Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics, our ongoing look at the best of the web! We conclude this round of interviews with a look at a cult hit that for the last decade has proved that being a young woman can be a real witch.Serenity Rose (www.heartshapedskull.com), “Sera” to her friends, is a witch, one of only 57 in the entire world. This makes her famous. She’d rather not be famous. She’d rather not be doing a lot of things, such as supernatural creatures, or the mysterious “Bus Incident” for which she’s infamous, or life in Crestfallen, “The Spookiest Li’l Town in America.” But though she tries not to use her powers, she will if you come after her – and you’ll be sorry.
Dark, hilarious and sometimes touching, Serenity Rose earned a cult following when it was first published by Slave Labor Graphics, and has continued to build a loyal audience on the web. We talked with creator Aaron Alexovich, who’s also worked on such animated series as Avatar: The Last Airbender and Invader ZIM, along with such other comics as Eldritch! with Drew Rausch, about his long journey with Sera and friends.
Newsarama: Aaron, you've been telling Sera's tale in one form or another for more than a decade now. How do you feel the story has evolved, and how do you feel you've evolved, as a person and as a creator?
Aaron Alexovich: Oh man, that first issue of Serenity Rose feels so angry to me now. Like a totally different person wrote that one. Some being of pure hostility. Although... I guess it does have that weird little burst of happiness at the end, so even back then I must’ve had some sense of where the story should go.
I wound up calling the first print collection “Working Through the Negativity,” because I was hoping Serenity and I would both be less snarly and judgmental as the series went on. She’s kind of a self-portrait in a lot of ways... Like the way I can conjure vampire-devouring demon ponies out of ectoplasm, for instance.
The style’s definitely changed a lot over the past decade, too. How could it not, right? Serenity Rose #1 was the first comic I ever made, other than a few Star Trek spoofs I made for my dad when I was a kid. I believe that series was called “Star BLECCH,” because “BLECCH” is a word you use in spoofs.The first Serenity Rose comic’s a lot cartoonier, I think. My style got slightly more grounded and realistic after spending time working on things like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Fables. Still pretty goofy and exaggerated, but slightly more solid.
Nrama: What have been some of the biggest challenges and rewards from taking Sera online?
Alexovich: The biggest challenge in webcomics is definitely just getting noticed. There’s a lot of stuff out there, and that was true even in the olden days when I started. I still haven’t quite figured out the whole marketing thing.
The biggest reward is the creative control, for sure, which is a perk you definitely don’t have working in the animation industry. I think every artist needs something that’s 100% theirs. Some little safe place where they’re never, ever going to hear “No.” Makes it easier to deal with all the silly little frustrations of your day job.
Nrama: How did you initially conceive the idea for the series?
Alexovich: Sera started as a character I’d use for assignments in animation school. If I had to animate, say, a walk cycle, I’d use her for a sort of shuffling, hunched-over style of walk. If I had to animate some dialogue, I’d use her for some sneery, sarcastic lines of dialogue. I became a real master of shuffling and sneering, is what I’m saying. Again, she was very autobiographical.
I ended up making two short films about Sera, building up lots of little details here and there along the way, stuffing in bits of all the horror/fantasy stuff I like, and so on. From the time I made that first film, I knew I’d be telling stories about Serenity and her town for a long, long time.Nrama: Tell us a little about your artistic process for creating a page of the strip.
Alexovich: I start out by making a teensy little thumbnail sketch in Photoshop, small enough that I can get a sense of composition and emotion without getting lost in the swamp of details, which tends to be a big problem for me.
Then I blow it up, flesh it out, all still in Photoshop, then hit “print” so I can trace the whole thing in nice, warm, HB pencil. I just love pencil texture, and haven’t found any decent digital shortcuts yet.
Then it all gets scanned back into PS for the spot colors, lettering, and a little more toning.
In summary: I do my penciling in Photoshop, my inking with a pencil, and I am an insane person.
Nrama: How has your work in animation affected your approach to creating comics?Alexovich: My stuff is definitely “cartoony.” I’ve always been more drawn to exaggerated, stylized drawings than realistic ones, although I can certainly appreciate the work and talent involved in both.
Animation school absolutely reinforced that, because it’s always more fun to work with BIG EMOTIONS and ridiculous character designs than to do more subdued, realistic stuff. Although I guess Sera’s a pretty subdued character, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Nrama: What's the biggest challenge in writing from the perspective of a teenage girl?
Alexovich: Sera’s actually in her early 20’s, but I totally understand why people think she’s younger. The girl is tiny. Barely 4’11”, giant head... A reader once suggested she’s been subconsciously shapeshifting herself over the years to match her own tiny self-image, which I kind of like. If she ever gained some self-confidence she could blow up into a massive, rampaging Gargantua.
I never really find it challenging to write for her, since, like I said, she’s pretty much me. That’s the way to approach writing any character who isn’t literally autobiographical, I think: Just imagine it’s you. Pretty straightforward. No differential calculus or incantations to Nyarlathotep required.Nrama: For that matter, what's the biggest challenge in doing a tale that has magic and supernatural elements? How do you create rules for what can and can't happen with magic?
Alexovich: Yeah, setting up rules in supernatural stories is incredibly important. I feel like a lot of people don’t even bother setting up rules anymore, or just let the plot determine everything from moment to moment. (Wait, the stakes don’t have to be wooden now?)
It seems like those writers are missing out on the whole point of writing fantasy stories, you know? Setting out some rules and exploring the implications, testing the boundaries, trying to break it all... that’s where the fun lives. Even when you’ve written yourself into a corner, writing yourself out of that corner can lead to some of the coolest stuff in your story. Why be lazy?
Nrama: What are some of your all-time favorite horror and/or teenage tales?
Alexovich: The bestest thing in the world is when people mix horror and science fiction. I love that. H.P. Lovecraft was a God. “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Whisperer in Darkness,” they all have a great, creepy feel, but also this incredible sense of awe you don’t get from many other things. Alien and The Thing have some of that, too.And I also like when horror gets mixed with comedy, like in Evil Dead 2, Shaun of the Dead, Beetlejuice, even Bride of Frankenstein. If you can get the horror/comedy formula just right, there’s nothing more satisfying.
If I had to pick a favorite teenage tale, it’d be Charles Burns’ Black Hole. It really captures that uncomfortable, uncertain, icky feeling of being adolescent. Ross Campbell is great at that, too.
Faith Erin Hicks does some amazing teenagey-type stories, too, usually with some cool horror/fantasy overtones. Horror and teenagers are totally best friends, you know.
Nrama: What have you learned from working as an artist for different writers that you've taken back to writing/illustrating your own characters? Conversely, what have you learned from writing for other artists, like on Eldritch! ?
Alexovich: I haven’t worked with too many other writers, actually. I did one issue of Fables for Bill Willingham, which was a lot of fun, and I drew this really cool book called Confessions of a Blabbermouth for Mike and Louise Carey. Some great characters in that one. Wish more people had seen it.The first thing I learned from the Blabbermouth script was, um... what a comic script is supposed to look like. I was utterly clueless. I took that formatting style and used it a couple years later for Eldritch! .
But I learned more important things from the Fables and Blabbermouth scripts, too. The balance between writer and artist in comics is such a difficult thing to get right, and those guys really know how to do it.
As a writer, you have to give the artist juuuussst enough information to paint a picture in their mind, but not so much that you’re stepping on the their toes. You have to find a way to make your intentions clear in the text while still leaving the artist room to add their own personality. Super-tricky thing.
I had a lot of trouble trying to dial that in correctly on Eldritch! in the beginning, but luckily Drew is imaginative enough to patch the holes my scripts didn’t cover. The thing is just gorgeous. In a horrible, “writhing eyeballs and tentacley babies” kind of way.Nrama: What's your favorite supernatural tourist trap? I'm partial to the Winchester Mystery House myself.
Alexovich: The Winchester House is so cool. Drew actually did a Sarah Winchester comic a couple years ago. Beautiful, eerie-lookin’ stuff, very different from Eldritch! ... You should check it out!
I can’t think of too many other supernatural touristy-type places I’ve been, but I do remember visiting a lot of real Old West ghost towns on vacation when I was a kid. My parents loved to go searching for those, the more remote the better.
My favorite one - and I don’t remember the name of this place, unfortunately - was some collapsing old mining town up in the Rockies, completely empty at the time except for me and my family.
One of the first buildings we went poking around in had the word “ART HOUSE” scrawled across the door. Looked like maybe an old theater, but over the years someone had filled the thing with all kinds of weird art pieces, mostly made from old furniture, doll heads, bones, animal parts, and so on. Graffiti all over the walls, crazy gibberish, bloody drawings, pentagrams, etc.Looking back, it was obviously just a place teenagers would go to get drunk, but man, when you’re 11 years old your mind just goes wild looking at that stuff. I thought we’d stumbled upon some Satanic cult.
I remember that town also had a churchyard with cages over all the old graves. Most ghost towns have that, I guess to keep people from stealing/vandalizing the headstones. But again, when you’re 11 years old those cages are obviously there to keep the zombies in.
Nrama: What's coming up for Sera?
Alexovich: Romance. Romance and monsters. I’ve never done a love story, so I figured it’d be a good way to challenge myself. But I’m throwing in some monsters just in case I choke. Volume 3 is called “Break Your Stupid Heart,” and I’m about halfway through it now.
Nrama: Something I've been asking everyone in this series: What sort of new opportunities do you feel have been opened up to individual creators and larger companies by new delivery systems such as iPads and smartphones, and what can they do to better take advantage of these opportunities?Alexovich: Well, the iPad’s already changed everything, hasn’t it? Most smaller publishers don’t even think in terms of “floppies” anymore. You serialize something through a webcomic or an app like Comixology, build your audience, then release a nice, classy print compilation at the end. Artists can do it with a publisher’s help, or totally on their own if they’re resourceful enough.
The field just keeps leveling, first with webcomics, then with the tablets, and now with Kickstarter. It’s cool to be a part of all that. If you’ve got an idea you think is cool, and you’ve got the time and determination to make it happen, there are way fewer dumb roadblocks in your way than there were a generation ago. You almost have to go for it, right?
Nrama: Who are some of your current favorite creators and their comics, online and off?
Alexovich: I already mentioned Ross Campbell and Faith Erin Hicks, who are both flat out geniuses. Faith’s last book, Friends with Boys, really clicked with me. The characters are just so vibrant. They’re real.The book is about a home-schooled girl who’s trying to tiptoe around the minefield of high school for the first time, and oh, she’s being haunted by a ghost at the same time. It was serialized as a webcomic before the book came out, and everyone should buy it. Her style is phenomenal.
If you’re looking for some other pretty webcomics with a kind of animation-ish style, you can’t really go wrong with The Abominable Charles Christopher, Lackadaisy, Wapsi Square, Kukuburi, and anything by Jamie Smart. Corporate Skull is hysterical.
If you’re looking for some pretty paper comics with an animation-ish style, there’s a lot of great stuff going on now. Jill Thompson, Skottie Young, Adam Warren, Becky Cloonan, Sonny Liew, Jeff Smith, god, so many...
That kind of exaggerated look seems especially huge in Europe, so I try to pick up those gorgeous hardcover books they’ve got when I can. Yaxin, Blacksad, Sky Doll, Pierre Alary, Arthur De Pins, lots of cool stuff. Wish more of it was translated!Nrama: What's next for you, comics or otherwise? Alexovich: I’ve been working on Serenity Rose Vol. 3 in between other jobs, so that’ll probably take another year or so. Then I’d like to compile all three books into one mega monster of a thing. I’m planning a children’s book set in Crestfallen after that... Something where I can really lavish a lot of time and love on each page. I’m hoping to keep exploring Sera’s little witchy world forever.
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?Alexovich: Yes! If people want to follow me all Twitter-style, I’m at http://twitter.com/essrose, and my Facebooks are all up in https://www.facebook.com/aalexovich. I should probably be more diligent about using those for “marketing,” but there are just so many great cat videos that need to be shared, you know? Thanks for letting me blather on for a while!
Visit Serenity Rose and her witchy world at www.heartshapedskull.com.
That’s all for this round, but keep watching Newsarama for more webcomic interviews – and be sure to check out our archives for plenty of other great comics you can find online!