Smash Pages Q&A | ‘The Woman in the Woods’ interview

The editors of the latest ‘Cautionary Fables and Fairy Tales’ book discuss how the project came together and how the stories were chosen for the anthology.

Iron Circus has been publishing the Cautionary Fables and Fairy Tales series, which collects folk tales from around the world and retells them in comics form for younger readers, for the past few years. Under series editors Kel McDonald and Kate Ashwin, the series has managed the incredible feat of being that rare series which contains the work of so many different artists telling stories for younger readers that is visually and stylistically exciting and just fascinating to read. 

The fifth book in the series, The Woman in the Woods and Other North American Stories, takes on the continent of North America, or Turtle Island, as it’s known to many Native and Indigenous communities. To curate the book, they are joined by artist and editor Alina Pete, who drew the book’s cover and drew one of the stories. The three are incredibly busy, but they were kind enough to join me on Zoom recently to talk about the book.

This is the fifth in the Cautionary Fables and Fairy Tales series so by this point I’m sure Kate and Kel you have a process and workflow for the books.

Kel McDonald:  We make a list of 50 people we want to invite, or we ask our guest editor to make the list. Alina made the list this time. We go through and we invite 25 out of that list and then as people accept or decline the invitation, we go to the other half of the list and invite people. Then they submit pencils and we give feedback and they submit inks. Once we’ve gotten all the people and they accept invites, then it becomes a standard they submit pages and we give feedback. 

Alina Pete:  This time around putting together a list of 50 indigenous artists and writers had never really been done before. I was just working off my own personal contacts and searching things like #native Twitter to find people I hadn’t heard of before. That’s a really good resource now for other projects.

Alina, had you edited a book before this?

Alina Pete:  I did actually. An anthology through Cloudscape Comics, which is a comics collective here in Vancouver. It was published just before COVID hit. Two years before that, my friend and I were talking about how post-apocalypse was very big in the media back then. Especially the zombie genre. We were tired of the grim, grim dark of it. We thought what if we put together a hopeful anthology of post apocalyptic stories. People are still alive and finding ways to rebuild and get through the calamity that’s happened. That became very topical after it was published. [laughs] We couldn’t have our book launch party because it came out in April 2020.

Kel McDonald:  Since Alina knew how to edit an anthology already, that’s why I approached her. I knew that she could handle all this. 

So your initial goal was to make a list of cartoonists, which is both easy and hard, but also exciting. 

Alina Pete:  Yeah. We had a special requirement for this one for all indigenous artists and writers. First Nations stories do not belong to the person who tells it, but the people generally. I knew that there are special protocols to ask to tell one of the stories. Even if you’re adapting it a different way. I knew that those protocols vary from tribe to tribe and group to group, so part of the requirement was to talk to the writers and make sure that they’ve gone through whatever the protocols are for their nation and that they have permission to tell these stories. That was one of the stipulations we had for the writers working with us on the project.

Kate Ashwin:  And knowing that is why it’s so vital to have someone who knows what they’re doing as a co-editor. That’s a thing you might not necessarily know if you don’t have experience with these different cultures.

Alina Pete:  My mom trained me as a storyteller growing up. She was a storyteller for the public school board in Saskatoon and she would tell the handful of stories that she had permission to tell. When I was 14 she said, okay, you’re ready to tell this one story. She made me tell that in front of group of kids. I have permission now to tell three stories and I want to learn more.

How do you manage to get a mixture of stories. Because the book doesn’t just have creation stories or historical or mythological stories, and you had to find the right mixture of them.

Kel McDonald:  We usually leave that to the invitees. As far as variety goes, we try to make sure we’re not lopsided in favor of one area for each book. We tell all the invitees that they can do any story that they want and do whatever they feel most comfortable with tone-wise. The rules are just that it has to be kid friendly. While making the list we tried to make sure that we didn’t to one nation over another. 

Kate Ashwin:  I think we were quite lucky on this one in particular because everyone we invited came to us with such a range of stories already that not a lot of curation was required with this one to say, no, two people are overlapping a bit. It was such a variety already it was fantastic.

I would imagine that it’s like style. You don’t want them all to look the same, but you also don’t want to dictate to the artists.

Kel McDonald:  When people accept the invite, we ask them to tell us what story they’re going to adapt. That’s based on first come, first serve. With pervious Cautionary Fables, we have had a few people who were like, I want to adapt this story and because they took their sweet time deciding, someone else already picked it.

Kate Ashwin:  Some were quite popular, but for this one we honestly didn’t have to. Everyone came right out of the gate with the variety we needed.

Retelling a story that’s been told many things is different and requires a different approach from creating a story from scratch. And it seems like everyone was very conscious of that and of what it means.

Alina Pete:  The way that you tell First Nation stories is that generally you have to be trained to tell them word for word the way that they’re told. I was taught the stories in English, so it was already a translation from the original Cree. It was already an adaption. To take that story and adapt it into another art form is another translation of the work so you have to approach it differently that you would if you were telling it verbally. I know there’s a lot of points especially in one story where a lot of it is done through gesture and motion and so you’re not getting that if you just write the words down on the page. You have to translate it to do comics where here’s the text and here’s the essence and here’s the image I’m going to use.

As far as workflow and editorial process, the page limits are flexible and is a lot of it just getting the story right, targeting the age range.

Kel McDonald:  We told people before they turned in any pages, what kind of guidelines we’re dealing with. I think only one story bumped up against it. It was a pretty minor change and easy to fix. And also it didn’t hurt the story. In the story about the trickster rabbit he tries to lasso a duck. I think in the original roughs, the lasso went around the duck’s neck and choking is a thing that is a no-no in kids books because it’s about repeatable violence so the artist just moved the lasso down slightly so it wasn’t just around the neck. We didn’t have much trouble with that because people picked tales that were okay. Once they turn it in, Kate and I give notes which are usually, is this reading clearly? Is someone not from this nation going to understand what’s going on? Is there anything that we’re missing context-wise? Our notes weren’t that complicated. For this one there wasn’t really much that was deemed not kid friendly or so it was really just making sure everyone turned stuff in on time. That was the hard part. Especially because it happened during COVID. People had different health situations and a lot of indigenous communities got hit harder by COVID, so it was mostly working with the artists and being flexible since we were in the middle of a global pandemic.

Alina, I did want to ask you about the story that you drew in the book. 

Alina Pete:  I wasn’t originally slated to draw that one. Jeffrey Veregge was going to, but he turned in his script and was in the middle of sketching and then just fell terribly terribly ill. He was in a coma for like two weeks.

Kel McDonald:  We had some radio silence after he turned in the script and his wife got in contact with us and explained the situation. 

Alina Pete:  We were not far from going to press at that point. His was one of the few Pacific Northwest stories in the book and I really wanted to have that art represented. Obviously trying to get someone who could turn in eight pages in three weeks was a tall order. I reached out to people and they were all booked and couldn’t draw it in that kind of turnaround, so I drew it. I did it the best I can, but I was conscious the whole time that I am not a Pacific Northwest indigenous person. I am from the prairies. We have a very different style of art. I didn’t want this very Northwestern story to be a drawn in a Cree style. I went with my default YA style and added a few elements that I think are respectfully done like the Octopus woman doing her dance in the garden. I hope that I succeeded in being respectful. I know my art isn’t what Jeffrey Veregge would have done, but I tried to honor him as best I could.

You also drew the cover and there’s a creation story in the anthology and the cover is effectively another one.

Alina Pete:  That is one I’m most familiar with. It’s not one of the ones I tell, but that’s the story of Star Woman falling to Earth and landing on the back of the Turtle. That’s where we get the name Turtle Island from. I wanted that image on the cover because I wanted something that represented all of North America. I’d done some sketches that had different images. There was one of a young girl reading a book and tricksters from different nations all around her. That was one way of representing North America. I think the story of Star Woman is well known enough and Turtle Island is the accepted term for the entire continent all across the nations so I figured it was a good way to represent North America.

What was behind the title, Woman in the Woods?

Kel McDonald:  For all the cautionary fable books the title of that volume is one of the stories inside “and other stories.” We picked Woman in the Woods because I liked the generational aspect of the story and it was also one of the ones that was new to Alina.

Alina Pete:  Yeah that’s a Taino legend and I’m really unfamiliar with a lot of their legends.

Kel McDonald:  I thought also it had a really cool design in that story

Kate Ashwin:  It was really strikingly told. Just a fanatically done story.

I feel like with these books you try to mix stories people might know with a lot that most people outside of the culture won’t know. Of course I always think a good anthology is where you don’t know everyone involved and that some aspect of discovery is so important in an anthology.

Kate Ashwin:  Absolutely. In the European one there were a few stories that I had not heard of before. That was very nice to see. That’s why I like the ones that aren’t anywhere near where I live. They’re so different, but also they have similar elements running throughout. I think there’s a lot of universal stories that people like to tell. Like creation. Like tricksters. It’s really interesting to see the threads running through them. 

They’re unfamiliar, but recognizable.

Alina Pete:  I really liked the African volume because there were so many stories in there that had similarities to stories that I knew from North America.

I’m sure you have many plans with the next volume or next couple.

Kel McDonald:  We’re starting to get finished artwork for the next one, which is South America. 

We’re almost done with our continental tour. A lot of people jokingly suggest we should do an an Antarctica one. And an idea was to maybe do thinner volumes that are more specific so like rather than all of North America, just doing Mexico. We just haven’t decided. 

You could make an Arctic volume, which might be interesting.

Alina Pete:  That was the one thing I wanted to get. A northern story from Northern Canada and it was just not possible. A lot of the communities don’t have access to the internet because they’re so far North. For those people in major centers, COVID was just such a disruption and it was especially bad up there. A lot of the people I tried to contact were unable to do anything.

Kate Ashwin:  That was a trouble we were running into with the Pacific islands book, as well. You want to represent as many places as you can but you’re drawing from a small pool and then a smaller pool of artists and an even smaller pool of comics artists. So you’re whittling it down to not many people, and if they’re busy, there’s not a lot you can do unfortunately. All you can do is your best.

You’re all busy with many different things. Do you want to mention anything else you’re in the midst of or what’s coming up next?

Alina Pete:  I’m going to be putting together another anthology for Iron Circus called Indiginerds. That’s going to be an anthology of modern indigenous stories. Not based on legends but based on things in real life. Stories of indigenous people living in modern ways. Coordinating rides to powwows over discord. Aunties beading pop culture figures and selling them. Stories like that. Modern life but indigenous culture. A lot of the indigenous stories that have been published recently have been historical based and often rooted in trauma. People want those residential school stories. I want to feature stories that are hopeful and bright and that say that we’re still here. We’re modern people living modern lives. I’m looking forward to seeing what we get for that.

Will it be North American? Canadian?

Alina Pete:  Worldwide. I’m going to throw it open to indigenous people all around the world. Hopefully we’ll get Maori stories and folks from South America and elsewhere. 

I have another thing I’m illustrating that I can’t talk about yet, but it’s also indigenous and I’m doing art.

Kel McDonald:  I am still working on my webcomic The City Between, which is about werewolves in the future. I’m also doing a webcomic that is exclusive to my Patreon called You Are the Chosen One, which is a YA fantasy about 23 kids who have the same prophecy dream telling them they’re the chosen one. It’s about how they all interact with that news. I’m slowly plucking away at those a page a week.

Kate Ashwin:  Similarly I’m also mostly just working one my webcomic Widdershins which is about Victorian era wizards. I’m coming up on the final book of that soon. Which will be exciting because its been about 11 years now I’ve been working on it. 

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