Huger Nerds Than I (or, The Skin Horse Interview: An Admittedly Long Post)

I knew I was in trouble when the characters from Skin Horse started invading my dreams — this after a long day of battling cold symptoms with various over-the-counter remedies and topping the evening off with a healthy dose of NyQuil. Even without medication, however, I imagine it wouldn’t be too hard for the characters in this web-comic-turned-graphic-novel to insinuate themselves into my psyche. They’re a little bit loopy, somewhat dirty-minded, occasionally violent, and on a mission from the US Government to integrate sentient non-humans into society at large. The only problem is that the non-humans tend to resist the team’s efforts with a vengeance. Take, for instance, the case of the helicopter with the human brain: He didn’t ask to be made into the perfect killing machine; life just dealt him a strange hand. So who can blame him for resisting a little when the Skin Horse team — which, by the way, consists of a talking dog, a rampaging patchwork zombie girl, and a cross-dressing psychologist — arrives at Area 51 to convince him to take a job in the public sector?

As bizarre as it is, Skin Horse is also funny and smart, with hints of Jonathan Swift’s keen sense of satire (not to mention his penchant for the absurd) and Neil Gaiman’s playful faith in magic of all forms. Visually, the comic strips that constitute Skin Horse are a cross between Doonesbury and Tintin, with a manga flare that lends itself nicely to the tongue-in-cheek violence of the proceedings. What’s more, creators Shaenon Garrity and Jeffrey Wells work wonders with the daily strip format, extending the premise-setup-punchline formula of gag-oriented strips to monstrously ludicrous proportions as each day’s joke builds upon the last to create teetering narrative towers of Rube Goldberg proportions. To put it another way, as the plot lines grow more ridiculous, the story gets better and better.

In 2009, Garrity and Wells collected their first year’s worth of strips into a single graphic novel. When volume two out earlier this summer, they took some time to answer a few questions about why they do what they do and, among other things, the effect of the Internet on the evolution of comics.

What was the inspiration for Skin Horse?

SHAENON: I don’t want to go into too much detail, but I’d been kicking around the idea of an X-Files-like organization that’s on the side of the monsters, a department in the little-known field of Black Ops Social Services. One day it occurred to me that the agents ought to be nonhuman themselves (except for one token human staff member), and the whole thing fell together immediately. In about twenty minutes I’d come up with the core cast. When I had the idea that the project director should be a sapient swarm of bees named Gavotte, I decided that this was a concept I needed to pursue.

That weekend I was at a panel at the Stumptown Comics Festival, and I described the concept to the audience. The reaction was pretty good. After that I felt like I had to do it, so I emailed Jeff.

Where did the title come from? In other words, why “Skin Horse”?

Skin Horse co-creator Jeffrey Wells

JEFFREY: The name “Skin Horse” is a reference to the book The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real by Margery Wilson, first published back in 1922, and yes, I had to use Wikipedia for that. The book deals with the trials and tribulations of a toy rabbit living in a nursery with a number of other toys; the oldest and wisest toy in this nursery is the old Skin Horse, who serves the title character in the office of spiritual advisor in his quest to become a real live bunny. Project Skin Horse, the fictional black-ops government organization depicted in the strip, presumably adopted this as a code name to give itself a (more-or-less unwarranted) aura of wisdom and competence. A lot of major story arcs in this strip deal with the “non-human sapient” clients of Project Skin Horse trying to find their place in the world, searching for a sense of identity and of self, which is the same thing the Velveteen Rabbit is doing. So I’m happy with the vibe this title gives off – at least for the people who know the story. If you don’t know the story, it might sound a little creepy. We’ve had that reaction from a couple people.

SHAENON: Yeah, I should probably pick more titles that don’t sound like they might be porn.

I get really into working little literary allusions and references into my comics. A lot of it is just postmodernist playing-around, but it’s a major part of the fun for me. Skin Horse has two major categories of allusions, and one of them is children’s books. So the title had to be a children’s book reference. Jeff is probably tired of this silliness; every time we introduce a new character, I’m like, “Great! What children’s book can we name them after?” But he indulges me.

Shaenon, you had a long track record of working on your own with Narbonic. Why did you end that strip, and why did you enlist the aid of Jeffrey when you embarked upon Skin Horse?

Skin Horse co-creator Shaenon Garrity

SHAENON: Narbonic was six years of joy, but I was very burned out by the end. I swore that if I ever did another daily strip, I’d get someone to assist me, because it’s a lot of work for one person who also has a day job. I was a big fan of Jeff’s prose writing, and we’d already done a Narbonic story together. When I came up with Skin Horse, I realized he had other credentials that would be useful on this particular project. Among other things, he’s an actual civil servant, so I figured he could lend an air of authenticity to a comic about a government bureaucracy.

I enjoy collaborating on comics. I’ve written a lot of comics for other people to draw, including Trunktown (with the great Tom Hart), Smithson (with Brian Moore and others), and Li’l Mell (with a rotating cast of guest artists), but this is the first time I’m doing it from the other side, as an artist drawing scripts from a writer. Of course I write some of the scripts too, and the overall plots come from the brainstorming Jeff and I do together.

Jeffrey, what was your reaction when Shaenon asked if you’d be interested in working with her?

JEFFREY: Best expression of my mood would be something along the lines of “REALLY!? ME!? COLLABORATE WITH YOU!? ARE YOU SERIOUS!?” So there were like four mental interrobangs in a row there, which I’m sure you will agree is far too many interrobangs. Keep in mind that by this time I’d been a rabid Shaenon Garrity fan for about five years, had positively devoured Narbonic and had let it take over my life to the point that it was invading my dream space. Shaenon and I had apparently been sharing a muse for some time, since well before we knew of each others’ existences, and I’d always viewed Shaenon’s work as a lot like mine, except, y’know, better. Shaenon’s sense of humor and the dedication she always appeared to bring to the craft always excited and inspired me, and so the thought of actually working alongside someone whose comics I’d admired for so long was… well, it’s like in those “making-of” interviews they’re always throwing onto DVDs to fill up space, where they have the Young Up-and-Comer actor talking about how gobsmacked they were at actually being on the set with these famous guys they’d been watching on the screen their whole lives. It was exciting, certainly, but there was also this sense of disbelief about the whole thing. It’s a feeling that still hasn’t entirely left me.

Skin Horse Volume Two

What is your writing process like? What does each of you contribute to the comic strip? How far in advance do you plan out story arcs?

JEFFREY: Shaenon and I are both obsessive pre-planners. We’re not sure exactly how long this strip is going to run, but it has an end, we pretty much already know what it is, and we have at least a shaky grasp of how we’re going to get there. One of the great delights of visiting Shaenon is looking through her folder full of thumbnails and seeing rough sketches of these strips that nobody else is going to see for years. It’s fan-gloat of the best possible kind.

SHAENON: Yeah, I’ve got one folder with all my thumbnails, some plotted for years in the future. I write strips all out of chronological order. When I’m out of ideas for the current storyline, I work on upcoming storylines.

JEFFREY: As for the writing process, it varies. Usually, it goes sort of like this: one of us has an idea that can be basically summed up as “Y’know, I’d like to do a story about (x),” where (x) can equal anything from “insane supercomputers” to “opossums.” For Shaenon, I think this impetus often comes from looking at a work of classic children’s literature in a new light, whereas for me, it’s more like, dude, I want to do a story about werewolves, OKAY? We brainstorm ideas for a little while, write up a few guidepost strips that either really exemplify the storyline or house some of the better jokes we thought of while brainstorming, then tentatively slot it into our strip timeline and proceed to not think about it for a while.

When it comes time for a storyline to go into active production, we take the strips we came up with in the pre-writing period and try to figure out how to link them together into some kind of cohesive story. As I said before, it varies a lot, but typically, I find myself scripting out a lot of the pedestrian stretches in between our moments of brilliance, while Shaenon swoops in, continually adding extra moments of brilliance and making my rather mundane strips a lot funnier, often by amping up the punch-line, which I find tends to be my weak point as a comic scripter. My background is in plays and long-form prose, and I still don’t think I have a perfect handle on the peculiar rhythm that comes from needing to elicit at least a smile or a chuckle every four panels.

Then Shaenon draws the whole thing by herself. I don’t really contribute to this part. You don’t know it yet, but you’re glad that I don’t contribute to this part.

SHAENON: Jeff sells his gag writing short. One thing he brings to the process is a tendency to write more action scenes and visual gags than I do, which forces me to be funny visually rather than just in the dialogue.

How do you keep Skin Horse fresh?

JEFFREY: Skipping the joke answers like “commercial-grade vacuum sealing” for a moment, it can be challenging at times. When you’re staring at a storyline that has been brewing in your head for, literally, years, it can be tough to summon up a sense of vitality. I think the trick is to never be so locked in to your preconceived notions about what a character will do or how a story will unfold that you can’t let something change and surprise you. Characters will sometimes do unexpected things on the page. The plot will take unexpected twists. If that happens, for the love of Pete, you gotta let it happen.

SHAENON: I think of Skin Horse as a single story, like Narbonic was a single story. So it’s less about keeping the individual strips fresh and more about making the plot and characters develop in a constantly interesting and funny way. I don’t want the story to drag.

What attracts you to the daily strip format? What challenges does this format pose? Do you ever think anything along the lines of, “If only I could do a splash page followed by a two-page spread,” or are you more comfortable constructing your narratives a handful of frames at a time?

SHAENON: I love writing and drawing daily strips. It’s a nice-sized nugget of comics, for me. I write longform comics, too, but the daily strip is just about the amount of comics one can comfortably draw in a day, and I like that sense of accomplishment. Like most people, I grew up reading comic strips. I’d reread my Calvin and Hobbes and Bloom County collections obsessively, and I guess it affected my sense of plotting and comic timing.

JEFFREY: Left to my own devices and given a medium that supported it, I would probably put huge splash pages about, um, every other page or so, which is not exactly ideal. I tend to be bombastic and melodramatic in my writing (and in my personal life, for that mater), and so I think that big, showy spreads attract me far more than they should. The four-panel format is challenging for me because it forces me to keep up the pace, to not dwell in and get caught up in the preciousness of my own writing. It’s good exercise, and what’s more, when we do break from this rhythm – when we do tear out the borders between the panels and present a scene that does linger for a while – it tends to be very powerful.

How do you think the Internet has influenced the evolution of comics?

JEFFREY: Shaenon’s probably far better at this topic than I am, but at the risk of stating the obvious, the advent of the Internet means there’s just that much more exposure out there for the independent and hobby artists of the world. For years before the advent of the World Wide Web as we know it, underground cartoonists were distributing their work and gaining exposure through handmade ’zines distributed at conventions and through various fandom channels, but it was all fairly insular. If Narbonic had been a pre-Internet ’zine instead of a webcomic, the odds that I would have even heard of it at all would have been vanishingly small. There are just a lot more potential viewers out there now, from a lot more social circles.

SHAENON: The Internet has definitely made it easier to make comics and get them out there. I’m a little disappointed that it hasn’t had a more dramatic impact on the structure or format of comics – most of us do the kind of art online that we could do just as easily in print – but it does make comics publishing accessible to anyone with access to a computer, which is cool. It’s also interesting to see the communities that spring up around webcomics, and the way cartoonists and readers can interact. We get a ton of great stuff from readers, from fan art to embroidery to the daily Skin Horse theme songs. It’s amazing.

What are your favorite web comics? Favorite comics in general?

JEFFREY: Well, as you might have guessed from my earlier responses, Shaenon’s Narbonic remains to this day my favorite webcomic of all time. Other than that, well… Chris Onstad’s Achewood blows me away with an almost disturbing regularity, I’ll say that much. David Malki!’s Wondermark is amazing, and I have a sort of guilty fondness for Justin Pierce’s The Non-Adventures of Wonderella. Also, in addition to my other nerdy qualities, I am a fairly dedicated role-playing gamer, and this means that I find Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick hilarious.

Outside of the Web, I’m something of a newcomer to the world of comics; aside from a few superhero books I read for a short stint when I was a kid, I was a near-complete virgin to this whole world before Shaenon turned me on to it a few years back. I’ve since read and enjoyed a handful of the landmark classics of modern comicdom – Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol, that sort of thing. But I really don’t have the depth or breadth of experience to give a really impressive answer to this question, especially when you compare me to Shaenon, who will doubtless shoot me out of the water in a few moments with a deeply intelligent and analytical treatise on Winsor McKay or something.

SHAENON: I like all the webcomics Jeff mentions, plus a bunch of others, inkling Jenn Manley Lee’s Dicebox, Dylan Meconis’ Family Man, Erika Moen’s recently completed DAR, Spike’s Templar, AZ, Ursula Vernon’s Digger, Kate Beaton’s history comics… Geez, that’s a long list. Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius is one of my longtime, all-time favorites, and Phil and Kaja have supported me like crazy all through Narbonic and Skin Horse. They’re two of the nicest people in comics, hands down.

As far as print comics go, I’m currently reading a lot of the reprints of old children’s comics, including all the John Stanley stuff (Little Lulu, Marvin Monster) and the amazing Tove Janssen Moomin comic strip. A friend just sent me a book of the original Little Lulu New Yorker cartoons by Marge Buell, and they’re fantastic. I hadn’t seen much of her work before. Funny stuff.

I hope I’ve lived up to Jeff’s expectations here.

Do you read any daily comic strips in newspapers? If so, which ones?

JEFFREY: I’m not a regular reader of newspapers, though I will make a point of stealing a glance at Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine (and, occasionally, Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy) before I line my birds’ cages with them. I am concerned about the decline in the modern American newspaper primarily inasmuch as I have no idea what I’m going to use as cage-liner if all the newspapers go away. Do I really want to use that many paper towels? No, I do not. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s terribly sad; it just doesn’t affect me directly all that much.

Yanking myself violently back on topic: I used to be a huge follower of Li’l Orphan Annie when I was very young, too young to fully realize how completely friggin’ insane that strip is. And I read Red Meat in the Onion, which is the only non-local newspaper I read with any regularity, largely because it’s free.

SHAENON: I have to admit I’m not following any newspaper strips regularly right now. The ones I kept up with the longest were For Better or for Worse and Doonesbury.

Do you ever have to explain Skin Horse to friends and family who don’t really get what you’re doing? If so, what’s that like?

JEFFREY: Surprisingly, once I lay it out to them, they seem to understand pretty well what it’s all about. Sure, it’s nerdy, but it’s a sort of nerdiness that is deeply rooted in American pop cultural stereotypes (mad scientists, secret agents, etc.) to which even the most unhip among us have had at least passing exposure. So it’s not really that hard. Anyway, most of my friends are even huger nerds than I am, so they sort of instinctively understand why a guy would want to write a comic strip about zombies and funny talking dogs and whatnot and accept it without further questioning. As for my family, I think they’re just sort of ethereally pleased that I’m doing something in my life that I seem to enjoy and earning a small amount of money in the doing of it. They’re practical that way. I don’t think they actually read the strip, quite frankly.

SHAENON: My parents shake their heads and try to be supportive. I think they wish I’d draw a normal newspaper strip, but a) the newspaper syndication business is terrible right now, and b) I wouldn’t be able to put in any swears. I have thought about drawing a strip for newspaper syndication, but it would have to be a very different strip from Skin Horse.

Do you have day jobs? How do they influence your work on Skin Horse?

SHAENON: I’m a freelance editor for manga publisher Viz Media; I handle about a half-dozen titles right now, including Hayate the Combat Butler (which really has influenced Skin Horse, strangely enough) and Case Closed. I do a lot of freelance writing and blogging about comics. Since my husband Andrew is the curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, we’re immersed in comics 24/7. I’m not sure whether or not that’s a good thing.

JEFFREY: As Shaenon mentioned above, I am a real life government bureaucrat, working for a social services department in urban Wisconsin, and a lot of incidental details of working for a low-level civil service job do tend to creep into the strip. One of the really funny things about Skin Horse for me is how the protagonists are these clandestine shadow-ops secret agents but they’re on the very bottom rung of the ladder, which means that, apart from their outrageous security clearance, they’re a just bunch of government schlubs, doing the really cruddy unglamorous jobs that come down from on high. So, a lot like me, except for, because this is an adventure strip and not an autobiographical one, sometimes they have to take a break from their collating and filing to save the world or something. But, yes, details do creep in. There’s a scene in a recent strip where one of the characters is attacked by a homicidal electric stapler, for instance… yeah. I’m not saying it actually leapt up and bit me, but there definitely was an “AAH! ROGUE STAPLER” moment, and the minute I said that, I was all, like, well, that’s going in the strip, isn’t it?

You’re part of group of artists and writers called the Couscous Collective. Could you tell us more about that group and how it came about?

SHAENON: I think it was originally Pancha Diaz’s idea. We’re all friends and we all make comics, so we decided to join forces. The Skin Horse books are the first trade books published by Couscous; we also do prints, minicomics and other projects together. I’ve got some more books planned under the Couscous imprint, and Leia Weathington is working on her book Bold Riley, with art from a bunch of amazing artists.

In one of Skin Horse’s story arcs, you have some fun with the conceit of The Matrix – but where Neo rebels when he finds out that his whole life is a computer-generated illusion, your character just kind of shrugs and gets on with his life. Are you making a point there?

JEFFREY: I think rebellion is fundamentally based on a lack of creature comfort – something that makes you happy has either been physically denied you, or you’re afraid that it will be soon. You can couch it in a lot of principled rhetoric, but if you’re provided for and entertained, the odds that you’re going to be stirred into revolt are low. It’s the old “Bread and Circuses” maxim. One of the fundamental ideas The Matrix is based on is this concept that there’s this large-scale revolt against enslavement by the machine world, but that in the meantime, everyone’s being maintained in their boring, humdrum, everyday lives; for all practical and perceptual purposes, this whole oppressive regime really doesn’t affect them at all. I’m just not certain you’d get the kind of revolutionary fervor you’d need for a proper uprising in that situation. People like boring and humdrum.

The other thing The Matrix is based on is the idea that you can somehow get MORE energy out of a human being than you’re putting into him with some sort of reddish-pink nutrient goo, which is really kind of dumb, when you think about it. Why don’t they just run themselves off all the energy they’re presumably using to manufacture this nutrient goo stuff? And if you tell me that they’re using the energy they generate from human electrical systems to run the nutrient goo factories, I have to hit you with a stick and then we need to sit down and have a little talk about entropy. Don’t get me started on this.

SHAENON: Oh, Jeff, don’t try to make The Matrix make sense. You know it’ll never happen.

I don’t see Nick’s story as about The Matrix per se, but more about the whole genre of cyberpunk and virtual-reality stories (especially the earlier fiction about cyborgs from the 1970s – readers have pointed out that Nick’s situation is reminiscent of Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Sang, although I guess he’s more The Ship Who Cussed People Out a Lot and Bitched about Them on LiveJournal). It’s not a genre that interests me much as a sci-fi fan, but I liked the idea that a transhuman would be not the sort of badass cyberpunk hero you get in Neuromancer or Snow Crash or The Matrix, but a socially-backward young nerd who grew up ensconced in digital culture. Those are the people who would be able to live amphibiously in the physical and cybernetic worlds. They wouldn’t be very cool, and they might even kind of suck at being human.

Jeff is probably on to something when he talks about comfort and rebellion, but the humor of Nick’s VR existence, for me, is that it takes such a ridiculously low level of comfort to keep him placated. In the “Dream Sequence” arc of Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder, there’s a company that’s able to keep its employees working under miserable, humiliating physical conditions by giving them totally awesome Internet access, so they can just ignore what their bodies are doing all day. Nick would be perfectly comfortable with that deal. At the outset, anyway; he might feel differently later on.

Nick is my favorite character in Skin Horse. He was Jeff’s creation, originally, and I just love him to death and adore writing cranky dialogue for him.

There’s a decent amount of social commentary throughout Skin Horse. Do you consider yourselves satirists? Is there an agenda to what you do, or is it all for fun?

JEFFREY: It’s all fun. I mean, there’s no ulterior motive. I’m not out to change the world. There’s just certain things about modern life, about the state of American government, that I find hilarious, and these things just naturally worm their way into my attempts to be funny.

SHAENON: I second-guess the underlying themes and sociopolitical motivations of everything I write, but in the end you’ve got to just put it out there.

One of the running themes in the strip, and one of the reasons I chose the title Skin Horse, is “what is real?” In the background of the Skin Horse world is an ongoing struggle over who and what gets to be considered “real” by the standards of society, and how unreal things should be dealt with. This will become more of an issue as the strip goes on.

Do you ever imagine Skin Horse as a movie? Any thoughts on who might star in it?

JEFFREY: I know this is a popular line of speculation with any sort of non-acted medium, and it’s always a little weird to me. Why aren’t we going to see our favorite summer blockbuster and saying to ourselves, you know, Alan Dean Foster could do a really kickin’ novelization of that film? Of course, since we’re talking Alan Dean Foster, he probably already has, but that’s beside the point. The fact is, I usually just see the characters in my head as they’re presented in comic; I don’t really spend a lot of time going beyond that. Off the top of my head, I think Orlando Bloom would be a pretty acceptable Tip, if he could keep the accent under wraps. Dame Judi Dench and Julie Andrews would both excel at voicing Gavotte, the prim and proper swarm of bees who serves as the agency’s director. Beyond that, I’m not sure; when people pose this question to me, I always jump to Gillian Anderson for the voice of Sweetheart, the officious and bossy talking dog field commander, but I think that’s just because I’m thinking of her role as Moro in the English dub of Princess Mononoke. Maybe Frances McDormand would be a better choice. I don’t know!

SHAENON: These debates are always extremely goofy and I love them anyway. How would you make a Skin Horse movie, though? Half the characters would have to be special effects! It’d be awesome to do it up old-school with stop-motion or puppets from the Jim Henson Creature Shop. Make it look like Labyrinth.

What do you like best about being the creative team behind Skin Horse?

JEFFREY: I enjoy making Shaenon dance to my whims. I’m all like, okay, in this next scene we have a big clockwork spider made out of Cadillac parts. This is the sort of thing that’s about seventy to eighty times easier to write than it is to draw but SHE GOES AHEAD AND DRAWS IT ANYWAY. (Quite well, too, I might add.) I am beginning to suspect I am a very mean co-author. I am also convinced that, as Sweetheart would say, the suffering I bring to her builds character.

SHAENON: I knew I was in trouble when, early on, he sent me a script that called for a scale-model Renaissance castle made of office supplies. More recently, it was a robot spider made out of parts from a Cadillac Eldorado. Thanks, Jeff. I’m sure it builds character.

JEFFREY: Seriously, this is a dream-come-true gig for me. Every day, I get to see something that I’ve helped create, something I co-produced along with my favorite working cartoonist. I’ve gone from obsessive fan to actual, full-fledged co-creator, and this is the sort of thing that just doesn’t happen to people. I am a lucky, lucky guy.

SHAENON: I have some obsessive-compulsive itch in my brain that makes me draw comics all the time. I try to channel it into something entertaining. More than anything, I just want to keep people reading.