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Freelance illustrator and cartoonist Hope Larson's first book, Salamander Dream, was initially serialized at her and Kean Soo’s Secret Friend Society website. Completed in July and now collected in a single, printed volume from AdHouse Books, this 96-page comic tells a simple, but hardly simplistic, tale of a girl's relationship with nature, depicted in the book as sort of an animal spirit. But Larson's characteristic abstraction in both her art and stories are employed in more of a poetic than surreal manner, so the result is less fanciful, more matter-of-fact than it may sound.
In terms of Larson’s still-young career as a comics creator, Salamander Dream seems parallel to current indie comics darling Craig Thompson’s Goodbye, Chunky Rice: it is the first major work by a bold new voice in the comics field. Judging from "Mud," a short contribution to the forthcoming You Ain’t No Dancer anthology (due in October) and Gray Horses, another longer work due early next year from Oni Press, it’s a voice that not quieting down anytime soon.
Gordon McAlpin interviewed Larson for Comic Book Galaxy, about her unusual introduction to the world of cartooning, the origins of Salamander Dream, and where she’s headed next.
I've heard that when you first met [Larson's husband and Scott Pilgrim creator] Bryan O'Malley, you weren't actually interested in comics, or at least not doing them yourself…
Well, I was interested in doing them when I was in high school, but I never really pursued that. I was (taking) more…like the standard art classes. I went into Animation in college and quickly decided that wasn't for me, so from there I went into Illustration, which was a lot more of my thing. But I didn't really feel challenged by the program at the school that I was at, which was the Rochester Institute of Technology, so after my sophomore year, I transferred to the School of the Art Institute [of Chicago]. Then I sort of just bounced around and [studied] painting and got into printmaking.
Around that time, in my junior year, Scott McCloud was somehow tipped off to my website [the now-defunct www.thingwithfeathers.com] and posted on his blog that I should be drawing comics. So I came home from… work at a video store — and there was an e-mail sitting in my inbox from Lea Hernandez who was asking if I would be interested in doing a comic strip for Girlamatic.com. I thought that would be worth trying, even though I didn't really know what I was doing and didn't really read a lot of comics regularly… and I still don't, actually. That was I Was There and Just Returned. So I tried that, and…pretty much failed. I just couldn't keep up with it at the same time as school.
How long did you keep up the schedule?
I want to say two months, but that might be overstating it…
Considering your first attempt at an ambitiously long narrative was... unsuccessful, do you think you'll try your hand at an "epic" again anytime soon?
I don't know. Now that I've worked my way through a book and a half, both of which are around a hundred pages long, I definitely see the appeal of creating either a longer work or a series. I don't think my style has settled enough that I could do it successfully at this point, but it is in the back of my mind as a future goal.
What was your next piece?
I started doing some really experimental mini-comic type things for school. I think all of them are on my website. I did these little accordion (fold) kind of things, and I did some offset-printed stuff. Then, around there, Kazu got in touch with me about maybe doing Flight Vol. 1. I was talking to Neil Babra and a couple of other cartoonists that I kept in touch with after sort of flopping at Girlamatic, and I decided that I would give Flight a try. They asked me to color a piece for Erika Moen, and the idea was that I would do that and then for the next volume, I would contribute a story.
And that was "Weather Vain."
Had you done anything in-between?
No, just some mini-comics.
Where did "Mud" fit in?
I actually did that at the same time that I was drawing Salamander Dream.
They have a very similar aesthetic. They definitely look different than "Weather Vain."
Oh… when I was doing "Weather Vain" and during the last time that I was at the Art Institute, I was doing all of my art in Adobe Illustrator. In the Fall of 2004 — actually, I guess over the summer — I started experimented with brush inking, and that is what I do now exclusively.
One of the big reasons that I did Salamander Dream was that it was the dead of winter, and I was waiting to become a permanent resident, so I couldn't legally do any work in Canada, and I was really lonely. It was cold, and there was snow outside, and I was far away from everything familiar… so it was the project that I did to get me through the winter.
You've said that you were kind of struggling to come up with a story and that Dylan Meconis and Sara Rosenbaum suggested you work a little more autobiographically?
And then you came up with Salamander Dream. Do you often run into animal spirits in the woods?
I never do, but I was just sort of trying to capture the way it felt to be a kid. That was one of the things that I always sort of imagined when I was little, that there are all these things out in the woods and they are sort of aware of you. Although…I'm not like a crazy hippie-dippie girl. I don't mean that in a real sense. It's more about being aware of nature.
Not like some Gaia theory or anything, but I did pick up on the theme in Salamander Dream as being about the main character's connection to nature and how she goes off to college and never goes back, or maybe, but just to a different place. When you were at the Art Institute, did you feel disconnected from nature?
Yeah. And it was even more so when I moved to Toronto, because that was the next place that I ended up. It's really, really similar to Chicago. I felt like I didn't even really move, except that I didn't know where anything was, and it is a different country.
I'm surprised that you did do Salamander Dream in the winter, because it has a very warm, kind of dreamlike feel to the story.
That was exactly what I wanted, because that was what I was missing, so it was the most natural thing. I don't think I could sit down and draw a comic about winter. Especially if it was winter, because I would just be so miserable. It's funny, because the book that I'm doing right now — Gray Horses for Oni [due out in March 2005] — that is set in the summer, and then the thing that I'm planning for after that is also set in the summer. I guess, maybe that'll be a theme.
Gray Horses is pretty heavily based on living in Chicago and a little bit in Toronto. And sort of being on your own in the city for the first time.
What was your experience with comics growing up?
I went to France when I was, I think, seven. Before [that], I had no awareness of comic at all. When we went to France, that was the first time that I started seeing them, because they were in bookstore. And because I became fluent in France when I was there, I was able to read the Asterix and the Tintin books, and they were just gorgeous, so my brother and I started… reading them.
I'm a huge Tintin fan.
They're fantastic. I still buy those. I try to only get them in French, because it just makes me nostalgic.
Yeah, that, too. And then I came back to the US after a year, and…no more comics. I didn't know where to get them. There was really only one comics shop in my hometown, and there still is the same one. It's kind of crappy…
And by "crappy," you mean it's all mainstream super-hero stuff?
Yeah, pretty much that…I haven't been there in a couple of years. They mean really well, and they're really nice guys, but…especially as a younger girl, there really wasn't a whole lot to lure me in there.
Whose work do you follow now?
I tend to buy graphic novels exclusively. I really like Kevin Huizenga. I like Seth a lot. I love Craig Thompson. I always feel like I'm not supposed to say that. Sam Hiti, I like. The last thing he did was The Long, Dark Train, which is really awesome. He's really organic, and he uses spot colors, so I like that a lot.
Another one is Geneviève Castrée, who is a French-Canadian cartoonist. She does these really dreamlike things. We have sort of a similar style… I wouldn't say she was really an inspiration, because I'd been doing that kind of thing before I was familiar with her stuff. And I also like David B. a lot.
You know, for being someone who claims not to read a lot of comics, you sure know some obscure stuff…
Hah, well, I credit that to hanging around folks with good taste -- Mal and the folks at the Beguiling (in Toronto).
Who would you say has inspired you as an illustrator?
I have so much trouble with this question. Because I feel like I just absorb things from everywhere. The stuff that I consciously put in is usually prehistoric art, medieval art…Really iconic stuff. I really try hard not to be influenced by contemporary creators. It's hard to say how much I succeed at that, because it's so hard for me to see my own work clearly. I would say that the one person that I consciously ape would be Seth, for inking, and a little bit for design.
Some of the undulating panel borders definitely reminded me of Seth, although your stories are very different, I think. Every artist [picks] stuff up here and there. Anyway, you sort of, in a way, came from webcomics. I guess some of your peers may be a little more into the webcomics "scene," because Kazu does Copper, and a number of the other Flight contributors are huge webcomics people — that's kind of how it originated, right?
Where do you think the future in web comics lies? I mean, [with] a book like Salamander Dream that is entirely available on the internet, what do you think the incentive to purchase a physical comic would be?
Well, the idea for us — for me and [Jellaby creator] Kean — with putting our comics on the internet was partly to build a readership, since neither of us have a fairly large one. We sort of wanted to promote ourselves a little bit, and we also wanted to find a publisher. And we were thinking that one of the easiest ways to do that would be to have it just sitting there on the internet where anybody could access it.
As far as if I think more people will (or won't) buy the book, because it's free on the internet, but it seems like a lot of people have been pretty successful just collecting their serialized webcomics.
How many hits does Salamander Dream get on average?
The SFS's hits fluctuate between an average of 750 or 800 on weekdays and 300 or 400 on Saturday and Sunday, when the site doesn't update. We aren't real high rollers, but I was never expecting Salamander Dream to appeal to tons of people. The pacing is incredibly slow for a webcomic, and it isn't really a webcomic -- it's a print comic uploaded to the web. A lot of people…told me they stopped reading part-way through because they didn't want to "spoil" the book, and I don't blame them!
Flight Vol. 3 has been picked up by Random House, and you briefly discussed this in the Fanboy Radio interview. One thing that sort of actually… I don't mean to knock them, because I think Fanboy Radio is a great show…but they kept referring to the comics industry as, like, this inclusive thing. Like when a book publisher such as Random House gets into the business of publishing comics, somehow that was "outside" of (the comics industry). That bothered me.
Yeah, that was the very end of the interview, so I couldn't get a word in there to say, "I disagree!…I disagree!" I definitely think that — or, I hope that — as more graphic novels are published by bigger publishers, there will be more of an audience finding that stuff in bookstores. I guess my ultimate goal is to be published by a larger publisher like Random House or, I don't even know who's in it right now…
But right now, I'm just sitting back and seeing how it all goes, because there's just so much buzz about graphic novels right now, and I really want to believe that they're going to make good on that, but it could also just explode…in a bad way.
What is the single greatest comics work, short or long, in the history of the medium?
If you'd asked me in high school I'd have said Ranma ½ and in early college I'd have said Ghost World or Jimmy Corrigan. But I can't choose a book now. With almost all comics I feel like there's a disconnect between the art and the story: the books that are the most conceptually or artistically brilliant don't grip me emotionally, and successful narratives rarely do delightful formal things (and obviously I'm a sucker for those). I think art school may have scrambled my ability to judge.