The Many Worlds of Molly Crabapple

Molly Crabapple is a woman of many hats. She's the artist who, with writer John Leavitt, has created the graphic novel "Scarlett Takes Manhattan" and the webcomic "Backstage. "She has contributed to Marvel's "Girl Comics," "Strange Tales" and other publications and is the founder of Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School, which she's spoken with CBR News about previously. Her illustrations have appeared in dozens of publications, including the "New York Times" and the "Wall Street Journal."

Her comic, "The Puppet Makers," which was originally developed for DC Comics' now defunct web-based Zuda imprint, is currently being distributed by DC Digital. It's a murder mystery tale based in the steampunk court of Louis XIV, a setting which is the perfect match of her artistic sensibilities and the period's rococo style. Crabapple is also raising money on Kickstarter for an animation project with Kim Boekbinder and Jim Batt titled "I Have Your Heart," designed the logo for "The big bag" at this year's SXSW Interactive Festival and recently signed a deal with First Second to create an original graphic novel.

Having recently spent time in Paris, CBR News spoke with the artist upon her return to the States.

CBR News: So, what were you doing in Paris?

Molly Crabapple: I got flown out to Paris to film a trailer for a documentary on erotic comics, which I really hope gets picked up so I can spend more time there drinking champagne with a few outrageously well dressed friends. During our 15 hours of shooting, I got really familiar with "Autre Fois! Autre firs!" Shooting for TV is hard!

You and writer John Leavitt have been working together for a while now, to the point where you seem like a single unit. What is it that you enjoy about collaborating with each other?

John and I are practically dork siblings. We went to school together, did an anti-establishment newspaper, dropped out of school together, danced burlesque together, worked on Dr. Sketchy's together and made books together for around ten years now. Leavitt and I have very complementary aesthetics, and he evens out my goth girl space opera tendencies with tons of humor and realism. It's a really privilege to have a partner like him.

Can you describe "The Puppet Makers" for people who may be unfamiliar with it?

"The Puppet Makers" is a murder mystery set in the steampunk court of the Sun King. France has industrialized centuries before her neighbors, but instead of using the tech for war, the court has turned it to robotic exoskeletons, called Dollies, that help them perform the ritual of court life. When the Sun King's dolly explodes at his birthday, he's found to be missing and a naive young monk is sent to investigate the whereabouts of the monarch.

There's also lots of gilded lilies.

That's certainy not your average story - where did this idea come from?

Leavitt and I have long been fascinated by both steampunk and the rococo court, one of the most deeply strange, artificial places on Earth. The inspiration for dollies came about when I was reading about a king's mistress, of middle class extraction, who collapsed of heat stroke during her 37th curtsy before the queen mother. "Christ," I realized, "These rituals would better be performed by robots."

It's hard to get more baroque than 17th Century France, which seems a perfect fit for your style. Is this a period you're a big fan of?

It is. I love it both aesthetically and for its solid gold fucked up-ness. I mean, Louis XIV took the most rebellious, proud nobility in the world out of their country fortresses and got them competing for who would bottle his tears.

While I love steampunk, the Victorian setting the technology is based in is often an afterthought, but in "The Puppet Makers," the setting really does play into the overall theme, and how it is used makes perfect historical and cultural sense.

One of the sad things about the steampunk genre, for me, is how infrequently its used to examine the really screwed up ways technology interacts with a society. If Victorian England had airships, imagine how they would have used them in India. Steampower, robots and huge mechanized libraries are especially interesting for the ways they would exist in France in the late 1600's.

How much longer will the story run?

It was supposed to be 240 pages (12 issues), but since Zuda, our imprint, folded, it's cut off at three issues and 60 pages.

This project was originally developed for DC's web-imprint, Zuda. What made you interested in working with them and what did they offer that was so attractive?

Zuda offered me a contract on a project I had long dreamed of doing.

With the demise of Zuda, the comic is currently being distributed by DC Digital. What has it been like working with them, or has it been mostly the same people as before?

Honestly, since the change over to DC Digital, we hear nothing from anyone. We never even know when the issues are about to be released.

What is the now-DC Digital deal? You still own the copyright on the story, but DC has control over it's distribution and creation for the time being.

Not a particularly good one, alas. Someday I hope to be able to work on "The Puppet Makers" again, but for the next few years DC has the rights the story, and they've given no indication they want to do anything with it. I was really looking forward to working with DC Digital, and I'm sad that they seem not to want to exercise their publishing rights on the story they paid for. But those are the breaks.

Switching tracks to your other big project, how did you, Kim Boekbinder and Jim Batt meet and where did the idea for "I Have Your Heart" come from?

Kim and I met long ago back when MySpace was still relevant, and sort of fell into each other's heads. We've been collaborators ever since. I'd always been intrigued by seeing my pictures move, and Kim's music is stirring in such a honey-tongued way that there couldn't have been a better soundtrack. We turned to Twitter and found Jim Batt, the animator who masterminded the whole project. Cue a year of inking, cutting and constructing, during which Jim and Kim fell in love and Kim ran away to Australia.

Why did you decide to turn to Kickstarter for the project?

Kickstarter is better than grants and better than companies. You can raise the entire amount you need in a day, because people actually like your project, with no bullshit.

Once you've raised the funds, when can we look forward to seeing the finished product?

We're thinking 4-5 months. Jim is constructing the entire set out of paper, which is by its nature a niggly process, but we're working hard

You drew the the image for the big bag at SXSW this year, which feels very much in the same spirit as "The Puppet Makers." Where did this top hat wearing octopus on a Rube Goldberg-ish steampunk computer come from?

I thought it would be a fun play on the incredibly sleek, elegant tech of SXSW to do a machine that harkened straight back to the game of mousetrap. Plus, tentacles are cool.

You also attended SXSW, where you were on a panel about the way in which social media is science fiction. The Atlantic did a lengthy writeup of it, but I was just wondering if you could touch on your thoughts about the dark side of social media for our audience?

While I'm obviously as social media addicted as they come, I worry sometimes about a future where we're totally conditioned to the Pavlovian click click of approval. Gamefication seems particularly eerie at a time when so many industries are being gutted. Do we really need another way to gull people into doing free work?

You also have a book you're working on for First Second which I know isn't coming out for a while, but would you like to say a few words to tease us about it?

Yes, sir! "Straw House" is my and John Leavitt's latest project, the story of a carnival of immortal outcasts that descends upon, and then destroys, a small town in 1950's rust-belt Pennsylvania. It's about the collisions between myth, rock and roll, and the meanings of family. We hope we make it good!

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