Ted Naifeh Talks Courtney Crumrin & the Prince of Nowhere

Naifeh on the new Courtney Crumrin

Call her comics' favorite girl.

A modern day Little Orphan Annie with a touch of Tim Burton, Ted Naifeh's Courtney Crumrin series has produced five graphic novels with a sixth on the way. Titied Courtney Crumrin & The Prince of Nowhere, this one-shot follows Courtney and Uncle Aloysius on their European vacation as they journey into the homeland of their family name as they discover old truths and new wrinkles in Courtney's relationship with her Uncle.

Debuting back in 2002, Courtney Crumrin propelled Ted Naifeh's comic career to new heights after coming onto the seen with Gloomcookie. She's a young girl, outcast to both her schoolmates and her absent(-minded) parents. When this aloof family moves in with their mysterious Uncle Aloysius, Courtney begins to understand her magical heritage and a beginning of a exciting new chapter of her life.

With this new book scheduled for release this December, we talked with Naifeh for more.

Newsarama: Thanks for talking to us, Ted. What can you tell us about Courtney Crumrin & The Prince of Nowhere?

Ted Naifeh: First things first. It’s coming out in December. The book is done, but Oni had to fit it into their schedule as best they could, since it was so late.

The Prince of Nowhere is the second half of Courtney’s European travel saga. In the first part, Courtney meets werewolves in Romania. In this one, she meets vampires in Germany. I love gothic monsters, but I like to root them more firmly in the traditional folklore from which they sprang. Or at least, I like to evoke the feeling of those folk stories. Putting Courtney in places where you can almost believe this stuff took place is a good start. I think one of the reasons Stephen King’s stories work so well is that he places his stories in spooky old New England, where a lot of American folk legends came from. In Prince Of Nowhere, Courtney travels to a small town called Krumrhein, which has been largely overlooked by the twentieth century. There, she discovers some history of the Crumrin family name, and her relationship with her Uncle Aloysius is stretched to the breaking point.

NRAMA: That history is tied to a legendary woman named Lady Isolde. Tell us more about Lady Isolde and how she's connected with Courtney.

TN: Lady Isolde von Krumrhein was the duchess of the town in the 16th century. She’s still hanging around the castle, toying with alchemy and black magic, which she has used to prolong her life, or at least, create a semblance of everlasting life. She is an ancestor of the Crumrin family, and keeps in touch with her magical descendants. Of course, there are only two magical descendants left: Aloysius, and Courtney. And Aloysius wouldn’t let Courtney anywhere near a creature like Lady Isolde.

Basically, she’s my attempt to insert the Elizabeth Bathory story into the Courtney world. To be frank, I don’t think I really believe the Bathory story, which sounds like medieval a smear campaign against a powerful female in a male-dominated world. But it’s a compelling picture of pride and vanity gone mad. I wanted to use that image to depict how magical power can take away one’s soul.

NRAMA: While in town, Courtney meets a amiable young man named Wolfgang who's more than he seems. Despite what his name implies he's no werewolf (that's in the last book), but he is more than what he seems. Tell us about him?

TN: Wolfgang is the story’s Dracula, a tween version of the classic vampire lover. But because he’s essentially an immortal 14-year-old, he’s not so much a seducer as a rebellious teenager of the sort that is magnetic to other lonely kids, and always looking for an emotional connection he doesn’t have with his own family. His Lady Isolde’s son, and how can a vampire family be anything but dysfunctional?

NRAMA: Courtney's constant through all the books has been her uncle Aloysius. From first meeting in book one, they're now traveling together across Europe. How would you describe their relationship with one another?

TN: Currently, their relationship is in deep trouble. Basically, Aloysius is a grown-up version of Courtney, set in his ways, and really bad at connecting with others. As with most relationships, their similarities draw them to each other, but cause just as many problems. Courtney has far more in common with Aloysius than she does with her own parents, and Aloysius relates to her as outsiders tend to relate to one another. But what keeps throwing Aloysius off is Courtney’s need for him to act as a parental figure, and his complete ignorance of what that role involves. It doesn’t help that Courtney is also a rebellious kid who recoils from parental figures, sending Aloysius mixed signals. The previous book ended with them pretty much alienated. Then in this book, Courtney meets a boy vampire who’s offering everlasting love and companionship. From where she sits, it doesn’t sound too bad.

NRAMA: How would you describe Courtney's magic skills right now?

TN: She’s pretty capable, at least as far as magic goes. Courtney’s been able to deal with ordinary people from the end of the first chapter of the first volume. By the end of the second volume, she’s learned to tap her emotions and use them to fuel some extremely powerful mojo. I have yet to go into the details of her powers, but I intend to in upcoming books.

But the stories thus far imply that she can hold her own in a magical fight. But fights aren’t what Courtney’s tales are about. In the first series, she goes from being essentially helpless in the face of antagonism to being pretty self-sufficient, all in the first chapter. The rest of the chapters show her discovering a need for something more than power; her emotional journey from isolation to connection. And of course, that journey is still in progress.

NRAMA: Wth the recent one shot The Fire Thief's Tale, you've really pulled Courtney out of her element and into some more harrowing situations than before. What was the impetus for you with these one-shots and taking Courtney traveling through Europe with Aloysius?

TN: For one thing, I wanted to explore Courtney’s relationship with Aloysius, reveal more about him, and let that relationship evolve. But I also wanted to explore the vampire and werewolf legends. In eastern European folklore, where these legends originated, the vampire and the werewolf are basically the same thing, subdividing into different varieties of infectious evil only in the last century and a half as they were discovered by western Europe. After all, if a vampire can become a wolf, and goes around biting people, infecting and transforming them, what, at the end of the day, is the difference? From the original point of view, the animal, the sexual, the diseased, and the undead were all one thing.

For me, if there was going to be a difference between werewolves and vampires, it should be a fundamental one. In the Courtney world, a werewolf is a magical beast that can look human if it wants, and its bite can turn a man wild and bestial. But they’re not evil, any more than humans are evil. They’re not good either, any more than humans are good. The point of them is that they’re living creatures, and sympathetic for that reason, if no other.

The world’s vampires, on the other hand, are Undead with a capital U. There lies the difference. The living werewolves have genuine needs and desires, which, though they may oppose ours, are valid. Even if they want to eat humans, you can’t really call them evil, anymore than mice can call cats evil, or chickens can call humans evil. It’s all just a matter of where you’re standing. But the vampire has no life to nourish. It feeds emptiness, and only the emptiness grows.

That’s a metaphor for something, but I can’t really think of what right now.

NRAMA: You're the writer – we'll give you time.

One thing I've always marveled about your work is the character designs. This book is no different, with several amazing designs especially Lady Isolde. What are you thinking when you're crafting these characters?

TN: With Lady Isolde, I think I took a major risk, crafting a vampire queen character that isn’t sexy, but austere and forbidding, as a five hundred year old aristocrat must be. I wanted someone who looked like they walked out of a 16th century portrait, all Habsburgian and homely, regal and melancholy.

I think character design is a fundamental element of storytelling. I’ve read dozens of comics with goth girl protagonists, and with most, you can almost read the description in the writer’s script. “Isabel is a sort of goth chick with black hair and black clothes, but sweet and feisty and has her unique style.” The artist, utterly uninspired, must do his or her best to indicate gothiness with a few well-used signifiers. A skull here, a face piercing there, and voila, instant goth, and as bland as cereal with water instead of milk. There’s nothing to hook the reader. Character design, like story design, requires a hook to grab the reader’s attention. For Courtney, the lack of nose might be a little too noticeable, but without it, the only thing left is the bat barrette and the black eyes against the blond hair. It could work, but the nose is the real grabber.

NRAMA: And how'd you come up with the idea to draw Courtney without a nose?

TN: It was the first thing I thought of for her, a face that was just really black eyes, a raised eyebrow and a bat barrette. Hair, nose, everything else is washed out.

Remember, she’s the first character I sketched. Out of context, her not having a nose was no more weird than Hello Kitty not having a mouth. Then, when I started formulating the world around her, the characters became more and more realistic. I wanted her to be the only one without a nose, thus separating her from the other characters, to make her more the center of the story in the same way that Cerebus, being the only character with zip-o-tone, stood out and stayed the center of good no matter how abominable his behavior was. But as Courtney’s world took shape, it became harder and harder to keep it cartoony. There are still a few things that hold it in cartoon space. The pointy bushes, the pointy four-fingered hands, the occasional Orphan Annie circles for eyes (thanks to the brilliant Craig Russell for that charming piece of stylization) and the crooked buildings all create an atmosphere of cartooniness that keeps the bleaker, sadder parts of the story from becoming too melodramatic. But the nose-less cartoon girl in a realistic world allows the reader to identify with her as a stand-in for themselves. I could write a book on how that process works, but Scott McCloud already has.

NRAMA: This is the third one shot under the Courtney Crumrin banner – what's next for the young girl?

TN: I have two more volumes planned for Courtney, which is to say four more prestige format books like that last one shot. The two European travel books will be bound into a single small volume called Courtney Crumrin’s Monstrous Holiday. I reasoned that most of my readers preferred graphic novels to single issue comics, so instead of releasing Monstrous Holiday as four 32 page floppies, I did it as two 64 page OGNs. That way, the regular floppy collectors are happy as well. I’m pretty happy with the way it’s come out, so I think I’ll continue to do one 64 page prestige format book per year till I’m done.

I’m not 100 percent sure what the next story will be, but I have some ideas. I want to start tying together the various plot threads I’ve left dangling. Her recklessness has left a path of destruction and messed up lives, and I want some of that to come back and haunt her.

NRAMA: When I've interviewed you in the past, you've mentioned that Hollywood has been interested in Courtney Crumrin. Has there been any movement on that front?

TN: No, I’m still waiting to hear if there’s anything new. I think that there’s been enough completely failed spooky kids movies that producers are reluctant to just crank out another one, which is all to the good. If they do make Courtney into a movie, I don’t want a slapdash job like what happened with “The Dark Is Rising.” I want people to make the thing work.

NRAMA: If Hollywood did go ahead with a Courtney Crumrin feature, how would you like to see it done?

TN: I like the idea of doing it live action rather than animated. I think this would allow people to think of it as its own thing rather than a recreation of the book. Movies aren’t comics, and have their own rules. Adaptations can’t all be Sin City style reproductions. That being said, I think it would be fun to give it a Henry Selick-like treatment, but with live action actors against a whimsically stylized environment. I’d like to see a very restrained color palette with lots of blues, grays and purples.

But really, it doesn’t matter to me how they make the thing look so much as how it’s written. Obviously, you can’t break the movie into four episodes like the first book. Well, you could, but they probably won’t. But the important thing is the emotional story. Courtney must be both snarky and lonely. If she’s just snarky, she won’t be all that sympathetic. The story is really about these two lonely people, Courtney and her uncle, finding each other, and learning to overcome their distrust of emotional vulnerability and love one another. If that dynamic is captured in the screenplay, the movie will probably work. If it’s not, the movie is doomed.

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