Smash Pages Q&A: Mariah McCourt

The comics editor and writer talks about writing the new AHOY title ‘Ash & Thorn,’ creating art, baking and more.

Mariah McCourt has had a long career as a comics editor at DC and IDW. It was also at IDW that she first started writing comics, though she is an artist who attended the School of Visual Arts, majoring in illustration. Since then she’s written comics like September Mourning and Stitched, and adapted Anne Rice’s Servant of the Bones

Her new comic, which she wrote and created, is Ash & Thorn. Drawn by Soo Lee with colors by Pippa Bowland and covers by Jill Thompson, the book involves Lady Peruvia Ashlington-Voss arriving at the home of Lottie Thorn, the new chosen one, who will fight off the demonic hordes. She was not expecting to find an elderly retired art teacher. The result is a comedic horror tale that pokes fun at the genre.

After being delayed due to the pandemic shutdown, the first issue is out tomorrow, June 24, and McCourt was kind enough to answers a few questions about her career path, her art practice and pie.

Mariah, as a first question, how did you come to comics?

I started reading comics when I was about 10 or so. My dad would bring home manga from Japan and we had a local comics shop where I found things like The Hobbit adaptation (which wasn’t completed) and Wonder Woman. When I was 13 I found Death: The High Cost of Living and that was when I really fell in love with the medium. 

A lot of comics readers might know you as an editor for different projects you worked on over the years. Were you always interested in writing?

I’ve always loved writing stories, but I actually had no intention of writing comics at first. I went to SVA for Illustration and interned at Vertigo my last two years because I wanted to know what editing comics was like. It wasn’t until years later, when I was working at IDW, that I started co-writing them with the True Blood books. After that I did more and more co-writing, then adapting, and then writing on my own. It was terrifying, but I’m glad that it took me awhile to figure out how much I love writing comics so I was able to learn so much about the medium and what artists need from a writer.

You mentioned going to SVA for illustration. What interested you back then and what were you thinking about as far as your career, before you first interned at Vertigo and then started working as an editor?

I was actually interested in doing cover art illustrations for books and comics. I always wanted to be an artist and storyteller, but I wasn’t sure I would be good enough to do it as a career or if that would ultimately be the best use of my creative skills. My mom was an editor back then, so I knew a little about what that was in the book field. 

I happened to be looking for internship opportunities my junior year, and at the office they said DC was looking, so I asked if that included Vertigo. I was really focused, in retrospect, on learning as much as I could about how comics were made. No one else had shown any interest in Vertigo that year, so I was lucky and it turned out to be a good fit. I wasn’t expecting to get hired there later, but a series of things just kind of happened and the timing worked out. I was very lucky. And here I am!

Regarding Ash & Thorn, where did this idea, and the idea of poking fun at the “chosen one” tropes and cliches, come from?

So, I’ve always been a big reader and movie person and the “chosen one” trope is common across so many genres. I particularly love it in horror stories, so I’ve always been fascinated with how it’s explored by different storytellers. Then I watched Buffy and became obsessed with subversion of that trope – and so many others. Ash & Thorn came out of my deep love of older female characters like Miss Marple, Granny Weatherwax, and the fact that I grew up with my grandmothers and a lot of influential older women in my life. It just seemed like a good way to subvert the “chosen one,” with an older protagonist, and explore aging and invisibility.

I think like a lot of people – or maybe this says something about me – my first thought was Granny Weatherwax. What characters and what stories were you thinking about?

I’m so glad you thought of Granny Weatherwax because she is one of my all-time favorite characters and a huge influence on this. The Golden Girls are another; I’m a big, snarky, Dorothy Sbornak fan. Miss Marple, because I’m obsessed with her and Christie’s mysteries about her. I also really love the older female characters in Miyazaki films because while they’re often antagonists, they’re also complex and interesting. Spirited Away is one of my top five desert island films, for instance, so Yubaba is someone I think of a lot as well.

How important was it for you that the book be funny?

Well, AHOY’s approach is “funny Vertigo” and even when I’m writing darker material, I tend to like levity to break it up a bit, so it’s an important part of all of my work. Hopefully it is funny, but in a way that it’s obvious we’re poking fun at the tropes and the absurdity of the situation, not at older women. There’s that fine line between recognizing the humor in horrible situations and being self-deprecating in an amusing way, and falling into the trap of “easy” humor that just makes fun of someone. I try to avoid that.

How much trial and error was involved in trying to get the right tone? Because you have this very deliberate balance of humor and horror.

Honestly, that part wasn’t difficult. The tone was there in the beginning, and it’s really part of everything I write. I seem to just naturally gravitate towards that space between horror and humor, it’s probably my favorite genre. Humor is harder to write than horror because sometimes you want it to be obvious and “bad” like a pun, and other times it’s about sarcasm and absurdity. And sometimes it’s just a really good punchline.

Talk a little about designing the characters and this world, and your own process as you were thinking about and working out these story and this world.

I wanted the world to be familiar, ours with the twist of “a lot of mystical crap is going on your average person doesn’t notice” so that the genre tropes would be established early and obviously for readers. I wanted Lottie and Peruvia to be clear opposites as personalities, too. Lottie is a retired art teacher, crafter and baker, because I really wanted a hero with a creative background that would lend itself to what she needs to do without being an obvious “chosen one” occupation. No one sees an 82-year-old retired art teacher and thinks, “Now that’s someone with the life skills required to fight off monsters.” And I wanted Peruvia to be a prim, fussy know-it-all for a few very specific character and story reasons that will be play out in unexpected ways. 

I definitely had some very particular ideas about how they would look, but Soo brought them to a whole other level. I didn’t want generic characters, and Soo made them absolutely come alive as distinct people.

How much of balancing that tone happened through your collaboration with Soo Lee and Pippa Bowland?

That’s what’s so great about comics, the collaborative process that elevates the work into something new. Soo took this world and made it weirder and darker while still playful, evocative and full of humor. She effortlessly switches from monster-ripping-apart panels to sick-of-your-sh*t emotional banter. Pippa brought it all together with her vivid colors that really punctuate the emotional moments of every scene.

Besides monsters, there’s also baking. Why pie? And how did you decide on the right pie recipe?

Well, for one thing, I love to bake. I’m a mom to a very creative five-year-old and we bake a LOT. I also happen to just love pie. So all the recipes are mine; some of them are even passed down from my great grandmother. I also really enjoy the juxtaposition of comforting, home-based things like baking and crafting with epic things like monsters and world endings. 

Do you still make art? Do you have a regular art practice?

I do! I do a lot of ink and watercolor illustrations and sometimes short comics of my own. I have a Patreon where I post things I’m working on and the same on Instagram and Twitter. I sell little commissions and pieces at shows when I table. My daughter seems to have the drawing bug so we do a lot of art at home, too. I personally like to do a lot of strange, whimsical pieces, that are kind of a mix of horror and fantasy and just whatever weird thing comes to mind. I also really love to do character portraits, draw hedgehogs doing ridiculous things, and cephalopods.

The first issue is very much about the setup. But what do you have planned for the rest of the series?

Things get very apocalypt-y after the first issue, more lore about the “Champion,” a lot more horror and monster fights, stress baking and some big surprises with various characters. If they can handle this Apocalypse – and it’s a big IF – then what’s to say there won’t be more? Once you’ve opened the door to cosmic horrors it’s pretty difficult to shut it, and consequences for everything have to be dealt with. And then there’s the ever-present question of power in a story like this — who has it, what they do with it and what the fall out will be. Lottie and Peruvia – not to mention Sarah and Pickle – will have a lot to navigate in this story and the next. Provided they survive it, of course. The world has just become a lot bigger and a whole lot hungrier.

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