Jenn Manley Lee
(Interviewer: Austin Eichelberger, Editor for SPACES)
Jenn Manley Lee resides in Portland Oregon with her husband Kip Manley and daughter Taran in a house full of books, geeks, art, cats and music, all of which she manages to trip over now and again. She appreciates good coffee, good wine, good food, good stories and good company, none of which seems in short supply, thankfully. What regrets she has mostly involve not being able to draw fast enough, not doing enough yoga, not having enough time to whittle away at the twenty-odd books in her to-read stack, and only having visited Europe once.
She has also spent time in Amherst, Massachusetts, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and a childhood in Long Branch, New Jersey, all of which has had varying influence on how she views and interpret the world. Even bigger influences are her various cultural heroes, Trina Schart Hyman, Tom Waits, Pamela Coleman Smith, Fritz Eichenberg, Boris Artzybasheff, Octavia Bulter and Marina Warner to name a shifting few.
You can find her work at JennManleyLee.com as well as Dicebox.net
Austin: First off, some basics: what do you personally like about creating in the medium of webcomics? What makes you keep coming back to it or never leave it at all?
Jenn: Being able to tell a story on many levels is the prime satisfaction. I can, say, draw an elaborate background that evokes a mood while not interrupting the flow of the story, use body language to accent the conversation, and so on.
Another aspect I love is how I can be very specific about an item yet still leave it open to interpretation or discovery. For example, many folks don’t notice Molly’s missing a finger until a many pages in, even though I feature that hand on the very first page.
Austin: The first thing I notice about your work is how quickly you drop us into a unique world. What goals do you set for a first page? Do you think more of the story or the audience when ma: king the first page of a web comic?
Jenn: The story comes first; serve the story and you will serve the audience. It was my intention to drop folks in the middle of the story and let them catch up. I wanted a sense of life going on, of chance and circumstance moving the characters and their story, more than some grand design. Fostering a sense of inclusion in a story, rather than being presented one.
Austin: How much story planning do you do before beginning a web comic? Does the fact that they’re released basically as one-page serials affect the storytelling and characterization? How?
Jenn: Releasing the story a page at a time certainly does affect how the story comes across, putting far more emphasis on this one unit of story than would happen in a chapter released all at once. However, it is a distinct unit of story, so more often than not I can make it a satisfying installment in itself, and let it take on new meaning and impact when folks re-read the chapter as a whole.
In regards to story planning, I outlined all four books of Dicebox before beginning, breaking each book into nine parts. Before starting a part, I flesh out the outline for it and begin sketching out dialogue. Each part can have 2 to 6 chapters, and I tend to layout and finalize each chapter in turn. Every page I draw can begin to shift the direction slightly as I gain a new insight; how I’ve drawn a character’s expression suggests a different response than I had intended. By the end of one chapter, I sometimes need rewrite the next to pursue a new direction, while still ending up at the same place: the story does remain the same, though (oddly) more-so.
Austin: How do you decide what to show with visuals and what to reveal in dialogue?
Jenn: It’s question of where I want the focus to be and what I find more interesting to portray. For example, I can say “crash landing” and folks have a good idea on their own what that would look like. So I can then take the page space and show bumped and scraped survivors, and have them tell their prejudiced version of events, along with awkward and antagonist interactions that propel the story along. A crash is just something that happens and is over.
Or I want to keep focus on how the characters experience something. I had an explosion happen off-screen simply because Molly and Griffen never saw it. Explosion are fairly simple and fun to draw, but I feel the majority of folks have seen countless representations. I’d rather focus on Molly’s detached reaction and Griffen’s nervous patter and turning all her concern onto Molly.
Austin: At one point, we see Griffen struggling to find a word while composing a song. Was this a little window into the conundrum comic writers run into when creating unique places and things their readers have never seen?
Jenn: Ha. Never thought of it that way. It might have been. It was definitely a nod to my flailing about trying to come up with half-decent lyrics for her song. (I ended up enlisting some help, in the end.)
Austin: You have a knack for casually and effectively introducing features of the characters’ universe that your readers most certainly will be unfamiliar with. What do you try to keep in mind when world-building like this?
Jenn: What the characters would naturally talk or argue about is my first concern; making it entertaining or informative the next. What is reveled about the particulars of their world is sometimes an important aspect that will eventually serve the story, at others it’s just flavor providing a sense of place.
Austin: Tell us a little about the upsides and downsides of creating worlds that your readers have never seen. Have you ever gotten stuck on a particular setting or feature?
Jenn: The biggest struggle I have with creating any setting is to have it be functional as well as serve any metaphoric purpose I might have. I’ll spend a good amount of time thinking out how, say, a diner works and what for me makes an iconic diner experience, from the seating configuration, to props, to the colors used.
I have no problem using current real-life models for at least the launch point of a particular environment. After all, they’re all humans living in a human space created to serve human needs; you can redesign a chair infinitely, but it’s worthless if no one can actually sit in it.
That said, I like putting certain things out of a normal context for effect and not have the setting seem generic but unique to that place.
Austin: How does color operate in your work? What’s the biggest decision-maker in terms of how the characters’ worlds are colored?
Jenn: I don’t know if I can emphasize enough the importance of color and color choice in Dicebox. To start with, each book has its own color; Book 1: Wander is the black book, Book 2: Chase is white, Book 3: Tour-of-duty is yellow and Book 4: Quest is blue. Molly and Griffen share red as a significant color, the color of blood and of life and death. Every character has their own wardrobe palette as part of their personality, as well as their role in the story.
Picking the color for a setting can be very time-consuming. I want to convey a mood as well as purpose. Back to the diner example, I observed what I could about the diners I grew up with on the East Coast, of colors used (lots of teal and pink) as well as materials. I also think of them as early morning places, a close and comfortable space that fills naturally over time with light. And it’s constantly being wiped down and refreshed for new customers. So I ended up with a basic palette of pink, lavender, and warm wood with lots of glass, steel accents, and white plates.
Austin: How do you think your style has evolved since beginning “Wander”? Has the fan art you’ve received influenced your style at all?
Jenn: My style and ability has and continues to evolve by working on Dicebox. No grand movements, just a constant refining and adding more tools to the kit.
I can’t say that fan art influences my art, but it sometimes helps me see the characters in a new way through the way folks have chosen to represent them. This is especially true with any and all of the guest comics that folks have done for me over the years. How they chose to portray the characters, in what situations, how they might behave. Very enlightening to me.
Austin: One thing I love about Molly and Griffen is their banter – it feels very natural, partially because it treads into the sort of subjects that friends and lovers really do trust one another with, especially sexuality. By introducing openly sexual characters, what views of sexuality do you hope to portray in your work?
Jenn: That everything old is new again and it’s all been done before. That the depth and quality of a relationship is not defined or measured by the amount or type of the sex you may or may not have. Also, perhaps, that each person is their own unique category of sex, gender and sexuality and yet not so different from anyone else when it comes down to it. It feels to me the more labels you try to come up with for, say, sexuality, the more reductionist it becomes.
Austin: I also noticed that the vast majority of the characters in “Wander” are powerful females, and diverse races are very well-represented. What are your views on gender and race in this new, expanded world?
Jenn: You know, I get asked that a lot, but beyond Griffen and Molly, the sex of reoccurring or significant characters are actually pretty evenly split . Female: Donny Grae, Mare, Mother Mary, and Betty. Male: Burt, Rhys, Baka, Nikolas, Rande, and Theus. Salin is sexless in identification whereas Kari is inclusive. Which actually does a lot to express my views of sex and gender mix and equality. And that in the ebb and flow of life, here will be more females in this situation, more males in that. Though I will admit the more raucous element tends to be female in Wander.
As for race, it’s mixed and it’s not. It’s hard to see it on the planet that Molly and Griffen spend the majority of their time on, Korsevei, because that’s truly a crossroads type of place, a main terminal of travel and trade. Never mind the company they keep: transient workers, interplanetary agencies and the like. However, the two dominant ancestries you will see in the background are the first two waves of settlers, a colony from the Tamil district in India (Kari, management at the factory, Devi the lawyer, Baron Venpuravi, Baka, Keb) and one from Scandinavia (Nikolas, General Ruske, Lane and Lain) But you’ll see evidence of other waves of immigration, for example there was one from the Carribean which is one strain of Molly’s heritage.
Austin: And finally, let’s have a little fun: if you were hired to choose and remake any old-school comic/comic character, who/what title would you choose? And just to make it fair, if Molly and Griffen could each choose one character from another comic – whether it was in print, online, is still running or not – who they would get to meet “in person,” who would they choose?
Jenn: Milton Caniff ‘s “Terry and the Pirates,” but you know, without the awful racial caricatures or World War II propaganda. It was one of those comics I wanted to like but could never get into; I think exploring the actual China of the 1930s would be more interesting than the flat fantasy presented in the original strip. One major change I would make is to recast Pat Ryan as a woman, and Terry’s mother, though I’d still keep Pat a two-fisted journalist and popular with the ladies.
I think Molly would get along well with Brucilla the Muscle from “Starstruck” by Elaine Lee and Michael Kaluta, (http://starstruckcomics.com) whereas Griffen would enjoy a chat with Lily from kris dresen’s “Max and Lily,” (http://maxandlilycomics.tumblr.com) or Johann Levy from Dylan Meconis’s “Family Man.” (http://www.lutherlevy.com)
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