I discovered Shaenon Garrity’s and Jeffrey Well’s Skin Horse strip in 2013, some time after it started running on GoComics. It was right in the middle of one of the storylines, and took many revisits before the humor started to stick on me (I’m told that was humor…). Then I felt like I needed to go through the archives to try to figure out what was going on in the longer plot. That led me to reading Shaenon’s earlier strip, Narbonic. That’s a lot of reading. And now, here we are. I asked both Shaenon and Jeffrey for interviews, and they both said “yes.” One said “yes” faster that the other, but I forget which one it was. So, “knock knock. Anyone home?”
SG: Okay, here we go…
BC: Who are you?
SG: Shaenon K. Garrity, co-writer and artist of Skin Horse, among other things.
BC: What personal details do you think are relevant to readers to know about you?
SG: I was born in Pittsburgh and now live in Berkeley. My day job is editing manga for Viz Media. I have a two-year old who loves pets, OK Go videos, and books about owls.
BC: In the interview with John Lustig, (Last Kiss), he mentioned doing some work for Viz, but that the two of you met for reasons outside of manga. Do you remember meeting him?
SG: Oh, sure. We run into each other at conventions pretty regularly.
BC: What’s it like working at Viz? Are there any other webcomic artists there you’d like to give a shout-out to? What is a normal day as a Viz editor like?
SG: I’m a freelancer for Viz, so I only go into the office from time to time. But yes, I must shout out to my friend Brandon Hanvey, and to Pancha Diaz, who does the coloring and book design for Skin Horse. There are many talented people there. I love Viz.
BC: Do you consider yourself a cartoonist, an illustrator, an artist, or something else?
SG: All of the above! I also do a lot of writing, both comics-related and otherwise.
BC: How did you get your start as an all-of-the-abovist?
SG: I started drawing comics in high school and kind of never stopped.
BC: How long have you been at it, and what do you think your biggest breaks were?
SG: I’ve been making comics on a vaguely professional basis since 2000. Don’t know if I’ve ever had a big break per se, but joining the Modern Tales webcomics collective with my first strip, Narbonic, was a wonderful experience. Modern Tales isn’t around anymore, but it helped launch the careers of a lot of great comics creators, and it pushed me to take my work seriously.
BC: Can you name us a few of the artists you worked with on Modern Tales? Are there any you still keep in touch with?
SG: Oh, sure. My Modern Tales comic, Narbonic, was a solo effort, but I collaborated on comics for the Modern Tales spinoff sites. For Serializer, which was a site for alternative comics, I did a wonderful, weird comic called Trunktown with Tom Hart, one of my indie comics heroes. I’m still very proud that I got to work with him. For Graphic Smash, for action comics, I wrote a superhero college drama called Smithson, drawn first by Bob Stevenson and later by Brian Moore, with special sequences by the legendary Roger Langridge. For Girlamatic, a girl-centric comics site, I wrote a Narbonic spinoff called Li’l Mell, with a rotating roster of artists including Vera Brosgol, Bill Mudron, Neil Babra, Andre Richard, and my husband Andrew Farago.
SG: All these projects were fantastic to work on, but Girlamatic was an especially great experience. All the artists on the site were very friendly and mutually supportive, and a lot of amazing work came out of it. For example, Raina Telgemeier’s Smile was first serialized on Girlamatic before becoming a mega-bestselling print graphic novel.
BC: What led up to your starting Narbonic and then Skin Horse, and do you have any other pokers in the fire right now?
SG: I started Narbonic because I was graduating college and feeling bad that I couldn’t keep drawing comics for the college newspaper. Some of my geeky friends introduced me to webcomics, and I naively thought, “Hey, I can do that!” I threw together a few ideas I’d been working on, mostly revolving around my love of pulp sci-fi in general and mad scientists in particular.
SG: About a year after Narbonic ended, I had an idea for a comic about a government agency that has to clean up the messes left by people like the characters in Narbonic. I thought that the staff could be made up of the creations of mad science, and at that moment I immediately pictured all the main characters. Then I talked Jeff into writing it for me because I’m lazy.
SG: I’m writing and drawing various things at all times. I’ve been writing prose science fiction lately; I’ve published about a dozen stories. I’m also working on a book with my husband, Andrew Farago, though it’s still in the early stages.
BC: Which of your works are you most happy with, or proud of?
SG: Narbonic and Skin Horse are both pretty good. I’m never 100% satisfied with anything I do, but I like most of it.
BC: Do you have any Skin Horse characters that you feel closest to? Are there any that reflect your own character in some way? Are there any backstories still waiting to be told?
SG: Nick is my favorite. I’m very possessive of Nick and Dr. Lee, and Jeff is very possessive of Sweetheart and Unity. I think those are the characters we each identify with the most. There’s a semi-secret hidden Skin Horse story that goes into the main characters’ backstories a little, if you’re curious.
BC: I’ll let the readers beg for the secret story.
BC: Are there any story arcs that stand out for you for Skin Horse or Narbonic, for any particular reason?
SG: Honestly, I can only bear to read the second half of Narbonic; I get embarrassed by how rough the early strips are. I like the trip to the moon and the final arcs. In Skin Horse, I like “Choose,” the Jonah Yu and Nera story based on Choose Your Own Adventure books. I enjoy doing stories about side characters. I’m liking the current story arc too.
BC: In Narbonic, there was a lot of play on characters named Dave. Was there a particular reason for that, and were there any side-effects from it that surprised you?
SG: Dave was a character in my college comic strip, where every male character was named Dave because it was such a common name at my college. All the Daves in my nerdy social circle had nicknames to identify them, like Shiny Happy Dave and Crazy Uncle Dave. So that’s where the Dave thing came from. There’s no deeper meaning to it, but it seems to be popular with guys named Dave.
BC: How many Skin Horse wallpapers are there now, and do you have any favorites? (Wallpapers available monthly for a small donation to the tip jar.)
SG: Hold on, let me go count… okay, 53. Three favorites:
SG: November-December 2010, “I’m Science!” It’s based on the 1960s Midcentury Modern artwork on the menu of the Tahitian Terrace restaurant that used to be across from the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland. That may seem kind of obscure, but it’s an awesome menu and I love tiki stuff.
SG: December 2012, “Masquerade.” Based on illustrator Kay Nielsen, one of the great classic illustrators of the early 20th century. Some of the illustrations I ripped off for this wallpaper were also ripped off for the fantasy ballroom sequence in Labyrinth, so if it looks vaguely familiar that’s probably why.
SG: February 2016, “Secret Garden.” I did this as a stained glass window inspired by Louis Comfort Tiffany, with maybe a slight nod to the amazing Irish illustrator Harry Clarke (who’s kind of like Kay Nielsen if he did a lot of stained glass, which is obviously awesome). It was a lot of fun to figure out how to get a stained-glass look.
SG: Any time I do a wallpaper in an Art Noveau style it gets a great response. I love drawing in that style, but I try not to go to that well too often. It’s so easy to make an Art Noveau piece look good, it feels like cheating.
BC: Where can readers get your collections?
SG: At the Couscous Collective online store!
And at the most discerning comic shops. Ask for Narbonic and Skin Horse by name!
BC: How do you approach that blank sheet of paper when you decide to start your next strip or panel?
SG: I sit for an hour and either write or don’t. Usually, before the hour is up, I think of something to write.
BC: What is the process you and Jeffrey go through in making Skin Horse? Are there times when you disagree with how a particular character is supposed to react in some situation, or about the direction the story is supposed to go? How do you resolve that? Are there any minor characters or sub-plots that you wanted to use but got dropped for some reason?
SG: Jeff does the bulk of the writing. For each story arc, we usually start by hashing out a plot together. Then Jeff writes a bunch of scripts, which I mess with and toss out and generally ruin, and some comic strips come out of it.
SG: I don’t think we’ve ever had a major disagreement, although we do run into minor differences on how we imagine different characters. There are certainly plots we haven’t gotten around to. The Jersey Devil story arc, “Can’t Catch Me,” was originally going to be a musical, “Jersey Devil: The Musical!” Jeff was very excited about the idea but ultimately couldn’t figure out how to make it work. I’m still a little disappointed about that.
BC: If your strip had a soundtrack, what would it be/sound like?
SG: I’ve been assembling Skin Horse soundtracks for each volume of the print books. They are awesome. Here they are.
BC: Who are your favorite artists/writers? Have you met any of them?
SG: Too many to list. I learned a lot about writing from the great children’s author Daniel Pinkwater. I was fortunate enough to meet him and his wife Jill a couple of times, and they’re amazing people. My favorite cartoonists… Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, and Moto Hagio are the first who spring to mind, so let’s go with them.
BC: Do you follow any other comic strips right now?
SG: Not really. Drawing comics eats up too much of my time for reading comics. I’m behind on all my monthly comic books, too.
BC: What do you look for when you read someone else’s strips?
SG: I like all comics that don’t suck. I look for a lack of sucking.
BC: What do you think makes for a good comic?
SG: Skill not just with writing and drawing, but with the combination of the two, which is a third discipline in itself. Strong characters. An original voice. Failing that, kitties.
BC: What’s your favorite kitties comic then?
SG: The untranslated and unjustly obscure manga Atagoul. But my two-year-old loves Chi’s Sweet Home, a very cute manga about a kitten going about her daily life.
BC: Do you see manga as having some kind of effect on your own work in some way? How would you compare the manga you edit for Viz to western comics you’ve read?
SG: Manga tends to be more visual, emotional, and cinematic. Even though I don’t draw in a particularly manga-esque art style, I do incorporate a lot of what I learn from manga into my own comics. I need to show more than I tell, and manga demonstrates how to do that.
BC: Do you use Patreon or Kickstarter? Do you want to plug your site?
SG: We use both and they’re essential to our continued survival. I started using Kickstarter as a convenient way to take pre-orders for Skin Horse Volume 2, and it worked so well I’ve used it for everything I’ve published since. Our Patreon has been a lifesaver, too. Both sites are invaluable not just for webcartooning, but for self-publishing in general. They’ve certainly made it much easier and more fun to do what Jeff and I do.
Our Patreon: www.patreon.com/Shaenon
BC: For the kickstarters, have you had anyone take you up on the “Tiki Party at Shaenon’s” offer? How did that turn out?
SG: Yes! Every year one or two people do. My tiki parties are excellent.
BC: Do you have any appearances scheduled for conventions?
SG: I think the next con I’m doing is the Silicon Valley Comic Con in San Jose next month. Come say hi!
(Skin Horse by Shaenon K. Garrity & Jeffrey C. Wells is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.)
(This interview is the copyright (c) of Curtis H. Hoffmann 2017. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author.)