With the comic industry arguably enjoying a creative renaissance not seen since the late 1980's, fans are slowly being exposed to more diverse work that does not center around muscular, spandex-clad men and women engaging in vapid fisticuffs. The increasing success of series like "100 Bullets" and the continued acclaim surrounding companies such as Oni Press only point towards a brighter, more diverse future for a hobby that is too often stereotyped as being for "children only." With this renewed interest in things other than "spandex" comic books, artist (though sometimes writer) Ted Naifeh has found quite a bit of success with his work on the independent "GloomCookie" series and is set to launch his own mini-series, "Courtney Crumrin & The Night Things," from Oni Press on March 13th. Taking a break from his hard work, Naifeh found some time to speak with CBR News about his career, his thoughts on "Courtney" and also share his unique view of the comic book industry.
"I actually got into the industry the way everyone thinks no one can get into the industry," reveals Naifeh. "I put together a portfolio, went to a convention, and got in a line for portfolio review. I'm basically your classic comics nerd that couldn't have done anything else. That being said, I probably should have waited, gotten more schooling, studied the medium a little better. They say that every artist has about two hundred bad pages to draw before they're work is any good. I had about a thousand."
Naifeh explains that the comic medium really is his preferred form of creative expression because he feels it is unique and it is this passion for the medium that led him to so boldly pursue a career in comic books. "It really is. I've thought about other media that I could try out. I worked in the videogame industry for a few years, and found it interesting and occasionally rewarding. But I always come back to comics. Comics are really a unique synthesis of images and story telling, unique because they can be a one-man show. In most media, you're either limited to either making pictures or telling stories, and when the medium allows you to do both, say movies, or, in my personal experience, videogames, it's so much work that it requires a whole team of people to pull it off. I found that in games, I was just a worker bee. I had a lot of fun, but the decision-making was up to the art lead, and he had to answer to the producer and the director, who had to answer to the CEO of the company. So even when I had a great idea and ran it by my lead, who loved it, he had to run it by someone else. And I was working toward the lead artist's vision, which was really great, but it wasn't my vision. Yet if I were to be lead, I'd have spent all my time delegating tasks and bickering with my superiors to let me realize my vision. Too many chefs ultimately spoil the soup. I imagine it's the same way for movies. In comics, it's all my vision, and I get to do the real work, which I love."
This love was carefully nurtured and cultivated by the plethora of creative material with which Naifeh was confronted in his teens and is still inspired by till this day. "As a teenager I discovered Frank Miller and Alan Moore, as I imagine most readers did. I remained pretty much obsessed with 'The Dark Knight Returns' into my early twenties. I was also a big fan of Matt Wagner's 'Mage' and 'Grendel.' Later on, I discovered Artists like John Muth, Kent Williams, and ultimately Dave McKean. Arkham Asylum had a tremendous effect on me. I also pick up most things written by Neil Gaiman. I imagine this surprises no one. Nowadays I collect anything drawn by Mike Mignola or Travis Charest." Which comic books does he read regularly? "'Hopeless Savages' because it's funny and it's actually hip, which is something most comics aren't. 'Hellboy' because it's masterfully drawn; 'Barry Ween,' which is possibly the new 'Milk and Cheese;' 'The Coffin;' 'Promethea,' by Alan Moore. Comic collecting has become expensive, and I don't pick as many books as I'd like."
Naifeh's list of inspirational creators is an even mix of writers and artists, which is somewhat apropos when considered how he views their roles in the overall creative process of comic books. "I see it all as one thing," says Naifeh when asked about whether he prefers to write or draw. "Writing goes a lot faster, contrary to popular opinion, but takes a lot more thought and premeditation. Drawing is a visual process, and no matter how well you picture it, you still more or less at square one when you sit down to draw it. I find that you do a little writing when you draw; for example the kind of expression on someone's face, the placement of a visual joke in the background to offset a joke in the dialog in the foreground, all part of building a story. It's the same with writing; it needs to be conceived visually or it never works. Making comics isn't two disciplines; it's one discipline that's often divided into two different tasks. But when either creator doesn't understand a little bit of the other's task, it diminishes the result."
When looking through Naifeh's diverse work, from "Gunwitch" to "GloomCookie" to his new "Courtney Crumrin" series, it becomes obvious that supernatural and mythical themes are predominant through all his work. "The supernatural is a deeply embedded element of the human psyche," explains Naifeh of his attraction to the genre. "I find it compelling personally because it touches on specific primal concepts, what happens after death, and what's out there that's beyond our control and comprehension. One of my favorite movies is 'The Haunting' (1966), which is about those exact concepts. I think from the time we're children we develop a relationship with the unknowable, when we realize the limits of our and even our parents' knowledge of the world. That's scary stuff, the stuff even adults don't understand and can't control. As adults, the concept of the supernatural puts us back into the childlike mindset where the world is deeply mysterious, and anything can happen. Besides, Stanley Kubrik once said that any story suggesting that there's something after death is optimistic. I tend to agree. The alternative is too dreadful. So maybe I like the supernatural because it's optimistic."
Anyone who is either familiar with or a fan of Naifeh's work is very aware that all his visual work is dripping with passion, something especially obvious in two of his more popular works, "GloomCookie" and "Gunwitch." When Naifeh speaks about why the series appealed to him, and subsequent reasons for them being special to him, one can't help but be impressed by how much fun he has with his work. "'GloomCookie' was the first comic I did just for the fun of it. I was friends with Serena Valentino, the writer of the series, and she showed me a little one page short story she wrote that was just great. We started talking about making it into a little comic, and I did some sketches. The whole thing evolved from there, us having fun, brainstorming about characters, and not even imagining that it would actually get published anywhere. It was also my first attempt at doing cartoonier artwork, which I'd never really tried before, but came out really naturally. 'Gunwitch' was a work for hire gig I did with Dan Brereton, the creator of the 'Nocturnals' comic. I've known and admired Dan's work for years, and the opportunity to work with him was really exciting. He sent me sketches of the various characters, and I put my own stamp on them, but I didn't want to stray too far from his style, so the book has this subtle Brereton-esque look to it. Brereton fans appreciate it, and I think the experience has benefited my work."
But going from simply illustrating or brainstorming with other creators, to actually being in complete creative control of a mini-series (as is the case with Naifeh writing/drawing "Courtney") is a distinct change, but one that Naifeh enjoyed. "Pitching to Oni isn't easy or hard, it's just a gamble," explains the artist regarding his efforts to get the series produced. "You put in the work on the proposal and send it out, and hope for the best. They like it or they don't. I've pitched other things to them as well, which they've turned down for various reasons. But I love working with them, and they've been very supportive."
Looking at the early art from "Courtney Crumrin & The Night Things," one would be hard pressed to not find the seemingly "cartoony" pencils extremely appealing. If you're thinking that this art looks especially inspired, there's a good reason for that: Naifeh found the inspiration for the series in a random event that happened some time ago. "The whole series was originally inspired by something that happened to me one night, years ago. I woke in the middle of the night and something was sitting at the foot of my bed. I shouted and shook the sheets, and whatever it was dashed off the side of the bed. When I turned on the light, there was nothing in the room. I don't own any pets, and I've always hated sleeping with a cat in the room because waking to something crawling on the bed has always given me the willies. So you can imagine how disturbing it was for something like this to happen. Obviously I'd still been half-asleep, and saw what I saw in a half-dream, half-waking state, but it still freaked me out. Years later I as trying to think of a good follow-up series to 'GloomCookie,' and that event came back to me. From there, the characters and situation all fell into place."
So with all the positive pre-release buzz for "Courtney" and the success of Naifeh's work on "GloomCookie," one might assume that he's having an easier time bringing his own projects to life. Unfortunately, Naifeh still hasn't been able to bring a special project of his, "Eva: Iron Kitten" to life with any publisher though he still holds some hope that it will see the light of day in the future. "It's a comic about a robot girl going to an ordinary high-school, and no one notices that she's a robot, regardless of how obvious it is. In the meantime she's trying to find and destroy this group of rogue alien war criminals before they turn the human population into an army of half-alien mutants. It's basically slapstick, but it's action-heavy slapstick, similar to 'Buffy' or the 'Charlie's Angels' movie. I call the genre "power-shlock": silly, but still badass. So far the hardest thing [about pitching it to companies] has been for publishers to trust that I can do concept like Iron Kitten justice. One editor felt that the style was too delicate, that it would come off as just stupid and lame instead of funny and cool. He's since asked to see it again, but I unfortunately I've been so busy doing other things that I haven't gotten around to sending it. But his doubts are totally understandable. I'm still basically known as an artist, and it'll be a little while before I get taken seriously as a writer. I'm only beginning to pay my dues. I'm just glad Oni gave me the chance by publishing 'Courtney.' I hope it doesn't suck."
But with all this passion for "Courtney" and his previous work, one is led to question why Naifeh isn't working on an ongoing series involving any of these characters. "Finite series' are easier to pitch to small press publishers, but 'Courtney' could go on for a while. Right now it's committed to four issues, but if it's successful, I have more stories to tell, and if Oni wants to keep doing it, so do I. As for working on long-running books, that's up to the editors of those books. I'm available." However, there is one series that Naifeh definitely wants to publish an ongoing series and he explains that, "'Nicki Shadow' was a series I did with a friend of mine that he self-published, and I enjoyed working on it quite a bit. It was four issues; two or which actually made it to the stores. But it was intended to be an ongoing series, and I'd like to do more of it."
One of Naifeh's more high-profile upcoming projects is a "Star Wars" mini-series about the mysterious bounty hunter Jango Fett, related to another famous character from that series' rich sci-fi mythos. But the tone of this project is quite distinct from his other projects, with more of an emphasis on the high adventure and sci-fi concepts. "I'm a big 'Star Wars' fan, (old-school of course, mostly the first film), so I jumped at the opportunity," explains Naifeh of the appealing nature of this project. "I got the job because an editor looked at my work and saw that I could probably pull off the book. It's not out yet, but I hope he's right. It was a bit difficult wrapping my style around science fiction, but I think it worked out okay. I'd definitely like to do it again sometime, learning what I learned on this book. As for the 'Episode 2' movie, I don't know. To tell you the truth, I was a little disappointed in 'Episode 1,' and the previews for 'Episode 2' don't look that great. We'll see."
So now that we've seen Naifeh take on a non-supernatural comic book project, is it possible that we'll see him work on a superhero project? While he won't rule out the possibility, Naifeh does have some concerns about the current state of superhero comics and that means he'll be a bit cautious about the projects he'd work on. "I do have a soft spot for those cute little folks in their leotards. Maybe I'll do a superhero project. I think right now lots of people are either too busy making their characters 'dark' and loosing the point of heroism, or analyzing the 'hero' concept too much, missing the experience of a good superhero tale. I hate to say it, but I kinda think superheroes should go back to basics. One of the reasons the genre has been overly re-invented is because some of the readers and most of the creators have been reading this stuff too long, and need to move on. I'd like to see the genre get back to basics, and start spinning out some basic heroic yarns again, without being overly abstract or self-referential." Lest one think that the independent comic book market is perfect, Naifeh also sees room for improvement in that part of the comic book industry. "I'm not really sure where it's going, but I'd like to see higher production values in it," says Naifeh of the independent comic book market. "I'd like to see companies take a chance and put more money into flashier independent comics. I love doing black and white work, but sooner or later the fans are going to figure out that the reason the books aren't in color is because we can't afford it, and then they'll
notice that we're charging the same money for a cheaper product. In some ways I suspect that many readers don't pick up b&w [black and white] books just because they look a little cheaper. If one were to present a full color, high production values book with the same creators, it might do quite a bit better. Interestingly, Marvel is starting to figure that out and is putting veteran indy creators on it's major books. They're still hero books, not actually indy or alternative, but it's a really promising start. I guess the indy market is becoming a testing ground for tomorrow's creators, which I suppose is a good thing. But regardless of how awesome Grant Morrison's 'New X-Men' book is, or how cool Tim Sale's 'Daredevil' looks, they're still reaching the same shrinking market. The independent books are the ones that are reaching new readers, because they're fresh ideas, and unusual genres. A prime example is Jhonen Vasquez's book 'Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.' It was enormously successful regardless of being black and white, and having almost no marketing. But it's a book that Marvel wouldn't even consider publishing under any circumstances. I guess because there's less money at stake in the small press, taking risks on untried material is easier. But wouldn't it be nice if some of those indy creators eventually got to do more what they want, flex their creative muscles, and had the full support of the Marvel or DC sized moneybags in the production values and marketing campaigns? Who's to say they wouldn't do just as well as X-Men or better? I guess it's an age-old argument."
Naifeh also believes that diversity is the key to drawing more readers to comic books, superhero or not, and he believes that the success of comic books like "Red Star" and "Hellblazer" is a reason to be optimistic. "I think that the superhero will remain dominant ultimately, but it's nice to see the industry moving away from a total monopoly. The superhero is a very primal archetype in American society, and I think we as a people will always want superhero comic books to exist. But not everyone responds to superheroes, at least not above a certain age group. Lots of people look to books like 'Hellblazer' and '100 Bullets' to fill in the gap when costume books no longer retain their interest. In Japan, there are comics that cater to every age group and every lifestyle, and they outsell American comics ten to a hundred times over. True enough, the top books are the ones that cater to young teenage males, but still, there are plenty of comics that are aimed specifically at pre-teen girls or elderly businessmen. It'd be nice to see those kind of readers cultivated by American comics. Comics need diversity, for one thing. The 'Lord of the Rings' movie was a phenomenal success, yet you don't see a lot of epic fantasy comics coming out. And when you do, they tend to look a lot like superhero books. The movie and Novel industry have flourished because in part they work on building markets for new material. Comics need to do the same thing."
"I think there should be more books written for younger audiences, with characters that younger people can relate to. So many books are aimed more toward the 16 through 25 age group, and that's more or less when young adults are discovering non-comic books, not to mention rated R movies. Right now, young readers have to resort to reading 700 page 'Harry Potter' novels because there are almost no comics to serve them. They shouldn't be skipping from children's books to 'Harry Potter,' they should be going from children's books to comics to 'Harry Potter.' But there are no comics for them to read, other than a precious few, like 'Bone,' or occasionally Oni Press books like 'Alison Dare.' I'd like to add, at the risk of looking ridiculous, that most comics are too dark and grim as well. Not everyone relates to brooding, tortured heroes."
While Naifeh certainly isn't a "big name" comic book creator, he isn't bitter and he really appreciates the success he has encountered in his career thus far. "This is the entertainment industry: we're all fortunate to be making a living at it at all," says the humble artist. "We basically make our living off the strangers' interest in our little creative offerings. No-one owes us a living. None of us 'deserve' the kind of fortune we dream of (well, maybe Dave McKean). I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to make a living at all in an industry that I love. Very few people can say that. Most people spend eight hours of their daily lives doing work they hate. Every penny I make doing comics is valuable to me on principle, because is an honor and a privilege to be paid for doing this stuff at all. Sure I'd love to be making millions, but if I had to, I'd do it for nothing."
While Naifeh finds inspiration from his genuine love for comic books, he's also influenced by their other mediums that he's exposed to every day. "I'm always looking at books and movies for inspiration. For one thing, they're more diverse than comics, offering possibilities to diversify my own work. My current book, Courtney, was heavily influenced by the movie 'Labyrinth,' as well as the whole 'Harry Potter' phenomenon. Last year, my favorite film was 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch,' which was about gender dysphoria and Glam Rock. I don't know how it's going to influence my work, but rest assured it will."
"I'd like to do a fantasy series," says Naifeh of his dream project. "Not just because 'Lord of the Rings' was a successful movie, but because there are tons of fantasy readers out there, who are completely loyal to the genre (myself included), and though it's a very visually oriented genre, the only visuals we get to see with any regularity are the paintings on the book covers. I think fantasy fans want more. I think they'd embrace an attractive fantasy book with a good story. I'm currently working on something so stay tuned." Naifeh also reveals that there is ONE superhero comic he'd definitely like to do: "I'd also like to write and draw a 'Batman' comic someday. I've had Batman stories in my head since I was 18."
While Naifeh waits for Paul Levitz to call him and offer him that Batman job, the underrated artist maintains a slick and user-friendly Web site for fans of his work. "I just put it up there, and hope that people want to look at it. I've got a web counter that tells me what kind of systems are logging on and mostly people have a very low screen resolution. Comics is a visual medium and the art doesn't necessarily translate well onto the computer screen. It gets blurry and pixilated. But the net is definitely handy as a mass communication tool. I can make announcements and the die-hard fans seem to notice. I get about twenty or so hits per day. The page is http://www.tednaifeh.com, in case you readers are interested."
When asked about the type of reader that would enjoy his work, Naifeh is loathe to try and shoehorn a segment of fandom into that position. "Honestly, I don't care," admits Naifeh of the profile of the kind of person that enjoy his work. "I do the work that I'd like to see out there, and hope that other people like it too. I don't concern myself with what kind of people they are; it's none of my business. Sure, when I went to MegaCon in Orlando, I profiled certain people to give 'Courtney' mini-comics to, the kind of people that seemed like they'd like it. Generally they were of the spooky kind, kids in black lace and velvet and vinyl. The well dressed fans. But I also handed copies to any women I saw there. I still think that female readers are poorly served by the market, and that most "strong female characters" aren't really all that strong. I'd like to think my work would appeal to female readers, although I don't actually go out of my way to steer it in that direction. In addition, I handed copies to the younger readers. 'Courtney' isn't an immature book, it's not Archie, but it's not a 'mature-readers-only book.' As I've said earlier, I think that younger fans should be encouraged to start reading comics again. But in general, I'm happy if anyone takes an interest in my work. It's just a sign that we have some common ground. It's not up to the artist to pick their audience. The audience picks the artist. That's the way it should be."
In the end, Naifeh really has one major message that he'd like to share with fans of his work and anyone reading this interview: "Don't give up on comics yet. And don't be shy of picking up a story in the middle. A good comic can be picked up at any point. "