Smash Pages Q&A: Rory Frances and Jae Bearhat

The creators of ‘Little Teeth’ discuss the recently released collection from Czap Books, how they first started working together and more.

Rory Frances had been making comics like Boys Are Slapstick for years before connecting with Jae Bearhat, who’s currently the editor of ZEAL Magazine. The two teamed up to make the serial comic Little Teeth, parts of which were first published on Hazlitt in 2015-16, and has just been published by Czap Books in a collected edition.

Little Teeth is a story of a group of friends living in an unnamed city. The characters are never named and the reader is immediately dropped into the story, to try and make sense of the relationships between characters and the larger dynamics. The anthropomorphic animals allow the creators to play with questions and expectations of gender and gender identity. There were scenes that made me laugh out loud and scenes that made me cringe in recognition. It is a thoughtful, funny and insightful comic about characters who are all too human, and simply one of the best graphic novels out so far this year. I recently spoke with Rory and Jae over Skype.

How did you come to comics?

Rory Frances: I had been making my own solo comics for some time, mostly short one-shots. Around 2012 or 2013 Jae and I were Skype friends, I had read their zine Gay Apathy, which is really great by the way. We just had a lot of conversations that I thought were very funny, just talking about people and whatever. I also had these character designs that I was messing around with, and actually before we ever made the comic, there was a proto Little Teeth I was doing on my own, with this wolf and dog girl. While reworking it I was eventually like, wanna work on a comic together? So that became Little Teeth.

Jae Bearhat: I had never worked on a comic before Little Teeth, actually. I had read comics, but even then a lot of it was basically Rory sending me things and getting familiar with stuff through that. It was a learning process translating a lot of my own writing to the format, figuring out how to make dialogue and pacing work without taking over the visuals. Rory sent me stuff showing how lots of information and action could be packed into such a short ‘narrative’, saying a lot with a little, which helped a ton.

How do you describe Little Teeth?

Jae: It’s a sort of “in media res” narrative, and not one that follows any specific single storyline, but sort of you as a reader being dropped into these character dynamics and histories that the actual people aren’t going to make explicit to each other, because they don’t have to. It’s a story about joining a community already in progress, mostly a community of friends, lovers, exes, roommates, all living and fighting and butting and collaborating in this big scene where everyone kind of is ping-ponging off each other. It’s a portrait of just messy queer adults basically!

You mentioned that you had been working on a proto-Little Teeth. How did you go from that to the two of you working together to what you started putting up on Hazlitt?

Rory: The proto-Little Teeth was less focused on dating, it was more about friendship – which Little Teeth still is very much about, but, the nice thing about working with Jae is although we have a lot of similar ‘community’ experiences, we’re very different people, so we were able to work out the characters to be fully grounded from different perspectives

Jae: We also definitely didn’t want to have this really bougie city vibe. We didn’t want to have the characters say, it’s really hard being gay in the big city, while living in this enormous condo overlooking downtown. We specifically wanted to design a world that reflected the kinds of people we met and were around, and that we didn’t see represented in a lot of popular gay media– poor and stressed out.

It sounds like from the beginning you two had this idea of what you wanted the characters to be. That it was going to have this web of friendships and relationships and complicatedness, let’s say.

Jae: I always like the riffing style of writing, and so we wanted that to be a big driving force in their dynamics, sort of conversationally-driven narratives. We worked on the concept of these characters, their interior lives and their histories both personal and interpersonal, and how things would move forward from them interacting with each other, rather than like, “this big event happens and everybody is thrown into reacting to it”. The wolf and the fox characters, for example, we knew that they’re going to be old friends who’ve known each other for years, and they meet once a week and process stuff together and built up their dynamic from just riffing off each other, so they become a good sort of vehicle for articulating the ways all the characters have built up connections.

I’m a fan of Sarah Schulman and she’s very articulate about this dynamic which I think you capture how all the trauma we go through we manage to pass down in different ways, in small ways, and the challenges of building community, which I can see in your work.

Rory: It was definitely important to us that no one character is the source of everyone’s problems or angst or anything, because that’s not the way it works in real life.

Jae: We wanted to have it so that everybody is flawed, not in the sense of a fatal flaw, but you could either hate them because they remind you of someone you can’t stand or you super relate to them because you’ve totally been in that position.

Rory: We wanted that freedom to be messy – not in the sense that you’re not allowed to learn from your mistakes, or that you don’t have to. It’s not like there’s a road map to being gay correctly.

I think messy is a good way to describe the relationships in the book. Everyone screws up somehow but not in an unforgivable way, but in very understandable and human ways.

Rory: I was saying that the point of the whole arc of everything is that our characters mess up.

Jae: Yeah, and we worked really hard to make those mistakes like, stuff where if someone did that to you maybe you couldn’t really forgive them for it because it hurt you or was some BS that they put you through, but also maybe you do, maybe you empathize with it, maybe you get over it, maybe you just tolerate them being in your friend circle. But we didn’t want any of that messing up to be like, “oh that is actually a cruel, monstrous thing you did”. It’s conflict! People conflict in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of reasons, everybody brings their own baggage to the table and dealing with that in a community is it’s own conflict!

I mentioned before that there were lines that rang really true to me. One was “Everyone’s complex. They just think other people are complex in sexier ways.”

Rory: [laughs] I love that one.

Jae: If there’s anything I want people to take from this book it’s that line, because it makes life so much easier to deal with.

There were a number of good lines in the book. Another was “I don’t know how to date without indecency.”

Jae: That whole internal struggle for the wolf character is one that I was really excited to present early on, just have a character who absolutely does not know what they’re doing but is trying his best but he has no idea what his best even looks like.

Rory: I loved drawing out that sequence, too, where he’s always looking over his shoulder.

The body language in that scene and so many is great. But I keep coming back to the characters and why did you end up making them anthropomorphic animals? Do you just like drawing animals?

Rory: Yeah, I just like drawing furries. But also, it was helpful for making it hard to forget who’s who. We were originally going to give the characters names, and some of them sort of do have names – but then we would keep coming up with good names, and in true queer community fashion we would be like, “Oops we know five people with that name and they’ll think we’re talking about them.” [laughs] By having them be animals, even if you don’t hear the character’s name, you know that one’s a fox, that one’s a porcupine. I tried to design them – because it’s always been a Tri-tone comic – so that so that no two of them have their colors laid out the same way in their design. There’s some that are mostly black, some that are mostly red or pink. Very stark big shapes so you can see them and recognize them.

Did you spend a lot of time figuring out which character would be which animal?

Rory: Definitely just went with the flow. A lot of the time we would like the design of an incidental or background character and be like, let’s turn this one into a character in the next one. That’s what happened with the porcupine girl.

Jae: She was just the one hosting this party and we ended up creating all of this story behind why she’s hosting the party and how all the characters know her. So we were writing her a mini story arc, because I loved how Rory designed her character and like, oh we don’t have someone yet who is the person whose ALWAYS hosting events so everyone else can relax.

Rory: There’s a character in the middle of the story who’s like, a very intimidating DJ, who’s a little bit older. We don’t really talk about her age in the comic, but she was supposed to be a good bit older than some of the other people in the social group. We wanted a character who can stagger her air of coolness, so it made sense to introduce someone who’s known her for a long time – which is where the porcupine character came from.

Jae: There wasn’t too much design discussions around species, honestly. Because we already had some designs and after that it was like, we need a character like this and in furry stuff there are certain personas so we could go, who’s the manic stressed out one? The hamster. [laughs]

By having them be animals, gender and clothes and all these other signifiers don’t apply so we’re left with their words and interactions.

Rory: It’s fun to subvert the expectations, too. Like how in the poly household the rabbit is the bossy busybody. and the bear is very nervous but caring and soft-spoken. Stuff like that.

Jae: I also like that you picked up on using the animals as a way to step around any heavy gendering. People can project on them, that’s also one reason we avoid giving any of them explicit names actually.

That also helps and supports the idea of having a big ensemble cast without one character who is more stable or sensible or is the POV. We’re thrown into the mix and no obvious person to project onto.

Rory: We wanted it to feel very naturally like you’re just thrown into a social group and you’re having to rapid fire figure out everyone’s dynamics like you would in real life.

Jae you mentioned that you didn’t read a lot of comics, but Rory, for you what were the comics that were big for you, either because they influenced Little Teeth or just in general?

Rory: It’s hard to say cause I didn’t really have anything particular in mind. The comparison that we get the most is Dykes to Watch Out For, which I do really love. I was really fond of Wet Moon, in high school that comic meant a lot to me, and I guess if I took anything from that I would want to represent bodies in a really honest way, even if they are talking animals. I grew up during the manga boom like most of my peers, there’s too much stuff to name but Rumiko Takahashi’s cartooning is among my favorites. It’s hard to come up with stuff on the spot, but those come to mind.

How about you, Jae?

Jae: I definitely would cite Cate Wurtz’s work as a huge personal inspiration on my writing, period, but especially for Little Teeth. Beyond that, sitcoms with a lot of queer characters who are messy and suck. [laughs] That was one of the big inspirations for this, especially in designing the world as a contrast. There’s a really goofy bit in Queer as Folk where they have a parody of their own show within the show. I was watching it and ripped every scene of it and sent it to Rory and said, this is exactly what I want the “Seeking Same” show all the characters watch to be. Just really fake.

Rory: It’s so funny. Also when Jae pitched that idea to me, I immediately was like, I’m going to draw them like when a celebrity appears on Arthur. [laughs] Where it’s really uncanny and just does not belong in that world. Also there’s such a stark difference between them and the more cartoony denizens of the real world.

I am now never going to not think about Arthur in Little Teeth. [laughs] So how did you two connect with Kevin and up at Czap Books?

Rory: I knew Kevin from doing comic conventions. I really liked the kind of stuff that Czap Books publishes, very unique and thoughtful work. Kevin and I talked at a con a year or so ago and that’s how we got here.

Do you want to keep doing more with these characters? Are you thinking about something completely different? What do you want to do next?

Rory: I am working on something at the moment, it’s not quite in a state where I want to talk about it yet. It’s got psychic boys, though. I also regularly do comics about games for Zeal, a games writing site which is managed by Jae.

Jae: Rory will pitch me stuff and it will be perfect because there’s often a gap in our submissions process so I’ll say, let’s slot Rory’s right here. [laughs] I’m continuing to work on Zeal. I have started working on a youtube series about film geek stuff with another artist friend. I don’t really have any plans to do more comics. Not because I don’t have an interest in doing more. My interests tend to cycle through different things so now I want to do video but I’m sure I’ll want to do comics again. I have a couple small projects I’ve worked on and off on for years. I’ll probably do another zine or two this year. I really like making zines. I’ve always had this drive to once I’ve done something to be like, the next thing I want to do I want to be completely different. I like pushing myself to try new things.

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