Smash Pages Q&A: Pamela Ribon and Cat Farris on ‘My Boyfriend is a Bear’

‘This is a story for people who can relate to falling in love with someone they least expected.’

My Boyfriend is a Bear is about a woman dating an American black bear. As a woman in East Los Angeles, it’s far from her worst relationship, and the two navigate a new relationship and its many challenges in ways that are bizarre but also touching. It is quite possibly the most touching interspecies relationship since Gonzo and Camilla started dating on the Muppets. Written by Pamela Ribon and drawn by Cat Farris, the book is also one of the funniest and most emotionally honest romance stories of the year.

Pamela Ribon is best known in comics for writing Slam! at BOOM! Studios and for writing Rick and Morty at Oni, though she’s also a well-known novelist, screenwriter, memoirist and filmmaker. Cat Farris has drawn a number of comics including Emily and the Strangers, the minicomic series Flaccid Badger and her webcomic The Last Diplomat. They answered a few questions about why they made a romance story involving a nameless bear who likes to wear an Arcade Fire T-shirt.

Where did the idea for My Boyfriend is a Bear come from?

PAMELA:  I had just started a long-distance relationship with a rather mysterious man who ate all my good snacks and sometimes hung his jacket on a tree branch—that’s when I realized it’s possible that he was secretly a bear and kept going out of town to do “bear things.” I had very little experience in dating and was getting a lot of conflicting advice about what kind of relationship worked best. It wasn’t until I stopped trying to figure out the future in my present that I was able to see what a gift I’d been given.

Why an American black bear? As one who had a close encounter with a very large black bear in my parents yard last month, I have to ask, what makes this bear the ideal choice for a rom-com lead?

PAMELA: Well, a grizzly will straight-up kill you. Black bears are more curious and hungry. They also live in California. I was writing this before the bear known as Meatball became a local celebrity when he started hanging out in Glendale garages, scrounging for Costco frozen foods, and it only proved my point.

Where did the idea of Bear wearing a lot of outfits—especially the three piece suit, glasses, etc. come from? Was that idea there from the beginning?

PAMELA: That boyfriend is now my husband, and people still don’t see the bear beyond his fancy suits and glasses.

CAT: My husband is way more fashionable than I am, so I took a lot of my cues in dressing the bear from his wardrobe, as far as suits are concerned.

Some of the double-page spreads were really fun, but you also had very inventive ways to essentially give us a “montage” that includes a lot of information. Could the two of you could talk a little about the process?

PAMELA: I was pretty new to comics when I wrote this script, so I’m grateful to editors Ari and Charlie, as well as Cat, who were able to help guide these pages in particular when it came to simplifying. I used those spreads for emotional climaxes or asides/tangents/backstory, to give breathers from the narrative without creating a full b-story.

CAT: I really loved the montage breaks in this book! It was a fun opportunity for me to play with layout, and I think it’s a fun mental break for the reader to switch up the format from time to time. The challenge of course is to keep the visual storytelling clear while putting a lot of information on the page. I tried to use panel borders and other framing techniques to make sure everything stayed clear.

Why wasn’t Bear given a name?

PAMELA: He wasn’t hers to name.

How much research did you have to do on bears—more or less than what Nora does in the book?

PAMELA: I did quite a bit of research but it looked a whole lot like how Nora did it.

CAT: I definitely did not do as much research as Pamela, but I did spend a lot of time looking up photos of black bears, and making notes about anatomy. I was also fortunate enough to visit several natural history museums while I was working on the art for this book, so I was able to shoot some good bear reference off of taxidermied specimens.

Do you feel that people get the impression that this is a story about a relationship? Because I find some get that it’s funny and cute, but other people’s minds go to disturbing places.

CAT: Well, I mean, Shape of Water did just win Best Picture, so I think we’re probably good here.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I did want to mention and highlight the watercolor sequence. Can you talk about what you wanted to do with this?

CAT: Pamela wrote a portion of the script with two divergent storylines, and at the time I was figuring out how to approach the art for this book and bemoaning the fact that an all-digital process meant no original pages would exist. Charlie pointed out that this section might be well served by a dreamy, watercolor sequence. I did a test strip and got approval, and that’s how that sequence came to look the way it did.

So final pitch for those who are curious, can you give them the hard sell on why they need to read My Boyfriend is a Bear—even if they dislike boys and/or bears?

PAMELA: This is a story for people who can relate to falling in love with someone they least expected.

CAT: What Pamela said, for sure.

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