First published in The Webcomics Examiner, November 2004
Amber “Glych” Greenlee is a busy, busy woman. After spending four formative years developing her flagship title “No Stereotypes” on Keenspace, she relaunched the title as part of Modern Tales, followed not long after by a the launch of NonPersons on Graphic Smash, as well as the eclectic Glych’s Experiment as part of the Drunk Duck collective. Her most recent addition is Red Dahlia, a collaboration with John Daiker that was featured in the latest Drunk Duck print anthology, Drunk Duck: Drunk and Disorderly. With three ongoing webcomics, and an anthologized print series, it’s a wonder she was able to find time for this interview.
My understanding is that the current versions of both No Stereotypes and NonPersons are complete restarts of stories you were previously running on Keenspace. Is this accurate?
Greenlee: Kind of… I consider the two original versions of No Stereotypes to be the “beta” versions. I actually had a false start prior to the one on Keenspace hosted at homestead (a free site) but it didn’t…click. I consider something a false start if it doesn’t exceed five pages, and the original v1.0 only had three comics. I then started up No Stereotypes on Keenspace with the beta v2.0 of which exceeded over 250 individual comics. NonPersons has had two false starts on Keenspace, v1.0 with only four comics and a chapter heading, and v2.0 had only two pages with a chapter heading. But the v2.0 pages of NonPersons will actually be used in the current version of the strip as soon as I get to that part of the story. I restarted the story from another point due to decisions made by T. Campbell and myself in a conversation at SDCC ’03 where I was telling him the basic plot and he was shopping for strips for Graphic Smash. We both agreed that starting at the “beginning” of a series of events sometimes isn’t the best place.
250 pages is a long way to go to then decide to turn around and go back to the beginning! Are these “beta versions” a normal part of your creative process? What motivates you to go back to the beginning of something you’ve already been working on for so long?
Greenlee: Yes it’s true, 250 comics is a lot to finish, but it’s also true that for every good drawing an artist does he had to go through about 1000 bad ones. So I kind of consider that all that work I did was getting as many bad drawings out of me as possible at that time.
I don’t think there are any concrete reasons why I’ve done betas of my comics aside from lack of experience and immaturity. When I originally started No Stereotypes (v1.0) I was only 15. When I started the beta (v2.0) I was 16. I didn’t start the current version until I was 20. I admit 20 is still young, but not as young as 16. In the four years between 16 and 20 my writing has matured a lot. It’s grown and changed. It’s stronger and more rounded…More structured without being stiff and more spontaneous without losing focus.
I decided to restart NS because originally I realized that if I wanted to make comic books I should practice my drawing everyday. I decided to set a daily deadline for myself to accomplish this goal. I went to the SDCC ’01 and stopped by the Plan Nine Publishing booth for a long time talking with Pete Abrams (stole practically his whole Sunday) who handed me a Keenspot flyer saying “well if you want to do comics, you can start here.
I joined Keenspace because it was a free place to upload my comic and they had an auto updating system that Darren “Gav” Bleuel created. My coding was pretty weak so I needed all the help I could get. It was okay back then when there were only about 1000 of us on the Keen server, not counting the ‘Spotters. It was pretty small.
I didn’t really have any ideas for a comic beyond designs for these quirky little characters, so I decided to use them and see what came out. I didn’t write anything for my comic for about the first year. It was purely out of my head. Even though I knew the direction I was going into I didn’t have a map…so I drifted a lot on Tangents…Which only weakened this pretty interesting story that was emerging under the strained amateurish art style. I mean, looking back at this old stuff, I find the occasional diamond in the rough, but the majority of it — if I saw it on the ‘net now — I wouldn’t bat an eye at. When my writing grew so much in such a small period of time and these quirky little characters I had invented to help me with my anatomy started to mean something to me emotionally, I felt like it was an injustice to their creation to have this badly drawn history.
I guess I got the idea to repackage the strip from Steve Troop (www.melonpool.com) who has restarted his comic multiple times since he was five. I guess I thought: “Well, if he can do it, so can I.”
How did your readers respond to the announcement that instead of going forward with the story you would be going back to start the “official” version?
The only kind of [reaction] I’ve gotten from it was disappointment. A lot of people miss the old archives which I didn’t remove from the ‘net to get rid of evidence of the old strip or anything, but instead because I was picked up by Modern Tales and I didn’t want to be in breach of contract to have a pre-existing version of the comic available for free on another server (Keen). I know, it’s not exactly as exciting as if I had burned my originals in a heat of rage or anything, but it’s the truth. My evil villainish plot after the story is over with is to release the previous versions on a disk available with a printed book of the MT No Stereotypes. As it stands, I’m working on the coding now for the crossover comics for The Great Framed Escape and my exclusive crossover with Framed!!! for free up on my site. I just haven’t gotten around to finishing said code yet.
Do you ever worry about falling into the trap of endlessly revising the same work? Or, more to the point – how do you know when it’s time to stop revising and let the work stand?
Greenlee: When I was younger I would have quickly fallen into the trap you mention, but since then I’ve learned that there comes a point when you just have to let it go. This time around the story will finish because I no longer cringe at the archives. And because I no longer rush the comics so there’s no reason for me to cringe. I’ve learned that a half-assed job takes twice as long. So rather than quickly try to get a half-thought idea out into the world I’ve learned to back off and finish it first before pencil is ever put to paper for the first strip. To give you an idea, I’ve been working on an idea called Cronoshift for over two years now, which very little is known about outside of my own head. I’ve been doing intense research on the project including reading into possible time travel according to chaos math and physics.
Why? Because I want to get the science as correct as possible. I’m doing all of this research prior to ever fleshing out the story (of which a vague one is floating around my head). I’ve been writing the story ideas, the research notes, and the snippets of conversation down into a collection of “idea books” I’ve compiled on this particular story. An “idea book” is one of those journals you can buy at any bookstore just filled to the brim with sketches and handwritten notes on whatever subject comes to mind. I usually have about three running at a time, not counting the sketchbook which I tend to keep filled with anatomical and perspective studies. I rarely write in my sketchbook outside of the date. For the first run of No Stereotypes I had only about six pages in one of my idea books. For the second, I’ve so far filled about three idea books. For NonPersons I’m ready to finish up my fifth, and for Cronoshift I’m pushing seven full idea books. I won’t even begin to toy with the idea of starting it until well after No Stereotypes is finished because I want this one done right.
I recall there was a pretty major revelation about Atom’s distant past not long before No Stereotypes got picked up by Modern Tales. I imagine a lot of your longtime readers are eager to get back to that point. So—will we get back to that point, or is the story taking you in a different direction this time around?
The original story I had in mind, the one I tangented from throughout the majority of the beta’s run, I was starting to get back to prior to ending it. We’ll get back there eventually. I hope by the end of the year. I actually have the story completely written out this time (and let me tell you, it’s better and easier to fight through writer’s block and antagonize over your notes over the course of about 2-3 weeks of writing the story than it is to fight through random intervals of writer’s block over the course of months-years of doing each individual comic. You never know where you’re going. It’s like vaguely knowing which way is north, but without a map to guide you there. I highly recommend to anyone and everyone to write out your story first.) which makes things easier. I am taking slightly different directions in things, but not out of any need to change my original idea, but because while reading through the old archives of the beta, (while I was rewriting it for the current version) I realized I had false justifications for some of the character’s actions and a Swiss cheese amount of plot holes.
So the whole chapter of Jody possessed by Raven is to justify why Kat feels threatened by her and to introduce plot elements sooner than they were in the beta version. The whole three chapters I just finished with (with Spons talking to Kat and Jody discovering Atom’s immortality and dealing with it) justifies both Atom’s affinity for Jody and introduces a menacing part of Spons’ character that never had the chance to blossom in the ol’ beta version. I also decided to drop the character Alice from this current version (a character I never liked in the first place. Also a character which made the female/male ratio lopsided in the strip.) and introduce Raven instead as the middle-man between the two major sides of the conflict at the heart of the strip; Atom and Spontaneous.
Before Alice waffled with herself on the issue of what to do about Atom. If it was alright to throw him to the dogs if he wasn’t really hurting anyone. She also had a crush on him, which he provoked. I didn’t like this at the time or now because it split this guy between 3 women in the strip (Kat, Jody, and then Alice) romantically, which always kind of bothered me. If Atom were waiting to see his wife again, why would he be laying down with these other women? Now Raven is a more objective go-between, there’s stronger justification for Atom and the go-between himself; Raven. Now, Raven and Atom both get something out of their arrangement whereas before, Alice only acted out of her crush on Atom (a weak explanation) and Atom only out of his want to mess with people (also a weak explanation). This time around, though the order is a bit different, the story is closer to the heart of what I wanted originally.
Something I’ve enjoyed about your artwork is how you give each of your major projects a very different look—loose and cartoony for No Stereotypes, noir-ish realism for Red Dahlia, and a sort of hybrid sketchy-noir for NonPersons. How do you choose the particular look a story should have?
Greenlee: I think the writing dictates what the art should look like. I think that’s true for comics in general, print or web. A dark story needs a dark art style, a comical one seems funnier to me when it’s in more of a simplistic form. I could go heavily into detail on the effects of line on the psyche…Scott McCloud does a much better job of overviewing it in Understanding Comics than I ever could… (Chapter Five: “Living in Line,” page 118).
I try to suit the artwork to the story already written. I always write the story first before I start any project. Which is good, because then I can see what I planned on doing with the story, story-wise, drama-wise, setting, and characters. If I have a dark, compelling, suspenseful story set in a lot of midnight locations, like the docks in fog and lonely subway stations, I’m not going to have dancing trees and sunshine like Toon Town at the end of Who Framed Roger Rabbit — it just…wouldn’t fit. But I also don’t want to copy someone else. I can emulate almost any style I set my mind to, so rather than emulate- I manipulate. I study all artwork to see what’s working and what’s not. I try to train my self-why on both accounts. These comics are long drawn out and precious experiments to me of my training to myself. They’re my art school.
No Stereotypes is an experiment in character, pacing, timing, and subtlety. It’s not important to the story to see every eyelash and have a harsh realism with the story; that’s not what the story is about. I chose a simplistic “cute” style because I wanted these guys to be likable and layered. I wanted them to be identifiable. If I did something like shrink their eyes, then they would appear distant to the reader. That’s why Atom has these dinky little beady eyes — you’re not supposed to know what he’s thinking. Where as Jody lives with her heart firmly worn on her sleeve.
NonPersons is an experiment about character interaction, foreshadowing, and visual shorthand. For the character interaction I realized with NS that though the characters were unique and quickly identifiable, I never really had them communicating through body language…they were always islands unto themselves as characters, individually posed because I was still learning while drawing them. Now I’m expanding my interaction of base lines in my drawings (the flow lines referred to in a million anatomy books.)
Think of it this way — If someone is leaning over a counter pulling on a guy’s sleeve, the first person’s body weight will pull on the guy’s shirt making the shirt pull harder on guy’s neck changing his position and lines of force or flow lines. Also, the person over the counter will be pulled up slightly, changing theirs too. People interact with people daily and I’m trying to train myself how to make it look “right.” I’m also trying to train myself how to make it move right.
Foreshadowing allows someone to expect the next scene. With NS I never really did that. In fact, I hear from a lot of people that they never know quite where I’m going with it…so I decided to try going the other way and try and clue people into what might happen next. If I lay out multiple “mights,” hopefully it’ll make it suspenseful. It’s still an experiment…
As for visual shorthand — my plan for NP is to have each NonPersons tell their story. Each person has different lives and experiences. Each see things differently. I want to show this through different styles for each story. I want to carry these styles into the story by having each character drawn in their own style. I plan on creating a kind of “visual shorthand” so that if I choose to have 12 NonPersons in a crowd of thousands the reader should be able to pick them out at a glance. I didn’t want to do this through bright colors or costumes or glowing powers…I wanted a powerful person to be able to wear street clothes yet still be unique from the world around them without elaboration.
The Experiment’s goal changes daily.
I’ve heard some artists argue the merit of developing a “signature style” as a way of branding their work. You seem to have gone in the opposite direction, even though you could easily develop a signature of your own. (The No Stereotypes style is particularly identifiable as uniquely yours.) Was this an intentional decision?
Greenlee: Intentional is another word for planned.
Yes, it was. I don’t want to copy or become a clone of another person. I’d rather go in my own directions. I study others’ work all the time though. I take hours looking at comics, paintings, sculpture, and architecture. I try to learn from the world around me. I sketch all the time and a sketchbook’s always with me. I’ve drifted into many different styles over time, in my sketchbooks in particular. Sometimes I like what comes out other times I’ll never go there again. But how do I know where I’m going if I don’t know where I’ve been? The way I look at it, I’m not to the “signature style” phase yet. When I get “there” I want to be able to look out from that plateau at the great valley of my journey there and know that I had trekked as much as I could. Every artist finds their style and every writer finds their voice. The funny thing about a comic book artist is that both of those (the style and the voice) are competing for attention. I think it delays our development as both an artist or a writer. But I also think it might be worth it in the end once I’ve found that “signature style” I like and feel comfortable with.
You’ve mentioned plans put NonPersons on hiatus, with the intent of finding an artist to collaborate with. Why the decision to bring in a separate artist?
I put NP on hiatus because it was the straw that was breaking the camel’s back as it were… I was being pulled into too many directions and something had to give, so that something was NP. I love the story, it’s something that needs to be told…so the decision to put it on hiatus was a painful one, but one that had to be made. I have it written all the way up to Chapter Eight (though only the first chapter is completed and three pages of the second) so it’s not like I don’t have a story to be written. When I decided that it might be best to go the Sheanon Garrity route (i.e. draw only one strip and write many) and get another artist to get the story out. What makes it difficult is I want to keep the art “consistent” throughout the story for each character. I.e. each character is drawn in a different style as a kind of visual shorthand. So they don’t have to wear bright colors or tights to be immediately spotted as “special” like in super-hero books. I want to have an artist who understands this particular vision of mine and who can do many styles…which makes finding one difficult…
Have you worked collaboratively before?
Greenlee: I have, but not much. John Daiker and I worked together on Red Dahlia for the second Drunk Duck books. How that worked was he and I had already both agreed to work on the book separately. I was terribly unprepared. I had about the first seven pages plotted out on thumbnails and a character sketch. For someone who works diligently on their stories prior to putting pencil to paper, this was practically a death sentence to me creatively. I hit a brick writers’ block hard. So John and I, talking back and forth after meeting on the Drunk Duck message boards, started talking about my story. He first started helping me with my writer’s block until it blossomed and bloomed into the character that she is today. Over the month of writing, there was no clear distinction of where my writing ended and his began for the story, and no distinction for her origins or back-story. She became ours together hence why he’s the co-creator of good ol’ Red. We’re currently working on a comedy installment of “Chibi Red Dahlia” for the third Drunk Duck Anthology (title’s still pending on the book but it might be called Drunk With Laughter).
<strong)When you say you always write the whole story first – I suspect you’re in a small minority, at least among individual writer/artists. Do you write full scripts?
Kind of…I write out all of the dialogue with vague descriptions of what’s going on physically. As in, I’ll write out a conversation, but leave the linking panels up to the artist, who’s me. That way it cuts down on my brainstorming time so I can get to the heart of the writing when I’m writing, without having to worry about the looks on the characters faces or what their body language looks like. The words tell me all of that when I pick up the script to draw it. THEN I figure out what kind of mood the characters are in and what’s going on around them. I work from page to page to page, one at a time, but always referring to my finished pages to keep consistency.
I have written out full pages for other artists, where I’ve gone into intricate detail of background and the like and have gotten something back completely different than what I envisioned. It’s not really a bad thing, in that even though the art may not be what I expected it usually takes the story to a different level that can only be achieved by another artist but myself. Writing only goes so far in comics. I’ve learned to cut back a lot on my description to free up the actual craft. And working both as a writer and an artist at two different points in the development of a story I have to learn to keep those two poles of creativity happy by giving both room to grow and work. The writer in me tries not to stifle the artist in me whereas the artist in me tries to remain true to the writer. It’s an interesting back and forth which I feel humbled to be in the middle of.
Do you think it shows when a creator has done the writing first, as opposed to working more holistically?
Greenlee: Sometimes a writer is very, very talented without ever “writing a word” prior to creating a comic. Sometimes they aren’t. I’ve read some amazing spontaneous and funny stuff that was improved off the cuff and other times I’ve been moved by a 24 hour comic or a panel-jam. Sometimes these “unwritten” forms of comics have a unique and precious spirit to them which you can’t write out, you can’t plan- a caught moment of an idea which would have easily been missed if someone hadn’t put it down at that moment. I don’t know, maybe it’s the muses at work. (shrugs)
What I do know, though, is that these moments are few and far between. If someone wants to continue capturing those moments, carry a sketchbook with you and jot them down quickly before they’re gone. You may not use any of them, you may use all of them — but it’s true for any kind of creative expression; You have to go through a thousand bad drawings/photos/words/ceramic bowls/etc. before you make a good one. I think it does show in someone’s work over time whether they do their homework or not. Anyone can be a one hit wonder, but it’s consistency and steady creation that makes a true artist or writer. I think it’s the difference between determination and a fling.
Glych’s Experiment seems to be part journal comic, part sketchbook, and part confessional. How does this fit into your larger artistic process?
Greenlee: Um…okay! We’ll go with that. The Experiment is what it is — a random collection of whatever comes out that day. Sometimes I put intricate work into it (like the “Search for Inspiration” storyline) sometimes it’s right out of my sketchbook (like the pirate glych). It’s part of my artistic growth because I can fail openly and completely in the Experiment, and it’s okay — I won’t get ostracized for doing so. But I can also succeed. I can stretch out to the stars of the comic medium and reach them — surpass them sometimes…I can let it go and see what comes out. Sometimes it’s inspiring, sometimes scary, but mostly it’s from me somewhere. It allows me to explore parts of my creative self without the limitations of a set story or characters.
What makes this something you want to share with your readers?
Greenlee: I think the reason why I like sharing these little insanities with the world is that it’s something I would read if I found it online. And if I like it, there’s got to be at least one other person in the world who likes it…so I guess I’m putting it on the web for them, wherever they are in the world.
One of your recent Glych’s Experiment strips addressed, among other things, the fact that you suffer from severe tendinitis. Has this affected your approach to your artwork?
Greenlee: It has affected my artwork. I’ve always written very tightly and drawn very tightly. I can do incredibly detailed work when I want to, but I’ve learned to loosen up in my styles. To let it flow out without trying to keep pushing it towards what I see in my head. I’ve since realized through letting my work loosen that what’s on paper is never going to be quite what I see in my head. But it can be close. I’ve cut down substantially on my backgrounds, which I miss sometimes, but I’ve since realized that — though missed — they aren’t absolutely fundamental to the understanding and flow of the story, which far outweighs the backgrounds in importance. I’ve learned and taught myself to draw more with my arm and less with my hand (a skill I picked up by practicing life drawing and painting). I also have been working a lot with my Wacom Tablet, working digitally, which allows me to get tight again while still remaining lose with my hands. All of Red Dahlia was done digitally.
And, unlike some artists, I realize that programs like Illustrator and Photoshop and technology like Wacom Tablets and Smart Boards are only better tools and not means within themselves.
I take it you find some artists’ preference for new technology overzealous?
Not at all! A tool’s a tool’s a tool, no matter what form it’s in. Just because Van Gogh decided to paint with a palette knife doesn’t mean that the brush was obsolete, it just depends on what the artist prefers to do.
What I do dislike though is when an artist who prefers to work in traditional media immediately discounts work done in a digital one as “not true art” simply because it’s digital- I find this rather elitist and closed minded. The same applies to people who work in digital media and close off themselves from working in traditional because they feel it’s old fashioned, dumb, or not worth their time. Coming from a colorist, yes- it’s a LOT easier to create dynamic, realistic color using layers and channels in Photoshop than it is to paint on canvas and retain the same effect simply because Photoshop reacts in the same way natural light does if you choose to multiply or screen on top of your base color- but it’s in the understanding of WHY Photoshop works that way that creates a true masterpiece in color. Understanding that can only be achieved through traditional observation of the real world and, I believe, through traditional methods.
People think they’re seeing one color in nature when they’re really seeing another. It works off of a visual shorthand of the world around us. We know that a tree has green leaves and a brown truck, but it’s in the degrees of the greens and browns which create realism, added with the effects of light and reflected light on those browns and greens. If I’m painting the tree at sunrise, then the shimmer on the tops leaves is created by soft light pink highlights and the shadows by a deep rich brown with a thick red base. This is because the air is stiller than at sunset, and there’s less filtering through “stuff” in the air like dust, water particles, smog, and clouds. The color is more pure because the light from the sun itself is more pure. This purity is seen as the shadows, which remain brown on the truck, and slightly brownish-green on the leaves, due to reflected light on the underside of the leaves. However the light shining through the leaves will be a brilliant green due to the fact that the matter of the leave itself filters all colors out of that light but green.
All of this changes if I were to paint the same tree at sunset. There’s more “stuff” in the air which created a redder, more muted tonality in the colors. The shadows on the truck and the bottoms of the leaves will be more purple due to reflected light on the tree from sources behind it. The shimmer is less of a pink and more of a yellow-orange, and the light shining through the leaves themselves aren’t a brilliant green, but instead a yellow-green due to the air’s thickness with “stuff” filtering the light, making the light itself less pure…and much more dirty.
I realize I went on a bit of a tangent there, but I feel it’s important to note that there’s more to art than what you see. Now Photoshop makes coloring comic books really easy because I can start out a picture with a flat base of colors and then add any color I want on top of it with a layer of either screen or multiple (depending on if I want shadows or highlights) and the colors mix for me. I don’t have to mix them. As long as I keep my shadow and highlight colors consistent with the light and backlight, it looks “right.” However, one learns how to tweak these colors towards a much stronger end product through practice, and practice alone in, I believe, traditional media. Because painting in acrylic or watercolor or working in pastels IS much harder with no “undo”s, one must learn HOW color behaves and works in order to be able to create great art. One has to think harder…realize how colors affect each other and interact. How they change each other. What other factors are involved besides directionality and strength of the light, because there are always multiple variables when it comes to art…Digital art is so fast and easy to make that I feel there’s a rush of people who think they can just take a shortcut through it to become great artists. I’m sorry, but there are no shortcuts to becoming something great — I was always taught that a half-assed job takes twice as long. If someone automatically discounts something old or something new in art simply because they don’t understand it they limit themselves to a narrow mindset, and limit the work they create. It’s like trying to bake a cake based off of its taste. There’s more to it than the end product.
Do you ever second-guess your chosen career path, in light of the personal physical cost?
Greenlee: All the time. I think that if you don’t question yourself and your decisions, you become stagnant in opinions, thoughts, and ideas. I think doubt is part of being an artist. Always curious, always questioning…It allows you to look at the world differently if you question it. I say, question authority, question math, question life in general and yourself. By wondering if the right choice was made or not it forces a person to try to see their decisions from multiple angles and poke for holes in one’s reasoning. None of us are infallible… Sure, I wonder if comics are the right path for me, but I think we all wonder that at some point or another. Keeps us on our toes.