outline and a bunch of ridiculously cute sketches. Oni is thinking end of the year, or early next year for a release date. They want plenty of time to solicit, print cheaply in Hong Kong, get it into the bookstores, etc.

I really think "Princess Ugg" is a going to be a big step forward for me as a creator. The art style will be quite different from either "Courtney" or "Polly," retaining my strengths but striking forth in new and more challenging directions as well. And I feel that the story has a lot of potential to resonate in the current princess-obsessed media culture, but will also offer relevant social and political observations about our world. I hope it will become "The Dark Knight Returns" of teenage girl comics.

What? A guy can dream, can't he?

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