Emily the Strange was born on the bottom of a skateboard deck—an odd little girl created to be a one-off character for the Santa Cruz Skateboard company. Soon she appeared on t-shirts. A decade later, she became an industry—comics and books and stickers and stationary, and even a limited edition guitar, endorsed by Lil’ Wayne.
For the past 15 years, skateboard-turned-graphic designer Rob Reger has over seen Emily in her various forms, from the image of a black cat-loving 13-year-old goth girl to the fleshed out star of her own novels—an evolution that will continue on into a feature film slated for release in 2010.
We sat down with Reger at the New York Comic Con, to discuss how the girl who started life as fodder for a skateboard grew into a full-fledged phenomenon.
How many of these shows do you come out to?
It’s my second New York show. But we’ve been to Comic Con for maybe five or six years now.
Do you go to any others?
I’ve been to Wizard. We did Dragon Con. I was actually slated to really have a good time at Dragon Con, but I hurt my back last year, but hopefully I’ll go that this year.
It seems like the Emily character has a brand that spreads much further than just the comics world. Do you go to book shows or anything of that nature?
We’re represented at a lot of international book shows. Most of the book shows. We do a lot of fashion tradeshows throughout the world, like Bread and Butter, London Edge, Magic here in the United States.
You use the word “we.” It sounds like it’s become more of a company than just a creator and character.
Very much so. And it really has been that way all along. I’ve had a team that developed Emily and an art department behind me. I’m really the idea guy. In the early days, I did all of the design, of course—and I still do today, but I spend more of my time on the books, working with writers and writing myself, illustrating the covers for the books, and stuff like that. But some of the product design, I definitely have teams. I have a lot of great creative people that I work with. That’s one of the things that I really like about the company is that I spend a lot of time working with really cool, creative people.
A lot of people are very protective of their characters. Do you feel somehow less invested, running this company?
Oh no, I’m very invested. I’m very protective. Don’t get that wrong. I’ve invested 15 years of my life, with pretty much 12 hour days, most of the time on Emily and Cosmic Debris in general.
Is it clear to you when someone introduces something that the character should not do?
Yeah. Usually we just have a good laugh and put that away.
Are there any absurd scenarios that come to mind?
Well, in the olden days, I wouldn’t accept anything that wasn’t red, black, and white. That was easy—”no we’re not going to do it on pink, unless it’s a ‘welcome to my nightmare’ shirt.” I’m more accepting of color and things like that, nowadays. But really, I think anyone I work with, it’s understood what I’m going for. We have a foundation and I’m very clear about what I want for them, and usually everyone’s very on-target. We do things to kind of mess with people more to mess around than anything. I remember we turned in a galley for Chronicle Books, and just to see if they ever look at the artwork, we snuck in a little naked Emily in there. I had to point it out to them. They’re like, “it’s great Rob.” I had to tell them to look at page 13.
It sounds like they’re affording you a sense of freedom.
Oh, absolutely. That’s what it is. All of my publishers, including Dark Horse, really trust us on the art. They really trust my sense of graphic design. I really get a lot of freedom.
She originally came out as a skateboard deck.
Yeah. Originally it was a skateboard deck for Santa Cruz Skateboards.
How did it turn into something larger than that?
Well, I was doing t-shirts at the time and I had a friend who worked at store in Santa Cruz called Pipeline. I was selling tons of stuff there, and it fit in perfectly with what I was doing. It was just one of those designs that kind of lingered and turned into another design and another design and just turned into five or ten shirts. Finally I decided that I was going to kick this into gear. I hired one of my good friends, Brian Brooks, and we just put a lot of time into it, gave her her own label and stuff like that.
It’s one thing to move from skate decks to t-shirts. It’s an entirely different thing to move into storytelling—to have a character come out of an image.
Yeah, well, the interesting thing is that each shirt included a phrase—a description of Emily, like, “Emily didn’t search to be long, she searched to be lost.” So there are these little things that made you think there was something more to it. And once we had like ten of those things, we showed it to the publisher down the street from me, Chonicle Books, and said, “hey, here’s an idea for a book, about this crazy character.” They dug it was totally different for them.
It was pretty clear to you what the character was?
Yeah. It was very purposefully very mysterious for a long time, and very slow, when we would release more information about her. I had developed at that time characteristics—50 things she is and 50 things she isn’t and her cat’s name and her cat’s ancestors and her mom’s name. And people still don’t know what her mom’s name is.
[Concluded in Part Two]