The GeeksverseTalking with Courtney Crumrin‘s Ted Naifeh

Talking with Courtney Crumrin‘s Ted Naifeh
Published on Thursday, May 10, 2012 by

The second issue, from Oni Press, is on the stands now and we got a chance to talk with Courtney’s creator Ted Naifeh.

The ‘Verse: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I’m new to Courtney and her world. I’m very glad I’ve found it. Where did the idea for Courtney come from?

Ted Naifeh: As usual, a number of different sources. One was the movie “Matilda”. But not because I liked it, which I didn’t. But I found it interesting to watch a movie that hinged on magic, but was the least magical movie imaginable. More interestingly still, Matilda, even more than Harry Potter, presented us with a character who, regardless of being raised by unloving, unkind people, turned out the sweetest little girl in the world. I found it cloying and empty. Of course, in the original Dahl book, it works, because Dahl didn’t so much write children’s books as dark parodies of children’s books. But when it was translated into a movie, that core concept, which should have been an ironic joke, was delivered with perfect sincerity, and fell flat.

But I didn’t want to write a cynical, ironic story like Dahl either. I wanted instead to tell the story that the Matilda movie failed to tell, about how messed up you get when you grow up with unloving, neglectful parents. Sure, I also wanted it to be a wish-fulfillment fantasy, but I didn’t want to gloss over the real hardships of childhood, such as alienation. That stuff tends to be ignored in children’s books. But it’s the worst part of growing up. And so obviously, makes for the best stories.

The “how to bind a goblin” from the first issue of volume one is pretty specific. Are there any particular sources that influenced the Night Things?

That was just a little bit of nonsense I made up, because I wanted the scene to feel like following a recipe, so the spell could feel doable. In Courtney’s world, magic is just a matter of learning how. I’m way too liberal to enjoy the idea of being born special. In Courtney’s world, anyone can do magic. They just have to find out about it and dedicate themselves.

What little lore I borrowed came mostly from other comics and fantasy novels. I leave the academic research to real writers. I have a copy of the Faeries book by Brian Froud and Alan Lee, which comes in handy sometimes, and I’ve watched Labyrinth a million times. That’s about as much research as I’ve done. The rest is made up.

The design of the Night Things is interesting. There’s some cuteness to them, but some darkness as well. Where does your inspiration for them come from?

Obviously, no one drawing faeries today doesn’t love Brian Froud. But for my night thing world, I wanted a slightly unique take, so I looked up Hieronymus Bosch, and peppered his nightmare feel over my goblins. I just didn’t want cutsey-poo goblins. I wanted them to be a little bit ghastly and unsettling. I find cute things more compelling when they aren’t trying too hard. So I stayed away from a lot of the obvious tricks to make things cute.

Courtney, compared to the other characters around her, stands out because she doesn’t have a nose. What led to that design decision?

It started at the sketch stage, realizing that making her face nose less would up the cartoon factor, as well as the minimalism of the series. Originally, she wasn’t nose less, I just didn’t draw it from the front. But I didn’t originally do a model sheet, showing her from all angles, before I started drawing issue one. And a question that soon came up is “what does this girl’s profile look like?” On page of the first issue, you see her in shadow, and there’s a bit of a nose in the shadow play across her face. But when I got to the profile, and I tried to work it in, she just stopped looking like Courtney. Finally, I tried it without, and there she was again. So I stuck with that. It’s weird to me how not weird it looks, unless you’re really looking.

When I first saw some preview art, I did notice the lack of nose, but as I was reading it just became part of her character. Now she would look weird with one. But the news isn’t the only way that Courtney stands out. Her parents and fellow students all seem drabber compared to Courtney. Except for the new character, Holly Hart, who seems as crisp and stands out like Courtney does. To me, it comes across as if those that accept magic in their lives are fuller for it.

I did want them to feel like birds of a feather. As for a deeper meaning, I’ll just say what I think most writers should say when asked about the subtext of their work. I maybe didn’t consciously intend it, but sure, I’ll take it.

One thing I noticed was that Holly’s first encounters with magic seemed to echo Courtney’s own experiences; the encounter with Butterworm ,the charm spell and the goblin market. But now it’s interesting to see those situations through Courtney’s eyes and experience. Holly seems to be shaping up to be Courtney’s opposite. Was that the intent?

Now you’re asking me to give away the next chapter. You’re going to have to read it.

Courtney has some dark moments, some scary moments. How do you balance the requirements of being an all-ages book well still keeping it interesting and exciting for adult readers, especially with some of the more darker elements and themes of the stories?

I don’t think much about it. Once I settled on a pre-teen protagonist, the rest became easy. I try to stay away from swear-words, though ‘hell’ and ‘ass’ have made it in. But when I start dabbling in, for example political sub-plots, I just write them from the perspective of how Courtney would perceive them. Obviously, the stuff that goes over the heads of my younger readers would go over her head as well. I keep the stories about her feelings and her perceptions, and that’s all it takes to keep the story accessible. As for the darkness, it’s the same. Once I settled on the magical world, all the darkness in it would be the supernatural kind, like Rawhead and Bloody-Bones. Some kids say that Rawhead is a bit too much for them, but it’s the kind of too much they can understand. I think it’s okay to occasionally push the boundaries of what children can take. When I was a kid, I covered my eyes during the face-melting scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But I still went back to see it five more times. Start trying to second guess what kids are ready for, and you end up with the Care Bears. No one wants that.

What has been the tone of the feedback on the Courtney Crumrin books, not just from readers, but say, from parents, librarians, and educators? I can’t imagine it being nothing less than generally positive, but certain elements, such as the frank portrayal of bullying and the prominent occult features, might be seen as controversial in some quarters.

I must say, I’ve been disappointed that the book hasn’t gotten into more trouble and controversy. I had a couple crackpots at some school library accuse Courtney of promoting witchcraft as a “lifestyle,” or weaving “real spells” into the story, which delighted me no end. Though since my attempts at poetry are exceptionally stinky, I can only imagine what kind of mind would read those spells and think they were some sort of wiccan ritual. I assume that wiccan spells and incantations or whatever are probably better crafted that.

As for bullying, I can’t imagine the adult mind that would consider the subject controversial in any way. But then, I live in San Francisco, and I see most issues from that perspective. It’s a one of the cool cities where all the bullied weirdoes come and find their tribes.

Yeah, for the most part, librarians love the book. And I think they’ll love the new hardcover even more, since it’ll probably last a bit longer than a paperback.

Your style is pretty unique. Who are your influences?

Too many to count, but obviously, there’s a generous helping of Mike Mignola. I still use something from his tool set in almost every page. There’s also some Dave McKean here and there, though I couldn’t tell you where anymore. Gestures and expressions, probably. If Mignola has a failing, it’s that the range of emotion in his work is a little limited. McKean’s few forays into traditional comics tend to have much more subtle expression and gesture, which I enjoy. Lately, my adventures in Europe have turned up artists like Claire Wendling, who’s a master of cursive line. Her work is like a cross between Don Bluth and Frank Frazetta, but with a strong nouveau influence, which I’ve been experimenting with increasingly. Add to that a little Wrightson, a little Arthur Adams, a little Travis Charest (where you really can’t see it, but it’s there) and just whatever grabs me at the time. One American artist that always impresses me is Justin Gnuyen. Lately, I’ve been collecting books that artist and pop-art historian Shane Glines edits together, compilations of classic cartoon stylists from the earlier part of the 20th century. Russell Patterson is my current favorite. He’s a jazz-age cartoonist that just perfectly captured the deco world in incredibly simply, elegant line drawings. So inspirational. Whenever my work gets too busy, I like to go back and fall in love with another minimalist.

Why the decision to do the new series in color? And to release the previous volumes in color?

Well, to start with, color sells. The number jump is huge. And what I found when I got the colors back, and what several critics have commented on, is that the series in color conveys so much more sense of fantasy and wonder than the black and white did. I’m proud of my black and white work, and I intend to do more books in B&W, but it turns out, for Courtney, the color really adds something.

Of course, not just any colors would do. It really matters who does it. I’ve seen a lot of B&W books get colored, or color books get recolored, and it added nothing. It turned out that slapping some generic pallets on Jamie Hewlett’s original Tank Girl books didn’t add much. Some of the early Sandman issues got a fresh color job, because Robbie Busch, working with pre-digital four-color process, did a lot of weird, outrageous things which often didn’t work. But Daniel Vozzo’s simple, workmanlike replacement was, to my mind, not the improvement I’d hoped for. I found I appreciated the weirdness of original versions better after that.

I think we found a really good choice of colorist in Warren Wucinich. He does a lot of weird, outrageous things too, but they work wonderfully. That, it turns out, is what you want out of color. Realistic flesh tones aren’t the end-all be-all. It’s atmosphere that really matters.

What are the chances of seeing Courtney Crumrin appear in other media such as animation, live-action film/television, or video games?

Who knows? Courtney has been optioned for a feature film, but so has… let me see… everything? I consider it payback from Hollywood for all the money and ideas they suck away and turn to garbage. A sort of imaginationlessness tax. Will it ever become a major motion picture, or a TV show, or a game? Maybe. But will it be good? That’s what makes me reluctant to actually care if ever sees a new incarnation.

Unlike a lot of creators, I don’t fool myself into thinking that just because my name is in the credits, that it would be my Courtney onscreen. I’m not in the film business, I’m in the comics business. I know Mike Mignola was on set for the Hellboy films, but in the end, they weren’t Mike’s Hellboy. They were Guillermo’s Hellboy. And I like Guillermo’s Hellboy a lot, in some ways more than Mike’s. But it wasn’t Mike in the director’s chair, and it won’t be me creating a Courtney movie. I’m a comics guy, and I’ve made a little homestead in this tiny kingdom. Why give that up to start at the bottom in Hollywoodland? There are a few artists in Hollywood who I’d love to see take my little creation and make it their own. But I have no illusions about feeling creatively fulfilled by a movie version in the same way I do when I finish a comic. So I can only get so excited by the prospect.

Comics, at least in modern North America, are largely considered a “boys” thing. Was the decision to create the book around a female protagonist a deliberate choice to go against the norm?

To start with, I saw a huge gap in the market, and an eager audience waiting for someone to fill it.

I remember reading Scott McCloud’s Zot, and he had a scene where a teenage boy took his first girlfriend to the comic store to buy her a copy of Batman: Year One. And he had to stop her from taking an interest in Beanworld. It was such an effective demonstration of how women are shut out of comics fandom, and something about it stuck with me. Thing is, I’m more guilty than many of talking way too much about Batman with my girlfriends. It’s kinda lame. He’s just not that female-friendly a character. But I looked at this comic-book world I love, and realized that someone needed to make it more accessible to girls. Because as it stood, girls came in, checked it out, and quickly felt unwelcome and left. Purely from a business and salesmanship angle, that felt wrong. But it felt wrong for a lot of other reasons as well, reasons too numerous and complicated to explain here.

Interestingly, as a started writing Courtney, I discovered that her stories work better for a girl than they would for a boy. I hadn’t planned it out, but looking back, Courtney’s grumpiness and anger would seem less appealing in a boy, and her sensitivity and weepiness would inspire less compassion. As a girl, she gets away with more while maintaining reader sympathy. I’m not saying boys never act that way, I’m just saying that readers wouldn’t like that boy as much. They would want him to suck it up. I remember when Harry Potter started cracking under the pressure of his life, and lashing out at his friends, many readers weren’t very sympathetic. There’s a lot of pressure on boys to present themselves as more heroic and less vulnerable than Courtney tends to be. For fellow fans of Mad Men, the words of Department Store Heiress Rachel Menken: “I don’t think I ever realized it until this moment, but it must be hard being a man, too.”

That’s an interesting revelation. It turns out, at least for me, writing girls is easier.

Thanks to Ted for talking with us and if you haven’t picked up the Courtney Crumrin books, you’re missing out.

Check out the ‘Verse’s reviews of Issue #1 and the first volume: The Night Things.

Also check out the extended preview of The Night Things.

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