Given how instantly recognizable her style has become amongst underground comics fans, it’s hard to believe that Fugu Press’s forthcoming Scarlett Take Manhattan marks Molly Crabapple’s first true graphic novel. The New York-based artist has done plenty to get herself noticed, of course—there’s her illustration work for everyone from The New York Times to Playgirl; her “anti-art school,” Dr. Sketchy’s, which now claims more than 50 franchises across the globe; and 2006’s accompanying volume, The Official Dr. Sketchy’s Rainy Day Colouring Book.
In late-2007, Crabapple, along with her frequent accomplice John Leavitt, first dipped her toes into the world of sequential art, creating Backstage for New York Webcomics collective, Act-I-Vate. The strip was dirty and chaotic and indulgent—a vaudevillian romp that represented the logical extension of her illustrated work up to that point. Scarlett Takes Manhattan, due out later this spring, is a prequel to Backstage, following the rise of New York’s Queen of the Fire Eaters, Scarlett O’Herring.
In honor of the upcoming book, we sat down with Crabapple, to discuss her journey into the unforgiving underworld of indie comics.
You’re done with the comic now, right?
Yeah. I think we finished in about mid-February.
That seems like a fairly quick turnaround time. The galleys are already out now.
Yeah, they’re sending out bound manuscripts of them to the relevant people. It was insanely fast. Though I’ve found with small presses that they always seem to work faster than a Harper-Collins does. I guess there are less people for them to go through.
Was this a self-imposed deadline?
We wanted to get it out in time for the San Diego Comic Con.
Judging for your writings online, it seems like you were ready for it to be done, towards the end there.
Oh god, yeah. I’ve never done a graphic novel before. It’s just a lot of work, and it certainly isn’t my only job. I also do a lot of illustration. I had these gallery shows, and Dr. Sketchy’s, and I was also a panelist for SXSW Interactive this year. I had a million things going on, and toward the end, I was spending like 13 hours a day doing these pages. At the end, it was like, “oh my god, free me!”
I’ve always imagined it to be a fairly monotonous process, especially when compared with straight illustrating.
It really is. It’s a little bit less monotonous for me, because I’m not doing the mainstream comics thing, where one person does the pencil, one person does the ink, and one person does the color. That’s really like a Ford factory line. I did all of that myself, so it was somewhat less monotonous. But I’d be talking on the phone with my mother all day, actually, to try to get me through it.
This is the first time you’ve really done this—were you teaching yourself how to do it, along the way?
I did have an apprenticeship doing Backstage for Act-I-vate. But I learned so much from this—for one thing, I learned how to digital color comics.
Do you think a neutral third party will notice the sort of progression that you’ve made, over the course of the book?
I think what people will really notice the difference between is my work for Backstage and my work for this. I think I learned a lot when I was working for Backstage, in terms of my art and my sequential storytelling ability. And also, John’s abilities as well, we’re both much more sophisticated.
How did the book come about? Were you aching to do morecomics?
Well, I had really loved doing Backstage, and for a while I was trying to get that published as a book. Then a friend came to me and said, “we’re starting up this press, would you like to do a standalone?” We could have done Backstage, but we decided to start fresh and take all the things that we learned on Backstage and apply them.
Was it strictly John doing the writing and you doing the illustrating?
John and I have a lot more crossover than that. We’re both very much in each other’s business than is typical in comics. We start out by hanging out and smoking a hookah, sort of bullshitting together. We decided we wanted to have Tammany Hall in there and this proto-feminism and make clear the realities of poverty. In that time we flushed out the plot together and thought of some snappy lines, and then John would go and make a script based on that. I’d look it over and suggest something things and we’d tweak some thigns and sometimes fight over it. and then John does stick figure storyboards. They’re kind of like composition guidelines.
The Harvey Pekar method.
Yeah, and I do the final thing based on that.
Really quickly, what’s the basic storyline?
Well, it’s a love story set in the 1880s vaudeville world. It’s the story of a poor young girl from the slums who becomes the fire-eating queen of Manhattan and the theater impresario who took her there. It has Tammany Hall and bad politics and early-lesbian culture and in it. And it’s very dirty.
It sounds like it was born out of a shared fascination with that time period.
Oh, definitely. It’s actually the prequel to Backstage. If you remember in Backstage, the fundamental moment is when the fire queen burns alive onstage. Two intrepid reporters have to find out who murdered her. This is is about her early life. How she became the queen of the fire eaters.
Do you have any interest in doing some sort of storytelling out of that particular Victorian period?
Um, yeah. I wouldn’t be opposed to the opportunity. Though I’d probably have to be paid a certain amount of money. Like cool Elizabethan stuff or steampunk stuff, or cool vaudevillian stuff, but I probably wouldn’t be too into trying to do sleek slick all black. I don’t think it’s all me.
Stuff that’s tangentially related to what you do.
Exactly. Stuff that’s maximalist and super-detailed where you can stick lots of thigns into it. Me and John have this steampunk thing we’d like to do some day.
We’ll see how long Boing Boing can ride out the Steampunk obsession.
Well, you know, I’ve been doing steampunk stuff sicne I was 19. I’m kind of used to it not being trendy.
But you might as well capitalize on it, while it’s big.
Yeah, yeah. The first steampunk thing I did was in college. We had this assignment to do a skateboard and I’m not into skater culture or really anything athletic. I had an idea to do a Victorian skateboard, it was called “Lady Etheldrina’s Wheeled Conveyance.” And I’m thinking, how would a Victorian woman use a skateboard. She wouldn’t use it as an athletic device. So I had her maid wheeling her around in this harness. So of wobegotten oppressed maid wheeling her around, while she’s being powdered and perfumed by all these device.
Sort of a Victorian rickshaw.
Yeah, kind of like a rickshaw. I was very interested in steampunk as a social commentary. One of the things that sort of disappoints me about steampunk now, is I feel like their appreciation of the Victorian era doesn’t take into account the brutalities and inequalities of the Victorian era. I feel like their appreciation of it is kind of ideal in its aestethics. But if you want to talk about the Victorian era, you have to talk about this era where babies were being drugged by their mothers because they had to work in sweatshops all day. You can’t just talk about the pretty dresses.
[Continued in Part Two]