Smash Pages Q&A: Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan

The duo discuss their latest graphic novel, “An Embarrassment of Witches,” now available from Top Shelf Comix.

An Embarrassment of Witches is the new book from Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan. Goldstein has made a name for herself in recent years with her comics like House of Women and The Oven, but before those books came out, Goldstein and Jordan made the webcomic Darwin Carmichael Is Going to Hell, a colorful romp about life in Brooklyn where mythological creatures and minor deities live next to artists and hipsters, and the protagonist is dealing with a karmic deficit and trying to save his immortal soul.

An Embarrassment of Witches is very much a related project, mixing the fantastic and the mundane in different ways. The book is about the friendship of Rory and Angel, two longtime friends after college, each of whom are foundering in different ways that strain their friendship. It’s about relationships and changing relationships with parents. It’s also about interdisciplinary magicks, botanical alchemy, and combines these elements in a way that makes the world feel new and fantastic, but is always about character and emotional above all.

I met Goldstein and Jordan years ago at Webcomics Weekend and was thrilled to talk with them about their new book, which I think is the best work they’ve done to date.We spoke recently over email.

Now the first question I always ask, how did you come to comics?

Jenn: I came to comics rather indirectly, and I had to meet them twice to really fall in love. My first encounter was, rather embarrassingly, through 90s fandom. In high school I was a big, big X-Files fan, and the first comics I ever read were tie-ins to the show. Because I was reading X-Files novels at the same time, I learned by comparison that there were storytelling things that comics could do that prose can’t, and I developed a real appreciation for that. 

That was my only exposure to comics until college, when I went through my Neil Gaiman phase, which I think is a required phase for goth-curious girls around the year 2000. I had started with his novels but wound up really getting into comics as a medium when I read Sandman. And via Neil Gaiman I got into Alan Moore and the rest of that British Invasion cohort. And the rest, as they say, is history. I had been interested in writing for as long as I’ve known how to write, but it was only when I met Sophie that I got interested in creating comics myself.

Sophie: Before I started working on Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell with Jenn my experience with comics were some strips for my high school newspaper, a half-finished autobio comic for a drawing class in college and some extension classes at the School of Visual Arts after I graduated.

I was lucky enough to take my first SVA class with Tom Hart and my second with Matt Madden, two celebrated teachers who introduced me to the world of mini-comics and stuff not published by Vertigo or Drawn & Quarterly.

So, having drawn maybe 16 pages of comics in my entire life starting a bi-weekly webcomic with Jenn seemed like the logical next step. We launched Darwin Carmichael in 2009 and wrapped it up in 2013, just after I graduated from The Center for Cartoon Studies.

The two of you collaborated for years on Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell. How did that project happen?

Jenn: Sophie and I had become friends through my then-boyfriend, now-husband, in college. After we graduated we found ourselves both working desk jobs at our university, which afforded us constant access to gchat and a lot of time sitting at desks waiting for phones to ring. We began having conversations about comics, reading them and making them, from our respective desks across the street from one another. 

It gave us a lot of time to have weird conversations, over chat and over dormitory cafeteria meals on our staff meal plans.  Neither of us is quite sure how we made the leap from “macabre hypotheticals” to “brainstorming an actual comic to write,” but the whole thing started with a discussion of the estimated karmic cost of eating a baby. We had been playing with the idea of life in a world where karma functioned like currency, and how one would maintain a karmic budget.

Sophie: If you had asked us at the time we would have described Darwin Carmichael as “Questionable Content meets American Gods” – which pretty accurately summarizes our major literary influences at the time.

When you ended Darwin, did you always intend to work together again on another comic? Did you immediately start working on something else?

Jenn: If I remember correctly, we did always want to create something together again after Darwin wrapped, but we also knew we wanted to take some time. I was just starting a new graduate program – I’m just now wrapping up my dissertation towards my PhD in medieval history. And Sophie had projects of her own that she wanted to explore.  

I had thought that any return to comics would come after that degree was finished, but in the thick of writing Sophie began to have some ideas for collaboration, and it occurred to me that having a creative writing outlet might actually make all the difficult analytical writing I was doing a bit more tolerable. It did! 

And the comics writing has always given me a way to engage with the material I research in a less rigorous, more creative way. Tons of medieval mythical creatures made it into the Darwin supporting cast and extras populating the backgrounds, and An Embarrassment of Witches has a lot of mythical and historical medicinal materials. 

Sophie: Yeah, because we both had other commitments it took a long, long time to write the book—lots of starts and stops—but it was also fun to collaborate again. I remember one meeting in New York City where we were pasting up postcards on the wall, trying to figure out the plot of the book, and a visit Jenn made to Pittsburgh where I was living at the time so we could “scout” a bunch of locations for the book.

There’s an energy to collaboration that’s hard to achieve on your own—you can’t really bounce ideas off yourself. Also, Jenn has a knack for quippy humor and cultural references that I definitely lack. I mean, you’ve read my other books – I think it’s pretty clear I could never have written a book like this on my own.

Jenn: Aw, shucks, thanks! I’ve learned a lot about the creative process in general from working with Sophie. When I’m writing things for myself – academic or otherwise – I can get very inside my own head, and can get caught up on making things “perfect” before moving on. Collaborating with Sophie helped me to get more comfortable with uncertainty in the creative process, with trying out ideas before you decide they’re good or bad, and with seeing the “bad” ideas as a necessary step on the way to the good ones.

So where did An Embarrassment of Witches start?

Sophie: We started writing the book in 2015 so it’s hard to recall *exactly* but I know we talked a lot about wanting to make a book that explored the post-college experience and making the difficult transition to adulthood. 

I can’t speak for Jenn, of course, but after college I really floundered. The trajectory of school just provides you with such clear goals and metrics for self-evaluation that the “real world” lacks and that can be difficult. Plus, work is boring! At least, the jobs I had were. It’s not rewarding to file documents or answer phones. It’s hard to figure out your place in all of it.

Additionally, Jenn and I both grew up with divorced parents and I felt like that wasn’t something I saw that much in comics and movies for younger audiences. Not that divorce is necessarily a bad thing—I don’t feel that way at all—but I think the family dynamics are very different. 

So, that’s three paragraphs and I haven’t even mentioned magic! To be honest, I don’t think that was so much a *choice* we made so much as our default setting—we love world-building, puns, silliness, and satire and setting the book in a magical world allowed us to indulge all of that and leaven what otherwise could be heavy material.

Jenn: I floundered after college too – I had hopped right into an interdisciplinary masters problem (I had gotten the desk job solely for the tuition remission), but struggled with finding a discipline I felt at home in, and felt really challenged by the culture of stress and internal as well as external pressure to produce. Somewhere between a BA and a PhD you need to learn how to be an adult.

Around that time I had also been thinking quite a bit about how friendships change, or survive or don’t survive these transitions into adulthood. And how different types of personalities can lead to certain kinds of conflicts. The magical setting provided a fun way to explore some of these difficult ideas, and also gives you some nice opportunities to play with how the external world can be used to portray inner states and tensions, in a magical realist type of way.

Also I just really wanted everyone to know about barnacle geese. There are so many weird, mythical plants and trees in medieval culture that the idea of the crypto-pharmacology lab practically leapt out at me from all the material I was researching at the time.

Did you intend from the start to write something with an ending in mind?

Sophie: Yes, absolutely. While we learned a lot working on Darwin Carmichael the fact that we’d started it without an ending in mind gave it a meandering quality that didn’t work as well as a graphic novel. I really wanted us to write a book together that had a fully fleshed out plot and arc and where the script was written beginning to end before I started drawing a single page. And that’s what we did!

Of course, if I’d been drawing the book as we’d been writing it it would probably have gotten done sooner but I think it would have been an inferior book. I think the ability to go back and rework earlier parts of the book once you’ve finished the later bits—the ability to seed plot elements and create symmetries within the book—is really important. Plus, where you’re drawing a comic over a long period of time, like I was with Darwin Carmichael, your art style can shift a lot. An Embarrassment of Witches doesn’t have that problem.

Jenn: The art shifts a lot in Darwin, and the writing does too, I think. Sophie and I were pretty much writing one-off gags strips at the beginning, and that evolved into longer and longer arcs that were more character-based and less gag-based. Our agenda shifted as we wrote Darwin, whereas we had a more consistent, specific goal with our new book.

How was the process different with this book from how you had worked together before? 

Jenn: Some aspects were very similar: Sophie and I would meet online from our respective desks and timezones, divvy up the writing for the day, and go to work. But I did find some interesting new challenges in writing a graphic novel, as opposed to writing a webcomic.

There’s the whole issue of writing something open-ended versus writing something with a beginning, middle, and end, as we’ve just discussed. But there was also a new rhythm I had to internalize for writing a page. Darwin, especially at the beginning, was structured like a newspaper strip: six or so panels with a punchline. It eventually became a little looser and more complicated than that, but it was more or less one rhythm to learn.

An Embarrassment of Witches felt different – I had to depend less on structure and more on intuition. What was the point or goal of a particular page, and how many panels would that require? Each page no longer needed a punchline, but it did need to hit a beat within a particular scene. And learning to write around page turns! That was really tricky but really interesting.

Sophie: Yeah, as Jenn said there was a bit of a learning curve at first, taking what I’d learned since Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell and applying it to our process. Ultimately I think a lot of pages were still written in a six-panel format, like Darwin Carmichael, and then when I was thumbnailing the book I would break that up as felt appropriate.

Also, since there was such a long time lapse between when we started the book and when I started drawing it there were some emergency meetings where I would call on Jenn to brainstorm magical imagery with me or rewrite a joke that we’d written several years back and was no longer working. 

So did the two of you write the book for a few years and then Sophie, did you draw it after it was finished?

Jenn: We had a finished script before Sophie started drawing, if I remember correctly. We had a fairly lengthy revision phase, too, where we toyed with character names and swapped some characters’ genders. Darwin’s publishing schedule never really gave us the breathing room to do much editing or revising, so that was a nice (literal) change of pace for us as well. 

Sophie, you’re not the same artist you were when you did Darwin. You’ve made comics on your won since it ended, what was the process and the thinking for you about how the book should look and feel?

Sophie: My follow-up books to Darwin Carmichael is Going to HellThe Oven and House of Women—were both much more serious in tone. The style of The Oven was more minimalist both because I was working on a tight deadline for Maple Key Comics, the anthology it was originally published in, and because I felt it suited the book. I wanted the characters’ faces to be less expressive because I think that forces the reader to interpret how they are feeling from context and thus, to feel it themselves. 

House of Women was a different kind of animal. I was inspired by Aubrey Beardsley, Klimt, and Japanese printmaking. I wanted the book to feel and look luxurious and sensual, like those works. I also inked it with a brush, which gave it a much more flowing look and avoided the rounded contours I am otherwise disposed to. 

An Embarrassment of Witches felt very much like a return to Darwin Carmichael is Going to Hell, in that my goals were the same as that book—mainly humour and emotional resonance. I think both humor and horror allow for much more freedom in terms of stretching the human face and body. Also, there were talking animals, which are always a joy to draw.

The lessons that I brought with me from my intervening books mostly pertained to using more sophisticated layouts and employing a limited color palette—two things that I decidedly did NOT do in Darwin Carmichael.

How did you decide on the color palette of the book?

Sophie: The short answer is I wanted the book to be in color but couldn’t afford to pay for a colorist.* This meant coloring the whole book myself, which is… you know… a lot. So, even though Top Shelf was willing to pay for four-color printing working with a limited palette was the most expedient choice. Basically, the way I explain it to the uninitiated, is that it accelerates the coloring process by whittling your color choices down from *infinity* to, in the case of this book, six.

The color palette was black, white, purple, mauve, yellow and teal. Plus two shades of blue, which I only used for Rory and her father’s hair and Archie the owl’s feathers. I arrived at this palette, after a very long and emotionally wrenching midnight of the soul, by referencing Polly Pockets from the 90’s. 

It’s probably the most “#millenial” choice I could have possibly made, but I stand by it.

*Later on I was able to hire Mike Freiheit to flat the comic, with money provided by the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. That was truly a godsend.

Jenn: Yeah, obviously Sophie had a much stronger hand in choosing the color palette, but she had run a few options by me and I had most liked the ones that were blue- and purple-heavy. Those years of your mid-twenties always felt like those colors to me– culturally we talk a lot about “blue” periods and phases of your life where you feel underwater….and the colors really speak to that feeling to me. 

I wonder if a limited color palette is like sonnet writing, whereas our anything-goes technicolor palette for Darwin is more like free-verse? Are these kinds of metaphors useful?

Sophie, you’ve drawn a couple comics since Darwin, do you typically work on multiple projects? Or dod you mostly draw one thing at a time?

Sophie: My preference is to work on one project at a time but necessity often dictates otherwise. None of my books have come with big advances so they are frequently interrupted by more well-paying freelance work.

For instance, the first fifty pages of An Embarrassment of Witches took over a year to draw, since I was also juggling work-for-hire projects. Once I got into the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, which provides free housing and a stipend, I was able to put my full focus on the book and completed the remaining 150 pages in under a year.

Where did the title come from?

Sophie: That was something we struggled with for a while. We had brainstormed a few titles, none of which we were totally in love with: Lesser Magic, Real Magic, Spellbound for Nowhere, A Girl’s Guide to Magical Realism, Impractical Magic… Finally we were at the Massachusetts Independent Comic Expo, eating burritos with some friends after the show and forcing them to brainstorm titles with us and fellow-CCS grad Mathew New suggested “An Embarrassment of Witches” and it just… worked. 

Jenn: Such a good title. Such a good burrito.

So final word, what’s your elevator pitch? Why do people need this book in their lives?

Jenn: When we started writing An Embarrassment of Witches, our elevator pitch was Girls meets Harry Potter. But Girls was in its second or third season then, and the project evolved a lot as we wrote it, and I think I’d describe it as Frances Ha meets Harry Potter. Granted, many more people are probably familiar with Girls than with Frances Ha. But our work is a bit kinder than Girls. I’ve heard these works referred to as belonging to a genre known as “Girl with a Broken iPhone Screen” stories, which function as a deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl trope, and I think we wanted to do something with that idea, but with a bit more kindness, perhaps.

I think this book is a great fit for anyone who felt lost in their twenties – or who feels lost in their teens? Or who still feels lost in their thirties maybe? There are so many times to feel lost! 

Sophie: Or maybe we’ve stayed in one place, and it’s the world that’s been lost.

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