Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
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BAKER'S DOZEN for 11/26/2003
Her Gal Friday
Barb Lien-Cooper on Gun Street Girl
There's been a digital revolution going on in comics for the past few years, with perhaps the most obvious example being in the areas of computer coloring and lettering. However, the advent of cheaper and faster access to the web, combined with cheaper, faster and more powerful computers, has led to another kind of revolution in the four color world -- one which frees the small press publisher-creator from having to physically print a comic in order for folks to read it.
Say it with me, folks: Webcomics.
Now, while webcomics aren't any newer, per se, than is the idea of using comics to effect social or political change, there's been relatively few comic creators who have combined their own revolutionary intentions with this new digital delivery system. With the recent launch of Gun Street Girl on the excellent www.GraphicSmash.com site, there's one more ... albeit one with an emphasis on action-adventure. That comics journalist and writer Barbara Lien-Cooper is behind this slyly subversive strip will come as no surprise to those who know her and her work, but that's not to imply that even they won't be surprised by what Barb and company are trying to do in -- or with -- this wild ride on the digital highway to a very different version of London.
Bill Baker: So who is the Gun Street Girl, or woman, of the title, what kind of world does she inhabit, and who are some of the significant folks around her?
Barb Lien-Cooper: The name of the comic is Gun Street Girl and it's published on the web by Graphic Smash (graphicsmash.com). The phrase "Gun Street Girl" comes from a Tom Waits song. Usually, I don't like using the word "girl" to describe a young woman, as it's a little condescending. But, to quote the book, Fast Talking Dames, "'Girl' is a word that enjoys peculiar license in American slang. It entails, in the first and most common instance, an endearment that suggest both the dream of easy companionableness---a girl is a pal---and a reticence in admitting adult sexual feeling." The word sort of defined the parameters of the comic I wanted to write, therefore. I've always thought that the non-romantic friendships between men and women were slightly unexplored ones in terms of comic book fiction. So, I thought of a "Gun Street Girl" as a girl Friday, albeit it one you don't mess with.
Gun Street Girl is about an openly gay American young woman named Elizabeth who ran away from home because of parental abuse and the way she was treated by her peers at school when they discovered she's a lesbian. She ends up in London, where she changes her name to Liz Pendragon, in much the way John Lydon changed his name to Johnny Rotten---as kind of a young punk thing to do. The London of GSG is pretty much like the London we know, except magic and monsters are real and accepted as part of the fringe of pop culture.
One night, through chance, Liz meets a down and out magician named Eddie Caution. After a fight with a Tengu, where Liz proves herself to be a daring fighter, Eddie asks her to be his hired gun. In this version of London, a magician needs to have someone do the legwork and face down the monsters and mob threats, so Liz becomes the world's first female Gun, fighting off the baddies.
While a lot of Gun Street Girl is involved with the supernatural and magic, it isn't exactly a "monster of the week" comic book. Instead, it's about a young woman coming of age under very rarified circumstances, trying to discover herself, trying to deal with her past, discovering the real emotional costs one often has to face for being an individual and living one's life one's own way, tolerance of others' lives and lifestyles, dealing with loneliness, and the value of friendship. All this and lots of shoot 'em up action, to boot! Just because I'm doing a lot of characterization stuff doesn't mean I'd ever skimp on the thrills that a good action-adventure comic book has to have.
As to the cast, obviously there's Liz and Eddie at the forefront. It's nice to have two lead characters, as the interplay between the two makes for some great dialog and chances to show off the characters' light and shadow (not to mention, their backstories). I can also slant a story towards one or the other being featured a bit more prominently in an episode, which makes for more interesting stories. Also, having two lead characters means I can tell the audience any exposition in the most entertaining way possible. I hate boring exposition---and comics excel in it, due mostly to creator laziness or ineptitude. Even creators I like have no idea how to make exposition interesting. Aren't you sick of comics where two characters are talking and it's obvious that the dialog is in their mouths, not because that is how they'd talk or what they'd talk about, but because the audience needs to be given the exposition? Dorothy L. Sayers once said that the reason a detective has a partner in detective fiction is to give the reader information in an entertaining manner. Even though I cut exposition to the bone in Gun Street Girl, what exposition is there is fun to read, reveals a lot about the characters and their relationships, and has some style and wit to it. Name me one other comic you can say that about.
In addition to Liz and Eddie, we have Prana, who is Liz's girlfriend. Prana makes for some interesting and slightly uncomfortable dynamics in the comic, as she and Eddie are very much at loggerheads about what Liz should be doing with her life. It's not as simple as a romantic triangle, though. It's more sort of like two divorced parents fighting over the decisions of raising a gifted and sensitive child, but having their own wants and needs get in the way of what's best for the kid. I like having Prana in the book because I'm sick of comics where the protagonist has a romantic partner, but that partner is never featured, except in perhaps scene every blue moon of that person being supportive or worried or being rescued or whatever. In real life, sometimes people's friends butt heads with the person's romantic partner, so it seemed appropriate for Gun Street Girl, as I'm trying to bring some psychological realism to the action-adventure genre.
As to the other supporting characters, the most prominent are Max and the customers at his bar. Max is an information broker who is the owner of a bar for monsters, which becomes Liz and Eddie's "local" (Britspeak for the pub one frequents). When I was in England for my honeymoon, it amazed me how London rolled up the streets after dark except for the pubs. If you don't drink in the UK, you're sort of out of luck in terms of socializing or doing anything with the evening, so I knew I had to give Liz and Eddie a pub to go to on a regular basis. And, it's interesting to see the state of monster/human relationships as typified by the goings on at Max's. My monsters aren't cutesy things from all-ages comics. They work for the mob and shoot guns, they try and "pass" for human at regular jobs, they face terrible discrimination from the human world (and vice versa), and there's some real species to species tension going on here and there. I like the idea that in the GSG world, it's not as simple as "monsters bad, humans good." The truth is more complex.
Because I sort of saw Liz as an enforcer that just happens to be on the side of good and just happens to fight monsters, I envisioned an underworld that is run by magic, with monsters as thugs, and mob bosses ordering them around. So, we get to see mob boss types here and there, as well as the monsters involved in this underworld.
I tired to populate the world of Gun Street Girl with the type of characters you'd have in, say, a film noir or a good British gangster film like Mona Lisa or The Crying Game. But, then I went beyond making these characters "types" and focused on making them realistic as possible. Certain films, such as Freaks, Nightmare Alley, and Something Wicked This Way Comes also helped me shape my conception of what types of monsters and people should be in Gun Street Girl---and how they'd act and be reacted to. Liz grows up quickly in a dark and dangerous world---but, the ironic thing is that those who dwell there are actually kinder, more accepting, and more compassionate to her (in the main) than those in the "real" world she abandoned when she ran away from home.
BB: I've read elsewhere [on the excellent Sequential Tart website] that you intend to have Liz and Eddie mainly pursue smaller jobs rather than the apocalyptic ones. What lead to that decision, and what kind of benefits, and challenges, does that kind of focus present?
BL-C: What lead to that decision was that every last character involved with magic in comics and related geek culture always saves the world every story arc and is always the greatest whatsit in the universe. There's little chance to develop characters or show the nuts and bolts of the world the characters live in when there's no time to do anything but fight the "big bad". Since I hate clichés, I wanted to go the opposite way. I mean, look at all the characters in Vertigo comics. Swamp Thing went from being a reanimated-by-plants corpse back in the 1970's to being not just an elemental, but the most high and mighty/godlike of his kind, making for increasingly boring stories post-Alan Moore (although I'm rather fond of Mark Millar's time on the comic). Tim Hunter of Books of Magic couldn't just be a kid who had magical powers. He had to be the greatest thing since sliced bread. When characters are magical in comics, they're always the big cheese, never just someone who has a modest gift. And, that sense that everything has to be so very, very big leads to some damned pretentious language that people would never really speak. I was re-reading an old Neil Gaiman graphic novel last night and I just about choked on the portentous language. It's difficult to care for characters when they speak thusly and have such big powers.
I think a lot of male comic book fans started out reading those huge story arcs in Marvel Comics and can't get away from the idea of only big stories with stagy dialog being interesting to them. But (pardon the blasphemy) the big stories of the ilk that, say, Jack Kirby wrote, seem campy and dated to me. Frankly, I think that camp factor is what endears them to fanboys. I try to get fanboys to explain the appeal of the Marvel Comics of the 1960's to me and we always clash on that "Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth", windy talk and those never-ending storylines with the crossovers and the heroes that talk exposition while they fight (only to become friends later) and those insufferable internal monologues about not having the strength to go on but having to go on because one is a hero and all the angst about how much it sucks to be a superhero outsider and the big-ass cosmic villains that threaten to eat planets or destroy the human population or whatever and the female heroes with the big bee hive Jackie Kennedy hair who always seem to be there just to be rescued or to goof up so the story can go on an extra five pages or to put their hands to their heads to show that they're using their mental powers, as it might be seen as uncouth for a woman to actually punch someone out (pre-Rogue, that is).
That stuff bores me to death.
The comics I loved as a kid were comics like the type Denny O'Neil and Will Eisner wrote (how I managed to get old back issues of said comics is a story unto itself). They taught me to love hardboiled detective fiction and action-adventure stories with a social conscience and a sense of human interest. Eisner's The Spirit was a Sunday Supplement comic, so it was always just 8 to 10 pages, self-contained---there's no cosmic speak or expositional flab on those stories. There's a real sense of creativity, wit, pacing, and compassion to The Spirit. Eisner's comics taught me that it's rather hard to make someone care about a world being destroyed in a comic book. But, affect the lives of a few people you get to know well in a comic and you'll grab the reader by the heart.
I've always liked "small" films like Expresso Bongo and Paper Moon, about people who aren't the big winners in life. I think Expresso Bongo, about a small-time musician's agent that loses his one big chance at the big time, made an especially big impression on me, partly because Lawrence Harvey was absolutely astounding in it. I'm sure there's a bit of Expresso Bongo in Gun Street Girl (after all, it was the film that made Mr. McLaren want to manage the Sex Pistols). I saw Paper Moon when I was a little girl and it forever put in my head this love of grifters and the unusual alliances that males and females can make with each other out of loneliness. I like the gritty, the realistic, the human dramas in art, even when the setting is science fiction, fantasy, or horror.
Plus, one of my heroes as a teen was Ray Davies, head songwriter for The Kinks. He once said, "Ordinary lives are the most interesting." Sure, he never made an elephantine rock opera like Tommy. But, Pete Townsend could never write anything as compassionate and heart rending as "Waterloo Sunset" or "The Way Love Used to Be," either. Ray Davies, like the British kitchen sink films of the 1960's, taught me the value of writing smaller stories that could affect people deeply. I really wanted Gun Street Girl to be a British Kitchen Sink film that just happened to have monsters and magic in it, as those films are both dowdy and realistic, yet very magical to me.
I can't identify with demi-god type characters, be they superheroes or magical types. I dig flawed characters, as very few of us in the world are saints. Characters with a lot of light and shadow interest me the most.
Also, I know some real life "occultists" here and there and they never take on the "big bads", but they have fascinating cases nonetheless. For instance, I know a Reiki healer who's always butting heads with ghosts, spirits, angels, all that lot. Now, it's okay if people don't believe in Reiki or spirits or whatever. I'm not trying to convince people there are such things. I'm interested in such things, but I'm a heck of a lot more skeptical than, say, Shirley MacLaine (although I love her movies!). Let's just say that if magic were to exist in real life, it wouldn't be about saving the world every month. It'd be about using one's abilities to assist people in your little portion of the world. I'm the sort of person that makes up stories by thinking, "If ______ really existed in the world, it would affect people's lives like this or that." If magic really did exist, I think that a lot more people would be like that Reiki healer I mentioned than they'd be Zatanna!
On a practical level, I'm writing a web comic, where the audience probably doesn't have the patience to endure huge story arcs. So, going with smaller, self-contained stories keeps the audience's interest better.
Also, on a practical level, there are a lot of geek culture stories with magicians and magic. I wanted to distinguish this comic from Harry Potter, Books of Magic, Hellblazer (a toughie to do when you set a comic in magical London), and especially Buffy. I like those works well enough, but that's not how I see magic, magicians, or the magical subculture at all. In real life, a lot of magic is on the fringes, practiced by the poor and the disenfranchised. Think of Santeria or Voodoo, for instance. I went to New Orleans a few years back and visited the Voodoo shops. I remember one Voodoo practitioner on the phone to a client who I learned through eavesdropping was a politician that wanted to win his upcoming election. It was all done like a standard business phone call, with no hysterics or mysticism. The whole thing blew my mind because in New Orleans, magic is a part of the subculture and every day life. It's a mundane, exploited, part of the tourist trade, and so much a part of their lives it's pretty much taken for granted. That's how I see magic in a realistic fictional world with magic in it.
I remember Ryan Howe, one of the two main pencillers on the Gun Street Girl, showing me his first impression of Liz and Eddie. We all had a good laugh because it was a rather Buffy-like drawing. I knew Ryan was the right guy for the job when he said, "But, then I read the scripts and understood that wasn't what you're going for at all." He got it in one! There's a lot that pisses me off about Buffy, actually---the chosen one thing, the Wolverine type healing factor, the monsters that sometimes are there for camp value, the overly complicated but still not fleshed out world building, the wanky everyone having the hots for everyone else subplots, and especially the angst. The girl's Claremont X-Men level angsty. I wanted a magical London that was shady, dowdy, almost routine, but with magic and killing monsters being a real adrenaline rush and the most fun a person could have working for a living. I just got sick of all this "oh the hellish and terrible path I tread" stuff from Hellblazer, The Demon, the original Books of Magic graphic novel, etc. If magic isn't a fun profession, then quit!
The main challenge is to resist writing old plots that every other comic book writer has used (the evil twin, the "imaginary" story, the parallel universe story, et al). I wanted to show that only creatively lazy authors that only read other comics mine those mined out territories. I wanted to show that there are other, more interesting ways to tell stories than the same old clichés. Keeping the stories on a human interest level seemed the way to go, therefore. However, one has to keep the action/adventure going and not lapse into talking heads whinging on and on about their feelings or whatever. That bores me as much as the cliched action/adventure story. So, the challenge became integrating characterization with enough action to make people excited about the stories. I do that by keeping the challenges that Liz faces interesting and original.
BB: How's a typical episode created?
BL-C: I have a joke answer about little elves coming and making the comics during the night, as that's a lot what it's like. I just write the stories.
A story can come from anywhere, at any time. The best ones come fully formed in my head and just flow onto the page. Some stories I've written in a day. Others take weeks of chewing on and chewing on, working out details, both in terms of the story itself and how it fits in with the series continuity, in general. I loathe when a comic has wonky continuity, as it means either the book has gone on too long, it's had too many creators onboard over the years, or the creator just wasn't thinking. "It doesn't have to be that way," is my motto and my mantra.
I know that fanboys love that Byzantine continuity stuff like one has with Star Trek, Buffy, Superman, etc., but I don't. I especially dislike it because it leads to reboots, time crises, pan-dimensional whatsit multiverses expanding and contracting, crossover events that are just there to sell comics to the gullible, etc. I know that's what some people like about comics, but that stuff sets my teeth on edge. Plus, I think such things make it harder for a casual wanna-be comic book reader to get into the comic book habit. Comic book fandom is definitely a subculture, complete with its own language and rituals, but some of our more geeky affectations keep us a sealed off tribe, as opposed to a viable, living subculture that interacts with the mainstream. And, I know that's how some in the community like things and wish things would stay. But, to survive as a species, we'll have to breed outside our little gene pool of geek culture. If we don't, we'll continue getting the type of creative hemophilia that we're experiencing right now. I'm talking about all the emulations of past eras for no good reason, all the pop will eat itself comics like Alan Moore's ABC work (not to mention his 1963 mini-series and his Supreme issues---I love Moore, but hate this trend he's into lately), all those toothless spoofs of old comic book clichés, etc. I hate those brittle, kitsch, and precious type comics with no emotional impact because the characters have no psychological validity to them.
It's sad, as when comics started out, we were the mainstream. We were all just a bunch of new creators BS-ing brand new ideas around, vaguely based on the pulps and mythology. Now, we're all so interested in the forms and rituals of geekdom, we have all but forgotten how to write anything original. We're like some sort of pop culture monastery that's substituted custom for feeling. In order to thrive, we need to come out into the world and cut out some of our more arcane beliefs, speech, ceremonies, and prejudices.
End of my voice in the wilderness rant. I know it won't do any good, but like Cassandra, I'll keep on making predictions and forecasts, just because I feel them in my heart to be true.
Anyway, I generally won't write a story if it doesn't do something to show something interesting about the characters, their backstories, their reactions to each other, and/or the world they live in. I mean, Gun Street Girl isn't some superhero comic that's been published for over 600 issues because it's become product and Glorified Man has to fight the Laughing Hyena who's come back from the dead for the 40th time, for no better reason than that's what happens in comics. Bah on that stuff. Every story in Gun Street Girl is there because it matters, not just to sell comics.
Pop music, movies, books, mythology, pop culture, etc. are what I love and what my sources of inspiration----well, along with a deep desire to understand the motivations of human beings, as seen through the eyes of fiction. Ideas fire off more ideas, which is why I go out of my way to find new art to appreciate instead of watching the 27th part of Blond Boy of the Galaxy Chronicles or what have you for the 45th time the way a lot of fanboys do. Ideas are like farmland----if you overuse them, they lose their fertility and ability to feed us. I remember you and Mark Millar talking about how great it was that our community all likes the same art, as it made for instant friendships. Part of me agreed with that, but part of me was weirded out because I have never walked in lock step with everyone else in the fan community. I hate most geek films, for instance. I would have fallen asleep during Lord of the Rings, if the music hadn't been turned up so high it hurt my ears. I have a unique set of influences and I think they make my work stronger than if I were marching to the same drummer as everyone else. So, with Gun Street Girl, I did everything I could to bring in new ideas to the stories---stuff I hope the community hasn't seen before and stuff that I hope isn't done to death.
I prewrite in my head a lot. My husband knows not to disturb me when I'm in that mode. Then, I get it down on paper. Then, I tinker, tinker, tinker with the work until every last bit of it is running like clockwork. I've seen a lot of comics from young writers who don't know that re-writing is the most important part of writing. They seem to think that their first draft, with its punctuation and even spelling errors in it, is all one needs in order to write a comic. That's a myth. You want that story to mean something to someone, you have to polish it until it shines like gold. The reader isn't obligated to read or like your comic just because you wrote it and it's your baby. A comic is a gift to the reader, so care enough to send the very best.
After I'm done with the story, the rest is up to my husband, who sort of runs the business end of Gun Street Girl. I couldn't do my comic book work without him. He not only supports me emotionally and believes in my work, he also deals with organizing the art and the publication details. The story is e-mailed to my main penciller Ryan Howe or the series' other penciller, Brynn Sheridan (she's the new kid on the team and we're glad to have her). Ryan pencils the story pages, sometimes shows me the pages through an e-mail attachment, then he e-mails it to an inker (we have more than one), who puts it up on the FTP site (the place where artwork is stored on the web) or sends it to Ryan. Sometimes, we'll end up sending the story to a colorist, sometimes we go with black and white. We've had a devil of a time finding a colorist that can make a three page a week commitment, so we may go black and white for awhile for some of the stories. Then, Ryan letters the work, which is looked at by my husband and I for any typos or changes.
Brynn is doing all of these steps by herself, as she's a one woman art team, so my husband and I are somewhat more hands-on with her work. Ryan is someone we know quite well by now, so we know his style, his personality, and his capabilities. He's become sort of our "cinematographer" and right hand person. Brynn is an excellent budding talent. Eventually, I want to write Brynn a series of her own to draw, but I think it's cool that she cuts her teeth on Gun Street Girl. Both pencillers are very smart, so it's really fascinating to have this give and take with them about things like representations of women, how I want the pages, etc. But, ultimately, I have to just leave 'em alone to do their work.
BB: How much interplay, or give and take, on the story or script is there between you and Ryan Howe? How about you and the rest of the team?
BL-C: I was very lucky to get a penciller who could draw anything I threw at him, be it a crowd scene, a monster, or the subtlest facial expression. Because I have someone that talented, I started writing towards Ryan's strengths and throwing incredible challenges at him---stuff that I haven't seen done well in comics. For instance, I have a couple of ghost stories in the works, which will be interesting to see drawn. I mean, ghosts look stupid in comics, in the main, so I want to see if the guy can make them interesting and scary. It really sparks my imagination knowing that Ryan can draw anything I can think of in a story. I so much wanted to get away from the same old, same old in comic book art. I really wanted someone as sensitive to my work as Frank Quitely is to Grant Morrison's or Mark Millar's. Quitely and Steve Dillon are about the only two famous artists in comics I know and respect as people, so it's nice to have an artist like that. As I mentioned above, I've also just started working with a talented female artist named Brynn Sheridan, who I turned on to Guido Crepax's work, as that's what her pencils reminded me of. I'm going to be interested in seeing how that working relationship will develop. I'm already trying to write stories to her strengths. She has a lot of energy to her work, which I like. Ryan has energy, too, but a different kind. He has a kind of electric, eclectic realism type style, while Brynn is more expressionistic. I like both art styles, obviously.
We decided to get a second penciller on the series because people are bugging me for more stories ASAP. That's a nice complement concerning Gun Street Girl, obviously. While I can write great stories very quickly, artists have the tough time of things, as it takes any good artist significantly longer than it takes me to write a story.
But, I don't generally deal with the artists. My husband handles the practical end of things. He's very good with organizing people and getting the best out of them. Frankly, I think those qualities would make him an excellent comic book editor, as he always keeps a project going smoothly. Somehow, the art shows up like magic every so often. I look at it, make suggestions, and basically marvel at how something so wonderful came out of my scripts. Sometimes my attitude is like Margaret Mitchell's about the film version of Gone With The Wind. She said that she'd already written the story, so she had no interest in seeing the film. Sometimes, I'm like that.
I wrote the script, so whatever the artist does is okay by me. Other times, it just feels so unreal that people see stuff in my scripts worth drawing, so I just look at the pages as if some other writer wrote the work. Sometimes, I feel like the old Gilda Radner character on Saturday Night Live when she would say, "This stuff comes outta me?"
BB: What are you, as a writer, trying to do with this series in the short and long term, and why?
BL-C: One thing I'm not trying to do with the series is make it an audition piece for the mainstream. Hey, if people want me to write mainstream comics, I'm cool with it. But, it sometimes feels as if a lot of people go into the indie comics business to get noticed by the majors and/or get a movie deal. So, instead of the comics being done from the heart/mind/spirit/yarbles, it all feels like dealmaking to me lately, instead of trying to write work that matters. Yeah, getting paid is nice. I deserve to get paid for my work, as do the artists I work with. But, the only real advantage to that kind of fame (beyond making a living at something you love), as I see it, is getting enough power to write the projects you want to write with the minimum of editorial tampering. I can't be bothered to pay those "take on mainstream projects you don't care about and have you work dicked with so eventually you can have power to do your own thing" dues. I want my work to be unadulterated me right now without having to wait, based on subjects that interest me, instead of subjects I'm writing just to put bread on the table. I know this'll sound arrogant, but I can write as well as any comic book creator out there. I'm good enough to write mainstream comics for a living (then again, that's not saying much considering how many hacks there are amongst the good and great writers there). But, I could only do that with a work that I believed in. I don't want to do the 13th reboot of Captain Corporate or whatever.
When T Campbell, my editor at Graphic Smash, asked me that question about my goals for Gun Street Girl, I just said, "I want this to be the Watchmen of web comics, the thing that forces people to look at the medium in a different light." That's the short answer: I'm trying to write something fantastic.
The longer answer: I joined with Sequential Tart because I believe in what they believe in---that women read comics, we're a diverse group, and that we read a diverse number of comics. While at Tart, I waited in vain for a female writer to rise up and do work of the same quality as Jamie Delano, Peter Milligan, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, et al. The only two female comic book writers that I saw doing that were Rumiko Takahashi and Ann Nocenti. Right now, female comic book writers are sort of in the comic book equivalent of the "girl group" era of music, just doing cute, girly things or autobiographical slice of life comics, in the main. I wanted someone to be our Patti Smith and get us to the punk era and beyond. With the exceptions of Laurenn McCubbin (XXX Live Nude Girls) and Jane Irwin (Vögelein), I didn't see that happening. After a lot of soul searching I decided that if I wanted to see that appen, I had to do it myself. By nature, I'm a modest person, believe it or not, so I didn't want to do it. The idea of publishing my visions was daunting because it meant that I'd have to become tough, persistent, opinionated, and determined enough to get my creative work out there. So, I was content to wait. But, I got tired of waiting, so I wrote Gun Street Girl. This comic is my Horses, my Dry, my The Lion and the Cobra, my Exile in Guyville, my Germ Free Adolescents, my Plastic Letters. Gun Street Girl is my challenge to female writers to come into the punk era with me, as well as a challenge to the comic book audience to re-evaluate what a woman can do when she writes comics and the type of comics she can write. I hope that women will see Gun Street Girl and see that it isn't this totally impossible rocket science, that a woman can do this if she wants it badly enough. Gun Street Girl is just a first step in a journey. I hope that women will be inspired to pursue their own individual visions by it instead of going with what it's acceptable for girls and women to write.
As to why I'd put myself out there in such a public manner, well, like I said, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.
However, Gun Street Girl is not meant to be a comic for a female audience exclusively. Ninety-five percent of comic book readers are men, so I wanted to write something that would appeal to men while keeping faith with women readers. I really get a kick out of how many men like the comic, as I wanted to write something they could enjoy, but write it in a way that wasn't an insult to the women in the audience.
In my time at Tart, I've seen so many comic books with female heroines that were obviously written by men who only saw women as objects and couldn't write well-rounded female characters if their lives depended on it. So, I wanted to write a female character that I (and I hope the women---and men---in the audience) could admire and identify with. I wanted to write someone smart, brave, funny (and fun loving), daring, tough but tender, with light and shadow to her---in short, a well-rounded female character. I worked very hard to make Liz an imperfect person, but a fascinating character to read about.
Also, I wanted to write a comic where a man and a woman could be partners and friends without being set to be romantically involved, as that plot device is such a cliché. About 65 percent of my best friends are male and I never got romantically involved with any of them, with the exception of my husband. I was always just one of the gang, the "girl friday" of the group.
I was (and I guess I still am) kind of the kid sister of the gang or your favorite cool young aunt or whatever, the gal you don't have to be afraid to tell a dirty joke to or be yourself around. I know that a lot of women with a lot of male friends are girl fridays, too, so I thought it would be interesting to explore what it's like to be a female in an almost exclusively male subculture, as that's how I was so much of my life before I became part of Sequential Tart. The comic book industry is one of the last old boys' networks, so I know the experience of being the only woman in a crowd of interesting men, having to hold my own in a conversation. I thought that the magical subculture of GSG must be a lot like that, so I had Liz be the only woman amongst a bunch of guys. And, you can see how she enjoys their company, but there's also something missing because there are so few women in her subculture, which is how I felt prior to joining Tart. It's great to be the girl friday, but it's also kind of lonely, as there's a part of a woman that really does want to be with women who share her interests every so often----and those women are often not there.
I decided that a comic with a female lead character didn't have to be the way that such comics are standardly written. I could do something different and something better, to show that it really doesn't have to be like the standard way in order to be successful.
BB: Why do GSG as a webcomic, and why do it with Graphicsmash.com?
BL-C: Artistic freedom. I won't have my work dicked with, even in the smallest way. Mark Millar used to tell me horror stories about various types of editorial tampering with his work. I used to read his comics and I'd find that the bits that didn't feel "right" to me were actually tampered with by some editor that thought he/she knew better than the creator (and didn't!). He's become very determined never to let his work be dicked with and he's taught me to be the same way. When you look at Mark's comics, you can see that he as the comic's creator really is the only person who knows the story, so he should be deferred to. I admire the hell out of the guy for working in the mainstream, yet having the integrity to make sure his vision gets on the page the way he meant for it to be.
Anyway, I couldn't see having Gun Street Girl tampered with. And, it would have been, I think, if it had been a print comic first. I'm coming up with very original ideas for Gun Street Girl and I'm the only person who knows the characters and where this work is going. I'm not the sort that can deal with comics written by committee. I only like comics where I can "hear" the authorial voice coming through loud and clear. I only want to write comics where the readers can "hear" my creative voice.
There's more room for experimentation on the web, both in terms of subject matter and page length. If I have a ten page story, I can write a ten page story. In a print comic, if I had a ten page story, I might have to put in gigantic panels to make it a full-length story. One of my pet peeves is when I read a comic book with only ten pages worth of actual story and big panels. I've actually "edited" comics in my head, taken out the two page spread pages, etc., and discovered that some comics are padded. When it only takes 15 minutes to read the average comic book, padding a story because you can't think of more to say is a rip-off.
As to Graphic Smash, I found, in it, a web comic book publisher that had as its stated purpose "smart action-adventure" comics. Gun Street Girl is a comic that would and should be a print comic, only it's done on the web. I do want to see it in print one day, but only if whoever published it would stick to the business of promoting the work and let the art team and I worry about the creative decisions (a pipe dream, perhaps, but the only way I could work with a company). I didn't want Gun Street Girl at Girlamatic or Keenspot because I wanted people to see this comic not as a comic strip, but as an action-adventure comic book. I wanted to show that a woman could write a hardboiled comic as well as any male author.
Plus, Joey Manley and T Campbell are the best editors out there. I have so much respect for both of them. I'm actually kind of glad I'm at Graphic Smash because I'm in a position to publicize my work there, in a way that'll bring attention to the site. There's some darned good work there and people should check it out. I'm not usually publicity hungry, but I am for the site's sake. I have a unique opportunity to turn people on to the medium of webcomics. And, if it takes being the Warren Ellis of webcomics, saying "look what I can do" at every opportunity, that's what I'll do. Getting people to the website to read all the great comics there is a big goal of mine. Joey Manley has done a noble thing by giving so much creative freedom to the creators at Graphic Smash, Modern Tales, et al., so the least I can do is try to throw some publicity his way.
The difference between Graphic Smash and mainstream comics is a little like the choice a young indie band makes between an indie label and a corporate one. You don't get as much money on the indie label, the distribution and publicity isn't as there as you'd have with a corporate label, the audience may not hear of you as quickly, you may not sell as much initially, etc., etc. But, at least with the indie label, you're with people who believe in you and your work and let you do whatever you want to make good art.
I'm not an indie label snob, nor am I per se against mainstream comics. I know that Gun Street Girl has the legs to be a success in whichever medium I choose for it to be published in. It's already a big hit at Graphic Smash. I think it would be a gigantic hit in print form for any publisher that would want and support the work. But, the experiences I've had with mainstream comics so far have made me feel a bit discouraged about whether I could write the great, individualistic comics I want to write if I joined a mainstream company. Of course, it would be nice to be proven wrong by finding a mainstream company or even a decently paying indie company that would just leave me alone to write great stories. I'm here in web land not because my comics lack quality, but because I want to write the type of quality comics that can only come from being allowed to pursue my individual vision without interference. If I could find a place in the mainstream or indie comics where I'd be allowed to do that, I could write some monster hits. But, until that happens, I'll sacrifice money for artistic merit.
BB: This isn't your first webcomics work. What are some of the major differences between GSG and your prior efforts?
BL-C: My prior efforts were just short works---five finger exercises to warm up for Gun Street Girl. Having said that, however, these short works have a style of their own and are really interesting to read.
I contributed a story called Restaurant Guide, as well as an illustrated horror story called 2 B or Not 2 B (about a demon-possessed pair of Doc Martens) to Working Title Comics (workingtitlecomics.com), as the site has a real DIY attitude I admire, plus my husband was a creative consultant for the site. I also have some comics and articles over at creature-features.com, which features horror articles and comic book stories. Most of the stories that I'll have featured over there are from a print comic book anthology called A Walk in the Dark. After the print comic imploded before publication, I decided to pull my stories and feature them on the web. The artists had put in such hard work that I thought their work deserved to be seen. With the exception of Restaurant Guide, these are suspense stories in the Patricia Highsmith vein or out and out horror stories. Since creature-features.com is a young start-up company, like workingtitlecomics.com, I wanted to help them out with some of my comic book stories. I'm always telling people, you get me an artist and I'll give you a story.
BB: What are you immediate, and long-range, plans for GSG? How about generally?
BL-C: Well, I never planned for the work to take up three years of my life trying to get it published and writing the stories, but it did. So, I have a heavy investment in the work on all levels. Without realizing it, I was all of a sudden in that creator territory of Stray Bullets, Bone, etc. insofar as this series will take a long time to tell and will really get the reader involved in it. I only wish I could get the pages out as fast as the readers want them. But, my artists have lives and they're already doing this comic out of a deep belief in the work. The engines won't take much more, to be geeky about it.
I know that eventually I'll have to publish GSG in print form. It would really work in graphic novel form and people are telling me it'd be a big hit if I did that. But, if I had enough money to do that, I'd just self-publish and become an indie comic editor/writer/mogul ala those guys at IDW. I'd love to be in that kind of position and cut out the comic book companies all together. Luckily, Graphic Smash is the next best thing. It lets me publish the work the way I please.
Right now, I feel like I've just swam the English Channel by finally getting GSG published. I'm a bit exhausted and overwhelmed by the accomplishment.
But, long term, I'll just keep writing comics that matter to me and trying to get them published. I have other ideas for series and mini-series in my head, obviously. I just had to get Gun Street Girl published first. It was a matter of pride with me. I would have been defeated inside if I couldn't have done it. But, now that I have, I feel like I could take on any project and make good. I could see myself working for Oni or NBM or or IDW or Avatar, but only if I could write my type of stories in a supportive atmosphere.
BB: What do you get from making comics? And what about your journalism; what do you get from that work?
BL-C: Let's take comic book journalism first. On a practical level, I get all the review copies of comics and anime I could ever want. I get to keep up with the trends of our community. I get to communicate with people who share my interests. I get to go to Cons for free and I often get a chance to speak with both the fans and the creators. I get to help out creators I like, such as Jane Irwin (Vögelein), by my reviews and interviews. I get the chance to make friends and connections in our community. I get a forum to express my opinions. I get a chance to become respected in my community. I get a chance to change my part of the world through expressing myself.
Finally, I've gotten a chance to develop and perfect an individual authorial voice through having to produce work on a deadline. It's wonderful to have a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness in my community. People know me and respect my opinions. I have one of the greatest jobs in the world, frankly.
As to what I get from making comics, it's much the same thing, on many levels. I get to put my authorial voice out there. I get to drop a pebble in the water (our community is rather small, so a pebble makes a difference) when it comes to affecting how female comic book writers and characters are perceived by the community. I also get to drop a pebble into the waters insofar as I'm writing an original comic in a stylish and smart way.
Already, I'm starting to see people being influenced by what I'm doing. For instance, Jane Irwin (Vögelein) told my husband that she's going to put a nice lesbian couple in Vögelein as supporting characters and that Gun Street Girl was partly the inspiration for that idea. What a complement! And, women are writing to me and saying, "It's about time a comic written by a woman was like this". I always tell them, if they have creative ambitions, to go for it, to get inspired and do original work. I tell 'em it's not rocket science or magic, just hard brain work on a creative level. I'd love if some wanna-be comic book writers, especially young female ones, read Gun Street Girl and got inspired to write something different and better than what's out there right now. Our community is very influenced by whatever's a hit out there. So, why not make a make a comic that's daring and interesting in a way that might be emulated? At least it'd be better than yet another reworking of some superhero title that's been around fifty years or whatever.
By writing a comic, I get a chance to go from cheerleader to being on the team, in a way. There's an old saw that says that critics can't create good art, which is why they're critics. I say "bollocks" to that. If I can't write better comics than those I have criticized in the past, I have no right to be a critic, I sometimes feel. So, I get a certain self-serving feeling because when people taunt me and ask me if I could do better than the comics I criticize, I can honestly say I can.
I also get to join what John Lennon called "the party", by which he meant the unique clique of creators in whatever community one thinks of as the center of it all. In his case, it was music. In mine, it's comics. I get that unique feeling that creators get when they hang out with other creators, talking about the business and the nuts and bolts of doing creative work. Of course, I've lost that feeling of seeing these other creators as young gods, doing something I could never do (but then again, I lost that feeling the second I became a member of Sequential Tart). But, I gain that feeling of these people being my "colleagues" and "comrades". What is lost in terms of comics being "magical" is gained in a new-found respect for the craft and hard work involved in the craft. I lose this feeling of being at all envious of creators getting a chance to write their comics because I have a comic I love writing and it's being published to good press and great fan reactions. So far, I love the party!
I've also gained a certain self-confidence that I didn't have before because my work, which has been rejected in the past for being too out there, is being accepted by a devoted audience of people I really respect. I've always envied that easy self-confidence that, say, Mark Millar has about his work. Now, I'm starting to have it about mine. It's a long time coming, I gotta say. I love that Gun Street Girl shows that I am writing commercial work that people are digging, while still being all me.
I'm showing the world exactly who I am as a creator with this series. I used to read Grant Morrison's work and really get a sense of who this guy was as a writer, just because he put so much of himself on the page (c.f. St. Swithin's Day). I knew that the only way I could write comics was to be that open, too, which is a challenge to someone as private as myself. Obviously, Gun Street Girl is a fictional series, not an autobiographical comic, but there are weird ways that a good work of fiction really shows who the writer is as a person.
Finally, I get to do interesting world-building, write really fascinating characters, and generally have a heck of a good time writing stories that entertain me as a writer and a reader. I started writing GSG because I wanted a comic that'd entertain me more than the ones I was sent by comic book companies. The down side is, having written a comic that is good enough to please a perfectionist like myself, I'm even more impatient with lousy comics, cliched plots, wooden characters, etc.
BB: What do you hope that your readers get from your work, comic or otherwise?
BL-C: My mother used to tell me that the point of any good artistic work was to "shock, startle, and amaze." So, I hope Gun Street Girl does that. I hope that people are entertained by the work and get excited by it.
Comics, at the moment, just aren't very exciting right now, which is a shame. Maybe it's because so many creators just want their comics to be made into movies and/or become big commercial (as opposed to artistic) successes. Maybe it's because we're in a "pop will eat itself" phase of
post-modernism right now, where people simply copy whatever's successful, as opposed to writing great works and hoping that success will come from the quality of the artistic venture. For whatever reason, there's not this sense of wonder that there was when Vertigo comics, Starman, the '80's boom, or Watchmen came out.
When I was a teen, I used to go out of my way to find work that was different (actually, I haven't changed that much <g>). I loved very obscure bands and movies, as these works helped define me as an individual. I hope that Gun Street Girl is the sort of comic that speaks to people looking for something different. I hope that the people that make the effort to seek out a comic like this the way I sought out, say, French New Wave films or indie music, will find something in Gun Street Girl that they can identify with and feel loyal toward because of the quality of the work.
PT Barnum once said you'd never go broke underestimating the intelligence of an audience. Sometimes, I think some comic book companies feel the same way. I believe that the comic book reading audience deserves better. I know comic book fans and they are, in the main, very intelligent. They are the readers and the dreamers of this world. The comics they read help fuel their dreams. So, I wanted to write something worthy of this very intelligent and special community of ours. I wanted to write something that respects the audience and keeps faith with their intelligence and sense of adventure.
All the comic book audience really wants are great stories with memorable characters. Everything I've written for Gun Street Girl has that purpose in mind.
Whether it's comic book writing or any other writing of mine, I hope that the audience will read it and think, "That lady can write." Any writing I do is aimed at showing the audience what I (and by extension, all females in comics) can do. Writing is how I express myself to the world and the best gift I can give to it. Every piece of writing I do is an attempt to give back to the arts something as worthwhile as what the arts have given me.
I criticize comics a lot, but I kvetch because I care. I've seen what the comic book medium can do at its best, so I'm disappointed whenever comics are just business-as-usual product. Comics are a visceral, exciting medium that pulls the reader in the way great pop music can. One can get very
emotionally involved in a comic. There's an energy and directness to great comics that reminds me of that wonderful feeling I get when I watch a terrific film or listen to a truly wonderful pop song. I've done everything I can to make Gun Street Girl have that same feeling of total involvement that I get experiencing great popular art. I hope the readers get that same charge from Gun Street Girl. I wanted this work to have energy and intelligence, as those things excite me.
BB: Anything you'd like to add?
BL-C: Patti Smith had it right when she wrote, "I want it to be perfect, 'cause it's the only religion I got." When it comes to pop culture, I am a total idealist.
To experience Gun Street Girl for yourself, click on over to: http://www.graphicsmash.com/series.php?name=gsg&view=current. To check out Barbara Lien-Cooper's journalism, check out both the excellent sequentialtart.com and silverbulletcomicbooks.com websites.
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