This is the second half of the Shaenon Garrity/Jeffrey Wells interview. The part that has more Jeffrey and less Shaenon. Well, actually, Shaenon doesn’t show up here at all this time. It’s just the part with Jeffrey. The interview. I mean, the interview part with Shaenon and Jeffrey but without Shaenon. Just Jeffrey. And Basket Case. Yes, Basket Case is here, too. Doing the interviewing part of the interview. That is, it’s not an interview without the interviewing part. Right? Where was I?
BC: Who are you?
JW: Hi. My name is Jeffrey Wells. I co-write Skin Horse with Shaenon Garrity. I also write prose, although it must be said, a lot of that is fanfiction.
BC: What personal details do you think are relevant to readers to know about you?
JW: I was born, raised, and have spent the better part of my life in the Midwest, specifically Wisconsin. I have no particular qualifications to work in comics other than the fact that one time I wrote a very long fanfic for Shaenon’s previous major daily webcomic, a strip called Narbonic. For some reason, Shaenon was so pleased at my very long fanfic that she invited me to collaborate on her second major daily webcomic, the ongoing Skin Horse. I am still kind of at a loss as to how that happened.
BC: Do you consider yourself a cartoonist, an illustrator, an artist, or something else?
JW: I am very definitely a writer rather than any form of visual artist. One of the ongoing jokes behind the scenes of Skin Horse is that Shaenon thinks it would be an awesome idea if I were to draw the strip for a week, apparently unaware of the riots that would ensue were I to ever attempt to do so.
BC: How did you get your start as a writer?
JW: A couple decades ago now (!) when I was in college, I was working my way through a theater minor with a focus on acting and vocal performance. Unfortunately, the university I was attending did not have very much space in the acting courses they offered, and priority was always given to the theater majors. One semester I was faced with the fact that I was not going to graduate with my minor intact if I did not take an elective course somewhere in the department, and with all acting classes full, I signed up for an elementary playwriting class, thinking that I would tolerate it as a necessary evil in the interest of graduating on time. It turned out I enjoyed the process much more than expected, and started doing hobby work on the Internet in addition to my college assignments. The rest is history, I guess?
BC: How long have you been writing, and what do you think your biggest breaks were?
JW: The incident described above occurred in 1997, and-disregarding dry spells and periods of writer’s block-I’ve been doing it fairly consistently since. My biggest break was, of course, Shaenon’s offering to collaborate on Skin Horse. It’s been an amazing nine years.
BC: Which of your works are you most happy with, or proud of?
JW: Skin Horse is pretty much it, for me! I also once wrote a serial novel about a novice superhero who daylights as a barista, and I’ll always have something of a soft spot for it despite the fact that it’s a bit more amateur a work.
BC: Where can readers get your collections?
JW: I imagine that Shaenon has answered this question to everyone’s satisfaction, but you can find collections of Skin Horse at the Couscous Collective store. If you’re curious about my prose work, you can check out my writing blog at Scrivnarium.
BC: What’s your process for working with Shaenon on Skin Horse? Do you scratch together some dialog, toss the sheet to her and then disappear for a long coffee break, or is it more interactive than that?
JW: The actual process has changed slightly over the years. At present, it goes a little something like this: one of us pitches a story idea, and we work together on a rough structure of how the story is going to unfold. Then, week by week, I provide a basic script to Shaenon. She takes it, improves the jokes, restructures some bits, and presents me with a series of revised thumbnails for my input if she feels the changes she’s made are more than just cosmetic. On my approval, Shaenon does the final art and ships the whole lot to our invaluable colorist and designer Pancha Diaz for coloring and last-minute edits.
BC: How far do you have the story planned out?
JW: The story has been basically planned out from the very beginning, which is weird because we’ve been waiting on some of these plot points to fire for almost a decade now. There’s been a lot of wiggle room on the path we take to get there, mind you, and the individual storylines are only plotted out before they begin, but to a greater or lesser extent they’ve all been in service of the long-term goal, which has not fundamentally changed.
BC: Are there any sub-plots or minor characters that you wanted to use that got cut for some reason?
JW: The one minor character who got lost to the cutting-room floor and who I’d like to see return someday was Tip’s Rumpelstiltskin-esque couturier, a rather sinister man named Mr. Tremotino. He was presented as a character who could work miracles with clothing but whose prices were steep and sometimes very strange. I enjoyed the love-hate relationship he and Tip had, but there just hasn’t been a place for him after he got cut out of the storyline in which he was originally featured.
BC: Do you and Shaenon ever argue about whether a joke is funny, or if the story is going in what seems to be the wrong direction?
JW: Shaenon and I rarely argue. I come from a theatrical background, and tend to treat Skin Horse as one big improv exercise. One of the worst things you can do in improv is say “no” to your partner; you say “yes, and…” instead. Retaining any individual joke or plot point is less important than sustaining the energy and being open to the new ideas your partner brings to the scene. This is not to say that we never go back and say, “argh, this isn’t working, can we re-do this?” to each other, it just rarely results in an actual locking of horns.
BC: How do you approach that blank sheet of white paper when you decide to start your next strip or story page?
JW: With an acute sense of low-grade panic, mitigated only by my unwavering faith that Shaenon will invariably fix whatever I screw up.
BC: If your strip had a soundtrack, what would it be/sound like?
JW: Funny you should ask that! Our strip actually has several soundtrack albums. Shaenon makes a habit of compiling a new playlist album every time a new book comes out, and I usually find that the mix is as just as eclectic as you would expect from albums based on a motley crew of semi-competent misfits. Perhaps a disproportionate amount of 1970s funk. Because 1970s funk is pretty great, that’s why.
BC: What’s the deal with Tip and weird sexual situations? Is there a contest to see who can come up with the most outrageous situation that Tip would still tolerate as a sex machine?
JW: The joke is that Shaenon comes up with intimate situations that she’d like to see Tip in, and then I try and figure out how to make them happen. I tend to write the situations where Tip can’t make it work. I’m not sure what that says about me.
BC: Do you have any favorite Skin Horse characters? Any of them that more closely reflect your own personality or tastes?
JW: It’s no secret that neurotic little Sweetheart is my favorite character, and the one that I’ve most cruelly shifted away from Shaenon’s original conception. I think Sweetheart was originally intended to be sort of a responsible mother-hen to the others, but I saw “responsibility” and wrote “persnickety” instead, and have been steadily corrupting her into my own in-universe doppelganger ever since. If you see Sweetheart obsessively struggling over something in the comic, it is probably something that I have obsessively struggled over in real life, just magnified. A little. Sometimes not much at all.
BC: Are there any backstories still waiting to be told?
JW: Yes, but to tell more would be spoiling.
BC: Have you gotten any negative reactions from readers about the storytelling, character interactions, or the stuff that Tip does? How do you react to those, if they happen?
JW: I mean, you can’t go ten years without getting *any* negative reactions. Most people are pretty approving of Tip. That said, we try to be responsive to user complaints, and if people repeatedly call a character out for behavior that does not match up with the picture we’re trying to paint, we may try and introduce a story element that shows a different side of that character in a future storyline.
BC: Who are your favorite artists/writers (any genre)? Have you met any of them? Got any dirt on them?
JW: I don’t tend to have favorite authors as I do favorite individual books. I am a huge fan of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, and Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn reliably makes me cry. I am very bad at collecting dirt, however, and am not a good source for celebrity gossip!
BC: Do you follow any other comic strips right now?
JW: I regularly read Dana Simpson’s Phoebe and Her Unicorn, because I have a thing for unicorns, and Ms. Simpson does them exceptionally well. I am fascinated by Marigold the Unicorn’s unassailable ego, partially because I wonder what it feels like to be that confident of one’s own inherent quality. Achewood and Homestuck were maddeningly brilliant, and kept me coming back despite their amazingly inconsistent update schedule. It takes a certain genius to accomplish that. With Homestuck complete and Achewood on indefinite hiatus, my webcomic feeds are a bit dry of late.
BC: What do you look for when you read someone else’s strips?
JW: Consistency is key. If I can’t get consistency, I look for people pushing the boundaries of the art form, creating humor in truly unique ways. I am a sucker for an author with a keen eye for finding organic, painfully real relationships in ridiculous contexts.
BC: What do you think makes for a good comic?
JW: Strong character voice, and an art style that complements rather than distracts from same. A little audacity. Showing up to the page.
BC: On GoComics, there’s a constant thread about how hard it is to follow the storyline. Is that intentional? Do you have any comments for people that get confused easily?
JW: Skin Horse is something of a beast. It mixes my novice webcomicker’s tendency to go overboard on plotting with Shaenon’s love of obscure detail. We don’t set out to make a strip that’s hard to follow, of course. It’s just that we see the entire months-long arc of each story as a single element in our brains, not as something that unfolds a little bit every twenty-four hours. Unfortunately, this is how everyone else sees it, and by the time some of these plot elements come to completion, many weeks have passed since they were first seeded. It may be easier to enjoy some of these storylines in the collections, where they unfold at a more compressed pace.
JW: I hope it all makes some sort of sense by the end of things.
BC: What kinds of things do you have in store for Skin Horse in the future?
JW: Things start getting kind of weird from this point on, but I can’t say more about it right now.
BC: Will we ever get to learn more about Moustachio’s background? Will he ever get cute little legs to go with the cute little arms?
JW: We sometimes keep character backgrounds in reserve; they tend to make good subjects for Kickstarter bonus material. (Moustachio’s history was fleshed out a bit in one of the bonus prose pieces for Volume 3, for instance.)
JW: Moustachio’s original legs are, as noted, the property of the British government. Even Tigerlily Jones cannot understand his legs well enough to make replacements. I keep wanting to do a leg-retrieval storyline set in the U.K., if for no other reason than to show in-canon that Nigel the ferret (seen only in bonus content) survived Unity’s scouring of the department, but it seems increasingly unlikely. (A), Moustachio has horrible little spider legs on his detachable head now, and (B), his new paramour Hitty is fully motile and he rides around on her all the time. Who needs legs if you have a girlfriend who is also a hammer tank to ride around on top of?
JW: I love being able to write sentences like that.
BC: Or, how about the power cores?
JW: The function of the man-portable fusion reactors is classified. You are not cleared to know about the function of the man-portable fusion reactors.
BC: [garbled response as Nick’s swear filter kicks in.]
BC: Will Sweetheart ever be able to go on a full-blown rampage?
JW: This has already happened in canon. She totally disrespected that wet cement down in New Orleans. What more do you want?
BC: What’s the deal with the skin-horse.com URL text fragments (i.e. – “pull-the-intake”) and have they all been collected somewhere for people like the GoComics readers to read?
JW: Glad you asked! The ComicPress platform works best if the filename for each uploaded image is also its post date, but once it’s on the system, inquisitive users can see several strips in advance by just typing in the filename corresponding to that date. In order to prevent this, Shaenon tacks on a few hard-to-guess words at the end of the date, but they’re not random; each new day contains the next few words of a prose piece (written by Shaenon) about the early days of Project Skin Horse’s current staff. These are not officially compiled, but certain fans have taken it upon themselves to gather them up from time to time. At present, www.ci-n.com/~jcampbel/skinhorse.txt is the most complete archive that I know of, but there may be more.
BC: Do you use Patreon or Kickstarter?
JW: We use both Patreon and Kickstarter, and have had good experiences with both. Services like this allow us to continue to produce free content for anyone to see, thus avoiding the commitment barrier inherent to subscription and pay-wall models and the technical constraints of microtransaction models. If someone enjoys our free content enough, services like Patreon and Kickstarter allow them to go the extra step and obtain exclusive perks and content that casual readers will miss out on, but the core strip remains accessible to readers of all levels of commitment. We are very grateful to all our Patreon and Kickstarter supporters. It makes a world of difference to us as creators!
BC: Appearances scheduled for conventions?
JW: My convention schedule is very much in flux at the moment. We’ll continue to announce upcoming convention appearances at skin-horse.com as we know more!
BC: Are you ever tempted to make contemporary political statements in Skin Horse? Why or why not?
JW: Skin Horse is kind of one big contemporary political statement, actually. It just goes down easier when you keep the references a little bit allegorical. I’d like to think that it doesn’t have one specific message that we’re hitting people over the head with; it’s just a metaphorical exploration on what it means to live in a post-millennial America.
BC: How would you characterize a typical Skin Horse reader?
JW: A typical Skin Horse reader is TOTALLY AWESOME. Next question.
BC: You have an open soapbox here. Anything you’d like to expound on, re: the current state of comics, web comics, convention goers, your fans? Unity’s inability to keep her hats on her head?
JW: Hats are funny. Fans are great. Friendship is magic. That is all.
(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.)