SPX COUNTDOWN: Interactive Action with A Stray in the Woods

Art from A Stray in the Woods
Credit: Alison Wilgus

And now for something completely different…

Recently, I went to San Diego Comic-Con for the first time in six years. I had a great time, don’t get me wrong…but as anyone who’s been to the show will tell you, there’s not that much “comic” left in Comic-Con.

While I still got to see a lot of great creators, I missed that sense of discovery I got from past shows – running into a friend who’s just picked up a really great book, and having them direct you to where they got it, or finding out from one creator that someone you’ve heard of in passing is selling their book a few tables up in Artists Alley. Yes, I’m old.

But that reminded me that one of the best shows for that kind of comic book experience is just around the corner – SPX, the Small Press Expo.

Art from A Stray in the Woods
Art from A Stray in the Woods
Credit: Alison Wilgus

SPX, which runs on September 14 and 15 this year in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C., is one of the best shows for not only meeting favorite indy comic creators, but discovering some great creators of webcomics, self-published books and illustration that might have been flying under your radar. Past trips out there have really helped renew my enthusiasm about comics, and led to a number of articles for Newsarama, including my “Wide World of Webcomics.”

This year’s SPX lineup features a ton of indy comic superstars, including Jeff Smith, Jeffrey Brown, Jim Rugg, Seth, Dash Shaw, Peter Bagge and Gary Panter…and that’s just a fraction of the list. Even more importantly, it’ll include a legion of up-and-coming creators, many of whom will be introducing their first comics work at the show.

In celebration of SPX and the creative spirit it promotes, we’re going to be doing a series of interviews over the next few weeks with creators at the show – ranging from the guests of honor to lesser-known creators debuting books at the show. If you’re going to the show, it’ll be a great guide to some of the people you can meet there – and if you’re not, it’ll be a great look at some truly unique books that you can check out or order online.

Art from A Stray in the Woods
Art from A Stray in the Woods
Credit: Alison Wilgus

We went through the constantly-updating list of books premiering at SPXto contact some creators whose works most intrigued us. First up is Alison Wilgus, a former writer for Cartoon Network’s Codename: Kids Next Door who’s debuting the hard-copy edition of A Stray in the Woods, a comic that had a unique life online – one where readers directed the surreal adventures of a cat in a cabin. We’ll leave it to Wilgus to explain how this went down…

Newsarama: Alison, tell us a bit about A Stray in the Woods – the basic story, etc.

Alison Wilgus: From the readers' perspective, A Stray in the Woods starts with a very simple premise: you're a cat, you're alone in what seems to be an empty house in the middle of the wilderness, and you don't remember how you ended up there. As the comic continues, you explore the rooms of the house and the woods around it and try to piece together what's happened.

It was originally posted over on Tumblr, and every update was based on "commands" that readers submitted through the ask box, so in the end it almost feels like a comic version of exploration-based video games like Myst and Gone Home. A friend of mine once described A Stray in the Woods as "second person amnesiac feline," and that's actually pretty apt.

Art from A Stray in the Woods
Art from A Stray in the Woods
Credit: Alison Wilgus

Nrama: The tale was originally a collaboration between you and readers -- tell us a little about how you came up with that idea. There's a certain Zork/Sierra Online quality to the tale.

Wilgus: About a year ago, a comic called Ruby Quest by TG Weaver was all over my Tumblr dash, and I ended up reading it on a whim. It was actually born out of a 4Chan thread back in 2008 -- the artist presented a series of rooms full of puzzles to solve and objects to explore, and he took suggestions from other posters in the thread as to what the main character, Ruby, should do next.

I'd been reading Andrew Hussie's Homestuck for a couple of years by then, and Ruby Quest was very much jumping off from Hussie's earlier comic Problem Slueth, but something about the way that Ruby Quiest unfolded really grabbed me. Ruby's a sort of "dungeon crawl"-style horror story, which I wasn't interested in trying myself, but the idea of letting readers explore a mysterious setting through a POV character was very appealing. I'd been wanting to do a webcomic about a cat for a while, and the two impulses kind of met each other in the middle.

Art from A Stray in the Woods
Art from A Stray in the Woods
Credit: Alison Wilgus

All of these command-based comics owe their existence to games like Zork, of course, but I never played them myself when I was a kid. I was kind of a feral nerd who didn't have much guidance from geeky elders, so I didn't even know they existed until I was in college.

Nrama: How did that process of storytelling affect how the tale turned out, and what was uniquely challenging about it?

Wilgus: It was hard to predict what my readers would find interesting -- certain parts of the world and the story captured people's attention more than others, and those aspects would naturally become more central.

The readers were also experiencing the story in a way that was much closer to how Cat would have -- they had no idea what was going on, after all, or any sense of which things were going to be dangerous and which weren't -- and I'm sure the comic has a more honest, impulsive feel to it than it would have if I'd just written it in isolation.

Some of the commands people submitted would never have occurred to me, but if they made sense and took the story in an interesting direction, I'd often choose the crazy suggestions over more conventional ones. Cat turned out to be a very brave character in the end!

Art from A Stray in the Woods
Art from A Stray in the Woods
Credit: Alison Wilgus

As for what was challenging…the biggest thing, for me, was trying to be as faithful as possible to what I was seeing in my ask box while still moving the story along at a pace that felt right to me. There was usually an obvious consensus among readers as to what they wanted Cat to do next, but sometimes I wasn't quite ready to get there, or felt like a moment in the story needed more time to breathe.

 On days when I posted two updates simultaneously, it was usually because I wanted to fit just one more little beat into a scene -- a moment between the characters, or maybe investigating an important detail in a room – before letting Cat do what the readers were asking.

Nrama: How far in advance did you have the story plotted, or did you wind up making it up based on the reader suggestions?

Wilgus: When I started the comic, I had a very clear idea of the initial set up -- what had happened to the house, what was going on in the woods, and how Cat was involved. I assumed that much of the comic would be about discovering that information, and had a sort of narrative target I was aiming for in terms of how the story would end. Beyond that, we were all muddling through it together!

Nrama: How did you create the art for this?

Art from A Stray in the Woods
Art from A Stray in the Woods
Credit: Alison Wilgus

Wilgus: Everything was done entirely in Photoshop. I'd set up a file for every room, and then folders for each panel -- by the end, most of the rooms and the woods themselves had multiple files, and I had something like twenty-two Photoshop files all together, which made exporting the high-res images for print kind of an adventure. I had three or four layers of texture that I'd lay over the top of the artwork to give it a softer, more organic quality.

I also turned anti-aliasing off across the board, as that made it much easier to go back and make changes later on as needed. I am a huge fan of the pencil tool.

Nrama: And what were some of your biggest influences for the art? It reminded me of a lot of classic picture books.

Wilgus: The look of A Stray in the Woods was as much about practicality as anything else. I wanted to update the comic as frequently as possible, but accepting reader commands meant I couldn't build a backlog for myself.

I picked a style that fit the tone of the story I had in mind, but which also allowed me to draw much more quickly than I usually do. I was pleasantly surprised that the look of the comic was so well received, as it's very different from my previous work.

Cat is loosely based on my actual cat, Miles. They both have adorable little bean-shaped bodies, and neither can keep their noses out of anything that looks interesting.

Art from A Stray in the Woods
Art from A Stray in the Woods
Credit: Alison Wilgus

Nrama: Tell us a bit about Off Nominal, the novella you're doing right now.

Wilgus: Off Nominal was actually written last year as my contribution for the anthology The Ships We Sail, from a small press called The Sockdolager. The theme of the collection was "stories of love in transit" and I'd decided to write a hard SF, near-future story about the first manned mission to Mars.

I didn't mean for it to end up being quite so long when I started, but in retrospect it was kind of inevitable -- there are two main characters, Olivia Gibson and Valentina Popovich, both of whom have romantic entanglements that need to be resolved; and of course there's a hiccup in their mission, which ends up being a serious problem with the lander that no one had anticipated. It's all very Apollo 13 with awkward coworker crushes.

Art from A Stray in the Woods
Art from A Stray in the Woods
Credit: Alison Wilgus

I have no idea why I thought I could tell that story in less than 10,000 words, but I'm still very pleased with how it turned out, and I'll be making a small number of hand-bound, silkscreen-covered paperbacks to bring to SPX.

Nrama:Do you see yourself doing another webcomic like Stray in the future?

Wilgus: My editor from The Sockdolager, Paul Starr, and I have a webcomic we've been planning for a while, which we're hoping to get online sometime early next year. It's set in the mid-90s and centers around a sort of bleeding-edge internet community that was active before most people were even online.

It'll be similar to A Stray in the Woods in that the images and text will be discreet from one another, as opposed to lettered panels, but it won't involve reader commands. Which is great, as that means we'll be able to build up a nice, healthy queue before we start posting!

Nrama: Something we're asking everyone in this series -- what are some other books/creators you're looking forward to seeing at SPX?

Wilgus: Oh gosh, I just finished looking through the debuts page and I'm completely overwhelmed with how many amazing books are going to be there! My shopping list is ridiculous at this point -- JEREMIAH by Cathy G. Johnson, HIP HOP FAMILY TREE by Ed Piskor, MAGICAL BEATDOWN by Jenn Woodall, ODE by Tim Ferrara and Annie Stoll, TEMPORARY by Peter Quach, BRIEF HISTORIES OF EVERYDAY OBJECTS by Andy Warner, THE SNAPDRAGON QUEEN by Carey Pietsch, TINY DYNAMO by Allie Kleber and and anthology she helped edit called QUEEROTICA, WEAPON GIRLS by Jade F Lee, WHY ARE YOU STILL DOING IT WRONG? by Stevie Wilson, the new URBAN NOMAD from Alisa Harris…just A LOT of books.

So many books. I'm sure I'm forgetting a ton of them.

Art from A Stray in the Woods
Art from A Stray in the Woods
Credit: Alison Wilgus

Nrama: And what's fun about a show like SPX?

Wilgus: I haven't been to SPX since 2007, and I'm really looking forward to it. It has this fantastic energy – everyone's excited to be there, everyone's running around the same hotel, everyone's winding down from their crazy summers and happy to be at a smaller con full of awesome people. I took a few years off from tabling at cons, so SPX will be my first show as an exhibitor since NYCC in 2010. I'm ECSTATIC.

Nrama: What's next for you?

Art from A Stray in the Woods
Art from A Stray in the Woods
Credit: Alison Wilgus

Wilgus: Well, one BIG thing that I can't talk about yet, which'll be most of what I'm working on through the end of the year. But in between that I'll be doing another VISITING NASA mini about my trip to JSC in Houston, and writing as many spaceflight columns for Tor.com as I can manage.

I'm also finishing up my story for PUZZLE BOX, the next Sockdolager anthology, which'll be out in mid-September.

Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

Wilgus: I'm sure I'll think of something about thirty seconds after this goes online. ;)

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