Welcome back to our countdown to the Small Press Expo(SPX), where we talk to creators featured at this weekend’s celebration of independent comics. Today, we talk to one of the show’s special guests, whose work will catch your eye…and leave you looking over your shoulder.
Emily Carroll’s gorgeous, twisted short stories have earned widespread acclaim online. Her tales, many of which are available on her website, pay homage to classical styles of illustration while gradually building up terrifying twists, psychologically-disturbed characters, and endings that will haunt your dreams. She’s now poised to reach her biggest audience yet with the recently-released hardcover collection Through the Woods from Simon and Schuster’s Margaret K. McElderry Books, which features five terrifying tales, four of which are original to this collection.
Carroll, whose artwork was also featured in the hit independent computer game Gone Home, talked to us about her work, her influences, the importance of independent comics and more.
Note: Images included here are from different stories on Carroll’s website; only “His Face All Red” is in the Through the Woods collection.
Newsarama:Emily, tell us about Through the Woods and what you'll have for sale at SPX.
Emily Carroll: I’ll just have Through the Woods at SPX -- it’s my first book (and all two of my past mini-comics are out of print for the foreseeable future). Through the Woods is a collection of short stories, all (ideally) rather scary, very much influenced both in terms of art and writing by the picture books and scary story collections I read as a kid.
Nrama:What was the experience like of putting this book together? I'm curious if there were any challenges in translating some stories originally designed for the scrolling process of being online into a hard-copy form.
Carroll: There are five main stories in the book, capped on either end by short introduction and conclusion stories, and all except one of these is unique to the collection.
“His Face All Red,” which I first posted online in 2010, was adapted for print in the book, which meant there were some difficulties -- I used, largely, a nonstop scroll with that comic online, and here I had to think about the story beats a little more, where page turns felt most natural while still pacing the reveals in a way that would build tension. I also replaced all the text with new hand lettering, since I had never much liked the way the lettering appears online.
Ultimately though, when I wrote all the stories for this book, I was keeping the printed page in mind, and had no real interest in struggling to adapt some of my webcomics for print (and for most of them, it would be a definite struggle because of all the formatting issues). I think “His Face All Red” is maybe the easiest one to make the switch though, since I didn’t use a whole lot of web-specific tricks on it.
Nrama:What draws you to the horror genre?
Carroll: I’ve always been interested in horror, ever since I was little (my dad and older brother were already big into it too, so there were a lot of horror movies watched in our house). I read a lot of it when I was a kid too, and sometimes it felt like I was tapping into something a little off-limits, which was exciting.
Horror’s fun to create because it relies so heavily on provoking a strong reaction in the reader or it completely doesn’t work -- I’ve read/watched so many horror movies and horror stories that were in the latter camp, and so I suppose in a way I’m aiming to create the sort of horror that would scare me personally. Or failing that, at least capture the imagination of the kid I used to be.
Nrama:What are some of your all-time favorite tales of terror, explicitly within the genre and just stuff that scares/unsettles you?
Carroll: My favourite scary stories book are the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell, which broadened my knowledge of folklore while simultaneously scaring me half to death. I read them all the time as a kid, and still read them every so often now.
More recently books like The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons, White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson have been big influences, creating the sort of creeping unease that I aspire to (these are all haunted house stories I’m realizing, I guess I like haunted houses a lot). Shirley Jackson’s short story work too, just in general.
In terms of comics Junji Ito is my favourite horror creator, I love his short story collections, and also the Tomie series, but also Julia Gfrörer, who creates horror that is full of sadness and longing, which is a combination I like very much.
Nrama: What are some of the books/illustrators, both in and outside of comics, that have had the greatest influence on you work? I got an Edward Gorey vibe from "The Prince & the Sea," for example.
Carroll: It’s funny you should make that connection, because the art in “The Prince & the Sea” is based really explicitly on the work of Henry Justice Ford, who illustrated the Color Fairy books edited by Andrew Lang – I say “explicitly” because the prince’s costume is actually lifted almost exactly from on particular illustration in, I think, The Blue Fairy Book. He continues to influence me though, not just because his artwork is beautiful, but because his ties to fairy tales, which are another major influence of mine.
Otherwise, there are too many to name -- but I’ll try. Junji Ito, mentioned above, is a massive influence on my art. Same with Charles Keeping, who illustrated the most terrifying edition of Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman” ever. Others include Jillian Tamaki, Angie Wang, Sam Alden, Eleanor Davis, Sophia Foster-Dimino, Marian Churchland… I could go on.
Nrama:What do you feel are some of the unique ways the Internet can let you tell a story, particularly a horror one? I'm thinking of that Korean one with the ghost and the limited flash animation a few years back that made me jump twice, I'm not ashamed.
Carroll: I feel in greater control when I make a webcomic really -- it’s more difficult to “flip ahead” and check for scares, or accidentally see something that gives the mystery away. There’s also the long scrolling you can do, which lends itself nicely to horror and mounting tension, giving that sensation of sinking deeper into the story.
There are, of course, things like gifs and limited animations and even sounds that you can use, but I think too much of that and it can really take a reader out of the story.
It depends on what sort of horror you want to do too -- a jump scare like the one that appears in “The Bong-Chon Dong Ghost” comic you mention could work perfectly well for that comic, but it doesn’t really fit with the sort of stories I create, which are generally slower burns of creepiness (though I will say I think the story in “The Bong-Chon Dong Ghost” is scary enough on its own, jump scare aside, but that jump scare is so iconic that it overwhelms everything else).
Nrama:Tell us a bit about your artistic process for creating a typical story.
Carroll: Once I have an idea (which can be easier said than done) I begin jotting down notes, maybe turns of phrase even, maybe some visuals, and then alongside that begin thumbnailing panels/pages (depending on whether it’s for print or web, something I decide right away -- this will influence everything that comes after).
I usually start working on finals before I have all the rough writing completed. I might have a beginning and an end but not sure what the middle is going to be -- sometimes just seeing it turn into final art, with color and everything, crystallizes some things about the story to me. I can see that it is something I am serious about finishing.
For the bulk of my comics, I ink with a nib or a brush on Bristol, scan it all in, and then assemble the panels on the computer. I have a sort of collage approach. I have disparate elements of graphite and pencil that I will layer onto panels and adjust so I can fuss about things looking exactly right.
I’m a really messy, impatient artist, I am constantly spilling ink and getting smudges everywhere, so this allows me a greater degree of tidiness and control. From there I experiment with color, if I’m doing a color comic. Usually I have a pretty good idea already of what the colors will look like even when I’m in the thumbnail stage though. Color is a huge part of telling the story in many of my comics, whether or not I’m using it and how I’m using it gets addressed very early on.
Nrama:I'm also curious about how you feel regarding the reaction to Gone Home -- it got some amazing acclaim, and has been credited as a real groundbreaker. Also, do you have plans to work on other games in the future?
Carroll: I feel great regarding the reaction to Gone Home! I was happy to have a part in it, I think it’s a wonderful game, one that would’ve completely floored me when I was sixteen or seventeen. My wife, Kate Craig, is the environment artist for Fullbright, the tiny company who created it, so I’ve been able to witness all the acclaim and meaningful feedback firsthand.
And yes, I hope to work on other games in the future, definitely. Last year I also released a short multiplayer game called The Yawhg, which I co-created with indie developer Damian Sommer.
Nrama:What do you feel is important about shows like SPX and what they represent to the industry?
Carroll: I will admit this will be my first time attending SPX, but I’ve been hearing amazing things about it for years now, before I even started making my own comics. In general, I’m very much new to conventions and festivals in general, having only been to a handful in the past. From a personal perspective, given that I exist mostly as a solitary creator working alone at home all day, it can be a welcome jolt of energy to be around other artists I know online, even if just for small periods. At its best, it’s like dunking my head in a pool of cool water.
I’ve been to a few shows just as a visitor though, and just wandering around and seeing all these comics and creators I would not necessarily have found otherwise, I find new things that end up influencing me all the time. At shows like TCAF I am constantly tripping over amazing work that strikes something inside me.
Nrama:What are some other comics/creators at SPX that you'd recommend to people, both at the show and in general?
Carroll: There are a ridiculous number of amazing creators at SPX this year, so just off the top of my head… Cathy G. Johnson, Eleanor Davis, Brandon Graham, Sam Bosma… there are just too many. Otherwise I would just recommend the people I’d cited as influences too (and actually most of them are going to be at SPX too, sheesh).
Nrama:What's next for you?
Carroll: I’ve just wrapped up art for Baba Yaga’s Assistant, a YA graphic novel written by Marika McCoola which will be out from Candlewick sometime next year. I’m currently working on a 32-page comic for Youth in Decline for their Frontier series, which should be out this fall (and it is horror).
This year and the next I will be working with author Laurie Halse Anderson to adapt her 1999 novel, Speak, as a comic. In between all this are a lot of other projects too, just smaller, spaced out. I’d like to do more webcomics but I’ll need to find the time first.
Emily Carroll will be at table W84-87 at SPX, and will appear as part of the panel “Making Art on the Internet” at the White Oak Room at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept.14.
Next: Farel Dalrymple takes us into the surreal world of The Wrenchies! And later, we’ve got Eleanor Davis and Jules Feiffer!