These very different big events were in keeping with one of the ideas that made “Girls With Slingshots” so special: that there may be more respectable ways to be an adult than in the past, but whatever destination you choose, you have to continue down the path toward it rather than staying stuck where you are. Corsetto and I spoke by e-mail this week about the themes of “Girls With Slingshots,” why she decided to end the strip when she did, what it has been like to re-release the series (which was originally black and white) in color, and how she plans to further her artistic education in her time off. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
One of the ideas animating “Girls With Slingshots” has always seemed to be the fact that there’s no one proscribed way to be an adult anymore, nor any set timeline on which to hit milestones like marriage, career success, and kids. How did Jamie, Hazel, Clarice and Jameson’s timelines emerge for you over the years of the strip? How did you figure out where you wanted to leave each of them?
This may not be the most author-friendly way to tell a story, but from the beginning, I’ve introduced my characters with no intention of directing them or telling them what to do. I’ve just been following them. As any writer will tell you — and we know it makes us sound nuts — fictional characters tend to have plans of their own from the moment you drop them into a world. Hazel, our main character, was burdened with my own most complicated idiosyncrasies, as is common practice among us cartoonists. Her childhood manifesto — that when she grew up, she’d “never get married, never have children, and I’ll ride a pony to work!” — was a direct quote from 6-year-old me. Aside from the pony, I nailed it.
Seeing as an aversion to monogamous bliss isn’t exactly a common trait, I had to be careful not to project that feeling onto my other characters. Jameson and Maureen became immediate candidates for marriage, as they reminded me of every adorable nerdy couple I knew. And I desperately wanted Clarice and Thea to find their One True Loves. Thea and Mimi were easy — roller derby literally slammed them together. Clarice was trickier; I found her ideal mate and dropped him into the library where she works, and hid behind a bookshelf, watching them interact and hoping they would naturally fall for each other. I’ve tried this with other characters in the past — most notably Jamie and Keith, AKA Mall Santa — and my prayers were never answered, so I was thrilled when Clarice and Joshua hit it off.
As for Jameson and Maureen’s baby being born a few weeks early, I didn’t want the question of “did the birth go smoothly?” dancing in our heads — by which I mean the readers’ as well as my own — after the strip had ended. I confess, I gave her belly a little nudge so that the birth would happen before the final strip. (Spoilers: it went smoothly.)
Another big theme of the strip has been friendship, and how to be a good, or even ethical friend. And I’ve always admired the way you play out these issues without resorting to cliches about the way women treat each other. So I would be curious to know more about how you plotted out ruptures and tensions in some of the series’ core friendships, from Jameson’s breakup with Candy to Jamie and Hazel’s final fight?
I can attribute my way of writing about relationships to two things: giving myself practically no access to common mainstream pop culture, and having wonderful friends. Let me put on my hipster glasses when I say that I haven’t had TV in my house since 1999, when I was in high school. I don’t watch sitcoms or commercials or popular movies, where stereotypes about women are commonplace. I read weird books and I live in a town full of weird people. I’ve dated a lot, but I’ve never dated an a——. My friends are all lovable weirdos.
It wouldn’t even occur to me to write the female characters in GWS in a nails-out hair-pulling brawl, because that’s not who they are. Hazel and Maureen had a good soda-gun fight at the coffee shop once, but it was mostly due to Hazel’s clumsiness. The falling-out Jameson had with Candy was even handled with relative grace from everyone in Jameson’s posse, including his wife-to-be Maureen, giving Jameson the opportunity to end his friendship with Candy on his terms, rather than being forced to do so.
The series ends with Hazel finally confident in the book she’s going to write. As someone who’s made a career in journalism at a turbulent time, I’ve always been fascinated to watch Hazel navigate some of the same changes in the business that I’ve worked through. What sort of changes in publishing informed her story? And how did your own experience building a publishing model to support the comic influence Hazel’s trajectory? Also, Maureen was one of the first fictional blogger characters I can remember encountering, but that part of her personality seemed to subside as the strip continued — was that a reflection of blogging’s changing presence in media, or just her changing life? Or both?
I may have an unusually optimistic view of the potential for creative, driven people in this century, as I’ve stumbled upon my own success by riding the wave of new technology and hoping people would like what I make. “Girls With Slingshots” was created back in 2004 as a way to challenge myself to create two black-and-white comics every week, publicly, so that the couple dozen people who read the strip would cause me to adhere to a deadline every Tuesday and Thursday. I hadn’t anticipated the tens of thousands of people who would later expect that I meet my deadline five times a week in color, or the full-time career I’d make out of it, or the publishers (The Weekly World News, BOOM! Studios, among others) who would invite me to work for them based on my success with and dedication to “Girls With Slingshots.”
Hazel isn’t exactly following my path, as she has editors and publishers, and therefore doesn’t have to come up with a way of transforming words into money. But the truth is, you can get your foot in the door and have your art published and distributed, via Internet or print, and if the right people see what you’re doing, they may ask you to work for them. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it does happen. It’s not unrealistic for Hazel to have that kind of success, assuming her articles are as clever and funny as her editors claim them to be.
As for Maureen the Blog Girl, I like to think she’s blogging just as often as she always has; we just haven’t subscribed to her RSS lately.
During the decade the strip has been running, we’ve seen huge changes in the way Americans perceive and talk about everything from marriage equality to asexuality. Obviously “Girls With Slingshots” is about plenty of other subjects, too, but I’d love to know what it’s been like to chronicle these changes. In particular, I remember your decision to add a transgender character in a way that was so incidental audiences might not have noticed if you hadn’t pointed it out.
The inclusivity of sexual subcultures and unusual relationship dynamics in “Girls With Slingshots” can again be attributed to the people I surround myself with. The world of “Girls With Slingshots” isn’t unlike my own, where every other person has some unusual kink or relationship dynamic, or doesn’t fit into one label for their sexual orientation.
I avoided intentionally adding a trans character to “Girls With Slingshots” for two reasons: one, because I found it insincere and borderline rude to add a character solely to exploit their hot-topic sexuality. And two, because I know practically nothing about trans people. Oh! And lest I forget the third reason: I didn’t want blunt, insensitive, oblivious Hazel interacting with a trans person. It would have required a lot of carefully-written PSA-style strips to make up for whatever insulting comments Hazel would casually drop, and the cast is already large enough that I didn’t feel I had enough time and space to dedicate to such a delicate topic, one that I knew so little about.
In a serial story, it’s understandable that characters are going to ebb and flow. How did you decide, for example, that Tyler was going to become a smaller part of the story? When did Clarice move to the fore?
I’ve employed a combination of my own preferences and those of my readers. As much as I claim not to be too influenced by my readers’ opinions, they’re the reason Thea became one of the lead characters. While I certainly liked Thea from the beginning, I sort of thought she was “too cool” for me to write about, in part because she was older, and in part because she was Hazel’s boss. But so many readers were interested in seeing more of her, I shrugged and let myself bring her around more often.
Likewise, people loved Clarice, and I did too, so it was easy to give her more screen time. I lost interest in Tyler, and felt that his journey through puberty would take too much effort to stumble through, so I let him take that journey alone, in private.
McPedro [Hazel’s sentient, often tipsy, cactus] is a funny love-him-or-hate-him character. Being the most iconic symbol for “Girls With Slingshots” (his armless visage graces the website’s tiny favicon), I hear a lot of “When will we see McPedro again?” from visitors at comic conventions and signings. But there are other readers who absolutely abhor him, and some of my most vile and damning hate mail has been in response to week-long arcs about McPedro, mostly along the lines of “If I see him in next week’s strips, I’m done with GWS.” So I flavor the strips with McPedro as often as I please, ignoring both the lovers and the haters of the mustachioed cactus.
Similarly, the surreal elements of “Girls With Slingshots,” including McPedro and the Goopy Cats have varied in intensity across the course of the strip. Was it important to you that they play a role in bringing Hazel to her father, and to the conclusion of this particular part of her story?
Upon reflection, I think the only reason I added a touch of the surreal to “Girls With Slingshots” is because I was so familiar with slice-of-life comic strips including a cartoony, ridiculous flair that it seemed like a requirement for strips in this genre. But I’m glad I didn’t give it too much thought! “Girls With Slingshots” explores some heavy topics, and I think it helps to have the teddy bear comfort of a foul-mouthed Irish cactus or a cat whose body turns to putty.
Originally Hazel was going to visit her estranged father alone, marking the final arc of the series. But as I wrote it out in my head, I realized that the final strips would be full of uncomfortable monologues between Hazel and an empty passenger seat as she drove for hours. I didn’t want to end the strip with dozens of word balloons, transparently expressing Hazel’s feelings to everyone reading; it seemed unnatural to leave her so exposed. I decided it was much more fitting — and more fun — to let Goopy Kitty and McPedro join her on this tough journey, so that as per usual, we would only hear from Hazel that which she cared to share out loud with two bizarre, fictional creatures.
How do you decide where and when to end such a long-running series? And on what notes? How do you manage the pacing on such a broad set of storylines so everyone arrives at the finish line together?
Luckily, I decided that I need to end the strip a year before it actually ended, so I had a lot of time to plan. Personally, I’d been going through what depressed people like to call “some head stuff,” and it was affecting both the tone of the strip and my productivity. Even with therapy, I didn’t see it ending anytime soon, and I didn’t want to drag the characters through my muck. I knew I needed a change in my routine anyway. Ten years of constantly thinking about the next strip and checking to make sure the website was up, even on my days off, had become utterly exhausting. I decided to end the strip while it was still something I loved, rather than let it keep going until I gave up on it. The characters, and my readers, deserved better than a fizzled-out ending. So I planned.
I noticed that strip number 2,000 would be published in early 2015, and made it my end goal, promising myself that I might end it a little earlier or later to allow the story to wrap up naturally. From the standpoint of someone who makes part of her living off merchandise sales, ending the series at around 2000 strips allowed for a perfectly even book arrangement; every 200 strips were collected into a softcover book, and the first 1,000 strips were in black-and-white, while the second 1,000 were in color. Ending at 2,000 would put me at ten books. My inner perfectionist would be satisfied.
Like I said, I generally let the characters dictate their own paths, but this time I realized that I only had a year to give Thea and Mimi their wedding, let Maureen and Jameson get pregnant, quietly sit and eat popcorn and watch Clarice and Joshua maybe maybe fall in love, and, of course, to let Hazel seek out her father. I think having these little goals got me more excited to write, knowing I was finally allowed to touch all of the exciting future plans I’d set behind glass to work on “someday.”
On an artistic note, you’re going to be re-releasing the strip from the beginning, but in color rather than black-and-white. Does getting to see the strip in both presentations change it for you at all? What’s it like to be publishing in a format where you can effectively take another shot at the same story?
Seeing the old black-and-white strips translated into color has been a delight, and hiring my wonderful colorist to do it — rather than doing it myself — makes it so much more exciting for me. It feels like the old strips are more a part of the newer world now.
Though, I admit, sometimes it’s a little painful to re-read my ten-year-old strips! I’ve fully accepted the problematic art and inconsistent character design — that’s all part of learning on the job and developing your style, which I think is fun to watch. But the writing gives little glimpses into my insecurities and old twenty-something philosophies, or lack thereof. Of course, I still have my insecurities and idiotic ideas, and I’m sure one day I’ll cringe at the way they peek out in my most recent work.
And then there’s the old technology — Maureen’s CRT monitor, Hazel’s candy bar phone — and a few nods to old Internet memes (though I generally tried to keep the strip timeless in that regard). I didn’t write about texting as much back then, because it wasn’t as common, and I was slow to jump on that bandwagon as it was. Seeing the old tech in the early strips actually makes me feel, oddly, younger, because it makes the last ten years seem like they must have gone on for an eternity. To think, the most exciting thing about mobile phones back then was that they were mobile!
And finally, what’s next? You’ve mentioned that these characters might come back, but until then, what’s going to be keeping you busy?
I’ve got a lot of catching up to do on old “Girls With Slingshots” stuff and work I owe people. I’ll still be doing conventions and signings, and posting the old strips on my website with additional commentary takes up a good hour per strip. But I’ve saved up enough money to give myself a bit of a sabbatical. I was a photo major in college, and while those classes gave me a surprising amount of insight into lighting, color, and composition, I never got a lesson in anatomical drawing, or sequential storytelling. I know my art has been stagnant for years, and I want to fix that before I start another big project. Two days after the strip wrapped up, I started an online character design class, and I’m reading a great book on animation right now.
I’m also planning on taking a month-long trip fully unplugged, without a phone or a laptop. I won’t be allowed to look at screens or receive text messages, relying on printed media and human interaction for my news and information. I’ll be chronicling the experience on paper, drawing and writing about what it’s like to have lived every moment of the last ten years constantly on the Internet, relying on it for my livelihood and most of my social life, only to drop back to a pre-1990s level of communication.
By the end of it, if I think it’ll make a good story, that will be the next new published work you see from me.
But I’ll want to bring the “Girls With Slingshots” characters back one day, too, and I don’t think this is the last we’ve seen of them. After writing several “Adventure Time” original graphic novels (my next one, “Graybles Schmaybles,” will come out in April), I’ve fallen in love with the long-form style of the graphic novel. I’d love to give Hazel and Jamie more space to breathe and move and make little jokes by giving them full pages to play within. Of course, I have a lot more to learn before I do.