Smash Pages Q&A | Shaenon Garrity on ‘Willowweep Manor,’ ‘Skin Horse’ and more

The editor, web cartoonist and writer discusses her latest graphic novel and the end of her long-running webcomic.

For 12 days, we’re looking back at the 2021 that was in the world of comics, with interviews, commentary and more. Check back often!

Shaenon Garrity has been working in comics for years. An editor at Viz Media, she’s a longtime web cartoonist starting with Narbonic, which she launched in 2000, and she’s been a comics critic for nearly as long in the pages of The Comics Journal and other publications.

Garrity currently makes the webcomic Skin Horse with Jeffrey Wells, and this year saw the release of the graphic novel The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor, which she made with Christopher Baldwin. The book stars Haley, a lover of gothic romances who finds herself in a gothic romance. Except it’s not, and she has to find a way to navigate her way through a very different kind of story. The book is wildly inventive and laugh out loud funny, which are two things that I always expect from Garrity’s work.

We spoke recently about gothic romance, mad scientists and ending her long-running strip Skin Horse next year.

Where did The Dire Days of Willowweep Manor begin?

It was really Chris Baldwin’s idea. Chris and I know each other from way back. We started doing webcomics around the same time in the early 2000s. He’s one of the few people who’s been doing webcomics longer than I have at this point. He had an idea for a story that would be about a young woman going to a some sort of Jane Eyre/Wuthering Heights-style gothic romance universe. He didn’t really have a plot so he contacted me and asked if I would hash things out with him and write a script. We brainstormed ideas and came up with characters and a plot and I wrote it and he drew it. But he was the impetus behind it. I ended up reading a bunch of old classical gothic romances for the book like Wuthering Heights and some of the lesser known works to get an idea of what kinds of stock characters and situations were in stories like that. There are a lot of evil Italians in a lot of these books.

Interesting. So there’s this anti-Catholic, anti-European element to a lot of them?

I mean the genre we’re talking about, 18th-19th Century early gothic romance, a lot of it is written by British writers. There’s a lot of exoticizing and romanticizing Catholic European countries. So yes, there’s a lot of stories set in Italy or France with evil monks. I had a lot of fun reading them. The plots are over the top and frequently bizarre.

The book is about Haley, who loves gothic romances, and gets sucked into a gothic universe, which is not exactly a gothic universe.

It’s not quite what it seems.

People looking at the cover seeing her and another character swarmed by a horde of bunnies with glowing green eyes likely guessed that.

Chris did a good job expressing the essential parts of the story on the cover.

It’s funny that he brought this idea to you because I keep thinking that all your comics are about mashing up genres in different ways.

People keep saying that. I do a lot of very metatextual and self-referential stuff and my take on Willowweep is probably up that alley. I’m a big fan modernist influences and metatextual fiction and that gets into my writing a lot.

We can go back to the beginning of Narbonic and so much of your work is about people who think they’re about to enter one kind of story, but it quickly becomes clear to them that’s not happening.

Yeah and Narbonic has a lot of characters diligently following the rules of the story that they’re in. Which ends up becoming a major plot element in Willowweep, not to spoil too much.

You mentioned mad monks being a recurring trope. As you were reading and thinking about this, what were the genre elements you knew you needed to include?

I made lists of things and aside from evil rabbits we spent a we worked out the three brothers that Haley meets and they’re all supposed to be gothic archetypes and I gave them different humors. The eldest, Laurence, is the choleric one. He’s a sullen, brooding gothic hero. Montague, the middle one, is the melancholy one. He’s more of a Wuthering Heights-type character. The youngest brother Cuthbert is not really a hero, he’s the feckless younger heir and he’s the sanguine one. 

Chris did an incredible job working out the manor. He created a 3D model of the manor itself and the interiors so its got a consistent architecture to it. He made mockups of the rooms. It’s got a set number of rooms and they all fit together correctly. I had a hermitage in the book. My parents lived in England for a couple of years and when we went to visit them I went to a lot of old English estates, which are beautiful and always beautifully maintained by elderly people who are super into it. I loved estates that have different structures that don’t really serve any purpose other than to be decorative on the landscape. People sometimes built a little hermitage on their estate, just a little house for a hermit to live in the garden. I loved that. So as soon as I saw that I thought, I have to put that in a story at some point. And it has an inhabitant.

And a ghost.

We definitely wanted a ghost. There aren’t a lot of supernatural elements for a gothic romance although there are non-gothic supernatural elements, or science fictional elements. The gothic supernatural elements are limited to a ghost, although I like the supernatural gothic fiction a lot. So there’s ghosts, a big manor house, three brothers, and a hermit. And a moor. There had to be a moor and a forest.

Having read it a few times, so much of the book felt like you two were having fun.

It is. There had to be a plot, which is difficult for me. Thinking about what the characters are going to do is always the hardest part of writing for me, but there is a plot and characters learn and grow and such. A lot of it was just having fun with it.

You’ve made many webcomics over the years and a lot of them have been collaborative.

I like collaborating. I’ve done solo stuff as well. Narbonic was entirely me, but after I finished Narbonic I said, if I ever do a daily strip again, I’m going to work with somebody because it’s just an insane amount of work for one person. With my current strip, Skin Horse, I have a co-writer Jeffrey Wells, who does most of the plotting and writing. I like collaborating and seeing what comes out of working with another person. I’ve collaborated in just about every possible capacity. I’ve been the person who does the art, the person who does the writing, co-writing and co-art, and all kind of different combinations. I just like seeing what comes out.

You and Chris seemed to have fun. Will you two do something else together? Whether or not more Willowweep.

We would love to do more stuff together. We had a lot of fun on this. Whether or not more Willowweep, which I can’t talk about right now. We had a great time doing this. I’ve known him for a long time and we’ve always wanted to do something together. I mostly know him online. We did not meet in person at any point while this book was being made. I mean I’ve met him in person before, but we have not met in person in several years, so this was all done online. Which is how I end up doing most collaborations. I hardly ever see Jeff, my writer on Skin Horse, because he lives in Wisconsin and I live in Berkeley.

You started making webcomics in this period where I feel like all wrebcartoonists knew each other. It was a smaller community then.

It was a much smaller community then. I wrote a piece on Chris’ work ages and ages ago for The Comics Journal about how he might have been the first webcartoonist who wasn’t writing about nerdy stuff. [laughs] I was, because my comic was about mad scientists and computer programming, but his first comic was Bruno, which was a very beautiful drama strip about this young woman and going through her life and her circle of semi-bohemian friends. He currently does this strip Spacetrawler, which is this ongoing science fiction comedy. He’s a very interesting artist and writer. I don’t know if he needs me to be co-writing with him but he’s fun to work with.

You mentioned Skin Horse, which is your big ongoing project.

It is the ongoing-est project. Jeff and I have been making Skin Horse for fourteen years now. Maybe fifteen? Narbonic, my previous strip, lasted for six years and that felt like a long time. I knew at the beginning that Skin Horse was going to be longer, but I did not know it was going to be this much longer. We’re getting around to wrapping it up and we’re into the final story arc now. We spent years building up a huge cast of characters so we could eventually have a war and lots of characters fighting each other. Now it’s actually happening. We’re inching towards an ending, but it’s still taking a long time. It take a long time to move plot forward in a daily four panel strip.

So Skin Horse will end next year?

Jeff initially thought the end of this year but I’m hoping to wrap up next year. We also have to put out two final volumes of print collections. I need to get started on that asap. For the last several we’ve funded the print collections on kickstarters and for the last several we’ve been doing two volumes at a time so we can catch up with the strips running online. I think we can fit the end of Skin Horse into two more volumes and I’m working on that and have started doing cover art. 

You also made a calendar this year.

Yes! I made a calendar. I should have done this every year. I did a kickstarter for a Skin Horse calendar, which I should have done in previous years. One of the things I do on Patreon is a monthly desktop and phone wallpaper design. It’s for backers and for people who put money in our tip jar, but it’s also an excuse for me to practice drawing. I’m a much stronger writer than I am an artist, so I need to practice drawing all the time and doing full color illustrations every month helps me learn. I’ve got tons of them because we’ve been doing it for years and a lot of them are seasonal. I should have done a calendar before and now I’m ticked off because now I’ve made a whole calendar template for it so I could make a calendar really easily. But this is probably the last year it will make sense to do a Skin Horse calendar.

Just as Narbonic sort of led into Skin Horse, do you have plans to followup Skin Horse with something else?

No. Narbonic and Skin Horse do take place in the same universe. There was about a year between Narbonic ending and Skin Horse starting. I didn’t plan to do another strip, but then I had an idea and e-mailed Jeff if he wanted to do it. Narbonic was about mad scientists and their creations and Skin Horse is about this underfunded government agency that basically has to clean up their messes. They’re a black ops social services organization. Jeff, my co-writer, works as a low level government bureaucrat, so I said, Jeff you’re the perfect person to provide insight on this. He does indeed love doing stories about bureaucracy. There’s a completely ridiculous storyline going on right now where one of the characters is basically rising to the top of the shadow government just by manipulating his way into different promotions at a completely unrealistic speed. This is 100% Jeff’s script. It’s the kind of thing Jeff likes doing. I don’t have plans to do anything else in the Narbonic universe, but I didn’t have any plans when Narbonic ended, so who knows? I will say that a daily strip is a lot of work and does get exhausting after a while. I’m also working on writing graphic novels right now, so that’s taking up time, and I’m actually selling graphic novels, which is exciting. I have another graphic novel that I sold and I sold a third script that I cannot talk about yet.

I can talk about the second one, which is Steam. That’s been announced. That one will probably be out the year after next, because it turns out that it takes a really long time to draw. The artist is Emily Holden who’s very good. Steam is about mad science. Because I really like mad scientists. It is about a girl who is she was created in a lab to be a super genius mad scientist and create inventions for the university that created her and government contractors. She escapes from the lab and goes undercover as a barista in one of the coffeeshops in the college town outside this university. Then she gets interested in trying to be a matchmaker because she’s trying to understand human psychology. It’s a mad science love story.

It sounds like a very Shaenon Garrity concept.

It is very Shaenon Garrity in that it involves mad scientist girls, which is one of my favorite things. Also, coffee. Which was a big part of Narbonic, too.

What is it about mad scientists?

I love mad scientists! They’re like witches, but with science. I like witches, too. I like science and I like mad geniuses. I’m also a big fan of horror movies in general so I love the Frankenstein movies, especially Bride of Frankenstein. I got into watching all the horror movies ever made. There’s not a lot of great mad science movies so I’m always excited when I find one. Bride of Frankenstein is the absolute pinnacle of mad science movies.

The Fly is a good mad scientist movie.

The Fly is good. There’s not enough lady mad scientists, which is my absolute favorite thing. If that’s in a movie, I’m extremely excited. But I don’t know why I got into mad scientists. I love science and science fiction and smart people and it became a recurring thing in my work.

It’s at the center of that Venn diagram of your interests.

Yeah. And periodically scientists that are not technically mad, just extremely unethical and/or overenthusiastic.

I like overenthusiastic science people. Most real life scientists are extremely enthusiastic about what they do, so I feel like the mad scientist stereotype is realistic in that sense. Most scientists are pretty colorful bouncy people who tend to get very excited. I like real scientists as well as fictional scientists. They usually have a lot of different hobbies in different areas because they’re very interested in things. Over-enthusiastic fangirl is another type that I really like. Maybe that’s why I like mad scientists? They’re over-enthusiastic fans of science?

You do live in Berkeley, which is a big science research town. You are likely surrounded by a lot of crazy enthusiastic scientists.

It really is. I didn’t go to college here, but it has quite a science culture. They take pride in having dedicated parking spaces for their Nobel laureates. Just showing off to a ridiculous degree.

The university is Steam is based on Berkeley. I named the university Smithson, which was actually the title and setting of a college in a webcomic I did which no longer exists in any form. The internet is a very ephemeral medium. It’s very easy for things to go missing. Not all my webcomics are available or even really existsin any form anymore. One of them was Smithson, which was set at a college based on the college I actually attended, which was Vassar. Steam is set at Smithson, but it’s very different from the Smithson in the webcomic. 

The internet is ephemeral, which is is why people need to buy your books.

And that is why you need to buy the books! Yes! You never know. I could stop keeping Narbonic online at any time. I probably won’t, but it could happen. I try to keep as much as I can available online. I have Narbonic and Skin Horse and I still have Li’l Mell, which was a Narbonic spinoff I did for another ModernTales site. I like that one a lot. One of the main characters from Li’l Mell is now a character in Skin Horse. I had Horror Every Day where I selected a horror movie for every day of the year and that’s still online.

Monster of the Week, where I recap episodes of The X-Files in comic form. I had to stop doing that for a while because I had so much else going on. I’m through Season Six now. If I reach the stretch goal in the next kickstarter I’ll do season Seven. That might be a good point to stop and not do any more seasons for a while. The show gets pretty bad for the last two seasons, though there are some good episodes near the end. Smithson doesn’t exist anymore and I feel bad about it. But the new graphic novel Steam will be set at a version of Smithson. 

But you’re thinking more about graphic novels now?

I am. I have an agent now so I’m able to sell books to publishers. It’s taken twenty years, but it’s happening now. I am writing graphic novels and pitching them around. I have a couple still pitching and two complete scripts that I haven’t sold yet. Hopefully I will be doing more graphic novels.

It’s a different kind of writing.

It’s totally different. I’ve developed a system for writing a graphic novel that is working for me. It’s very different form doing a daily strip. With the strips we come up with plots and then come up with gags hitting on the plot points. Which is a challenge but on Narbonic I worked way far ahead of schedule. I had a lot of the plot decided from early on and so I would draw strips completely out of order. Whenever a gag occurred to me I had a giant folder of strips for years. I can’t really do that with Skin Horse because I have a co-writer. We are doing things week to week with Skin Horse and we do have a plot and we know where it’s going. With a graphic novel you have to plot the whole thing out in advance because the publisher wants to see that you have a complete plot before they buy the book. I write a complete plot and then I thumbnail it page by page. I’m kind of doing the Marvel method by myself. The old method was that Stan Lee would come up with the plot, Jack Kirby would draw the pages and actually turn it into a visual story, and then Stan would write the dialogue. I’m kind of doing that myself. I thumbnail out a page and then type out the dialogue and directions for it and thumbnail another page and fill in the dialogue. I don’t know if that makes sense, but this what I’m doing. 

And if it doesn’t make sense, I’m actually included in Nat Gertler’s new book, Panel 3: Comic Book Scripts by Top Writers, that just came out. That has sample scripts and thumbnails from Willowweep Manor so you can see how my thumbnails turn into a script. I draw very messy thumbnails on lined notebook paper. All of my thumbnails and sketches is on lined notebooks. I get too intimidated if its a proper sketchbook. It has to be the cheapest dollar store notebook I can get.

I know a lot of writers who thumbnail and they’re almost embarrassed to admit it.

You should always thumbnail out a comic when you’re writing, because you need to know how it’s going to look on the page. Comics are a visual medium. I strongly encourage all comics writers to draw the comic as well as write it just so you know what its looking like. And you can see how hard it is to draw. Because drawing is hard. And it takes so long. 

And then people read it so quickly.

Yes! It takes an incredibly long time to make a comic and then it can be read so much more quickly than a regular book. I’m breezing through comics and I feel bad because I know the artists put a lot of work into it. I’ve been sitting down to read Giant Days, which is a great comic book series, but I’m breezing through it because it’s fun and breezy. The art is gorgeous. Its really great looking and funny and I’m spending no time on it. I’m sorry creative team of Giant Days! I’m sorry your book is too readable!

As I hope was clear, I loved the new book, and I’m glad that things are going well.

Things are going pretty well right now. I’ve been doing comics for a ridiculously long time at this point. I’ve done a little bit of everything in the comics industry. My actual day job that makes money is that I’m a freelance manga editor for Viz Media. I work on editing and localization for some of the titles. I’ve been plugging away at all things comics for a ridiculously long time. There gets to be a point where you have to keep doing this creative career because you’re not qualified to do anything else. That’s where I am now so I’m glad I have a book coming out and other books coming out and people can hopefully enjoy them, because I don’t know else I would do at this point. My job is knowing everything about comics.

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