Welcome back to Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics for our special look at comic creators who’ve gone from print to online. Today, we’re going to meet a not-so-ordinary girl who stars in an acclaimed new graphic novel that appeared online first.
Annah Billips may or may not have a sister named Ginger, who may or may not have once been part of Annah’s brain until she was removed by Annah’s dad, who may or may not be a mad scientist. For that matter, Annah may or may not be crazy.
What’s the truth? Find out for yourself as you’re guided through Annah’s life by a host of narrators, from Annah herself to friends, passers-by, and the occasional animal. It’s the oddball tale of Gingerbread Girl, that’s newly-available from Top Shelf Productions…or you can read the whole thing online in 33 installments here.
The couple in charge of Annah’s oddball world are a married pair of creators familiar to readers of Marvel Comics – Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover, whose work you’ve seen on such books as Spider-Girl and many, many shorts such as I Am An Avenger #4. We talked to Tobin and Coover about why Gingerbread Girl premiered online first, the advantages of premiering your graphic novel online, and the sheer strangeness that is Annah Billips.
Newsarama: Paul, Colleen – tell us the basic story of Gingerbread Girl.
Paul Tobin: It's the story of Annah, who may or may not be insane. We follow her through a night in her life, following along with her on a date while a series of narrators attempt to determine if Annah really DOES have a sister that was grown from a part of her brain, extracted by a mad scientist father.
And we have a lot of fun with the narrators, using not only Annah herself, but also her date, a failed suitor, a store clerk, and even such narrators as magicians, pigeons and bulldogs.Colleen Coover: It’s kind of sweet, kind of melancholy, and funny, too. It’s a difficult book to categorize, and much of the story is told in a way that only works with comics; visual iconography like paper dolls and rebuses, for example.
Nrama: Why did you decide to serialize the book online first?
Tobin: Because it's a great promotional tool. It gives readers a chance to look at a story, and a myriad of opportunities to buy the actual book. The comic book industry is, at times, a bit too based on a "what's out this Wednesday" attitude... and this way readers can watch the book grow, and have their interest grow at the same time. It's a win / win situation: reader get a free look, and we get free advertising.
Coover: It’s a strategy we know has been successful for other books, and we’re hoping that word of mouth from the serialization will translate into more readers with each update.
Nrama: What was the initial inspiration for this story?
Tobin: At the time, I'd been reading a spate of auto-bio comics, a genre that quickly grew rather boring. The stories themselves can be momentarily interesting, but the spark of imagination, the sense of whimsy, they were missing for me.
So I wanted to tell a biography of a strange woman, and I wanted a cerebral story. The story of a woman who may have had a sister grown from part of her brain was just one (albeit odd) step away.
Coover: And I think we both wanted to do something unlike anything either of us has done before. Both Banana Sunday and my own Small Favors were pretty light-hearted, so it was time for us to sink our teeth into something that required a little more from both ourselves and the audience.
Nrama: What's your collaborative process like?
Tobin: I wrote the entirety out in script form, and then walked Colleen along through the art for a very short time, designing the characters. As soon as possible, though... I jumped back and let her play.
And, of course, while designing the story, I made sure to choose scenes / people / events that I thought Colleen would like to draw. It's rather hideous how many writers don't take the time to engage the artist in what they want to do.
Coover: He does give me fun things to draw, though he also likes to keep me on my toes by giving me stuff I’ve never had to draw before. Bulldogs, for instance. This was the first time I’d been asked to draw a bulldog. Soon to be followed by everything I ever drew for Nate Cosby while he was my editor at Marvel, but that’s a whole other story.
Nrama: You've each gotten followings from your work at Marvel -- what's the challenge in carrying that over to creator-owned work?
Tobin: We'll see. It's worked well so far. Obviously, we both have a pool of readers that we can talk to, and I like to think that I bring a sort of "independent" feel to my work at Marvel and other companies, so the hope is that a good number of them are just as much a fan of my writing as they are of Spider-Man, or Batman.
Coover: The fans we have interacted with, either online or in person at shows, are pretty well-rounded in their reading, so I’m pretty confident we’ll get a fair amount of crossover appeal.
Nrama: What's it been like working with Top Shelf?
Tobin: Fantastic. Brett Warnock lives just a few blocks from Colleen and I, so it's easy to grab a bite and discuss comics, and life, and whatever topics a couple of mojitos inspires.
Coover: Or margaritas.
Nrama: What's the trick in figuring out how to break the chapters down into online installments?
Tobin: We didn't originally plan for it to be broken down in that manner, but once we decided to go in that route, it was fairly easy. Every few pages there was a beat, a transitional moment. There are so many narrators in the book that someone was always stepping in to create a nice break.
Coover: The segments are all between two and four pages long, as I recall, and each one has its own complete “thought”. I think it’ll work out very nicely!
Nrama: How much of the book will ultimately be on Top Shelf's site, and how long will it be up there? Do you see the advantages of using a full online version as a "loss leader" like Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber did with Underground?
Tobin: Of course we're going to lose a few sales from people who read the entire project, but I think we'll gain quite a few more from people who wouldn't have otherwise been exposed to the work. So, it's a gamble of sorts, but a very worthwhile one.
Nrama: How was working on this different from such past collaborations as Bannana Sunday?
Tobin: Not much different, really. Colleen and I are fairly set in the ways that we're comfortable working together. I put on my Hugh Hefner bathrobe, put some Mozart on the iPod, some Ca' del Bosco champagne in a glass, then I latch my bubble pipe in the side of my mouth and set to work on the script. Afterwards, I hand it to Colleen, who brings my words to life while I discuss the latest soccer scores in the sauna at my gentleman's club.
Coover: …meanwhile I cleanse my mind in my specially constructed sensory depravation chamber, emerging to partake of my daily repast of sea-salted caramels and imported durian fruit. I then don my “Artin’ Hat” and lo, I am ready to make illustrative magic happen.
Nrama: This also marks a return, for both of you, to your slightly naughtier roots in comics -- at least, based on the story so far, there's a bit more sexuality and randiness than a Marvel Adventures book. How much more adult would you say the story gets as it unfolds -- both in terms of plot complexity and sexual content -- and do you have any concerns that some parent will go, "Oh, that's the fellow that does that Spider-Man book! My kid would love this!" ?
Tobin: It never reaches too high in the risque factor. The sexuality of some of the main characters is definitely on display, but not really a central factor. I'd rate it as "playful" rather than "OMG!" And I'm not at all worried about parents thinking it's a book for young tots of impressionable ages: it's going to look like an entirely different beast than my Marvel Adventures work.
Coover: Yeah, we’re certainly not marketing it to young readers, and I think even a cursory glance at the content would show that it wouldn’t really appeal to anyone younger than, say, and older teen.
Nrama: What's different about collaborating with each other than with other people?
Tobin: Trust. And availability. And pressure. I think Colleen takes the pressure higher when she's working with me, since I become a de facto sort of editor, and one that will KNOW when she's playing Mass Effect 2 rather than putting in seventeen hours straight at the drawing board.
Coover: Yeah, we’re both even more conscious than usual about bringing our “A” game to our shared projects, because we not only want to please our collaborator, we want to make them look their best, and we have to live with them, too!
Nrama: The story's in a slightly smaller-than-regular size. Was it designed this was consciously, and what's different about working at this size than at a "regular" comic? Do you feel it formats better for online use, and are there plans for distribution to such media as the iPad?
Tobin: We experimented with a tighter page format in order to heighten the personal feel of the story. Gingerbread Girl is really about character, mental character, and the page design allowed for a more intimate look, and also a more panoramic look at the same time. I think it should translate nicely to iPads and so forth, and we're talking about exploring that avenue.
Coover: And it looks cool.
Nrama: Do you feel the electronic medium represents the future of comics, and if so, what do you feel creators and companies can do differently to embrace the opportunities of this medium?
Tobin: I do think it's a very necessary part of the future. The very near future, actually. It's very much time for companies to start formatting for the electronic medium from point one of the process, rather than trying to wedge it in afterwards. And, really, to explore new ways that can further what we've already been doing.
I think we can get deeper into the characters and storylines (page count need not be as restrictive online) and develop bombastic ways to have the action really explode outward at the viewer. An interactive format that a reader can really delve into... I think that's the future.
Coover: It don’t have a crystal ball or anything, but I am confident that if I did, it would be all, “get ready for digital media!” Nobody knows what’s going to happen with comics publishing, but it’s clear that we’re all going to have to be ready to adapt to whatever comes down the pipe.
Nrama: What's next for both of you?
Tobin: I'm continuing my work on Spider-Girl, and then Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man, and Marvel Adventures: Super Heroes. There's another title in the works. I'm self-publishing a strange little novel entitled "Childless," and working on two other novels.
Colleen and I have began work on a new OGN entitled, Imbecile: A Love Story A couple other Not-To-Be-Named projects... not that they're unspeakable in the Cthulhuian sense, but just haven't been announced yet.
Coover: As Paul said, we’re working on Imbecile, and I also have some secret stuff in the works. Meanwhile, I’m illustrating a book on gardening for a publisher that specializes in, well, gardening books.
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
Tobin: This is America, and it's 2011. Why aren't we all being issued personal monkey valets? What's wrong with this 3country?
Coover: Go Timbers! Portland, Oregon! Soccer City, USA! No Pity!
Meet the Gingerbread Girl now in stores, or online here
Next: Our look at print-to-web wraps up as Doug TenNapel introduces us to Ratfist. And coming soon: A special week of webcomic interviews with Kate Beaton, John Allison and more!