Smash Pages Q&A: Julie Sondra Decker

The writer of ‘The Invisible Orientation’ discusses her two webcomics, her process, world building and more.

Julie Sondra Decker is a writer and artist who is best known for her nonfiction book The Invisible Orientation, but she’s also a webcartoonist. Negative One has been coming out weekly since 2005 and So You Write has been updated occasionally since 2012, though usually monthly. The two comics are very different from how they look, the stories they tell and how Decker makes them.

So You Write is painfully familiar for any writer or creative person, full of insane questions from other people and the excuses we tell ourselves. Negative One is a comic that Decker described as “text heavy,” but it’s also an immersive and strange tale with a large cast that doesn’t look and feel like most comics. It’s an impressive piece of world building, and I reached out to Decker to ask about her two projects and how she thinks about the differences between prose and comics.

I like to start by asking people, how did you come to comics?

I’ve always enjoyed doodling but never wanted to make a career of it. I never really thought my artistic skills could carry a story, plus I tend to be so wordy that I didn’t think comics could work as a medium for anything I would want to write. But then in 2005, one of my friends was really into some cool story-heavy webcomics. One of them (now defunct), The Midlands by Riley, was a stunning example of how a very text-heavy webcomic could succeed.

I had written a bunch of novels in college that I did not know what to do with because I’d since decided they were both unpublishable and not really appropriate for revamping so they’d BECOME publishable. But I cared about them, so I decided to develop them into a webcomic and use the same technique The Midlands did for handling extra text when needed. That became Negative One. Webcomics tend to be written by people of any skill level, so in this medium I don’t have to be a wizard to tell a story visually and still access an audience. I was also aiming for traditional publication on some of my more “serious” work, so many expectations of marketability applied there; it was nice to have a place to play around with personal work that was not controlled by anyone else, so I wanted my webcomic to be that for me. I already knew how to make websites, so I developed a simple html page for my drawings and wrote tables to tie them together and navigate between pages. That webcomic has been going ever since, and I started up my second webcomic So You Write in 2012 because I wanted something very different and relatable for writers, with an easier-to-execute but more broadly appealing drawing style. For that one I also used a modern website for the first time, with social options embedded to encourage interaction and connect authors together.

How do you describe Negative One?

Negative One is a weekly pencil-sketch modern fantasy comic that depicts the everyday lives of extraordinary people. Despite having five alternating point-of-view protagonists, the major character around whom most of the action orbits is a little girl named Ivy who has unexplained macrotelekinetic powers. The storylines focus on her daily existence as she and others grapple with various issues: how a child who’s had superpowers since infancy can develop relationships, manage her abilities, and navigate the ordinary trials and tribulations of growing up. The other point-of-view characters include her confused but well-meaning typical parents and three interdimensional travelers–one of whom has prophetic abilities and acts as Ivy’s guardian, while the other two share a nature-religion brotherhood and contribute to Ivy’s rearing. It balances various supernormal questions–like how does one discipline a child who’s more physically powerful than her guardians–against easily relatable issues like loneliness, faith, interracial relationships, outsider experiences, and survival.

It began on May 20, 2005 and updates every Friday, with more than 700 issues to date. It’s hand-drawn in pencil with digitally rendered speech bubbles and first-person narration.

This is a weekly comic with many characters with multiple points of view characters. How much of the story and the shape of it was there from the beginning for you? How much has it changed over the years?

Negative One is based on novels I wrote in the late 1990s, so I have known the story’s major points and most of its characters for more than half of my life. But it was written in a strange roundabout way that makes answering this question difficult.

I wrote the first book in 1996. Ivy was sixteen years old at the beginning, and three other Negative One narrators–Adele, Dax and Weaver–were also in the book. Ivy was the only narrator in the novels (using first-person narration). In the second, third and fourth books, I took Ivy from age 16 to age 18, and started a fifth book moving into her adulthood. And I also started a prequel–a “Book Zero”–that detailed some of this character’s past, featuring third-person narration. But Ivy was already between four and five years old in that book, so it still left her origins unknown. When I went to write Negative One as a prequel to Book Zero–which is why it’s called Negative One!–I started with the other narrator, Ivy’s mother Meri Lin, and literally started the reader at a time before she was born. This has created an unusual storytelling style because in the case of all five narrators, the reader knows more about their lives and history than they themselves do.

Negative One did not begin to cover the territory of Book Zero until almost five years into its run! Before that, I did plenty of improvising week to week while still knowing where I was heading, and then I chewed through all of Book Zero’s written content to come out on the other side of a yawning gulf between the ending of Book Zero and the beginning of Book One. That’s where I am as of this writing. It will be more than six years of time for the characters before anything described in Book One can happen. But because I know so much about where they’re going, I know which characters pop up when, what plot elements have to happen, and essentially what the big picture is for them. However, the day-to-day of their lives, going into what I actually put on the page every week, is usually written literally one to two days before I draw it and post it. It’s a pantsed story entirely, with a weird overlay of extreme big picture.

As for how much it’s changed, there has been no deviation at all from what was initially planned so far, though sometimes the way the characters speak and the little side-stories that occupy their time are not so much unplanned as initially uncharted. I knew they did SOMETHING all those years; I just didn’t write it all. However, some of the very silly plot elements I wrote in the 1990s will NOT be making it into the Negative One version when I eventually do get to Ivy’s teen years. I think if I were to write it the way I did as a teenager, my readers would think I had changed this very grounded, somewhat somber comic to be set in a funhouse suddenly. But there are also a bunch of characters and plot developments in those old novels that I can’t wait to bring to my patient readers.

You describe the comic on your website as text heavy and you have word balloons, you have captions within panels, and you also have captions outside the panels, or as their own panels. Could you talk a little about how you write the comic and how you want it to look and read?

This is a comic that needs to take its time with bringing the audience into its characters’ thoughts and feelings. With typical comics, there are mostly words and actions to go on, but not a whole lot of internal dialogue. I want the readers to connect with each character authentically so they really know how these characters feel, and giving the narrative room to breathe requires some time with their innermost thoughts. Probably most people would refer to some of my storytelling style as navel-gazing, but that’s the great thing about webcomics outside traditional publishing; if I think a character needs to stare at their navel, I can go there. I want readers to understand how it feels to be these characters in these situations, and even though sometimes they’re experiencing impossible situations, they should also be able to find something surprisingly relatable in these characters’ internal lives, especially if they’ve ever felt like an outsider.

Tying the narrative so tightly to their thoughts was very tricky when, for instance, I had to narrate from Ivy’s perspective when she was mostly a pre-verbal child, trying to avoid cheesiness and cringey baby-talk, or when Dax and Weaver were new to our world but had not learned English yet and had plenty of feelings to share with us. But I love the medium the way I’m using it because we can see the characters’ insides and outsides–what they show to others as well as what they admit to themselves. For example, Weaver is seen by others as the group’s lighthearted prankster with a sarcastic streak, but his internal narration reveals underlying pessimism and a really intense intellect that would rival the group’s recognized smartypants (Adele) if he, you know, actually cared to make use of it. Because of narrative asides that stay in POV, we know Dax’s peaceful heart isn’t an act; we know Meri Lin’s Mom Brain is even more exhausting than what she reveals to others; we know Adele wrestles with a surprising fear of the unknown for someone who can see the future.

Even when characters contradict themselves or seem illogical, I never want the audience to feel like they don’t understand why a point-of-view character is acting how they’re acting. You know what it’s like to be you, and you know how you balance the things you say and do with the things you think and want to do. I want it to feel as real as that when readers enjoy a story about someone who is not them. Readers may recognize and relate sometimes, and other times they may be led through a mental experience they could never have in their own head. I really want that, and I want the different minds of the characters to be distinct and internally consistent. I know this style is a turn-off for many readers who don’t want to be fed everything and want the pace to be faster, but I try to leave SOME room for interpretation as well (like, for instance, when one character is interacting with another character and I don’t go back to give you that character’s version of the same scene, or when non-POV characters like Fred or Alix influence the characters they’re with). I know what I’ve chosen to do is pretty off-putting for some people who like their comics to be portrayed more traditionally, but I don’t honestly think my art skills are good enough to convey some of the things better artists might be able to bring across with just a picture, so I rely on the medium I do trust: my words, which become theirs.

Why did you draw the comic in pencil from the beginning and why do you keep drawing it in pencil?

Color is more time-consuming than grayscale and it also has much more capacity to confuse an amateur artist like me. Because the style is sort of an attempted realism, I also think pencil leaves less room for me to make poor decisions on color, and with pencil I can mostly focus on just shape, light, and expression. In pencil it’s also easier to suggest there are trees or a wall behind someone using just a little scribbling and shading, whereas if I had to color the background too, I couldn’t take shortcuts. I also think the pencil makes it really different from most other comics, and it definitely never runs the risk of being too flashy and overshadowing the text. I’ll be honest, my art focuses on evoking emotion with minimal effort because I just don’t have the time or ability to do it all and still publish weekly (the comic has never gone on hiatus and has never been late–not once since it started in 2005).

I also love being able to cheat with an extreme closeup of an eye or a shaded-in somber profile figure because it uses so few lines and still is pretty emotionally evocative. If you see a lot of partial faces or silhouettes in an issue, I was probably almost out of time to draw it. 😉 However, I do not reuse art. (I HAVE a couple times in extreme circumstances or flashbacks, but generally every issue is fresh weekly.)

I have done a couple color issues or used other media on occasion, but learning to color satisfactorily or switch to digital is both intimidating and probably impossible given the time constraints due to my other obligations, creative and otherwise.

You also have another comic. What is So You Write?

So You Write is a monthly humorous manga-style color comic about the writing life. It spotlights experiences authors might have regarding the creative process, interaction with other writers or naysayers, and publishing. It’s largely autobiographical (it always features a little blond girl ranting about something writing-related), and exaggerates or retells my experiences as an aspiring-turned-marginally-successful author. Sometimes I do self deprecation issues where I mock myself or writers in general. Sometimes I mock people who are ignorant or aggressive about something related to writing or identity politics associated with our career. Sometimes I make a comic about something that happens to writers, like when our characters don’t listen to us or when we have to do Internet research on things that make us seem like we’re planning a murder or a heist. And every once in a while there’s a sentimental comic or a PSA.

It began on June 9, 2012 and updates approximately monthly, but has no set schedule. It’s hand-drawn and colored with Copic markers, scanned, and published with digital talk bubbles.

Now as a writer and someone who’s writing a novel and been in a writing group, there’s nothing relatable about – I’m sorry, I can’t even type that as a joke. It’s painfully relatable. Which I feel is a response you probably get from a lot of people.

Yes, “so relatable!” is a common response, though I did once have someone try to submit it to a “bad comics” page, saying among other things that they as a writer did not find any of the comics relatable (and suggesting I’d obviously stolen and adapted the premise from another artist that I’d never even heard of). They retracted their statements shortly after for some reason. Many, many other writers have shared the images saying “THIS!!!” or “#me,” and I’ve even made new writer friends through the comments on my site.

So You Write looks like a very different comic, but beyond using different materials, is the process similar?

The process is pretty dissimilar. Negative One features 10 new pencil drawings every week, and then I scan them, add the talk bubbles using a word processing program, and write an html page to add the week’s episode to the archive. So You Write usually features four color drawings in “setup/punchline” format, and it’s probably pretty obvious that I reuse a lot of backgrounds and even trace my own art FREQUENTLY because it makes things the right size or enables me to paste new faces on art I’ve already drawn. I use a LOT more shortcuts with So You Write, and the chibi manga style is intentionally simple so it will be fast to draw. I scan those drawings and use a graphics editor to add the talk bubbles on that one, and I use a modern WordPress site for So You Write. And of course, for So You Write I’m sharing mostly autobiographical experiences, while I assure you very few of the things that have happened in Negative One have happened to me.

I also usually draw So You Write‘s outlines at home with a reference and do the inking and coloring at my Drink and Draw club, while Negative One I usually draw at home while on the phone with a friend.

You’re also a prose writer and you’ve written fiction and nonfiction. What’s the relationship for you between comics and prose?

So You Write is creative nonfiction, so it’s sort of the comics version of an article for me. If, for instance, I wanted to write an article about publishing misconceptions, I’d outline the misconceptions, explain where they probably come from, and then counter them and give appropriate information. But if I want to cover a publishing misconception in a comic, I have to exaggerate the misconception and make it super ridiculous as shorthand for identifying it as a misconception, and translate the advice I’d otherwise give into my comic character acting as a voice of reason (and getting ignored, of course). Example: I could write an article about why it’s unrealistic to expect a single book publishing contract to automatically pay all your bills and pave the way for the rest of your life. Or I could write a comic where an ignorant character asks me when I’m quitting my job because I’m published and am surely super rich now, with the last frame just a closeup of my unhinged laughter. You can say the same things, but I think comics will give less specific information and make more of a memorable impact, especially considering the humor factor and the ease of sharing.

When it comes to Negative One, though, it’s a lot more like novel writing because its style is so atypical for comics. Each issue is a mini scene of a novel with the dialogue pasted into talk bubbles and the POV narrator’s thoughts and perceptions in asides and narrative panels. If I were writing a novel, it would just be the text with no pictures, stage direction and description added, and probably a similar level of reflection and perception. The other big difference for me is that some comic issues are somewhat self-contained while others lead into each other over weeks or months. Because I switch perspectives in the comic in a way I don’t in novels, I tend to put a little bow on each issue’s happenings, tying up the character’s thoughts or finding a way to fade out of their perspective so the next character can pick it up. When I have long scenes in a novel, there are very few similar transitions.

I think some stories lend themselves to certain formats more than others, but at the same time, it’s at least POSSIBLE to use almost any medium to say what you want to say, and it just depends on what you enjoy and what skills you feel comfortable using to carry your messages.

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