Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our continuing series that looks at some of the best comics on the web. Today, we venture into the heart of Brooklyn to talk with Meredith Gran, creator of the indy hit Octopus Pie.
Since 2007, Octopus Pie has followed the misadventures of the very, very bitter Eve and the very, very flaky Hanna as they negotiate the emotional minefield of being single in the big city, not having enough money, and dealing with organic foods and pot. Updated three times a week (and in storyline batches throughout 2009), Octopus Pie’s clever design and witty humor breathes new life into the “cynical 20-somethings” mini-genre.
Gran, who recently returned to Brooklyn after spending some time in another comic-friendly city, Portland, chatted with us about returning to self-publishing after doing an Octopus Pie collection through Random House last year, keeping her strip fresh, and what the comics scene is like on the West Coast vs. the East.
Newsarama: Meredith, you've been back in NYC recently. How has it changed since you started the strip, and what's still the same?
Meredith Gran: The stories I want to write about are definitely different. In Portland I wrote about bike festivals, brewing your own beer, and moving around a lot, with vague city locations. I've done a lot more landmark-based and "people of New York" comics since coming back. Being entrenched in Brooklyn culture leads the narrative in a way that feels natural.
Nrama: You recently announced that Random House won't be doing a second hard-copy collection of the strip -- you're offering books through your own site, but do you feel like you'd go with a bigger publisher again if the opportunity presented itself?
Gran: It would depend on the publisher and the conditions, but I'm perfectly happy self-publishing for the time being. There's more money (long-term) and control, and slightly less stress doing it on my own.
Unfortunately it would be very hard for a comic with my audience size to please most major publishers these days - and with limited marketing budgets, they're really counting on that built-in audience
Nrama: What do you feel didn't work with the Random House experience, aside from the publishing industry being...well, the publishing industry?
Gran: Random House was pretty easygoing in the design and editorial department, but I wasn't used to giving up any control, so a few things were jarring. The green ink used in the printed collection wasn't my first choice. Buying my books wholesale, as opposed to at-cost, meant I was broke right before every convention - normally the time I need money the most!
And of course the profit margin was much lower, and I didn't make a cent if people bought it in stores or on Amazon. So it goes.
Nrama: You did a new story for the collection, which harkened a bit to your experiment with releasing the strip as a series of completed arcs. What's the biggest difference in doing a self-contained story vs. something you release over installments? Do you necessarily prefer one over the other, and if so, why?
Gran: Content-wise, the daily strips tend to be more dense, while the batch stories tend to flow more easily. Each format presents its own challenges. With regular updates, I'm always trying to time a story according to specific beats -- for example, a cliffhanger on Friday, or a double-page update to complete an idea.
With batch updates I could relax a bit more timing-wise, but there was the stress of putting out a finished story before too long - which meant scrapping a lot of stories I felt would take too long to draw.
Ultimately I prefer the page-by-page updates; it keeps me on my toes. But I still write out stories in advance. And I've relaxed a little bit about needing to put a punchline in every strip. Moving the story along comes first.
Nrama: You ended 2010 in a very emotional place for the characters. Do you see things getting light-and-fluffy again, or going dark and emotion...y in the next storyline?
Gran: I'm going to lighten things up for a while. I try to vary the mood of each story; I think people would get sick of those sadder stories otherwise. I try not to let things ever get too melancholy for long.
In 2011 I would like to touch on the characters' families and teen years a bit more, which should be a nice mix of sad and sweet.
Nrama: Do you see any sort of long-term arc for the characters, or is the strip more dictated by your instincts and feelings as you create each installment?
Gran: I have a lot of plans for the characters long-term, but things change. Sometimes there's some deep personal significance to a character's actions; sometimes I write them on impulse. I try to let ideas evolve organically, and never hold onto anything for the sake of seeing it through. But there's also something to be said for a well-planned story.
Nrama: What's been the biggest advantage of having the strip under a Creative Commons license?
Gran: Mostly, it makes me feel good. People feel good seeing it. I'm not sure anyone has really taken advantage of it. People color strips and make user icons from characters, but probably not because it's CC-license,
Nrama: When you go back and reread older strips, how do you find you've evolved, as a writer, creator and as a person?
Gran: If they've seen any creative improvement, any artist will tell you their old work looks like garbage. The characters don't look pleasing to me at all until early 2009 or so. I think my writing used to be punchier, but the stories were flatter.
The characters used to use more witty quips; now I try to write them more naturally. I started the comic in my early 20s and I've changed pretty rapidly; I see it happening to the characters as well. Their motivations change, they learn (or fail to learn) from mistakes, they're self-conscious about different things. They're all a little more cynical about love.
Nrama: What would you say are the biggest similarities and differences between the comic creators scenes in Brooklyn and in Portland?
Gran: The Portland comics scene is very tight. Everyone seems to know each other, from the mainstream writers/artists to the indie/webcomic creators to the bloggers and publishing industry folks.
In New York I think it's a bit more segmented; there are just too many people. But in both cities there's plenty of enthusiasm, signing events, and great shops selling a wide range of comics. I've met some great people in the short time I've been back.
Nrama: While the site's archive allows readers to catch up, when you have a storyline that's been running this long, what do you feel are the biggest challenges to keep the storyline fresh and not repetitive/soap operatic.
Gran: I worry constantly about repeating myself! I'll restructure/scrap an entire story after realizing I've done something similar. And yeah, it's easy to go overboard with the relationship stuff.
Even if love and sex are a big part of 20-somethings' lives, it feels cheap to make it the focus after a while. I try to wrap most stories in a central theme, to keep things from being too much about the details. I think making a theme work properly with a story and not seem forced is the biggest challenge.
Nrama: One of the big questions I've been asking to many of the webcomic creators I've interviewed -- what doors do you feel technology such as the iPad have opened for webcomics, and what advantages do you feel established individual creators have vs. larger companies attempting to break into this market?
Gran: It's hard for me to say, even though the iPad's been out for a year. There's still so much speculation to root through. I'd like to optimize comics for reading on the iPad, but I haven't spent enough time on the device.
Nrama: You've done some animations with the characters -- would you ever consider an Octopus Pie animated series?
Gran: Yes, yes! I've been thinking a lot about this lately. But there's nothing to say beyond that just yet.
Nrama: I'm sure many of your readers have sent you this already, but have you tried this recipe for actual octopus pie, and if so, what did you think?
Gran: Yes, I get pictures, recipes and blog posts about octopus pie every week! Apparently it's a dish specific to Sète, a commune in the south of France. I will never, ever eat it.
Nrama: What else are you currently working on?
Gran: Just Octopus Pie, at the moment. It takes up a whole lot of my time.
That’s it for this round of Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics! But there’s plenty more interviews coming up in the future, including Anthony Clark of Nedroid, Dustin Harbin, Dorothy Grambell of Cat and Girl and more! And stay tuned for a special week where we’ll talk with some creators who’ve gone from print to online, including Doug TenNapel, Phil Foglio, Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover and more!