Smash Pages Q&A: MK Reed and Greg Means

The writing team discusses ‘Penny Nichols,’ ‘a graphic novel that will warm your heart while stabbing you in the chest.’

Penny Nichols is the new graphic novel from writers MK Reed and Greg Means about the making of a low budget horror film. The titular character is an aimless 20-something who stumbles across people making a movie and becomes involved in the production, taking on an increasing number of tasks, and in the process finding herself. It is a subtle and brilliant tribute to artists with day jobs, found family, and the passions that give our lives meaning.

Means is best known as the editor of the Papercutter and Runner Runner, and the person behind Tugboat Press. Reed is currently co-writing Delver, a comiXology original, and has written a number of other comics including Palefire, The Castoffs, Americus, Science Comics: Dinosaurs, Science Comics: Wild Weather. The two have collaborated before on the graphic novel The Cute Girl Network. Penny Nichols, drawn by artist Matt Wiegle, was just released by Top Shelf Comix, and the writers answered a few questions about the book.

How did you first come to comics?

Greg Means: I loved newspaper comic strips as a kid. Garfield was my jam. I got into superhero comics as a teen and then indie comics and zines as an adult. Now I’ll read anything. I love it all!

MK Reed: Newspaper strips and Archie as a kid, then no comics as a teen, then Vertigo and Oni stuff when someone pointed me at them in college. The record store that was just off campus had Kevin Smith’s Clerks comics that then opened me up to a bunch of indie stuff, and I caught this weird little window right before Napster took off and they went out of business.

How did the two of you end up working together, and what do you like about working together?

Greg: We met a long time ago at SPX. I ended up editing her work for the comics anthology Papercutter and a few other places. We became friends. One time when we were joking around about me not having a girlfriend, we came up with the idea of our first book The Cute Girl Network. We just ran with it.

MK: Greg is really good at staying on task, even though he’s also really indecisive. I’m ridiculously more confident about when things work, but less focused about sitting down and writing. We strike a good balance with each other.

Where did the idea for Penny Nichols start? Because I kept thinking about how this really is a tribute to creative people with day jobs (which is to say, most creative people).

Greg: The heart of the story is about finding friendship and community through art. So in that regard, it’s a thinly veiled retelling of our own experience within the indie comics scene. There’s no shortage of uninspiring day jobs among comic book creators.

The first spark of the story probably came from returning home from a comic convention on a creative high, and us looking at each other and saying, “we should write a book about this feeling!”

Who is Penny Nichols when the book opens?

Greg: At the beginning, Penny is an aimless 20-somethings living in the suburbs. We see her working four different jobs from temp office work to babysitting. She’s pretty unhappy. But there’s also a spark there. She has a sharp sense of humor and is eager to find her purpose in life.

Have you made low budget films or worked on indie films?

MK: I used to in high school, we had a television studio and I learned to edit on VHS decks. The tapes are possibly in my mom’s attic but probably part of some squirrel’s nest now, not that they were super watchable to begin with unless you were also an idiot teenager. I was trying to transfer into the film department in college when I got distracted with comics. There was so much less coordination involved, at least when I was drawing my own stuff, that I really grew to like the total control over things that I had. Now that I mostly work with other people to draw things, I’ve gotten a little better at collaboration, but also being clear about what I want from other artists.

So why a horror film?

Greg: Most of the horror fans I’ve met over the years have been sweet, gentle folks who just happen to love watching murder and gory mayhem every night. I liked that contrast. It let us combined a subtle story about finding your calling in life with over-the-top geysers of fake blood.

MK: It’s where so many directors get their start, especially if good writing and acting are out of their budgets. And two of my friends interned for a small indie horror studio in New York, so I had their stories to crib from. They never were on any film shoots, but there were plenty of anecdotes about their coworkers and bosses at the office that reflected a certain type of creative madness and lack of business acumen.

There’s the character of Penny and her story, and there’s the making of the movie, but talk a little about writing the movie they’re shooting, Blood Wedding.

Greg: Blood Wedding, the movie within the book, was very fun to write. It’s about a meek, put-upon bride who snaps on her wedding day and starts killing everyone she comes across. It’s totally ridiculous. There are some obvious parallels to Penny’s story with themes of conformity and coming into your own, but it was also just an excuse to write hammy, pun filled horror movie dialog.

MK: On some level, weddings fill everyone with existential horror. We just lie about it, tell each other they’re fun, and get caught up in the surface qualities of them, instead of wondering aloud if these people should be together. Since Penny is written as someone who finds picture perfect surfaces fairly empty, Blood Wedding was supposed to be a way for her to express those feelings.

At what point did you decide to make the book in black and white? And why do you think that was the best decision?

Greg: We all come from a background in black and white alternative comics, so it was the natural choice. It also helped tone down some of the more disgusting murder scenes. Seeing internal organs spill out on the floor is less shocking in black & white, it seems.

How did you end up at Top Shelf?

Greg: We’ve all been fans of Top Shelf for a long time. Their books by Alex Robinson, Jeffrey Brown and Liz Prince have all had a big influence on us. When we finished Penny Nichols, it seemed like a nice fit. What sealed the deal was talking with editor Chris Staros and hearing him list his favorite scenes. They were all the unglamorous parts of film-making. He really got what we were going for.

So what else are you working on or planning next?

Greg: We don’t have any plans to work together again any time soon, but we have a few story ideas for down the road when our schedules open up.

MK: (MK checks calendar) It says here self-destruct? I’m fairly busy these days, that seems right.

Greg: MK is currently writing the series Delver for comiXology. It’s good; it has a two-headed goat in it.

So, final question. What’s your pitch for Penny Nichols? Why should people pick it up?

Greg: Penny Nichols is a great book for anyone who’s ever wanted to quit their jobs and do something absolutely bonkers instead. It’s a tender story of finding your tribe and your place in the world, but also a rollicking slapstick comedy with a bit of blood and guts thrown in. It’s a graphic novel that will warm your heart while stabbing you in the chest.

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