Wide World of Webcomics: The Futuristic DICEBOX

Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our continuing look at the best of the web! For this installment, we kick off with a two-part look at one of the longest-running and most-acclaimed SF series online.

Dicebox by Jenn Manley Lee is the tale of two working-class women, Griffen and Molly, in a far future where space elevators, terraforming and changing genders are part of everyday life. But there’s more to these women than their casual conversations and deep connection – each has a mysterious past, and Molly has strange visions that might hint at future danger.

 

For more than a decade, Dicebox has immersed readers in one of the most detailed SF universes in comics, with its vivid colors and strong characterization earning acclaim from the likes of Scott McCloud and many other critics. The first “book” of the planned four-book series, Wander, is available in hard-copy form in addition to being online at the series’ website.

In a special two-part interview, we spoke with Jenn Manley Lee about creating her universe, what’s coming up for Griffen and Molly, and more.

Newsarama: Jenn, how did you initially come up with the idea for Dicebox?

Jenn Manley Lee: Well, before there was Dicebox, there were Molly and Griffen. They just seemed to appear one day, invading my sketchbook and making stories. They were vastly entertaining to me, but I couldn't get a real narrative going about them.

I kept trying on and off for a few years and had about three false starts. It was only after I came up with the name for the story—Dicebox—that I began to make any progress. The name served as a touchstone, giving me a new way of thinking about and framing the story.

 

As I explain in my FAQ, Dicebox was inspired by the Nordic rune Peorth, which is the “dice cup” or the “womb.” Its significance in a casting is of something revealed which had been hidden, though it can also stand for a gamepiece or a pawn.

What I don't mention is that another Nordic Rune, Jera, also got me thinking. Jera is the turning wheel, the progression of life and the completing of a cycle. Not only did this help me decide that Dicebox takes place over the course of one year, but it got me thinking in terms of seasons and the associations of each.

And then all the other sets of four that pervade: the compass points, Aristotle's four elements, four ages, suits of playing cards, the four humors and so on.

Dicebox easily broke book into four books. Guided by my thinking points, each book soon had its own character and emphasis: Book 1, Wander, is very slice-of-life, a rambling introduction to the characters and their world. Book 2, Chase, will be more action-oriented and start to include more classic science fiction elements. Book 3, Tour of Duty, will be more political intrigue, and Book 4, Quest, will be a reflective, quiet story—the denouement.

And best of all, this allowed me to sort and incorporate many of the events and sub-stories I already had pictured for them, albeit now meaning and leading to something else entirely. 

 

Nrama:
What, for you, is the most challenging/rewarding process of telling the story from the more limited perspective of Griffen and Molly?

Lee: I have to admit that this was a more instinctive than calculated choice. For Wander in particular, I didn't want a god's eye view, I wanted to present events that could be observed and overheard as part of everyday life.

Granted, some of the moments shown are private to Molly and Griffen, but building a picture of what their intimacy looks like was also very important to Book 1. I was creating a baseline existence to disrupt and react against for the rest of Dicebox.

One of the definite benefits of this limited view and therefore knowledge is the audience gets to learn things along with Molly and Griffen. Aiding this is Molly's tendency not to ask questions until she needs to, and Griffen's love of gathering knowledge and carefully choosing when to share it—or not share it, as the case may be. The combination of these attributes allowed me to more discretely include exposition.

I'd say the challenge in all this is not to force things to happen and to keep true to the characters' focus and interests. But also not to frustrate the audience too much while I spur on my characters along in their development.

Wander encompasses a particular point in their relationship; Molly actually does start questioning things and caring about possibilities, whereas Griffen begins to care about the consequences of her actions and how they might affect others.

The reward to all this is seeing that people get it. Based on the evidence of reviews and comments I've read and mail I've received, readers do get what's going on, the implications of actions and events, and seem to really know Griffen and Molly in their complexities and contradictions. 

 

Nrama:
Tell us about your process for writing and illustrating the strip—know you share some of this on the site.

Lee: Oh, that is so out of date. I really must update that someday.

While still in the processing and story development stage, I created outlines for each book, each loosely broken down into nine parts. These outlines are live documents, constantly being updated and adjusted.

When I'm about to work on a part, I review it in context of what came before and what will come next. I then flesh out the outline, mostly in summary but with exchanges of dialogue throughout. I used to go on to script the entire part before beginning to draw, but I now work in chapters which are anywhere from 3 to 12 pages long.

And instead of scripting first, I work on page layouts and dialogue simultaneously. And, as has always been the case, everytime I draw a page and post it, all that follows is subject to change because the art will sometimes inspire a change in dialogue which might shift the story and so on.

As for the actual making of the art, that's changed as well. For one thing, I've gone entirely digital. I used to thumbnail and rough out pages on paper, then scan in the roughs, place them into that page's Photoshop file, and print bluelines for the final penciled art. Then I'd scan that art in, adjust it and proceed to color in Photoshop.

Now I thumbnail on an iPad using a grid made to my page specifications, import it into Photoshop and then, using a Cintiq, develop the roughs and final line art. I actually proceed to color before refining the line art as it helps me see the shapes I'm creating even better.

I do miss the experience of drawing on paper somewhat, and as a casual collector of comic art I feel slightly chagrined at not producing originals anymore. But I can create pages sometimes twice as fast now, and I do like how the process has become oddly more organic.

 

I'm also able to use a more painterly treatment in the environments; I hate developing the figures in an isolated manner but this way I don't have to, nor approach backgrounds as line art.

I'm actually still struggling with the line art quality and character, but I feel I'm zeroing in on it. I hope to have it nailed by the end of Part 2 and then I'll review all the art so far and adjust accordingly.

Which brings me to another point of my art process: generally the art I initially post for a page isn't quite finished by my reckoning. Friends of mine will joke that it never is for me and I could fiddle with it until the end of time, which can be true.

But this future fiddling allows me to move on from one page to the next rather than being stuck on one small aspect of the art. It's often by letting it loose that I'll see what's bugging me about it. I also feel more free to experiment and play.

However, I've learned from the grueling process of putting Book 1 into print. After I finish a part, I plan to return to the one previous to review, finalize and place the page art into my master InDesign document for the book.

So when I finish Part 2, "Mirth," I'll review Part 1, "Woe," and make whatever changes and edits I need to before declaring it done. This will give me a view to how a part fits in the story and enough distance to judge the art objectively. Actually I'll most likely change less art this way.

Oh – lettering Dicebox hasn't changes much at all. I still use a font I created from my handwriting and word balloons are a vector shape layer in Photoshop. 

 

Nrama:
You're in the process of Book Two of Four now—how many more years do you currently project Dicebox running?

Lee: Anywhere between six to eight years, I reckon. Five years is my dream, but for that to happen I'd have to make far more revenue doing Dicebox then I do currently. Being able to sell Book 1 in printed and PDF form has already allowed me to spend more time on Dicebox—the money I make there means I don't need to pursue other money-making work. This is why I can sometimes can post more than one page a week these days!

Nrama: What's the most difficult part of keeping the SF concepts of Dicebox's universe straight?

Lee: By SF concepts can I take it you mean the technology? So far that hasn't been a problem. Then, I did rather ease into it in Book 1, as most tech encountered wouldn't necessarily be state-of-the-art or even standard issue. Lots of repurposed and outdated items.

What is and will be a challenge is deciding on and developing the tech of a particular place or situation. Book 2, Chase, and Book 3, Tour of Duty, will be exploring this more in depth: Book 2 with information tech, and Book 3 with actual space travel.

 

In general I envision a mish-mash of tech dictated more by fads and fashion than capabilities; of what people will accept and reject given the culture and politics of a place. And the fact you can't really advance faster than people are willing to accept and adapt to it.

I also like the idea of nostalgia, of clinging to tech long outmoded—for example, the printed book—because of emotional attachments and a sense of style. Having the actual user experience outweigh any practical concerns.

Nrama: For that matter, what sort of real-world research do you do in terms of historical or scientific material to help inspire the storyline?

Lee: I actually started out reading folklore and mythology studies, exploring the themes I had already begun to explore in my framing of Dicebox as well as looking for further inspiration. Marina Warner's From the Beast to the Blonde and Other Peoples' Myths by Wendy Doniger are pretty good examples.

 

A lot of Dicebox is about being human and how that will always be defined by our bodies. Cultural histories like Thomas Laquer's Making Sex, or Humiliation by William Ian Miller and Dancing on the Grave by Nigel Barley have inspired and refined my thoughts on that theme. By the same token, perceptions and neuroscience are also relevant; books such as The Body in Pain by Elaine Scarry have aided me immensely.

History is of great interest as well, as it tends to repeat itself. And it's extremely useful to learn how certain things came into being from governments to fashion to knowledge. Not to mention being a source of story inspiration.

I've read (and listened to) books on the Tinkers of Ireland, the Barbary Coast, Charlie Wilson, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the salt trade, and the Whiskey Rebellion, to name a very few.

There are also the books and articles on science where I try to understand the current theories and how trains of thought have developed: information theory, the science of the body and the brain, economics, etc.

I also listen to many of the podcasts out from How Stuff Works, which have provided me with a plethora of subjects to pursue and generate further ideas. 

 

Nrama:
What have been the unique advantages (or disadvantages) of doing Dicebox online?

Lee: I'd say the biggest advantage is having Dicebox available for folks to find and read. I've gotten quite a few emails along the lines of "I don't read comics, but..." which is always gratifying.

And though a lot of my readers are comic readers, it's actually easier to find the type of comic story you'd be interested in reading on the internet. I mean, most comic book stores and comics sections in bookstores break down the category of comics as follows: mainstream, indy/alternative, and manga.

 

If they're really feeling extravagant, maybe a YA section, or a segregated 18 and older section. Certainly it's not broken down into genre as other books usually are: SciFi, Fantasy, Paranormal, Romance, Historical and so on. This makes it really hard to browse and discover a new comic you might like. You pretty much have to do research before you go shopping.

Whereas on the internet it's quite easy to discover a story that might interest you, and it's right there for the reading. And then there are websites and communities dedicated to specific interests where one might get recommended. Or the author of a comic from the same genre or story style might recommend you to their fans. And so on.

Next: Our look at Dicebox concludes as Lee talks about her influences, the future of Griffen and Molly, and more. And coming up: Interviews with the creators of Family Man, Gunnerkrigg Court, Red’s Planet, King of the Unknown and more!

Follow Griffen and Molly across the cosmos in Dicebox at www.dicebox.net.

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