Saturday, August 27, 2011

Tally-Ho! | Natalie Nourigat Of 'Between Gears' Talks Digital Comics

When I sat down to start submitting my manuscript to agents, I found one of my lead chapters relied kind of heavily on what public figures have said on the internet. I kind of … don't feel so great about that. I mean, it's here's the internet.

Flat Earth theorists have the right idea.

Now, as far as the internet is concerned, I, Dave Zucker, a man of prolific brilliance and staggering wit, have espoused the belief that we live on a plate of matter suspended in the ether by the steady hand of divine providence and little else. Depending on interpretation, it may ride on the back of several elephants and/or a tortoise, or it could just be turtles all the way down.

To remedy my situation, I have decided to track down every artist whose opinion my original college essay regarding digital comics (webcomics) cited, and interview them to get the words knowingly and even more elaborately from their own mouths (keyboards).

I worked at a pretty professional college paper. We won awards. We were frequently praised for achieving this while outright refusing any "adult" oversight. We were damn good at what we did and we made sure we succeeded on our own. Wonderful!

Of course, I was the Fun Page Editor, so I never, per se, interviewed anyone before, but I lived with a reporter. I read interviews. And I get the feeling this will pretty much be the only time when drawing and publishing so many comics probably help my journalistic tendencies, so here goes!


I honestly do not remember how I came across Natalie "Tally" Nourigat's work and I'm a little ashamed of this. I have memories of reading her comic blogs in college, but it's honestly not possible; she didn't start her big internet comic until I had already graduated. So what was I reading in the newspaper office all night when I should have been working?

From best I can tell, I found her story already started at Between Gears right when I was looking to get my own life moving forward. The original idea was simple:
Between Gears is an autobiographical comic that covers my senior year of college (September 2009 - June 2010), with one comic page for each day.

Hand-drawn panels and lots of gentle curves.
Very few straight, even-thickness lines.
So, I'm old. But it was a fascinating read, and right up my ally at the time, as a daily-writer. Every day, Natalie wrote down notes and maybe sketches which, sometimes months later, she would come back to to draw, getting to relive the most important and sometimes the most seemingly inconsequential moments of her life and commit them to paper.

Some days' pages are filled with friends, delicious food, love, family, warm and snuggly cats, even singing along to iPods off-key. Other days can be a pit of wallowing in fear and pain and outright despair at the prospect of growing to trying to be what you really want to be. Tally doesn't spare these. They were just as much a part of her life as the happy memories, and both forged her into who she is as a person and an artist.

The tree acts as both background and frame.
I got to see Natalie work on her senior project, Over the Surface, about a young high school girl in an ambiguously European, mid-century town who is obsessed with fighter planes and just generally being a strong female lead right at the cusp of starring in her life's big, incredibly awesome plot line.

Her lines are fluid and expressive. Shading is gorgeous, and her sense of layout and composition makes it a little hard to believe she hasn't been slaving at a major art house for years already.

Actually, she only just joined Periscope Studio after interning there, but already has two graphic novel projects, a children's book, and–oh, yeah–Image Comics is collecting BG for publication in 2012.

Not bad for a year's work.


When I first emailed Natalie, she got back to me in just a couple of days. I had actually been looking into what she was doing professionally for a few days, determining if she would be a good person to add to my original interview list (she was beyond that), so I was shocked when she got back to me in just a couple days.
She was gracious, curious about my project, but immediately on board with any project that took an academic look at comics as an evolving art form. I fired off my questions attached to a resounding thank you that night, also explaining the nature of my work, a discussion of digital-media comics as the evolution of the art form.

"I'm really excited whenever I hear about comics being regarded in an academic light," she says. I toss out that I may have gotten my writing degree by taking five different classes about comic books. We switch to social media to start off the formal question-and-answer period.

Me: Do you use Twitter at all to communicate with readers, or is it just for friends? ("I'm a Twitter Luddite," is also a perfectly acceptable answer.) Do you think it helps your art and business to be able to communicate with readers so closely?

Tally: I use Twitter quite a bit, and I use it to interact with readers about as often as friends. Updating once or twice a day to say that I am working on a certain project or to post a sneak peak at art from upcoming projects reminds people that I am alive and I think it helps to build interest in my work. In the 140-character format, it is extremely easy to be accessible and responsive to a large group of people. There is a fine line you have to walk, though, when your online presence is connected to you as a professional. Ideally, you are friendly and relatable, but not so crude, casual, or personal that you turn off possible employers who might happen across your feed without context.

M: What are your thoughts on webcomics that offer free updates but rely on or at least supplement those with "premium content" for paying subscribers?

T: I drew a comic for Wirepop in college that offered the first four chapters for free but only provided the subsequent pages and updates to monthly subscribers. I don’t believe the pay-off from that kind of model outweighs the costs. Some readers got hooked and were angry when they realized they’d become invested in something that was ultimately going to require a subscription to read. Very few people sprung for the subscription, and then they felt cheated if updates weren’t regular. I think that readers are much warmer to the idea of the comic being free, but extras like wallpapers, screensavers, or early updates being reserved for people who donate money to the comic or are part of a subscription program.

M: In addition to other artists' collections and books, do you personally buy single-issues or trade comics from any of the 'mainstream' publishing houses?

T: I buy about five trades per month, and usually only one of these is from Marvel or DC. I have tried buying single-issues, and given stories up to a year to hook me, but I don’t think that format is the one for me.

You've posted some fanart from time to time; how would you feel about drawing a well-established character for DC or Marvel, say? Perhaps Studio Ghibli?

T: I have the most fun doing fan art when I understand the character and his or her story and world well. I would feel the same way about taking over a well-established and well-loved character’s story; only comfortable if I knew the property by heart. I would LOVE to work on a Studio Ghibli property; I watch their films, study their behind-the-scenes segments and interviews, buy their artbooks, and read the comic adaptations of their films. There are some DC and Marvel characters I feel a connection to, especially in the Avengers and the Batverse, but the continuity in most mainstream comics is intimidating. I wouldn’t be comfortable taking over unless I really understood the history of what I would be working on.

M: Do you have any thoughts about these companies selling digital copies of their monthly titles? Price-points are on-par with single issues, each uses proprietary file formats, subscription fees, that sort of thing?

T: I don’t have much to say about this. I don’t buy comics digitally, and I don’t care to. I think that comics look best on paper, they are fun to flip through, and I like displaying them around my apartment, leaving them on the Periscope lunch table for others’ perusals, and lending them to friends.

The numbers that I have heard in terms of digital comic sales are laughably low for the amount of debate they have kicked up. That said, I do believe they will grow into a more significant percentage of overall comic sales, and are not something to be ignored. They could put comic shops at risk, they could bring in new readers, they could boost sales in the comic market, they could allow for new features in comics, like movement and sound.

I know you're familiar with downloading anime and other video; often these come with wonderful little fan warnings: "Not For Sale Or Lease," was a favorite, asking the viewer to only download that show until it became licensed in the States and suddenly "sharing" became "stealing." How to you feel about "Comics Piracy" as a concept and practice? The sharing of scanned issues and trades that aren't freely available?

T: I’m in favor of free sharing, but it is ultimately up to the copyright holder what is or isn’t ‘right’. I believe it is in a comic’s best interest to be widely read and sampled for free. The readership is small enough as it is; don’t set up any more barriers or reasons for people to not read comics.

I myself am not willing to buy almost any comic without having read a good portion of it and knowing that I like it. Even if an entire comic is available online, if I like it and want to read it again, I will buy it. Also, there is a good chance any popular comic will end up online for free whether or not you authorize it, so why not take charge of how it is presented and offer it yourself? Make sure that the comic looks good, isn’t covered with unauthorized advertisements or other brands, and earn some goodwill with readers?

A favorite story of mine is how a scanlation of Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber’s independent comic Underground [Note: now available through Image] popped up on 4chan. Neither of them made money from the comic; it was a labor of love and it was being shared for free online. Instead of freaking out, though, both creators engaged the forum, answered fan questions, and basically consented to the scanlation, but asked readers to please consider buying the comic in print if they liked the comic. Even though they were advertising the print copy in the same forum where readers could get the comic for free, Parker and Lieber saw an incredible spike in sales, along with unprecedented goodwill from the typically antagonistic 4chan. They set up a PDF download link on Underground’s website shortly afterward with a donation button, which also did very well.

M: With the shift from Comic Books to Webcomics, where do you see newspaper comics fitting in? Do they serve a purpose or are they something of a hold-over from 'days gone by' papers with cartoons and a crossword puzzle?

T: I do not read newspapers or newspaper comics, and I haven’t for a long time. I hope for the sake of their creators that they have some place in the future of comics, but I can’t picture it.

Webcomics seem to have picked up a reputation for being less legitimate because the artists also sell merchandise, even though I can pull a Batman shirt out of my closet and no one says a word. Do you think this is because webcomics are generally independently run? Is monetizing the same as "selling out"?

T: I am not aware of this. That seems strange, since webcomics are free and creators are likely to need merchandise sales to make the comic possible. A lot of readers want to own something that supports their favorite independent comic and proves that they are a ‘true’ fan. I do think it’s dangerous to focus so much on merchandise that your comic takes a back seat, but even then I don’t begrudge people trying to make a living.

Finally, do you see major comic houses like DC, Marvel and Dark Horse surviving the next 20 years and if so how? Could they change or will they just cling in desperation until the last paper mill is demolished by iPad-driven bulldozers powered by cloned whale oil?

T: Why is that not a comic? xD

I see them surviving, but I hope it will be because they embrace new readers and changing tastes. The ‘house styles’ that some companies keep really baffle me. They can be extremely off-putting to readers who grew up on webcomics or manga, to young readers, and to women and feminists. Gritty realism and stiff characters don’t do it for everybody, so why don’t publishers diversify their art styles? I find the Marvel Strange Tales issues to be some of the most interesting stuff the company has released.

Also, the continuity thing is a huge barrier to new readers. I wish there was some kind of ‘starter’ trade every couple of years that could serve as a starting point for people who want to get into a popular character. How many people walked into a comic shop this year when the Green Lantern film was released, only to be accosted by 4 different GL series running simultaneously? That’s no way to capture a new comic audience.

M: Lastly, and this is purely selfish, we East Coasters can't expect you at NY Comic Con or any of our other local-ish conventions anytime soon, can we?

T: I applied to TCAF for 2012, and I also plan to apply for NYCC 2012! I really hope that they both work out; I’ve heard great things about TCAF and I had an excellent time attending NYCC in 2010.


Apparently we missed her last year in our nerd-drunk stupor of being first-time con goers. Ah, well. Here's to good things for everyone in 2012!

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